An Audience with the Abbot
Our trip through the Himalayan Mountains of Himachal Pradesh was book-ended by Tibetan religious icons. In Solan, at the trips outset, we had spent two days working at the Menri Monastery; a retreat high and isolated, resting on a summit that overlooked a sprawling valley of green thousands of feet below.
We were introduced to Bon Buddhism by the monks that lived there; some as young as two or three and others as seemingly old as wind and fire. Temperature wise it was anything but warm yet the monks found little discomfort in the chill of their surroundings and with little more than a robe, slippers, and religious devotion they exuded warmth of spirit to a degree that is uncommon and took us all a little by surprise.
It was here we were fortunate in so many ways.
In Dharamsala, near the journeys conclusion, we were lucky enough to be granted permission, along with hundreds of others, to attend an audience with the Dalai Lama. Right now though we were about to meet the Abbot. Both were special but they were as different as a hug and a handshake.
The Bon New Year was upon us and celebrations were about to kick into high gear. We witnessed firsthand the festivities associated with this time of year and felt privileged to be a part of an event seen by very few westerners.
Fortune continued to shine when word came through that an invitation was being extended. We were to be guests, for yak butter tea and biscuits, of the Abbot; the religious leader of all Bon, the oldest form of Buddhism in Tibet.
His Highness the 33rd Menri Trizin, Lungtok Tenpai Nyima.
Bad timing played a part for some of our group as they had returned a little earlier to Solan than the rest of us. For Cathy, Christine, Sarah, Dvora, Tracy, Vladimir, and me, this would be a tea party for the ages.
So unexpected and surreal, it was almost like we had been transported back in time; the theme of Seven Years in Tibet playing with transparency in the back of my mind yet profoundly underscoring the entire experience.
We were escorted, with broad smiles and head bows, into His Holiness’s residence and situated in a rectangular room resembling an empty wine cellar. The walls were unadorned however the unmistakable crimson of Tibet flanked the windows with national pride.
I remember the floor being concrete however on this I could be mistaken; tile is more likely. The table was wooden and must have seated 14 with comfort. His Holiness entered the room with a generous smile and a hand shake for each of us; he sat down and we talked. He asked about our lives and hoped we were enjoying our stay. Then he began a summarized version of the events that brought him to this place.
He was born in Northern Tibet in 1929 in the province of Amdo. His mother died when he was a child and so was raised by an elderly friend of the family. When he was eight years old his father took him to a monastery and it was here that he learned to read, write, and chant. It was also here that he began his lifelong study of the Bon religion; devoting himself to spiritual practice and scholarship, he completed his degree in philosophy at age 25.
The following year he traveled to a southern monastery. He printed copies of Bon scripture from traditional woodblocks. Using mules he transported back to his monastery more than 100 volumes of the sacred texts; it took six-months.
At age 27 he set out on foot as a pilgrim, walking to China, where he visited a number of holy sites before returning to the Holy City of Lhasa. For years he studied in Tibet at various Bon monasteries where he became known as Sangye Tenzin Jongdong.
In 1959 he fled Tibet for Nepal and met the residing Abbot who was living in exile. It was also here that he first encountered Tibetan scholar Professor Snellgrove from the University of London. Spurred on by the urgent need to preserve the Bon religion he collected many important texts and, once again using mules, he took them to India.
In 1961 he made his way to New Delhi. There, with the support of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. he continued his commitment to the preservation of sacred Bon literature.
In 1962, with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, he taught Tibetan culture at the University of London.
In 1964, he attended a private audience with Pope Paul VI in Rome. Later that year, at the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he opened a high school in Northern India, for Tibetan refugee boys.
In the mid-60’s, a permanent camp for Tibetan Bonpos was established at Dolanji, just outside Solan, on land purchased by the Catholic Relief Services.
In 1966, while living in Norway and teaching Tibetan history and religion at the University of Oslo, he learned he had been selected to succeed the 32nd Abbot Menri as spiritual leader of the Bon religion.
In 1969 he assumed his duties as the 33rd Abbot of Menri. He accepted the responsibility of leading the effort to reestablish the original Menri Monastery that was founded in 1405 and destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s.
As we listened to him speak a tray of shortbread biscuits, tea cups, and a large pot of tea was delivered to the room by one of the monks. The room was quickly engulfed in the strong sweet smell of the thick milky yellow yak butter tea.
All of us were given a cup and as we dunked our shortbread biscuits the unique taste and texture became a text of emotion on each face. It’s a strong brew in both aroma and punch but we all either enjoyed it or pretended to.
The only one among us who refused a cup was the Abbot himself admitting to us that he had bad cholesterol and the last thing anyone in his condition needs is a cup of yak butter tea.
The Abbots demeanor was one you would expect from a person that had reached the pinnacle of his particular calling. He exuded compassion, understanding, good humor, generosity, and an attitude to life that left no doubt that judgment of another is by far the least auspicious route to take.
Upon leaving he embraced each of us and hung around our necks a white silk prayer scarf and a memory of a lifetime.
An Audience with the Dalai Lama
One of the great expectations on any trip into Northern India is an unexpected encounter with the leader of Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. His presence and his image are everywhere. Dharamsala is his home in exile and he is its center; its religious and secular heartbeat and its window to the world.
He provides hope, compassion, and leadership, as well as opportunity both economically and religiously. He is revered and respected; a religious rock-star and savior who has brought peace and freedom to those who followed him and continues to shine a global light on Tibetans still locked within the confines of their own country.
Once a year the Dalai Lama offers a series of teachings within the walls of his compound and as luck would have it we were in town during such a time.
A visit to what could possibly be considered the Tibetan Office of the Secret Service was set up in Dharamsala and it was here we were required to apply for permission.
I remember the room being tiny and below street level by two or three steps made of weather-beaten wood. The room itself could not have been more than 10 feet by 10 feet with no windows. Two monks officiated over the proceedings and, unlike any other similar process in the West, they were friendly and efficient. With passport photos in hand we signed some forms and were told to return later that day.
Before the sun set we would have in our possession an entry permit to the inner sanctum of one of the world’s most iconic figures.
Morning brought with it the sound of long Tibetan trumpets. The deep haunting meditative moan boomed across the mountains creating a majestic ethereal ambiance; one in which we could all savor and instantly become enchanted by.
The streets were awash in crimson as monks flooded in their thousands to the gates of the temple residence. Tibetans, who were not monks, behaved in a similar fashion and soon there was a mass of humanity clogging the main thoroughfare into Dharamsala; all vying for a chance to see with their own eyes the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.
Looking down on to the crowd and seeing the intensity of their devotion made me feel slightly uneasy. Not in a threatening sense; in fact the very opposite. It would be a feeling that would come and go throughout the day; ultimately though I would enter the gates and witness an event that has stuck with me over the years in vivid color. Wading through the sea of people, through the arched gates, up the stupa flanked stairs, past prayer wheels, and into hallways lined with monks; the atmosphere was one of incredible happiness and anticipation.
Everything was spotlessly clean.
Colors of bright orange and red coated every wall and were further adorned with Tibetan artifacts, thangkas, robes, silk prayer scarves, and photographs. Tibetan flags willowed down from the roof and signaled to all that this was a festive gathering; loud speakers were attached to pillars to amplify the teachings.
For non-Tibetans, small pocket radios could be purchased with orange headphones; these would transmit the Dalai Lamas voice through a translator and depending on your native language you would tune in to the correct station. English, French, and German were all available.
Of all the attendees it was good to see that the vast majority were Tibetan and they had little use for pocket radios.
My permit number was 378 and there were probably around 500 in the audience. We were all seated cross-legged in rows on large flat concrete slabs like robed domino’s. The blue Himalayan sky reflecting the sun and bathing the entire congregation in its light.
A pathway separated one side from the other and it was down here that the man himself, the Dalai Lama, walked, smiled, and waved his way to the podium. Dressed in full ceremonial attire and yellow hat he made his entrance surrounded by an entourage of monks. His pace, slow and effortless as he touched and made contact with as many people as he could along the route.
It was remarkable to see him in the flesh and watch the devoted dissolve out of respect while in his presence.
He began to speak in a clear uninterrupted voice and every so often there would be an emotional reaction from the crowd that would sweep across it like the wave at a sporting event. His delivery was impeccable, I assume. It was all in Tibetan and my pocket radio had gone on the fritz moments after tuning in; I was left with only one relevant sense.
The sight of it all was incredible; how fortunate was I to be sitting right here, with my friends, in the house of the Dalai Lama, watching him speak to hundreds of pairs of ears in a state of utter euphoria.
Following the teaching we made our way around the complex taking in the Tibet Museum at the monastery gate. The museum had quite an impact as it displayed, by way of photographs and text, the struggle of the Tibetan People; their flight for freedom and the Chinese occupation of their homeland.
My sense of moral unease returned as we exited through the gate and into the street.
Throngs of people continued to pack the area. Here was I, a foreigner, with little to no exposure in the ways of Buddhism and its teachings having been afforded the privilege of an audience with its leader and head of state.
Some of these people had sacrificed everything to be here in Dharamsala.
Some had been imprisoned in Tibet for years, decades even, some had suffered through torture for their beliefs, some had been forced to commit hideous acts of violence in the name of the Cultural Revolution, and all had fled a persecuted nation.
These people deserved my opportunity much more than me; I felt guilty. They view the Dalai Lama as a rebirth of Bodhisattva, one of the four states of Buddha and an enlightened one motivated by great compassion.
I viewed him as a man of great dedication and importance however as enjoyable as it was to have been in his presence it was not going to change my life; I think the impact may have been different for those that surrounded me.
To find out how this all came about; click Beckoned Skyward by an Earthquake.