He arrived with a small retinue and was almost to the front door of the Native American Center when a woman walked past with a fat little dachshund on a leash. He placed his hands together, facing the dog, and bowed deeply, head tilted to the same listening degree as the dog's. The dog's human looked bewildered but the dog seemed to be communing with the robed monk. It was one of those special intercultural, interspecies moments.
The Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile of the Dalai Lama spoke recently where I teach, at Portland State University. He was hosted by Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, Director of the Native American Studies program, at the Native American Student and Community Center on campus. The Prime Minister, the Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche, who was born Lobsang Tenzin on November 5, 1939 in Tibet, is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the fifth reincarnation of the Samdhong Rinpoche.
At age 20, in 1959, Ven. Rinpoche fled for his life along with the Dalai Lama, as the invading Red Chinese Army was killing monks, nuns and targeting the religious leadership in particular. They have been based out of Dharamsala, India ever since, and advocating for nonviolence and at least autonomy, if not freedom, for Tibet. Ven. Rinpoche has taught both Tibetan Buddhism and Gandhian philosophy at several universities in India and is fluent in Tibetan--his mother language--Hindi and English.
He is a gracious man. He moves slowly, talks carefully, and smiles big as he finishes his points. This is either a result of his personality or his training, and the meta-message is nonverbal but clear, "I'm saying something that some people may regard as controversial, but I mean the very best for all of humankind even as I struggle for the good of my people, who have suffered under occupation for decades. Wouldn't you like to agree and be my friend and ally?"
Cornel Pewewardy is Kiowa and Comanche. He sang a Welcome song to all--the crowd was mixed Tibetans, PSU students and interested community members. Dr. Pewewardy made everyone welcome and set the mood as honoring the Original People. The ties with the occupation of America by Europeans and then others were not stated but were obvious to the Tibetans' plight as a tiny unarmed population overwhelmed by a massive violent occupying and colonizing neighbor. In the moment, the struggles look hopeless.
Pewewardy and Ven. Rinpoche take the longer view. You can see their confidence in what Dr. King called the long moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. It reminded me also of the story of the Singing Revolution in Estonia, a tiny country trampled by Germany and Russia as they rampaged toward each other in war after war for centuries. "Patience is a weapon," says the narrator in the film by that name.
The Chinese will eventually retreat and Tibet will be independent. That was not the question; the question was how to make it happen the soonest with the fewest costs. Ven. Rinpoche described some of the forces and strategies, helping situate us all in that struggle.
Happy Birthday, Ven. Rinpoche, and many more before you again reincarnate!