Despite the awe-inspiring beauty that is McLeod Ganj, India, arguably the main draw to the small Dharamsala suburb is to see the Dalai Lama.
Meaning “guru” or, literally, “ocean teacher,” the Dalai Lama is the current head of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the former leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government in exile, which India has allowed to govern Tibetan refugees from its part of the Himalayas.
While I had never really had a strong desire to see the Dalai Lama before, spending a week learning about Tibetan Buddhism while residing less than two miles from the place where he lives, seeing him in person became a priority.
But despite being so close to the source, seeing the Dalai Lama in person is no easy matter.
To start with, the Dalai Lama does not make frequent public appearances, but usually speaks only when sponsored and is often abroad.
So we were lucky that, just two days after the meditation course was finishing, an organization from Korea had arranged a three-day lecture series. With all our new-found Buddhism wisdom, of course we had to stay!
But as I said before, seeing the head of Tibetan Buddhism is not easy.
First, you must register in advance at the Tibetan Branch Security Office in McLeod Ganj, where, after providing your passport and visa information and two passport photos, you are given a little ID card to bring with you throughout the lectures.
Next, for all the non-Tibetan speakers, you must acquire a radio and headset to tune into the broadcast translation of the Dalai Lama’s speech in your native language. For a more comfortable rump, you may also opt to buy a cheap throw cushion to use as a seat for the duration of the speech.
And finally, to secure a spot, you may arrive at the temple the day before (careful not to arrive too early or too late) and place a blanket or scarf on your selected spot, preferably with your name written down and attached.
If this sounds confusing, let me break it down. To try to organize the mass crowds that inevitably come to hear the Dalai Lama speak, organizers section off portions of the temple by language, making it easier for people of the same tongue to access their designated radio station. About the day before the lectures begin, organizers cover the areas with mats, making seating more comfortable for viewers. However, rules say you are not allowed to tape, stick or otherwise attach anything (such as place markers) to temple property. To get around this, people tape their names to personal property, such as blankets and scarves, and leave these items lying on their chosen mat space. I don’t know who came up with this idea or how the organizers feel about it, but somehow there seems to be an unspoken rule that you don’t mess with other people’s stuff.
In our case, since we had no extra blankets or towels, we left clothes. Or, rather, my friends left clothes, and I wrote my name with theirs. Yes, in honor of seeing the probably-enlightened, current father of one of the oldest religions in history, I attached my name to a pair of pants.
The next morning, radio in one hand, cushion in the other, all potential explosives removed from my purse, I was ready to go.
Joining the masses heading toward Gangchen Kyishong, the Dalai Lama’s residence and government area, our little group passed through security and were relieved to find that our little pants-marker, though no longer alone, was undisturbed. As we sat down, squished between Spanish and other English speakers, we did our best to attain some line of sight to the procession area ahead or at least to one of the screens nearby.
And then, it was time to start. Despite our carefully-selected, pants-designated location, the Dalai Lama procession entered through the opposite side of the temple than the side we were at, and I only managed a glimpse of the crowd around him before he entered inside.
As I tried to tune into the English station, I learned that $3 radios bought on the street work just about as well as $3 radios can be expected to work. After playing around with the tuning buttons, catching bits of sound here and there, we learned how the system works.
First, the Dalai Lama speaks undisturbed for a few minutes. Then the translators speak and you fight with your radio to catch on to what the Dalai Lama just said.
Though not ideal, I did manage to catch most of what was going on. To my sort of surprise, however, everything the Dalai Lama was saying was a repeat of what I’d just spent over a week learning about at the Tushita Meditation Centre. Apparently the Dalai Lama speaks according to the request of the sponsors, and our sponsors were Buddhist newbies.
I’m not sure what I had expected, perhaps something more profound or enlightening, but I realized, more than the lecture, I was there to see the Dalai Lama himself, in person.
And after his two-hour lecture, I finally got my chance.
Covered in his standard maroon and yellow robe, encircled by an entourage of supporters and protectors, the Dalai Lama made his way through our side of the temple. Despite the vast amount of people pushing to reach him, the Dalai Lama simply smiled, trying to shake hands and bless as many people as he could.
As I was a good 10 feet away from the edge, I knew there was no one way I would be on the receiving end of any handshake or blessing, but I was hoping for a smile.
More than a week of intensive preparation, hours of silent study and meditation, numerous internal debates on whether or not I could become a Buddhist had all led up to this moment. How would it feel to look into the eyes of the Dalai Lama?
And then…nothing. The Dalai Lama turned his gaze to the forthcoming stairs and continued on for our scheduled lunch break.
No handshake, no blessing, no smile, no eye contact. And honestly, no real spiritual stir on the inside either.
But truth be told, I was ok with this. I was, after all, only a novice “Buddhist” at this point, and my history and skepticism were not exactly conducive to having impromptu spiritual explosions. It was, however, fascinating to watch hundreds of followers from nations all over the world gather to hear words of wisdom from a beloved leader.
But as much as I admire hundreds of people coming together for positive reasons, I don’t always appreciate those people coming together around me. After a morning of scrunching in the cold, squeezing through crowds and fighting with my radio to hear mostly a repetition of what I’d been taught the week before, I decided I had had enough of the Dalai Lama Experience. With his lectures available online, in the comfort, space and warmth of your own home, I figured I could listen to them in private later. My main goal was to see the Dalai Lama in person and that mission had been accomplished.
While I will not list seeing the Dalai Lama in person as a life-changing experience, it was a fascinating one. In a world that appears to become increasingly more secular, it was incredible to see the effect a spiritual leader can have on people from all over the globe, especially on people who would have had little exposure to that religion in their native countries.
Maybe the world isn’t becoming so secular after all.
I wasn’t able to photograph the Dalai Lama, but here are some images of McLeod Ganj. I hope you enjoy.