'Empty' in Indianapolis, Indiana

Noah Tysick attended the recent talk given in Indianapolis, IN by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on "Facing Challenges with Compassion and Wisdom". This week, he is the DLC's special guest blogger and will be sharing his personal reflections from the event. Noah is an author, teacher and ordained, interfaith minister with a particular affinity for Tibetan and Pure Land Buddhism.


In the West, we tend to take one step back when something unfamiliar or different makes its way into our comfort zone.  We flirt with the idea of the Dalai Lama or Buddhism in general.  We buy a book or magazine to learn more about acceptance, compassion, and love, but it frightens us when the idea of “emptiness” or “no self” embeds itself into the discussion.  It can be off-putting, even frightening, at the suggestion of this seemingly radical idea.  It evokes nihilistic notions--feelings that contradict our desire to leave some sort of legacy or to immortalize ourselves.  We want to assert our individuality and know that the capital “I” of self navigates this life with a certain specialness that others do not possess. 

I had the honor of seeing His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, during his second visit to Indianapolis on May 14, 2010. I anxiously shifted my gaze from the small man on the stage to the projected image on the massive plasma screens overhead trying to archive every word, every gesture of His Holiness.

The title of his teaching for this event was “Facing Challenges with Compassion and Wisdom,” but he used this opportunity to discuss many related and some seemingly isolated things.  I could tell you how he spoke of the importance of interfaith dialog and the value of every human life.  I could even tell you the stories he shared about his childhood and how he described his mother as, “very, very, very kind”--I’ll save this for another day.

 During the question and answer session, a woman devastated by an abusive marriage and an even more difficult divorce had a question for His Holiness about his thoughts on how to find forgiveness for the man that hurt her so profoundly and mercilessly.  I can say with reasonable certainty that there was not a person in the room who could not relate to her suffering in some way.  We all know loss and suffering.  We all have the choice to worship at the altar of our pain, kissing the relics of the wrongs we’ve accumulated over the years, and we all have the choice to walk on.       

Our shared experience with suffering created a shared anticipation for a wise answer.  The pause between her question and his response gave way to an intimacy that I had never experienced with 12,000 other people before--each precious, none exalted or abased, all sharing the human condition.  

In the person of the Dalai Lama, I saw a man well-acquainted with suffering, isolation, being hated without a cause.  I saw a great spiritual leader that had been forced into exile with no trace of justifiable bitterness.  

His answer to the woman was measured, deliberate, “Look holistically at the situation, your life.  You can overcome it.” Her face relaxed and she smiled, we smiled.  His Holiness spoke through laughter, “You may enjoy the freedom [of being single again] more than you think!”

Cackling, deep belly laughs, and applause followed.  The idea of a separate self lost its relevancy in that instant, and the line between the teenager to my left and the chatty couple behind faded.

There was no “you,” “me,” “us,” “them,” or “I.”  There was pure awareness that just was.

And it was Radiant. Luminous.  Empty.

-- graphic image by Goran Vrcel © 2010

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