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January 2020
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The Happy Man

The Happy Man, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

It is critical to serve others, to contribute actively to others’ well-being. I often tell practitioners that they should adopt the following principle: regarding one’s own personal needs, there should be as little involvement or obligation as possible. But regarding service to others, there should be as many involvements and obligations as possible. This should be the ideal of a spiritual person.

—Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. From His Holiness The Dalai Lama: In My Own Words, by Mary Craig.

I still remember that first glimpse of him as clearly as if I were walking into the experience this very moment. I remember how unbearably hot the day was in Northern India, how the sun beat down relentlessly upon me and countless other pilgrims. I was tired, too, from standing around and waiting. I was well aware that I was about to shake the hand of one of the most famous people in the world, but beyond the grasping desire to touch greatness, I had no coherent thought as to what I was doing or why I was doing it. Nor had I any cognizance of how the actual experience would reverberate long after its fleeting impermanence.

He stood at the top of grassy headland, surrounded by handlers. Some were monks like himself, dressed in yellow and crimson robes. One held a wide umbrella over his shorn head to protect him from the scorching sun. Others looked about nervously, as though willing the throng to behave in an orderly fashion. Yet these recollections are hazy and hardly pellucid. The energy behind the memory continues to be driven by that merry impish smile of the small and undistinguished monk who stood beneath the umbrella. No: smile doesn’t come close to describing the grin that split his face from ear to ear. Nor can any description of the encounter convey the experience of felt being when my turn came to shake his hand. For here an enlightened master was looking into the face of a complete stranger—that would be me—as though I was the most important person he had ever met. Even more amazingly: I knew I wasn’t dreaming. The feeling wasn’t contrived. I was shaking the hand of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. And in that moment—the only moment that is ultimately real—my presence was as sacred for him as his was for me.

I understand now that the experience was transformative because it was my first encounter with sustained presence. Indeed, thought was almost absent. I obviously formulated thoughts around the event to bring it into a realm of grandiosity, to further enhance and embellish and milk it for all it was worth. But when I return to the experience in the abstract—that is to say, when I feel it rather than think about it—I understand that I was in the force field of pure consciousness. The Dalai Lama was able to hold a sacred space for a very simple reason: he has no belief in hierarchies, borders, or separateness. His pervading compassion allows him to treat all members of the human family as members of his own.

Perhaps even more remarkable than the experience of meeting the Dalai Lama is the fact that wisdom exists. And here’s why: I could not have recognized the pervasive consciousness and presence of the Dalai Lama if, to some degree, that consciousness did not exist within myself. If it hadn’t, I would have left with a feeling of disappointment that I had wasted an entire day waiting in line for a five second, non-verbal audience with a most ordinary and unremarkable human being. Ordinary in the way that all great spirits who walk the earth ultimately are.

The Dalai Lama shakes my hand strongly and warmly. His smile is infectious, his eyes twinkling and merry. I wonder how many years of prayer and meditation it takes to arrive at that sanguine peacefulness, that relaxed and heightened awareness. I let go of his hand reluctantly. I release it for the next eager pilgrim to grasp and turn slowly back down the hill, far down the grassy headland.

The moment, like all things impermanent, is gone.


The Happy Man grins at me laconically from his small wooden pedestal atop my bureau. His round potbelly is more or less permanently bloated with gastronomical Presence. His satisfied smile tells me (perhaps) that he is pleased with his diminutive existence as an inanimate object. Yet I prefer to think that his inherent wisdom is greater than that. It seems to me that he is pleased because he can never be other than happy. He can never be other than present.

Several weeks after my fateful karmic collision with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, I stepped into a fabric and clothing store in the fabled pink city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. For the first time since my arrival in India, I was attempting to buy something without the art of haggling and its ensuing theater, a true “every visit to India is only complete with this” rite of passage. I’m more than a little chagrined to admit that the sight of so many floors of goods, bolts of fabric, and hermetically packaged salwar kameezes overwhelmed me. I quickly retreated from the store and thought better of the whole idea.

Within moments an attractive and self-possessed young woman pulled up to the front of the department store on a motor scooter. She had an effortless sense of style and grace. She also happened to be wearing exactly the style and sort of salwar kameez I had been looking for so fruitlessly in the store a few minutes before.

Before I could approach her, she kindly came up to me and asked if she could be of assistance. She spoke excellent English, and, she informed me, several other Indian languages. When I explained my predicament she merely nodded and indicated that I should follow her. Within minutes she was in full command of the shop merchants (all of whom were male). She spoke to them rapidly in a language that I could not understand but which, apparently by magic, conjured what seemed like hundreds of specimens of the most beautiful silk salwar kameezes I had ever seen in my life. If I nodded my head even slightly she ordered the silks taken away, and vigorously nodded her head until new ones replaced them. Within an hour I was in possession of a most beautiful and treasured costume, one that far exceeded my expectations for any shopping excursion.

The swiftly moving, elegant young lady at last informed me that she had to depart. Before doing so, however, she made sure I had several business cards containing the full sum of her contact information—just in case she could ever be of service again. She also produced a small red item from her flowing clothes, which she pressed into my surprised hand. This, she explained with a smile, was her gift to me. As a Buddhist she hoped that “The Happy Man,” (as she called him) would give me sustaining comfort and support during my remaining travels in her country.

“The Happy Man is always happy,” she told me gently. “And for this reason you may find him a great help.”

I squeezed the precious and hard little statue in my hand as I watched her fade into the evening twilight on her motor scooter.

Only later did it occur to me that this young woman had not bought a single thing for herself in the clothing store. In fact, the only item she had purchased was The Happy Man, which turned out to be a gift for me. Moreover, she had spent an entire hour in the role of my personal shopping assistant. Although we had never met before, she had given me nothing less than her full and undivided presence from the time she had arrived at the department store until the time she left.

When I returned to the United States after my travels in India, the memories of the Dalai Lama standing under the umbrella and the young woman on the scooter began to gradually move farther and farther away from me. Indeed, as I resumed my western life and identity, they began to feel like dreams borne out of an exotic Shangri La. Until the day I came across The Happy Man, dusted him off, and placed him up on his pedestal. His smile remained unchanged. And it reminded me that even the most beautiful, transforming experiences are impermanent. Only the light shining through them is immortal.

Why, I used to wonder, does The Happy Man keep smiling day after day? One day I simply ventured to ask him.

“Go ahead and put me up on this pedestal if you must,” he replied, laughing. “But I have only one answer, just as I have only one smile. And what’s more, you already know what I have to say. Just this: Be here. Be now.”