An au­di­ence with the Dalai Lama

A rare ren­dezvous with the Ti­betan spir­i­tual leader in his land of ex­ile

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - BAR­BARA CHAI

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.’’

AP GETTY IM­AGES

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

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