Huffing and Puffing with The Dalai Lama


Huffing and Puffing with The Dalai Lama

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

There was an air of palpitation in the days ahead of our requested meeting with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. In that short while, I was hoping to absorb the several lifetimes’ worth of his learning via osmosis. I wondered if I’d return with some great insight into Life, the Universe, and Everything – even as I marvelled at how incredibly stupid that expectation sounded. There were frantic discussions between my husband, Salil, and I about what we’d ask him.

What is the meaning of life?

What is our purpose on this planet?

How can we be kinder people?

However, as most stories worth telling, this one did not go according to plan. At all.

On the day before our appointment, Salil and I trekked up to Triund. On completing the arduous ascent, we were enchanted by the beauty of the place, and decided to spend the night atop the mountain in a hired tent. Since this was an impromptu decision, we spent the night in relative discomfort.

As the sleet fell outside, the wind howled, and threatened to uproot our humble abode. But we soldiered on, struggling to stay warm, dry, and not airborne. Several times during the night, I woke Salil up, teeth clattering, to wish him the best in life in case I succumbed to hypothermia before daybreak. Of course, he responded to my ill-timed drama with a tightening of my sleeping bag and a warm hug.

The ascent, which takes the locals about three hours, had taken us city slickers an unhealthy six. The descent took us half the time but was full of slips and trips.

After that dramatic night and will-we-won’t-we-survive intrigue, we woke up with stiff backs and necks, and were duly rewarded with a jaw-droppingly beautiful dawn beyond the snow-capped Himalayas. Since we were up early anyway, we decided to begin our descent to McLeodganj ahead of schedule. As we were about to find out, this was an extremely fortuitous decision.

The ascent, which takes the locals about three hours, had taken us city slickers an unhealthy six. The descent took us half the time but was full of slips and trips – we reached the base considerably bruised and sun burnt by 9.30 am. We presumed that since our requested appointment with His Holiness was for 1 pm, we had a few hours to clean up and get into the mental space for impending nirvana.

Of course, our best-laid plans are God’s sitcoms. On our return to civilisation, we switched on our phones to find that our appointment with nirvana had been advanced to… right bloody then.

We jumped into a cab and raced to the temple. Unwashed, sweaty, stinky, muck-faced and dressed in yesterday’s t-shirts and sweatpants – we were in no shape to walk into a restaurant, let alone the residence of one of our greatest spiritual leaders. Yet, meeting him looking like cat vomit definitely trumped not meeting him at all.

And so, we did the Buddhist thing and prayed. Prayed that the traffic would clear. Prayed that they’d squeeze us in even if we were late. Prayed that he would not take it as a sign of disrespect that we’d showed up looking and smelling like vermin.

Armed thus with our own Buddhism of Convenience, we tumbled into the temple an hour late for our appointment. The meaning of Life was rather far from our minds as we explained the situation and I made some laughable attempts to soften my appearance like hand combing my dirty hair.

Yet, a miracle happened. We were told that His Holiness would squeeze us into his schedule, leaving us frozen in semi-euphoria and semi-horror.

Dalai Lama

There he was, at the other end of the room, a welcoming smile on his face. As we walked toward him, every sense heightened.

Pacific Press / Getty Images

As we waited, we nervously chatted with some officers in the Government of Tibet and I tried to steer the conversation to his recent interview with John Oliver. My legs trembled with a combination of tiredness and nervous anticipation. And just like that, we were shuffled inside His Holiness’ room.

There he was, at the other end of the room, a welcoming smile on his face. As we walked toward him, every sense heightened, I noticed the squeakiness of my trekking shoes that were soiling the hardwood floors. Let the record show that that was the divine thought on my mind as I met His Holiness, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and respected spiritual leader.

We mumbled some apology for our appearance, but he brushed it away. “Oh don’t worry about any of that! I don’t like any formalities!” he said, grasping our hands warmly. He then launched into a story about how his mother used to do the Triund trek often. She had two dogs, he told us, a small and a big one. The small dog would run up the mountain on his tiny legs, he told us while making scurrying gestures in the air with his hands, imitating the dog’s legs. The big dog, however, would huff and puff and get really tired and had to be pushed to keep climbing. At this point, he hung his tongue out of his mouth and enacted the panting of a tired dog.

I felt like saying, “Your Holiness, I trek just like your mom’s big dog.” I wish I had – something tells me it would’ve made him laugh.

The rest of our meeting passed in a flash. His Holiness continued holding our hands and graciously posed for photographs. We thanked him for accommodating us, and as we turned to leave, he called out to our backs, “See you again later!” I can only hope that the next time around, we get a chance to bathe first.

The whole interaction – the little personal story, the easy humour, the hand-holding, the photograph – is likely protocol for His Holiness’s meetings. I walked away that morning charmed by his candour and warm smile. I did not learn the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything – but I did understand something important. Sometimes the most profound encounters come couched in watching the Dalai Lama hang out his tongue and mime a panting dog for you.