What Do We Want from the Dalai Lama?

Though Mcleod-ganj is officially the home of the Dalai Lama, he does not spend much time in the town to which many foreigners flock because of it’s relationship to him, as he spends most of his time travelling around the world, delivering talks and engaging in conversation about Buddhism, Joy, and Tibet’s situation. That is why I feel particularly lucky to have been able to attend two of his teachings- a one-day initiation into compassion and a three-day introduction to Buddhism that I believe he does every year for Tibetan youth.


The first time I saw the Dalai Lama was my first full day in Mcleod-ganj, almost two months ago. It was also the first time I saw the temple in which the Dalai Lama gives his teachings and the monks do their daily practice of meditation, mantras and dialectics. I would come to love the large but relatively unassuming building, one of the first places of worship I had ever been that always felt thrumming with life, but that first day it was a confusing and overwhelming place, seeming at times set up to make it harder for me to access the elusive teachings of one of the most recognizable religious figures in the world. I was separated from my host mother, as there was a different entrance for foreigners, and left to my own devices to find space large enough for my body and my bag. As I was standing and looking, I realized that everyone around me was bowing and holding their hands out. I turn and suddenly, 10 feet away from me, is the shuffling and yellow-robed form of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, surrounded by people but powerfully present nonetheless. He was shorter than I had imagined, and smiling. Soon he had disappeared from my view, entering into the small central chamber that serves as the beating heart of the body of the temple. It was only a moment, but I must admit I found myself to be a little breathless as he walked away and I was left to find my seat.

In most videos I have seen of the Dalai Lama speaking, in conversation with John Oliver and other curious westerners, he is speaking in a slow and cheerful English. I knew better than to expect him to be speaking in anything other than his native language when speaking to his people in the capital of Tibet in Exile, but I was still surprised to hear him speak quickly and confidently in a language that I never really heard until that point. I scrambled to find another westerner with a radio that I could share in order to listen to the English translation. It was difficult, both to find the right radio station on the cheap FM radio, and to hear to the halting English translation over the speakers blaring the Dalai Lama’s teaching in his cheerful Tibetan. I would watch him make jokes, laugh heartily along with every other Tibetan speaker, and then wait eagerly for our English translation to translate the joke for us, only to be disappointed by a complete lack of anything that seems like a joke as I understood them. It was also physically exhausting, sitting on the floor on a small, thin pad, balancing my cup of traditional butter tea (which tastes like melted salted butter) on my knee and hunching over to fit the earbud of my neighbor into my ear.

The teaching lasted four hours, and I left feeling overwhelmed and mystified, a sort spiritual and emotional hypothermia, like I had just been to the top of a mountain and seen all the little people and now walked among them once again. I found my foreigner friends at a local café, and found out that not one of the 6 people had stayed the whole time, like I had. The Buddhism was too complex, the floor too hard, the English translation too difficult to listen to for an extended period. “It clearly wasn’t meant for us” they said. A month later, the Dalai Lama returned to his yellow throne to deliver his three day introduction to Buddhism for the Tibetan high school and college students. My foreign friends’ reasons for leaving early were much the same- it wasn’t an introduction to Buddhism that they could follow, they weren’t getting much from it, it was too hot.

What do we want from the Dalai Lama? For many of peers, it seemed, they wanted his presence near them so they could say they had seen the second most famous religious figure in the world, the first being the pope. For others, they wanted him to move them, to take them places and deliver wisdom to them wrapped in a bow. They wanted a step by step guide to spirituality. They wanted to listen to someone make arguments and deliver teachings in the way we are all used to. The Dalai Lama instead presented arguments in almost a circular way, slowly orbiting his point, falling closer and closer with every rotation, until all of a sudden, we are delivered a truth that can sit in our palm like a small but living seed. Many people, I think, find it hard to follow, to let it just wash over them when they don’t know where the Dalai Lama is going. But his teachings were a lesson in how to absorb information presented to us in ways we are unused to.

They wanted to feel included in the teaching, they wanted his words to make sense in our western context, they wanted the teaching to be “for them.” After all, the clips many people see of the Dalai Lama are like that- simple and in English, clearly crafted with westerners in mind. But we were in his home now, amongst his people. How could we expect to be the target audience? How could we expect the old Tibetans spinning their personal mani wheels and fingering their prayer beads to sit through the Dalai Lama walking us uneducated westerners through the life of the Buddha and the four noble truths? I suspect many of us are unused to not being the ones a teacher is catering to. This isn’t our religion, our history, or our story. So we struggle to know what to do, we feel that if something isn’t for us, we should not be present. But what a gift it is to be present for something that is not intended for us. To know that there is a world of understanding we had not, until coming to Mcleod-ganj knew about. That there are ways of thinking, speaking and being that push the boundaries of what we thought humans do and don’t do.

It’s understandable that us westerners (including myself) were confused by and struggled to understand the teachings given by the Tibet’s “living god.” Metaphors were more confusing than the topic they were supposed to illuminate, jokes didn’t translate, the ground on which the Dalai Lama’s words walked was just sky in our heads. So you try to learn to fly, I guess. Or you just let his words fall through you until something lands. Or you give up, you recognize you are not yet ready for the teachings. But the most worrying thing isn’t what we want, it’s how we want. How in our minds he is the one with power, the power to release us from our pain, to make us feel smarter, to educate us. We want his help. So how are we going to react when the seemingly transcendent man asks us for help? Because in the current global climate, we have more power than the homeless king of 150,000 refugees. We are citizens of the global superpowers, we are safe, we know who we are. When we write the story of the world, we cannot put the Dalai Lama and his subjects into a position of givers, because then we fail them, and in doing so, we fail ourselves.

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Addison Kamb

Addison is a junior double-majoring in Biology and Creative Writing & Literature. She is fascinated with the act of storytelling and the power a story can have in creating real change in individuals and societies. After graduation, Addison would like to use journalism to bring attention to currently unseen or misunderstood human experiences. She will be spending eight weeks in Dharamshala working for Lha Charitable Trust, the largest organization serving the Tibetan refugees living in the area. Addison will serve as a contributing writer to their magazine along with teaching English and leading conversation classes. Her final research project will investigate the role of Buddhism and culture in the everyday lives of the refugees she will be working with.

2 thoughts on “What Do We Want from the Dalai Lama?”

  1. This is such a powerful post – I got chills simply reading it. I am both incredibly jealous and incredibly proud that you soaked in the entire four hours of the Dalai Lama’s presence. I’m sure the post doesn’t even do it real justice!

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