I've been in Dharamsala for a few days now - or, actually, McLeod-Ganj, which sounds much less romantic so I can't blame people for referring to the town by the name of its big sister. It's the site of the Dalai Lama's home since he went into exile, the current epicenter of Tibetan Buddhism, and as a result the town feels a lot like a cross between...well, between a small Himalayan village and the student union of a particularly hippy-ish university.
My arrival was lucky, since the Dalai Lama was in residence and giving a series of lectures at the temple. I attended one...well, I snuck into one, anyhow. I read the signs explaining how to register for entrance and went about assembling the necessary items: passport photos for security, an FM radio so I could hear the instant translation of his lecture, a safe place to leave my camera behind. But when I showed up bright and early at security I was told that registration had closed. Too bad for me.
Disappointed, I turned around to head home and figure out what else I might want to do here when this long-haired Russian dude pulled me to the side of the road. He was sitting on a little bench drinking masala tea with a monk. There are lots of monks here. For some reason, the Russian dude was determined to get me into the lecture and he devised a brilliant scheme: I'd head back up to security with the monk, who would announce that I was his wife, and then they'd have to let me in!
I'm not sure who was more embarrassed by this suggestion, the monk or myself, but the remarkable thing is that we actually tried it.
It didn't work.
But Russian Dude was not deterred. He led me back around the temple, away from security, and then up a series of staircases and rickety little ladders until we'd snuck into the audience hall from another direction. This felt sort of wrong and, furthermore, was kind of depressing - those poor security guys at the gate were confiscating Swiss Army knives from all the visitors and for what?
Anyhow, the temple looks a lot like a public school building. Not fancy at all. Which is nice, in a way; a show of humility and simplicity, no concern for worldly goods. And I saw the Dalai Lama as he passed into the main hall where he'd speak, preceded by incense and surrounded by devoted believers who pressed their palms together and bowed in his presence. It was the sort of thing that reminds you that Buddhism isn't just a philosophy or a spiritual practice; it's a religion.
The lecture itself wasn't anything new or revelatory. Compassion, non-violence, emptiness, the non-existence of things. Maybe if I were more invested in the philosophy I'd have a comment on the nuances. Instead I felt a lot like I was listening to a primer on Structuralism (if things are interdependent for existence, they have no existence of their own, they are not real...)
As the lecture wound to a close, someone unwound a long strip of yellow cloth along the railing of the staircase leading down and out of the temple. They tied the ends, tying the sleeve to the rail, the Dalai Lama walked down the staircase, someone rolled up the yellow cloth and the morning session was over.