His Holiness spends much of the year traveling and acting as a global ambassador for various humanitarian causes, but first and foremost, he is a monk and the spiritual leader of his fellow Tibetans. In December 2015 I travelled to India to photograph him during a teaching to a large group of exiled Tibetans who are settled in the rural town of Bylakuppe, in the southern state of Karnataka.
In contrast to talks the Dalai Lama gives in the West which focus on broad themes of peace and compassion, the Bylakuppe teachings were his fifth and final year of scholarly readings and interpretations of an ancient Tibetan text called the Jangchup Lamrin. Tens of thousands of people attended the events but there were, at most, a few hundred Westerners.
It was wonderful to see him in his element. He chanted, spoke and conducted ceremonies entirely in his native Tibetan over a twelve-day period. On site, you can purchase a small AM/FM radio which broadcasts live translations of the talks in several different languages. There were times when the Dalai Lama would be in the middle of reciting the ancient text and suddenly burst into laughter….the thousands in the crowd, many of whom had been in deep concentration would then laugh themselves creating a wonderful range of experience for everyone present.
The crowds would stream into the temple complex beginning at daybreak, so my day started around 5am, when I’d roll out of bed in a room I rented in a private home. I’d furiously kickstart the rented motorcycle I used for my commute, then ride for about a half-hour through the fog and darkness to the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.
Most mornings I would check in on the group of monks tasked with the making enormous quantities of chai that was offered to everyone in the crowd, photographing the steam rising from giant pots of boiling milk, sugar and tea, Soon, you’d hear the hypnotic chanting and deep Tibetan throat singing coming from inside the temple, and the day would begin.
It was magical.