Bainbridge Doc Sam Sharar’s Amazing Face-to-Face Encounter with the Dalai Lama!

Dalai Lama visit 3 - Sam Sharar What’s it like to meet the Dalai Lama face to face? Bainbridge doctor and long-time islander Sam Sharar had the rare opportunity to do so last fall at his Holiness’ home in Dharamshala, India.

Sharar, a semi-retired University of Washington trauma and pain medicine specialist, was part of a group of seven scientists invited to visit with the Dalai Lama, and, ostensibly, try and answer the basic question of the Buddhist faith: “What happens to one’s consciousness after one dies?”

Buddhist basically believe in reincarnation, and, says Sharar, the Dalai Lama wanted to quiz the highly respected international group of doctors on whether “there is any scientific evidence that supports the tenants of Buddhism?”

Dalai Lama visit - Sam ShararFor the uninitiated, the Dalai Lama is a title given by the Tibetan people to the foremost spiritual leader of the Gelug or “Yellow Hat” school of Tibetan Buddhism, the newest and most dominant of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The 14th and current Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso, who lives as a refugee in India, where Sharar and his colleagues met up with him.

“Buddhist believe your consciousness doesn’t go away when you die, but rather that it goes on to another human being,” Sharar explains. “It’s why they don’t want to kill a mosquito, because it could be their grandmother.”

The doctors and scientists who met face-to-face with the Dalai Lama at his impressive-looking retreat in semi-rural India last October represented a wide range of medical disciplines, mostly having to do with the brain, mind over body experiences, neurology, neuro-psychology, quantum physicists, stem cell research, and the like.

Sharar has developed an expertise over the years helping burn victims overcome pain by using techniques such Virtual Reality, hypnosis, mindfulness, and other approaches.

He says roughly five years ago a conversation began to meet with the Dalai Lama when senior members of his international burn care education team were approached by one of his Holinesses’ “senior advising Lama’s”. According to Sharar, there are some 14 such Lama’s scattered throughout the world, including the West Coast of the United States.

The adviser wanted to “bring together a group of scientists whose areas of expertise were related to the Dalai Lama’s questions,” Sharar says.

The scientific group arrived a day ahead of time prior to meeting with the Dalai Lama at his Indian refuge. While his Holiness was performing a blessing to followers on a nearby veranda, Sharar, and company, were ushered into a living room at about 8 a.m. the next day – all having tested negative for COVID 19.

Dalai Lama visit 3 - Sam ShararAs Sharar recalls, the room had two couches, a couple of stuffed chairs and an office chair set aside for the Dalai Lama. “It was a modest home but (the living room) had beautiful wall hangings.”

When his Holiness arrived in the room, “you could tell immediately what a kind individual he was,” Sharar says of the 87-year-old Buddhist Monk. He also has a bit of a sense of humor. “He looked at one guy (in Sharar’s party) who was bald and playfully slapped him on top of the head, then broke out laughing.” The Dalai Lama himself is very nearly bald.

Sharar described his Holiness as being “very personable”… He “looked each of us in the eye and greeted us. You sort of felt like you were with a kind of long-time family friend.”

The Dalai Lama, who spoke about half the time in English and half the time in Tibetan and also used a translator to communicate from time to time, spent about two and half hours with his foreign visitors and offered them tea, Tibetan flat bread and Oreos with pink filling.

Dalai Lama visit 3 - Sam ShararSharar says his Holiness “asked questions and answered questions” during the group’s time with him. He also explained the Buddhist philosophy and “gave his thoughts” about their beliefs on some of the religion’s most intriguing aspects, such as why people who have a near death experience, often time claim to have seen a “white light” sometime during their episode.

“When you die,” says Sharer while attempting to explain what the Dalai Lama shared, “that consciousness associated with your brain (such as your sensory surroundings) ceases to exist, but other aspects of your being like your memory, remain.”

He says in Buddhism philosophy consciousness is associated with colors, and the lowest base level of consciousness is “white and that is what gets passed on to the next being.” There is a “progression of colors that takes place after you lose your biological function,” or so Buddhists believe, he says.

Sharar, along with his wife, Lynn Oliver, also a retired doctor, have lived on the island since the early 1990s. He initially connected with the scientists involved with the Dalai Lama foray through his work with trauma research and pediatric anesthesiology through the University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center.

Working with several different non-profits, Sharar had made a number of trips to South Asia since 2009, specifically to Bhutan, to help education and work with local health care providers.

Dalai Lama visit - Sam ShararBhutan, which is also a Buddhist country, is about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, and is located in the rugged Himalayan Mountains, where there are few, if any, modern conveniences, and hardly any smoke detectors, or much in the way of fire suppression equipment.

“People rely on open fires there for everything (heating, cooking and the like),” says Sharar, whose team has had lunch several times with the King of Bhutan to discuss his work and that of his colleagues. “The annual number of burn injuries in (all of) South Asia is larger than the number of new cases in the world of malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis combined.”

“Burns mess up your entire body,” he adds. As a result of a severe burn injuring, “You (might) end up having problems with your kidneys, liver, heart and lungs. It’s a devastating injury from a medical point of view.”

Dalai Lama visit - Sam ShararWith no ambulances, and no paramedics, and only limited hospital access, Sharar and his fellow docs sometimes operate on burn victims in places like Bhutan and other areas in South Asia, such as Nepal or Afghanistan, but the aftermath can be tricky, ensuring that patients receive proper anesthetics, nutrition and other forms of rehab in those developing countries.

Reconstructive burn surgeries often take place for social reasons, Sharar says, to make burn victims are “acceptable in society; otherwise, they’re dependent upon their families because they often shunned” by others.

“Burns are among the most painful of injuries,” he notes. “Just to be able to make a fist, or bend your hand to feed yourself” can be nearly impossible.

Sharar says he and his colleagues’ ultimate mission is to pass on their knowledge to health care workers in the remote regions they serve. “What we really need to do is train local surgeons so they can do this (work) year-round,” he says.

Dalai Lama visit - Sam ShararCloser to home, and through the University of Washington, and funding from the National Institutes of Health, Sharar and his team have been investigating the use of Virtual Reality to help burn victims counter their pain. Sharar even gave a TED Talk on the subject in 2019.

“It’s a mind over body experience,” he explains. “The type of VR we’re using is (often applied to) planned painful procedures, such as someone getting a burn wounded scrubbed… VR is also a way to facilitate other forms of non-pain drug control, like mindfulness and hypnosis.”

Thinking back on his visit with the Dalai Lama, Sharar is still pinching himself. “It was a once in a lifetime” experience,” he says, with a smile on his face. “After he puts (a) scarf around your neck and you bow down to greet him, he has the softest, warmest hands” imaginable.

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*Photo credits: Sam Sharar

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