By Tammy T. Stone
There are three lines: one for monks, one for Tibetans and one for foreigners.
We’re at Dharamsala’s Kalachackra Temple on the first morning of the Dalai Lama’s three-day Introduction to Buddhism teaching. Dusty roads and smaller alleyways wind down the hilly mountains at the foothills of the Himalayas, converging past cafes, kiosks and prayer flags, taking thousands of people to the temple.
Men and women must separate at security check; it takes the women 10 times longer to get through, with the exception of the Tibetan nuns. There are far fewer of them than monks, and they fly right in, a flurry of burgundy and comfortable shoes.
There are no cellphones or cameras allowed.
Most people seem to know this in advance, but a few have to leave the line to leave them with security. Up front, there’s a thorough bag check, followed by a body check—and we’re in.
The temple’s sprawling courtyards and prayer halls are spilling over with people from all over the world. We walk among the throngs looking for a seat; there always seems to be that tiny bit of extra room, the intent of generosity and kind spirit translating without effort into miraculous spaces for new bodies.
It’s still early, and we stroll around, walking past a flat screen TV with the Dalai Lama on it, and it takes a moment to realize he’s just a few meters away from us in the hall. Right now. We have the telecast view and the actual view available to us simultaneously.
We look up—there he is, visible through a few open windows, sitting in his large chair mounted on a platform, chatting jovially with a few people nearby.
There’s security everywhere, but everyone inside had been checked, and now it’s deemed safe to allow people to wander around in his immediate vicinity.
This would never happen in the West, if say, Brad Pitt was making a personal appearance somewhere. And that’s Brad Pitt.
This is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Every day it becomes easier to see how strangely skewed things are.
We eventually settle on a very pleasant courtyard outside and one level down, and fish for our newly-bought little FM radio, two sets of earphones and a splitter. We’re able to locate a faint Japanese translation—and a Korean one—but no English.
Meanwhile, the teaching begins and we can hear the Dalai Lama speaking through loudspeakers in Tibetan, and a Hindi version follows. We fall into the rhythms and cadences of these two languages dancing with intermittent periods of silence.
That delicious, life affirming sound of the Dalai Lama’s booming giggle permeates the entire space of the temple, right through our bodies as though we have all become porous beings, ripe for absorbing this infectious laugh.
It almost seems beside the point that we don’t understand a word of what’s going on. Along with most of the foreigners in our area, we cheerily give up the search for the right frequency after a few minutes, as the Dalai Lama’s chanting begins.
Namo Tasa Bhagavato Arahato Sama Sambuddhasa.
(I pay homage to the Blessed One, the Worthy One, the Fully Enlightened One)
Buddham Saranam Gacchami
(I go to the Buddha for refuge)
Sangan Saranam Gacchami
(I go to the Sangha for refuge)
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami
(I go to the Dharma for reguge)
Listening to the melodious sounds, I close my eyes and observe a new feeling of gentility and acceptance permeating my thoughts (obliterating them for the time being) into the bodily level, where I’m accustomed to searching for signs of discomfort and distress.
Warmth washes over me.
I feel so lucky for whatever forces have conspired to bring me here in the genuine name of heart-opening. I’m struck by the truth and beauty that has emerged through an act of communal gathering in the presence of this great leader, teacher and healer, and by the seemingly impossible set of circumstances that have brought me here.
I take myself centuries back in time and wrap my imagination round The Buddha, who in my understanding, wasn’t trying to start a religion or become the object of worship. He wanted everyone to recognize the cycles of craving and aversion that perpetuate suffering, and to learn how to free ourselves the way he had: through self-reflection, awareness and hard work.
The path there allows no shortcuts, but the rewards are numerous and exponential if you have the right intention, persistence and diligence.
These are things I have always instinctively believed in, maybe even known, whether I had the language for it or not; they’ve come to me now cased in a new context, outside the intellectual one that is my comfort zone.
Hindus, Tibetans, and foreigners of all backgrounds sit together today, drinking Tibetan butter tea doled out by monks into our borrowed tin cups, quietly enjoying the presence of someone who palpably epitomizes kindness and compassion.
I feel that together we are not unlike a breezy bamboo forest in late spring, soft, pliable and strong.
Compassion, we soon learn, is the subject of today’s teaching, according to our neighbor and friend, who eventually manages to find the English frequency by sitting just outside the temple complex.
We catch it too, for about 30 seconds, during which time I hear His Holiness say that it is very important to study.
Wisdom, I read later in one of his books, comes from analytical thinking and reflection, and complements compassion on the journey of evolution.
For the time being, I’m still stuck on his laughter, and the powerful freedom it evokes in me.
Studying, maybe for the first time in my life, will have to come later.
Tammy T. Stone is a Canadian writer, photographer and chronicler of life as it passes through us. Always a wanderer, she’s endlessly mesmerized by people, places and everything in between; the world is somehow so vast and so small. She feels so lucky to have been able to work, learn, live and travel far and wide, writing, photographing and wellness-practicing along the way. She invites you to see some of her recent photography here and to connect with her on her writer’s page, Twitter and her blog, There’s No War in World, here.
Editor: Dana Gornall