A Truly Special Day

Today was a day a day I will not likely forget. Being able to meet and shake the hand of His Holiness is an experience that few people get to have. After breakfast the group assembled nervously on the lawn of the guesthouse and we were given a quick lesson on etiquette. At this meeting I volunteered to carry the statue of Green Tara, the female Buddha of enlightened activity, to be blessed. The group then made our way down to the Dalai Lama’s temple; we arrived during the morning session of the weeklong puja and joined the throngs of people, Tibetans, Indians and westerners hoping to catch a glimpse of His Holiness. As people hurriedly lined the road between the temple and the residence I could not shake the feeling that we actually had a scheduled appointment and would be able not only to see His Holiness, but we would be able to engage and interact with him.

Standing near the entrance with Khata scarves in hand, it soon become obvious to those surrounding us that we would likely have the privilege of having an audience with His Holiness.

As a group we have discussed the notion of privilege at length. But at this moment I truly felt it. In a temple surrounded by devout monks and nuns, it was us, the group of Canadian students would have the opportunity to spend time with him.

After leaving Green Tara to be blessed and making the final adjustments with our Khatas we were escorted inside the main gate and joined a queue of roughly 200 others. After waiting roughly 20 minutes, it was our turn. Dr. Paras asked how to teach politics with compassion, after a few jokes about politicians and politics in general, His Holiness talked for about three minutes, most of which I missed, likely due to how awestruck I was by his presence. After some group photos, greetings and tears it was over. Our group gathered to collect ourselves outside the main gate, each one of us a whirlwind of emotion, all struggling to process the gravity of the situation.

I collected the Green Tara and made my way back to Temple courtyard. It was not long before I realized something extraordinary was occurring, with my Khata scarf still draped around my neck, I carefully carried the Green Tara through the courtyard; while walking I noticed many monks and nuns smiling widely at me and even bowing their heads and holding their hands in prayer. I was holding the statue of a recently blessed Green Tara in my hands. It’s a surreal feeling to have people bow and pray when you walk by.

I knew before how privileged we were as a group to have had the opportunity to meet His Holiness, but it was further cemented in the moments after. It’s something that I have struggled with individually and I know some other classmates have felt the same way. Many Tibetans don’t get the chance to meet his holiness ever, we were in Dharamsala for one month and we were given the chance.

Writing this blog I am still awestruck by my experience, it is something I won’t soon forget.


Global Citizenship: A Journey Rather Than A Destination

Since my last blog post things have gotten very busy for me at my placement with Students for a Free Tibet and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. As a class we have grappled with the idea of Global Citizenship, the term is often used in International Development circles, but when broken down what does it actually mean? How does one become a global citizen? And to take it a step further, how does one become an effective global citizen?

While working at SFT I have been involved in numerous campaigns involving the disappearance of the Panchen Lama, the second most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan River campaign that seeks to stop China from damning and diverting fresh water river sources in the Tibetan Plateau, weekly film screenings that are designed to spark discussion about various social issues and most recently I have been asked to facilitate a discussion on what it means to be an effective volunteer, and potential ways in which one can achieve this. But as time continues on one thing is becoming clearer, the horizon that brings the end of this program is approaching. Where does this leave me when the clocks run out on our time in India?

This is where the notion of being an effective global citizen can be actualized. If an individual truly has the goal of becoming a global citizen the work they are involved in should not end when the placement ends. Effective global citizenship is seen when the individual involved takes steps to better the lives of all individuals, especially at risk communities through both positive and negative actions. Positive meaning to do something and “Negative” meaning to not benefit from another persons hardship or reap benefits from their exploitation on a global stage. If we want to become effective global citizens we must actively work to remedy systems that are inherently more beneficial to one societal group over another.

Today I was involved in a very productive planning session that would help me work towards being an effective global citizen. In collaboration with Dr. Paras and Jyotsna George, the campaigns director for SFT India, we would work on putting together a resource that would help guide first time volunteers on how to be the most effective versions of themselves in terms of going beyond the typical manifestations of being a volunteer. This project would need extensive research and careful consideration. I am unbelievably excited to be part of a project that allows me to continue my involvement with the SFT community after my time in India has concluded.

My volunteer placement at Students for a Free Tibet has provided me with the ideal springboard to advance my global citizenship goals and aspirations; it is through continued work and involvement in the cause that I can seek to broaden my understanding of global citizenship. The work should never end if one seeks to become a global citizen because there is no true final destination; rather it’s a journey through one experience to the next, challenge-to-challenge with peaks and valleys along the way.

Behind The Scenes

Arriving in India was unlike any other experience I have had in my lifetime. After a dizzying cab ride that saw us momentarily lost in the streets of New Delhi, we arrived at our accommodations and began to settle in. The days prior to our arrival in Dharamsala saw us travel from Delhi to Amritsar to spend time at the Golden Temple, from there we made the drive to Dharamsala.

In Dharamsala I have spent now two days at my placement with Students For a Free Tibet. An event that was in the process of being organized before we arrived was a benefit concert to support disaster relief work and provide aid to those affected by the earthquake in Nepal. Mackenzie and I were tasked with the job of collecting donations and informing the public of the concert that was to take place in the evening. Throughout the day I spoke with many people, Indian, Tibetan, European about the possibility of them attending our event or contributing a small donation, three interactions stood apart from the rest.

The first involved a family of three from Punjab who came to Dharamsala to visit the temple of the Dalai Lama, Mackenzie and I spent some time talking with them and we shared our experience of visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar just two days prior, they shared with us that they are planning to go in the near future. As the conversation was winding down they asked for a “selfie” and requested that I hold their infant daughter for the picture, I have never been asked to hold a strangers child before but nonetheless I obliged.

The second experience involved a youth soccer team visiting from Northern India, all the boys donated there own money to the cause and were very friendly, shaking my hand as they past, as most of the group had already passed by me, one asked for a picture, then all at once 25 smiling faces came running back and all posed for the picture.

The third experience involved a boy who looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, also visiting from Punjab, after saying hello and sharing information about our event he asked if I would mind posing for a picture, while turning to face the camera he reached down and held my hand. At first I was taken aback as I had not been expecting it but I held his hand in return. I have since learned it is a common practice in India for friends to hold each other’s hand. Someone I had just met was offering me this sign of friendship.

During our preparation for our time in India our class discussed power, privilege and authenticity. We had also discussed the possibility of being photographed. I had prepared myself to have my picture taken but I had done so in a negative way, I thought it would be odd of someone to take my picture, and even more odd to have them get in the picture with me. Having time to reflect on the day’s events and writing about them here has allowed me to think deeply on the topic. My skin colour may have played a role in the photographs but for me it goes so much deeper than that. The individuals I had the pleasure of interacting with all shared parts of their time, their day, and their story with me, we were able to share time together, regardless of how small. As international volunteers isn’t that something we strive for? To build these connections across cultures, to have conversation, to share, to experience life together?

As a class we have been critical of international volunteer programs and identified how they can perpetuate harm. Being photographed because we were white was one of those criticisms. But now that I have had time to reflect and experience the situation first hand, the connections I felt today with people I had not met before were genuine, they were real, and I wont likely forget them. Today I did not feel like I was photographed because I was white, I feel as was photographed because I met new people who were interested in what I was doing and why. I feel like I was photographed because we shared time together and in the case of the third situation I discussed earlier, I feel like I was photographed because I made a new friend.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.07.12 PM