Before I left Manila for India two months ago, I made a wish: to see the Dalai Lama in the flesh.
Since I would be staying in Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala to practice yoga for a month, this possibility was not too remote.
The 14th Dalai Lama has been residing in Dharamshala along with the Tibetan government in exile after his escape from the Chinese authorities in Tibet in 1959. Mcleod Ganj has been his home. And the Dalai Lama temple was just within walking distance from where I was staying.
I became a fan of the Dalai Lama after having watched “Kundun,” the film about his life from the time that he was found by the search teams in the northeast of Tibet up to his dramatic escape to India. Only then did I learn that the line of succession of the Dalai Lama is determined by reincarnation according to Tibetan beliefs. Thus the 14th Dalai Lama now is a reincarnation of the previous spritual leaders. According to some Tibetan texts, the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
If you had been following the animation series Avatar, you’d immediately realize that the Dalai Lama’s story is similar to that of the cartoon’s hero Aang, the last airbender. How amazing is that? And similarly, the 14th Dalai Lama conceded that he may be the last. But it would be up to the Tibetan people to determine the fate of the institution, he said in several interviews.
I was in Mcleod Ganj when the Dalai Lama turned 81. The celebration at the Dalai Lama temple was festive, complete with cultural performances. It would have been perfect time to see the Dalai Lama, but the celebrant was not there. We were told that he was in the southern part of India then.
My month-long yoga course ended and I had even extended my stay in Mcleod Ganj for 10 more days to do more Ashtanga with another yoga studio. But in those days, I had no sighting of the Dalai Lama. I left the Mcleod abandoning that wish. Maybe he would eventually visit the Philippines? I cheered myself.
I continued my journey, finding myself in the high-desert region of the Himalayas. Guess what? The Dalai Lama came to Leh in Ladakh. After my epic seven-day trek in Markha Valley, I heard that he would be holding a public teaching in Thiksey Monastery, a Tibetan monastery on top of a hill at the Thiksey village in Leh. I woke up earlier that day on a mission to see the Dalai Lama. I walked down to the bus station from Changspa Road and immediately found one shared taxi going to Thiksey.
The ground below the monastery was already filled with thousands of Ladakhis by the time I arrived. I searched for the stage and found my way to the media spot at the aisle, just within striking distance of the Dalai Lama. I had covered the historic state visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines in 2015. But the reaction of the people and the security around the two religious leaders weren’t the same. The people before the Dalai Lama were more contemplative, not in a mad rush to get near or touch him. A local policeman allowed me to take photos near the stage even if I don’t have a press ID. I was lucky, a Korean journalist following the Dalai Lama told me later.
So there he was sitting on a wide golden chair. He was speaking in Tibetan which was being translated in Ladakhi language over a loud speaker. I couldn’t understand a thing. But I was sure his three-hour long speech was sprinkled with anecdotes and jokes because he often laughed and smiled. The Dalai Lama was so full of life.
Oh I was completely mesmerized! It came to me later that there was a designated area for foreigners and his talk there was being translated to English. In the last part of his speech, he said: “Discrimination is the source of harm.” The translator said you immediately gain friends by being kind and warm-hearted.
Other photos at Thiksey Monastery:
I had actually thought of approaching him and shooting him one political question after the event. But the journalists covering him said it wasn’t possible. I have to write his office a letter request first. I actually did that before I left the Philippines but unfortunately, probably because of his busy schedule, I got no reply. Nevertheless, still seeing the Dalai Lama here in India was such a beautiful experience.