The World Wide Web
The Dalai Lama's unique, decades-long relationship with fellow Buddhists and UW researchers in Madison
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Fat flakes swirl softly against the windshield, yet another snowstorm in a seemingly relentless line-up this long, late winter. Slick roads force a slow, deliberate drive through rural Oregon, past the dairy farms and sleepy ’70s split-levels tucked against the dormant wooded hillside. I actually gasp when I first see Deer Park Monastery on the left. It’s enormous and ornate, a square-brick Tibetan palace. It’s so out of place and unexpected, a bright gold tooth in a crisp white grin. It’s the last thing you’d expect to find in the Wisconsin countryside, no doubt, but that’s not what’s so jarring. It would be stunning anywhere.
It’s too icy to park up on the hill and so I trudge, slowly, leaving the only footprints in this fresh snow. Penny Paster and her friend Mary Bennett are waiting for me, swinging a side door open wide in a puff of warmth as I scurry in out of the cold. I follow the two women down a dark hallway and up a short flight of stairs, watch them slip off their shoes and I follow suit, dump my hefty winter boots and slide sock-footed after them into the temple. I gasp again. They both look at me, then at each other and smile. “It takes you away, doesn’t it?” Penny says in a whisper. Everybody has this reaction.
There are prayer cushions scattered all across the floor and we each pick one, drop cross-legged to the ground and look up, around, out. The ceiling must be forty, maybe fifty feet high, the altar wall painted a blue so bright it doesn’t seem a human-made color. It’s the backdrop to a dozen or more gold figures and, at the center, a huge dazzling Buddha. Directly in front of him is an ornate throne-like chair where—I read up on this before I arrived—only the Dalai Lama is allowed to sit. He’s been to Deer Park eight or nine times over the years. Nobody can quite remember exactly how many.
The friendship between Richie Davidson and the Dalai Lama gets a lot of attention around here but there’s an older story that began with a man named Geshe Sopa, the guy who built this place. Sopa is eighty-nine years old now and he’s no longer giving interviews, but he does have a new book out. I make a mental note to buy it.
Sopa, like a hundred thousand of his countrymen, was exiled from his Tibetan home in 1959 after the Chinese invasion. By that time he was already a really big deal, a highly esteemed spiritual leader who even served as one of the debate examiners during the Dalai Lama’s final Geshe examinations, the rigorous Tibetan equivalent of at least one Ph.D. Maybe two.
Shortly after their exile, in an attempt to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist culture and continue to spread its teachings, the Dalai Lama asked Sopa to go to the United States and so he did. He was out east for a few years but in 1967 UW–Madison scooped him up. He couldn’t even speak English yet, the story goes, when he was hired here as a teaching assistant. Over the next twenty-nine years he became the first Tibetan to get tenure at an American university, built a renowned Buddhist Studies program, attracted a community of Tibetan-Americans in Madison that now numbers around five hundred and retired professor emeritus. In 1975, he founded Deer Park, first a modest temple and eventually this 20,000-square-foot, $6 million working monastery home to a fluid number of monks and nuns. The world’s most eminent Tibetan scholars come from all over to absorb Sopa’s teachings and lead their own, including the Dalai Lama. In 1981, His Holiness arrived at Deer Park to lead the Kalachakra, a complex teaching ceremony some Buddhist masters say is the most advanced form of Vajrayana practice. It was the first one ever performed in North America and it marked the Dalai Lama’s second visit to the Madison area.
“Very well respected teachers in India were telling people, ‘My teacher, Geshe Sopa, is in Madison, Wisconsin. If you want a continuing study, that’s the absolute best place to go,” Bennett says to me. She’s a Tibetan Buddhist who’s been coming to Deer Park for more than thirty years. We’ve been talking in hushed whispers, a slow, meandering interview about as informal (and, admittedly, awed) as they come. Every once in a while I jump up to examine the tapestries, the bowls of water, the golden statues. I find a jar of brightly colored hard candies hidden behind one.
“If one realizes the worldwide respect that Geshe Sopa holds, even though he’s completely humble and kind and so sweet, it’s—don’t be fooled,” she says. “He’s an amazing scholar. An amazing, amazing mind. He’s also the living practice of the teachings. The people around here are because of him … It’s all a result of his generosity and his vision for Buddhism to survive and thrive.”
Paster silently nods in agreement, or maybe it’s just contemplation. Either way, she seems to nod more than she does speak. I’ve been trying all morning to ask her about her connection to Deer Park but she’ll only admit to cleaning the toilets. I eventually figure out she’s married to family doc and radio host Zorba Paster, that the two go way back with both the Dalai Lama and Sopa, whom she calls “Geshela,” a term of endearment.
“If you were to go into any bookstore and look at the Buddhist books, many, many, many of those teachers have taught here,” says Paster. “Because of Geshela. And they’ll all say, ‘He’s my teacher.’”
“What about when the Dalai Lama visits?” I ask. “What’s it like? What are they like together? Who’s the teacher then?”
Paster smiles. “They’re always laughing,” she says. “They’re so happy to be together. And Geshela is just … well, if he [bowed] any lower he would be on the ground.”
“And what about Wisconsin?” I ask before I can help myself, a little embarrassed. I often want to know what outsiders think of my favorite place on earth, especially famous people. I really, really want to know what the happiest man in the world thinks of it.
“He likes Wisconsin,” she says. “He enjoys just riding [in the car] when there are not hundreds and hundreds of people marking his way. He’ll get out of his car in the summer and just walk along the wildflowers. He feels at home here, that’s what he says.”
It’s a lovely image, although a hard one to conjure up on a day like today. But I like the answer very much.