A week with the Dalai Lama


150,000 pilgrims attended the Kalachakra Initiation

We are running late for the Dalai Lama.

Stuck by the side of the road, outside a travel agency waiting for a taxi that should have arrived 20 min ago. Where is our driver? I’m nervous, and losing my centre.

It is the first day of the Kalachakra, a week long teaching and initiation of the highest Buddhist tantra, led by His Holiness himself. We’ve planned for months, organised visas and tickets in advance, taken three planes and endured several misfortunes just for the chance to be a part of it. And now, at the last hurdle, the universe is teaching me a lesson in patience. I don’t particularly want to listen.

I’m mainly worried because I want to get a good spot. Today is the first day, and we should get there early to ‘mark our territory’ so that we have a good vantage point for the rest of the week. I’m attached to the idea of getting a good spot to see the Dalai Lama. Buddhist irony much?

It’s now 30 min late. We call our guy – he’s coming, 5 min away. I’m agitated. Theoretically there’s still a bit of time but I know everything in India takes longer – there will be lots of traffic, bumpy roads, a multitude of people when we arrive, security checks, navigation issues. We rise with hope as cars approach – maybe this is our car? – before watching with disappointment as each one drives away. 40 min late.

An old van pulls up! Finally! 50 min late. Our driver senses our anger (not very mindful of us) and heads off quickly. Just outside of Leh we hit heavy traffic: Bumper-to-bumper cars, jeeps, vans, buses and motorbikes fill the dusty road. I’m pretty sure every vehicle in Ladakh stands between us and the venue.

With barely time to spare we arrive at Choglamsar. We have to walk about a kilometre and so we hurry. We need to buy a radio for the English translation. There’s a queue for security check. We’re going to be late for sure. We enter the grounds – there’s a sea of bodies. It’s incredible. 100,000 people have filled the makeshift venue for Kalachakra. The horns are blaring, the monks are chanting, people are settling into their spots and we’re rushing to the foreigner section, on the far side of the main stage.

As I rush by the dais, someone appears from the shadows. It’s His Holiness! I find myself facing the dead centre of stage, 15m away, with an uninterrupted view to the Dalai Lama. He walks to the edge of the platform to greet the people. Amazing. It’s the best view I’ll get of him all week. I can’t believe it – half a minute earlier or later and I would’ve missed this moment.

Perfect timing.


Photo by MANUEL BAUER. His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the 33rd Kalachakra Empowerment in Leh, Ladakh, J&K, India on July 11, 2014. Originally published on Dalai Lama's Facebook page. The photographer's page: http://www.manuelbauer.ch

Photo by MANUEL BAUER. His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the 33rd Kalachakra Empowerment in Leh, Ladakh, J&K, India on July 11, 2014. Originally published on Dalai Lama’s Facebook page. The photographer’s page: http://www.manuelbauer.ch

When we heard His Holiness would be giving a 7-day (!) teaching on the highest Tibetan Buddhist knowledge, in Ladakh – a place probably more Tibetan than Tibet is right now – in his native language, we jumped at the chance. We figured this would probably be the most authentic experience we could have with His Holiness, short of getting in a time machine and transporting back to Lhasa,1949. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. That said, Mesi and I, are absolute beginners when it comes to Buddhism. We don’t have a regular practice in this tradition but we grasp opportunities to learn more about it – such as doing retreats, engaging in Buddhist style meditation and reading / listening to Buddhist dharma.

The schedule for the seven day event went like this: The festivities began with a celebration of His Holiness’s 79th birthday. Dignitaries, representing various religions and governments gave short speeches. The foreigners were represented by none other than our high priest, Richard Gere (Mesi was very excited by this). The next two days His Holiness gave teachings on several of Nagarjuna’s texts: Precious Garland of the Middle Way and, Letter to a Friend. Both are heady, difficult texts, mainly on the nature of emptiness. Then three more days of the Kalachakra initiation, concluding on the last day with a long life offering to His Holiness.

What is Kalachakra? I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t know much about the initiation before I got to Ladakh, and even now I don’t profess to be an expert. Suffice to say, it is a special ritual, which involves taking Buddhist vows (both the lay and the tantric ones), while performing several visualisations on a mandala. The purpose of taking the initiation is to accelerate oneself away from the cycles of Samsara. We only attended one of the three marked initiation days, deciding to go to Sakti on the first day and then skipping the last initiation day on account of the heat. We didn’t take the vows, because we’re not ready for the commitment it comes with, but for many others – particularly the local pilgrims – the Kalachakra initiation was the most important part of the week. Indeed the three days, we were told, were the most well attended days of them all.

On the first day His Holiness gave a generalist talk on Buddhism and human values. He touched upon the idea of different faiths:

“All religions have at their base, the same fundamental principles: love, compassion, non-violence, unity” he stated.

“Different religions in the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism etc… – are just different manifestations of this same principle. The philosophical tenets are different, but the message is the same. This is a good thing because it allows people to find the one that suits them best. I’m friends with people of all faiths, and people of no faith. What is important is that we recognise each other as human beings first.”.

I find these statements by His Holiness as some of the most inspiring. In a time when religious division captures much media attention, it’s rare to see the leader of a religion not only accept, but readily welcome the presence of differing spiritual philosophies. It sets a great example for the world.


The Dalai Lama has had a long fascination with science particularly quantum physics and relativity, and he spent some time talking about this too. He argues, there is similarity between the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness of inherent existence and these strands of scientific thought. In a nutshell both science and Buddhism posit that there is an unseen interconnectivity between things that otherwise appear separate. The universe is more unified than we perceive. Excitingly, the Dalai Lama unveiled that he has been working on a book that takes the scattered elements of Buddhist science and collates them into one tome. It will come out around the end of this year.

By the second day the proper teachings began. His Holiness jumped straight into the texts. Systematically he would quote the relevant phrases and then dissect their meaning. He talked about the four noble truths, the four mindfulnesses, bodhichitta, buddhahood, compassion, emptiness, the philosophy of the mind, single pointed concentration, dependent origination and much much more.

He went at a cracking pace – this was the Dalai Lama at work. This wasn’t a typical secular speech he might give at a college graduation or at a roundtable. He was teaching dharma, the insights into buddhism he had gained from decades of study, contemplation and experience. Throughout he would sprinkle in anecdotes from his life – his experiences with monks from the Theravandan and Zen traditions, the monkeys in Dharamsala, his life in Amdo, Tibet, when he was younger.

In particular he told a story about how he dealt with a group of aspiring Buddhists, in Mumbai, who asked His Holiness to teach something easy, rather than the difficult texts so common in buddhist literature. His response? A resounding no! Hard teachings were better, he reasoned, because the road to enlightenment is even harder! The Dalai Lama is a true task master.

The final day saw a festive atmosphere after a long, rewarding but challenging week. A highlight of the early morning was when His Holiness transmitted the teachings on the iconic buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. He gave an explanation of every word of the short mantra and then began to lead what must’ve been a 30 min meditation on it. 150,000 people chanting Om mani padme hum – praise to the jewel in the lotus – led by the Dalai Lama himself. It was a really powerful moment, for us the highlight of the week.


Like the first day, the final day involved many speeches with a particularly touching tribute from the governor of Jammu and Kashmir. The ceremony ended with His Holiness walking to the front of the stage to give his final speech. He joked to the foreigners that the event was a double blessing – seeing as it had been really hot, we had managed to get Buddhist teachings and a sun tan at the same time! The Dalai Lama is not without a sense of humour.

It would be a lie to say that the Kalachakra was not without challenges. The location housed 150,000 people daily and getting in and out of the venue was hellish. People pushed and shoved their way to the exits, and there were only three bridges across a makeshift moat that created massive bottlenecks and long waits. Returning back to Leh each day was a challenge (though sometimes quite fun too), require a solid, dusty hike from the venue to the transport hub and then vying for limited taxi and bus space with the locals.

Every day was an endeavour. Starting out from Leh early in the morning, finding a ride to the venue (which didn’t always appear), negotiating vehicle traffic to Choglamsar, negotiating human traffic to the teachings, listening to the teachings, and then reversing the whole process back to Leh: A solid six to seven hours and by evening we were exhausted.

His Holiness spoke in Tibetan, and so to understand we had to use radios to tune into broadcast translations. This transmission from Dalai Lama’s words to my understanding was not always so smooth, on account of the technology, the quality of the translation and my (limited) capacity to assimilate the teachings. Add to that the length of each day’s talks – 3.5 hours – and it was difficult to maintain full attention all the way through. The heat was intense – several days started at midday and everyone was forced to endure the worst of the midday sun.

At the end of the third day of teachings the Dalai Lama said: “Be humble and respectful and do not just think of yourself. Show in your actions the meaning of the teachings”.

This was, for us, the main point we learned from the whole week’s teachings. His Holiness was implying: the essence of Buddhism is not the rituals, the prayers, nor the scriptures. It is how one uses the lessons of the teachings in every day life – the tricky and difficult situations you find yourself in away from the monastery, away from the meditation pillow, away from the ceremony. Can you maintain equanimity in the face of obstacles? Can you still feel compassion for the annoying people you meet throughout life? Are you aware enough to calm your mind under extreme stress?

Being able to accomplish this is more important than adhering to any religion. And whenever he talks, the Dalai Lama tells his audiences that over and over again. Don’t just blindly follow anything he says – test it for yourself. Check up.

The value of being around the Dalai Lama isn’t so much that he is particularly better teacher than say, another learned monk. Rather, I would argue, it’s because he embodies and lives the lessons of the Buddha – and the example he sets is so captivating, you don’t even have to be Buddhist to recognise it. When His Holiness laughs, he laughs with so much joy you can’t help but join in. When he gives teachings, uninterrupted for hours he doesn’t appear to get tired or weary. He puts full effort and attention into all that he does. He is humble.

In Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh, there is a quote that nicely sums up the way I feel towards His Holiness, the religion he leads and its impact on me:

“Labels do not interest me. I have found a man in whose good power and spirit I believe and that gives me strength… truth is a living intensity transmitted from person to person, a living experience, not a set of practices or even philosophical positions. I revere Buddhism; I meditate in Buddhist ways; but I would not call myself a Buddhist or a Hindu. I am man searching to understand myself, before it is too late, after a rather spoilt and ignorant life. That is all.”

Monk walking to Kalachakra grounds at Choglamsar

Monk walking to Kalachakra grounds at Choglamsar

A Precious Human Life

“Today I am fortunate to have woken up.
I am alive, I have a precious human life.
I am not going to waste it.

I am going to use
all my energies to develop myself,
to expand my heart out to others,
to achieve enlightenment for
the benefit of all beings.

I am going to have
kind thoughts towards others.
I am not going to get angry,
or think badly about others.

I am going to benefit others
as much as I can.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama


Monastery Hopping in Ladakh

Hemis Monastery - note this photo is not mine, it's from walkthroughindia.com

Hemis Monastery – note this photo is not mine, it’s from walkthroughindia.com

The Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh are nothing if not, breathtakingly spectacular. All of them, centuries old, are built into sheer cliffs or upon bare Himalayan mountain-sides. Monastic white buildings sprout from the grey rock – almost blooming – like some special, magical expression of the mountain character.

We loved going to the monasteries. They were such amazing spaces and allowed me to tap into a part of myself that I usually find so hard to reach. Everything about them invokes a sense of ancient wisdom – the smell of the incense, the old wooden structures, faded winding prayer flags, crumbling paintings, the alternating sounds of silence and Tibetan instruments in puja. Moving in each gompa, we were compelled to meditate, unable to escape the residual energy borne from centuries of contemplation on the nature of reality. There is something very special about these monasteries.

Small statues of Padma Sambhava with a completely open third eye (L) and the Vajrasatva (R) in Taktok gompa

Small statues of Padma Sambhava with a completely open third eye (L) and the Vajrasatva (R) in Taktok gompa

Several specific experiences spring to mind. In Sakti, we visited the Taktok monastery, literally built around a cave where the great Indian Sage and ‘Father’ of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh, Padma Sambhava meditated. Cut off from the outside sounds, the silence in the cave has an amazing resonance. You can literally hear the silence, and it clears the mind immediately.

In the same village there is the less renowned Tuphuk gompa. We had been walking around Sakti for an hour, and for some unknown reason I felt incredibly drained, more so than I should’ve from such a short walk. Passing below the gompa, we heard the sounds of the sunset puja emanating over the village. We climbed up to find not a congregation, but a sole monk – his entire brethren had gone to Kalachakra. We sat down and let the sounds of his chanting, the drums and cymbals wash over us in meditation. For who knows how long, it was just the three of us and the incredible sound of the puja. When we left, I was magically refreshed. No lethargy, no exhaustion, no illness.

The view of the village from Chemrey monastery

The view of the village from Chemrey monastery

Hemis is perhaps the most important monastery in Ladakh. One of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, Kargyu-Drukpa, flourished here. The main gompa is so beautiful it almost brought me to tears. More so than any other place in Ladakh, you can feel the sense of history in that gompa: be it the fading beauty of the decorative cloth piece that hangs from the ceiling, or the massive, ancient wooden pillars that seem to support the very foundations of Buddhism itself. It is a stunning, sacred space.

In contrast, Turktuk has the smallest Buddhist structure in all of Ladakh. Perched on a hill, It is a small, comfortable room, mostly empty except for modest statues of the Buddha, Tara and Manjushri. The village is muslim, and no monk is present. However, someone in Turtuk dutifully maintains the gompa by cleaning it, stocking it with supplies and lighting incense and butter lamps everyday. It is beautiful in its simplicity. One morning we trundled up to the plateau where the gompa is situated – hoping to do yoga outside and take in the spectacular sunrise views of the village below. However, the weather soon turned foul and we had to rush inside the gompa to escape. We found ourselves trapped in the room, alone, in the darkness of the overcast dawn, with the sound of the wind and rain thrashing the side of the gompa. There was nothing to do but surrender to the circumstances, be in the moment and go inwards.

Turktuk gompa - a small room on a hill

Turktuk gompa – a small room on a hill

In total we visited eight monasteries in Ladakh: Leh, Thiksey, Hemis, Taktok, Turtuk, Tuphuk, Stakna and Diskit – all were amazing in their own way. We feel very blessed to have spent time and experienced the energy of one of the few places on Earth that still carries the true essence of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sunset over Leh

Sunset over Leh

The top of Stakna monastery - Brad trying not to fall off the edge

The top of Stakna monastery – Brad trying not to fall off the edge

Young monk just chilling

Young monk just chilling

Mesi explores Diskit monastery

Mesi explores Diskit monastery

32m tall Maitreya near Diskit

32m tall Maitreya near Diskit

Hair-in-the-face windy Leh monastery

Hair-in-the-face windy Leh monastery

Taktog Monastery - the door in the middle leads to the Padma Sambhava cave

Taktog Monastery – the door in the middle leads to the Padma Sambhava cave

A wooden bridge over the Indus river with Stakna monastery in the background

A wooden bridge over the Indus river with Stakna monastery in the background



Lost in Ladakh: Two days in a home stay

Beautiful Sakti

Beautiful Sakti

The last time Mesi was in this part of India she stumbled across a cave that the great Indian sage Padmasambhava once meditated. She was so struck by the powerful nature of the space, that she dropped her other plans to spend more time near the Taktok monastery which surrounds the cave. Through a series of fortunate events, she ended up in a home stay with a lovely Ladakhi family – Jigmet, his sister Tashi and their mum. It was such a great, pure experience that she vowed for years to return to this village to introduce me to them and revisit the monastery. We had been in Leh for about a week – recovering from sickness and going to the Kalachakra – and I was itchy to get out and explore rural Ladakh. Sakti was the natural place we’d go to first.

With a few hasty phone calls, we organised a two-night home stay with the family. From Leh we hired a taxi and, after a one hour journey, they dropped off us at the point where Sakti meets the main highway to Leh.

With no cellphone coverage and thus no way to get in touch with Jigmet (English name: Jimmy), we relied solely on Mesi’s memory to navigate us to the right house in Sakti.

We soon became lost.


But if one were to get lost anywhere, it would be Sakti. The village is the epitome of idyllic, rural beauty. For two hours, we wandered through green fields, spotted with orange boulders and brown calves. We walked past alternating terraced plantations of barley and mustard flowers, which created a stunning patchwork of green and yellow across the landscape. The Ladakhis have created a charming system of small streams and waterfalls to irrigate these fields, and part of our adventure involved jumping from rock to rock as we criss-crossed various waterways. If it were even possible to make this scene more beautiful, every time we looked up we saw snow covered mountains of the Himalayas in the distance. It was beyond amazing.

Lost in Sakti

Lost in Sakti

Along the way, of course, we would bump into a Ladakhi villager and yell out “Julley! Padme Jigmet?” in the hope someone could point us in the right direction. Every single time we were met with a warm Julley and a quizzical look. No-one seemed to know where the family lived. Eventually, as the sun was setting and we were getting desperate, we hitched a ride with a car of 20-something year old boys who thankfully spoke English and drove us to the family.

We happily arrived at the front of the house and yelled out Julley! Jimmy looked out the window. In comical fashion it took him a second to register us, before he bolted down to his front gate to greet us warmly. We later found out that Jigmet is the Hungarian equivalent of Gabor (or the English equivalent of John), and is so common that it doesn’t really narrow down a search for a given man in a village of 500 households. What we should’ve been saying was “Zumskit?”, which is the name of the house.

Zumskit means ‘Happy Gathering’ in Ladakhi, and there couldn’t be a more apt name. We had a great time staying with Jimmy and his family, living for two days with the locals. We explored the fields where they grow barley. Jimmy’s mum milked a cow and we had some fresh, unpasteurised Ladakhi milk mere minutes later – milk straight from a cow tastes much sweeter than I expected! On the second night we had an impromptu cooking lesson as we helped Jimmy’s mum make a Thantuk – a traditional noodle stew. We also visited several monasteries and the cave (a post dedicated to Ladakhi monasteries here).



What struck me most about the family was the sheer purity of their existence. Tibetan Buddhism is infused in their daily life – every morning Jimmy’s mum burns incense in each room to ward off evil spirits, her hands are moving through mala beads whenever they are free, the family has strung prayer flags over their house. You could see in Jimmy’s mum’s face how important it was for her that the family went to Kalachakra to receive the Dalai Lama’s blessings. Moreover, they were extremely generous with us – they put us up for two days, fed us, never stopped offering us butter tea (a salty tea made from water and yak butter – tastes as good as it sounds), didn’t let us do anything, and didn’t take any money.

You could hardly hope for a better experience of Ladakhi village life in Sakti. Maybe one day, we’ll get lost here again.

Learning to cook Thantuk

Learning to cook Thantuk


Riding on top of Indian buses

Noa, Mesi and Brad on the roof of a Ladakhi bus

Noa, Mesi and Brad on the roof of a Ladakhi bus

The Kashmiri bus fare collector is full of facts.

“You know India is a big country. Very big country.” he beams, with that special brand of pride exhibited only by rickshaw / chai / bus fare wallahs when they discuss India with foreigners.

“There is 30 uh-states in India and 35 languages. Many languages in India. In Ladakh they speak Ladakhi, in Jammu there are Urdu, in Kashmir, Kashmiri. So even in one uh-state there is three languages.” The way he says ’states’ is endearing. He prefaces it with a half-syllable that sounds a bit like ‘uh’, but shorter. It’s reminiscent of the way Spanish speakers say ‘sp’ words in English, like special or spring. Especial. Espring. Uh-states. The Kashmiri bus fare collector is nice and smiley.

“Where are you from?” comes the tried and true Indian conversation filler.

“Australia”, I reply.

“Aaah Ricky Ponting! Good cricket player. Very good captain.” The Kashmiri bus fare collector’s factoids extend to cricket, but clearly not to the recent past. I try to tell him that Ricky Ponting is no longer the captain but he interjects.

“Australia is a very good at cricket. But Indian team is better!” He rattles off some Indian cricket player names as proof of his statement, while I politely nod and return his smile.

All of a sudden there is a cold sensation, and the Ladakhi girls just ahead of me scream. Someone in a passing vehicle has played a practical joke by throwing a bucket of water at the passengers seated atop our bus. It’s a shock, but quite a welcome one as we’re travelling in the dusty midday heat. The collective astonishment quickly transitions to laughter and there’s a jovial atmosphere on top of the bus to Leh.

Of course, the locals, and particularly the Kashmiri bus-fare collector have done this before. We (Mesi, our friend Noa and I) are the wide-eyed rookies, grinning stupidly and taking selfies as we live the Indian traveller dream of riding on top of a bus. To our fellow bus surfers it’s nothing more than another ride. As if to mock my exuberance, there’s a Ladakhi toddler next to me fast asleep.

We enjoy our ride on the roof of the bus. I take in the sights from my ultimate ‘window seat’ – a local carnival, a jeep full of monks travelling red and yellow in front of us, a monastery set up on a hill. And as the foreground changes, always in the back is the stark, captivating Ladakhi landscape. I feel the wind and touch passing prayer flags, strung up between poles above the road. It’s exhilarating.

The bus takes a sudden left and passes down a small dip between two roads. For a moment the bus is not level. The passengers lurch and I grab a handrail to avoid piling into the person next to me. The Kashmiri bus fare collector laughs, and with a smile that is totally inappropriate for the content of the sentence says,

“The roof is the most dangerous!”

The toddler next to me continues sleeping.

When everything bad about India happens all at once

India: always providing opportunities to practise patience.

Arrive at Delhi airport.

CHALLENGE: Bags didn’t arrive with us.
But that’s ok because they’ll be here tomorrow and Aeroflot will send them express to Amritsar.

CHALLENGE: One backpack didn’t clear customs and so they can’t send them together.
But that’s ok because we’ll be flying back through Delhi airport in a few days, we can pick them up then and we have enough clothes to make it till then.

CHALLENGE: Mesi has Delhi belly.
But that’s ok because Brad is totally fine and it doesn’t stop us from seeing the Golden Temple.

CHALLENGE: Get to Amritsar airport, our plane is cancelled
But that’s ok because we are rescheduled onto another flight.

Struggling in Delhi Airport

Struggling in Delhi Airport

CHALLENGE: That flight is 4 hours IN THE PAST.
But that’s ok because (after a bit of panic searching) there is another flight with a different airline at 2am which we can buy new tickets for, which will allow us to get our tight connection to Leh, at 530am. All we have to do is wait in Amritsar airport for 6 hours.

CHALLENGE: Brad has Delhi belly.
But that’s ok because there is a doctor at the airport.

CHALLENGE: The doctor doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Hindi or Punjabi.
But that’s ok because the one english word he does know is ‘photo?’. So after dispensing pills (four to Mesi and one to Brad – strange because we have the same symptoms) he takes a happy snap of two sick foreigners. At least someone leaves the transaction satisfied.

CHALLENGE: Get to Delhi airport and we need to find the Aeroflot person to get our luggage.
All turns out ok, she’s waiting where she said she was, tells us to go upstairs meet another colleague and we’ll have our bags.

CHALLENGE: She only has one bag.
But that’s ok because we can go to customs and clear the other bag.

CHALLENGE: It takes 90 min (!) to do the ‘paperwork’ to clear customs and we have to leave on a flight in 60 min. But that’s ok, we have cross-packed gear into each other’s bags so we can manage. At least we’re here and we board the flight to Leh (both sick).

CHALLENGE: Get to Leh and the accommodation we booked has been given to someone else. But that’s ok, because by now we’re used to it, and luckily there’s space in the guest house next door.

CHALLENGE: After coming off the symptoms of Delhi Belly, altitude sickness kindly decides to take its place. This is fun.
But that’s ok because today is our fourth anniversary, we’re in Leh, it’s beautiful here and we are seeing the Dalai Lama!


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