McLeod Ganj is the home of the Tibetan Government in exile and the spiritual leader of Tibet, his Holiness the Dalai Lama. A small mountain town located at the foot of the Himalayas in the North of India, it offers visitors a curious confluence of Indian and Tibetan culture. Although his official residence is in McLeod Ganj, His Holiness is rarely at home due to the unyielding demands of his international appearance schedule. As one of the most sought after individuals in the world for spiritual, political and celebrity reasons, it is a special occasion when he is ‘at home’.
Fortunately for us he was ‘at home’ during our visit to McLeod Ganj. To quote from his website:
His Holiness will give three days of teachings on Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Treatise of the Middle Way (uma tsawai sherab) at the request of a group of Koreans at the Main Tibetan Temple.
The invitation to attend was extended to the public. This only happens a few times a year, so of course for many people, residents and tourists alike, this is the only opportunity to see and hear the Dalai Lama. For health reasons his Holiness no longer holds public audiences and getting a private audience is challenging due to his limited availability.
The current situation in Tibet is that for the majority of the Tibetan people their cultural and human rights are denied by the Chinese government. You can read more here about a recent representation at the 19th session of UN Human Rights Council. The 59th act of self-immolation occurred last week in Tibet and protests for freedom against the Chinese are frequent and often end in death or imprisonment. Many Tibetans take the decision to leave Tibet and follow the treacherous path over the Himalayas and into Nepal, finally reaching salvation in the form of their exiled community in McLeod Ganj. For them an opportunity to meet with the ‘spiritual leader of Tibet’, his Holiness the Dalai Lama, makes that journey worthwhile. You can learn more about the Tibetan situation by watching this presentation.
We intended to spend a few days in McLeod Ganj but on realising that an extended stay would grant us the privilege to see and hear His Holiness, on his proverbial ‘home turf’, we decided to extend our stay. McLeod Ganj has its own energy and where there is chaos there is also calm as the Indian and Tibetan ways merge on the narrow hillside streets. In the lead up to the teachings the town became increasingly busier as the overnight buses from Delhi began to slowly unload more and more spiritual enthuasists. Our regular haunt, Nick’s Italian at Kunga Guesthouse was full to capacity the night before the ‘teachings’. It felt like the lead up to a festival for us as people descended upon the small town and prepped themselves for the now much used word on everyone’s lips – ‘the teachings’.
The presence of maroon robed monks mushroomed as more and more cafes were taken over by informal buddhist teachings. The curious thing about McLeod Ganj is the number of non-Tibetan monks. It is not unusual to see a fresh-faced guy in his 20s with a thick American drawl, wearing red cons (underneath his robes), sipping a latte and discussing complex buddhist texts with groups of well dressed Western or Asian ladies. There are also many short haired or shaven Western women dressed in maroon robes about McLeod Ganj who are studying Tibetan Buddhism – some of whom live in the monastery.
The most important thing that all the guidebooks and websites mentioned was to register for the teachings. This process happened in the offices of the Tibetan Government in exile – a very basic building that resembled an outhouse more than a country’s administrative offices. In the days leading up to the teachings the dark, ‘aromatic’ little alleyway in front of the office was filled with a plethora of different people from all cultures, creeds and walks of life. A few days before I joined this mixed group to queue for registration armed with my passport, passport photos, completed registration form and 10 rupees administration fee.
There were only 3 people in front of us so we assumed a swift process until I looked inside the office and saw one man dealing with everything.
His process, although simple could not have been more time consuming. He personally checked and wrote out each of the registration passes, trimmed the photo down to size with a large rusty scissors and took the cash – a whole 10 rupees approximately 15 euro cent.! After a 15min standstill I looked again and realised that one of the three in front of me was processing 28 badges for a group – there was no group bookings section!
In our small waiting group we mumbled, then laughed, then chatted and all accepted in our ‘western way’ that this was the system and we would just have to be patient. After all, we were queing to go to a buddhist teaching, not for IKEA. It was fascinating to hear to see and hear the full flavour of nationalities and their particular reason for coming to see the Dalai Lama amongst the Tibetan people.
A very friendly Japanese woman I befriended in the queue gave me some insider’s tips:
- go to the temple the day before the teaching at 0600 to reserve your spot
- remember to leave your mobile phone, camera and other forbidden items at home
- bring an FM radio so that you can listen to the teaching in your own language
- arrive at the temple at 0600 for a 0930 start on the morning of the teaching to ensure that you get your reserved place
- bring a cushion
- bring a cup – ‘they serve tea’
Slowly, we made our way behind him and upstairs to our ‘spots’.We found our spot with two people comfortably sitting there. I attempted to point out our sign but they just offered to let us sit on their mat. In the spirit of the event we squeezed in beside them, half sitting, half standing between a row of monks in front and behind us.The heat of the compressed bodies made our woolen items redundant – air was more important now as the space between us was so tight. The teaching began. All of the westerners were attired in various styles of earphones tuned to Dalai Lama FM radio. The multi-media provision was simple: two screens displaying a live feed from inside the temple and a PA system which meant that we were able to see the Dalai Lama at certain times.
We were being clever and using a splitter for our Fraggle Rock sized radio. Unfortunately, the splitter only liked one set of our earphones and could just about bear the second pair. The format was that the Korean group representative posed a ‘long’ question to the Dalai Lama in Korean and he then responded in Tibetan. His answer ranged in length from 5 to 20mins after which the English translator interpreted for the translation broadcast. This meant that for a period of up to 30 mins we could only hear Korean and Tibetan. The Tibetan people and Monks around us prayed and meditated throughout, being close to his Holiness was sufficent for them. When we did hear the translation it was difficult to access as it was in the middle of a complex text. One very clear thing that we did take (our version) from the Dalai Lama’s words was:
‘You need to make yourself happy first before you can begin to look outwards for happiness or bring happiness to other people’.
As part of the ritual of the teaching the Dalai Lama blessed tea and then the monks distributed this to the audience. It was a real feat of accomplishment for them to make their way through the milling crowd with a humongous hot tea pot. My Japanese friend had advised well in telling me to take a cup with me. However the prospect of Tibetan Butter Tea was not to my liking. It was a real treat however to watch the monk in front of us take out his well used wooden bowl and offer it up for tea, which he slowly slurped for some time after. Amidst the main ritual there were many minor rituals occurring all around me as Tibetan people and Tibetan monks unwrapped tight packages in closely held cloth bags. The ‘taking out of their cup or bowl’ and cleaning it in advance of their tea was a very basic and beautiful ritual to watch. The sheer reverence that they showed in receiving the tea blessed by the head Lama was so simple and pure and held such meaning for them. It was challenging to remain focused on the teaching but was wonderful to absorb the atmosphere of the complex all around me. The mood was light too as monks snored or dozed softly and were quickly jerked back into attention by their colleagues. After some time the Dalai Lama suggested that people might be feeling pain in their legs at this point and were welcome to ‘stretch their legs’ – a true understanding of his western audience – an entertainer who cared for his audience.
The Dalai Lama called the morning session to a close and made his way down the steps of the complex and into his 4 x 4 where he was driven the 30m to his residence. A clear statement that this is one of the world’s most important people and his security is threatened – a humble, 77 year old smiling monk! As we left the complex in our hordes we saw the enormous vats of rice and vegetarian dal set out for the monks and nuns who had of course come equipped with their own bowl.
We didn’t gain any deeper knowledge of the Buddhist text but gained a once in a lifetime experience of seeing and hearing a man who deservedly garners world respect, not least for the hope that he offers to his people who live their lives through the curtain of oppression. I felt privileged for the life that I have been born into and for the opportunities that have been afforded to me – something that should be always remembered. Of course, if we were looking for insight or wisdom we could not do better than to hear the wisdom of these words
‘You need to make yourself happy first before you can begin to look outwards for happiness or bring happiness to other people’
spoken directly from the mouth of the Dalai Lama himself.
If you are interested in learning more about the Tibetan situation then you might like to check out some of the following:
http://www.tibetnetwork.org – this is an excellent resource to learn more about the Tibetan situation and to watch films and documentaries about Tibet.
http://www.facebook.com/tibethopecenter – a great NGO based in McLeod Ganj who wish to work with non-Tibetans through social media and other forms to promote the Tibetan situation.
http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dispatches-undercover-in-tibet/– an excellent overview of the modern day situation of leaving Tibet
Slide share Presentation on Tibet – I attended a very informative talk at the Hope Center in Mc Leod Ganj which provides great insight into the current situation of Chinese occupation of Tibet and the environmental toll that it is having.
Himalaya – a beautifully shot film that captures the integrity of the traditional Tibetan culture.