A bald man in a red robe to some, a reincarnation of the Buddha to others; His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Fleeing in exile from Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama and many of his followers (around 100,000 so far) have made the treacherous journey across the Himalayas and set up home in northern India. I arrived in Dharamshala with great interest in the Tibetan community here. Little did I know I would arrive a few days before His Holiness would give four teachings. Requested by the Taiwanese, Tenzin Gyatso would teach “Entering the middle way”.
On the lead up to his teachings, the local Tibetan administration open their registration. The Dalai Lama does not charge to attend, however each person must hand over personal details beforehand. All it takes is Rs10 (around £0.10) and five minutes of your time and voila! A small picture and confirmation of identity is enough to secure you a spot.
For this particular occasion the teachings were spread over four days, at around 3 hours each morning. Eager to get a good spot on day one I headed to the Tsuglhakhang (or Dalai Lama) temple in Mcleodganj early. Chaos ensued as I reached the main gate, with one queue for monks and one for ‘foreigners’. From behind, the only distinctive difference between the red-robed men and women was their choice of footwear.
Inside the temple the immediate area around where His Holiness would sit was reserved for Taiwanese. Days before people had come to reserve their spot. Small cushions, floor mats, name tags – all in the hope that no one would take their chosen spot. For many, being able to see the Dalai Lama’s face as he spoke would be a blessing in itself. For the unlucky ones, large televisions were spread generously. Huge speakers would echo the voice of wisdom, with help from personal radios and a handful of translators. Spanish, German, Russian, English, French, Chinese: no one would miss out.
Traditionally dressed Tibetans, colourful Indians, excitable Taiwanese and the odd perplexed foreigner took their places cross-legged on the floor. As the TV flickered on to show the Dalai Lama approaching, a mantra began. To invoke the embodiment of compassion, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ filled the hall in a soft murmur.
That famous cheeky smile took notice of everyone around. Waving constantly, the Dalai Lama made his way through the temple on foot toward his seat. A select few received a personal blessing as they handed over their white cloth.
The entire crowd remained calm and silent. Hands were pressed together and those that weren’t seated bent forward halfway. Most people smiled where as others cried (myself included). Men with large rifles guarded His Holiness from all sides. As he climbed his throne, the crowd stood and continued with their Buddhist prostration.
Before the teaching began, a Tibetan chant was spoken by the Dalai as he swayed slowly side to side. An introduction and personal welcome to everyone from near and far commenced. His speech was fluid, his words full of sincerity. The only thing to stop him in his tracks, it would seem, was tea and flatbread. To my surprise, buckets and buckets of bread were handed out to the crowd. Sweet milk tea came next, and no matter how large the cup; the generous monks would fill it. As I munched on my breakfast, I watched the Dalai Lama feast on his. He cracked a few jokes and giggled merrily to himself.
During the teaching I was distracted by utter fascination with everything around me. Tibetans sat turning their prayer wheels, small kids sat patiently, elderly ladies fell asleep, particular individuals walked in circles around the temple. I felt fortunate to be sat between monks and Tibetans with wrinkles embedded with stories. Stories I shall unfortunately never hear. They read from textbooks full of beautiful Tibetan scripture. The freedom to move around and catch a glimpse of His Holiness was appreciated – it reflected the relaxed and trusting nature of Buddhist followers.
For the most part I didn’t grasp what His Holiness was attempting to portray. But it didn’t matter. I understood how deeply love and compassion resonated in his words. How much he believes in humankind, that each of us are capable of creating a peaceful world. For him, he sees himself first as a human being, second as a monk and third as a spiritual leader.
Just to be able to listen to him speak, to sit amongst such an interesting group of people and to feel incredibly welcome was something I will take with me to the grave.
This time, words fail me.