Visiting the Dalai Lama’s Temple

McLeod Ganj, Dec. 17

On my third full day in the McLeod Ganj area (I’m staying between lower Dharamsala and the upper ridge of McLG), I finally made it to the Dalai Lama’s temple and Namyang monastery. I tried to enter on Sunday but there were big crowds of tourists and being around rowdy kids was not the way I wanted to experience the temple for the first time.

Coming up the hill on Sunday and Monday, the rough and rocky trail linking Kashmir Cottage to McLG connects with the “mani path,” (as in om mani padme hum, a mantra fundamental to Tibetan Buddhism) a route of circumambulation that rings the mountain where the Dalai Lama’s residence is located. Yesterday in particular, my timing was right so as to emerge from the north-side shadows into a colorful cascade of prayer flags streaming down a hillside. I scrambled upwards towards a tree that served to anchor numerous strands–the golds, reds, and blues especially radiant in the mid-afternoon light.




When I crested the hill, I saw the spire of a small stupa dedicated to the 10 qualities of bodhisattva wisdom. That side of the mountain faced east, which apparently is the direction for the Green Tara since so many prayer flags on this side were a faded green. Amidst the overlapping flags were solitary monks with books and texts laid out on the grass. As they chanted or studied, they rocked back and forth rhythmically in time with the pacing of the sutra. I also wanted to sit on the grass and just chill beneath the flags, and will return later to do exactly that once I make McLG my base at the end of the month.


Also on this side of the mountain, under a large roof and occupying a wall perhaps 20 ft. high and 30 ft. long is a gallery of mostly young Tibetans who have self-immolated over the past several years in their occupied country. I wasn’t ready for the searing emotional impact of those photographs–some of handsome men and lovely women, some of monks and nuns with large smiles, some of solemn people holding cell phones or posing in front of a Potala palace background (the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet) and some with silhouettes and names only. There were also gruesome photos of charred corpses, with their names and ages underneath. Even before I saw the latter, I was in tears at the tragic loss of life and the courageous desperation that leads a person to make a political statement against the Chinese with their body and their life.

Upon entering “the Temple” (Tsuglagkhang) as all the signs indicate, one first sees a large granite memorial stone to the Martyrs of Tibet. This title evokes the lives lost in the initial Chinese invasion of 1949, subsequent resistance, the escape of the Dalai Lama in 1959, and the uprisings of 1989 and more recently 2008 (during the Olympics in China).

After passing through security–no cameras or cell phones are now allowed inside–and heading up a flight of steps, the first thing I noticed was a sign demanding “Free the Panchen Lama!” Explanations in Hindi and English were beneath, outlining the story known to all Tibetans: after the elder Panchen Lama died (he is the moon to the Dalai Lama’s sun), his reincarnation was identified in Tibet by the Dalai Lama’s emissaries. However, at age six, he and his family were “disappeared” by the Chinese authorities in 1995 and placed in “protective custody.” Not a single photograph, message, or sighting has occurred since then. Incredibly, the Chinese formed their own delegation (with Tibetan lamas serving as advisors) and identified the “real” Panchen Lama, a young man now in his early twenties who serves in ritual and political capacities that serve Chinese interests. The situation at the time of his disappearance made the young Panchen Lama the youngest political prisoner in the world.

Needless to say, the situation is heartbreaking, and has robbed Tibetan Buddhism of one of their most exalted religious leaders. When the next Dalai Lama is to be chosen after the passing of the current Tenzin Gyatso, it was always the Panchen Lama’s responsibility to be actively involved and confer legitimacy and authenticity on the individual selected. The Chinese did not want to leave this major religious transition in the hands of Tibetans, and so they subverted the process by disappearing and then replacing the Panchen Lama. (For a highly watchable documentary film on the issue, see “Tibet’s Stolen Child” via YouTube).

That’s quite a lot of politics to digest en route to the main temple! It’s doubtful many visitors take the time to reflect, focusing instead on the more appealing rows of prayer wheels that surround the temple. The building is not elaborate in any way, as one might assume since it is the principal temple on the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s compound. According to Jeremy Russell’s account in the book Dharamsala,

“…mindful of the refugee community’s limited budget, the Dalai Lama made it clear that the need was not to build a lavish temple as they would have done in Tibet. What was required was a simple, functional building which would allow people to gather to observe their religious ceremonies and practices” (p. 27, with thanks to Norman Steinberg for loaning me this book from his library at Kashmir Cottage).

On the east side of this “plain and square concrete structure” is a large open area, covered by a tent-like canopy, where a couple thousand people could be accommodated for a major ritual or teaching. There’s also a section where people perform full body prostrations. I saw only women doing this practice atop wooden foundations rubbed smooth and glistening by literally millions of bows. Although some teachers outside Asia have tailored the tradition to modern sensibilities by allowing 10,000 bows, the standard number is 100,000…with dedicated nuns and monks going up to and over one million prostrations. (Try doing seven sometime on a carpeted or hardwood floor and you’ll quickly realize the stamina and determination required.)


(photo credit pending)

And to what deity or principle are they prostrating themselves? We’d have to ask to make sure, but it’s likely they dedicate the merit they are creating to the Dalai Lama, manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara (India) > Chenresig (Tibet) > Guanyin (China) > Kannon (Japan). By giving their hard-earned merit to him, they can in turn expect benevolence and blessings.

On the main altar of the temple is a large statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, with his right hand touching the earth in the bhumisparsa mudra, calling the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment. (For anyone who has read this blog and recalls my account of Borobodur in Central Java, all the Buddha statutes on the east side of the monument exhibit this mudra). His left hand cradles the alms bowl of a monk.


To the Buddha’s right is a chamber where two statues reside. One is Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava in Sanskrit), the Indian monk called upon by the Tibetan king who subdued wrathful nature spirits in Tibet so that Buddhism could be established in the early 8th century CE. The second statue is a thousand-armed Avalokitesvara, with an eye in the palm of each hand so as to witness continually human cries for assistance and release from suffering.


After making the rounds, spinning prayer wheels (one seems to move somewhat mysteriously of its own accord), watching people enter the main temple, and thinking about the history of the place/tradition/and Dalai Lama institution, I followed the sound of the huge trumpet-horns to a corner of the temple complex. The monastery associated with the Dalai Lama’s gelugpa denomination was reestablished on this site and it is from these buildings the deep and somewhat chaotic sounds rise up the hill. As I stand there listening, a security person wanders over and I comment with eyebrows raised, “beautiful music?” He smiles and says, “Not so beautiful. They are only young monks practicing.”

This brief exchange leads to a chat of some fifteen minutes. I find he is well informed about the Tibetans who arrived in Canada recently from Eastern Bengal province in India, the result of an appeal by the Dalai Lama to the Canadian government to help remedy this dire situation. “They are the lucky ones. There are still around two thousand desperate to get out.” He says he would also like to emigrate to North America but with a wife and two children, one six years old and the other 9 months, he knows he will have to wait. A car is leaving the inner compound and so as the huge gates begin to open, we shake hands and he returns to his duties. (Once I return to McLG after my time in the upper foothills, I’ll no doubt see him again and hopefully we can continue the conversation, perhaps over lunch.)

I’m not sure whether it is the political messages on the grounds of the temple complex, the weight of the Tibetan people’s history in the tumultuous 20th century that landed them here on this high ridge of a former British hill town garrison, or the atmosphere of dogged determination to survive in the face of cultural and human diasporas, but I’m left with a feeling of sadness tinged with disgust, incomprehension, and even, I’m surprised to recognize, a bit of anger directed at the Chinese. Not a very bodhisattva-esque mindset.

History has plenty of examples where groups that were persecuted politically and yet survived to gain the upper hand–think of early 16th century protestants in Catholic Germany, Puritans in North America, Jews in Palestine, or communists in China (to name a very few)–turn out to be harshly ideological in pursuit of their goals. For the Chinese in particular, human rights mean nothing if accommodating these principles would be seen as threatening their hegemony of power and control over all ethnic groups within what they conceive of as the “Middle Kingdom.”

The Chinese continue to treat the Tibetan people in Tibet as nuisances interfering with the nation’s need for natural resources and more living space. It seems to matter little who is running the communist party because harsh policies limiting the rights, opportunities, education, and cultural legacies of Tibetans continue unabated…even when self-immolations call the world’s attention to the suffering and indignities Tibetans must endure.

It’s been said that Tibetans are to China what Native Americans were/are to the United States: a proud and resilient culture that persists in spite of state-sponsored efforts to silence, displace, destroy, and diminish their existence. For my part, I will continue to call attention to this situation within the context of teaching Tibetan Buddhism in my “Religion and Globalization” class. I will also continue working with the Tibetan communities of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. With all the Chinese students now attending USF, the opportunity exists to educate them away from the propaganda they’ve been subjected to since elementary school.

In any event, my first visit to the head temple has shaken me up emotionally and renewed my commitment to educate about and if necessary, agitate for the rights of Tibetans.



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