“Eighty-eight years is a long life.” And so, it is. But it is not whether you live a long time or a short time, said His Holiness the Dalai Lama to me. “What is important is to have a meaningful life.”
Those words of wisdom still resonate—a year since my journey to Dharamsala to meet with the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Call it karma—the actions that in one life lead to consequences in another—or call it luck. My journey from a California conference to a private audience with the Dalai Lama in India had originated months earlier in Thailand with a simple question: “Do you think I could ever meet the Dalai Lama?” Naively, I had asked a good friend from Nepal, aptly named Karma. “Let me check,” he said.
Months later, after one introduction had led to another, I received a simple e-mail. “I will be able to schedule an audience for Ambassador Curtis Chin on Wednesday, 25 May 2016 here in Dharamsala,” it read. “He would need to be in Dharamsala at least a day before the audience. Please confirm…”
While serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, I had sought to encourage that multilateral financial institution to focus on “people, planet and partnership” with particular regard for the poorest and those most in need.
Now no longer bound by diplomatic guidance as to whom I could officially meet, I wanted to build on my long time commitment to the Himalayan region and learn more first-hand of the education and development of the Tibetan refugee community.
My journey to Dharamsala, however, would offer up other lessons. My schedule seemed set in April 2016.
First up was the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles—an annual gathering of 3,000 leaders in business, government, philanthropy and civil society at the storied Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. I would be speaking at this “Davos with palm trees” as part of my role as inaugural “Asia Fellow” at the non-profit, nonpartisan Milken Institute economic think tank.
From there I would journey back to Bangkok and then to Dharamsala in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh—home to the Dalai Lama since 1960. After the Chinese military occupation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama had fled into exile in India in 1959. Thousands of Tibetans followed, and today Dharamsala is the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration, in essence a Tibetan government-in-exile.
The small, bustling city is comprised of Lower Dharamsala and a higher, hillside Tibetan enclave called Upper Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj. South of the Himalaya, McLeod Ganj—sometimes referred to as “Little Lhasa” or “Dhasa”—sits between the plains of India and the Tibetan plateau. A narrow two-lane road that winds slowly upwards past shops and food stalls of every sort connects Upper and Lower Dharamsala. And it was to the once cedar tree-filled British hill station of McLeod Ganj—named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, a lieutenant governor of Punjab—that I would journey.
But as always, life intervenes. This time it comes, as it does all too often, in the form of late-night calls and messages. My mother, 88-years-young, had taken ill and was in the hospital.
Speeding home to Virginia, I am blessed to be able to join family and friends and spend two weeks with my mother, Ethel Kim Hom Chin, before she passed away on a Friday, May 20th. Hours later I am on a re-scheduled flight to India, and would return in the autumn for my mother’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
And so, my own long days’ journey to Dharamsala begins with unexpected thoughts of life and of death. I travel eastward to London, and then onward to Delhi.
Arriving in Dharamsala on Sunday, I am met by a new friend, Tenzin Jigme, from the Central Tibetan Administration’s education department. He and Kalon Ngodup Tsering, the education minister, would oversee my week in Dharamsala.
In a scene to be repeated many times, Tenzin presents me with a simple white scarf, or kathak, in a traditional Tibetan offer of greetings and well wishes, at Kangra Airport. The small and efficient airport is located in Gaggal about 14 kilometres from Dharamsala.
Onward we go by car. In McLeod Ganj, we quickly find ourselves amidst maroon-robed Tibetan monks and nuns, mixed with international and Indian visitors in what is now the centre of the Tibetan community in exile and an important tourist and pilgrimage destination.
The atmosphere is Tibetan, even if the altitude is not. Average elevation at about 2,082 metres, or 6,831 feet, is far less than the 12,000-foot altitude of Lhasa in Tibet. But the streets are filled with sights and sounds that remind me of my earlier trips to Tibet.
Tenzin takes me to drop off my bags at my home for the week—the Hotel Norbu House. The Tibetan-owned hotel sits on the hillside across from the Tsuglagkhang compound that includes the Dalai Lama’s main temple complex and his official residence. From my balcony, I have a sweeping view down the valley to Lower Dharamsala, and see hawks soaring above the dusty Indian plains below.
Lunch follows with the education minister. And, this being where Tibet meets India, Tibetan food is definitely on the menu. Tibetan-style dumplings known as momos, filled with cheese, vegetables or mutton, are a favourite. So too is thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup. Dharamsala is also home to several restaurants and cafes serving up Indian, Bhutanese, Japanese, or Italian and other western food.
Over the next five days, I travel with Tenzin regularly to the Tsuglagkhang, joining pilgrims and visitors as they say prayers and walk clockwise, always clockwise, around the central temple. An inner circuit, or kora, takes me around the temple core. An outer circuit takes me through the surrounding forests.
Every morning, a pageantry of everyday life unfurls inside and outside the temple compound. A smiling Tibetan woman offers up beautiful Tibetan bread that looks like giant pancakes. Fresh vegetables are laid out for sale by vendors.
Tibetans, young and old, with prayer beads or small handheld prayer wheels, as well as people from what seem all walks of life with their own reasons for being there join me each day. I offer prayers and light traditional Tibetan butter lamps for my mother. My agenda includes visits with Tenzin to some of the more than 70 schools established to provide a modern education to Tibetan refugee children, and help preserve the Tibetan language and culture. I also meet with Tibetan entrepreneurs and teachers. A library and a museum offer context and history about the Tibetan diaspora.
At Men-Tsee-Khang, I learn of efforts to preserve Tibetan medicine and astrology. It is a college, clinic, museum, research centre and astrological institute all rolled into one, and consultations are available.
Dharamsala now draws thousands of visitors each year. Some volunteer with the Tibetan community. Others shop for Tibetan arts and crafts, study Buddhism, or practice meditation or yoga in a break from the urban life.
A trek in the forests of the Dhauladhar mountains above Dharamsala is easy to arrange. Even easier is the short walk from McLeod Ganj to nearby Bhagsunath temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva with a fresh water spring, and to the village of Bhagsu.
For shopping, McLeod Ganj is full of choices from local street stalls to a cooperative producing beautiful Tibetan carpets. I visit The Norbulingka Institute, established in 1995 to teach and preserve traditional Tibetan art forms. There I watch artisans create intricate wooden carvings, paint traditional thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk appliqué), forge metal statues and produce beautiful embroideries.
For a taste of the British Raj, I visit St. John in the Wilderness Church. Built in 1852, the Gothic-style church with beautiful stained-glass windows has survived earthquakes as has a cemetery filled with history. Lord Elgin, former Governor-General and Viceroy of India, is buried here.
That Friday, I attend the swearing-in of Lobsang Sangay, following his re-election as the political leader or, Sikyong, of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama, as spiritual leader, presides over the inauguration ceremony, and urges Tibetans to remain united as a community.
Seeing him reminds me again of the heart of my own discoveries in Dharamsala. That Wednesday, I had the chance to meet privately with the Dalai Lama. With folded hands near my forehead, with a humble bow, with head bent and with palms joined in respect, I offered a traditional white scarf.
The Dalai Lama took the kathak, and with a blessing placed the scarf around my neck. For the next half hour, we spoke of education, of Tibet, of China and of America.
“I love America,” said the Dalai Lama with a smile. “And America loves you,” I replied.
We spoke of life, of death and of living a meaningful life.
I showed the Dalai Lama two photos of my mother. In one, she is a young nursing student in Baltimore, Maryland. In the other, one of her last photos, she is frail but smiling.
He took the photos, looked at them and slowly spoke. “You are born... You die. This is life,” said the Dalai Lama. And then he placed the photos on his forehead, closed his eyes and began to say a blessing in Tibetan.
I was not sure whether to cry or to laugh. Five days earlier my mother had passed away, and now I sat looking up at her photos, on the forehead of the Dalai Lama.
Nearly one year later, I prepare to fly again to Los Angeles. It is the 20th annual Milken Institute Global Conference. Fittingly, the theme this year is “Meaningful Lives.” In May 2016, I journeyed to Dharamsala and found joy, comfort and blessings in an unexpected place and time.
That too is the magic, or karma, of travel.
Originally published on Philippine Tatler Traveller (Volume 11) with the title "Discovering Dharamsala." The magazine is available in all newsstands and book stores, and downloadable on Magzter, Zinio, and PressReader.