October 29, 2007
By carol clark
Tara Doyle and her Tibetan visitors huddled around a TV set in her Callaway office to watch His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama receive the Congressional Gold Medal. “I admire the Dalai Lama a lot,” President George W. Bush said at the Washington ceremony. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also made a speech, shook the Dalai Lama’s hand and then turned away without shaking the hand of Bush, his political nemesis.
“We watched as the Dalai Lama called out something to Reid and the senator turned around,” Doyle explains. “Then His Holiness gestured towards Bush. Reid came back and shook Bush’s hand.”
Few other people seemed to notice it, but it was a vivid moment for the Tibetans and for Doyle, a senior lecturer in Emory’s department of religion and director of the Tibetan Studies Program in Dharamsala, India. She has met the Dalai Lama on many occasions and says she always learns something valuable, sometimes just by observing a small gesture such as the one he made to Reid.
“It was really spectacular,” Doyle says. “Reconciliation is a big part of his message.”
A contemplative teen
Doyle became fascinated with Buddhism and meditation as a teenager growing up in Denver. She used the $50 she received for her 17th birthday from her grandmother to take her first transcendental meditation course. Her Presbyterian parents were open-minded, but worried about their daughter’s growing fascination with Eastern religions.
“At first they were just glad I was into meditation and not drugs,” she recalls. “And they noticed that since I’d been meditating I was calmer and clearer about things. But they were concerned because they just didn’t understand what was going on.”
They spoke to their minister, who happened to be the son of Japanese immigrants who were Buddhist. “He said all of the right things,” explaining to her parents that Buddhism was not a cult but a rich, ancient tradition with many benefits for practitioners,
Doyle attended East High School near City Park, a public school that was both diverse, with a student body that was about 40 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic, and progressive. Her senior year, she participated in off-campus seminars, which sent students to live on a North American Indian reservation and on Chicago’s South Side.
“It made me want more of the world,” Doyle says of these early experiences. She took three years off after graduating from high school, spending much of that time traveling, including a month in the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. “We hiked through the mountains to get there and when I arrived, I felt like I was home,” she says.
The lowest of the low
When she entered Antioch College in Ohio, which Doyle describes as “the granddaddy of experiential education,” she majored in Asian religions. A study-abroad program in 1976 took her to Nepal, where she lived with Tibetan immigrants who had settled near Katmandu. They were part of the first wave of refugees that had fled Tibet before 1963, when China’s Cultural Revolution clamped down on the borders. “I loved the Tibetans’ resilience, their kindness, their hospitality and their good nature,” Doyle says. “They weren’t bitter, although they had every right to be.”
While still a senior at Antioch, Doyle and a fellow scholar developed a Buddhism study-abroad program for the college, which they ran together in Bodhgaya. The town in northeastern India is said to be the place where Buddha attained enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree. Buddhists make pilgrimages to the site, marked by the Mahabodhi temple.
In 1983, Doyle was accepted to graduate school at Harvard, studying world religions. Her dissertation focused on a large group of India’s former Hindu untouchables, or Dalits, who had converted to Buddhism. “They had been the lowest of the low in the caste system, the people who dragged carcasses off the street and cleaned toilets,” Doyle says. The modern Dalit Buddhist movement was inspired by Bhimrao Ambedkar, a lawyer and political leader who was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. His office workers, however, refused to touch any of his papers because he was a Dalit. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956, prompting masses of other untouchables to follow suit.
A gypsy again
After receiving her doctorate, Doyle was teaching at Williams College when a call came from Paul Courtright, then chair of Emory’s department of religion, offering her a job to develop and run a study-abroad program in India for the University.
“I initially said, no. It would mean living between two continents and I knew it would make me a gypsy again,” Doyle says. “I thought I wanted to be a mainstream professor. Of course, my friends knew better,” she adds.
After meeting other members of Emory’s faculty in South Asian religions, Doyle fell in love with the department and accepted the job. Since 2000, she has headed up Emory’s Tibetan Studies Program in Dharamsala, the cultural and intellectual capital of the Tibetan exile community and home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
“It’s tough, but also incredibly rich,” she says of spending six months in Atlanta and six months in India. “I have a home in Atlanta and a whole community of friends here. And in Dharamsala, I live in a beautiful old British bungalow with fireplaces in every room and the Himalayas in my backyard. I’m exceedingly nourished and happy there. I love my work and the community.”
Students in the Tibetan Studies Program live in dorms along with Tibetans enrolled in the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. The University’s close relationship with the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala, formalized through the Emory Tibet Partnership, opens doors to the students, enabling them to integrate more fully into the community, attend teachings by the Dalai Lama and have an audience with him.
“The students are always nervous before they meet him,” Doyle says. “I tell them, ‘as soon as he walks into the room, you won’t be nervous.’ He’s fun and remarkable and he’s just so himself that it puts other people at ease.”
‘The way things are’
One of Doyle’s favorite Dalai Lama stories occurred during a private audience she was granted with him in 1992, while she was conducting research on Bodhgaya. She wanted to know the Dalai Lama’s own experiences in the town. In 1980, he told her, he was in Bodhgaya to deliver a teaching to Tibetan exiles and word came that his mother had died. “He said it was extremely special what the people there did for him. He’d been with his people, at the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, and he felt like that was a good way to mark her passing,” Doyle says.
Doyle knew that the Dalai Lama dearly loved his mother, and she also feels a close bond with her own mother. “I looked at him and asked, ‘Weren’t you sad?’”
The Dalai Lama took Doyle’s face in both his hands and looked into her eyes. “Of course, it’s sad,” he told her, adding in a firm but tender voice, “but it’s the way things are. Love your mother now and practice the dharma of truth, that everything in life — including the things you love most dearly — are impermanent.”