I think it is remarkable that the sound I most associate with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is laughter. I would guess that most people would not immediately think of laughter when asked to ponder on world religious leaders. Does Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, make you think of laughter? Or Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury? But when it comes to this Dalai Lama, I immediately think of laughter.
I have been privileged to see the Dalai Lama in person twice—at the Kalachakra for World Peace in July 2011 in Washington, DC, and at an empowerment in Long Beach, California, last month. Both encounters seemed otherworldly to me. He radiates a palpable energy that enraptures the audience. Perhaps the most winning thing about him is his readiness to laugh, especially at himself.
Early in the Kalachakra he spoke directly to the native Tibetan speakers in the audience…in English. After speaking for several minutes, he realized the fruitlessness of speaking in English to persons who understood only Tibetan and erupted in laughter. In Long Beach, he began chanting in Tibetan, only to halt after a few lines to confess, in English, that he was chanting the wrong prayer. He laughed uproariously at his mistake.
It was a marvelously joyous sound both times, a laugh you might expect to hear from someone hearing a joke for the first time in his life and not quite knowing what to make of the sensation. It swept through the crowd, infecting everyone who heard it, so that all were laughing with unrestrained joy.
That willingness to laugh at himself, to not take himself too seriously despite the very serious business he has to accomplish, sets the Dalai Lama apart. He is greatly revered by many, yet his brand of humility makes him seem accessible rather than lofty.
Personally, he awakens my awareness of the Buddha-nature inside of me. I don’t know that it ever seems more tangible to me, more capable of emerging, than when I am in the Dalai Lama’s presence. I would liken it to a pilot light in a stove, always on though barely flickering—until the Dalai Lama turns up the gas and it bursts into flame. Listening to his recorded talks, reading his books, the flame comes alive. In his presence, it’s a roaring inferno.
That experience prompts me to seek two things. One, to kindle that flame in my daily life so that the Buddha-nature in me shines forth and guides my path. Two, to recognize and become enflamed by that same Buddha-nature in everyone I encounter. Because it is present in everyone, at all times, in you, in me, always now, and not just in the Dalai Lama.