WRITTEN BY JEROME WASHINGTON
On March 5, 1959, a Mr. Clyde Hall of Pikeville, Kentucky, apparently got curious about a far off land called Tibet. This much I have guessed. Around that same time, Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, was preparing to flee his country in the face of an invasion by communist Chinese forces.
I had never heard of Clyde Hall until recently. I was confined in a maximum-security federal penitentiary about 175 miles from Pikeville; a long way from my native Boston, in many ways. Through the prison’s inter-library loan program, I ordered a copy of the book, Seven Years in Tibet. It was written by a German POW who escaped from British custody in India during WWII. He found himself in the then little known (to the West) country of Tibet, where he ended up as a tutor to His Holiness for several years.
When the book arrived, I discovered that it was a first edition copy, printed in 1954. It was in remarkably good shape, and when flipped to the back cover, I saw why; the book hadn’t been in circulation for fifty years! Neatly tucked into the paper pocket was an old-fashioned sign-out card bearing the well-preserved Palmer-method signature of Mr. Clyde Hall, patron of the Pikeville Library. I laughed at the wonder of it – nearly half a century lay between us.
Not a big surprise, when I thought about it. I couldn’t imagine that Tibet or the Dalai Lama would be discussed very much in the small towns of rural Kentucky, then or now. What was Clyde’s life like in 1959? What had compelled him to take out that book? How did he hear about Tibet? Was it a school assignment? Had it been on the local TV or radio stations, or had he read about it in a newspaper?
As I pondered these questions, I found myself focusing on the differences between my life and Clyde’s. How could they have been any more different, right? But then I recalled the Dalai Lama’s words. As he has said so often of the Chinese, who drove him from his homeland, “We are all just beings who want the same thing, simply to be happy.” Whatever the reason was that moved a man in 1950s Kentucky to reach for the same book as I had now, ultimately, we both just wanted to further our own happiness or satisfaction in doing so. This idea brightened my day. What a magical thing, the interconnectedness that binds us all together, even across half a century.
Looking out of my cell, I watched my fellow prisoners and the guard assigned to my unit, and it occurred to me that the wonder and magic I assigned to my “meeting” with Clyde Hall was conspicuously absent from my view of the people right in front of me; the same men I interacted with every day. My mystical imaginings across the barriers of time left me a bit embarrassed. Earlier, 1 had been gritting my teeth at a young man who was yelling rowdily on the first tier. I noticed that he wasn’t just being an asshole for the sake of tormenting me – he was cheering the Giants on TV. He was 25 and doing a life sentence. I am pretty sure that His Holiness wouldn’t have been annoyed at the noise. He would have rejoiced in the young man’s momentary delight.
And then there was the unit cop whom I’d also pegged as an asshole just a little earlier that evening. For all I know, he could be Clyde Hall’s son. I knew he was local, probably born and raised in the little town just down the road from us. Maybe he had a wife and kids to feed. I don’t know. What I do know is that one of my favorite Dharma friends often reminds me to take my head out of the clouds of my formal Buddhist studies and rituals, and bring my practice down to the ground, where the Dharma is really lived. Here was a prime example.