On our second day at our cottage in McLeod Ganj, I ask the cottage manager if she could show us some of the hiking routes into the mountains. “Yes,” she says, “but not tomorrow because His Holiness Dalai Lama is teaching.”
“What?” I say. “Here in town?”
“Yes, at the temple,” she says.
“Is that something we can go to?”
“Yes, of course. You just have to bring your passport and two photos to security office.”
The next morning we follow dozens of shuffling bald, saffron-robed monks and nuns through a cool Himalayan cloud that has settled upon the village, passing two cows munching food scraps from a trash pile that peer at us from the corner of their eyes, to the central temple. There, two lines of monks and nuns inch into the temple and a separate, guarded entrance is marked for foreigners—no cameras, cell phones, or electronics of any kind. A heavy-chested, tall Tibetan man hand-searches me more than any TSA agent ever has.
The temple structure is simple: two wall-less floors of cream and red concrete with cylindrical columns and squared corners; but the glow of the Himalayan morning lunges across the concrete floor illuminating it at wide angles and casting golden curves upon the rounded points of elbows, cheeks, brows, and noses, and calming, aromatic incense smoke hovers and then elevates toward the sky. A hum of mumbles persists behind a continuous, low, entrancing chant of Om Mani Pad Me Hum Om Mani Padme Hum… Hundreds of monks and nuns in their draping robes, hundreds of rosy-cheeked Tibetans in black wool vests and pants or long skirts, and hundreds of visitors (European, Eastern Asian, African, South American) sit cross-legged and barefoot with bright eyes and smiles, craning their necks toward the closed adorned room where H.H. Dalai Lama will teach. Some have brought cushions, some share blankets or straw mats, some sit on the bare concrete. We pass a section for the press—one of two with chairs—and arrive at another section marked “English.”
As we sit, a three-year old with hair as blonde as Caribbean sand runs figure eights between seated foreigners, laughing as her gray-haired Nordic grandmother—a woman larger in structure and face than most Western men—sways her body with eyes closed to the chanting: Om Mani Pad Me Hum… A thin sixty-something Californian woman with buzzed salt-and-pepper hair and Tibetan clothes clasps her hands to her chin, reaches them toward the sky, lowers them to her chest, kneels, then lunges until she is prone with both palms on the floor. Then she scoots back to her knees, rises, and repeats the positions several more times.
Slowly, people begin to stand. Over the short bald heads I see the white shine off the Dalai Lama’s bald head and then the glasses. Draped in gold and saffron robes, he leads a group of a dozen robed men, raising his hand to the crowd, touching, and blessing those at the front of their sections. His smile—in his cheeks, in his eyes—is constant, and the corresponding wrinkles around his mouth and across his forehead seem chiseled. His eyes behind those frameless glasses appear smaller than his thick black eyebrows. The Dalai Lama circles every section blessing and greeting those in front, smiling and waving to as many as possible. As he passes our section, the short Southeast Asian nun next to us is on her bare toes and on the verge of joyous tears. Soon the Dalai Lama disappears into the adorned closed room and sits beneath a golden Buddha, behind a decorated altar.
Young monks and nuns appear in our section with enormous metal teakettles and stacks of paper cups. They slowly zigzag through the seated visitors and hand out cups and pour steaming milk tea with two hands. More come with great baskets of biscuits and offer them to everyone. Though we can see the golden Buddha through the glass doors, the Dalai Lama is too low for our vision. A low grumbling chant comes over the speakers resembling a gargle, and the Dalai Lama appears on the television mounted above. Those in the know (not us) begin to recite with hands clasped, some swaying or gyrating from the waist up.
Soon the Dalai Lama clears his throat and begins speaking in Tibetan. The translation comes over the speakers a few seconds later in the English section. He is welcoming everyone, but then he switches to English. “All religions preach love, compassion, self-discipline,” he says. “Different approach, but same main message. So Buddhists must first respect all religions. First respect, then learn, understand. Buddha not want all the world Buddhist, not want all Buddhist teach Buddhism” and I try in vain to imagine the leaders of other major religions saying something similar.
He relates the importance of religious pluralism and then says, “OK, so, let’s have some tea,” and releases a deep sincere belly laugh as he raises his cup. The seated admirers raise cups and drink and eat their biscuits.
For the next three hours, the Dalai Lama switches between English and Tibetan, teaching from the Buddhist texts and his own understanding and study:
“Karma based on causality,” he says, “based on intention and so only applicable to those with mind. ‘Oh, it’s my karma,’ say. But who created that karma? You. You are responsible for the experiences you created….”
“Buddhist not believe in soul theory; stronger sense of I, stronger attachment, more suffering…”
“Concept of beauty is marker for attachment. The beauty you see has no objective value. Our bodies are only skeletons colored by flesh and muscle. Person is kind; we like them, become attached, but to body because cannot marry mind…. Meditating on great attachments helps overcome desire and attachment: body is skeleton, whole land is covered with skeletons. So, if desire body, why not copulate with corpse?”
A chubby late-twenties American in a white undershirt and cargo pants crosses and then uncrosses his legs—no doubt feeling them fall asleep—and writes as much of what the Dalai Lama says into a composition book. The young nuns and monks bring hot milk tea and biscuits again, and every hour or so, the Dalai Lama invites everyone to drink tea.
He breaks into genuine barreling belly laughs at the smallest ironies and comic thoughts, and his laughs send waves of smiles across the enthralled faces. As quickly as he breaks into laughs, he returns to serious declarations: “Peace can only come from mind, because anger and war only come from mind” and lays out quotes that resonate with everyday experience: “Work all day, very hard; come home exhausted, lie prostrate on couch, not attaining goals, no energy for family, children, partner; selling our body to our boss, to another.”
As the sun summits the silver Himalayan peaks and rains down into McLeod Ganj, the temple floor warms; backpackers shed their fleeces. The Caribbean-haired girl has fallen asleep in the lap of her entranced grandmother. Some visitors have trickled out and others have shifted to get closer to the speaker or occupy an empty mat or blanket. Not one saffron robe has disappeared. “Religion,” the Dalai Lama states before we leave, “if not sincerely practice, that religion teach us only hypocrisy.”
-M. Myers Griffith
Thank you to TodayIFoundOut.com for the photo of the 14th Dalai Lama.
Thanks for reading!
- Tibet in India (asiasketches.wordpress.com)
- Dalai Lama speaks on harmony to religious followers at Tokyo temple (japandailypress.com)
- China vows to silence Dalai Lama in Tibet (nation.com.pk)
Note: Originally published 28 November 2013 at Asia Sketches.