Reassured in Dharamsala

When a Buddhist monk in Myanmar sprawled out over several seats in the train, or one on the bus in Malaysia blasted a radio no one else wanted to hear, or a third in Sri Lanka ignored the shy beseeching smile of a grandmother in favor of candy crush on his iPad, I was mostly disappointed, just a hint of outrage. After all, we want our spiritual folk to be enlightened beings who comfort us with their presence, dammit.

Game time in McLeod Ganj

Except here’s the thing: they’re people too. Sagacity and soulfulness are neither inevitable nor inherent in spiritual leaders. We got lucky with our Dalai Lama. (And Pope Francis.)


I thought about that as I moved through his home in exile, Tsuglagkhang Temple in McLeod Ganj above Dharamsala. Here were the prayer flags and icons one would expect, but here too was something more, perhaps also expected but far less automatic.


In the main hall people of a variety of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds were praying, chanting, or watching with a blend of respect and reverence, and I joined the line moving around the outside wall of prayer wheels.


Filled with written mantras of peace and wellbeing for all living things, if you spin a prayer wheel (always with your right hand, your left must never face the temple) you send those positive wishes into the world. I was doing so, and so were the Hindu couple behind me and the Muslim family in front of me.

Prayer wheels in the Dalai Lama's temple Dharamsala

That moment, more than the books and TV appearances, embodied in me the holiness of our current Dalai Lama. Damage and hatred are easy, like setting fire to a tree. Nurturing the growth of such shelter takes time, patience, and resilience. Luckily for us, he’s written a few guides on how to do that.


During this vicious moment of zero-sum political totalitarianism, I hold on to that misty experience of multicultural appreciation for a philosophy of compassion, tolerance, and cooperation. That day all I had to do to see the unity of human goodness was look around. I suspect it’s true today as well.