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Buddha Rising
DECEMBER 2005
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Slide Show: Buddha Rising
Video: Footsteps of Buddha
In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale



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Buddha Rising

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    It took nine months to get an interview with the Dalai Lama, but I finally sat down with His Holiness in McLeod Ganj, India, headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile. So how do you greet one of the world's most revered men—and a monk to boot? Do you shake his hand? Bow? But it was he who reached out to shake my hand. Then, rather than let go, he held on. Sure, I thought, keep my hand, forever. For close to a minute we walked side by side, his right hand holding my right hand. It totally disarmed me and at the same time made me feel completely embraced. Somehow his calm made me feel calm, like a hand-to-hand tranquility transfusion. The man had me at hello.
    Heartbreak is the worst, no matter when, where, or why it happens. At the Plum Village Retreat Center in the south of France, I met a woman who had left Vietnam in 1975 at the age of 12 and grown up in Paris. She was warm and forthcoming, tranquil, smart, and beautiful inside and out. There was immediate "flow" between us. We exchanged e-mails, and a month later we met in Paris, where we fell madly in love. Then eight months later, on the same day I found out my story had been accepted, she broke up with me.
    She was my muse and emotional support during a very stressful time while writing this article. I thank her daily, albeit silently, and I still miss her. But one of the key teachings of Buddhism is impermanence. As the Buddha said, nothing lasts forever. In that way, she became my Buddhist teacher. If she ever has a change of heart and comes back to our flow, this anecdote will have to move from the "worst" column into the "best."
    I never join tour groups, but "In the Footsteps of the Buddha" turned out to be the best introduction to the Buddha's life, to India's sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and to group leader Shantum Seth. Born to a prominent Hindu family, Shantum was disenchanted with his family religion. Ironically, to discover Buddhism he had to go West to California, where he met Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, who is still his teacher.
    The tour consisted of 12 Americans of varying degrees of Buddhist experience. Shantum is quite good at balancing between tour leader—part travel agent, part psychotherapist—and skillful Buddhism teacher. But I saw his real wisdom come into play when suddenly our charter bus lost its rear axle, which slid out from under the bus, both rear tires attached. The bus skidded to a screeching halt. These rather well-off people were shaken, but Shantum kept his center and, unflustered, found a comforting word for each person as well as mechanics and food. Soon, cell phone ever at his ear, he arranged alternative transport, and we were off again. I saw how the Buddhist practice of staying in the moment with compassion had practical applications, even in emergencies.
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