Although we are excited beyond comprehension, we are silent. The wings of a fan turn with purpose; we breathe in this moment while attempting to wrap our heads around the magnitude of a man who commands a room without words, commands a nation without recognition, commands respect without force. The waiting room of the Dalai Lama Temple reflects all of this: simple wooden chairs, delicately balanced calendars with photos of Potala Palace and Tibetan texts neatly organized for viewing or reading pleasure. We sit, unsure of what to expect. What’s the first thing you say to someone who’s at once a religious leader, a historic figure, and a celebrity? I’ve never been so close to a real-life legend before.
I was fortunate to have an audience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama through a program called Dalai Lama Fellows, personally authorized by His Holiness himself. Three Fellows from India and I (an American) traveled from our corners of India to the foggy mountains of Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh. In short, my project, “Specks of Dust,” is a documentary film and community-organizing curriculum designed to empower viewers with tools to identify problems and prototype solutions for their communities. “Specks of Dust” refers to the life philosophy of Ajeet Singh, the founder of the nonprofit where I worked during my Bridge Year in India. His philosophy is simple: the day you realize you are a speck of dust is the day you begin living life the way it should be.
This notion of “specks of dust” pulled me towards the Dalai Lama Fellows program, as Fellows commit to attending two weeklong trainings in ethical leadership, completing an intensive curriculum in social innovation through compassion, and a yearlong exploration of our own morality. At the time, I was in Mumbai in the process of editing the documentary and designing the curriculum.
Outside the temple, the breeze brings the smell of steaming momos and the sounds of Tibetan chants repeating on cheap CD players. It is more touristy than I imagined—visitors wear jean shorts, hijabs, high heels, pyjamas—and I think about how the Dalai Lama Temple is crowded with eyes from around the world. It is less grand than I imagined—the white walls are unadorned; the garden simply grows grass. I think about how the building itself is as humble as the man worshipped inside.
The compound is surrounded by crisp walls and its paths are decorated with chalk drawings of lotus flowers and various other Buddhist symbols. Beggars implore tourists for their coins as they walk through the gate; it doesn’t matter if this zip code is especially spiritual. Once through the gate, there are carvings of Tibetans holding their fists in the air etched into the stone side of the temple, and a shining, black memorial to the Tibetans who have suffered at the hands of the Chinese. The pillar glints with the reflection of a hundred camera flashes; this is as far as cameras are allowed.
I learn from the secretary of His Holiness that the security wasn’t always like this, but after the July 2013 temple bombings in Bodh Gaya, Buddhists in India became targets too. I don’t know if this saddens His Holiness more or less than the feeling of original exile, or if someone who leads his people from within the borders of a new nation is already numb to feeling unwelcome.
The security guards inside the temple don’t carry guns, at least that I could see. The registry of visitors bears greetings from every border of the world. We fill out forms and realize everyone is observing one another. Anyone in the room could be royal, or political, or spiritual. Or all of the above. Whoever meets the Dalai Lama is known only to his busy secretary and the security guard who has the day’s schedule, and the schedule shifts quickly as his plans change through the day. We fill out the registry with our nationalities and our birthdays and our passport numbers and all the forms of identification that will become meaningless in the presence of a leader who teaches others to see with their hearts. We leave our ID cards—and excuses about being too busy to help others in this world—at the door.
And we wait in the waiting room of His Holiness. I flip through the pages of a “Tibet Bulletin” and see the photo of His Holiness and Aung Sun Suu Kyi, and on the next page, a photo of him and my President. It hits me: I think of all the dignitaries who have sat on these wooden chairs before me, all the heads of state, all the wives of world leaders, the priests, the parliamentarians, the teachers, the Tibetans, the students, all the oppressed and all the free, who all, perhaps, lead their lives or countries or communities a little more compassionately after leaving the waiting room. The chairs seem to have relaxed with the weight of all these different people they have seated and the pages of the Tibetan texts have blurred, affectionately, with use. To think of how many shoes have graced the carpet, how many specks of dust from every desert and mountain and jungle and sidewalk came along to this temple by riding inside the cracks of the soles of our shoes. To think of how many languages have been spoken between these walls and how many different foreheads have bowed in his presence.
It is humbling unlike anything else. Because it’s not just the presence of His Holiness, but the presence of all those who have been unfortunate and fortunate before us. The waiting room is a place loaded with history.
I fold my hands and glance at the black thread at my wrist from the Kal Bhairav temple in Varanasi, which I am terrified to remove because the pandit who gave it to me told me that as long as I keep it on my right hand I’ll be protected from evil. Next to this thread is a new bracelet of turquoise beads because locals told me the cool thing to do is to get a necklace or bracelet blessed by His Holiness. And I think of the kind Tibetan woman who sold me the bracelet, and how she escaped through the Himalayas at sixteen with nothing but a friend and her own bravery. How terrifying it must have been for her to cross a border whose harsh mountain peaks hide the footprints of boots protecting soldiers protecting their country from an “enemy,” a 79-year-old man whose laugh is the loudest thing about him. How rewarding it must be for her to live near her spiritual leader along with the loyals who welcome a life in exile. How strange it feels to me that she sells jewelry outside the temple and yet has never met His Holiness. How upsetting it must be that she sold a bracelet to a non-Buddhist foreigner who got to meet him while she waited outside.
In the waiting room of His Holiness, I find myself caught between all the heroes and villains who have met him, and all the refugees and children who don’t. When he passes, his legacy will live on in all of us: those who were lucky enough to meet him and all those people who won’t. For the Dalai Lama, in this incarnation as never before, has floated somewhere above the definition of a spiritual, political, or religious leader. He is all three simultaneously and yet, he is none of these. He holds in his heart the unwavering affection of the extraordinary diversity of India, and the world.
And it seems, as quickly as fog or laughter, he appears. He walks, with perfect posture, towards me. He looks me in the eyes with both of his and I swear my heart skips a beat. An instant later, my synapses work in my favor: “Tashi delek,” I pronounce proudly and slowly. He smiles, takes both my hands, and says, “Come.”