14th Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama – Photo by Luca Galuzzi

I’ll never, for the rest of my life, forget seeing the 14th Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj, India, his home in exile.

I knew the Dalai Lama was coming when the photographers stood and the huddled Tibetans stooped lower.

Murmuring hushed. From my front-row seat, I first saw his entourage of very watchful bodyguards with short-stock AK-47s; they scanned the crowd nervously enough to even make me nervous.

And then he came. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and most respected voice of peace in this insane world.

The silly smile on his face made me relax. Waving gleefully to the crowd, he passed by a few meters from me. I could see the spark in his eye from where I sat and felt the excited energy of the Tibetans vibrating around me. To say they dearly love their spiritual leader is an understatement.

Click. Life dream realized in a brief instant. Then he was gone.

[No photography was allowed, so you get random Tibetan-related images I shot]

The 14th Dalai Lama was hurried up the stairs in a flourish of robes to his seat in the temple. For the duration of the teachings, he appeared only as an image on the large TV screen above me. The Tibetans began their prostrations, the monks read scriptures, and all the foreigners began fiddling with their radios and iPods to find the English translation channel.

Although the Dalai Lama speaks English when traveling, he gives talks while home in McLeod Ganj, India, in his native tongue so that the Tibetans get the full benefit.

They deserve it. Many of the refugees sat around me lost family members and sacrificed appendages to frostbite while crossing high-altitude passes for a month to walk here — all in an effort to escape the Chinese occupation. I can complain about my hellish, rattling night bus from Delhi, but these elderly people walked across the Himalayas to sit where I was sitting. Unlike the Westerners, they weren’t here to update Facebook statuses with bragging rights; they were here because their lives depended on it.

  • If you’re interested in the fate of the Tibetans, here’s their sad-but-true story I learned while in McLeod Ganj: Free Tibet.

The sun-weathered faces of the older Tibetans each contained a road map of life-experience lines that burst forward when they smiled.

I hardly call myself a Buddhist, but being in the presence of a human who has overcome what he has — and can still smile about it — was overwhelmingly inspiring. You can’t help but want to be a better person. At the age of 15 the Dalai Lama was given rule over Tibet; millions of lives he cared about very much depended upon his every decision.

The 14th Dalai Lama cringes when worms and insects are harmed. How this man – yes, he’s a human being – can still smile while knowing that fellow monks are burning themselves to raise awareness about Tibet is beyond my scope of understanding.

And not only smile, but giggle infectiously. Every now and then he would crack a joke in English and no matter how hard you tried to remain serious, you had to laugh too. The 77-year-old man is high on life.

And he’s busy.

Unless you’re a newly arrived Tibetan, getting a private audience with the Dalai Lama is damn near impossible, as it should be. Why should backpackers get to tie up this man’s time when heads of state and limping refugees – he personally sees every Tibetan that makes it alive to Mcleod Ganj – are waiting in the queue?

Being able to see the Dalai Lama at home, in such a small setting, was a true honor and something that I’ll remember if and when I’m ever his age. In fact, he has already hinted that he may be the last of the Dalai Lamas. Or if he doesn’t have a successor, that the next Dalai Lama may be someone born outside of Tibet — and perhaps the first female Dalai Lama.

With much controversy, he attests that the Dalai Lama will not be born in any country still controlled by China. The Chinese claim that their bureaucrats get to select the next Dalai Lama.

That means that one of your kids, including your daughter, has the potential to be recognized one day as the 15th Dalai Lama. Good luck.

Tibetan prayer flags

Seeing the 14th Dalai Lama may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I approached it that way. Future travelers may not have the same opportunity I was given on a sunny October day.

I wish I had prepared better.

Having been in McLeod Ganj for over a week before the teachings started, I had plenty of time to research where to sit. I even walked to the Tsuglagkhang complex the day before and tried to reserve a spot by putting down a scarf — you can do so and no one will move it.

While all the action takes place in the temple upstairs, every centimeter of the limited floorspace was already covered with sarongs and cardboard to reserve people’s places. I ended up putting my scarf down upstairs behind the temple room, without view of the Dalai Lama but damn close to him through an open window.

Prayer wheels McLeod Ganj

When I went to my spot on the day of the teaching, 100 eyeballs belonging to 50 Tibetan monks sat staring at me; all had comfortably planted themselves around my scarf, careful not to disturb it, and were probably curious as to which of their order had purchased such a nice piece of fabric.

Oops. That’s what I get for not researching better. Although the monks were probably friendly enough not to say something, I really didn’t want to be the only idiot tourist sat in a sea of maroon robes. I tiptoed through them, grinning, retrieved the scarf, then retreated downstairs with tail between my legs to join the people not savvy enough to reserve a seat. I only lucked out when, amid total confusion, a bodyguard squeezed me in front of the crowd and told me to sit.

I did so. And it was rock star seating.

Tibetan Prayer Flags India

Unfortunately for me, this particular talk was requested by a large Taiwanese group and quickly turned into a very technical discussion on the finer points of Buddhism, rather than the Dalai Lama’s typical topic covered in the West: peace and nonviolence.

A few ‘spiritual travelers’ around me picked at their piercings and pretended to be enthralled, whether they understood or not. I was utterly lost and soon began scanning the crowd. I searched those brown, deeply lined faces for old men and women who had appeared in the numerous documentaries I watched at the museum in McLeod Ganj.

My daydreaming was broken when monks came through with huge pots of free tea. Seeing a chance for a new cultural experience, I quickly produced my plastic cup I have carried since camping in Borneo.

The monk poured me a steaming, generous helping of Tibetan butter tea.

Almost immediately, the smell hit me in the face like a fist. I knew that I was in trouble. Gingerly, I lifted the burning cup to my lips and the first sip sent my taste buds running for cover. My stomach closed, growled some indecipherable insults my way, and left me holding this cup of stink.

Wow. I’ve learned to love Tibetan culture while here, even their food isn’t bad, but their staple tea is revolting. Yellow, salty, bubbles of fat floating on the surface, and with the smell of a barnyard animal’s hooves, butter tea is not my cup of tea. To my horror, I realized that I was surrounded by Tibetans who had not only finished their over-sized cups, they were alternating between smiling at me for trying their favorite tea and literally licking the clinging fat off of the rims of glasses.

I was committed, so I held my nose, chanted some strength mantras, and drank it down between gag reflexes. A week later the taste was still circulating somewhere in hidden cavities around my head and my cup is permanently ruined.

Not feeling so well after the tea incident, I patiently waited for the Dalai Lama with a hope to see him again on his way out for the lunch break. Yes, he eats. Unfortunately, he was hurried into an SUV and driven through the crowd with little fanfare.

He waved through the glass and the driver fiddled with the radio. What music would you select with the Dalai Lama in the backseat?

In fact, the entire teaching was received with little fanfare — perhaps there’s even a lesson hidden in that. I guess I was hoping for men wearing the strange traditional hats, blasting low notes through ridiculously long horns and bashing cymbals as they did once upon a time in Lhasa when the Dalai Lama made an entrance.

Instead, the entire thing was as down to Earth as you can get. Just like the Dalai Lama.

I hope and pray that one day the Tibetans will be free again.

Free Tibet