Monday, September 11, 2006

On the Road in NYC: Tranquility Amid the Gridlock

As reported in the New York Times; September 10, 2006

By Jennifer Bleyer

In New York, even monks face the vagaries of hectic schedules and urban congestion.

Case in point, Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, who the other day could be found sitting in traffic that crept along the Cross BronxExpressway at 10 miles an hour.

A police car cruised shot by, its alarms screaming. Drivers glared. Pema Wangdak remained unrattled, smiling as if he were sitting at the edge of a mountain stream.

"When I'm in the car, somehow it has a soothing effect on me," he said. "It's comforting."

Pema Wangdak, 52, who came to the United States from Dharamsala, India, in 1982, drives to the city from his home half an hour away in Cresskill, N.J., several days a week.

His appointments are as far-flung as the city's largely decentralized Tibetan community.

Recently, he gave talks at Tibet House near Union Square in Manhattan and at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art in Richmond on Staten Island, offered spiritual counseling to Tibetan friends in Sunnyside and Jackson Heights in Queens, and visited a Tibetan nun recovering from surgery in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan.

Between appointments, he has encountered people puzzled by the sight of a small, reedy monk in burgundy robes smiling his way through city traffic, often with a cellphone earpiece in place.

"I usually tell them that we lamas don't have enough money to hire a driver," he said, "so I have to drive myself."

His serenity in the face of everyday frustrations has inspired some of his fellow commuters."I used to resist driving in the city," said Peter Arcese, an adjunct professor of literature at New York University and a student of Pema Wangdak's. "You don't feel that enlightened on a bad day dealing with traffic."

"Then I saw that the lama is constantly driving. Driving can be its own meditation."

On a recent Monday afternoon, Pema Wangdak traveled to Calvary Hospital in Pelham Bay, the Bronx, where a 32-year-old Tibetan woman had died of liver cancer that morning.

A dozen of her relatives greeted him in the waiting room. By the time Pema Wangdak had finished praying for the dead woman to be reborn in the Buddha realm, it was 2:59 p.m.

His next appointment, with a student on the Upper West Side, was at 3.

He got back into his car, resigned to being late."You always think, 'I have to do this or that,' " he said.

"But we forget that the process of getting there is equally important. Everything is a dharma teaching."