It is a mélange of culture, class, and pop ideology that plays out around me. The StarPass Westin Resort, a brand new luxury hotel has opened its doors to the Tibetan community, western Dharma seekers, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The hems of burgundy and saffron robes now dust the shiny marble surfaces. The polished brass and southwest Arizona décor is a long way from the dung brick houses of Tibet. Hospitality begins in the resort lobby, all around the murmur of monks, lay people, and curious onlookers begin to settle and change the feeling of this elite environment.
My traveling companion and I are decompressed into a large suite with a separate living room (the benefit of knowing someone that knows someone), It was more space than we could ever use. Then again, perhaps we will make many new friends and decide to throw a party. The expansive living room seemed wasted in a sold-out resort that could turn people away. I imagine orderly rows of monks on their mats spread across the trimmed manicured carpet.
In previous years my September pilgrimage was a long journey, two airplanes, an airport shuttle, two ferries, and hitchhiking across two islands to meet with my Buddhist teacher. The contrast of this year awoke me to having less time to cross that threshold and begin to refocus, calm, and awaken the to the truth and simplicity yet poignancy of each moment.
On the balcony, first night
The expanse of sky is black, warming to gray where the Tucson city lights fifteen miles below at the mouth of the valley wick upwards. The stillness of the air lends clarity. Our nights will be graced with a full moon. At this hour, still low on the horizon, the reflective lunar light silhouettes the Saguaro cactus that drape the resort’s generous patio.
Morning – Day One
The first morning is witness that a gentle transcendence has begun. To see over the stucco’d railing of the balcony, I balance on the back of a teak wood deck chair. The cool air can be traced as it fills the lungs. My breath begins to reach into the recesses and little used crevasses of memories and perception. ‘Breath Sweeps Mind’ I have always responded well to this expression.
It is early, somewhere between 6:30 and 7:00am. Three stories below the articulate landscape begins to populate,A woman in a gray body suit sweeps a saffron ribbon through the air, her feet play out in gentle taps on the sprinkler wet grass as she embraces the morning sun and pulls the fleeting cool air into her being. She pauses in the fetal position before the ‘samsaric’ cycle (birth, life, death) begins again with a smile and a leap into the next moment.
Beyond a low stucco retaining wall, a couple, in unison move through a series of Tai Chi postures, connecting with the earth, the air, themselves and a growing spiritual energy all around them.
Poolside, a woman chatters on a cell phone. We all connect in our own ways.
After breakfast we moved politely into the meeting room. Rows and rows of red chairs, a little lotus flower tag with our seat numbers to ensure we are in the right place. As if there could be any doubt.At the appointed time, more than a 1000 people paused and fell silent, perfectly focused. A distant door swung silently on well-oiled hinges. Over the shifting landscape of heads, a petite figure moves towards the center dais, stopping frequently, connecting. A man of history: a Nobel Laureate, a figure of an exiled people, the embodiment of compassion, and the reincarnation of Avolkitshevra. What choices have I made, what Karma has ripened that I can share this moment completely connected with the thought that we can make a difference – starting with ourselves finding happiness and joy in every moment.
For the next four days His Holiness would invite us to walk with him on the path of the Bodhisattava
Morning – Day Two
If breath sweep mind, the AZ sun sweeps the chill. Even now in mid September, as the sun crests the eastern conference building the temperature rises multiple degrees per minute. Within the pottery belly of the chinminea to my right, dying embers are drowned in the growing heat. The traditional aromatic and pungent fragrance of mesquite wood on this morning is laced with an offering of Sandalwood incense.
Earlier, the morning breath of this ancient land had carried it to our window. As out of place as we are in the borrowed landscape of succulents, scorpions, snakes, and Javelinas.This shiny new resort, its carefully green painted fairways and the stucco clad brick and steel – this land must be sacred to someone. Who wept on the stony ridge as the bulldozers placated the natural arroyos and challenged nature by straddling what is now a controlled wash. And who am I to sit on this plastic rattan chair, the steam drifting from the pill sized opening of my Starbuck’s Chai, A visible consumer feeding the hunger that scraped away this landscape. Trying to reconnect with myself and in doing so, all living things around me, I pay homage and go for refuge – may all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering – another wisp of sandalwood at the exact moment I wrote suffering — mindfulness.
Afternoon – Day Two
At one point this afternoon I was steeped with profound sadness. As his holiness chirped and laughed up on his dais, my mind reflected on the retail booths out in the foyer. Faces of Tibetan Pilgrims who looked out from framed glossy prints and coffee table books, their weather worn skin and dark eyes reduced in price as we near the end of our program The real Tibetans, 100,000 prostrations later – a population systematically eliminated by the Chinese, with no material wealth and a crippling life, would find no greater joy than to be in the presence of His Holiness. Who was I to be sitting on a red cushioned chair, complaining of a stiff neck. What compassionate selfless act in a previous life brought me to this moment? What an incredible privilege to see , hear, and be part of a group in a time with an active teaching Dalai Lama.
Out in the foyer, the artwork, silent pilgrims, line the walls. Do they somehow know that their lifeless eyes were now feet away from a man who could be as much myth as reality to them.
The prayer flags that we strung across the balcony last night were up less than fifteen minutes before hotel security came. I had completely expected this to happen. Even with the absorption of this group’s mood, the hotels staff would have been conditioned to different circumstances. In their eyes a string of silk flags, blue, red, green, would be no different than someone drying their laundry. There would be little room for bursts of creativity. I wonder what conversations are happening behind the scenes, as the staff try and make sense of our group. What have the few other guests had to say? Were there many complaints? Has a monk called down to complain? Room service was two minutes late. The view from their room is inadequate. My robes were not pressed properly.
In a few moments we will depart. Out on the patios and the pathways the chimineas will be re-lit, air fresherner will extract the lingering smell of sandalwood, rows of coffee cups and chairs will be set, and the National Association of Plumbing Contractors will arrive and seek enlightenment in their trade.