Published: 22nd May 2019
I am more Indian than you: Why meeting the Dalai Lama changed my life!
The 14th Dalai Lama is revered by tens of millions of Buddhists as a living Buddha, and we find out what the experience of meeting him feels like
Try as I might, I fail to remember when or where I first read about the most famous Buddhist monk on earth, the revered reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion (Avalokiteśvara), the former spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet, and the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. I do, however, recall the monumental task of gaining the attention of the individual considered by Tibetans and Buddhists alike to be a living God, the man on whose ageing shoulder rests the entire Tibetan struggle for independence. The enigma in question is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, known globally as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. After fleeing his homeland in 1959, following a failed uprising against the brutal Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama has remained in exile, along with his administration, in India for over 60 years. The Himalayan city of Dharamshala serves as his abode, and despite his advanced age and deteriorating health, His Holiness continues to receive scores of devotees, visitors and dignitaries at his residence.
I fall into the first category - an ardent follower of the Dalai Lama who sought to gather the personal blessings of the highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The opportunity to meet His Holiness personally is something that most Tibetan monks can only dream about, let alone a random Indian architect such as myself. I knew that in order to be heard, I would have to present a strong case and convince the Office of His Holiness that I was, perhaps, deserving of such an opening. Putting my time-tested writing ability to good use, I penned out a lengthy email that depicted not an ounce of humility or modesty - I wrote about my upbringing in Singapore and my earliest interaction with Buddhism there, my graduation from Nalanda (a region renowned in Buddhist texts and literature), my profound admiration for the teachings of His Holiness, among other things. I was hoping against hope that I would be invited for a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama, and at that point, hope was pretty much all I had.
The opportunity arrives
Time rolled by, without any remarkable incidents, until finally, I received an email from the official Secretary to His Holiness, who responded by saying that he might be able to place me in a 'receiving line' - a small group of extremely fortunate souls who were invited to meet the Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamashala. My very first reaction was to check the sender's email address - let's be honest, we're in India and there are always specimens who are willing to deceive the vulnerable. But this was no trickery - it was an authentic offer from the Tibetan administration. I immediately accepted the offer (I didn't even stop to think about the cost of the voyage to the remote city, the arrangements that had to be made, or the necessity to apply for leave from work - those were secondary). In my overwhelming eagerness, I simply knew one thing - this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I intended to capitalise on it.
The subsequent day, after booking a plethora of tickets and obtaining permission from my office to take a few days' worth of leave, I began planning for my impending audience with the Dalai Lama. I spent days reading through various travel blogs, guides and forums on the numerous aspects that my pilgrimage would encompass. I could barely contain my excitement, even though the actual meeting was still two weeks away.
Fast forward to March 16, and I was at the international airport in Chennai. Clutching my tickets and luggage, I appeared no different from the multitude of other passengers. Only I was aware of the fact that my destination was far more special, for want of a better word, than that of literally every other traveller in the lounge that day. After a two and a half hours flight to Delhi, I boarded a second aircraft, this one small and powered by propellers straight from the 70s. Dharamshala is nestled among the mighty Dhauladhar mountains, and I caught my first glimpse of 'Little Lhasa' as the tiny plane descended from the sky and screeched, literally, to a halt.
The easiest way to reach the residential areas of Dharamshala from Kangra airport is via taxi, so I booked one and promptly found myself at Kotwali Bazaar. I had already reserved a room at the comfortable PWD Rest House, and settled in for the night. Sunday morning marked my first walk through the city, and I must say, it was an incredibly cosy and closely-knit town. I spend most of the day meandering through the narrow streets, trying out the local delicacies and clicking a few photographs of the stunning landscape. Having enquired about the direction to McLeod Ganj, I carefully planned out Monday's schedule well in advance. The following dawn, I scrambled to reach the suburb as early as I could, taking a local bus and walking the rest of the way by foot. His Holiness' residence is situated at the peripheral region of the Tsuglagkhang, the main Tibetan temple. Although my original appointment was scheduled for March 18, it was shifted to the next day, at the request of the Secretary of His Holiness. I spend the remainder of the day visiting nearby valleys and markets, all of which were exquisite.
March 19, 2019. It was undoubtedly one of the most restless mornings I have ever spent. Donning my best clothes and retracing my path back to McLeod Ganj from the hotel, I arrived just 3 minutes ahead of time. And I wasn't alone - there was a small group of Tibetans, a handful of Europeans and a few other Indians as well. The small gathering was ushered through a series of security checks and identifications, and finally were marched up the contouring slopes of the premise. We were then segregated according to nationality and asked to wait, while they informed His Holiness about our arrival.
The setting was pristine - a beautiful garden that enveloped the courtyard, flanked by pathways on either side, adorned with trees and lamp posts, terminating at a large wooden pagoda that formed the 'verandah' of His Holiness' residence. The wooden doors parted, and the group held their collective breath. Out stepped the 14th DalaiLama, accompanied by a host of elderly monks, assistants and 6' tall armed guards. The aforementioned Tibetans immediately bowed with utmost reverence, while the rest of us simply gawked at the great monk. I can tell you this from personal experience - no amount of planning, thinking, self-motivation or practice can prepare you for this moment. As His Holiness took his seat upon a wooden chair, I could not help but think, "This is the man whose rightful place is the fabled throne of Tibet in the Potala Palace of Lhasa, not this mundane chair." The Dalai Lama began speaking to us in his usual cheerful voice, and I was surprised at the richness of his tone. For an eighty-four-year-old, he had exceptionally good vocal strength. His Holiness spoke about an array of subjects - from the importance of extending compassion and kindness to all living beings, to the lost legacy of India's ancient education system (Nalanda came to mind). "You are physically Indian, whereas I am not. But mentally, I am more Indian than you," he said to the Indian contingent, pointing at his skin and head. "When the British came to India, they spread the English language and brought changes in the education system, basically western education. Now India, has forgotten its roots and people don't practice the ancient ways. The ancient knowledge. Many of India's current problems can be solved by using ancient knowledge of Nalanda," said His Holiness. These simple words spoke volumes, and the group nodded silently in unison.
As we filed past him, I realised that the security agents, dressed smartly in black suits, were herding people into groups while the 'official temple photographer' clicked several photographs at once. Generous as I usually am, I had no intention of sharing my limelight with others, not on this occasion. I crept up quietly to the main co-coordinator (I guessed he was the top man because the other officials kept consulting him throughout the event) and requested him to permit me to take a personal photograph with the Dalai Lama. He laughed gently and agreed. When my turn came, he introduced me to His Holiness, stating my name, occupation and other facts, before walking backwards away from us.
In his presence
I was now face-to-face with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, one of the greatest figures of our times in every way humanly imaginable. The venerated monk held my hand and mumbled something - I didn't register what he said, for I was still reeling from the excitement. I vaguely recall stammering something along the lines of "Hello, Sir," and that was when he held my hand and gave his signature smile. As was customary, I offered him my watch as a token of devotion, and he blessed it by placing it on his forehead and reciting a quick prayer. He then gave the watch back to me with the words, "I think you should keep the watch, as a souvenir." I gladly accepted his gift, and he pulled me up onto the platform for my requested personal photographs. The official photographer took numerous photos of His Holiness and me, and I knew immediately that these pictures would be truly priceless among anyone who knew about the importance, legacy, lineage and general greatness of the Dalai Lamas. After another salutation, the ever-vigilant guards led me off the platform and took me to a group of elderly monks, who gave me a red sacred thread and some prasadam. They also reminded me to collect the photographs from the Namgyal library, which I immediately did.
As I walked out of the sprawling premises, I felt incredibly happy and blessed to have had the opportunity to have personally met the 14th Dalai Lama at his residence, and to have taken those precious photos as well. The rest of my journey from Dharamshala to Delhi, and subsequently from there to Coimbatore and finally Chennai, passed by in a haze. I couldn't wait to tell my parents and friends about the joyous meeting I had just a day before, and told myself that this would undoubtedly be one of the greatest experiences of my life