The Dharma Bums


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Wall Street Journal, June 9th, 2008, Front page!

Westerners Flock to Himalayan Hill Town
Seeking Answers to All Sorts of Questions
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." 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.
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 ( 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