OUR journey to visit His Holiness the Dalai Lama began with a flight to Amritsar, India on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
A small delegation of Malaysians, alongside friends from Sweden and America, had been very generously invited by the Office of the Dalai Lama in Southeast Asia (based in Singapore) and the Vajrayana Buddhist Council of Malaysia to have an audience with the Dalai Lama. This delegation consisted of representatives from Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), the Allied Coordinating Council of Islamic NGOs Malaysia (Accin), the Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship (Insaf), the Interactive Muslimah Association (Iman), Global Peace Mission (GPM), the International Students of Islamic Psychology (Isip), and Projek #BangsaMalaysia.
On both Thursday and Friday mornings, we visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, also known as Harmandir Sahib, one of the holiest sites in Sikhism.
The Golden Temple is noted for its openness to all, there being four different entrances at each side of the temple compound.
As visitors enter, they descend stairs, instead of ascending. This architecture is intentional, as a reminder to lower our egos in this holy place. The four different entrances emphasise an openness to all people, while the single causeway that leads to the actual Golden Temple in the middle of a man-made pool emphasises that while we come from different directions, we have the same A ltimate destination.
We were mostly on our own on that warm Thursday, and some of us managed to make a visit to the Guru Ram Das Langar – one of the world’s largest community kitchens, which serves over 100,000 completely free vegetarian meals a day to visitors to the Golden Temple.
Their magnificent system ran like clockwork and we sat on the floor to eat piping hot food with hundreds and thousands of fellow visitors.
On our more official visit on Friday, we visited the very impressive, very peaceful inner sanctum of the Golden Temple itself, where sacred Sikh scriptures are treated as living Gurus.
On Saturday, we began our journey up to Dharamsala, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama resides.
The final leg of the journey was quite something, with inclines as steep as the road to Genting Highlands, but much narrower and denser.
The hill town of Dharamsala was most unique, and an interesting feat of engineering. It’s a lot of people and buildings in not a lot of space, and watching cars zoom up and down along roads that seem to be made for one rather than two lanes was quite eye opening.
Our first stop was the Tibetan Museum, with very modern, attractive installations detailing the many struggles of the Tibetan people. Some of the harrowing stories described were affirmed by some of our guides, who had gone through the exact same difficult passages.
The next morning, our first stop was the Norbulingka Institute, home to various Tibetan arts and crafts. From there we visited Gyuto monastery, a small mosque in Dharamsala, and the peaceful Tushita Meditation Centre.
Finally, Monday saw the arrival of D-Day (Dalai Lama Day). The Main Temple compound is impressively and very professionally guarded, featuring tighter security than most airports.
Excitement ran high as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso finally entered the audience chamber.
Though aged, His Holiness radiated warmth and exuberance, tightly embracing the total strangers who had come to see him as if they were family members.
As the audience began, Abim President Muhammad Faisal Aziz delivered an opening address, building upon previous collaborations as part of the Islam-Buddhism Eco Dialogue (https://www.ibedconf.com/).
Besides climate change and sustainability, Faisal spoke on the call to promote greater interfaith dialogue and harmony, a cause the Dalai Lama has famously long championed.
Thereafter, Faisal presented His Holiness with a songkok wrapped in an Abim band, which all four Abim representatives were also wearing. To everyone’s delight, the Dalai Lama decided to put on the songkok, and kept it on throughout the audience.
The Dalai Lama then spoke with great passion about Buddhist-Muslim relations, citing a favourite story of his about how one of the very first people to be convinced that he was the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama was a local Muslim leader near where he was born.
His Holiness also spoke emphatically about the concept of karuna, or compassion, which he believed underlies the teachings of all major religions, and how important it was to build upon this common ground.
Then followed some questions and answers, during which the controversial issue of the situation with the Uigyhurs was also mentioned. To this, the Dalai Lama went so far as to offer himself as an intermediary between the Uigyhurs and Beijing, to the delight of many attendees.
The session as a whole was very illuminating and inspiring, and a video of some highlights can be viewed here: https://tinyurl.com/DalaiLama230320
At one point, The Dalai Lama even said that in more strict, traditional Buddhism, wearing black headwear like a songkok might be considered by some to be ‘wrong’. Nevertheless, His Holiness believed that what was more important was to participate in this cultural exchange as a way to open the door to even better interfaith relations.
Similarly, we all donned the traditional Tibetan khata, a white scarf given by Tibetans as a welcoming gesture to guests.
In an era where Malaysians seem to be getting very worked up about things like visiting other places of worship, the whole trip served as a great inspiration and a sign of hope for greater interfaith harmony in our own tanahair.
Everyone touched down back home in KL full of hope that the lessons and spirit we took back from Dharamsala would continue to inform our own work here in Malaysian civil society.
Thank you once again to everyone who worked so hard to make this trip a success, and many special thanks to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the gift of his wisdom and example.
Nathaniel Tan is strategic communications consultant who works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.