Thursday, December 15, 2011

Seeing the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala

If you, like us, found yourself in Dharamsala, India, with the rare chance to see the Dalai Lama, the most famous Buddhist in the world, the living incarnation of the boddhisatva of compassion, then better seize the opportunity. You are most likely just spending a few days in this little Tibetan town in northern India, just like the Dalai Lama himself, who circles the world seeing heads of states as well as Tibetan refugees scattered all over the globe for the better part of the year.

But the question is, how? How does one see the Dalai Lama? It's simple really. Here are seven simple steps to seeing the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India.

Portrait of the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Museum, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

Step 01:

Check if the Dalai Lama is giving a public audience (most likely, a lecture) anytime soon. You can do that by going to Yes, His Holiness has a website. If he is giving a lecture, check if it is open to the public. We had the good fortune of being in Dharamsala when a group of Korean Buddhists was also there for a lecture with the Dalai Lama, a lecture which they had earlier scheduled and opened to the public. I assume by now you get that the Dalai Lama is a very busy man so if you have the chance to see the Dalai Lama, take it.

Step 02:

Secure yourself admission into the Dalai Lama's lecture. No, they will not accept walk-ins. Security is very tight in and around his residence and the main temple, the Tsuglagkhang Monastery. So better have proper identification when you go see the Dalai Lama. First things first, make sure you have two passport-sized photos and a photocopy of your passport. If you do not have them, then McLeod Ganj is littered with ID photo stalls and shops. Walk in and have your photo taken and your passport photocopied. Simple as simple can be.

Prayer Wheels at the Tsuglagkhang Monastery, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

Step 03:

Once you have your passport-sized photos and your passport photocopy, get yourselves to the Tsuglagkhang Monastery. However, when you enter, instead of taking the elevated walkway to your right (leading to the stairs directly to the temple), take the path on the left (which leads to the monks' quarters on the lower level). There should be a table there manned by a temple official. Tell the man that you want to attend the lecture to see the Dalai Lama. He will ask you to fill out a form and pay for the identification card to which he will attach one of your passport-sized photos. Also, you will need to pay for the ID card with 5 Rupees. If you do not find this temple official, there are other authorized places where you can get this ID card. Ask around and people will refer you to them.

ID Card, Dalai Lama Lecture, Dharamsala, India

Step 04:

When you have your ID card, then it's just a matter of showing up at the lecture itself, right? Not so. For security reasons, understandably so, you cannot bring any form of photography or film equipment, cellphones, lighters, match box and knife when you go see the Dalai Lama. That is Step 04. Take as less things with you as you can. If you are there for winter, fall or maybe even spring, take a jacket or a blanket. When it rains, as it usually does in this very wet region of India, it can get very very cold.

Step 05:

So now can you attend the lecture and see the Dalai Lama? Well, that depends. Can you speak fluent Tibetan? If not, then you need to get yourselves an FM radio. During the lecture, there will be a host of live interpreters broadcasting the Dalai Lama's words in a number of languages. All you need to do is switch on the FM radio and find the frequency of the language that you can understand. In the lecture, I tried looking for the Spanish frequency because the English interpreter was a bit difficult to understand. (He admitted it himself as soon as the lecture ended. Poor guy. I know he did his best. I reckon Tibetan to English is not the easiest language pair for any interpreter.)

You do not need to buy an FM radio, by the way. There are places, one right inside the temple complex itself, which rents out FM radios. I cannot remember now how much the rent was, but as far as I can remember, not much. Around 50 Rupees maybe.

Tsuglagkhang Monastery, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

Step 06:

On the day itself, get to the temple around an hour before the Dalai Lama arrives. Foreigners, i.e., non-Tibetans, enter on the left (same path as where you got the ID card). Be there early because the place fills up rather quickly with Tibetans refugees, Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world and people like us, tourists who want to see the Dalai Lama and get a glimpse of the holy man. There are no chairs and everybody is supposed to sit on the floor. What you realize though upon entering the temple is that the sitting areas are divided into sections, based on the language you will want to hear the lecture in. Also, you will notice that the sitting areas are all filled with cushions and most of them are already reserved. That is, you will see pieces of paper with people's names on them laid out on the cushions. Apparently, people will reserve the "seats" up to a day before the lecture. My advice, get there early and find an empty space to settle in immediately.

Tsuglagkhang Monastery, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India

Step 07:

Once settled in, wait for the Dalai Lama's arrival. When he arrives, you will know. A throng of armed, uniformed men will first secure his walkway, followed by his handlers in suits. Then, if you're lucky, like us, you will get a glimpse of one of the most influential man in the world, a man of great power but without the trappings nor pretensions that come with it, as Michael Palin puts it. When I saw the Dalai Lama, he seemed to me like a very humble man. He waves at his adoring public, shakes hands, holds very lucky babies in the crowd, laughs a lot and cracks jokes in his lecture, too.


About the lecture itself, it will be difficult for me to relate them here, because, as I said, I only heard the English interpretation of it. And two, I am not a Buddhist nor do I pretend to be one. I was able to take down a few things, but I will only fail to elaborate on them given the reasons I just mentioned.

However, the one thing I took from seeing the Dalai Lama and hearing his lecture was the impression that the Dalai Lama is very keen on learning and educating oneself. He tried to relate his messages of compassion and non-violence to other religions, to people from other parts of the world. This I can very much appreciate. He practices what he preaches, too. He makes it a point to travel the world, learn about other ways of living, other philosophies, and other religions. He encourages Tibetans to do the same, approving even that they study everything about China and the world outside Tibet.

Michael Palin describes this as a very sober, realistic and pragmatic message, signifying, he says, that His Holiness has long accepted the fact, if not all the practices, of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. As for the reconciliation of all these, if Tibet will ever be given their sovereignty back, if His Holiness, along with the 120,000 (and growing) Tibetans living in exile, will ever return to Tibet, we can only wait in anticipation.

Have you had the pleasure of seeing the Dalai Lama and attending one of his lectures? What did you learn from him? Do you think seeing the Dalai Lama is something you would be keen on doing in India?

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