Small, Sacred Things (or That Time I Could’ve Met the Dalai Lama but Didn’t)

I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.

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Musicians at the Golden Temple

Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.

The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.

Two of my tourmates jumped ship to stay behind and hear the Dalai Lama speak, and I wondered if I should join them. I knew there were some risks that you should just take—especially on journeys like this.

But I didn’t take that risk, partly out of my hatred of complications and partly out of a recognition that holy people speak to me every day—witnesses to God’s love, sharers and bearers of suffering, servants to others, folks with kind words and warm hugs and welcoming eyes. The young man who gave me a bracelet after our train ride to Shimla—wooden beads with a crucifix, telling me I was his “first foreign friend.”

And so, with a little doubt in my heart and a glimmer of regret—that voice inside me that said, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Your friend Jackson (who loves the Dalai Lama) will never forgive you!”—I climbed on board the van that would take us to the train station where we would catch a train to Amritsar.

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And the moment we entered the Golden Temple, the biggest pilgrimage site for the Sikh faith, I realized I didn’t regret it. Not just because it was beautiful (and it was), but because it felt so peaceful, so generous, so gentle. I felt connected there in a way I hadn’t in months, I felt my soul soften, and I felt a sense of “homeness” that I hadn’t felt in weeks.

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Everyone there wanted to share that place and space. Everyone emanated kindness and love. We ate holy food and rested and were present.

And though I thought it was maybe just the feel at night, when we first arrived—the magic of the lights and the way the temple reflected on the water—I felt the same when I went back the next afternoon and basked in the sunlight, readings being chanted over the temple speakers.

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There was something unnameable happening there, and beautiful.

*

Years ago, I remember sitting along the banks of the Congaree River in Columbia, SC, praying. I was struggling with relationships, with my job, with trying to find direction. I prayed for answers. To know more. To know where I needed to go and what I was supposed to do.

What I heard was a still, small voice telling me that the answers were not outside—in the skies or trees or anything. That no external thing would change what I felt.

That while I kept looking outward, in reality, I had to go within.

Before I left on this journey, a mentor reminded me of that—that no matter how hard I looked, the answers wouldn’t be “out there.” That even if I flew across the world, I would still take the heartaches and wounds and frustrations and disappointments with me. To remember that as I traveled, and in turn, to use my escape from the comfort of the known to more clearly look within. So that, instead of “finding myself” out there, as wayfarers like myself tend to try to do, I could use this time away from my “old life” to “find myself” where I’ve always been. And knowing that I could find God there, too.

He told me that, of course, I could do so right in Columbia, SC. I didn’t need to leave.

But I knew that in order to see myself clearly, to see what was hidden in my own depths, I did.

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*

God, too, is also not always “out there,” and yet, I felt God at the Golden Temple, and later in Rishikesh, but not just because those were holy spaces. I’ve been to plenty of holy spaces where I don’t feel spiritually connected. And plenty of “normal” places where I do. Hills and mountains and beaches and among the trees, in particular.

But also in long, late-night conversations. Shared meals. Busy streets. Listening to someone’s story. Building and serving and sharing.

That’s the thing, right? We think that a conversation with the Dalai Lama will bring enlightenment. So we wait in line and brave the crowds for that glimpse or that word of wisdom that speaks to our soul.

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But perhaps the words you need come from a conversation with someone on the bus. Or the connection you need comes from watching Sikh devotees bathe in the holy water around the Golden Temple or listening to the holy book being read or hearing about the Indian struggle for freedom from the British or from the smiles from kids at the temple to Hanuman or in the drums musicians are playing nearby or in the glimmer of the Golden Temple at night or the sight of the hordes of volunteers preparing meals and cleaning dishes at the temple’s kitchen—a kitchen that never closes and feeds everyone. A meal of equality.

So where is the holy but everywhere?

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*

We were already boarding the train for Rishikesh, our next destination, when one of our wayward tourmates joined up with us again. She got there in just enough time to see the Golden Temple at night and ride to the station with us in a caravan on autorickshaws.

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I listened intently to her sharing her story, the diverse range of monks and tourists and spiritual seekers who gathered at the temple in the Dalai Lama’s compound. I imagined the monks’ garnet and orange robes and shaved heads. The swarm of languages around me. The holy man’s voice, translated via headset into a language I could understand.

And as I did, I waited for that that feeling—the “should have’s” and “could have’s.”

But they weren’t there. I was happy for her, but instead of regret, I felt an abiding fullness. A sense of having been blessed unexpectedly. A memory of the warmth of the summer sun and kind hearts and the holy words ebbing through the air.

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Travel Tips for Visiting the Golden Temple

  • When visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar, don’t forget to take off your shoes and leave them at the shoe check area (to the left of the entrance). Checking your shoes should be free, but it’s a must (and don’t try to sneak them into your bag with you–the guards at the entrance might check!).
  • As with other Sikh temples, it’s expected that you rinse off your hands in the sinks nearby the entrance and dip your bare feet in the water on the way into the temple to clean them.
  • You’ll be expected to cover your head with a wrap or bandanna. If you have a scarf or a bandanna, you can cover it yourself. Otherwise, vendors sell head coverings outside the temple, which are cheap and can make a nice souvenir.
  • After you visit the temple itself (the golden building in the center of the man-made lake), you’ll be offered holy food, which tastes like a cross between a breadier version of oatmeal, oily and a little sweet. It’s hard to describe. Anyway, it’s meant to be a blessing, and any visitor can eat it. I ate holy bread at each Sikh temple we went to without incident; however, if you don’t want any, as you leave, just press your palms together in front of you at your chest (as if in prayer, or when you say “namaste”) as you pass. If you just scoot past, some friendly Sikh person might come and call you back (thinking that you missed your blessing).
  • If you’re a Westerner, be prepared for folks to ask you to take photographs with them! As this is a pilgrimage site for people from all over India and beyond, you might be the first Westerner they’ve met, and you might end up in a lot of family photos. It is, of course, fine to decline politely, and know that once you start taking photos with folks, other people might want them, too. Just as a heads up!
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2 thoughts on “Small, Sacred Things (or That Time I Could’ve Met the Dalai Lama but Didn’t)

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