A few years ago when I was still in school, I was lucky enough to be a part of a religious studies trip to India. As one of the most culturally enlightening experiences of my life so far, this snapshot takes me back, down the rabbit hole to Dharamsala – headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile.
Our group had been spending time studying Tibetan Buddhism in the city. On this particular morning, I woke up late for the day’s lecture and meditation. The antimalarial pills were causing me to have restless, vivid technicolor dreams that would have made even Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey jealous; but, they made the next morning a challenge, dropping me back into reality to re-gather my sanity. I dressed quickly and began to make my way to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. The morning smelled of fresh mountain air and burning pine. Fog was giving way to rain. I followed the narrow streets filled with scooters and looked ahead toward the half finished buildings that seemed to have been given up on years before. Along the way, I came across 2 more latecomers. This was so out of the ordinary – usually our little group was early for lessons. Today, something was different. Maybe the 3 of us were all taking the Mefloquine pills on the same day – leaving us on the same ledge between our ‘enlightened selves’ we heard so much about here and psychiatric problems that may accompany the prescription.
The morning felt damp and as we came closer to the library. The streets became packed with locals; monks and nuns were wearing their traditional saffron orange and paprika red robes. Unsure of the occasion, we started asking people in the crowd what all the fuss was about so early in the morning. Turns out, the masses were patiently waiting for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Dharamsala – gathering along the streets in hopes that they may catch a glimpse and to welcome their leader home.
Lessons could wait. This was much more culturally intriguing than meditation and lectures. Once the motorcade had passed, we agreed to re-join our peers; but, how often do you get an opportunity to see the Dalai Lama? We found a clear spot around a bend where we chose to wait. Just as we were getting settled, our professor was spotted rushing down the street. He’d seen us, looking relieved to have found his missing responsibilities running around the city alone.
He wouldn’t have it. Allowing three students out of his group to wait around for what might be hours for the arrival of His Holiness while the others were studying and going about the day’s lessons. So, off we went. We walked along the crowded street, through the colorful robes and umbrellas. The drizzle had started to fill the air as we were led back to the library.
As we walked, the dedicated onlookers began to cheer. The motorcade sped through the winding streets and there he was in the backseat of a black car; a hand waving from the orange and red robes, as excited people were waving back from the street. It all happened so suddenly. It seemed rather unimpressive and unbelievable all at once. We’d just watched a few cars pass, carrying an important man. But, this man was the topic of months of study, the leader of Buddhist belief, an internationally recognized and revered figure. He was more than just a big shot.
We followed the professor back to our mates, now finished with the day’s formal education. We followed silently, reflecting on the scene of what had just taken place. The group was waiting in front of the Temple of the Oracle. Those who had just finished the morning’s meditation were quiet and hazy-eyed. We all took a quiet walk through the temple to wait out the rain that had started to fall harder. Gilded Buddha sculptures filled the warm, fragrant, red-walled room. A massive metal gong sat at the front.
After the short detour, our group wandered through the rainy streets, not interested in waiting any longer. The morning had been eventful for all of us in one way or another and it was finally time for food. There were few restaurants in the city. The best was up a set of tremendously narrow stairs to Khanna Nirvana. The restaurant and community center felt like an Eastern tree house that always smelled of incense and tea. The windows led the eye out toward snow-capped mountains and a lush, green, fog-filled valley below. We all gathered around one of the low tables, surrounded by pillows that remedy the butt-numbing raised wood booths. The masala chai and oatmeal made up for the dampness of the day. The cafe was buzzing with locals, tourists and expats. We sat in a circle, sharing stories of the morning’s adventures as our jealous mates shared the lessons of their morning’s religious lectures.
Wasting no time after the meal, the group prepared for an afternoon that would make all of the meditation practice and cultural preparation clear. We arrived at the Main Temple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama where he was to hold a prayer service for the victims of the recent Chinese earthquake of the Sichuan Province.
At the temple, I seated myself on the cool marble floor, completing the line of 5 people in my row. The monks and nuns in his service were arranging attendees in an organized fashion, zig-zagging around to makes sure everyone was organized. His Holiness’ seat was adjacent to mine, looking out onto a mass of people who had come to pray with him. The mantras soon began. Bread was passed around by monks and nuns, and we sat for hours, as he inspired people with selflessness and prayers for recovery of the Chinese – the same country who had displaced his own people. There were no translators. There were no screens displaying the service; only an old microphone and speaker to broadcast his prayers. When the chanting began we joined. When he delivered prayers, we sat in silence with our legs crossed, practicing our meditations to overcome the discomfort of the marble floor.
I sat, in and out of the haze of meditative prayer, offerings and chanting. My thoughts wandered. The afternoon became a blur. Some attendees of the service became emotional; upset, I’m assuming, over the tragedy that had taken place in China. Perhaps they knew someone from the area. Perhaps they just felt powerless in such a heartbreaking situation. His followers were as selfless a people as I’d ever seen. They wanted to help others – they truly, honestly wanted to help for the sake of improving another human’s situation. Seeing this passion and dedication to one’s beliefs made me think back on my day steeped in the Dalai Lama’s presence and prayer. The only emotion I can recall was melancholy. Maybe one day I would feel the same for the human condition and be in a position to help. Maybe one day.