Pilgrims On Our Way to the Dalai Lama


dalai_lamaI didn’t come to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama.   I didn’t come to study Buddhism.   I didn’t come to learn about Tibet or the Tibetan people. I walk an eclectic spiritual path, with an emphasis on devotional spirituality, inspired by bhakti yoga—I have a bhakti yoga guru.   I’m inspired by Sufism and Christian mysticism. Over the last years, I’ve been distancing myself from Buddhism, because it seems so intellectual, so often centered in the mind instead of the heart.

No, I brought my family here during the hot Indian months of May and June, so they might have a nicer introduction to the beauty and the natural world of India the colorful festival of India, while they were also getting adjusted to the rigors challenges of living in this great but difficult country.   The culture shock was going to be great enough that I didn’t want the heat of the south to make it worse.

India is said to be a place where you’ll experience your highest highs and your lowest lows.

It’s is a place where miracles happen every day.   We in the West call them “coincidences.”

But, then, upon arriving here, I fell in love with the Tibetan people.   The caretaker of our house, Sonam, told me about her escape across the Himalayas, traveling for six weeks, in December, only during nights. (I wrote about her escape in an earlier post.)   I encountered the plaza with the faces of the hundreds of Tibetans who have immolated themselves in desperate response to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. I saw the hunched, wrinkled old men and women walking the temple trail, spinning the prayer wheels with their right hands, carrying their mala in the left hand to say their mantra.   Om Mani Padme Hum. The Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus. Their amazing faces and smiles that seemed to radiate an inner light, their eyes full of sweetness.

And, then, this morning, my family would get to attend a public audience with the Dalai Lama in his temple.

I heard about the audience about a week ago.   On Monday morning I went to an office in town to register and get our tickets. I went with six passports, Jennifer’s, Aidan’s, Kellen’s, Jennifer’s parents’, and mine.   The line went down the street, and turned between two buildings, went to the back and up some stairs, to a small hot office with two men at computers. There, I discovered that the family would all have to come personally.   So, I went to meet them, and we all went back. We squeezed passed all the people and went to the front of the line—which the man at the desk had told me to do.

We stood in front of the desks for a couple of minutes until a big dark-haired, goateed Tibetan behind a desk stood up and yelled:

“You people! Go back to the back of the line like everyone else!”

I was taken aback. The Tibetans are all so kind and welcoming!   I explained our situation and he sat down.   After a few minutes, Jennifer called us over to his desk and said he would register us.   We walked over. He seemed to be some kind of wild Genghis Khan nomad out of the steppes, a great warrior Bodhisattva who at any moment might take out his sword and slice our heads off.   He registered us one by one in what seemed like a quiet fury. I immediately loved the guy.

Working with the public is of course the worst kind of job. Especially bad, I’m sure, is working with a bunch of Western tourists with big egos, small patience, plenty of ignorance, and little respect for an ancient, sacred culture.

When my turn came, in a clear voice, I said, “Tashi Delek.”

This is the traditional Tibetan greeting, which means something like, “Auspicious meeting you and good fortune!”

He responded, “Tashi Delek.”

A chink in the armor.

After he registered us, he told us to show up at the temple between 7:00 and 7:30, a.m., and to bring nothing with us.

So Wednesday morning came.

As I wrote in an earlier post, I have been feeling very strongly the presence of the Dalai Lama since we got here. I can’t explain it. His presence fills my meditations, my morning hikes up to the temple trail and around the temple trail, and of course in my daily prostrations.   It’s not just that his image appears constantly before my mind, which it does.   But an indescribable sweetness, a bright, subtle, yet very powerful essence or electricity fills my body, the pores of my skin, my heart overflows. Tears often fill my eyes. It’s palpable. A pure quiet, subtle exaltation. A sense of homecoming.

For weeks I have been full of anticipation to see him.

So, Wednesday morning, Jennifer, Aidan, Kellen, Jennifer’s parents, and I left our cottage at 6:30.   We walked up to the temple trail and circumambulated the temple.   I carried my mala, repeating Om Mani Padme Hum, turning the prayer wheels, holding Aidan or Kellen’s hand as they turned the wheels. Aidan was counting them. On a previous day, I had counted 314 wheels.

At the plaza of immolated youth, monks and lay people were chanting. Prayer flags blowing everywhere. We continued up the trail.   I gave alms to the beggars, sadhus, and monks. It was a beautiful morning, the mountains and valleys clear of haze. As we came around to the gate, we could see a line going up the street into town, filled with Westerners.   This was the audience reserved for “Indians and foreigners.”

One of the joys of being here is seeing all the Westerners. We have seen more lately than we’ve seen in many weeks. They are mostly young, but not all. And this morning we were with an especially colorful crowd. So many dressed in wonderful clothes, mixtures of Tibetan dress, Indian salwar camises, hippie tie-dyes. There were dreadlocks, shaved heads, colorful vests, scarves around men’s necks as well as women’s, bearded men with their hair in makeshift buns, all kinds of beards and goatees, Fu Manchus, one guy with a clean-shaven face except for a single long strand of goatee, braided and hanging from his chin. Women in tank tops, paisley pants, tights and loose-fitting, yoga clothes, rainbow dresses, people wrapped in shawls, blankets, in robes. White clothed, long-haired men like self-proclaimed yoga masters.   Some seemed to be yogis, hippies, artists, punkers, post-apocalyptic runaways and gypsies, shaved-headed renunciates, pagan goddesses, waifs, and urchins.   All kinds of piercings, tattoos, and body paintings.   Older women who seem to have found yoga or Buddhism or Shirley McClain. But everyone (except, of course, for the uber-cool, sunglasses, black-clothed, whose studied poses would not be broken) had bright eyes, clear faces, and easy smiles. We were a caravan, a gathering of pilgrims, a sangha of devotees. I wondered how many were teachers, leaders of sanghas, yoga classes, meditation groups.

The line was moving, and we were about to go in!

Next post: Seeing the Dalai Lama.


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