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My Day with the Dalai Lama

Updated on February 5, 2019

I was in Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, with my boyfriend, who was struggling. As I marvelled at the holy men and the architecture, the boats and the daily activities taking place all along the water's edge, all he could see were the different types of excrement, waiting to be trodden in: cow, goat, buffalo, dog, monkey, bird and, yes, disconcertingly, even human.

Welcome to Varanasi
Welcome to Varanasi

In desperation I turned to the Lonely Planet guide, and discovered that only a half an hour’s drive away was Sarnath, where Buddha preached his message of the middle way to Nirvana after achieving enlightenment. Full of temples and stupas, why didn’t we go there? Reluctantly he agreed, but only after a visit to his only refuge – a rather wonderful café not far from our hotel: The Open Hand near the Assi ghat – and an oasis of beauty and tranquillity which served up not only cafetière-style coffee and excellent cakes, but also sold a stunning collection of silks: cushion covers, bed spreads, table cloths, clothing, bags – all with an eye to western taste and style.

Crazy architecture, crazy place
Crazy architecture, crazy place

While the boyfriend sat there, pondering his misfortune at ever having agreed to this trip, I poured over the silk cushion covers, trying to remember the colour schemes in my friends’ living rooms, and got chatting to an American girl, whose face radiated the kind happiness that could only have come from within.

‘I guess you’re here for the Dalai Lama,’ she said.

‘Er, a coffee and some cushions, actually,’ I admitted, ‘But go on.’

The Dalai Lama was coming to Sarnath, she told me. He was holding a two-day convention and registration was that day – around 50 English pence for the whole thing. People were coming from far and wide – she herself had journeyed up from Kerala, where she was working with Amma, the hugging saint – and it was a not-to-be-missed, once-in-a-lifetime sort of occasion – and one that we’d just happened to bump into.

Waiting
Waiting

As we were heading for Sarnath anyway, we decided to sign up. The boyfriend was actually beginning to get excited – as a photographer, getting a shot of the big DL would be quite a coup. We arrived, after the inevitable hair-raising taxi ride, to an atmosphere of quiet anticipation, as if a gentle rock concert was about to take place. We did our rounds of the temples, which were indeed lovely, with well-kept gardens that were a joy to behold, especially after Varanasi’s chaotic grime.

Blink and you missed him
Blink and you missed him

Then we joined the gathering crowds – a mix of westerners, Indians, Buddhist monks and Tibetans.  Registration, as we’d been promised, cost next to nothing and resulted in a laminated photo-pass souvenir, which I now fear I’ve lost somewhere. The excitement mounted, and word spread that he was about to arrive. Sure enough, a cavalcade of Morris Oxfords – circa 1955 – appeared from around the corner. I could just make out the DL’s face, peering through the window, before the car was gone, and the excitement over.

Stairway to heaven
Stairway to heaven

The next day (OK, I lied in the title, it was TWO days with the Dalai Lama!) we turned up for the first session.  The cafés opposite the centre resembled student bars without the alcohol, strewn as they were with plastic cups of sweet chai and plates of half-eaten cakes.  Evidently, basking in Buddhism equates to not having to dispose of your litter tidily.  The big disaster was that no cameras were allowed inside, and there was no way the boyfriend was leaving his treasured old Leica M6 (plus valuable lenses) at the check-in.  So we took it in turns, me first.  On spotting that some people had a programme – in English – I went in search of one.  There were none to be found.  I met a Canadian who kindly showed me his, advising me to ‘get with the mumbling’.  It turned out he was somewhat of a DL groupie who’d even helped organise some tours – but there was no way he was handing over his commemorative Sarnath programme to a novice. 

Gardening tips
Gardening tips

Some people had wired their radios up for the event, on the promise of a synchronised translation to help them through the two days. Inside the large marquee, different groups were herded into different pens – one for Hindi, one for Chinese, one for English, and so on – reminding me of sheep on display at the annual Bath and West agricultural fair. I loitered at the back, trying to feel pure.

I am happy to say that, unlike his rock-star counterparts, the DL was extremely prompt – no diva-like demands for white doves in his dressing room, then. He came on, took one look at us all, and cracked a joke. I know that because the Tibetans all giggled from their pens, while the rest looked on blankly, and the westerners fiddled with their radios. I heard afterwards that the translation had been random to say the least – it was English, but not as we know it.

The white scarf - a traditional symbol of welcome
The white scarf - a traditional symbol of welcome

After a few minutes of the promised mumbling, I began to tire. I wandered about a bit, I watched him live and then on a screen. I tried to connect with my higher self and – oh let’s just admit it, I got bored. Deciding it was the boyfriend’s turn, I exited the marquee and went in search, having lasted a pitiful twenty minutes. While he departed I got chatting to an amazing French girl, a photographer who’d received a grant from the French government to teach photography in India, and who was also reluctant to leave her camera. Ten minutes later, the boyfriend re-emerged. We had another cup of chai. We felt a little guilty. We got our taxi back to Varanasi and yes, we went for lunch at our favourite café.

It was just another failed spiritual adventure to add to my ever-growing list: I’ve snoozed through Billy Graham and Deepak Chopra, and fidgeted hopelessly during Midnight Masses at the Vatican and in Manger Square, Bethlehem. Somehow I’m just not cut out for this kind of thing, but at least I can say I stayed awake for the Dalai Lama.

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