In 1988 I was travelling around India, by bicycle, and one of the places I wanted to go was Dharmsala, or more accurately a village nearby, McLeod Ganj, where the exiled leader of the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, has lived since he fled his country in 1959. I didn’t have any great plans for my stay. My routine was to cycle for five days or so and then find somewhere to rest and escape the stresses of India for a short while, and then start again. Dharmsala was interesting because it was different, and there was plenty to see, but that was about it.
I could see it was a magical place even before I got there. It’s at the bottom end of the Himalayas, and when I arrived in the valley below one afternoon I could see the town apparently clinging to the side of the mountain almost vertically above me, the rooftops glistening in the sun.
Soon after I arrived, there was a service at the temple and along with most of the other visitors and residents I went along. I was near the back and I could see a figure sitting in the temple, sitting higher than everyone else, leading the chants and wearing the robes of a Tibetan monk.
‘Is that the Dalai Lama?’ I said to a young Tibetan man standing next to me.
‘Yes,’ he said casually. ‘Haven’t you met His Holiness?’
I replied, also casually, that I had not yet had that pleasure, although I didn’t quite put it like that. He explained that His Holiness (as you refer to him) regularly met visitors, and if I was interested, it would be worth putting my name forward.
I did so, also using my official-looking credentials as a journalist (I had taken the time to get myself an impressive document called an international press card). It was a lot less easy than that young Tibetan had led me to believe but I was told if I came back in a particular week a few months later, I would be granted an audience.
By the time those months had passed it was February, and winter. Although in most parts of India that means that the weather is just a little less than uncomfortably hot than it is the rest of the year, the mountains were snowbound. I decided to leave my bike in New Delhi and take the bus back up to Dharmsala. I’m not sure you could find a place to safely leave a bike for a couple of weeks in many cities, but India provided one of those three or four hour descents into the hell of red tape, misdirection and confusion only people who have been there can appreciate. The only option appeared to be a bike rack at the railway station, and I didn’t think much of mine would be left when I got back. Finally, I had an idea.
There were Tibetan merchants selling various items to tourists in one part of the city. There was bound to be some sort of support organisation for these refugees, and if they wouldn’t do anything for some idiot who turned up out of nowhere on a bike, they may well be keen to help His Holiness. And so it turned out. The bike was left in a Tibetan School, and when I went back a couple of weeks later, there it still was.
But I digress. I took the bus up to McLeod Ganj and the journey lasted almost as long as it had to cycle up there. McLeod Ganj was very different in February to how it had been a few months before. There were hardly any tourists and those staying in the hotels were there on official business: writing books about the Dalai Lama, studying Buddhism.
I got in touch with the Dalai Lama’s office and I was asked to give them a list of questions I wanted to ask him. I was a bit reluctant to do that: I told them journalists didn’t like to let their interviewees know what they were going to ask about as it meant any awkward questions could be avoided.
‘No, no no. It’s nothing like that,’ I was told. ‘His Holiness is asked the same things over and over again. He likes to be asked different questions, difficult questions.’
Still not entirely happy, I did compile a list, and one or two were crossed out because they were too easy. Not too many interviewees, let alone politicians and world leaders, would do that.
I can remember the feeling as I was led into the audience room. It was one of those occasions where you can hear your own footsteps, so full are you of excitement, fear, nervousness, anticipation, and the knowledge that this could be one of the most memorable events of my life.
And so it was. You can read my questions and answers here. In the days before mobile phones, it never occurred to me to take a tape recorder on the trip, so I had to rely on shorthand. It’s not a verbatim report, but it contains much of what he said.
The Dalai Lama is said to be the reincarnation of the God of compassion and allied to his fierce intellect and ability to see things from other points of view is a tremendous sense of humour. When I asked him how his openness varied greatly to that of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, the man whose reincarnation he is, he gave me a knowing little glance and whispered: ‘Sometimes I think we are very different people!’
And when I asked the question about what people who were not Buddhists could learn from Buddhism, at first he thought of two categories of people, then he added a third and by the time he got to five he was almost rolling around in his seat with laughter.
At the end, I got my camera out and asked, in my best journalist’s voice, to take some photos, but he insisted on standing next to me and having one of his officials take the picture.
As I left, he smiled and said: ‘Good questions, good questions!’