Bill Arnott’s Beat: On Buddhism

Buddhism espouses four noble truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Within these truths, somewhat ironically, is the tenet to not cling to rules. However. Say what you will about Siddhartha, the prince who up and left his royal digs to wander, meditate and more or less enlighten. His followers, no doubt in keeping with his teachings, tend to be forgiving of the man who walked out on his spouse and child. I assume his family stayed in the palace, although I’ve yet to find any reference to those whom the bodhisattva left behind. Perhaps a stark reminder of the first noble truth. It’s believed he left a note. On the fridge, I presume.

I had a relative who attended a weekend workshop on Buddhism. Prior to the retreat, we (the rest of the family) said, “Cool. What do you hope to get out of it?” To which the person in question replied, quite simply, “Enlightenment.” Well, that would be a good use of an afternoon at the Exit 16 Travelodge, was what we thought, but didn’t say. Instead our responses were a range of noncommittal single syllable sounds. Variations, ironically, of ah and ohm. I remember a lack of eye contact amongst those of us making the sounds, doing our best to be supportive.

“I was on my way (pre-covid) to a private audience with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Buddhist formerly known as Lhamo Thondup.”

Following the retreat, we asked, with kindness not evident in my preceding commentary, how it went. The response was, “I learned it’s all about karma.” This sounded positive. “Yep,” the person continued. “I made a list. Everyone who’s ever wronged me. I’m gonna make sure they get what’s coming to them!” To which the rest of us, once more, focused on not making eye contact, again making our inadvertent transcendental meditation sounds. Ahh. Hmm. Being a family unit we’d reserve judgement until it could be unleashed when the judgee was absent. We were, after all, considerate. (Never say a bad word about anyone, when they’re in the room.)

Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m chuckling as I remember that—one person’s skewed and vengeful interpretation of Buddha’s teachings. Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to keep an open mind as I shuffle into a convention centre for my own enlightenment-themed afternoon. I was on my way (pre-covid) to a private audience with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Buddhist formerly known as Lhamo Thondup. I was considering what to say. Would it be presumptuous to leap in on a first-name basis? Lhamo! I’m Bill! Would he answer to H-H? Or should I go with a more formal but equally warm, Mr. Thondup, I’m Mr. Arnott. But please, call me Bill. Everybody does!

The #1 Bestseller, Bill Arnott’s Beat: Road Stories & Writers’ Tips

As I entered the cavernous meeting room I realized I had a private audience along with five-thousand other private audience attendees. This was what fifty dollars got me (plus non-refundable fee). When I signed up for the event I’d thought, When again will I ever get a chance to see this guy in the flesh, albeit wrapped in maroon? Apart from the robe it was much the same thing I thought when I went to see the Rolling Stones, thirty years and twelve comeback tours ago. The fifth noble truth? Never underestimate the allure of ticket sales.

It turned out my fifty dollars (plus non-refundable fee) got me a hardbacked chair in an endless row at the back of the room. I was in a clump of good-looking, athletic people in spandex—employees of the local yoga clothing manufacturing giant, who’d made the Dalai’s visit into a staff event. The billionaire owner shuffled down our row, straddling me for a few awkward moments as he plucked the most photogenic bodies from the line to join him up front. Yuck, I thought, or something similar. In my defence, my enlightenment hadn’t yet kicked in. That was scheduled for two-thirty.

I did, in fact, want to hear what the Lama had to say. It was a privilege to be in the same space. (Yes, yes, it’s all the same space, I realize, but just set your quantum mindset on pause for a moment.) H-H didn’t disappoint. It was a decent event despite the sprawling, impersonal venue. He shared insights, anecdotes, reminders of kindness, cautions to bullies and a host of platitudes. In addition to the words of the holy man on stage, I figured the jokes alone would make the afternoon worthwhile. I wasn’t disappointed. Later that day I was at a friend’s. “What’d you do today?” he asked. Hung out with the Dalai Lama, I said. “Big hitter, the Lama,” he replied, quoting Caddyshack and not missing a beat.

I did indeed get good takeaways from my less-than-private audience with the Tibetan Buddhist. Reminders of the stuff we ought to inherently practice but all too easily let slide. Of course, through it all the greatest lesson to me was one of forgiveness, letting unseen burdens go, wiping clean the perceived slates of wrongdoing and ill-will. And yes, almost assuredly, letting people think what they choose to think, even when they’re wrong. Who was I to judge, after all? Sure the job was there but I’d never been asked to fill the role. I simply volunteered. Maybe that’s another noble truth that circles back to the first—the one about suffering, starting us out once more on the path, a road that leads us if not directly to, then at least in the direction of, something akin to enlightenment.

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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, theGone Viking travelogues, andA Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot(Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.