Monday, 10 May 2010

A date with the Dalai Lama

It’s just amazing what can happen sometimes when you don’t have a plan! Way back at the beginning of our trip to India we got wind of an opportunity to catch a glimpse of his holiness the Dalai Lama in his home town of Macleod Ganj, but since we had a plan which involved heading in exactly the opposite direction, we decided to give it a miss and plough on with our journey as planned. Although I’ve always thought it would be pretty damn cool to hear his words of wisdom in person, it just wasn’t in the schedule and the Nepalese peaks of the Himalayas were calling. So I arrived in Rishikesh one week ago to be reminded that often in life there is such a thing as a second chance… the Rishikesh grapevine we got wind of a little rumor that the Dalai Lama was coming to town for some ceremonial ‘goings on’. We had exactly one week to figure out a way to get our foot in the door and secure our date with the Dalai Lama. In truth, it actually wasn’t that tough. We headed down to the Ashram that was the centre of the action, where his holiness would be staying, hunted out the appropriate peeps with the power, and somehow or other, with a little straight up persistence and a word or two with the main Swamiji – we were the proud owners of 2 press passes to attend the upcoming weekend of events. Dalai Lama lookout!

On April 3rd and 4th, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, in Rishikesh was billed to play host to a whole host of spiritual leaders and dignitaries including the leader of Buddhists, the world over, the Dalai Lama, as part of a huge celebration to mark the launching of a brand new publication: An 11 volume series entitled “Encyclopedia of Hinduism”, which could certainly be said to be a pretty significant moment in modern Hindu history. Around 20 years in the making, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of over 1000 scholars and academics from all over India and further afield, this publication has brought together a huge mass of knowledge and information about the Hindu tradition in a formal way to both document its existence and make this knowledge available to educate the world. The Hindu faith, is one of the world’s major religions and has an incredibly deep well of tradition and history, which has now been brought together in one comprehensive set of volumes.

To mark the completion of this major undertaking, which was inspired by the dreams of Swami Chidanand Saraswati many years ago, there was a weekend of events planned and an impressive guest list to match this monumental occasion. Since the weekend also coincided with the largest spiritual gatherings on the planet, the Kumbh Mela, where literally millions of people congregate on the banks of the river Ganges in Haridwar, to bathe away their sins, the opening event actually took place in Haridwar, at one of the Kumbh Mela camps. The atmosphere in the speakers tent when we arrived was one of excitement and anticipation and as the moment finally arrived for the speakers to make their way through the crowd and take the stage the politely seated guests turned into a seething mass of bodies, pushing and shoving to catch a close up glimpse and take a shot of the most popular of the guests, the DL himself.

As the ‘Tibetan, secret service’ cleared a path through the crowd, right beside the table I was perching on within the media enclosure I found that I was close enough to see the beads of sweat on the top of his head – but it was all over so quickly, as the entourage pushed forward to reach the stage that my first chance to snap a good shot passed me by before I could even get the camera in focus. Not to worry, the best was yet to come.

After the initial storm in the press pit had subsided, and the flashing had died down, the security just about managed to maintain order and the photographers were finally all persuaded to back away from the stage and take a seat on the floor, so that the audience behind (and the cameras on tripods, shooting for live TV audiences) could get a clear view.

Over the course of the next few hours I had plenty of chances to capture that famous face on digital file, and at one point I was literally no more than a meter or so away from the feet of the Dalai Lama.

Never mind Vipassana – this has to be a fast track to enlightenment – to sit at the feet of the Dalai Lama for a day.

Now, if it hadn’t been for the Dalai Lama’s presence at the ceremony, I will say, that I probably would have been bored to tears, but apparently, even without the Dalai Lama there I should have been impressed because the stage was filled with a who’s who of the spiritual Guru’s of India. And so, as you might expect, each filled with his own sense of self importance, had to have a word or two, or seven thousand four hundred and eighty six!!!! But who’s counting? And of course, the proceedings went off almost entirely in Hindi. So for a westerner attending the event, it was a little on the dull side. Clearly India hasn’t got the memo yet, that a successful event of this kind, starts with a short and simple presentation to show case the work, a few brief words from an author and maybe a sponsor or two and then quite simply the party begins. Let me tell you, there wasn’t a martini in sight, and not even those cute little trays of hors d’oeuvres were being served. The one saving grace, that actually made the day thoroughly entertaining for me was simply watching the mannerisms and antics of the Dalai Lama.

At one point he was passed a packet of wet wipes, to wipe away his sweat and watching him inspect the packet, like some kind of foreign object and then slowly removing one and placing it lightly on his forehead,

leaving it there for some minutes to cool himself off, was like watching a child with a new toy. The highlight though came a few minutes after part of the blessing ceremony, when rose petals had been strewn across the stage and seated dignitaries.

Apparently old Lamaji, had spotted a bug or 2 crawling around on the rose petals, and, being a good Buddhist, he was of course concerned for the well being of all living beings so decided to make it his personal mission to scratch around on the floor ‘rescuing’ the bugs in question,

to save them from certain death.

How cute!

And really there is no other word to describe the Dalai Lama, from the way that he shuffles along in his robes, to the serene and yet at times mischievous expression he wears on his slightly chubby cheeks. From the top of his shiny shaved head,

to the tips of his pudgy little toes

there’s nothing about him that isn’t just so darn cute!

And all the while, the speeches went on and on and on, and even the Dalai Lama was failing to stifle his yawns,

until finally a few words in English were spoken to get my attention. This time the speaker was young, and handsome and the cameras began to click with renewed vigor all around me and I realized that I was listening to the words of Vivek Oberoi,

Bollywood’s latest hot young talent – who summed up the value of this brand new Encyclopedia. “For young Hindu’s, the future of Hinduism and India, there were often questions: Who am I? What am I? What does it mean to be a Hindu? And now there is a place to find those answers. And this is a wonderful legacy for us to leave for future generations.”

Finally it was the turn of the Dalai Lama to speak, and after some words in Tibetan (translated to Hindi by his personal translator) he actually took the mic in English

(because he likes to prove that he can, even though he so humbly claims to speak only broken English, despite the fact that his command of the language is better than most adults I know that speak it as their first and only language) and shared his thoughts with the non-Hindi guests: Halleluja! It was a simple speech that touched on his feeling that he was actually a son of India, having been fortunate to find refuge in the country all those years ago when he was exiled from Tibet, and having relied upon the rice and Dahl of India to sustain his body, and he was proud to be a son on India, because India lives with some great principles. There is a long-standing tradition of tolerance and respect for other faiths and religions within the borders of India, which results in great peace and harmony and he applauded that. He also spoke of the long-standing tradition of Ahimsa (non-violence) that India embraces and how this practice fosters compassion for all living beings. He promoted the need for secular values and encouraged people to see things from many angles. He talked about the world getting smaller and the need for more respect and tolerance of other people’s views, which will enable us all to live together in peace and harmony and really his message was simple: if we can look at things through another person’s eyes and use a little common sense, we can all live together peacefully. In closing he stated that he was proud to be there for this gathering of gurus – even though he doesn’t have the beard of a guru, and then he proceeded to tug on the beard of his neighbour, Ramdevji like a rambunctious child pulling at his father’s beard and the whole audience giggled. Like I said – there’s nothing he does that isn’t cute!
Finally the speeches came to an end and a number of volumes of the new Encyclopedias were brought to the stage for another blessing, and the mandatory round of photographs. Truly it was quite exciting to be in the thick of it all, surrounded by the marauding photographers, desperate for ‘the shot’.

I would have to say though that the highlight of the day was not just to be sitting at the feet of the Dalai Lama for the afternoon,

but to realize, in a moment of distraction that I was actually making eye contact with his holiness and he was cracking a smile just for me……….let’s just say that made my freakin day.

Once the special guests had made their way from the stage it was time to head back to Rishikesh, for the fire puja ceremony, and a special musical performance on the banks of the Ganges by renowned musicians, with the Lama and many of the other revered guests present. With our new favorite toy in hand, the magic key of the event, our prized press passes we were actually able to gain access to the stage, and again were only feet from the Dalai Lama et al. The entertainment was actually pretty good, but again the highlight of the evening for me were those few seconds, when I realized that I was actually standing almost directly in the path of the oncoming Dalai Lama. This time, my lens cap was off, my camera was ready and I did actually manage to catch a couple of good shots before I was thrust aside by one his personal ninjas and his entourage was leaving me in the metaphorical dust.

This was an encounter I won’t forget in a hurry.

Day 2 of the proceedings went off in much the same way as the first. A mangled crowd of desperate fans huddling around the path to catch a glimpse of his holiness, followed by a couple of hours of speeches in Hindi (this time with the emphasis on the launching of a campaign to clean up the Ganges) and then a few more words in English from the Dalai Lama.

He had just a few more things to say. Firstly he stated that in today’s world it is true, and one must admit, that money is important. Of course without money one cannot provide for the physical necessities and comforts of life – but it is also important to realize that while money is important, spirituality is of equal importance in life. One can have all the money in the world, billions of dollars and still be unhappy. For mental comfort, money cannot provide. The idea that money will solve all your problems and unhappiness is an illusion. He knows this from personal experience he said, because he has met many rich people who are very unhappy. There is no supermarket that sells piece of mind. There is no surgical procedure that can take away unhappiness. For comfort of the mind, spirituality is necessary. Again, he emphasized that one does not need to follow a particular religion to follow a spiritual path. He spoke of promoting secular ethics, and a true sense of compassion and care for other life based on common sense. He recognizes that for a happy life one needs to take care of both the body and the mind and emotion.

Secondly, he spoke of the need for a new awareness of ecology and the environment. If we want to be able to take care of our need for physical comfort, we need to extend that awareness beyond ourselves to the greater surroundings of our place and our planet. He acknowledged that around the world there are growing shortages of one of the fundamental necessities of life: water. He spoke of the beauty of the moon, the poetry of that beauty but the understanding that the moon is only beautiful from afar, and could never sustain human life. This planet we live on is the only one we have and so we must take care of it. The Himalayas, with their snow-capped peaks and lush forests are not only important for the locals who live there, but for the entire continent. The Tibetan plateau is the source of water for millions of people. And while the Ganges is a special river to the Hindu’s and for them it needs to be clean so that when the next generation of pilgrims come to her banks they will want to bathe in her waters – to him there is no religious significance. It is just water. But water is everything. Water gives life, and the Ganges is a source of life to millions, who depend on the water in it for survival. Ecologists have referred to the Tibetan Plateau as the third pole, and just as we have seen vast changes taking place at both the north and south poles, so too have we seen changes, in our own lifetimes in Tibet. The rate of change in Tibet is actually faster than anywhere else on the planet and as the temperature rises the water levels fall and something must be done to change this pattern. His message was simply that this information, this knowledge should be shared around the world and that the governments of the world need to take heed of the warnings and make changes to make a difference.

India has shown that religious tolerance and the concept of Ahimsa can create a happy healthy society and these things are what India has to offer to humanity to build a better global society. Bravely, he also commented on the things that India still needs to change, the poverty and illiteracy, and other out-dated traditions. He talked of looking to the future, changing the things that need to be changed and offering the best of what India has to the rest of the world as an example of how we can all live in harmony together despite of our differences.

And then, in true Indian style, for their first act of ‘clean-up’, they managed to pollute the poor Ganga river even more, by releasing half filled helium balloons, that barely made it a few feet in the air before being forlornly blown back down towards the fast flowing river, where they would be undoubtedly be submerged to eventually find a home under a rock, to decompose in over the next 75 yrs (or however long it takes for a rubber balloon to decompose).

Well, I guess their hearts were in the right place, even if the science still has a little catching up to do. And in a final flourish of mayhem, the Dalai Lama was whisked away one last time amongst a crowd of fervent followers and Tibetan ninjas, while we were left to marvel at our good fortune in having had this golden opportunity to hear such simple wisdom and truth uttered from the mouth of the cutest spiritual leader ever to have walked the planet. Overall impression: The Dalai Lama Rocks!