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Dating Problems? Career Woes? Maybe the Dalai Lama Can Help

June 12, 2008

Westerners Flock to Himalayan Hill Town Seeking Answers to All Sorts
of Questions
By PETER WONACOTT
The Wall Street Journal
June 9, 2008; Page A1

DHARMSALA, India -- Philip Hemley confronted a deep personal
conflict. Should he continue his studies in Sanskrit and Tibetan
languages or pursue his dreams of rock 'n' roll?

So Mr. Hemley headed to this Himalayan hill town in 1989 to seek the
one person he believed could resolve his inner dilemma: the Dalai
Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

Mr. Hemley met the Dalai Lama, who he says praised his "talent," and
the rest is pop history. He decided to pursue his rock career under
the name Phil Void.

Mr. Void, as he prefers to be known, is among a throng of Westerners
who have come to this corner of northern India seeking guidance from
"His Holiness." Some are Buddhist pilgrims. Many others are drawn by
the prospect that the Dalai Lama and his fellow monks are just as
inclined to dispense advice on careers and faltering relationships as
they are to tackle monumental spiritual questions.

That accessibility, combined with growing Western sympathy for the
Tibetan struggle and Dharmsala's cheap digs, has sparked an uptick in
visitors to this town of 20,000. The number of foreigners registered
at the local visa office -- not always an accurate gauge for actual
residents -- rose to 342 in 2007, up 30% from 2004. The number of
Americans climbed to 54 from 30.

Dharmsala has become a magnet for the spiritual tourist. Temples and
bookshops offer teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Lamp-post signs
advertise natural healing, foot reflexology and a weekly "Course in Miracles."

On narrow, steep streets, Tibetan monks mix with scraggly
backpackers, Indian honeymooners and rapt tourists. "If I could get a
good falafel here, this place would be amazing," an American college
student recently told her friend while dining at one of Dharmsala's
outdoor cafes.

And now that Dharmsala can be reached by two nearby airports and
decent roads, it's attracting time-pressed tourists as well. That
flow doesn't appear to have been hurt by the recent unrest across the
border in Tibet, in which Tibetan monks have led ongoing protests
against Chinese rule.

"We get these Americans who come in and say, 'Dalai Lama, I want my
enlightenment. I've got 10 days,'" complains Madam Boom Boom LaBern
(aka Bernadette Ludwig). A former dancer from Australia, she now runs
Cafe Boom Boom the Fifth, an artsy eatery overlooking the snow-capped
Himalayas. In 1959, when the Tibetans clashed violently with the
Chinese government, the Indian government agreed to accept the Dalai
Lama and other fleeing Tibetans. Many Tibetans settled here because
the higher elevation and Himalayas reminded them of home, and the
upper half of Dharmsala became the headquarters for Tibet's
government-in-exile.

When he's in town, the Dalai Lama is a visible and accessible
presence.  Known abroad as much for his disarming giggle as his
command of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama holds public prayer sessions at
the main temple and receives a wide range of visitors. He rejects the
notion that he should be worshipped. "Some call me a God King --
nonsense," he said in a May interview. Instead, he has sought
"opportunities to be interactive." "You may have noticed that he'll
see anyone, unless you are a complete lunatic," adds Tendzin
Choegyal, the Dalai Lama's brother.

Ruth Sonam meets many of Dharmsala's newly arrived, serving as an
unpaid translator for Sonam Rinchen, a 75-year-old monk who teaches
Buddhism to Westerners as part of the Dalai Lama's outreach efforts.
A 65-year-old Oxford University graduate, Ms. Sonam settled in
Dharmsala in the late 1970s, after her two marriages fell apart. She
says some students engage in jarringly intimate conversations with the monk.

"He's celibate after all," notes Ms. Sonam. "But his advice is so
compassionate and practical. I feel very privileged to be a bridge."
Mr. Void has been a bridge of sorts, too. In the late 1980s, he was
studying for his doctorate in Buddhist studies with an emphasis on
Sanskrit and Tibetan languages at New York's Columbia University, but
was equally passionate about his rock 'n' roll band. He performed
with other Western Buddhists at benefits to promote Tibetan causes
and at the Dalai Lama's seminars.

In 1989, Mr. Void says he traveled to Dharmsala and presented the
Dalai Lama with the lyrics of a rock anthem on Tibetan independence
from China. "This music thing is happening," Mr. Void remembers
telling the Dalai Lama in a private meeting. "Seems like a good thing."

"Well," Mr. Void recalls Tibet's spiritual leader as saying, "you
have a talent for these songs."

* Rangzen:
   "And who will set the people free,
   Return Tibet to harmony."

* Ocean of Wisdom:
   "All the things that they put inside your mind
   Made you blind, blind, blind."

For Mr. Void, the Dalai Lama's nudge was "like a note to get out of
school." Shorn of academic ambitions, Mr. Void embarked on a
perpetual tour with a rotating roster of bandmates called the Dharma
Bums, named after the Jack Kerouac novel. "It would have been great
if he had finished his dissertation on Tibetan oracles and their
institutions in Tibet," says Columbia professor Robert Thurman, a
Tibet specialist, Mr. Void's teacher and father of actress Uma
Thurman. "But it's never too late."

Tenzin Geyche Tethong, the personal secretary for the Dalai Lama at
the time, doesn't recall Mr. Void's meeting, although he says his
former boss appreciates the power of music to promote the Tibetan
cause. Still, he adds that the practical-minded Dalai Lama values
education and tends to encourage Tibetans and foreigners to continue
their studies.

With his ponytail, white-streaked beard and ample stomach,
58-year-old Mr. Void stands out even in this eclectic community.
Sometimes the Dalai Lama walks over with his security detail to tug
on Mr. Void's beard. In return, Mr. Void has written paeans to the
Dalai Lama, also known as Tenzin Gyatso, for guiding him.

Verse from Tenzin Gyatso, Ocean of Wisdom

   "Can it be that I can see things in your vision?
   If you want to follow, then you must leave behind
   All the things that they put inside your mind
   Made you blind -- blind -- blind."

The Dharma Bums Web site (www.dharmabums.org) has a "Message from HH
(His Holiness)" thanking the group, which focuses on Tibetan issues,
for drawing attention to Tibet's plight. While paid gigs have been
few and far between of late -- Mr. Void also sells Tibetan
memorabilia to boost income -- the group does play before big
audiences. In 2005, the Dharma Bums performed at New York's Madison
Square Garden after a Dalai Lama teaching. "He opened for us," boasts Mr. Void.

At a Dharmsala kindergarten last month, the Bums headlined an event
to raise money for making Tibetan flags, which are banned in China.
Acts included a grim-faced rock band from Estonia and a young man who
read expletive-punctuated poetry, accompanied by a flute. By the time
the Dharma Bums reached the stage, the crowd had thinned. A drooping
microphone had to be duct-taped upright. "Oh Shangri-La, where does
your sun shine now?," Mr. Void sang to a folksy, guitar-driven tune.

As the Tibetan cause has gained world-wide attention -- attention
heightened by the recent spate of Olympic torch protests -- the
72-year-old Dalai Lama's schedule has grown even more congested with
overseas trips, press conferences and interviews. Mr. Void is
concerned that he hasn't been able to see the Dalai Lama for more than a year.

The Dalai Lama's younger brother, Mr. Choegyal, acknowledges that
scheduling is getting tighter. But he adds that the Buddhist leader
needs to spare some time for visitors like Mr. Void.

"They have a voice that should be heard," he says. Write to Peter
Wonacott at peter.wonacott@wsj.com
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