Any halfway decent physical journey will be an emotional one. Many who like to travel go out seeking transformation. Some philosopher guy wrote somewhere something like, “To travel is to be born and to die every minute.” I don’t remember who; I just remember what. Some people travel to far away countries and never leave home.
I’ve done a bit of traveling to faraway places, but some of the most transformational journeys did not involve leaving town. When I was in my 20s I desperately wanted to get out of Denver and see the world. I was profoundly influenced as a child by a couple of books and watching Lowell Thomas Presents. I remember watching him meet the Dalai Lama and thinking, “Wow, that’s about as faraway as it’s possible to go. I want to go that faraway someday.”
But there I was, stuck in Denver, working an office job, plodding through life, waiting for something to happen, not knowing how to make things happen, and not even knowing what WAS happening all around me. Some great stuff was happening, but I couldn’t see it. I was single-focused blind on SOMETHING SOMEWHERE SOMETIME in spite of the good reminders left in coffeehouse toilets saying, “Pee here now!” (Sartre) One afternoon, a friend, the secretary of an amazing man, Ved (Ved was actually trying to date me but he was so far away on a completely other plane that I didn’t notice that’s what he was doing) called to say Ved had gotten us tickets to see the Dalai Lama, that very night. There was a reception and then the Dalai Lama would be speaking. What? In Denver?
He had been invited by the Naropa Institute and the University of Denver College of Law (where Ved was a professor). At that time, the Dalai Lama didn’t speak English, so he had an interpreter. People who wanted to ask him questions wrote them on index cards so they could be translated. He would answer them after his talk. He spoke and his interpreter shared the Dalai Lama’s words with us. It was a great speech. He spoke about being discovered to be the Dalai Lama when he was a baby and moving with his family from China to Tibet to start learning his job. He spoke about finding one’s way through the dark forest of life. He said that each person has his/her own unique way through this forest and it is one of our life’s purposes to find that road. He said no one can tell us what our road will be, that finding the road is why we are alive. He then spoke about having left Tibet and rebuilding the community in Ladakh, in India. He spoke at length about the political situation in Tibet — in those days, 1980, it was very, very dark and the People’s Republic of China had only begun digging itself out from under the detritus of the Cultural Revolution.
I did not know that, in just a couple of years, I would live in China, but I wanted to. I was studying Chinese. My teacher was an English professor from Beijing Technological Institute who was studying at the university from which I’d just earned my MA. It was clear to me that the Dalai Lama’s agenda was creating sympathy for Tibet much more than giving spiritual guidance to people in the audience. His spiritual message was clear; it was every man for himself in that regard. He couldn’t tell anyone what to do.
He was right.
The time for questions came and each question was a version of “What is the way?” He looked through several cards and said, “You are all asking me what is the way. I have said I cannot tell you your way. That is why you are alive. You must find your way.” Then there was a question about Tibet and then this trick question, “What did you learn when you left China and moved to Tibet?” It was another way of asking, “What is the way?” The Dalai Lama laughed. His eyes sparkled. He grinned. He answered, “Tibetan.” Then he giggled.
That night I spoke on the phone with my Chinese teacher and told him about what the Dalai Lama said about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. My teacher had the Chinese line down pat. “They were living in poverty, very backward, living in superstition. All their wealth went into the monasteries who took from the people and gave nothing back.”
I didn’t disagree with my teacher, but I thought, “I imagine the people thought they got something back.” I didn’t know, but it seemed they loved their Dalai Lama and had a right to be whatever they wanted to be, even if it was backward, ignorant and superstitious.
I did all this traveling in the space of two and one half linear miles. Interestingly, within that same distance, a few months later, I also met Lowell Thomas. And, on a Colorado ski slope 70 miles away, the very next winter, I met Sir Edmund Hillary.