ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.


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.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)