Rockin' With the Dalai Lama

In photographs, His Holiness the Dalai Lama exudes extreme cheerfulness, but as I find myself sitting in the palace waiting room in Dharamsala, waiting to meet the Dalai Lama for the first time, I don't feel particularly cheerful. I suspect the Dalai Lama can see straight into my heart, and see that I am fed up with Buddhism and the hypocrisy of the "spiritual search."

The anxiety arising from this confusion is muted somewhat by the necessity of tuning up: two guitars, a bass, and violin. We are preparing to play "a song or two" from the Buddhist-inspired canon of Phil Void. We four at the moment make up the gospelfolkrock ensemble known to a cult following as the Dharma Bums.

We hear a deep, masculine laugh. Phil raises his finger and we know it is His Holiness'. Our King Bum is a veteran of more than a dozen audiences with the Dalai Lama during the last 25 years, and today is the crowning moment: His music will be formally presented, and a favor will be asked.

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For me, the trip started eight weeks ago. My own music had stalled back home in Woodstock, New York, so I accepted Phil's old invitation to join him for some live dates. The two of us sang for misty-eyed Tibetans at the New York chapter of Tibet House on March 10 (Tibetans' July 4th, except they lost). Then we took turns at the wheel of his '87 Volvo station wagon and barged the East Coast.

We were seeding the fallow minds of over-tanned barflies in Key West, competing with margarita blenders and losing, when the news hit via e-mail: "The Dharma Bums are cordially invited to attend the Dalai Lama-sponsored World Festival of Sacred Music in Bangalore, India. We also invite you to partake in a further WFSM in Delhi the following week. You will be the guests of the Festival the moment you touch Indian soil."

Twenty-eight hours after departing JFK, we spot Nungyal, our Tibetan volunteer, dozing on his feet. It's seven in the morning, 9l degrees in hazy Bangalore. In the Jeep on the way to the hotel, I notice the sperm-like sacred-drop cutouts advertising the festival, hundreds of them strung together in ropes festooning the city's islanded boulevards. I yell and point. Our jet-wasted crew cheers. This is actually happening.

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