Our Dalai Lama experience started with waiting in a queue for three hours. Because of the policy of letting Tibetans and monks go first, the queue grew in the middle and not the end and we ended up being further and further away from the front. After an hour of waiting it seemed that we had longer to wait than when we arrived.
Luckily we discovered that there was a special office for queue-weary foreigners and we found our way into the inner sanctum of His Holiness’ Security and Passport office. That makes it sound secretive and luxurious but it was neither of those things. The room was full of dusty files and little else. Foreigners were baying at the stereotypically inefficient officials behind the desk, thrusting their passports forward, hoping to get seen next. Even the queue-loving English had become incapable of queuing by this stage.
A framed photo of the Dalai Lama with the advice to ‘Never Give Up’ was hanging on the wall. I suspect he probably didn’t have our plight in his office in mind but of course we had no intention of giving up. Studying Buddhism, learning about Tibet, interacting with Tibetan refugees and learning about the Dalai Lama’s work had made my interest in and respect for him even stronger. Besides, having been in Buddhist parts of India for a couple of months that smiling man’s face had been a constant companion, in every cafe, guesthouse, restaurant and office, and everyone seems to have a Dalai Lama story to tell.
In Dharamshala there were plenty of opportunities to educate ourselves about his work and the Tibetan situation. As well as the Tibet museum there is the Learning and Ideas for Tibet (LIT) centre which shows documentaries and films and holds English conversation classes with newly arrived Tibetan refugees and monks. The refugees are surprisingly open about their experiences and it is clear to see the admiration they have for the Dalai Lama and the strength they gain from him.
With the ongoing genocide in Tibet he makes himself available to arriving Tibetan refugees as much as he is able. He gives them ‘a few words of encouragement’ as he puts it in the British-made documentary The Unwinking Gaze. And what encouragement they must need after their dangerous Himalaya crossing and as they attempt to start their new lives in India, a culture far removed from their own and hardly a utopia for refugees. The Tibetan community in India struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, HIV and unemployment as well as the more usual problems of adjusting to a new country, culture and language.
But this is where they come, to have some freedom of expression, to live without fear, for their children to be taught Tibetan in school and for them to be allowed to have something as innocuous as a photograph of the Dalai Lama. And they come to be reunited with their spiritual leader, for those ‘few words of encouragement’.
But of course it’s not just the Tibetans that His Holiness is encouraging. His encouragement is pretty global. This much is obvious from the impressively varied crowd he pulls.
We head to the temple early on the first day of teachings. The seating is simply a place on the floor and after getting your place you mark it with something to keep it for the following days. We were eager to get a good view of him and got ourselves there before 7am for the 9am start.
The temple was full of people from all over the world. The ‘South-East Asia group’ had requested the teachings and they made up a good few hundred people. They were being herded around, following numbered placards in a disarming display of organisation and order. There were plenty of Tibetans there already, chatting and working their prayer beads through their fingers. Westerners too were trying to find a good place, walking amongst the sea of cushions that already had names cellotaped to them.
Quickly it became obvious that if we wanted to secure a good place, showing up two hours before wasn’t going to be enough. Most people had come the night before to stake a claim. We finally found a place on what came to be a small strip of cement floor when someone removed our floor cushion on day two. But luxury is not what we were there for and it was in keeping with the place. Far from being grand and impressive, the Dalai Lama’s residence in exile and temple complex is a drab government building. Unlike the church, money is not being spent on gold ornaments and luxury finishes.
Despite the relative discomfort it turned out to be a good place to sit. Although we couldn’t see him during the teaching (we could watch him on a tv screen instead) he did leave via the stairs right next to us. He walked within three feet of us, stopping to talk to an old Tibetan man with one tooth. The man clearly had something cheeky to say because the Dalai Lama gave a belly laugh and thawcked him playfully on the head before turning to leave and smiling in our direction, his brown eyes twinkling.
I wondered how many people were there just to see him, rather than to hear the teachings. It seemed that people were more concerned with getting the tea and bread that were being given out than listening to what he had to say. The irony of listening to the Dalai Lama talking about grasping and attachment whilst people snatched at the bread going round and thrust their cup out for more tea was rather amusing to behold.
He started with a gentle reminder that religions are meant to be there to increase kindness and morality, not to be used as an excuse or justification for the opposite. His strong belief in the need for religious tolerance was brought in when he spoke about how different religions are necessary because different people need different techniques to achieve the same aim. He suggested that people following a religion should be practical in their approach. For example, remembering that a statue of the Buddha is not there to be worshipped, but is to be used as a reminder and inspiration to practice. He asked those who believe in a god to relate to humanity as god’s creation and to focus on serving the people around them, rather than focusing on cultivating a relationship with something mysterious. He spoke about the need to take care of each other, not just in our families and communities, but globally – that we are all interdependent and interconnected.
He moved onto the text we were studying, Shantideva’s Guide to the Boddhisatva’s Way of Life, and plunged straight into the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy. He explained that humans’ penchant for being mad was because of the way we misapprehend the nature of reality. He riffed on this topic for quite some time, casually dropping in a bit of quantum physics, and suggesting with a big grin that if we wanted to understand Buddhist philosophy we would do well to start with quantum physics.
He was teaching in Tibetan and the teachings were being simultaneously translated into English, Hindi, Thai, Chinese and Spanish and transmitted on different radio frequencies. The English interpreter was obviously at ease and more than capable of handling the task of translating complex Buddhist philosophy. He did lose it at one point though, when the Dalai Lama was telling a story about a Buddha statue with shit on its head. Perhaps HH put it more eloquently, but the interpreter seemed to desperately try and fail to think of any other word than ‘shit’ and was fairly apologetic about the whole thing. I can’t imagine many other religious leaders causing their interpreters such problems but that is very much the approach and appeal of this down-to-earth leader. He continually reminds us to be practical, using the tools we have at our disposal. He even suggested we use the internet as a tool for spiritual practice by connecting with people from the heart with compassion and awareness.
On the last day of the talks he was to remain and teach the South-East Asian group with a more intimate Q&A session. This meant he wouldn’t be walking past us one final time. It was hard not to be disappointed but I would continue to see his face in every cafe, restaurant and guesthouse, and be reminded of his words and be inspired to practice in those everyday practical exchanges.
Buying our bus ticket to Rishikesh we shared our Dalai Lama experience with a local for a change. The smiling young Tibetan man responded enthusiastically to our elementary understanding of what the Dalai Lama had said and shared how much Buddhist philosophy and psychology has helped him in his daily life.
It was somewhat unusual to be simultaneously booking a bus ticket and conversing on the nature of reality and how that understanding helps us experience reality more fully and peacefully, but it seemed like the perfect end to our experience attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamshala, with the meaningful and the practical going effortlessly hand in hand.