By Michelle Boorstein and Debbi Wilgoren
The Dalai Lama visited the N Street Village, a DC homeless shelter. Here the Dalai Lama touches shelter resident Gloria Spriggs on the chin. In background between them is Buddist monk Tenzin Lhamo who has been teaching the women meditation. Photo Credit: Susan Biddle (The Washington Post)
October 19 - Twelve women, homeless and struggling with sobriety, clung tearfully to each other in the presence of the world-famous monk. The Dalai Lama spoke warmly to each of them as he beamed and bowed his way around the room. He poked briefly at the metal stud adorning one woman's chin, an accessory which, he admitted later, left him feeling "a little cautious."
"We are same human beings, we all have the same good potential. It's very important to realize that," the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet told the circle of residents, who are part of a weekly meditation program at the N Street Shelter near Logan Circle in Northwest Washington.
Speaking to a larger crowd at the shelter moments later, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet extolled the benefits of compassion. Like the women of N Street, he noted, "I myself am also homeless."
The shelter visit this morning marked the last day of the Dalai Lama's five-day sojourn to Washington, which otherwise focused mostly on politics, diplomacy and ceremony. The orange-and-maroon robed monk, a 1989 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, met privately with President Bush on Tuesday, and on Wednesday was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, in recognition of his decades-long struggle for autonomy and religious freedom for the people of Tibet.
From the women's shelter, he was driven to the State Department for a meetings with deputy secretary of state John Negroponte, his last official business before leaving the U.S. later today.
Wherever he went, there were crowds and adulation, from the Capitol Rotunda to the West Lawn of the Capitol to the gala hosted last night by the International Campaign for Tibet and its board chairman, actor and longtime Buddhist Richard Gere.
But at the shelter, where the Dalai Lama conducted a brief small "teaching" with the meditation group and then a larger session that included residents, former residents and shelter donors, his talk of empathy -- especially for the poor -- took on a special relevance. "The practice of compassion is of immense benefit," the Dalai Lama said to about 300 onlookers. Gesturing to a few rows filled with shelter residents, he said the women were his "gurus."
Several of the women said they had benefited enormously from the shelter's meditation program, which they said stabilized them and helped make it possible for them to stay away from drugs and alcohol and regain mental health.
"My insides were jumbled. I was living a life of chaos," said Elaine Webber, 49, who spent years on the streets before coming to the shelter. She has found strength through meditation, she said, and will graduate from the meditation program next week.
Speaking in an informal, teacherly style, the 72-year-old monk made jokes in his choppy English, talking and taking questions on subjects ranging from vegetarianism to democracy to how to help the rural poor in India and China. He urged his listeners to find meaning in every physical touch, and to contemplate the sentience of all living beings -- admitting a moment later, to laughter -- that he has found himself pondering what mosquitoes must be thinking even as he watches one of them biting him and sucking out blood.
The session also included volunteers and employees from the Washington Humane Society, the District's only open-access animal shelter, and two of the dogs currently housed there. The humane society has a partnership with N Street Village, through which homeless women help train and care for discarded animals and prepare them for adoption.
During the teaching session, he was introduced to Daisy, a schnoodle (Schnauzer-poodle), who had to have a leg amputated and whose owners gave her up to the shelter. Janna Cowell, a humane society volunteer who received services from N Street Village in the past to help fight addiction, brought Daisy up on stage.
"I've always loved animals, but I didn't like people. Didn't trust them," Cowell told the Dalai Lama. "Through animals, I learned compassion for other people. I am also learning compassion for myself too."
The Dalai Lama hugged her, and clasped his hands and bowed to Daisy.
As he left, the room fell silent, save for the clear voice of Audrey McMorrow, 46, a former shelter resident seated in the midst of the crowd. Slowly, majestically, she chanted a Sanskrit mantra said she'd heard the Tibetan leader recite years ago, the mantra that inspired her to pursue chanting as a way to stay sober.
McMorrow left the shelter last year, and now works as a massage therapist.
Spriggs, the 48-year-old shelter resident whose chin-piercing attracted special attention from the Dalai Lama, found herself teary through both the smaller and larger teaching sessions. She said later that she had just celebrated one year free of drugs, and was surprised by how much the meditation program helped.
"Originally, I didn't even want to try the meditation. But then I said, 'let's not defeat myself, let's give it a try," Spriggs said. "It showed me a light inside myself I never knew I had."