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His Holiness the Dalai Lama Talks Turkey

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Tuesday, November 15th, 2005 — What does the Dalai Lama's message of nonviolence have to do with Thanksgiving? Plenty I think -- even if your friends and relations have never come close to a walkout, a lockout, or an all-out family fued at the annual turkey fest.

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune of listening to the Dalai Lama speak at Stanford on "The Heart of Nonviolence." It was exciting to witness this event, but I was most impressed by his down-to-earth personality. Not at all the gaunt and grim pictures of holiness I remember seeing on holy cards of my childhood church, His Holiness seemed refreshingly unholy.

The Dalai Lama didn't say anything at the symposium in Memorial Church until he had kicked off his shoes and made himslef comfortable, sitting cross-legged in his chair.

And, I thought, what better time to test his teachings than on upcoming Thanksgiving, a day that has the potential for bringing out the truly unholy in some of us -- worry about getting everything right for dinner, or about old family tensions.

If the Dalai Lama can sit around like a kid in his burgundy socks, why should we worry about matching china plates or lumpy gravy. Relax. There is no need to impress anyone.

What good is holiness if it doesn't help us with the little things? Can the Dalai's lessons help ease expectations, or smooth over some of the rough edges of family life? With a little imagination, we can ask: What would the Dalai Lama say and do?

It all begins with compassion, a central theme of his message and life. Walking a mile in someone else's moccasins is a Western expression of the same idea. But not all compassion is created equal. In Buddhism, compassion is not only sympathy for the suffering of others but recognizing that we all experience obstacles to happiness -- that suffering is a fact of life.

In other words, no one gets to come to the Thanksgiving table looking condescendingly at anyone else. Aunt Agnes, who never seems to get her act together, and I are soul-sisters, both dragging our baggage along the road to Nirvana. I need Aunt Agnes as much as she needs me. An attitude adjustment makes all the difference. It is the beginning of humility -- and not just for Aunt Agnes.

But what about Uncle Fred, who loves to lob potshots across the table? Isn't returning the lob a more natural response than compassion? The Dalai Lama says, "Yes." Firght or flight is a basic instinct.

The trouble is, we amp up the hostility, or get really good at nurturing it. When that happens, not only is my view of Uncle Fred distorted, but I become a hostile person. Then I am lugging more baggage along the road to happiness. It could take hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners to get past this bad karma.

But Thanksgiving at its best is a great antitdote to endless droning towards that great Cosmic Hug. This holiday is nothing if not an invitation to momentarily step out of the cycle of death and rebirth and to be grateful for each other and for what we have. Gratitude, according to the Dalai Lama, is the cure to distorted vision. It is the attitude necessary to create nonviolence, not just between ourselves but within ourselves.

What's in this for the cooks? In our house, Thanksgiving is all about abundance. Forget the tofu-and-tomato sandwich. On this day, the foods, the smells, the colors are rich and our plates are overflowing. We suffer through shlepping, cleaning, slicing, and dicing. Even buying the Thanksgiving meal at Safeway is only a partial cure for the frenzy that can put us in overdrive for days. Watch out Uncle Fred. What might the Dalai Lama say? How about, "Ommmm..."?

Seriously, compassion begins at home. Be good to yourself. Forget the formalities.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama impressed his audience with his genuine love of life. Sometimes Buddhism and Eastern philosophies are mistakenly understood as a denial of the material world -- making our Thanksgiving excesses bad karma. Not true, says the Dalai Lama.

On the contrary, his message was that life in this world is our only chance for happiness. Hapiness, after all, for ourselves and for the world, is the only thing worth wanting.

This might be the true mark of holiness, and what distinguishes the Dalai Lama: To completely inhabit this life, and to see every moment as full of promise and hope.

He taught us the essentials of nonviolence: Compassion. Humility. Interdependence. Gratitude. Living in the present.

A good recipe for a rich and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday.

But, for me, the image I won't forget, that is worth a thousand words, is His Holiness the Dalai Lama kicking off his shoes and perching cross-legged on his chair -- unpretentious, laughing easily and taking life as it comes.

Ommm. Happy Thanksgiving, and would somebody please pass the turkey?