I tell people I have interviewed the Dalai Lama, even though I only got to ask him two or maybe three hurried questions.
I was with members of the Vajrayana Buddhist Council Malaysia (VBCM) who had travelled to Dharamsala, India to seek the private audience with the Dalai Lama, and at the end of their session they asked him if he would answer questions from the two journalists they had invited along on the trip.
The Dalai Lama graciously agreed even though there was another group waiting to see him. I’d known I might only get one question as there wasn’t an official interview planned, and I’d been stressing over my question throughout the trip.
And now 13 years later, I can’t immediately recall what I asked him. I checked my article and the question was about the Tibet-China situation.
We had been late to the meeting because of some miscommunication about the time, and we also had to go through security checks and surrender our mobile phones. But all formalities ended at the waiting room where his aides reminded us to not remove our shoes, or prostrate before the Dalai Lama “to save time”.
When our turn came, the Dalai Lama was waiting to greet us at the corridors and invited us into the sitting room. The hour with the Dalai Lama passed quickly for he was an engaging conversationalist. He listened most attentively and with genuine interest, almost like old friends meeting.
And when he responded, the Dalai Lama spoke simply and succinctly in his fluent Tibetan/Indian accented English, occasionally turning to his interpreter and secretary in search of the right word. He had a quick wit with a disarming hint of mischief, and the most ready and hearty chuckle.
A Simple Monk
His followers might regard him as a living deity but the Dalai Lama has always said he is “a simple monk”. At our meeting, he shared his thoughts openly but also cautioned against accepting his counsel blindly… “read up the materials and come to your conclusions,” he said.
At the end of the session, the Dalai Lama presented everyone with a white shawl and a small Buddhist figurine. Some people had brought their family photos to be blessed by him, and I asked him to autograph one of his books.
Even after meeting the Dalai Lama, I think of him more as an intellectual rather than a religious figure. In preparing for the interview, I read a few of his books and was surprised at how accessible and relatable his teachings were.
One of the most erudite scholars in Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has the gift of stripping Buddhist philosophy to its most lucid core. He has said that Buddhism is not a path of faith, but of reason and knowledge.
Reading the Dalai Lama’s teachings, even casually, has given me different insights. I think above all it has taught me to be mindful, to not just react but to analyse my feelings and reactions intellectually. Even if I don’t always succeed, I have tried to understand that my anger is tied to my ego, to be aware of my attachments and to accept impermanence.
The appeal to me is that the Dalai Lama’s teachings are spiritual and address internal strifes, but the approach is cerebral and logical. During the Dharamsala trip, I of course had no inkling yet of how his teachings would mould and help me in the years to come. But even then, it was definitely one of the best assignments I had ever been on.
Monastries And Marvels
For a week, we visited different Tibetan Buddhist sects in northern India, on the road trip between Pathankot and Dharamsala. We stopped at monastries and were blessed by monks, delighted in double rainbows and marvelled at the majesty of the Himalayan mountains in the distance.
But it was McLeod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, accessible through a steep and narrow road, that we all looked forward to. It is the home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibet-in-exile government.
The roads were narrow and craggy, and the shirts I bought from the shops there were of such poor quality they actually ripped apart within months. But there was much hope and reverence in this town, among Tibetan refugees and people from all over the world who flocked here seeking enlightenment.
In that one week, I do believe we were surrounded by a good, positive aura. On the final night of our trip, we arrived late at our hotel in New Delhi. When I put my bag down on the bench in my room, it started rattling and rattling, but I wasn’t perturbed. I simply lay the bag elsewhere.
The next morning, the others in the trip also spoke about unexplained incidents in their rooms. Only then did it occur to me that perhaps my room had been haunted. But I was totally oblivious; maybe because there is no such thing or maybe I was protected by the good aura I had absorbed all that week!