“You shouldn’t accept every word just because I said it. You should examine what I have said, test it, and then decide.”
So says His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at the beginning of the first day of teachings at the main Tibetan temple in Dharamsala, 29-31 October 2012. Easier said than done. Even as a non-Buddhist, it is easy to be swept up in the atmosphere of the teachings and the magnetic personality of the Dalai Lama.
By extreme good fortune, and the minor inconvenience of waiting 15 minutes in line to get a teaching pass, I am able to attend these teachings, along with perhaps 150-200 foreigners and at least double the amount of Tibetans. It amazes me that it is so simple, and free, to have this experience.
On the morning of the first day, I walk down from my guesthouse behind a group of nuns all swathed in maroon. I am carrying my specially purchased folding cushion, and the FM radio which I will use to listen to the translation of His Holiness’ words. It gets more crowded as we get down to the temple, but never overwhelmingly so. After a fairly thorough padding down by a female security guard (cameras and lighters are verboten), I wander around in the upper part of the Temple to try and find a possie near to where the Dalai Lama will sit. There is not a skerrick of space left. I head back downstairs and sit near a group of welcoming monks and some stinky-looking backpackers. The ambiance in the crowd is one of good-natured expectation.
Puctually at 9.30am, there he is, his Holiness walks along the path, lined with Tibetans and foreigners, palms pressed together, and up the stairs. It’s an emotional moment.
The first part of the teachings are accessible for me, despite having no background in Buddhism. His Holiness draws similarities between different religions, and urges the Buddhists in the crowd to embrace 21st Century Buddhism. Monks come past with enormous kettles of milky tea and offer it to everyone. By 11.30am, the first part of the teaching is over, and the monks set up huge saucepans of rice and vats of dahl for the crowd. I was reminded of the feeding of the 5 thousand with the loaves and fishes.
For the rest of the teachings, I find a spot in the courtyard downstairs, where I can stretch out my legs and enjoy the sunlight. It was so lovely sitting in a mixed group of foreigners and Tibetans, with little toddlers bobbing around, listening to the wisdom of one of the great men of our age. The teaching became more and more complex, dealing with Buddhist concepts of emptiness and attachment. I drew from it what I could, sometimes losing the thread of it and instead watching the golden leaves drifting down, sometimes looking out to the mountains.
The teachings passed by so quickly. On the final morning, His Holiness gave the crowd the opportunity to swear to uphold the Five Precepts (abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication). Many foreigners in the crowd knelt and swore these precepts. Whether they were students of Buddhism, or had just gotten carried away, I am not sure. Some people appeared more serious than others. Once the teachings were over, I felt strangely bereft.
In Australia, which is these days so secular, we don’t have many opportunities to challenge and extend our thinking in everyday life. Unless we are studying something, or practicing a religion, we don’t have a regular time in our week to think about big ideas, beyond our everyday concerns. And yet in Dharamsala, so many seemingly ordinary Tibetans (ie, not monks or nuns) took 3 days our of their lives to hear some wisdom, remind themselves of their fundamental beliefs, and challenge their ideas.
While I am happy to live in a secular society, I wonder sometimes about what we are missing out on.