As the man in crimson and saffron robes settled into his chair on the dais, the noisy chatter in the packed hall subsided to a murmur. The man smiled, pressed his palms together, and nodded. His expression was, for lack of a better word, beatific. He beamed, and his face was serene, unwrinkled. It was impossible to tell his age. He wore no jewelry or insignia, no signs of wealth, but there was no doubt that I was in the presence of a profoundly powerful man.
A sleek, sophisticated recovery center in Costa Mesa, California wasn’t the place I expected to meet Kuten-la, the Nechung Oracle of Tibet. Friday night, the spiritual leader — who is considered the Dalai Lama’s closest advisor — shared insights and wisdom in an hour-long lecture at Windward Way. I sat in the back row, peeking over the shoulders of the audience. The center’s stairs, even, were full of people, and rows of chairs crowded the upper level of the hall. In the center, the Oracle sat next to his interpreter, as calm as a sun at the center of a galaxy of swirling stars.
“We are not only all human, but all sentient,” he said, speaking through his interpreter. “May we all find happiness, and cause others happiness. May we all become free from suffering.”
The lecture discussed the four Buddhist virtues: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Looking around the room at the other people listening to Kuten-la’s words, I was touched to see how many were from the rehab. Recovery, it seemed to me, was a reprieve from suffering — an individual journey, crossing through dangerous territory on the roughest roads imaginable. The man next to me, a Tibetan prayer bracelet on his wrist, compulsively squeezed his hands into fists. His eyes were closed, as though drinking in every syllable.
In Tibet, the word “oracle” doesn’t mean a fortune-teller or even someone who can see the future. In that culture, the oracle is a medium between the human and spirit realms. By interpreting spiritual concepts and influences to the human world, the oracle transmits divine energy and is an important protector of the Buddha Dharma. Kuten-la’s deep familiarity with Buddhist scripture made his subject comprehensible for anyone with a spiritual practice. Kuten-la related spiritual concepts with easy-to-understand metaphors that explained the invisible, yet essential connections between all beings on earth.
“Our worst enemy soon turns into our best friend. This is a possibility created by circumstance. Friends from thirty years ago are enemies; due to changed circumstances, enemies from thirty years ago are friends. You see this among the nations,” he said. “Nothing is enduring.”
Instead of existential despair, though, I felt hope move like a sparrow inside me. If everything changes, I thought to myself, then I do not have to be perfect in this moment. I do not have to calm the storm; I merely need to see what is outside of it. I felt my shoulders relaxing, and a much-needed sense of peace settled over me as the Oracle described our world as a breakfast table, set with food grown, harvested, prepared, and transported great distances by many, many people, for the sole purpose of nourishing me. Sugar, tea, toast. My morning coffee took on new meaning as he spoke.
“When we think this way, it makes more sense how we are in gratitude to other beings — layers and layers of human beings have sacrificed their lives for these items.” I was suddenly able to sense the strangers around me. The woman to my right touched her long, black hair, and in my mind’s eye I saw her as a child, waiting patiently at school for the teacher to begin lessons. Overhead, a sculpture made of brown wood fragments swirled in a pattern like migrating birds. Someone coughed, and someone’s child slapped their shoes on the floor. The whole room was breathing, listening, intent on the man on the stage.
“Other human beings are a source of enormous kindness.” A long life, he reminded us, was long because it was purposeful and full of meaning. Longevity is not for our selfish enjoyment, but a gift. His own lovely smile was the perfect example. “A long life creates the opportunity to do more good for others,” he said. The smallest actions — the cup of coffee, the smile, the moment of quiet — show the universe our acceptance. We need so little and take so much. Why not reverse that, and experience the sense of freedom that comes from truly giving and receiving love?
I left the lecture with a grin on my face and a happy heart. At the end, I’d asked Kuten-la a question: What is one thing you do every day to help protect the universe?
He laughed! I expected a solemn lecture on meditation or social justice, but he met my eyes and smiled. “To help others is our purpose,” he answered. Our energy, for others.
I was grateful to be reminded that it really is that simple.