I first heard His Holiness The Dalai Lama speak in June 2017, where he gave a three day lecture series, for 3 hours each day, on Nagarjuna’s Commentary on Bodhicitta and the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva to the Tibetan Youth at the Tsuglhakhang Complex, HH’s Main Temple and residence in McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. So many long words…
With little information on the official website, save for “Registration opens approximately 3 days before lectures begin”, murmurs start to spread around Bhagsu as the anticipation builds “have you done yours yet?” “Is registration open yet?”. Registration must be done in person at the Dalai Lama security office in McLeod Ganj – a typically Indian experience of filling out your application form before queuing on musical chairs in a small modest “office” back-room, filled to the brim with rusted metal shelving, piles of stuff & things that encroach the already limited space.
After minimal/no scrutiny, you sit opposite one man and his laptop, who enters your details into the system and takes things into the 22nd century by taking your photo on his webcam. You then pay another man 2 feet away your 10 rupee fare as he prints off your snazzy black and white pass and slips it into a plastic sleeve, complete with lapel clip. Ooh’er.
The day had arrived. Even though the teachings weren’t due to start until 8:30am, we’d been advised to arrive good an early to get through temple security – another classic Indian experience: segregated queues for men & women, entering under the arches of a faux metal detector that seems to do nothing, or be taken any notice of, an obligatory bag search (no lighters, cameras or phones allowed), a second bag search 2 feet away, an intimate body search behind a screen and a 3rd verbal check “did you have your bag checked?”.
This spits you out at a set of back stairs that look distinctly like the wrong way, or an exit, but I press on with no other option and rise up into the Temple arena – a chaotic space that’s hard to grasp, and with no apparent epicentre. Where will the man himself be seated?!
I’d imagined the Temple to be very different inside, like a huge auditorium with levels of bleacher seating, but this is India. The sea of Burgundy and Gold hits you first, crowds upon crowds of Tibetan monks seated, ready and waiting for their Teacher to arrive, without a piece of floor wasted. Next it’s the bun fight – where on earth are we going to sit? Every square foot was occupied with bums on cushions/mats, cardboard pieces that had been laid down days before, each with hand written signs denoting name & country of the intended occupee, and respectfully upheld, areas cordoned off like crime scenes with string and paper signs selotaped to them, reserving whole areas for “Japan”, “Korea”.
Copious flat screen TVs are hung aloft for the benefit of the 90% of attendees who didn’t make it into the inner sanctum. Those still in search of a piece of flooring to sit on walk the pathways, earnestly scouring the landscape with eyes staring off into the distance.
Climbing over a pile of flip flops & footwear deposited at the edge of a designated seating area for tourists, we manage to squeeze ourselves into some spaces in between spaces, me up against a tree trunk and a wall of Ghee canisters, and the others next to the edge railings. It’s 7:30am.
I’m snuggled in next to Katherine, a Buddhist student from Wyoming with I-Ching tattoos and a shaved head. I look up to see the tree branches coming through the open air perimeter, and watch the monkeys jumping from branch to branch, bagging themselves an arguably better view than me.
Katherine explains to me that she’s currently learning both Tibetan and Sanskrit to aid in her own learning and to satisfy her skeptical side. She was one of the clever ones who laid her mat down a few days ago, but she tells me she feels a little guilty that her meagre cardboard mat under her cushion could be taking up more space than she needs (for the record, it’s a perfectly reasonable 1 persons bottom size), given the Tibetans are masters of finding space for themselves, and their 3 children, where there is none. It seems she was fully expecting, and ok with, a Tibetan to squeeze into the 10cm that extended beyond her knees.
His Holiness was to give this talk in Tibetan, so in order to understand him speak you need to tune a radio to hear the English translation. The frequency was ~93fm, and the sweet spot on my little 220 rupee radio was hairline, almost atomic level thin, and the reception flirtatiously fickle. Ah well, you get what you pay for right?
As plenty of people were still arriving, squeezing themselves in, the Monks started to served out small circular loaves of Tibetan bread to the crowds. Stacks and stacks were passed back, person to person and finally into my rumbling belly, which had fallen out with me since the 5:30am alarm. They even served Tibetan butter tea, a slightly salty & acquired taste, served into our own cups (that we’d been advised to bring with us), poured from large steel teapots. How civilised.
The radio crackled an announcement that the Dalai Lama was on his way in, and the crowd started to stir. I stood for a moment to catch a glimpse of him on the nearest TV screen. Knowing he was in the same building as me, and not just an abstract collection of pixels on a screen in some foreign land this time, I couldn’t help but laugh and smile when I saw him appear, his little smiling, loving presence. I’d heard people talk of his epic rainbow aura and the effect it had on people in his vicinity, and here I was feeling it first hand – star struck maybe, I saw him being led by the hand, his 82 year old body slightly hunched over and smiling, greeting people like he was a member of their own family or as a friend. It was like Father Christmas had arrived, and even the general murmurs of the crowd seemed to be smiling too.
I felt a warmth on my skin, and as I turned around I realised the wall we were sat against sectioned us off from a room full of blazing pujas, their collective heat coming through the window I was now gazing through. A wonderful sight, just for our little corner.
As His Holiness settled in got Mic’d up Madonna style, we settled down and tuned in. In Tibetan, the Dalai Lama speaks with such great speed and clarity, his voice rising and falling in pitch, conveying the intelligence, humour and passion of a well-read scholar of logic, fine arts, medicine, Buddhist philosophy, poetry, drama and astrology that transcends the language barrier.
Listening to the English translation, whilst doing his very best the translator did little to lift the speech off the page or add intonation, and ohhhh how I wished I could understand Tibetan just for a moment, to be able to hear him speak in his native tongue with his loving humour, but it’s impossible to remain anything but happy in the presence of His Holinesses.
Of course Lhamo Dhondup, the Tibetan farmers son from a small hamlet in Taktser would eschew such adoration. Despite being a governmentally appointed reincarnation, recognised through prophecies, visions, extraordinary occurrences and tests as the 14th Dalai Lama at the age of two, this insightful, compassionate, humorous and marvellous person remains humble. As far as he’s concerned he’s a simple Buddhist monk, a human being like all of us, with the same potential, showing us what we’re all capable of if we put our minds to it.