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On meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala

OPINION

The meeting itself turned out to be neither exactly as he had imagined, nor completely different from what he had hoped, but Christopher Heise* wishes that everyone with a sincere desire to do so is able to meet His Holiness in person during their lifetime.

(TibetanReview.net, Jun12’23)

Life is strange, and sometimes unexpected things really do happen. For instance, I never thought I’d have the chance to meet the Dalai Lama face-to-face, and yet just recently I did.

How did this occur? Perhaps you could call it fate or chance or being in the right place at the right time, or simply a pleasant surprise. I’d been teaching English for a couple months as a volunteer in Dharamsala, the place where His Holiness has resided for the past several decades (after fleeing the brutal Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959), and although I’d attended a few of his public teachings at the main temple in McCleod Ganj (aka “Upper Dharamsala”), they were always jam-packed with people (monks, nuns, tourists, children, etc.) – so much so that it was hard to find a seat sometimes – and I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to get close to him. In fact, I didn’t even know that was a possibility until I was sitting in a jeep one Saturday morning next to the director of the charity I work for, traveling across the chaotic roads of India en route to a staff picnic. We were discussing my experience at the last teaching when he casually mentioned that if I wanted to, I could try to make an appointment to meet His Holiness through his secretary, whose email address he could give me later. Well, I did want to, and though the director himself seemed to forget about this conversation, I reminded him about it at lunch on Monday, and – after scrolling through his phone for a second – he gave me the address. 

I wrote a lengthy email about how I’d always admired the Dalai Lama and had attended some of his large-scale lectures in Europe, but had never had a chance to greet him in person. I also mentioned, of course, that I was teaching English to Tibetan refugees as a volunteer, and that I wasn’t sure when I’d have another chance to see him, given His Holiness’s advanced age (he’s 87) and the fact that I was leaving in a couple weeks.

I had no clue what the secretary would say or even if he’d respond to my message, so I pretty much just let the whole thing go after hitting ‘send’. However, maybe 10 days later – lo and behold! – I got an email from him stating that he’d added me to another group having an audience with His Holiness the following week, with details about what time to be there, the procedures for getting through security (I’d have to take a rapid COVID test), and a final admonition not to be late. And though I’m certainly no early riser and I had to be there by 7:30, there was no way I was going to be late for that!

But meeting the spiritual leader and former head of the Tibetan state is not as simple as just showing up on time, and I also had to make some preparations. For example, as I hadn’t brought a lot of nice clothes with me to India, I didn’t have anything to wear. After consulting with my Tibetan co-workers at the charity, I decided the best solution was to a buy a formal Tibetan-style shirt in the market at McLeod, which I did (and I have to say I really dig the look of it!). Also I needed to get a khata – a long silk scarf that’s usually white or yellow, and worn by Tibetans on auspicious occasions – but fortunately one of my students offered me one the day before the meeting. Also, as His Holiness blesses whatever little objects you bring with you, I made sure to gather up all my malas and bracelets and Buddha statues and things, and also bought some additional ones, so I could also do that (and later give them away as gifts back home). Finally, as I was told I could offer a donation, I got that together as well. With all my preparations complete, the only thing that now remained was to get there on the appointed morning, which was more of struggle than it sounds as I was pretty nervous about the whole thing and worried I’d oversleep, but in the end I managed to arrive promptly at 7:25.

The meeting itself turned out to be neither exactly as I’d imagined it, nor completely different from what I’d hoped. Security was tight at the office – it was sort of like getting on an airplane – and after I passed through and entered the inner area of the temple complex (leaving my backpack and phone behind and placing my plastic bag of objects to be blessed on a wooden tray that’d later be delivered to His Holiness), I sat down on a ledge at the bottom of a hill at the end of a long line of people. As the secretary had mentioned in his email, it was to be a group receiving line, but there were a lot more folks than I’d anticipated – around 70! Most of them were Tibetan – all dressed in sparkling-looking chubas (traditional Tibetan robes worn by men and women) or neatly pressed Tibetan shirts and slacks – with the small contingent of 10 or so foreigners that I was part of occupying the last section of the line.

There was tension and excitement in the air as we sat there waiting for things to get started, but when they finally did, it was well worth it. One of the first sounds we heard upon moving towards the open verandah space where His Holiness was sitting farther up the slope, was his deep and resonant laughter echoing across the space, something that positively made my day. Then, after all the groups of Tibetans had greeted and taken photos with him, our crew finally made it to the front of the line. I anxiously draped my long yellow khata over my shoulders and gave the envelope with my donation inside to the monk collecting them, and before I knew it was my turn!

A few days earlier, some of my students had asked me what I was going to say when I finally got to greet him, and frankly I had no idea – I knew there wouldn’t be enough time to ask a formal question about the Dharma (the Buddhist teaching), and I was truly at a loss as to how to make small talk with the Dalai Lama. So I simply awkwardly sprawled on my knees before him, bowing with my hands together, and then I looked up and said the first thing that popped into my head: “Thank you so much for meeting me today, Your Holiness. I’m so happy to be here!”

It was then that I noticed he was looking calmly, yet intently, at my face – as though curious or sizing me up – and as I gazed back into his eyes I had the surreal sensation that I was looking not just at a person, but at the sky or something equally expansive and peaceful that I couldn’t quite put words to. It was a fleeting sensation, and I’m still not sure if it was my projection or not, though it did seem real at the time. I’d always assumed His Holiness was a regular human being – albeit an exceeding spiritual and advance one – as that’s the image he appears to give off during public talks and interviews, but after getting close to him (I’d never had the chance to look into his eyes before), I can no longer say I’m completely sure about that.

After that brief and extraordinary glance, I bowed once more and then, without warning, he hit me on the head with his hand a couple times – fairly hard, I may add – while emitting a loud, booming chuckle. And with that, my face-to-face encounter was done – the staff kept the line moving fairly quickly – and I was ushered behind His Holiness to await the group photo while the next person came forward. Following the photo, our audience was finished and we all walked back down the hill to collect our things, going through the office and out into the public part of the temple complex again. A few minutes later the staff returned with all the blessed objects, handing them back to us through the gate (after we provided our matching numbered tags, like picking up your coat after a show), and it was all over.

And though the encounter was so short, it was somehow such a unique and special experience that I’ll remember it for a long time. Later, while talking to my Tibetan co-workers about it, they informed me that getting pounded on the head by His Holiness was a kind of blessing and that I was fortunate to have received it. I was surprised to hear that, thinking he’d just been having fun by bonking me like that, but perhaps there was more to it, as he is, after all, The 14th Dalai Lama. I did feel more lively, lighter and energetic afterwards, so perhaps I should keep open the possibility that he transferred some kind of energy to me? God knows I could use it.

It’s my wish that everyone with a sincere desire to do so is able to meet His Holiness in person during their lifetime, but if that’s not a possibility then I hope my little exposition helps you imagine what it’s like to encounter this great spiritual being, as even such as brief experience can have a real impact. And now let’s all pray for the continued long life of this bodhisattva in monk’s robes.

 —
* Christopher Heise grew up in the USA, but he’s spent the past 15 years or so traveling and working abroad. He’s taught ESL, either as a paid employee or volunteer, in Germany, Venezuela, Taiwan and India, and he once had the surreal experience of celebrating his birthday on a different continent for four consecutive years. Also a freelance writer and editor, his work has appeared in Indie Shaman, The Traveller Trails, Go World Travel Magazine and other publications. He can be reached at cjhj17@gmail.com.

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