The Dalai Lama's Plumber

In my own mind, my two week retreat at KTD was the dividing line between the old and new Baltimore Dharma Study Group. When I got back, Nancy Barkley had moved into her house in Chinquapin and gave over her basement to be the shrine room for the group. Not long after, Pat Dearing dropped out of the group. She had lost her enthusiasm for Vajradhatu's style of Buddhism. So we put a lot of effort into promoting the new group, buying proper cushions, and running classes. Results were meagre but not nonexistent. Baltimore is a conservative city and back then Buddhism was hard to sell.

Next year the Dalai Lama made his first visit to the Washington Dharmadhatu. This was well before he had won the Nobel Prize and he was much less known, so having a visit in a small space like the Dharmadhatu was not so ridiculous as it would be today. The Washington Dharmadhatu back then was a second floor space in Georgetown. It was a new space for Washington and very nicely done up. The people who ran the Washington Dharmadhatu had good, if expensive, taste. I got down there and asked if there was any way I could help out. Someone handed me a plunger and said the toilet in the bathroom is stopped up, please unstop it. There were two bathrooms in the Center and one had been set in case the Dalai Lama should need to the bathroom during his visit. You could tell by various touches such as a piece of brocade on top of the toilet tank. So I unstopped the toilet, no doubt generating oodles of good karma. Of course, the Dalai Lama never used the bathroom during the visit. During the visit the Dalai Lama declined to use the throne that had been built for him and sat on an ordinary chair, gave some very brief remarks, and then answered questions from the audience. A reporter and photographer from the Washington Post stood in the back of the room writing an article that appeared in the next day's Post. After about an hour, the Dalai Lama left in a motorcade for his next meeting.

Talking to everyone afterwards, I was surprised and puzzled to hear negative opinions about the Dalai Lama and the visit. The reason why only became clear later. Karl Springer, who had come out from Boulder to greet the Dalai Lama on behalf of Vajradhatu, gave a speech criticizing the Dalai Lama after he had left. He laid special emphasis on the fact that he had declined to sit on the throne. I hadn't heard his speech as I had left soon after the Dalai Lama.

There was another reason for Karl's criticism other than the debatable matter of whether the Dalai Lama should have sat on a throne. In Nepal an important lama had been murdered and when the murderer was caught, he claimed the murder was a plot by the Dalai Lama to eliminate his ecclesiastical competition. The Dalai Lama leads the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, while Vajradhatu and the murdered lama belonged to the Kagyu school. Vajradhatu started a letter writing campaign asking that the Nepalese government give better protection to important lamas. Unfortunately, the suggested letter implied that there was some truth to the murderer's claims. The Dalai Lama asked for an apology and wasn't satisfied with the half-apology that Karl Springer wrote on behalf of Vajradhatu. So the Dalai Lama cancelled his plans to visit Boulder, a huge embarrassment for Vajradhatu and Karl Springer personally. So that was what was behind Karl Springer's pique at the Dalai Lama.

So, not for the first or last time, I found myself out of step with my fellow sangha members because my impression of the Dalai Lama was the opposite of theirs.