Dis­cov­er­ing Dharam­sala

Cur­tis Chin's en­light­ened en­counter with the Dalai Lama

Philippine Tatler Traveller - - Contents -

"Eighty-eight years is a long life.” And so, it is.

But it is not whether you live a long time or a short time, said His Ho­li­ness the Dalai Lama to me. “What is im­por­tant is to have a mean­ing­ful life.”

Those words of wis­dom still res­onate—a year since my jour­ney to Dharam­sala to meet with the 14th Dalai Lama, Ten­zin Gy­atso, the spir­i­tual leader of the Ti­betan peo­ple and 1989 No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate.

Call it karma—the ac­tions that in one life lead to con­se­quences in an­other—or call it luck. My jour­ney from a Cal­i­for­nia con­fer­ence to a pri­vate au­di­ence with the Dalai Lama in In­dia had orig­i­nated months ear­lier in Thai­land with a sim­ple ques­tion: “Do you think I could ever meet the Dalai Lama?” Naively, I had asked a good friend from Nepal, aptly named Karma. “Let me check,” he said.

Months later, af­ter one in­tro­duc­tion had led to an­other, I re­ceived a sim­ple e-mail. “I will be able to sched­ule an au­di­ence for Am­bas­sador Cur­tis Chin on Wed­nes­day, 25 May 2016 here in Dharam­sala,” it read. “He would need to be in Dharam­sala at least a day be­fore the au­di­ence. Please con­firm…”

While serv­ing as U.S. Am­bas­sador to the Asian De­vel­op­ment Bank un­der U.S. Pres­i­dents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, I had sought to en­cour­age that mul­ti­lat­eral fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tion to fo­cus on “peo­ple, planet and part­ner­ship” with par­tic­u­lar re­gard for the poor­est and those most in need.

Now no longer bound by diplo­matic guid­ance as to whom I could of­fi­cially meet, I wanted to build on my long time com­mit­ment to the Hi­malayan re­gion and learn more first-hand of the ed­u­ca­tion and de­vel­op­ment of the Ti­betan refugee com­mu­nity.

My jour­ney to Dharam­sala, how­ever, would of­fer up other lessons. My sched­ule seemed set in April 2016.

First up was the Milken In­sti­tute Global Con­fer­ence in Los An­ge­les—an an­nual gath­er­ing of 3,000 lead­ers in busi­ness, gov­ern­ment, phi­lan­thropy and civil so­ci­ety at the sto­ried Bev­erly Hil­ton in Bev­erly Hills. I would be speak­ing at this “Davos with palm trees” as part of my role as in­au­gu­ral “Asia Fel­low” at the non-profit, non­par­ti­san Milken In­sti­tute eco­nomic think tank.

From there I would jour­ney back to Bangkok and then to Dharam­sala in the north­ern state of Hi­machal Pradesh—home to the Dalai Lama since 1960. Af­ter the Chi­nese mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion of Ti­bet, the Dalai

Lama had fled into ex­ile in In­dia in 1959. Thou­sands of Ti­betans fol­lowed, and to­day Dharam­sala is the seat of the Cen­tral Ti­betan Ad­min­is­tra­tion, in essence a Ti­betan gov­ern­ment-in-ex­ile.

The small, bustling city is com­prised of Lower Dharam­sala and a higher, hill­side Ti­betan en­clave called Up­per Dharam­sala or McLeod Ganj. South of the Hi­malaya, McLeod Ganj—some­times re­ferred to as “Lit­tle Lhasa” or “Dhasa”—sits be­tween the plains of In­dia and the Ti­betan plateau. A nar­row two-lane road that winds slowly up­wards past shops and food stalls of ev­ery sort con­nects Up­per and Lower Dharam­sala. And it was to the once cedar tree-filled Bri­tish hill sta­tion of McLeod Ganj—named af­ter Sir Don­ald Friell McLeod, a lieu­tenant gov­er­nor of Pun­jab—that I would jour­ney.

But as al­ways, life in­ter­venes. This time it comes, as it does all too of­ten, in the form of late-night calls and mes­sages. My mother, 88-years-young, had taken ill and was in the hos­pi­tal.

Speed­ing home to Vir­ginia, I am blessed to be able to join fam­ily and friends and spend two weeks with my mother, Ethel Kim Hom Chin, be­fore she passed away on a Fri­day, May 20th. Hours later I am on a re-sched­uled flight to In­dia, and would re­turn in the au­tumn for my mother’s burial at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery.

And so, my own long days’ jour­ney to Dharam­sala be­gins with un­ex­pected thoughts of life and of death. I travel east­ward to Lon­don, and then on­ward to Delhi.

Ar­riv­ing in Dharam­sala on Sun­day, I am met by a new friend, Ten­zin Jigme, from the Cen­tral Ti­betan Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment. He and Kalon Ngodup Tsering, the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, would over­see my week in Dharam­sala.

In a scene to be re­peated many times, Ten­zin presents me with a sim­ple white scarf, or kathak, in a tra­di­tional Ti­betan of­fer of greet­ings and well wishes, at Kan­gra Air­port. The small and ef­fi­cient air­port is lo­cated in Gag­gal about 14 kilo­me­tres from Dharam­sala.

On­ward we go by car. In McLeod Ganj, we quickly find our­selves amidst ma­roon-robed Ti­betan monks and nuns, mixed with in­ter­na­tional and In­dian vis­i­tors in what is now the cen­tre of the Ti­betan com­mu­nity in ex­ile and an im­por­tant tourist and pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tion.

The at­mos­phere is Ti­betan, even if the al­ti­tude is not. Av­er­age el­e­va­tion at about 2,082 me­tres, or 6,831 feet, is far less than the 12,000-foot al­ti­tude of Lhasa in Ti­bet. But the streets are filled with sights and sounds that re­mind me of my ear­lier trips to Ti­bet.

Ten­zin takes me to drop off my bags at my home for the week—the Ho­tel Norbu House. The Ti­betanowned ho­tel sits on the hill­side across from the Tsug­lagkhang com­pound that in­cludes the Dalai Lama’s main tem­ple com­plex and his of­fi­cial res­i­dence. From my bal­cony, I have a sweep­ing view down the val­ley to Lower Dharam­sala, and see hawks soar­ing above the dusty In­dian plains be­low.

Lunch fol­lows with the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter. And, this be­ing where Ti­bet meets In­dia, Ti­betan food is def­i­nitely on the menu. Ti­betan-style dumplings known as mo­mos, filled with cheese, veg­eta­bles or mut­ton, are a favourite. So too is thukpa, a Ti­betan noo­dle soup. Dharam­sala is also home to sev­eral restau­rants and cafes serv­ing up In­dian, Bhutanese, Ja­panese, or Ital­ian and other west­ern food.

Over the next five days, I travel with Ten­zin reg­u­larly to the Tsug­lagkhang, join­ing pil­grims and vis­i­tors as they say prayers and walk clock­wise, al­ways clock­wise, around the cen­tral tem­ple. An in­ner cir­cuit, or kora, takes me around the tem­ple core. An outer cir­cuit takes me through the sur­round­ing forests.

Ev­ery morn­ing, a pageantry of ev­ery­day life un­furls in­side and out­side the tem­ple com­pound. A smil­ing Ti­betan woman of­fers up beau­ti­ful Ti­betan bread that looks like gi­ant pan­cakes. Fresh veg­eta­bles are laid out for sale by ven­dors.

Ti­betans, young and old, with prayer beads or small hand­held prayer wheels, as well as peo­ple from what seem all walks of life with their own rea­sons for be­ing there join me each day. I of­fer prayers and light tra­di­tional Ti­betan but­ter lamps for my mother. My agenda in­cludes vis­its with Ten­zin to some of the more than 70 schools es­tab­lished to pro­vide a mod­ern ed­u­ca­tion to Ti­betan refugee chil­dren, and help pre­serve the Ti­betan lan­guage and cul­ture. I also meet with Ti­betan en­trepreneurs and teach­ers. A li­brary and a mu­seum of­fer con­text and his­tory about the Ti­betan di­as­pora.

At Men-Tsee-Khang, I learn of ef­forts to pre­serve Ti­betan medicine and as­trol­ogy. It is a col­lege,

clinic, mu­seum, re­search cen­tre and as­tro­log­i­cal in­sti­tute all rolled into one, and con­sul­ta­tions are avail­able.

Dharam­sala now draws thou­sands of vis­i­tors each year. Some vol­un­teer with the Ti­betan com­mu­nity. Oth­ers shop for Ti­betan arts and crafts, study Bud­dhism, or prac­tice med­i­ta­tion or yoga in a break from the ur­ban life.

A trek in the forests of the Dhaulad­har moun­tains above Dharam­sala is easy to ar­range. Even eas­ier is the short walk from McLeod Ganj to nearby Bhag­sunath tem­ple, a Hindu tem­ple ded­i­cated to Shiva with a fresh wa­ter spring, and to the vil­lage of Bhagsu.

For shop­ping, McLeod Ganj is full of choices from lo­cal street stalls to a co­op­er­a­tive pro­duc­ing beau­ti­ful Ti­betan car­pets. I visit The Nor­bu­l­ingka In­sti­tute, es­tab­lished in 1995 to teach and pre­serve tra­di­tional Ti­betan art forms. There I watch ar­ti­sans cre­ate in­tri­cate wooden carv­ings, paint tra­di­tional thangkas (Ti­betan Bud­dhist paint­ing on cot­ton or silk ap­pliqué), forge metal stat­ues and pro­duce beau­ti­ful em­broi­deries.

For a taste of the Bri­tish Raj, I visit St. John in the

Wilder­ness Church. Built in 1852, the Gothic-style church with beau­ti­ful stained-glass win­dows has sur­vived earth­quakes as has a ceme­tery filled with his­tory. Lord El­gin, for­mer Gov­er­nor- Gen­eral and Viceroy of In­dia, is buried here.

That Fri­day, I at­tend the swear­ing-in of Lob­sang San­gay, fol­low­ing his re-elec­tion as the po­lit­i­cal leader or, Siky­ong, of the Ti­betan gov­ern­ment-in-ex­ile. The Dalai Lama, as spir­i­tual leader, pre­sides over the in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony, and urges Ti­betans to re­main united as a com­mu­nity.

See­ing him re­minds me again of the heart of my own dis­cov­er­ies in Dharam­sala. That Wed­nes­day, I had the chance to meet pri­vately with the Dalai Lama. With folded hands near my fore­head, with a hum­ble bow, with head bent and with palms joined in re­spect, I of­fered a tra­di­tional white scarf.

The Dalai Lama took the kathak, and with a bless­ing placed the scarf around my neck. For the next half hour, we spoke of ed­u­ca­tion, of Ti­bet, of China and of Amer­ica.

“I love Amer­ica,” said the Dalai Lama with a smile. “And Amer­ica loves you,” I replied.

We spoke of life, of death and of liv­ing a mean­ing­ful life.

I showed the Dalai Lama two pho­tos of my mother. In one, she is a young nurs­ing stu­dent in Bal­ti­more, Mary­land. In the other, one of her last pho­tos, she is frail but smil­ing.

He took the pho­tos, looked at them and slowly spoke. “You are born... You die. This is life,” said the Dalai Lama. And then he placed the pho­tos on his fore­head, closed his eyes and be­gan to say a bless­ing in Ti­betan.

I was not sure whether to cry or to laugh. Five days ear­lier my mother had passed away, and now I sat look­ing up at her pho­tos, on the fore­head of the Dalai Lama.

Nearly one year later, I pre­pare to fly again to Los An­ge­les. It is the 20th an­nual Milken In­sti­tute Global Con­fer­ence. Fit­tingly, the theme this year is “Mean­ing­ful Lives.” In May 2016, I jour­neyed to Dharam­sala and found joy, com­fort and bless­ings in an un­ex­pected place and time.

That too is the magic, or karma, of travel.

THIS PAGE A dra­matic cloud­scape over Mcleod Ganj, as viewed from Tsug­lagkhang, the tem­ple com­plex of H.H. the Dalai Lama

moun­tain high CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: A tra­di­tional Ti­betan-style, Bud­dhist paint­ing known as thangka; wall hang­ings fea­ture eight aus­pi­cious Bud­dhist sym­bols: The White Conch Shell, The Pre­cious Um­brella, The Vic­tory Ban­ner, The Golden Fish, The Dharma Wheel, The End­less Knot, The Lo­tus Flower, and The Vase of Trea­sure; tak­ing a seat at Lhagyal Ri be­fore the Pho­tos of the Ti­betan Mar­tyrs; a Ti­betan monk con­tem­plates the Dharam­sala view

CLOCK­WISE: An­other stop in Lhagyal Ri, on the way to the Lingkhor path cir­cling H.H. the Dalai Lama's tem­ple; a Ti­betan woman sells tra­di­tional bread in Mcleod Ganj; en­joy­ing In­dian palak pa­neer (spinach and cheese), Ti­betan sha pha­ley (stuffed bread) and fried mut­ton at Kailash Restau­rant; a plate of spinach & cheese mo­mos

CLOCK­WISE: Church of St. John in the Wilder­ness—a liv­ing rem­nant from the era of the Bri­tish Raj; a monk turns a prayer wheel at a tem­ple at Mcleod Ganj main square; a beau­ti­ful stained glass win­dow at Church of St. John in the Wilder­ness

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