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Meeting the Dalai Lama – When A Living Legend Become Real
Escape from New Delhi
I felt comfortable in India in those days. In fact, I was more at home in India, then in America. I had been there on meditation retreats a half a dozen times before and felt immune to the trial and tribulation that beset every Western tourist. All of the cons were known to me. The liars, cheaters, hustlers, and beggars had no sway with me. I had seen it all before,… at least that’s what I thought.
This was is how I felt as I walked around Connaught Place in the center of New Delhi. With little of the usual drama I had secured a bus ticket to Dharamsala at one of the little ticket offices that are so abundant in the center. It was the last ticket. I hadn’t planned much in advance, so I was lucky to get it. Finally, I would go to Dharamsala and see if I could meet the Dalai Lama from Tibet. What a great feeling!
Dharamsala Village is the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile in the Indian, Himalayas. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India generously gave a home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees after they escaped Chinese occupation in 1959.
Dharamsala is high in the Himalayas at about 5580 ft. In the 7th Century this area was part of Tibet. “Dharamsala” literally means: “a Pilgrims shelter next to a Temple”. An early Chinese Pilgrim Monk recorded about 50 Buddhist Monasteries with approximately 2000 monks as early as 635 AD. Dharamsala’s mountain climate is much more suitable to Tibetan who came from the high elevations (9000 ft.) of the Tibetan plateau.
It was an inspiring morning and I walked around Connaught reveling in my knowledge that latter that afternoon I would be on my way to Dharamsala on the night bus.
Connaught Place is in the very center of New Delhi. It is surrounded by massive Western Victorian style buildings modeled after the Royal Crecent in Bath, England. The British administration built Connaught Place to accommodate the elite and the cream of British society. The entire place has a basic circular design and white colonnades encircle the whole of Connaught Place.
They say Connaught Place was Lord Mountbatten’s (the last British Viceroy) gift to India. Although it was designed in 1932, Connaught Place was not completed until just before Indian independence.
It was just before noon and I had some time to kill before catching the late afternoon bus. As I was walking around looking for a restaurant, my first predator of the day approached.
“Where are you going?’ asked this total stranger with his suspicious eyes and thin beard. Knowing full well that he was planning to hustle me I answered: “I’m looking for a good place to eat lunch.”
“Oh, I know a good place!” my new unwanted friend suggested. I played along. Well, maybe he did know a good place to eat, so why not follow his advise. After all, I know his game and it won’t work on me! I felt confident that whatever trick he had in mind could be easily thwarted. I was an India alumni.
So, I followed him to this amusingly tacky Indian fast food place with all kinda fake imitation western food. It was a bright and shiny plastic environment with some kinda water buffalo burgers. Beef hamburgers are never sold anywhere in India, since cows are holy.
In fact, if you kill a cow the penalty is life in prison as opposed to the 7 year term for manslaughter. You see these holy cows in the center of every intersection blocking traffic and stealing food at the vegetable market. They seem so relaxed and carefree. You can almost understand why the are believed to be holy.
My suspicious guide had the sharp angular features of a Kashmiri. Indeed, he introduced himself as Amir from Kashmir. The Kashmiri people had been force from their mountain paradise in Kashmir to spread across India in search of work. At one time, the beautiful Himalayan region of Kashmir was the most popular tourist destination of travelers.
This all changed with constant fighting between India & Pakistan over the Kashmir State. The on-going kidnapping and violence had permanently ended the profitable tourist trade and send the Kashmiri people all over mainland India. Delhi had more then it’s fair share.
Kashmiris are famous for their ruthlessness and dishonesty in bargaining. The Indian’s are intense bargainers, but even they pale compared to the Kashmiri people. Hence, I knew I was in for above average hassles from this guy, but I still felt confident. I was sure that I was not going to fall for any tricks.
I shunned the fast food place and told my Kashmir acquaintance that I was vegetarian and only wanted Indian food. “Oh, you like Indian food!” Amir exclaimed. “Come have your lunch at my place.” Suspicious I asked: “How far?” He answered: “Five minutes walking only!” I reluctantly agreed. I thought, well maybe I should give him a chance.
OK, now my little psychic alarms started to go off inside my head! Where is he going to take me? Is it safe? Well I thought, I’ll just proceed cautiously. These Kashmiri guys will try to hustle you, but they are not physically dangerous. Besides, it’s nice to get involved when you travel and meet the real people. A lunch offer is very generous and I wanted to be open minded.
Naturally, in five minutes we end up at a Carpet Shop. How could I be so stupid? This is the oldest trick in the book. Get the tourist into your shop. I made it clear before entering or having any lunch, that I was not interested in carpets and that I would absolutely not buy one. Amir nodded that he understood.
We washed our hand with a pitcher of water in the street out front that they provided (very important in a culture where you eat with your hands). Then Amir and his five brothers pulled out the classic Indian stainless steel lunch pales and offered me a plate of rice and curried lentils.
It was simple and very spicy, but not free. Although I didn’t have to pay rupees for the meal, there was another price. It seemed that these Kashmiri Moslems had built up a little resentment toward westerners. I guess they figured if I wasn’t going to buy carpets, then they didn’t have to be nice to me. They started to vent their frustrations.
I fielded a barrage of questions about why my government did this and that. “Why do you hate Moslems?” they plied. “I don’t hate anyone!” I replied. “I didn’t even vote for this administration and I vehemently disagree with their foreign policy.” It didn’t help to tell them this.
Unfortunately, their emotions had no logic. It didn’t matter who I was or what I felt. I was a westerner and represented all of western culture for them. It was tense, but I held my own and was polite. I listen to their complaints and their views. What to do?
Finally, the hustle began. It was almost a relief to change the subject from politics to how can we screw this westerner out of some money.
The conversation got more personal and I revealed that I was on a Pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. “Oh the Dalai Lama.” Amir started posturing. He pursed his lips pausing to choose his words carefully: “Well, I just saw him.” “Really,….” I replied, disbelieving that a Kashmiri Moslem in Delhi had just seen the Dalia Lama.
“Yes, he’s in Ladakh,” Amir confirmed. Hmmm, I thought what is he up to. He went on: “If you want to see the Dalai Lama, then you must go to Ladakh”
Now, I was in a quandary. What were the chances that he was tell the truth. I queried more. “Why is he in Ladakh?”
Amir spun out his web. “Oh, he was doing a retreat there,… ” and supposably Amir was also with him, because Amir,…. well a is sorta a Buddhist Moslem,…. Yeah, that’s right. Amir is interested it all kinds of different things, like say Buddhism,… and bla, bla, bla.
Well, I admit I am gullible. I was thinking that maybe he is telling the truth and maybe I should go to Ladakh,… what to do. Ladakh is a pure Tibetan enclave higher in the Himalayas that just happens to be part of India. It is a long journey to this very remote location.
I argued, that I had all ready bought a ticket to Dharamsala hoping to exit the conversation gracefully. “No problem”, say Amir. “All of the ticket sellers are Kashmiri. We can get your a refund and sell you a ticket to Ladakh.”
For a moment, I actually believe them. I paused for that trusting human moment, where I believed that they wouldn’t lie and that all people are honest. Da! That brief moment that disclosed the innocence of my true nature. My fatal flaw is that I tend to believe what people say, but,…. that only last a moment. It was India after all and these were Kashmiris!
“NO!” I said. Six sets of eyes glared down at me from Amir and his brothers. In a subtle move they positioned themselves between me and the door. Amir looked at me incredulously: “You will not find him in Dharamsala. I told you he’s in Ladakh. He will be there another week. The ticket is only twenty dollars. We can sell it to you. Why do you say no? Don’t you want to see the Dalai Lama?”
I fell back into my inner wisdom and replied quietly, but with conviction: “You may be right and he may be in Ladakh, but in my heart I feel to go to Dharamsala and I must go by that.” Amir did not argue. He could feel the quite force in my argument and knew it was over. It was as if a higher power had spoken through me. They moved away from the door and let me out.
It was an emotionally exhausting encounter. What had I been thinking that I could outsmart India best con men? India has it’s way of humbling you.
I felt I was lucky to get out of there alive. It turned out that there was no bus to Ladakh that time of year. It was April and the roads to Lakakh were under snow. There was no way in or out of Ladakh until May.
These Kashmiri guys were willing to sell me a ticket to nowhere. For just twenty bucks, they would happily screw up my plans. Who knows what bus they would have put me on if any. It was inconceivably immoral, but that is what the Kashmiris are known for in Delhi.
The rest of the afternoon past uneventfully, as I strolled the unending Palika Bazar at Connaught Place to cool off. It was a grubby undergrounded air-conditioned market below the center of Connaught Place with lots of colorful Indian shops.
Another Indian Bus from Hell
Before long, I had to make it to the bus stop. Bus stops in India are not necessarily obvious or well marked. It is often just some spot that is designated by the ticket seller at a crossroads. There are no seats or protection from the elements. You just stand there in the dust, smoke, and heat of the afternoon sun and hope that a bus may come sometime.
It was a long wait. The only break in the monotony was an old Indian woman beggar. I gave her the requisite one rupee to leave me alone but she was not content. She lectured me in disgust: “One rupee, one rupee, only one rupee? No chapati, No chai (tea) for one rupee.” I would have given her ten rupees had I known, but she was off by the time I figured it out.
Normally, there is a cultural understanding that if you give one rupee the beggar is content. If you try not to give one rupee, they can and will make you regret it. I gave up along time ago trying to ignore the beggars. Let me tell you, it is worth one rupee to get rid of them. If you don’t give the rupee, they will follow you to the ends of the earth and hound you mercilessly. It is the beggar code of honor. No one gets away without one rupee.
A few minutes later a taxi pulled up an let out a harried looking gentlemen who was way overdressed for India. His name was Sam and he was a British citizen living in Taiwan. It was his first day in India.
He told me that he had gotten off the plane at 6AM that morning and it had taken all day and many misadventures for him to arrive at this bus stop for the 4PM bus. I had to laugh. His day had actually been worst then mine. My God, India. In India, you can’t take a freaking bus without a full day major life dramas!
I was the only other person at the bus stop, but it gave us confidence we had both tickets on the same bus. You never know in India. The odds now seemed much better that we had real tickets for a real bus.
The bus arrived eventually and it was very full. We were the only two westerners and took the last seats in the back. I hadn’t taken a bus recently and therefor didn’t remember the ‘golden rule’. Never sit in the very back.
For the next twelve hours, I bounce up to four feet in the air over some of the bumps in the road and actually hit my head on the ceiling of the bus. It was that dramatic.
Naturally, I didn’t sleep a wink. This was not a problem for the Indians. Next to me was an Indian man who had such relaxed neck mussles that he could lay his entire heavy head on my shoulders. Nothing woke him up. He slept soundly even as his head bounced and bruised my shoulder. His hair oil left a permanent stain on my shirt.
The only saving grace of the ride was that it was dark. I could only imagine the horrors of the narrow mountain road to Dharamsala. At one point, the bus stopped totally. Our driver had met another bus and there was a long standoff, as neither would yield the narrow road.
Finally, with screeching metal and sheered side view mirrors the buses squeezed by each other. Indian drivers are either the best or worst in the world. I’m not sure. One thing I do know, is that they are the craziest of all drivers!
Morning found me at Kotwali Bazaar (Lower Dharamsala) where the bus let out, a typical unimpressive Indian hill town a few miles and 1500 ft below McLeod Gunj or Upper Dharamsala. It was not Shangrila and my first impression was depressing in the morning chill.
Hopefully, Upper Dharamsala would be better. I hope a three wheel auto rickshaw up to the Tibetan part. Despite my fatigue, I felt a wave of joy in anticipation of arrival. Dharmasala, was the closest thing to Tibet. It held the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and home to the Tibetan Government in exile.
Many of the famous Monasteries had been re-established in Dharmasala as well as all of the institutes of Tibet’s government. This was hardly the attraction. It was the man or myth known as the Dalai Lama that brought me here.
I had read a couple book about the life of the Dalai Lama. These stories were of the dramatic challenges that faced a young boy who was called to lead his people before he was of age. It was of one who survived against the worst fait imaginable and yet still smiles. Just to meet him and receive his blessing would be a great life changing event for me.
Upper Dharamsala was much more charming, then it’s neighbor village below. It was like leaving India for Tibet in just 10 minutes. Walking around were many maroon robed Tibetan monks with shaved heads. Most were Tibetan, but there were also many westerners here for Buddhist studies.
Charming little Tibetan restaurants, coffee houses, and shops lined the busy bazaar main street. All around were colorful Gompas (Buddhist Shrines) and Temples. The village was set against the backdrop of the Dhauladhar mountains, hanging sorta on a slope surrounded by Pine & Deodar forests.
First and foremost for any traveler is the daunting task of finding decent lodging when your dead tired. There is always the temptation to take the first place you see and collapse, but I didn’t give. I looked at several small guest house. Finally, I came across a quaint guest house, after tramping around the outer forested neighborhoods off the main road.
The Guest House was a little expensive at 300 Rupees ($15.) a night, but it was so clean and quite I gave in without bargaining. Fifteen dollars does not seem like much when you at home working and have money coming in, but it is a lot in India after a couple months of traveling.
Even if you can afford it, there is a travelers duty to budget. After a while in India, you also become psychologically involved by the Indian’s hustle to make a rupee. In truth, the group consciousness phenomenon of scarcity hypnotize travelers into arguing over every rupee. For Indians, bargaining is a necessity and a cultural reality. For westerners, it becomes and endless burden that can lead to obsessing over money.
I did not have the worst case of neurotic traveler budgeting. Sometime, I would even have to tell other traveler to try to relax and get a prospective. I would point out: You are arguing over half a penny and he probably needs the money more then we do! It’s hard to stay conscious and centered in India.
India may be the most Spiritual country in the world. I don’t know anymore, but it is the one country where I will consistently scream my brains out at strangers over a few rupees. I have done this sometimes within an hour of leaving an Ashram after month long meditation retreat. I just can’t believe it myself, but that’s India.
Before long, I passed out into blissful unconsciousness in my cozy Guest House room. It was one of the nicer rooms I’ve ever had in India. I got a western style double bed with a thick quilt. My window viewed a forested area with lots of large Pine trees. They were the last sight I saw as I closed my eyes.
Late afternoon, I awoke fatigued, but functional. After a bit of asking around, I was directed to the Dalai Lama’s security office. No one could tell me for sure if I could see the Dalai Lama. It seemed that no one knew for sure if he was there in Dharamsala and if he would be accepting visitors.
Oh well, I thought it was worth a try. I went to into the security office to ask. A couple of no nonsense well built Tibetan security men greeted me and ask me to register. They were not very talkative and just handed me a basic application to fill out. After that they took my passport and copied it.
When I finished, they told me to come back tomorrow morning at 10AM. It was all so formal that I didn’t realize I was in. I was in! I was going to meet the Dalai Lama the next day! I couldn’t believe it. Why would the Dalai Lama consent to see an unknown western traveler???? It was fantastic!
I guess it’s all karma. Apparently the Dalai Lama hadn’t given any audience for weeks. I just happened to arrive in the right place at the right time.
In preparation, I purchased a Khata Blessing Scarf to give to the Dalai Lama. This is a traditional gift that you give to at such a meeting. It is a silk scarf with the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism woven into it. I’ll bet he has a lot of these already. Probably a million. Well, now he will have one more.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the many attractions of Dharamsala. It was a “Little Lhasa” with all kinds of Tibetan cultural offerings. It had a Library of Tibetan Scriptures, a Tibetan Medicine Center, Monasteries, Stupas, Schools, etc. I began in the at Namgyalma Stupa.
Namgyalma Stupa was in the center of town. A Stupa is a round Buddhist monument with a pointed top with prayer wheels that spin around the sides. Buddhist will circle the Stupa spinning the Prayer Wheels with one hand and chanting on a bead mala with the other. It’s a meditation practice.
Chanting and spinning wheels can stop the mind and allow the practitioner to transcend the illusion of maya for a glimpse at the silence in between thoughts. It is a very ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice and has a profound transformational effect.
Hunger overwhelmed me and I caught a delicious dinner of Mo Mo dumplings in an upstairs Tibetan restaurant overlooking the Namgyalma Stupa. My head was spinning like a prayer wheel. It takes time to land in a new spot and absorb the local culture. All around me were monks and pilgrims. I wanted to be able to really feel it, but mostly I felt fatigued from travel.
After dinner, there was not much left of me, so I decided to forego all the site seeing and retired to the guest house. It was chili here in the mountains after sunset, and I was not well outfitted for the cold. India is a hot country and I didn’t carry much warm clothing. My solution had been to basically wear everything I had in my backpack. The many layers worked.
My Guest House had no heat, but the comforter on my bed was thick and heavy. It was a typical Himalayan quilted comforter of fluffy cotton batting covered in a white cotton gauze. I loved the weight on my body and was quickly off to sleep.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet
The list of amazing attributes of the Dalai Lama is endless. At the age of fifteen he assumed spiritual and governmental leadership of the desperate Tibetan people in their worst hour of crisis. China had invaded Tibet the previous year and his people were looking for a miracle to save them.
The next nine years, this young monk tried to coexist with the Chinese invaders, but was finally driven to escape to India in 1959. True to his Buddhist nature he advocated peace over violence in Tibet’s hopeless struggle. This was acknowledge 30 years later, as he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, I would meet this spiritual legend. I was more inspired then intimidated. I had an unremovable smile all morning. Ten o’clock found me at the security checkpoint in front of his residence. My name was checked of a list and I had to pass through a metal detector. It made me happy to see the burly Tibetan guards charged to protect the Dalai Lama. I wanted him to be safe.
I got in a line of about 300 people. A good two thirds were Tibetan. They were in a state of emotional catharsis. Some of them could hardly walk from their overpowering feelings. Their tears fell like rain. For most of these people,
this was the pilgrimage of a lifetime. Who knows how far they have come or what they have been through to get here.
Most of the Tibetans wore traditional dress. Women had embroidered blouses covered with a long dark wool dress and accented with a striped apron. Many had beautiful big chunks of deep green Tibetan Turquoise, Red coral beads, and Gold Ghau Prayer boxes for jewelry.
The less colorful Tibetan men varied from western dress to village smock. Some looked as ancient as the Himalayan mountains. All were steeped in reverence and awe.
His Holiness received the Tibetan’s first. In a long slow moving procession. He greeted each person individually and gave them his blessing. Some of the Tibetan women collapsed on the ground weeping, some passed out, many wandered by in emotional wonder. It was very moving to see his effect on people. I had never seen such a emotional reaction before. It was profoundly beautiful.
As I moved forward in the line a Tibetan official took my Silk Khata Scarf from my hands and put it around my neck. Apparently, His Holiness already had enough of these and I was to keep it. I was watching the Dalai Lama close now. He had started to greet the westerners in line.
Three, two, one, I was staring into the face of the Dalai Lama of Tibet. It was very intimate. I folded my hands in the Namaste prayer position and bowed. No words were spoken. He looked me in the eye and held my gaze bowing back with folded hands. His eyes sparkled and laughed inside. He was very centered.
I could feel his simplicity. He had no pretention. His good nature and smiling eyes were authentic. I could feel his good will. It was a good will and sweetness attained from a lifetime of service and deep meditation. This was perhaps the first ‘real’ person that I had ever met. He was the clear embodiment of the Buddha. I had no doubt.
The time was finished and I humbly moved along. It was a silent joy for me to have met him. I felt a quite assurance that if someone like him could exist, then there was hope for humanity.
I followed the other visitors through gate and walked out of town into the mountains. I wanted to enjoy the afterglow of our meeting in nature. My walk took me on beautiful forested hillside paths on the outskirts of Dharamsala. I walked for a long time. Further up, I found a path that led to some cave retreats.
In Tibet, there are many traditions of long meditation cave retreats. Some monks will go into a small isolated cave for 3 years, 3 month, & 3 days. Food would be brought once of day. They would be sealed in with only a small opening and not see or talk to anyone. It would be almost pitch black inside.
As as meditator, my heros had always been the sages, saints, & prophets who did these retreats. I had always had a fantasy of going to a cave myself and making such an effort. I thought it was my ultimate goal in life and considered doing it here.
It was sobering to look in the small cave with a dirt floor used for retreat. I talked with the local Indians and they said that I could hire a person to bring the food once a day as long as I would like to be in retreat.
I had an ‘Ah Ha’ experience right then and there. I am a westerner. It is not my destiny to sit in a cave on top of a Himalayan mountain. My fantasy of being a great yogi and leaving the world was opposed to my Dharma (life path).
Today, I had met the ultimate upholder of Dharma and he was a simple natural man. A man who lived his truth. Now, it was time for me to live mine. I was ready to go home. I felt complete.
Now I could make my daily life a meditation and going to work could be a Spiritual Pilgrimage. My Dharma was in the west and I was ready to live it totally. Spirituality is inside. You don’t need to travel to India or Tibet. You only need to go home.
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