We started up the mountain. The chairlift was old and there were no safety bars that could be lowered for protection, but this didn’t seem to bother the Dalai Lama, who spoke animatedly about everything he saw on the slopes. As he pointed and leaned forward into space, Thondup, who was gripping the arm of the chair with whitened knuckles, kept admonishing him in Tibetan. Later he told me that he was begging His Holiness to please sit back, hold the seat, and not lean out so much.
“How fast they go!” the Dalai Lama said. “And children skiing! Look at little boy!”
We were looking down on the bunny slope and the skiers weren’t moving fast at all. Just then, an expert skier entered from a higher slope, whipping along. The Dalai Lama saw him and said, “Look—too fast! He going to hit post!” He cupped his hands, shouting down to the oblivious skier, “Look out for post!” He waved frantically. “Look out for post!”
The skier, who had no idea that the 14th incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion was crying out to save his life, made a crisp little check as he approached the pylon, altering his line of descent, and continued expertly down the hill.
With an expostulation of wonder, the Dalai Lama sat back and clasped his hands together. “You see? Ah! Ah! This skiing is wonderful sport!”
We approached the top of the mountain. Abruzzo had organized the operation so that each quad chair stopped to unload its occupants. The monks and the Dalai Lama managed to get off the chairlift and make their way across the mushy snow in a group, shuffling cautiously.
“Look at view!” the Dalai Lama cried, heading toward the back boundary fence of the ski area, behind the lift, where the mountains dropped off. He halted at the fence and stared southward. The Santa Fe ski basin, situated on the southernmost peak in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, is one of the highest ski areas in North America. The snow and fir trees and blue ridges fell away to a vast, vermilion desert 5,000 feet below, which stretched to a distant horizon.
As we stood, the Dalai Lama spoke enthusiastically about the view, the mountains, the snow and the desert. After a while he lapsed into silence and then, in a voice tinged with sadness, he said, “This look like Tibet.”
The monks admired the view a while longer, and then the Dalai Lama pointed to the opposite side of the area, which commanded a view of 12,000-foot peaks. “Come, another view over here!” And they set off, in a compact group, moving swiftly across the snow.
“Wait!” someone shouted. “Don’t walk in front of the lift!”
But it was too late. I could see the operator, caught off guard, scrambling to stop the lift, but he didn’t get to the button in time. Just then four teenage girls came off the quad chair and were skiing down the ramp straight at the group. A chorus of shrieks went up, of the piercing kind that only teenage girls can produce, and they plowed into the Dalai Lama and his monks, knocking them down like so many red and yellow bowling pins. Girls and monks all collapsed into a tangle of arms, legs, skis, poles, and wingtip shoes.
We rushed over, terrified that the Dalai Lama was injured. Our worst fears seemed realized when we saw him sprawled on the snow, his face distorted, his mouth open, producing an alarming sound. Was his back broken? Should we try to move him? And then we realized that he was not injured after all, but was helpless with laughter.
“At ski area, you keep eye open always!” he said.
We untangled the monks and the girls and steered the Dalai Lama away from the ramp, to gaze safely over the snowy mountains of New Mexico.
He turned to me. “You know, in Tibet we have big mountains.” He paused. “I think, if Tibet be free, we have good skiing!”
We rode the lift down and repaired to the lodge for cookies and hot chocolate. The Dalai Lama was exhilarated from his visit to the top of the mountain. He questioned Abruzzo minutely about the sport of skiing and was astonished to hear that even one-legged people could do it.
The Dalai Lama turned to Thondup. “Your children, they ski too?”
Thondup assured him that they did.
“Even Tibetan children ski!” he said, clapping his hands together and laughing delightedly. “Yes, this wonderful sport!”
As we finished, a young waitress with tangled, dirty-blond hair and a beaded headband began clearing our table. She stopped to listen to the conversation and finally sat down, abandoning her work. After a while, when there was a pause, she spoke to the Dalai Lama. “You didn’t like your cookie?”
“Not hungry, thank you.”
“Can I, um, ask a question?”
She spoke with complete seriousness. “What is the meaning of life?”
In my entire week with the Dalai Lama, every conceivable question had been asked—except this one. People had been afraid to ask the one—the really big—question. There was a brief, stunned silence at the table.
The Dalai Lama answered immediately. “The meaning of life is happiness.” He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. “Hard question is not, ‘What is meaning of life?’ That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …” He paused. “Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?” He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.
“Thank you,” she said, “thank you.” She got up and finished stacking the dirty dishes and cups, and took them away.