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Educational Travel in Asia

Teachings by the Dalai Lama

Dharmsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, is an important destination for anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhism, politics, and culture. Even a short visit immerses the traveler in things Tibetan, including the many monasteries, schools, refugee assistance centers, political organizations, and cultural venues. For those interested in a longer stay, there are numerous opportunities for Buddhist studies or volunteer work with Tibetan refugees.

There is one time of year, however, when even a short stay offers a very special and enriching experience: each spring following the Tibetan New Year the Dalai Lama holds a 2-week public teaching on an important Buddhist text, free of charge and open to all.

The lectures weave together insights into esoteric doctrine, explanations of basic Buddhist precepts and meditation techniques, anecdotes from his own life and studies, discussions of the political situation in Tibet, and even advice to newly arrived Tibetan refugees about the mysterious ways of the West.

The atmosphere is both spiritual and festive. The town fills with monks and nuns robed in maroon and saffron, ordinary Tibetans, and visitors of all ages from around the world. At mealtimes, the many rooftop and garden restaurants are abuzz with camaraderie and excited conversation; at night, candlelight processions wind through the streets.

Three-hour sessions are held each morning and afternoon in the large outdoor courtyard adjacent to the Tsuglag Khang (Main Temple). Seating is first-come, first-served. On the first day sections are roped off for different groups, but as the teachings proceed everyone mingles together.

Bring a transistor radio with earphones. The Dalai Lama lectures in Tibetan with simultaneous translation in several languages provided by low-frequency radio broadcasts. Seating is on the ground, so it is wise to bring a mat or pad. You also will want a cup for the break periods, when monks scurry through the crowd offering tea from huge steaming iron kettles. Cameras and tape recorders are prohibited.

The easiest access to Dharmsala is from Delhi. Potala Tours and Travels, www.potalatours.com, is a Tibetan-run company with overnight buses that cost around $10 (Tel. 011-91-11-372-2552). Lodging can be tight during the teachings, and it is a good idea to book ahead, especially if you want more than a basic hotel. Nevertheless, plenty of people just get off the bus and find a place to stay. Hotel listings can be found in Lonely Planet's India Guidebook or in the Rough Guide to India.