My Journey to Tibet and Beyond

I have always felt that life is a journey. This is my story of how I became involved with the plight of the Tibetan people. Since my teens Tibet had always held romantic notions for me. The Land of the Snows, The Roof of the World, Shangri La, monks and monasteries, prayer wheels and yak butter lamps have always held a fascination but most of all it is the spiritual essence of Tibet through Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that has drawn me to this wonderful land. I remember reading the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton when I was in my teens. This book had such a great influence on me that for many years I dreamed of visiting Tibet. At last I had the wonderful opportunity to visit in 2004. Since the Chinese occupation many things have changed and I have read so much about these events. Would I find anything left of the old Tibet or would it be totally different to what I expected? I wanted to see this with my own eyes and form my own opinions and to find out whether all I have read is true!

We flew from Kathmandu in Nepal to Lhasa and when we touched Tibetan soil I felt quite overwhelmed. Our Tibetan guide met us at the airport and gave us all a khata (a white scarf which was for welcoming us into Tibet). On our journey we visited many of the famous monasteries and sights around Lhasa and along the Friendship Highway which is a road that links Tibet with Nepal. Much of Lhasa is now a modern Chinese city which was quite a shock. The area around the Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor Market is part of the original Lhasa and we were very lucky that our hotel was situated within walking distance of this area and was built in Tibetan style. One of the most wonderful experiences for me was seeing the pilgrims from all over the country who had travelled on foot for a year or more to visit the Jokhang Temple as it is the holiest site in Tibet. I felt very privileged that I was able to go inside the Temple amongst the pilgrims and to hear them recite the beautiful Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and to see the prayer wheels and the yak butter candles burning. On the outside of the Temple you could see many pilgrims prostrating for hours. I felt amazed and very humbled when I saw the dedication of these people to their religion. This is the real Tibet, the Tibet that is still alive. In contrast to this, when I visited the Potala Palace and the Norbulingka (summer palace for the Dalai Lamas) I felt sad as some of the Dalai Lama’s personal possessions that he had to leave in such a hurry when he went into exile, still remained there. I almost felt I was intruding. These palaces are now nothing more than museums. I also noticed with sadness that there was a photo of the 13th Dalai Lama but an absence of the 14th Dalai Lama! However, I could almost feel that the spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama still remained.

When we visited the monasteries there was a strong presence of Chinese officials and we were aware that we had to be careful with what we said. The monks are required to charge a fee for tourists to take photos. This money is supposed to be for the upkeep of the monastery but a large proportion of this goes in taxes to the Chinese government as it is thought that tourists can afford it. However, the irony of this is that the vast majority of the contributions are from Tibetan pilgrims who can barely afford it but through dedication to their religion feel they would like to give to the monasteries!

When I returned home I came back with very mixed feelings about this beautiful country and its people. I was haunted by stories I heard of children walking on foot out of Tibet with inadequate clothing and footwear across high mountain passes to travel through Nepal into Dharamsala in northern India to receive their education and to learn more of Tibetan culture in a free society. As a result I decided to sponsor a Tibetan child in one of the Tibetan Children’s Village Schools in Dharamsala through the Tibet Foundation (a registered charity based in the UK). They asked me to write an article for their newsletter about why I had decided to sponsor a Tibetan child as they hoped that this would encourage others.

This wasn’t the end of the story though. It is strange how things happen unexpectedly in life! About two months after I returned from Tibet I saw a trip that was being organised to Dharamsala in northern India where we could listen to the Dalai Lama’s annual spring teachings as well as learn more about Tibetan culture and to meet the exiled Tibetan community there. This was happening in March 2005. I felt very drawn to going on this trip even though I had used up all my annual leave from work that year! I asked my manager whether I could take some unpaid leave and was told that I had to write to the Chief Executive stating why I wanted this time. Fortunately, I was granted the leave. I left for the trip wondering what to expect and I was so excited to have this wonderful opportunity so soon after my visit to Tibet. We had an overnight flight to Delhi, a 12 hour overnight train journey and then a three hour bus journey to Dharamsala! Dharamsala is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. This is where the Dalai Lama lives and many Tibetan exiles. As we climbed up further into the mountains, the scenery became more and more beautiful. When I arrived there I felt so much at home and almost immediately fell in love with this place.

The morning after we arrived we woke up to the sound of Tibetan monks chanting on their way down to the Dalai Lama’s Temple to listen to his teachings. We followed later on. It was a most wonderful experience to actually see the Dalai Lama. He spoke in Tibetan but we were able to tune in to a FM radio to pick up the English translation. I will never forget my first morning there. Thousands of people were listening to him and the atmosphere was calm and peaceful in spite of so many people. Everyone was very civilised. It was such a wonderful feeling to be sitting with the Tibetan people and being able to be a part of their spiritual life and culture and I felt so privileged to be a part of this. They made us feel so welcome. We had to find a place to sit wherever we could and I ended up sitting with some very nice Tibetan women. I had brought a cushion that I could blow up as it was easier for packing. However, it was very difficult to sit on as it was rather hard and I kept rolling off the cushion! We all laughed so much. Tibetans have a wonderful sense of humour! When we eventually settled it was awe inspiring listening to the Dalai Lama. He is such a profound and spiritual person and brings his teachings into our everyday life and how to apply these in our daily living. He truly practices what he preaches.

After the teachings I went into one of the cafes to have lunch and a coffee. As I was sitting there I got talking to some Tibetans who could speak quite good English. I asked them where they were from in Tibet and how long they had been in India for? One of the young men said that he was from the same village as the Dalai Lama. What a privilege! As I was about to leave one of them asked me whether I could come back the next day to have an English conversation with him to help him with his English. I would loved to have done that but we already had something planned for the next day. (I did not know what at the time!) It was from that moment that I felt that I would love to teach English to the Tibetan community in Dharamsala. I knew that I would go back and do this.

The following day our tour leader had arranged a wonderful surprise for us. We were to have an audience with the Dalai Lama! I never expected this! What a privilege! We had to queue with many people including Tibetans who had just arrived from Tibet. The Dalai Lama always makes a point of seeing every single Tibetan who has made this extremely arduous journey over the Himalayas when they arrive in India. We waited in his lovely sunny garden which had beautiful flowers. It was so peaceful that you did not mind waiting. He was there under a colourful umbrella to shade him from the sun. One by one he shook our hands. The moment was so brief but you could feel love and compassion emanating from him like a serene gentleness. I felt so privileged to be in his presence. A dream come true to actually meet this great man. After this meeting a group photo was taken with His Holiness. We were all very awe struck by his presence and it took us quite a while to come back ‘down to earth’! We were all very quiet and thoughtful for quite a time.

On this trip I also had the opportunity to meet Gendun, the Tibetan girl I am sponsoring. Our tour leader arranged for the group to visit the TCV School which is about a three hour drive from Dharamsala. It was so lovely to meet Gendun and also to visit the school. We went into her classroom and all the children looked round and smiled at us. Gendun was then asked to get up and come and meet me and I shook her hand. She had a lovely shy smile and I think she was a bit embarrassed. I think she was around 11 years of age at that time. We had lots of photos taken of us and I think she was rather overwhelmed. We were then taken to her living area which is in a separate building. We saw the dining room with cushions on the floor where they eat and there was also a religious shrine with a picture of the Dalai Lama. We saw the kitchen which was clean but quite basic compared to our standards. The children all take turns with the washing up. I also met the house mother who was a lovely lady and seemed very kind. I was able to have a few minutes on my own with Gendun when I gave her some gifts I had brought with me. She was very shy and at that time did not speak any English as she had only arrived from Tibet the year before. We saw her dormitory where twelve girls sleep in bunk beds. Some of the younger ones sleep two to a bed! The school had a lovely atmosphere and there were many positive affirmations written in English around the school. I think everyone in the group was interested and the positive outcome was that some members of the group decided that they would like to sponsor a Tibetan child.

I have now been back to Dharamsala three times since then where I have been teaching English to Tibetan refugees through Volunteer Tibet which is a charity based in Dharamsala. I have had anything from six to eight students in a group up to a group of 30 or more which is rather more of a challenge. I have also given tuition to individual students either through word of mouth or people I have met in cafes who would like to have English conversation on a regular basis. I have met some lovely people whom I am still in touch with and I have learnt so much from them. I have also seen Gendun grow up into a fine young woman – she is now 16 years old (written in 2010) and I will continue sponsoring her for as long as she needs me. I hope that when I retire I will be able to go back to Dharamsala for a longer period of time to continue with this work as my journey is still evolving.

My reasons for my support for the Tibetan cause is because I feel that it is a culture that is well worth preserving and a culture that can offer a huge contribution to the world as it teaches both wisdom and compassion – something much needed in the world at this present time. These people have managed to retain their dignity in their devotion to their religion and their wonderful spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in spite of the restrictions imposed on them in their homeland. I will never forget their wonderful smiles and cheerfulness in the face of adversity. The spiritual heart of Tibet still remains in these wonderful people and their dedication to Tibetan Buddhism both inside Tibet and in exile around the world.



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