Talk

The pastor and the Dalai Lama

Omair T Ahmad | Updated on October 03, 2014

The Dalai Lama and his mother, together at Mussoorie on May 19, 1959, as they have a stroll in the lawns of the Birla House.   -  The Hindu Archives

The Dalai Lama at Birla House in Mussoorie in 1959.   -  The Hindu Archives

Omair   -  BUSINESS LINE

And then one Sunday Reverend Seefeldt found that the front rows of his church in Mussoorie were dominated by Buddhist monks in their ochre robes

Reverend Arnold Ralph Seefeldt passed away two years ago in his hometown of Glenn Falls in New York. He had served as a missionary in India from 1951 to 1979, and India did not leave him even if he did return to the country of his birth. He was 90 years old when he passed away, but reportedly he used Hindi till the last days of his life. I learned about him completely by chance, while speaking to his granddaughter, Amy Seefeldt, a year ago. We used to be classmates, and were chatting about our old school days and where our lives had taken us since then, when she mentioned her grandfather.

The conversation had turned to the Dalai Lama, or more correctly, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Amy was now the Academic Dean of the school in Mussoorie that we had both attended, and she was telling us about the visit of the Dalai Lama. He had an affinity to Mussoorie. It was the town he had rested at after fleeing China in 1959, after the March 30 uprising against Chinese rule that the Tibetans in exile still celebrate as the start of their resistance. He had arrived in Mussoorie in April, a 24-year-old Monk King with no kingdom, and with little hope of justice for his people. That June, he spoke from Birla House about his hopes for reforms and peaceful coexistence stymied by Chinese officials. He spoke of the use of violence, the destruction of a culture and a people in words that are deeply sad and true even today.

I wondered what Mussoorie must have looked and felt like then. It was an isolated hill town built for the British soldiers to rest, where surreptitious assignations took place between holidaying soldiers and the wives of British civil servants. A town whose great claim to fame was that Dost Mohammed Khan, the deposed Amir of Afghanistan, was kept as a prisoner of war there in the 19th century. After independence, the new rulers of India, its politicians and business barons had moved in, but there had never been, or was likely to be, someone like the Dalai Lama, both revered and famous, holy, powerful and powerless. The small, sleepy town must have been buzzing with excitement and gossip as foreign journalists arrived in droves with the small grey contingent of spies in their wake, or even amongst them, perhaps.

In all this great clamour, Reverend Seefeldt continued to carry out his duties as the pastor of the church where he served. And then one Sunday he found that the front rows of his church were dominated by Buddhist monks in their distinct ochre robes. He addressed the gathering as he often did, and the next week the ritual was re-enacted. Then one of the senior monks came to Reverend Seefeldt to ask him if the good pastor could come to Birla House and discuss the precepts of Christianity with the Dalai Lama.

Amy laughed as she told me the story: “He didn’t know what to wear, what the occasion was. So he put on his jacket and his collar, but after much thought he decided to go barefoot, as a sign of respect.” I laughed with her, but could not but wonder about that encounter. The Dalai Lama is now one of the most recognised religious leaders in the world, deeply involved in inter-faith efforts and a household name easily recognised and referenced in formal articles and cheap Hollywood films, but at that time, he was very young man suddenly exiled from one of the most isolated places in the world, even if the Chinese Army had introduced some semblance of modernity to the Roof of the World. And Reverend Seefeldt? A man from a small town in New York State had become, through a quirk of circumstances, probably the first non-Buddhist religious scholar who the Dalai Lama had theological discussions with.

It seems impossible to imagine those times, or how conversations that happened long before Amy or I were born, could have affected the world in ways that we were still experiencing. The last time I was in the company of the Dalai Lama, taking notes on the sidelines of a meeting, he had unexpectedly turned to me and grabbed my arm, to say something along the lines of how he felt Muslims should be taking part more actively in peace-building. I was too stunned to do much more than agree with him. But in that moment, there was something of the person who — in what must have been the most difficult days of his life — decided to reach out to talk to someone. Reverend Seefeldt had answered that call.

( Omair Ahmad is an author. His last book was on Bhutan; >@OmairTAhmad)

Published on October 03, 2014

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