Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Is your mama a lama?

What do you get if you cross a papal visit with the legendary Simon and Garfunkel reunion? Maybe something like the Dalai Lama's talk in Central Park yesterday, during which the esteemed Buddhist with the steely twinkle in his eye spoke about peace and fortitude to an appreciative audience of sixty thousand or so New Yorkers.

I wonder how many of them had read the fascinating piece by Patrick French in the New York Times the day before, "Dalai Lama Lite", on the general tendency to turn the spiritual leader into "a cuddly projection of our hopes and dreams" at the expense of his complexity? French also noted, for the record, the Dalai Lama's less-than-marketable views on non-procreative sex, including homosexuality (he's against it -- all of it). A canny fellow, the Dalai Lama apparently heeded his editors and removed the subject from his latest book, Ethics for the New Millennium, no doubt selling a few more copies than he otherwise would have.

I missed the Sunday be-in, detailed hilariously by Christopher Farah over at Salon. But I caught a ripple effect the day before, when the Dalai Lama held court in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at the end of our street, for an exclusively Tibetan audience. The Saturday gig wasn't widely advertised. The first I knew about it was when we ventured out that morning and had trouble merging with the foot traffic on our usually quiet street. A constant stream of people headed towards the cathedral, the women dressed in long dresses with beautiful panels of woven silk worn apron-like at the waist, the men in white cotton shirts and elaborately tied trousers, and occasionally a clutch of monks in ruby and saffron robes.

It may have been the largest gathering of Tibetans outside of Tibet or the Tibetan capital-in-exile, Dharamsala. These were New York Tibetans: monks wielding cellphones, women wearing their babies in sturdy Scandinavian front-packs rather than hand-woven slings. On and on they came, flocking to hear their spiritual leader speak over the course of the afternoon. Later that evening, walking home from a picnic on the Columbia campus, we met the returning traffic streaming away from the Cathedral: monks and more monks, men, women, and children in their best clothes, what seemed like several thousands of people passing in steady groups of four or five for a full half-hour. I couldn't take my eyes off them, especially when we passed one old monk with glasses, who could have been (but probably wasn't) the DL himself.

It was a quiet, unexpected spectacle, an extraordinary vision even in New York. Not seeing people in unusual clothes - that's an everyday occurrence - but seeing so very many at once, such a deep and prolonged intersection of two distinct spaces. It was like two zones had somehow crossed their wires, as if a well had been tapped, as if a wormhole had opened up between here and the other side of the world. I was reminded of a seamlessly photo-shopped picture in a recent issue of Adbusters, which showed a very desirable, perfectly cozy room -- comfy couch, walls of books, polished wooden table -- and, visible just outside the window, a group of armed Afghans. It was like a surreal episode of Playschool for the post-millennium. Through the square window: the rest of the world.

So, for an afternoon, in the city that fancies itself the capital of the world, a virtual Tibet assembled itself inside the world's largest (and I'd venture shabbiest) gothic cathedral. It was an interesting choice of venue. Over on the East Side, the blockish, lego-like United Nations building is home to the official deliberations about who belongs (and doesn't belong) where. By contrast, the unfinished and weatherbeaten Cathedral up here on the cusp of the Upper West Side and Harlem welcomes all comers. It's more like a giant church hall than a giant church. Impeccably ecumenical and right-on in its affiliations, it has a poet-in-residence and an official writer – Madeleine L'Engle, most famously the author of the children's book A Wrinkle in Time.

The Cathedral is home to an eclectic collection of memorials: to the Holocaust, to victims of Aids, to 9/11, to animals. Inside, it has the requisite ancient tapestries, stained glass windows, smaller chapels, religious statuary -- and a giant crystal in a glass case. Outside, a family of peacocks -- one of them miraculously albino -- roams the grounds, which include a defunct corrugated-iron stone-cutting shed (a giant eyesore), a marvelous tiny Biblical garden (a hidden gem), and the children's sculpture garden, which features one of the most alarming pieces of public art I've ever seen.

Chronically underfunded, the Cathedral is only partly finished, and work seems to be progressing at genuinely medieval speed. Rusting scaffolding clings to the bell-tower the way ivy clings to the walls of better-funded universities. Indeed, poverty makes for strange bedfellows: Columbia University, ever seeking room to expand, is negotiating with the Cathedral to build faculty housing on two corners of the cathedral grounds. The designs promise to be very tasteful, with a faux-English Cathedral Close theme, but still it seems profane to hem the massive building in any more than it already has been, with a nursing home over the road, a hospital next door, and a school tucked in behind.

It's so hemmed in that it is difficult to get a clear sight of the edifice: walking down our street towards the front steps of the Cathedral, your view of the great front facade with the rose window is cut off at the sides by the buildings of 112th St, like curtains pulled half-closed. It's not like St Peter's in Rome, with a magnificently spacious piazza out front from which to marvel at the marmoreal symmetry of it all (and where I once overheard an Italian tour-guide pointing out the "private parts of the Pope"). On the other hand, it could be argued that the snug neighbourhood of St John the Divine bears a glancing resemblance to York Minster, which benefits atmospherically from being crammed in between the wall that encircles the city and the smaller buildings and half-timbered little shops that cluster in its embrace. The Minster is unmistakably the tallest thing in its part of town, though.

But if you walk along the eastern edge of Morningside Park -- the less-favoured side, now a zone of intense gentrification -- you can get a wonderful and surprising view of the nave of St John the Divine. From down there, the cathedral is a different beast altogether from the steep and truncated glimpse that greets your approach from Broadway. Looking up across the granite cliffs, willow trees, and ponds of Morningside Park, the lovely haunches of the Cathedral are the largest thing you see – no longer dwarfed by its surroundings, it looks like the magnificent building that a cathedral wishes to be, closer to the heavens than anything else.

Like his parents, Busytot professes no particular religion, although on a visit to an exhibition of medieval art in the Cathedral last year, he was deeply impressed by a statue of an apple-cheeked baby Jesus happily tweaking his Holy Mother's nipple. Only one year old, Busytot didn't know much about art but he knew what he liked. "Ahem!" he said appreciatively while pawing my front, in the manner of a pub regular drawing the barmaid's attention to his empty glass. Proto-Catholic, or art critic in the making? You decide.

But as we made our way against the tide of Tibetans on Saturday, I remembered how when he was a baby we used to half-joke that we feared a knock on the door from monks in search of the next Dalai Lama, such a placid, wise little baby was he. He really seemed to have been here before, not once but several thousand times, and exuded an air of serene benevolence that everyone who met him remarked upon. Of course this was before he grew into his "Weapon of Mass Destruction" T-shirt (size two, naturally) and began to experiment with mood-altering substances (sugar, naplessness, the frustrating gap between reach and grasp). Lately we've been treated to the occasional burst of extreme anti-serenity. You only have to witness this once to realize that "hopping mad" is not just a metaphor -- he genuinely leaves the ground, repeatedly and loudly, for several minutes. Not a flying yogi, just a regular furious almost-two-year-old doing a total Rumpelstiltskin.

Sadly, or fortunately, not one of the lamas we passed on Saturday caught his eye and murmured "Are you the one?" I suppose that means I can take "learn Tibetan, buy tickets to Dharamsala" off my parental to-do list. This time round, anyway.