Paul shares his experience at the Dalai Lama’s Homecoming from behind the camera, while I share mine below using a personal narrative of what it was like to be “on the set.”
Last week, we took a short walk from our room in McLeod Ganj to the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex, a collection of Buddhist temples and the simple Garden Podang, or official residence of the Dalai Lama. Of course, His Holiness (H.H.) was not there; if you remember the scheduling mix-up, he was in Chicago looking for us. But word travels fast inside the podang and only minutes into our visit, whispers of news told us that the Dalai Lama would return home from the US the following morning. So, in order to keep our scheduled audience with H.H., we joined gathering monks and some local folk in a morning stakeout, reserving posts outside the complex’s main entrance. There, we waited anxiously for the next three hours as the size of the welcoming committee multiplied.
By 10am, most of the local Tibetan community and a good number of curious travelers lined the streets, as an exciting energy took hold outside the temple.
Many, like my new friend Neema, raced from work for what they considered the more important job of greeting His Holiness. A Tibetan refugee wearing traditional dress born in the Indian town of Dharamsala, Neema had never missed a homecoming for as long as she could remember; we were around the same age and I stayed close to her side. As the crowd swelled outside the main gate, we soon found ourselves behind newly arrived tourists and nuns who knew what they were doing. So, Neema and I used our small size to our advantage, sliding back to our original spot at the front of the crowd. Surrounded by the novice nuns and loyal laypeople like Neema, I did my best to blend, and Neema did her best to make sure I followed her every move.
H.H. and his entourage enter McLeod from lower Dharamsala, and I was told that most of his 30-minute route up to Temple Road is lined with devoted followers. Neema received a call on her cellphone, and even though she spoke in Tibetan, I knew I was lucky to have her as a companion. She immediately instructed me that H.H. was on his way up the road, ordering me to listen for the sirens and to “get ready.” As the Indian police marched up and down the streets asserting their authority, I watched the many tourists positioning themselves and their cameras, but wasn’t really sure what I should do to prepare. Neema felt my worry, grabbed my hand and ushered me to bow forward. Almost on cue, this group of nuns and devotees that I somehow had become a part of all bowed forward as we heard our signal - police sirens. With hands held together in front of our faces in prayer, we collectively recited Tibetan mantras as the Dalai Lama’s vehicle slowly passed in front of us. Still bowing, we all kept our gaze upward to greet His Holiness. I know it’s impossible considering how many of us there were, but it still felt as if he acknowledged each of us with full eye contact and a familiar smile. Such a special moment, split seconds as his car has pulled past, and he was gone. Without a word, Neema smiled and turned to hurry back to work. The nuns, at a slightly slower pace, headed up towards the temple where they would continue their prayers as temple guards began pulling down welcome banners we watched them put up only hours earlier. It was as though a director had shouted, ‘cut!’ on a crowded movie set. End scene.
My once-intimate group scattered, life quickly returned to normal outside the temple, leaving me with a lesson in the Buddhist teaching that everything is temporary.