Tricycle ( Fall 1991 ) -
Confessions of a
Buddhist Political Junkie
By Joel McCleary
IN THE LATE SEVENTIES and early eighties I would escape every
few months from my political work in Jimmy Carter?°•s White
House to play chess with my old friend and Buddhist teacher, Geshe
Wangyal, in Washington, New Jersey. From dawn till night the long
silences, laughs, and wild accusations of cheating could be heard
throughout the house. Meditative serenity sought by those looking
for the ?°„Wisdom of the East?°ņ was hard to find in
his retreat center.
LIKE MANY of my generation I had been lucky enough to sojourn
in the psychedelic renaissance of the sixties. We had returned
from our travels convinced that something fantastic lay beyond
the reality of here and now. We believed that satori, the
flash of enlightenment- Buddhist, Hindu, Judaic, Islamic, or Christian-
was an intense, orgasmic experience and we searched for the path
that would lead permanently through the doorway of this tarnished,
ordinary reality to the white light of absolute enlightenment.
In 1971, I came to Geshe Wangyal from Harvard to escape the corruptions
and compromises of the twentieth century, arriving on his doorstep
macrobiotic, otherworldly, intoxicated by my rarefied notions
of emptiness, and certain that he held a key. I was ready for
meditation, study, and Zen asceticism. I wanted to be a monk.
But he shaved my beard, not my head, stuffed me full of boiled
lamb fat and, after a few months of chess and construction work,
tossed me back into the twentieth century, insisting that the
door to enlightenment was to be found in the very stuff of ordinary
reality. His mantra was not just to say "om mani padme hum"
but to do something useful.
Over our games of chess, he coaxed me into politics. Compliant,
I followed his advice and over the last twenty years have searched
for the doorway in Carter's Washington, Noriega's Panama, Shagari's
Nigeria, Papandreou's Greece, Donald Manes' and Ed Koch's New
York City, Marcos' Philippines, Chung's Korea, Li Peng's China,
and the Cartel's Colombia.
More often than not I lost track of which were the white and black
pieces. I often found the game with the darker players, the black
pieces, to be more engaging, seductive, and even more honest than
that with the sometimes pious, precious, and self-proclaimed forces
of good. But in moments of confusion I often wondered who this
monk was and why I trusted him so completely.
Wangyal was a Russian Kalmuk, born in 1901 under the Czar's rule.
He grew up in a nomad's yurt on the steppes near the Caspian Sea,
and became a monk at an early age under the tutelage of Lama Dorjieff,
one of the most intriguing and charismatic characters of modern
At Drepung monastery outside of Lhasa, Wangyal earned his "Geshe"
title- the Tibetan equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy-
after fleeing the Russian Civil War. A great scholar, he became
a well-known character in Lhasa. He had the best horses, carried
two pistols in his robes to ward off horse thieves and robbers,
loved to gamble at dice, played chess, lived well, and maintained
a fervent love for his Buddhist studies.
Traveling extensively, he tasted the richness of life in Peking,
and loved Chinese clothes and cooking. With the English diplomat,
Sir Charles Bell, he visited Japan's Manchuria, then witnessed
the rape and looting of China. In London, sporting a bowler hat
and monk's robes, he walked through the twilight splendor of the
British empire but was never blind to its social inequities. He
witnessed the birth of modern India and foresaw Mao's killing
fields. He enjoyed the last days of freedom in Lhasa before Tibet,
too, was crushed.
IN 1955, Time magazine announced Geshe Wangyal's arrival in New
York from India. In the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA assisted the
Tibetan resistance against the Chinese, supplying limited training
and military support to small, courageous bands of border fighters.
Politics, religion, philosophy, and daily life were all integrated
into a coherent, nondual practice. For Geshe-la, ("la" is a Tibetan
term of endearment), there was no contradiction between teaching
Tibetan language and philosophy one day, and on the next, going
to Washington to work for the CIA's half-hearted campaign which
was not so much for the Tibetans as against the Chinese.
Only later did the Tibetans learn that they were an expendable
pawn in Henry Kissinger's flawed realpolitik.
Determined to bring the Buddha's teachings to America, he set
out to teach a few hand-picked students, some of whom, such as
Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins, were later to become prominent
American scholars of Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism. And later, his
work was recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who spoke
of him as one of the great founders of dharma in the West.
By the time I met him, Geshe Wangyal was an old, androgynous monk,
at times loving and wise, and at others, wrathful and cunning.
His goatee had a few long, white strands, his skin was yellow
and wizened and his eyes were piercing and delighted, but sometimes
fierce and intimidating.
Hiding himself in ordinariness, he lived ecstatically in suburban,
bourgeois New Jersey, sewed and washed his own clothes, grew his
own vegetables, and tended his flower garden with the same love
he gave his students. He loved shopping centers, enjoyed haggling
at the local farmers' market, watched the "The Lawrence Welk Show,"
worshipped the American flag and the anti-communism it represented,
and proudly constructed a house with the most atrocious mix of
synthetic building materials. He put aluminum siding on his ceilings
and thought it surpassed the architectural perfection of Kyoto's
Chess was his addiction, played with a strange variation of Mongolian
conventions inherited from his nomadic ancestors, who would sometimes
stake all their tribal possessions on the outcome of a game. Occasionally
he would look up from the board to enjoy a quick slurp of his
heavily salted and buttered tea or to steal a sadistic glimpse
of his panic-stricken foe. He trusted no one -- especially in
a game of chess -- saints, incarnated Tibetan lamas, respected
university scholars, or supposedly loyal disciples.
Late at night, when the saner members of his household had gone
to bed or retreated to their religious studies, Geshe Wangyal
would talk to me about world history, the universal decline of
Buddhism, the dilemmas of religion and politics, and the trials
of his own life. But his discourses would never interfere with
his aggressive pawn attacks on my wobbling defense.
He believed the history of this century had immense religious
significance. Each detail of life in New Jersey, each word of
Walter Cronkite's evening news, he saw as a vital part of our
collective struggle to become conscious, to fight the forces of
ignorance, hatred, and desire within us, to end suffering, and
to achieve enlightenment for all sentient beings. His life had
taught him that the realities of politics must be an integral
part of the modern Buddhist path, for in this age of the Kaliyuga,
the cosmic age of destruction, there is no such thing as "dropping
out." Mao's and Deng's brutal destruction of Tibet taught him
that there is no place to retreat. The yogis and mahasiddhas
of our day will have to practice their enlightenment in the suburbs
of New Jersey or the rubble of Beirut. His lesson was that a separation
between politics and religion was a fatal error.
To Geshe-la's mind, the sangha-the worldwide family of
Buddhism- had grown too intoxicated with the delights of abstract
philosophy and meditation. The heirs of Buddhist dharma in the
East had become effete and self-absorbed. They had forgotten their
obligation to use their wisdom for others, to protect people,
especially their neighbors and families, from the horrors of the
modern totalitarian state.
This failure of modern Buddhist practitioners has led to a worldwide
Buddhist holocaust. In 1945, Buddhism was the largest religion
in the world. Today it struggles to survive in North Korea, China,
Tibet, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Russia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam,
and now Burma.
Geshe-la insisted that American Buddhism avoid this error of self-absorption
and pious detachment from the world. He was determined that American
Buddhism be grounded in present-day reality, convinced that Buddhists
must be politically involved.
Unlike chess however, politics is not a world of black and white,
but varying tones of grey. Yet one's ignorance, desire, and anger
find it easy to grow in a grey culture. Almost anything can be
rationalized. This is why the game is so dangerous.
For example, in my political consulting work in Panama during
the eighties, I was asked by the most practical forces of reform
to work with General Noriega in order to entice his military troops
peacefully back into the barracks. If we had been successful,
it would have been the most constructive and peaceful solution
for all- "the Brazilian military solution." The alternative has
been a nightmare.
Later I found it easier and morally safer, but less effective,
to work overtly with the righteous opposition. I helped bring
Noriega down, but on the day of the U.S. military invasion in
1989, I knew I had failed. As the U.S. paratroopers dropped into
Panama and fought men who had once been my friends, I began a
new life while dancing in Atlantic City to Mick Jagger singing
"Midnight Rambler." Perhaps Geshe Wangyal would have stayed longer
in the heart of darkness and lived next to Noriega -worked from
within- not caring what others might have thought.
Wandering through the Alice in Wonderland of international
politics where so many governments and well-meaning people are
checkmated by their own conflicting motivations and desires, I
have now learned the most basic lesson of Buddhism and see how
incredibly difficult it is to practice: good motivation.
Geshe Wangyal taught this yoga to me with chess, when he
would stalk, tempt and taunt me until I was cornered and humiliated.
When trapped time and again, that ambitious, fiercely competitive,
self-cherishing part of me would manifest and explode. At those
moments Geshe-la appeared to me to be more like Kang Sheng, Mao's
murderous secret police director, than like Manjusri, the
Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
With a contented chuckle at having conjured up my ugliest emotions,
he would note that the fuming devil across the board from him
was in fact the very object of play in Buddhist philosophy-it
was the "object of negation" I had so antiskeptical studying.
He would then ask, with mockingly compassionate tone, if my current
incarnation felt impermanent, interdependent, empty, and blissful.
And of course it did not. It wanted to kill, smash, and humiliate
this Kalmuk trickster.
Now, without my old friend's laughs and taunts, the game can often
seem hopeless, and retreat so enticing. But I also the core teaching
of this old shaman: effort, which is the fourth of the six paramitas
or perfections. He taught this paramita with his the game.
Never give up. Be determined to play game after game- infinitely.
As soon as one meets defeat, no matter how total, rise up and
challenge the" yet another game, for enlightenment is the playing.
He taught this lesson to his death.
Ten days before Geshe Wangyal died of liver cancer in 1986, I
awoke mysteriously in Palm Beach, Florida, after a delirious night
of drinking with my cohorts in New York's 21 Club. On waking I
vaguely remembered that my old friend was staying the winter as
a small house nearby.
To my surprise I found him ill and near death. I had lost touch
with him over the last year or two. His eyes were yellow. He could
hardly move. Preparing for his death with total concentration,
he was chanting the same morning prayers he had recited for over
three-quarters of a century.
Geshe-la and I sat alone in silence. He grabbed my hand and I
wept. I tried to cheer him up and awkwardly suggested a game of
chess, thinking that I would throw this last contest to bolster
the spirits of a sick, feeble friend. He immediately livened up.
After being helped to the edge of the battlefield, Geshe Wangyal
took up his position and began the pushing his king's pawn to
K4. We played deliberately at first, but the pace soon quickened,
and he pushed his pawns without mercy.
He surprised me. I fought back, quickly dropping any compassionate
interest in cheering him up. We were in the fight of our lives,
our final game. And I in trouble.
He crushed me, totally humiliated me. My wounded ego erupted.
I was angry, disgusted at having been tricked again by this fool.
He rose up in his chair and with clenched fists roared his lion's
roar: "Do you see? Do you see now who I am?"
For the first time, I kissed his feet. Jumping up, I said my farewells
and rushed out the door. Weeping, I drove back over the bridge
to the other shore, to the glitter of Palm Beach -- and to the
Joel McCleary was treasurer of the Democratic National
Committee, Deputy Assistant for Political Affairs to President
Jimmy Carter, and head of the international division of the Sawyer-Miller
Group, which ran political campaigns in Europe, Asia, Africa,
and South America.