Traveling With an Open Heart: Meeting the Dalai Lama

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Most people dream their whole life of meeting the Dalai Lama, but for Amber Zeise, that opportunity came before she’d even entered college! Meet Amber Zeise, a 2013 graduate of Mount Madonna school in Watsonville, California, who just came back from an amazing trip to India. There, she and her classmates visited schools across northern India, saw religious landmarks and ceremonies, worked with children in an orphanage—and yes, even interviewed the Dalai Lama!

“We immersed ourselves in the culture for almost three weeks, never staying anywhere more than three days,” says Amber. Check out our Q&A with this inspiring young woman about her trip abroad—and how it’s changed her forever:

How did your teachers prepare you beforehand?

Amber: Our class spent an enormous amount of time preparing for the journey. The theme of our trip was based around bringing values and ethics into education. We began working in September on a curriculum based on the Dalai Lama’s book Ethics for the New Millennium that would make his teachings interesting and accessible to our age group. Beginning with reading and understanding the book, we continued to break it into the seven concepts, or chapters, we felt were most relevant to our peers.

Then, we designed the website, based on the Dalai Lama’s quote “Kindness is my religion.” It uses a Pinterest-like format for people to share random acts of kindness that they witness in the world in hopes of inspiring other such acts.

Next, we created a website for discussion and dialogue on the topics from the book. Finally, we put together a first draft of a curriculum in the form of an eBook. This was also divided into the seven chapters, each containing a summary of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the subject; personal stories from our generation relating the teachings to our lives; quotes and poems from famous or historic figures; illustrations; activities; and corresponding questions to provoke personal reflection and group conversations. In order to complete all of that, we each spent about three to six hours a week preparing between class times, meetings with website designers, personal writing and researching, and editing. It was a very time consuming endeavor, but beyond worth hearing the Dalai Lama praise our efforts and work when we presented it to him.

How were you feeling when you arrived in India?

Amber: Finally arriving in Delhi after 24 hours of traveling was unbelievably exhilarating. We landed in the very early morning, but despite the darkness, it was apparent from the moment I got out of the airport that I was far from my comfort zone. Once we piled in the bus, I could feel the excitement bouncing off the windows despite our exhaustion. It was just before dawn and I squinted through the dim lighting to notice the differences between my home and the mysterious new country I had entered. I was surprised by the cows! They were in the street sleeping, roaming around, everywhere. Then, of course, there was the contrast between wealth and poverty India is so known for. Throughout the trip one of the most striking aspects was watching the buildings go from spectacularly grand to shacks of cloth and tarps. As the images rushed past the bus, I felt an overwhelming combination of wonder, excitement, nervousness and knowledge that this trip would be unlike anything else I would ever experience.

What were some of the best moments you had along the way?

Amber: In a vibrant country like India, every moment is worth remembering, but certain memories explain what about the trip touched me so much. On our first day, we paired up girls with boys to take a rickshaw ride around old Delhi. That city is as far from the USA as you can get. Thousands of wires hang in dangerously chaotic clumps above the buildings, which are clumped together on either side of narrow alleyways used as roads for carts, people, cows and cars. Traveling through this other worldly place in a cart pulled by a man on the bicycle, it was impossible not to be hit by the culture I was experiencing. In those moments I realized I had made it to India, and it was so beautiful. I have never been so curious and aware of all of my senses being attacked by newness. I loved that ride so much because it embodied the part of the trip we spent experiencing the Indian culture rather than simply witnessing it.

What were some of the challenging moments? 

Amber: The most difficult part of the journey was protecting myself from the overflow of emotion while still being present in each experience. Looking down at the hands of a small girl pulling my shirt and begging for money or watching a boy with one arm sweep the floor of the train, knowing he may have been deformed to improve his begging efficiency. Every time the tears began to fall, I reminded myself that it was OK to cry, but that losing my composure or letting it overwhelm me would only hinder my ability to learn. Additionally, I did not have to feel it alone; my best friends were with me and I know they felt it too. Though the images broke our heart, they also gave us an important understanding of the reality of the suffering in the world.

What do you think you learned through travel and service abroad that you couldn’t have learned at home?

Amber: We spent three days at Mount Madonna’s sister school, the Sri Ram Ashram, which is an orphanage in Hardiwar. One day while there, we circled up into small groups of three to talk to the kids our age. One girl took the risk in telling me about her life before she came to her present home.

She said she couldn’t recall much, but all she remembered was fighting, screaming yelling and violence. As an emotional person, my eyes began to tear up as she explained this to me. But she looked me in the eyes, put her hand to her heart and said “No, don’t cry. I have a strong heart. You be strong too.”

Later, while speaking with my teacher who worked at the orphanage, he told me how they suspected she had blocked the memories of her violent and abusive childhood home. When she first arrived, he described her as an animal. No humanity left, she was violent and unreachable, until one day: she transformed. She became the loving, kind, beautiful young women who preached bravery and strength of heart that I had met. This conversation meant so much to me and revolutionized my thinking. It showed me how healing is possible through the love, compassion and sense of family provided at the orphanage.

The concept of healing through compassion came up again and again through my travels. The people we met who lived in the direst circumstances seemed to interact with us and live in a present and engaged way that I had never seen before. These interactions proved to me the power of human connection as a way to happiness as well as gave me a newfound hope for the conquering of unhappiness and depression in my community.

What were you feeling when you left?

Amber: Our trip came to a finish with the much anticipated interview: His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as other figures in the Tibetan government. I was nowhere near ready to leave India.

It was so rich and I knew there was so much left to see there. I also had an immense sense of gratitude and hope. I knew I had learned more that I even thought was possible about myself, my friends, the world and people. It was almost dreamlike, getting back on the plane and heading home. It was hard to comprehend what I had done and seen. Most of all, I think I was ready to share what I had learned with my community even though I knew words could never do justice to that trip.

Do you still feel like a different person?

Amber: India changed me. My journey through a world unknown to me put everything into a perspective. Even though I was literally on the other side of the world, the things that truly mattered to me at home managed to become even more poignant in India.

Hearing the stories of abandoned children, girls who do not have access to water, watching women starve on the street, all of those things changed me. But even more life-changing were the people we met who are helping those people: a man who singlehandedly is educating over a thousand girls, providing their families clean washing facilities and light; a Buddhist monk who started an orphanage that transformed broken bodied beggars into vibrantly alive children; a women who became a mother for 30 female Tibetan monks in their process of regaining their faith in the human spirit after being imprisoned by the Chinese army; a man who brought 13 students into a country where they could learn who they are. Those people transformed my ambition in life with the knowledge that what we do is important and made me believe that it is possible to heal people in the way I want to so desperately.

What would you say to other girls who want to do service abroad—but may be scared?

Amber: Studying abroad and experiencing cultures and people unknown to you is definitely an intense and frightening step to take; there is no doubt about it. However, what is even more true is that it is more rewarding that I can possibly explain.

I would advise girls to live by the motto of, “Is it recklessly dangerous? No. Then YES.”  When asked if you want to prepare for two incredible important impromptu interviews with Tibetan political figures, say YES.

When asked if you want to take a picture with the toothless cobra, say YES.

When an entire orphanage community cheers your reluctant class into performing the Bollywood number you sort of learned yesterday “one more time,” say YES.

Every opportunity is once in a lifetime, so never turn down a chance to learn.

What are your plans for your life now? 

Amber: I am headed to UC Berkeley and planning on studying psychology. I hope to become a therapist and work with people suffering from eating disorders and PTSD among other things.

I have promised myself I will return to India, as well as travel to developing countries in Africa and around the world to study and learn people’s stories. I am particularly interested in how increasing Westernization affects women and their roles in society, the media and their own minds.

My trip to India showed me people have the power to heal the lives and hearts of others by showing them compassion and love in their struggles. I now believe it is my duty and pleasure to do this in every way I can.

Photos by Schmuel Thaler

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