2016-06-30
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.

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.

Sitting through the opening show the next morning is unreal. Acts come and go like ships in a mist. I know, vaguely, we will perform soon--and badly. Where is the sacred part in all this? This is all praying-too-loudly-in-public, then being congratulated by a smiling rinpoche and given presents for contributing to "world unison." And the Dalai Lama? He'd already left for Japan the day before yesterday. So much for blessed karma.

Hit the harmony, not too hard, circle around for the refrain. Steal a peak at His Holiness, who I have to say is not a toe-tapper.

When we go on, I can't hear my guitar, but everyone else sounds great; my boyish harmonies work against the Void's power lead. Our violin virtuoso is exactly that, and bass veteran of 11 years, Mark Dann, provides the glue. The audience loves us, and so of course, we love them back.

We are, I realize, a novelty act. Theologically speaking, the songs are quite accurate, but musically we're the Byrds play the Dead eulogizing the Kingston Trio: thoroughly American. Afterward, lots of older people congratulate us, and younger autograph hounds seek us out, which pleases us.

We do a BBC interview, I drink too much milk chai, and end up unable to sleep, writing a song in the luxurious bathroom of the hotel room.

My lungs thank me for the drive to Dharamsala in an air-conditioned Sumo. The beggars fall away, the filth and fecal poverty fade into corduroy fields of wheat, with squatting scythe-wielding women laboring under the one-sun. Thirteen hours of "Mario Andretti drives India," and here we are, waiting to meet the Dalai Lama.

The young secretary in lay clothes under a blue bodysuit walks in briskly. "You're up next," he says with a knowing smile, and departs. I follow Phil round the corner and, like him, hit my knees the instant I see His Holiness smiling and bowing, flinging his hands down for us to get up.

We float in his direction. I try to get my head lower than his, but he ducks lower still and points, smiling, into the receiving room. The Dalai Lama sits in a chair and pulls up his purple socks. Three of us, pointing our instruments outwards squeeze onto the couch.

His Holiness is no longer so cutely smiling. I realize that beneath this teddy-bear veneer, a lion of a man sits, in total possession of himself and this, his gilded lair. There is an air of, "All right. You have gotten past the guards, through the gates. (Security was tight.) What is it, indeed, that brings you here?"

Phil tells him about his life, his songs, showing him pictures and the Phil Void songbook. His Holiness chews on this information, taking the book, reading it, and nodding and blinking with obvious approval. And now, here it comes. "If we may, we would like to play it for your Holiness."

No verbal response. Just a blank look. Like the president of the record company. You brought your instruments? Okay. Play 'em.

So we do, strangely, two feet from the Dalai Lama, 10 feet from his secretaries. Packed on the couch like sardines in a can. Hit the harmony, not too hard, throw in the hammering-on obligato, circle around for the refrain. This is almost fun. Steal a peak at His Holiness, who I have to say is not a toe-tapper. He's comparing the English and Tibetan. Of course! This is the head of the Gelukpa order--the scholars, the Jesuits, of Tibetan Buddhism.

Now it's over. His Holiness' hands press his hands. "Good. Very good."

Now Phil introduces "Guru Rinpoche," the song about Padmasambhava, the 8th-century founder of Tibetan Buddhism. One of his best songs, a complicated story placed in a rousing "Blow the Man Down" tune. It's a winner, and we nail it. His Holiness seems to particularly enjoy the violin. A secretary adjusts our video camera. We finish, and Phil, after having His Holiness give a Tibetan name for a newborn son, girds his resolve and asks the Dalai Lama to write a brief forward for The Dharma Bums songbook.

His Holiness agrees, and I feel the wind of completion blow through the room. Soon, we're being politely shown out, without my receiving more than a subsidiary twinkle. "Your Holiness, I..." The twin search lights of his eyes turn on me, and again I sense the surprisingly masculine, what I would call virile, presence of a king concentrate on me.

From a vest pocket, I produce a broken string of prayer beads. "Five years ago, I circumambulated Mt. Kailash, and shortly afterward I took refuge...these were my beads."

I explain that a few days ago, my string of mala beads broke. From off my left wrist, I pull a new, odiferous sandalwood string. "I'm wondering if you would possibly bless these new ones?"

I've inched my way to the very edge of the couch and now hold the virginal mala in my hand, a foot away from him. He picks the l08 beads from out of my hand, adjusts his glasses, and stares at them for a moment as if he's never seen anything quite like them before.

He brings the handholding["handheld beads"?] closer to his all-seeing eyes, and now his face goes absolutely blank. And I go blank watching it. His Holiness the Dalai Lama rubs the beads between his hands, whispers a few syllables over them, and hands them back to me. I realize I'm on my knees.

It's time for a group picture. I step forward to instruct the younger secretary on an idiosyncrasy of my camera. When I return to the throng, Phil and Mark Dann are holding the Dalai Lama's hands. Tim and I will stand beside them. I argue with myself to see the logic of this. Mark has endured 10 years of Dharma Bumming;, he is deserving of this honor. Still, the jealous twit inside me twitters: "But he's not even a Buddhist!"

"Yeah, so--and are you?" The voice inquires as the shutter clicks on our smiling portrait.

Outside the palace, I immediately admit to my envy. We all laugh. I hand a beggar a 10-rupee note. He's ecstatic, and so--once again--am I. A motorized rickshaw driver asks, "Taxi? Taxi?"

"No need," I say, "we're not touching the ground."



more from beliefnet and our partners