An audience with the Dalai Lama
A rare rendezvous with the Tibetan spiritual leader in his land of exile
THE journey to enlightenment begins with a single step or, in my case, a steep hike to the Dalai Lama’s house.
We are in McLeod Ganj, also known as Upper Dharamsala, a colourful town in northern India. It is so early that the sun is just beginning to peek through the pine trees, yet I’m already sweating. My husband and I climb a narrow, nearly vertical path paved with crooked stones that leads from Kashmir Cottage, a tranquil inn owned by the Dalai Lama’s brother, to the 2000m-high peak where the spiritual leader of Tibet lives.
Transcendent thoughts should be filling my head, but I’m thinking I shouldn’t have had that extra pancake at breakfast. While my husband charges onward, I struggle up the hill. Between sharp breaths I hear a cowbell ring and think: How on earth does a cow get up here?
Tibetans often say the Dalai Lama is the physical manifestation of Chenrezig, the enlightened being of compassion; many believe him to be the living incarnation of Buddha. To my family, which practises a form of Buddhism called Chan, the Dalai Lama is a revered master. And for most of my adult life, I’ve hoped to hear him speak — or even to catch a glimpse of him.
In India, I will get that chance and more. Our five-day trip is going to culminate in a meeting with the Dalai Lama, at which I will interview him about his latest book, Beyond Religion. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime — and a source of growing anxiety. Thousands of other travellers come to McLeod Ganj annually because of the Dalai Lama. They flock here for the public teachings he holds several times a year, but also for the area’s misty forests and stunning Himalayan views, for courses in Tibetan arts and culture, for meditation and yoga retreats — and simply to feel connected to the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan cause, just by being in his adopted home town.
The area doesn’t feel like part of India, but despite the 15,000 Tibetans who live here, and the fact that it has been home to the Central Tibetan Administration since 1960, it isn’t quite Tibet, either. It’s a place where tranquillity mixes with chaos, grit blends with beauty. On McLeod Ganj’s main drags, white tourist taxis blare their horns incessantly and cows eat out of trash bins.
But there are also curving tile roofs and views of the Himalayas, which seem not quite of this earth. Kindness seems to pervade the town. Before we leave, a cab driver calls our hotel to wish us a safe journey home. Tenzin Drolma, who helps manage Kashmir Cottage and who has fed us juicy steamed buns and noodles all week, asks that we call to let her know we’ve boarded our flight all right.
After what seems like ages of climbing, we reach the Dalai Lama’s gated, pale-yellow compound, which houses his offices, audience chamber, kitchens and, on the top level, his personal residence. It is a modest arrangement, especially considering that some call the Dalai Lama a god-king. But there is nothing unassuming about the view of the plains of the Kangra Valley and the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range. Eagles glide overhead, and we hear only the flutter of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bright prayer flags that criss-cross the valley. I bow my head in prayer.
Wedescend a slope until it meets a well-worn path, and fall into step with a handful of pilgrims and vermilionrobed monks performing the kora — a walking meditation — around the compound. A stretch of the path is lined with prayer wheels, large drums inscribed with the mantra Ommanipadme hum. Roughly translated it means ‘‘Hail to the jewel in the lotus’’ and suggests uniting wisdom (the lotus) with compassion (the jewel). Pilgrims turn the prayer wheels clockwise, in succession, and as I follow their steps, I repeat the mantra to myself.
The open-air temple opposite the compound entrance is buzzing with people in various states of prayer. One woman performs full prostrations, standing with her hands clasped, dropping to her knees and stretching her body out on a mat, then standing up and repeating the process. Others spin hand- held prayer wheels or finger beads.
Outside, it is jarring to see monks — Tibetan, Indian, European, American — going about ordinary business. They check emails at internet cafes, hang their laundry to dry on clotheslines and sit on balconies drinking tea. We get a different view of monkhood on an afternoon trek during our second day. A taxi takes us from Dharamsala to the small, whitewashed Galu Temple in the neighbouring village of Dharamkot, careening dangerously close to the edge of a cliff on the way. We hike a popular slate path towards Triund Hill, catching views of Dharamkot and rolling landscapes full of oak and rhododendron trees. Yoga and silent meditation retreats dot the area. The snowy tips and slate faces of the Dhauladhars come into sharper relief.
At about the midpoint of the trek, we see a monk heading in our direction, his cinnabar robes standing out against the rocky mountainside. He hoists a basin of water on to his back, then makes his hunched way slowly down the hillside to a handful of slate-covered shacks — a hermitage where some monks live in seclusion.
In the following days, we immerse ourselves in Tibetan Buddhism. Exploring the main Tibetan temple, we are permitted to sit in a monks’ class, where there is absolute silence except for the instructor’s dulcet voice. We visit the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Gangchen Kyishong, a brightly coloured compound that also houses the Central Tibetan Administration. Here visitors and scholars can view rare manuscripts and art, and take courses in Tibetan language, philosophy and Buddhism. In the library shop we buy recordings of some of the Dalai Lama’s talks for about $1 each.
I sense the Dalai Lama everywhere we go. There are photos of him on the walls of shops and in every Buddhist temple. For me, it is also a constant reminder of the coming interview.
On our last day, we arrive at the Dalai Lama’s compound in the late morning. After being ushered through security and waiting in an antechamber decorated with a portrait of the Buddha, we are taken inside his private audience chamber, a wood-panelled room hung with traditional Tibetan thangka paintings. White orchids bloom on the windowsills, and the sunlight streaming in illuminates the Dalai Lama from behind as he sits in a low chair.
In our hour-long interview, the Dalai Lama is analytical and intellectual, and myanxiety dissipates as I slip into journalist mode. He cracks a couple of jokes and erupts into laughter. Then, as we stand to say goodbye, an assistant hands him a long white scarf. He gently drapes it around my neck, evens out the edges and bows deeply. Without looking up, he stretches his right hand towards me and says softly, ‘‘Thank you.’’
top The Dalai Lama’s gentle countenance is a source of inspiration to pilgrims above The compound that houses the Dalai Lama’s offices, audience chamber, kitchens and, on the top level, his personal residence