India: A Day With the Dalai Lama

On a road in the Himalayas en route to see the Dalai Lama.
On a road in the Himalayas en route to see the Dalai Lama.

Hanging out with His Holiness: Meeting the Dalai Lama

By Katherine Smith

I’m not usually a nervous passenger, but then I don’t usually attempt to conquer the world’s highest motorable pass. It’s just short of 19,000 feet high to be exact.

We’re driving from Leh in Ladakh to the Nubra Valley, close to the Chinese border, to attend a series of teachings by the Dalai Lama. In order to get there we need to make a journey that will take us across some of the most impenetrable roads in the Himalaya.

Although it’s only something like 60 kilometers, it will take hours and we have no choice but to just take it slow. The road is rough and there is a very serious danger of simply slipping off the edge as we negotiate falling rocks and potential landslides.

We tell our driver Hosey to take it ‘slowly, slowly’ and he seems to understand. There are a few times we meet oncoming trucks and all I can do is hold my breath.

 Conquering one of the highest motor-able passes deep in the Himalayas.
Conquering one of the highest motor-able passes deep in the Himalayas.

Luckily, the journey goes smoothly or as smoothly as is possible on choppy mountain passes and we make the ascent wailing along tunefully to Panjabi techno.

Throngs of Pilgrims

I feel incredible privileged to be joining throngs of Tibetan, Ladahki and Indian Pilgrims on their way to see the ‘Dalai Lama-ji.’ I never anticipated I’d be lucky enough to come face to face with him, let alone listen to him share some of his wisdom. But here I was, on my way.

To describe the scenery as breathtaking would be to do it a severe injustice. It is only when you’re between something so dramatically beautiful and so staggeringly enormous that you appreciate just how small we really are.

We arrive in the tiny town of Disket, along with a multitude of other Jeeps, minivans and buses. The usually quiet main bazaar is overrun with local pilgrims, tourists, monks and nuns. The streets are awash with color.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

Prayer flags flutter from every available window overhead, gangs of burgundy clad monks bustle about on their daily business, clutching their mala beads and softly murmuring ancient mantras, the smell of freshly baked Tibetan bread wafts from every doorway and local people in traditional dress turn prayer wheels as they spill out onto the street and chat noisily about the upcoming visit of their revered spiritual leader.

Prayer flags flutter high over the gathering crowd in Ladakh, in the Himalayas. photos by Katherine Smith.
Prayer flags flutter high over the gathering crowd in Ladakh, in the Himalayas. photos by Katherine Smith.

High on the hill above the town sits a shiny new Golden Buddha. It’s enormous. It’s taken 5 years to build it (mostly by hand) and now His Holiness will kick off the three day teaching program with a special blessing ceremony or Puja.

The following morning beneath brilliant blue skies, we make the 45 minute trek up to the big Buddha, together with about 50,000 Ladahki’s. This is a world in which I don’t belong, at least not in this body; not in this lifetime, yet it welcomes me with open arms.

More Prayer Flags

Awe inspiring scenery that takes your breath away in Ladakh.
Awe inspiring scenery that takes your breath away in Ladakh.

Both serenity and excitement fill the air as we pass Gompa’s, more prayer. Everyone has a warm wave and a friendly smile. No-one makes us feel unwelcome or like we shouldn’t be thereer flags, pop-up campsites and gaggles of local people gossiping in anticipation or quietly reciting prayers.

I stop briefly, fearing I may burst a lung (we are at altitude after all), to regain my oxygen starved breath and observe those in their hundreds scurry to be part of this local celebration. It’s incredible.

There is something of a festival atmosphere when the guttural chants of the monks begin todays Puja. Their other-worldly song drifts across the Himalayan plains and seems to alter the very vibration of the entire valley.

No-one but Monks and the big DL are allowed on the actual Buddha today, but provision has been made for us to sit in the lower grazing fields which have been kitted out with tents and thick canvas for sitting on.

Tibetan Monks feed the masses with delicious flat bread and Yak Butter tea.
Tibetan Monks feed the masses with delicious flat bread and Yak Butter tea.

In a way being in the Dalai Lama’s presence is a little like meeting the real Santa Claus. There is something really rather magical about him, even though he insists he is just a simple monk. Despite the hardship he has faced and the peaceful yet relentless campaign he makes for his freedom and the liberation of Tibet, his spirit is light and easy. He radiates love and compassion and a certain purity that is scarce. He giggles like a child and has the most extraordinary smile.

At 75 years old he is amazing. His energy seems boundless and just being around him seems to make your heart sing. He also sounds a lot like Yoda.

Sea of Umbrellas

On day 2, we’re all huddle together under a sea of multi-coloured umbrellas to shelter from the heat, perched on top of a mountain, where the dry, clay coloured desert gives way to infinite blue skies speckled with fluffy white clouds. Mountain ranges extend in every direction.
I watch in awe as everyone prostrates silently when he arrives. I understand nothing of the teachings itself, because he’s talking in Tibetan and its being translated into Hindi, but it doesn’t seems to matter one little bit, I’m happy just to simply soak up the atmosphere.


As the final day drew to a close, rather than retreat and rest His Holiness invited all the westerners to a private audience. There were about 60 of us in total. He spoke softly about Buddhism in context to our own cultural and social structures, emphasising that we didn’t not have to abandon our own beliefs and suggested we simply integrate the small sentiments embedded in his words that resonated with us most deeply into our lives.

To told us to just begin something and not worry about getting it right or fret about where it might lead. That all journeys start with a single step. He encouraged us to look compassionately upon one another.

Then came and walked among us, shaking our hands and looking us square in the eye. Then he climbed into his car, giggling and mumbling Om Mani Padme Om under his breath and waved us goodbye.

I will forever be touched by this experience. Here is what it taught me;

• The embrace the unexpected.
• That all worthwhile journeys are scary and there will be obstacles (or large mountains) to overcome.
• To never forget the interconnectivity of all things.
• To stay small, but remember small can be powerful and significant.
• That even the enlightened are humble.
• To keep your sense of humor.

Katherine SmithKatherine Smith is a devoted student of yoga, with a travel addiction. She is a yoga teacher, an ayurvedic chef, a life-coach, a self-confessed foodie. She has written two cookbooks, She is currently running retreats in the Portuguese mountains at Yoga at Moses. Visit www, for more details. She writes a blog dedicated to inspiring change through yoga, nourishment and unchained fun.


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