WE LEFT FOR THE DALAI LAMA’S TEMPLE a little after six in the morning. Clouds snagged the tops of the Himalayas, still snow-covered in June. In the plum trees, bulbuls sounded their alarms; their long cries woke us each morning just as the skies began to lighten and did not cease until nightfall. My sons, Aidan and Kellen, ten and eight, greeted the cow tethered in the neighbor’s yard, as well as the random stray dogs they had named and now loved. I helped them tally the number of slugs we found along the path to keep their minds off the earliness of the hour and the steepness of the slope.
“Is up the only option?” my parents joked. They had recently joined us in India, a little over a month into our three-month stay, and they shook their heads each time we climbed the grassy hill from our home. We lived in a cottage perched on the mountain and just under the towering form of Hanuman Ka Tibba, the sharp peak that rose over 18,000 feet to the north of us. In late April, we had arrived in the small town of McLeod Ganj, in northern India, as part of my husband Michael’s Fulbright Fellowship. Now it was early June.
Today, instead of heading up the road toward the long ascent to town, we turned onto the familiar pilgrim’s trail. Maroon-robed monks walked singly and in pairs, accompanied by pilgrims in traditional Tibetan clothes. They carried mala beads in their hands and chanted Om Mani Padme Hum just above a whisper. The six-syllable chant, untranslatable but all encompassing, was one we had taught the boys long before, and now the mantra came easily.
Prayer flags dressed the pines in color, but looking up, we didn’t see a single macaque. “The monks must have cleared the forests of monkeys for His Holiness’s presence,” I said to Michael and smiled. Even the cows had remained home, which left the woods to the crows and the supplicants.
As we drew closer to the temple complex, the prayer wheels appeared. Over three hundred line the path. My sons showed my parents, who had never climbed the trail before, how to read the Tibetan characters painted on the sides. We spun every wheel, chanting with the monks as we moved up the hill, acknowledging the divine in everything. Tall metal or wooden cylinders with handles at the base for turning, the prayer wheels spun easily. The wooden handles were smoothed and softened by the thousands of hands that had touched them before. Bright bells rang out with each rotation and spun into the green cedars. Another prayer.
At the martyrs’ plaza, Tibetans chanted long and unfamiliar prayers with monks in rows on the ground. Their words trailed the incense, sweet and thick, that lifted into the morning sky. We walked past the pictures of the martyrs—the young monks who had set themselves on fire in protest of China’s occupation of Tibet. It would have been easier to keep my head down, to avoid altogether the wall of photos , but I slowed to look at each of the fifty or so faces. Most were smiling, some of them already aflame. The chants reverberated in my chest, the quiet urgency of all those low murmurs stirring something deep and strong.
India challenged me, a Westerner, on a daily basis. Before coming to the country, Michael had told me that in the United States, the surfaces are shiny, but the underneath can be hollow and empty, even sullied, while in India, the surfaces were chaotic and filthy, but the center was divine. He had visited twice before, both times on travel grants, and knew what to expect. A month into our stay, I was coming to understand the distinction. We gave money every time we walked to town—to the sadhus who sat in the woods in their orange robes and cooked meals from a single pot, to the blind man who called “Namaste” whenever he heard footsteps pass him on the streets, to the old woman who had lost much of her face to leprosy and who cupped the coins in blood-bandaged hands, to the children who reached out from their mothers’ arms, to the man with no legs who pulled himself up the hill on his palms. We gave to anyone and everyone who asked.
Such actions, though, seemed flimsy at best. In the face of all that suffering, I was realizing that my ability to be present mattered more than a coin here or there. It was much more difficult to take those bandaged hands in my own, to carry the backpack for the man with no legs, or even to smile at the woman who begged for her children. With that in mind, I looked into the eyes of the martyrs in the photographs, moving toward the pain, rather than away, and wished them freedom from their suffering.
My focus vanished as soon as we turned the corner at the top of the hill and left the forest path. A line of people stretched toward the gate to the Dalai Lama’s temple. We weren’t the only Westerners hoping to see the Dalai Lama that day. While the temple complex includes the Dalai Lama’s primary residence, it is rare to visit the temple when he was at home. Tireless in his efforts to free his native country, the Dalai Lama travels often and only gives a few public audiences a year—and rarely one meant specifically for foreigners. During our time in McLeod Ganj, we had walked through the temple grounds almost every day, but this was the first opportunity we had to see the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. We joined the hundreds of people who stood in clumps on the street, eating bananas, drinking chai, and laughing under the sun. Every few minutes, the line moved forward, but mostly we stood still.
“We should have left earlier,” I complained to Michael. “Or taken the road instead of the pilgrim’s path. We could have done the prayer wheels another day.”
“It will be OK,” he responded, and returned to the hand games he was playing with the boys. I simmered in silence and counted the number of people in front of us.
Nearby, a couple was buying thin white cloths from a woman at a stall. The woman demonstrated for the couple how to hold the scarf across their hands like an offering. After they left, I asked the woman what the white scarves were for.
“For His Holiness to bless.”
“How much are they?”
I bought six scarves. I knew, given the line, that there would be hundreds of people in the audience, but I envisioned His Holiness giving a kind of “global blessing.” We would all hold up our scarves, and the blessing would filter through the air, lodge in the fibers, and we could hang the white cloths on our walls at home. I could point to it when guests came over.
“Excuse me,” a woman with a French-sounding accent asked. “Do you think we will be close enough to His Holiness to get a blessing?”
I shrugged. “I just saw someone else buying the scarves, so we bought them.”
“Better to be safe,” she said.
I realized then that for the blessing to “count,” we would have to get close enough to have His Holiness actually touch the scarves. Silently, I considered our relative position in line.
An hour or so later, we made it through security and were released into the central courtyard. It felt good to be out of line and in the large square area shaded by white tents and tall leafy trees. People leaned against railings that bordered the path where the Dalai Lama would walk, or they dropped to sit on the grass or the stone slabs. Though I had been expecting chairs, there did seem to be space for everyone to sit on the ground.
Because we had arrived relatively early, we easily found places near the front, close to what appeared to be a stage from where His Holiness would speak. We sat on a low stone wall and waited.
A woman nearby turned to us. “If you can get a place on the railing, His Holiness will probably bless your boys. He loves children.”
Behind us, people had continued to enter the courtyard in scores. Nearly every low wall was taken; every patch of grass, gone. Yet, I saw a space still free on the railing, close to the actual residence of His Holiness, the house from which he would emerge. I took the boys, and we wedged ourselves between the other Westerners. Michael and my parents remained seated on the ground. Soon, I lost sight of them in the crowds and would not see them again for some time.
“OK,” I said to Aidan and Kellen, “be ready for when he comes out. You’ll want to lean over with your scarves, really stretch.” The boys practiced.
Then a group of young monks arrived in and stood below us. They didn’t look much older than my sons.
“How can I reach over them?” Kellen wailed.
I tried not to be angry with the young monks, but they had jeopardized my plan. Then it occurred to me that maybe we could use the monks. Surely the Dalai Lama would want to come over and bless these young men in service to the Buddha. Maybe we could leverage their position.
“I’ll boost you up,” I said to Kellen.
“I’ll never reach,” he cried.
“Well, the Dalai Lama has a lot of people to see. It’ll be OK if he doesn’t actually bless your scarf.”
“No,” Kellen said, “it won’t. He has to bless it. That’s the whole point.”
After half an hour, I was still standing wide-legged and solid, working to hold our space along the railing. I had to fight off a Tibetan woman and then a young man who didn’t speak English. I stared at the gates to the Dalai Lama’s home, willing him to come out before we lost our place. While I was at it, I willed him to move to his right first, toward us. I glanced about for the hundredth time, trying to determine if we could get to a better position and feeling bitter about all the people who took up too much room.
Suddenly, there was an announcement. “We need everyone to get into groups based on regions,” the voice said. “His Holiness will take a picture with each group. If you are from South America, you need to be over here. Central America over here.”
I lost the rest of what he was saying with the realization that all my maneuvering at the railing had been in vain. Watching the monks leave for their appointed place, I finally gave up my claim on the rail.
The Americans made their way over to their section of the courtyard—more Americans, by far, than we had seen since leaving the United States. People started forming a line where it appeared His Holiness might walk through.
“Quick,” I said to Aidan, pushing him forward. “Get up there!”
The boys stood at the front, but just as quickly, a guard came by and told us to move to a different area. With each new space, I pushed and pulled the boys to the front.
“Here,” I said. “You can hold your scarf this way.”
“Here,” I said. “He will surely see you.”
Before coming to India, I had not specifically wanted to see the Dalai Lama. Before hearing he was giving a public audience for foreigners, I had not wanted to listen to him talk. Before learning about the white scarves, I hadn’t wanted to own one. Before realizing the possibility of a blessing, I hadn’t needed one. Yet, I was, in a crowd of Buddhists no less, angling for the best space. Planning, devising, pushing, needing, wanting. Worse, I had made the boys want the same thing.
“I’ll never get a blessing,” Kellen cried at one point, somewhere deep into our long wait. He had left without breakfast. We hadn’t taken water. There were no chairs. Michael had come to join us now, worried that we would be unable to find each other in the crowd. My parents also stood nearby, my mom patting her pockets in hopes, I imagined, of finding a forgotten granola bar for the boys.
“Yes, you will,” I insisted.
Michael picked him up. “He has already blessed us, Kellen. He already has.”
Poppycock, I thought. I want that blessed scarf.
Four hours after we had set out from our home, His Holiness walked through the gates. By then, I was exhausted. The sustained panic over how I would get my sons close to the Dalai Lama had worn me down. I sat on the ground, ready to go home. I didn’t hear a word of his talk. I didn’t interact with the people around me, and I couldn’t tell you the kinds of trees that grew in the courtyard. I had given so much energy to that wanting that I didn’t have anything left.
As it turns out, the boys were at the front and center of the picture with the Dalai Lama. His Holiness touched both of them. Through no effort of my own, they stood next to him. I, on the other hand, wasn’t even in the picture. Which I find perfect, since I was never fully present at the temple that day.
The following morning, as I ran up through town and then along a mountain road, I thought about my derailed visit. Between the cedars and pines, I caught glimpses of the Himalayan peaks. The morning sun sent crowns of light into the sky, and the snow shone bright, like glass. In India, I ran early, before the vendors opened for the day and the streets became clogged with people, cars, and dogs.
My thoughts turned to home, to northern Utah in June, when the yellow mule’s ears carpet the mountains and the hillsides are green and bright. I loved living in the town of Logan for so many reasons: the mountains, the rivers, the canopy of sky. But that morning, I thought mostly about all that Logan didn’t have: a Banana Republic, a Target, an Apple Store. Instead, we had Old Navy. That was it. Such lack of retail options kept my wants in check; I didn’t want things because there was nothing to want. Like an alcoholic who never brings alcohol into the house, I was fine as long as I never opened a catalog. I could keep that want in check. But, my wanting creature only bided its time, waited.
In India, it was so easy to see my privilege. I only needed to leave the house, and my gross good fortune became clear. Too often, though, I measured my wealth materially—I had a good job, a retirement plan, a house, two cars—while those on the streets had so much less. My own lack hadn’t occurred to me amid all that poverty. I thought I had everything while those around me had less. As I ran through the woods that morning, I realized that the trick was not simply to remain present in the face of others’ needs. Though hard, I had learned to attend fully to those I met on the streets. It was more difficult for me to see my own wanting, my lack, the fact that I was poor in more profound ways than materially.
As I came down the mountain, I noticed that a group had formed outside the entrance to the Dalai Lama’s temple. Since it was only six in the morning, few had gathered. At first, I thought His Holiness must be giving a second audience. As I got closer, though, I realized the people weren’t queued as much as clustered.
“What’s happening?” I asked a Tibetan woman.
“His Holiness is about to depart.”
I found a place along the street and sat down to wait. I wondered what “about” might mean. Four hours? How would I get word to Michael that I was sitting on the roadside waiting for the Dalai Lama? Memories of the day before washed over me: feelings of frustration, emptiness, and loss. I didn’t want to derail another morning. And then I wondered if I even needed to sit there. If I wanted to sit there. And why I might remain.
Above me, the trees waved against the sky. Another beautiful day. Monkeys jumped from limb to limb. Nearby, two men unfolded their white scarves, holding them as offerings across their hands. I thought of Michael and the boys, waiting for me at home; of the man with no legs, who greeted me every morning with a wide smile, his hands folded to his chest; of the morning sun on the snow. I realized it really was fine if I missed the Dalai Lama. My day would still be full. I could simply walk back home.
I started to rise to leave, when the police cars drove past, lights flashing. Then several dark sedans passed. I could see monks sitting in the backseats with their hands folded in their laps. The car with the Dalai Lama followed.
Everyone in our small group bowed at the waist, hands in prayer. Some of the women prostrated themselves on the ground. The car neared me, and I looked into the Dalai Lama’s eyes as he passed. He smiled. Maybe at me, maybe at the woman next to me, or maybe at a shadow in the glass. Regardless, the grace went straight to my heart. I felt its warmth lodge in my chest. There on the street, still in my running clothes, sweat drying on my skin, arms brushing against the woman next to me, I wasn’t given anything I didn’t already have. Instead, his smile only confirmed the blessings all around me.