For almost three years now, I have lived and worked in Dharamsala, India as the Executive Director of a charity that works to help animals and the local community of Himachal Pradesh.
Dharamsala is the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his monastery, Tibetan exiles and practicing Buddhists from around the world.
I do not fall into any of the above categories.
To see the Dalai Lama, to most people here in Dharamsala, is like being blessed from head to toe and into one’s next life. I envy these folks who have such faith, that attending a teaching or being blessed by one man can have such a profound impact. I make sure to take friends and volunteers who visit to his temple and, if possible, help them to get a glimpse of him so that they too can have this experience.
For me, I became less spiritual as I started working and living in India. Seeing the harsh reality of the developing world on a day-to-day basis can really test one’s belief that there is some greater power, or that meditation and malas can make the world a better place.
In fact, it has convinced me that the only way to see change is a lot of hard work, education, an open mind and an abundance of patience. Some breathing helps too.
Traditionally, our charity has focused on donations from the U.S. and my job is to raise money and awareness. This past year, we put a new plan in place to focus more on local funding in hopes of creating sustainability for the project if the U.S. and other Western countries lose interest in something so far away from home.
The richest person (or Trust) in Dharamsala is the Dalai Lama, and thus, receiving funding from him became our ideal goal. I felt a bit guilty about this goal since: a) I am not Buddhist and b) it felt a bit like chasing a celebrity. I also know that it is difficult to get an audience with him and this is the necessary first step.
We had been told that once you get the audience the Dalai Lama does like to support local charities. This was positive news. However, because of my guilty feelings of being a non-Buddhist and a potential celebrity stalker I put this part of the plan aside.
Late last November I was sitting on the 30-seater plane that flies from Dharamsala to New Delhi with my manager. As we were waiting for the final folks to board, I felt a sharp pain in my left arm. My manager was squeezing the life out me and pointing and saying, “Look! Look!” As I peered through the window, I saw an adorable elderly man in monk’s robes and seventies-styled glasses walking slowly towards us with his entourage.
Yes, it was His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself, boarding our tiny plane.
Chaos ensued upon his arrival. Everyone was freaking out. It then hit me right away. Buddhist or not, this was my chance. This was my opportunity to stalk the celebrity! However, I was unbelievably nervous and felt like a schoolgirl. After witnessing half of the plane go up and ask for photos (yes, even selfies) and watching him graciously say yes to every single one, my manager convinced me that he would be just as wonderful to me.
With this encouragement and our newly printed 2015 charity calendar in hand to offer as a gift, I headed up to the front row. As soon as I arrived, all of that confidence faded and the 12-year-old me appeared and said, “Hi!” in some loud squeaky voice. “I work for Dharamsala Animal Rescue and I know you like animals, so I wanted to give you this.”
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image: author’s own