“My Tibetan’s a bit rusty. I’m having a hard time following what he’s talking about,” I whisper to Aisha, one of the people I came here with. She smiles and nods, but doesn’t really laugh. It’s meant to be funny. I, however, am an anomaly in this audience: I am an American backpacker who ended up traveling to McLeod-Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama, to escape the harassment of the rest of North India.
Yesterday I found out that the Dalai Lama was in fact in residence and would be giving a speech today. It hasn’t been a lifelong goal of mine to see him speak in person, but in my opinion if you have the chance to see the Dalai Lama for five rupees, you do it. Aisha is a converted Buddhist American, so her slight smile tells me that joking has no place here for her. I keep my thoughts to myself from now on.
The advantage to hearing the Dalai Lama in his adopted home of India is that his speech is in Tibetan. It all seems much more authentic than the speeches he makes when he is visiting other countries and he communicates in English. Of course, the disadvantage is also that he is speaking in Tibetan, so there are quite a few of us who don’t understand him. Most of the crowd is Tibetan. There are a few foreign monks from America and Germany who are dressed in the same maroon robes as the Tibetans. Despite their attempts (the robes, the shaved heads), they don’t fit in. The few tourists—me, Aisha, her boyfriend Compani, and our two Korean friends Mily and RanHee—don’t fit in either.
For a splurge, I could have rented earphones with a man translating the Tibetan speech into my ears moments after the Dalai Lama speaks. I decided to forego the earphones. It’s a more spiritual experience to just let his words wash over me and hopefully penetrate in some cosmic way. I will have to cut out the jokes, though, or I could seriously damage our chances for purification and renewal simply by being in his presence. And there is a sense of that: once I get comfortable on a thin, green carpet less than an inch away from other backpackers—a situation that would normally feel less than ideal—I sense serenity in the air that helps me to relax.
If I crane my neck up and lean over towards the left, I can see a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. He is sitting in side the main room of the temple, while I am on the outer ring of the room, only glassless windows giving me a peek of him if I stretch the right way for a few seconds. But it’s worth it. This is his territory. He’s the master here. Everyone loves him. He is so loveable. He has managed to lead thousands of people to search for peace, and I can’t find anything wrong with that. As he murmurs on and on about something (probably peace, love, acceptance, and living together in harmony), I try to not think about anything else except what I imagine he is talking about. Is this what meditating is like? I can’t imagine sitting lotus-style for hours and listening to something I can’t understand. I look around. The others look like they understand. The Tibetans surely understand. Many of the foreigners have rented the earphones. My friends and I are somewhat alone in our lack of Tibetan language knowledge and translator earphones.
The Dalai Lama doesn’t live in Dharamsala, like everyone thinks. He lives in McLeod-Ganj, the town at the top of the hill. When I arrived in McLeod-Ganj yesterday, I didn’t think he would be here. Someone on the overnight bus from Delhi said, “I heard he’s in America now. Doing another book tour or giving speeches.” I wasn’t sure where the Dalai Lama would be, but I was shocked to hear later that day that he was actually in town and was “giving teachings” throughout the next week at his residence in McLeod-Ganj. That was all I needed to hear. The Dalai Lama possesses a quality that made me curious to be in his presence, not even as a follower or a student, but simply as an admirer. I looked around at my Korean companions from the bus. They nodded and said, “Yes, yes. We want to go too!” Asking a flurry of questions at the Dalai Lama residence, I finally found out we had to go to a ticket office near the center of town.