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Thursday, 12 April 2007

Enlightenment through Osmosis, The Dalai Lama's Teachings in India

Written by Lisa McCallum
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goryk“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.

The office had a few foreigners hanging out around the doorway. A Swedish woman told us that he was giving teachings today at his residence. Tomorrow he was also giving the opening address for a new monastery that was starting up a few miles away. We could get passes to see him at any time throughout the week. I was expecting tickets to be pricey, or at least hard to get, but we only had to stand around the tiny, dusty office for a few minutes before a Tibetan man asked for our passports. The man wrote down our information on white cards that slipped into plastic covers.

“No lose this card,” the man said. “You cannot go without card.”

“How much?” I asked anxiously.

“Five rupees.”

“Really?” I asked incredulously. This was the Dalai Lama we were talking about.

“Yes, five. You no lose card.” He was pleasant but blunt. If I lose the card, I can’t get in. There are only so many people you can cram into a monastery to see one of the world’s most famous spiritual leaders.

I turned to Mily and RanHee and grinned. “It’s only five rupees!” When you’re a backpacker, every little bit counts. We passed on the good news to the next couple in line—Aisha and Compani. I’m not sure where Compani took his name. It’s pronounced “Com-pa-ni.” He seemed like an average white guy who got into yoga and Buddhism, changed his name from something like David or Michael, and then met Aisha, a stunning African American girl. Or maybe he met her first, and the yoga and Compani came later. They lived in Rochester, New York, and were traveling around India for three months studying yoga at a few different ashrams. They too, felt it was fate to have come to McLeod-Ganj during the time when the Dalai Lama was actually in town, but for them it was a far more spiritual link than it was for me.

“What time is the ceremony tomorrow?” I asked the Tibetan man before I turned to go.

“Don’t know. Maybe 11. Maybe 12. Go early.”

“Thanks!” I relayed the news to the others and suggested foregoing the teachings today for the monastery dedication tomorrow; the overnight bus ride up from Delhi had made me absolutely knackered and if I could see the Dalai Lama tomorrow, I would be refreshed and ready to absorb the experience. The others agreed. We decided to hire a taxi to take us out to the monastery at 9 a.m. On straight, flat highway, it would have taken about ten minutes. But this was the foothills of the Himalayas, so the trip might take half an hour or longer.

The rest of the day, I wandered the muddy streets of McLeod-Ganj, poking my head in shops bursting with Indian scarves and Buddhist beads, thinking about tomorrow. Seeing the Dalai Lama would be almost anti-climactic if I had known about this speech in advance, reserved a ticket to it, and put it on my calendar. This way, it was the perfect surprise after the chilly and cramped fourteen-hour bus ride up here.

On Sunday, our group of five foreigners traveled to Goryk Monastery. The monastery could have been in Tibet, judging from its architecture. After all, we really weren’t that far away (though I wouldn’t say that to any refugees from Tibet who had literally walked for days to cross the border into India). The Himalayas formed a picturesque backdrop to a blur of red, yellow, green, white, and blue Tibetan prayer flags that lined the pathway up to the monastery, reminding me briefly of a used-car dealership. When monk after maroon-clad monk filed up the entryway toward the monastery, that analogy was shattered. Attending the opening of a monastery in the Tibetan part of India was surreal enough, but when I saw the monks, it hit me that I was actually going to see the Dalai Lama—and not in an American lecture hall, a stadium, or a state capitol building where he delivers speeches about peace in a tongue foreign to him.

Yesterday I felt lucky when I found a pleasant (albeit freezing) hotel room with a double bed, my own private bathroom with a water heater for the shower, and a Thai restaurant on the rooftop. Mily and RanHee, joined me in my quest. The three of us checked with at least ten hotels before finding rooms in the hotel that was the farthest along the winding road down to Dharamsala. Any farther and we would be sleeping with the mountain goats. But, like everything else on this trip, it all worked out. And now I was preparing to enter the spiritual center of a group of monks who were deemed important enough to have their monastery welcomed into the family of Buddhism by their leader himself.

Everyone formed two long lines to enter the temple, men on the left and women on the right. My camera was a problem. I hadn’t thought it would be, or else I wouldn’t have brought it. Tough police officers insisted on everyone opening their bags and showing what they’re bringing in: all cameras had to be disposed of. The female officer in charge of our line explained to me that taking pictures of the Dalai Lama is forbidden because all the flashes would blind him and distract him while he was speaking. I understood that. But I’m one of those tourists who is used to carrying a camera at all times. I had automatically brought it with me; I didn’t know what I’d do with it now.

I begged politely, “I won’t take any pictures of him. I promise!” I was disappointed about the rule, but I controlled my anger. If I pissed off the officer, I wouldn’t get to go inside at all. She said quietly that there was an office in one of the monastery buildings in which a monk will maybe hold my camera for me while I watch the speech. I latched onto this idea, hoping this saintly monk would feel generous enough to hold onto my camera for an hour. This was not a tourist-ready operation, so they didn’t have tiny lockers or a desk with a bored worker who will keep your verboten items and return them later for a small fee. This was a place of worship. Aisha came with me as we went in search of the camera-keeping monk.

The temple itself stood at the end of a long stretch of concrete lined on either side with plots of grass. Groups of monks and Tibetan families were picnicking on the ground and waiting patiently for the speech to begin. They were used to waiting, but they also knew something I didn’t know: the speech would be broadcast through loudspeakers, so they would be able to hear it outside as well as I would inside. I was used to not knowing things like this (including the information about the camera) when I reach my destinations, even after reading guidebooks and talking to travelers who had been to the places I went to. Traveling is like that, things change, and things are not mentioned. You deal with it or you go home. If I had known about the loudspeakers, though, I wouldn’t have been so anxious to get inside.

Aisha and I rushed to the main building of the monastery. A paper sign by the entrance said in neat handwriting, “Office: Third Floor.” The building was made entirely of concrete, with windows that looked out onto the monastery property. On the way up to the third floor, I glanced down through these windows. The lines of men and women going into the temple were stretching further and further back. Pretty soon there wouldn’t be any more spots to sit inside the temple.

The monk who holds the cameras was reluctant to take another one. “I have a few already, you see. And I can’t promise anything. I maybe will not be here to watch it. So if it gets stolen…” He put on a dejected smile to indicate his ambivalence toward doing me this favor.

“I understand. If my camera is stolen, you are not responsible. But I need to keep it here because I can’t take it in there.”

“Okay. Please give me. Write your name.” I wrote my name on a scrap of paper and thanked him. He took the paper and my camera. I felt a little funny about giving it up, but I had no choice. I had to trust that it would be here when I returned. It wasn’t the cost of the camera that bothered me; it was only a cheap film camera, but the idea of traveling without a camera until I could buy a new one gave me pause. I was in the foothills of the Himalayas. Buying a new camera would be either out of the question or extremely costly, I imagined. As we hurriedly left the office, I turned to Aisha. “It will be all right here, won’t it?”

“Sure, it will. Plus, you have nowhere else to put it, right?” She hadn’t brought her camera, but she had sympathy for me.

By now it is almost noon and I am sitting cross-legged on the outer ring of the temple. The Dalai Lama is inside speaking at the front of the temple. If I crane my neck around, I can catch a peek of him through a window frame. The monks—some in bright gold, some in maroon—are spellbound, capturing every word in their memories to take back to their dorms and study. The spattering of foreigners is concentrated on the outer ring with me. I can tell the hippies from the tourists who just happened to be in the McLeod-Ganj area from the converted Buddhist monks and nuns. They will devote years to living near the Dalai Lama, studying his books and teachings, and searching for inner peace when outer peace is unattainable.

The Dalai Lama speaks in a soft, murmuring voice that is soothing in its own right. After thirty minutes of not understanding a word, though, I am getting antsy. I am wondering how long is an appropriate amount of time to listen to someone who I don’t understand. Focus on the feelings, not the words, I tell myself. Try to feel what the monks are feeling. Let the peacefulness wash through me and let all the bad karma from past negative experiences flow out. People around me have their eyes closed; they must be meditating. If you just listen and don’t know what someone is saying, is it meditating? I’m not sure. I listen for some sign of his guidance. Maybe just being in his presence is all anyone needed, but I am rethinking my rejection of the translator earphones. At least then I wouldn’t have to rely on enlightenment through osmosis.

At 1:30, I look around at RanHee, Mily, and Aisha. They nod that they are ready to go, too. A few foreigners have left already, which means it might be acceptable to get up. Compani is somewhere nearby; we need to find him. The girls and I file quietly through the lines of cross-legged people back to the stairs, down to the picnickers, to an open spot on a cement bench. Aisha goes to find Compani. Mily, RanHee, and I start talking about how amazing this experience is when I remember I better fetch my camera.

Upstairs, the monk is alone in the office, he stayed to guard the cameras. The other monks are down watching the Dalai Lama.


“I’ve come for my camera, please,” I say, trying to sound demure and grateful. He turns toward me from the window. He can’t see the speech from up here on the third floor, but he can hear everything. Loudspeakers are blasting the speech across the monastery grounds. Even the taxi drivers can take part in the teachings—if they understand Tibetan.

“Name?” the monk asks. He is pleasant, unable to be resentful about missing a glimpse of his leader; after all, he can probably go up the road and hear the teachings some other time. He finds my camera in a small pile, making me think that the majority of the other visitors thought to leave their cameras at home. I guess I know now for the next time. I thank him profusely for keeping my camera for me. It was probably safer with him than it would have been in a marked bin or a locker anyway.

Downstairs, Aisha has found Compani. He could have stayed there for hours. I feel a little guilty for dragging him away, but when Aisha agrees that we have stayed long enough, he complies.

The taxi ride home is anticlimactic, as is the rest of the day. What else can you do on the day you saw the Dalai Lama speaking in a Tibetan-style temple near Dharamsala? Everything pales. I wander around the muddy, potholed streets of McLeod-Ganj trying to decide what color scarf to buy to punch up my four-shirt, two-pant wardrobe.

churchThe next morning, I find a church on the Lonely Planet map for the town. After months of visiting Buddhist and Hindu temples, a church is irresistible, despite my lack of church attendance at home. It’s located a short hike away—up a hill, along a wooded path.

Following my map first and then the small signs for the Church of St. John in the Wilderness, I see the church through the trees. I could be in Ireland: the pathway leading up to the entrance boasts a massive Celtic cross made of stones embedded in it. Fir trees line either side of the path and then stop growing when they reach the little cemetery to the left of the church. There is not a soul around. The tall, dark firs and overcast sky lend an eerie feeling to the area.

I approach the small, white church and wonder if any non-tourists ever come here. Inside, pews are lined up in rows just like my church at home, minus the deep red carpet and immense marble cross with a ghostly Jesus carved into it. But the silence in this church is the same. In fact, there’s more of it, possibly due to my being halfway across the world. In my opinion, any spiritual experience—even just visiting a church—often seems more intense when it happens far from home, far from your comfort zone.

I enter the church and walk slowly towards the front, where a guest sign-in book is laying open on a dusty table. I sign it, as I sign every guest book I have seen along this solo trip, just to prove I have been there. When you travel alone, there is no one who can account for your existence unless it’s in written form. I turn around and take a seat on a worn, wooden bench. A few cobwebs don the ceiling. The roof might be made of tin. The wood that makes up the actual building could use a paint job, both inside and out. All in all, though, I can tell someone takes care of this place. They must, for it to survive inside a tiny refuge of Buddhism inside a huge slice of Hinduism in the world. And when I’m wondering what kind of person cares for this place, in walks an older Indian man carrying a shovel. He looks at me with calm eyes.

I smile and say, “Hello,” though I’m not sure if he knows English. Contrary to the popular believe that East Indians all learn British English, most Indians I’ve encountered who are not in the tourist industry don’t know much English.

“Hello. Did you sign the book?” he asks politely. Business comes first for him, I guess.

“Yes.” I ask, “Do you work here?”

“Yes. I work here. I live here. Over there.” He gestures to a shack behind the church, stuck at the edge of the cemetery. Then comes the ubiquitous question: “Where are you from?”

In every city, in every nation, always the same question. I don’t mind, unless locals who only want to practice their English say it in a taunting manner. This man, however, does not need to practice his English. It’s grammatically correct. His manner is kind, patient, and simply curious. When I answer him with, “America,” he grins and nods.

“America! I think yesterday we had someone from…” He searches a page in the guest book. “No, I’m sorry. It was Canada. But close!”

We laugh. There are worse things than being mistaken for a Canadian.

I’m a little unclear about his status here. Does he just work here or does he worship here too?

“Are you a Christian?” I ask.

“Yes. This is my church. It is not much, but it is the only Christian church for many miles.” I believe him. “Are you a Christian?” he asks.

I want to be honest and tell him I don’t really go to church much at home, but that’s not really what he asked. Plus, I don’t want to complicate our exchange. “Yes, I am,” I answer. If I am going to be labeled, it is correct. I’m not a Buddhist or a Hindu; that much I know.

“Very nice to meet you. I must work. Stay and rest. Bless you.”

The man retreats out the side door to continue his shoveling, maybe digging a new grave. Strangely enough, the thought doesn’t feel creepy. In this land of poverty, death is much more matter-of-fact and realistic than at home.

Yesterday, I was surrounded by the chatter of monks and the murmur of the Dalai Lama as he spoke convincingly of creating both world and inner peace—or so I assume. Today I hear only my own breathing. The day is cloudy and cool outside, maybe turning to rain soon. Three steps away is a cemetery. The Church of St. John in the Wilderness appears, on the outset, like quite a depressing place, with few visitors and fewer funds for upkeep. It is not so for me. Knowing the streets in town will be muddy and my hotel room will be chilly, I stay awhile. It’s comfortable here.

©Lisa McCallum

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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