Sunday, 24 January 2010
It is the New Year and I am truly blessed. How could I not be? It's true that I'm writing this article well past my bedtime in a chilly hotel a long way from home and missing all that countdown revelry, the blowing of trumpets and the alcoholic toast welcoming the start of a brand new year surrounded by friends and loved ones.
But then I'm in Dharamsala, in the northern part of India. And the home of his Holiness The Dalai Lama, and I can't think of a more special place in which to say goodbye to another year and usher in a New Decade.
To be precise I'm in a place called MaCleod Ganj, a little hill settlement on the upper part of Dharamsala in the Himachal province in the shadows of the Himalayas, where the residence of the current and 14th Dalai Lama and the capital of the Central Tibetan Administration is situated.
It is named after the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, David MaCleod, during the British rule in India and since the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the thousands of Tibetans escaping China , it developed into an organized town that seats the administrative offices of the Tibetan government in exile.
The place is complete with Tibetan monasteries, nunneries, temples, chortens or prayer wheels as well as an institute that trains young people in Tibetan arts and crafts in order to perpetuate the Tibetan culture and tradition which is fast disappearing in their homeland.
It even has a Tibetan children village housing and educating thousands of orphaned and children sent by their parents and relatives in Tibet who want their children to have a Tibetan education.
In the last five decades the town has grown into a crowded little town packed with budget guest houses, souvenir shops, small cafes and dilapidated buildings housing tourists and backpackers from all over the world who are attracted to the area to study about Tibet and Buddhism and to soak in the sight of red robed monks and nuns with shaved heads weaving in and out of the busy narrow alley ways that serve as main streets. Hence the nickname 'Little Lhasa'.
Who is The Dalai Lama? I know he is the spiritual leader of Tibet leading the Tibetan government in exile from the hills of Dharamsala since 1959 when he and around one hundred thousand Tibetans fled the persecution of China to seek refuge in neighbouring India.
I know he is also a figure of inspiration and a source of fascination for people all over the world moved by his message of peace and non-violence.
He himself has written many books on the subjects of finding inner peace, cultivating compassion and unlocking the secret of happiness with a universality that speaks to the reader from the basis of psychology and humanistic appeal more than any intent to promote Buddhism as a religion.
Indeed, the subjects that he covers, on the art of happiness, on opening oneself up to love, on coming to terms with living and dying and discovering one's true self, his is the stuff easily digestible especially to those familiar with the idea of positive thinking and meditating in order to improve the self and the Mind.
Reading about it is one thing but meeting the man himself is quite another experience. Watching him preside over a 'Puja' for his long life and to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the death of Panchen Lama the tenth, I was able to witness at first hand the amount of respect and reverence paid to him by his followers, Tibetan school children and western visitors sitting on the ground basking in his presence and waiting to hear him speak.
When he did speak, they listened intently, many with their hands put together as if in prayer, laughing now and then at some words that the Dalai Lama spoke. The elderly seemed particularly moved and in awe of his presence.
And yet, despite the great influence the Dalai Lama has over his people and others who come near him, he is not an imposing or overbearing figure. As a matter of fact, despite his red and saffron robes and bald pate, his diffident demeanour and his glasses lend him a rather professorial air.
Which in a way he is. Talking to him (he was generous enough to grant me an audience of well over an hour) he looks at me with a twinkle in his eye and answers my questions at great length with many historical references like a teacher like a patient teacher.
And when there are answers that refer to what I would imagine to be a painful or disturbing experience to him, he would let out a hearty laugh. Here is a man seemingly without any burden, without fear or hate for his enemies and one who has cultivated a mind that is so fine it seems to penetrate all the layers of realities to arrive at the real truth.
I ask him who he really is. He says he is just a human being amongst a world of six billion human beings.
Well, he is certainly one in a billion.