His Holiness -- A Questions of Ethics and Three Bows

"After this, I think I can retire," said my friend Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at USC. At 36 years old, he is one of the youngest deans in the country and the first Hindu to hold a position of this kind. I've known Varun for over ten years, since he attended Harvard University's Divinity School with my brother, and we've been friends ever since.

A second-generation Indian immigrant, Varun introduced me to his loving family who promptly took me in as a sort of mascot. Being the only "white girl" at many events was a little uncomfortable at first, but I learned "Bhangra" dancing and how to eat roti. They loved that I was a yoga teacher and they would introduce me as their friend who was "teaching our yoga."

A Hindu by birth, Varun always told me that his guru was actually a Buddhist -- His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. Having navigated many of life's ups and downs, I thought Varun's dream of hosting and introducing His Holiness was a bit far-fetched. But when he landed the job of Dean of Religious Life at USC, his dharmic momentum began to build. He was instrumental in getting His Holiness to USC and was awarded the honor of getting to introduce him at both the morning and afternoon events. For months, I had been eagerly awaiting this moment when Varun would finally take the stage to realize his life dream.

Just days before the scheduled event, His Holiness came down with a cold and had to cancel both his Long Beach and UCLA appearances. Mostly, I was concerned for his heath. Second, I felt compassion for those who had lost their chance to see him. But secretly I also felt selfish fear for Varun. Fiercely loyal to my friends, I wanted this for him!

We were relieved to receive the news late in the evening that His Holiness was well enough and prepared to take the stage. Early yesterday morning May 3rd at USC's Galen Center, he did just that. (Early in the speech, His Holiness told a funny anecdote about taking too much cold medicine and getting sicker from taking the medicine which was meant to help him. The crowd laughed and applauded as it was something that was easy for us to have compassion for!)

I need to pause here to say that in every possible location, there were notifications that there was to be no recording of the event of any kind. No pictures were to be taken, no videos and no audio recordings. This was posted on the USC website where tickets were purchased, it was on each ticket that everyone had to hold, it was told to us by the security staff as we entered, it was on the programs and it was posted on signs. It could not have been more clear.

I was especially disappointed by this. Not because I would be robbed of my opportunity to brag on Facebook to show that I had a good seat at the event (okay, maybe a little). But I longed to document Varun, my old friend introducing the Dalai Lama, a chance of a lifetime. However, as instructed, I put my phone in my purse and committed to just being present for the moment rather than being concerned with recording it. I attempted to practice one of the most basic Buddhist precepts -- I surrendered my attachment.

As my friend Varun took the stage, I burst in to tears of joy as he gave the introduction of a lifetime. Clear and strong, funny and engaging, it was the introduction of a young scholar who understood and revered his teacher. In other words -- Varun rocked it!

What happened next completely took me by surprise. His Holiness walked out onto the stage and as he did -- everyone stood up and started taking pictures and video clips with their phones! I was totally shocked! Everyone knew the rules and requests of His Holiness -- you couldn't miss it. And yet, no one cared. The Dalai Lama shook Varun's Hand and gave The Three Bows -- to The Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha. Instead of bowing back as I've been taught to do -- I stood with my mouth hanging open as the entire audience was just snapping and shooting away.

I couldn't believe the disrespect I was witnessing. I had many reactions at once. The first one was shock. We were specifically asked us not to do this and everyone was doing it.

The next one was "That's not fair!" Again, I need to admit to being incredibly selfish. I felt that if everyone else was going to get a picture, I wanted one too. I thought "Well everyone else is recording it, why shouldn't I?" I thought "Varun is getting a hand shake from His Holiness, this is my chance to take a picture for him, my chance to have this for him and his family!" Taking my phone out of my purse, I was about to start snapping pictures when something stopped me.

"Secular Ethics, Human Values and Society." That was the title of the speech that His Holiness was about to give. That's right -- Secular Ethics. We were about to learn about ethics? I looked at the phone in my hand...

Just because everyone else was taking pictures of him didn't make it okay to do it. Just because I wanted one too -- didn't make it okay. I struggled. It shouldn't matter what everyone else was doing, how could I not respect this request? I hesitated, watching him shake Varun's hand and sit down -- I wanted a picture so badly!

I wondered what I would do if he, the Dalai Lama were right there watching me make my choice.

I put my phone away.

Once the decision was made I had another ethical question. What do I do about everyone else's violation of ethics? My initial response was that that is their issue, their path, their karma and they must choose it for themselves. It is not my job to be the "camera phone police" and I should just worry about myself, my own path.

However, at what point does that change? If the issue were life-threatening, it would be another matter. What if I were living in Nazi Germany and the people around me were helping to put Jewish people onto trains to be killed in concentration camps. There is no way that I would stand by and just let everyone do as they pleased and mind my own business. If it were a circumstance where people could get physically hurt, I would like to think that yes, I would try to enforce my ethical code on others. Yes, I would try to stop the Jews from being slaughtered. I would not wait for someone else to step in, or for people to just stop on their own. I would take action and try to persuade others to my ethical viewpoint.

That is a life-threatening example and the one yesterday seems relatively harmless -- just a few pictures. But at what point does one draw the line? At what point is it important to share or enforce one's own ethical code on others? These two extreme cases are clear. The cameras? Let it go. The concentration camps? Step in and risk your life to save others. So often we are faced with ethical dilemmas that land right in the middle. Maybe only a few people would be hurt, maybe they wouldn't be hurt physically but emotionally, maybe it has to do with money or someone's good name. When and how do we choose to take action?

I don't know if there is an answer to this. But as we were discussing ethics for the entirety of the morning, someone in the audience asked His Holiness an appropriately topical, ethical question. "You are your own Master!" he answered with vigor and burst into his signature laughter. He explained that if he made the choice for the student, he would either get praised or blamed -- His Holiness wanted neither. The message was clear -- even the Dalai Lama does not make ethical choices for others.

At the end of the speech, His Holiness donned Varun with a white scarf, an incredible honor in the Tibetan tradition. Through my joyful tears, I once again pined to take a picture. But I kept my word, kept my own ethics, and kept to myself about it. I even did my best not to judge others for what could just be seen as "unbridled enthusiasm."

Instant karma. The good news is that the internet is free and open to everyone. There are pictures everywhere! I kept my integrity and still have pictures to choose from -- spiritually getting my cake and eating it too.

Love is always the highest reward. My friend realized his life's dream yesterday. In a picture that he sent to me this morning -- you'll never see a happier face. The face of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is on the right. Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at USC is on the left. It's a teacher with his student, a guru with his devotee -- two friends reunited in this lifetime.

Thank you for the teachings, Your Holiness! I offer you "Three Bows" and a huge AUM MANI PADME HUM!


Photo by Steve Cohn/Steve Cohn Photography