Photo credit: Abhishek Madhukar
We saw the Dalai Lama. Having grappled with several banal introductions, all I have to say is that we saw His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. We had the good fortune to be staying in McLeod Ganj when His Holiness was in town to give a teaching and we attended. If you’re interested in the practical aspects of how to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings, skip to the bottom.
We all can and must practice love and compassion. It is our responsibility to teach love and compassion.
We went to the temple complex the day before the teachings started to find a place to sit. There is no assigned seating but you may put down a cushion or a piece of cloth with your name on it to “reserve” your seat. We were thrilled and shocked to find just a few rows of reserved seats on the ground floor, right up close to a room with a big chair in it where the Dalai Lama would sit. We would be practically nose to nose with His Holiness!
Then we went upstairs. This is where the Dalai Lama would be speaking.
The upper floor was cordoned off into sections. Reserved for Nalanda Shiksha (the organization that had requested this particular teaching). Reserved for Emory University. Reserved for recent arrivals from Tibet. Reserved for Romanian group (more on them later). And then…reserved for Spanish translation! We are Spanish, hurrah! We moved our cardboard up to the Spanish section. (Cardboard? Yes. We are cheap. We have no long-term use for cushions so we sat on cardboard.)
As children, we play with anyone, but as we get older we forget this approach of trust, love and compassion. We should practice love and compassion as a secular ethic.
On the first day of teaching, we arrived to the temple complex around 7:30, a full two hours before the teaching began. The security check was fast, no more than 10 or 15 minutes, and then we went upstairs to where our cardboard was. It had been piled up and thrown aside. We had certainly not been among the first to arrive. There were already hundreds of people crushed into the seating areas.
When we tried to sit where our cardboard had been, just in the border between the Spanish translation group and the Romanian group, a Romanian woman hissed at us, “You cannot sit there. This is our group.” We explained that we had left our cardboard there and we were just going to sit in the tiny bit of space between mats, but we were not met with Buddhist love and compassion. “No, you cannot sit there. You cannot.” In the end, a kinder Romanian invited A. to sit on the outer corner of the Romanian mat next to her and I squeezed in to the Spanish section.
All sentient beings feel suffering and wish to be liberated from suffering. The difference between humans and other sentient beings is that we are able to understand and to find methods to liberate ourselves from suffering.
Having secured our seats, we waited. Our legs began to fall asleep. We shifted from Indian style to hugging our knees and back again. It seems we have not yet fully embraced that our bodies are impermanent.
Just before 9 AM, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama made his entrance. Everyone stood up. There was a hush, that particular sound of hundreds of people holding their breath. A few people around us started crying. Practitioners of Buddhism bowed in prayer.
Then the Romanians again. “Sit down! Sit down! We cannot see!” Bickering ensued. There was not anything to see because His Holiness had come up the stairs farthest from our section.
The day’s teaching was split into a morning session and an afternoon session. His Holiness would speak for 5-10 minutes in Tibetan and then the translators would go to work, rotating until the two hours was up. The morning session covered some basic principles of Buddhism. His Holiness spoke about the importance of love and compassion, approaching everything we do with an altruistic spirit and embracing all religions even if we practice one in particular.
When the morning session finished, His Holiness exited from our side. Everyone stayed seated, as instructed. There was no bickering. The 14th Dalai Lama walked just a few feet in front of us, smiling from ear to ear as he is in every photo we have ever seen of him. He paused in front of our section and said, “Oh, Spanish!” Everyone in the Spanish section grinned and beamed back at him. The Dalai Lama knows we all speak Spanish in this section, hurrah!
And from the peanut gallery, someone shouted, “Romania!”
The true nature of the mind is luminous.
The afternoon got hairy. The subject of the teaching was Shanti Deva’s Guide to the Boddhisattva Way of Life. His Holiness went into a detailed disquisition of sources of the text and debates over authorship and whether the text belongs in the Buddhist canon. We had essentially shown up to a seminar on War and Peace with Leo Tolstoy himself having never read the book or any of the surrounding scholarship.
We couldn’t see the Dalai Lama from where we were seated so we watched him on the TV screen. He was speaking in Tibetan, but whenever he laughed, everyone laughed, even though we couldn’t understand what he said and the translation was never funny. We realized after awhile that just between a column and a tree trunk, we had a glimpse of His Holiness’ left sleeve, so we watched the yellow cloth move around as he gestured. We watched the monks attending the teaching, swathed in burgundy robes and taking notes while sitting bolt upright.
Everyone was equal at the teaching. Rich, poor, Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic, Romanian, Spanish, Tibetan – we were all seated on the floor, listening to the Dalai Lama through our cheap FM radios. No mobile phones or cameras are allowed at the venue. There is nothing to do but absorb the Dalai Lama’s words and observe all the people around you.
If our attitude is altruistic – with a focus on love and compassion – our work and anything we do will benefit others. If we do things egotistically, then even if we pray or perform religious rituals, our effect in the world is negative.
We were royally uncomfortable from sitting for so many hours, we were sleepy from getting up early, and we couldn’t understand half of the teaching, but the experience was unequivocally positive. Our introduction to Buddhism was from the Dalai Lama himself. We had been close to His Holiness for just a few seconds but that was enough.
Try it some day and you’ll see what we mean.
How to Attend His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s Teachings
It is easy to attend the Dalai Lama’s scheduled teachings in McLeod Ganj (Dharamsala, India). All you need to do is:
- Register at the Tibetan Settlement Center a few days before the teaching begins. It’s on Bhagsu Road near the Hotel Tibet. To register, you need to bring your passport and two passport photos. (We tried to use one photo and one photocopy of a photo – no dice, it has to be two photos.) The last registration is the morning of the first day of the teaching at the temple itself.
- Read a little something about Buddhism if you have no prior knowledge. Reading just the Wikipedia article on Buddhism is enough – it will at least give you a few basic principles and terms to better follow the Dalai Lama’s teaching.
- A day or two before the teaching, you may go to the temple complex to put down a cushion or a bit of paper or a cloth to reserve a place to sit. If you don’t arrive really early on the first day, no one will pay attention to the space you “reserved,” so it can be an exercise in futility.
- Buy an FM radio to listen to the translation. (As of May 2013, the going rate for a radio was 100-150 rupees. Batteries run about 10 rupees per battery.) There are always translations in English and Chinese, and there may be translations in Japanese, Spanish and other languages depending on attendance. When the teachings are over, you can bring your radio to Dirty Laundry on Jogibara Road and buy something for half-off.
- Don’t bring mobiles phones, cameras or weapons of any kind to the temple on the day of the teaching. There is a charity organization at the entrance that will store any prohibited items for a fee if you accidentally show up with a prohibited item.
- Bring a cup for tea and something for lunch. Tibetan monks circulate with pots of tea. They do have paper cups but it’s more sustainable if you bring your own. You can enter the temple with food so feel free to bring snacks. The break between the morning and afternoon sessions is short-ish. There’s enough time to go outside and grab something quick, but it’s more relaxed if you bring in food and eat inside. (Clean up after yourself, of course.)
- Optional: attend the debriefing session at Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamkot on the evening after the teaching. The sessions are in English and you can ask as many questions as you like. Check locally for schedule.