Valerie Yeow (front row third from the left) was part of this lucky audience which met the Dalai Lama in India recently

Valerie Yeow (front row third from the left) was part of this lucky audience which met the Dalai Lama in India recently

Lake Cowichan woman meets the Dalai Lama

Lake Cowichan woman has audience with world spiritual leader

Lake Cowichan woman has audience with world spiritual leader

When we hear the word Buddhist, images of earnest young men in saffron robes, mountain top temples or souvenir statues of a fat and smiling deity often spring to mind. But Buddhists, like all believers, come in a variety of guises.

Buddhism, from the word “budhi” (to awaken or enlighten) dates back approximately 2500 years, when Siddhartha Gotama (the Buddha) was first enlightened at age 35. For many, Buddhism is more a way of life or philosophy, than a traditional religion. Its doctrines can be summed up in three simple points: 1) to lead a moral life, 2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions and 3) to follow the Buddhist path of love of knowledge by developing wisdom and understanding. Today, there are over three hundred million practicing Buddhists worldwide. For Buddhists all over the world, an audience with his holiness, the Daili Lama is the dream of a lifetime.

For one Lake Cowichan woman, that dream came true this past April, when she was able to experience firsthand the teachings of the Nobel Prize winning Tibetan leader.

Valerie Yeow has called Lake Cowichan home since 2007, but spends 6 months of each year in India,

“When I first started going, I was teaching English to nuns and studying Buddhist philosophy,” said Yeow, who is a retired elementary school teacher who called Toronto home before moving to the island. “I actually took an early retirement so that I could do this. I’m lucky as by dividing my time between Lake Cowichan and India, I get the best of both worlds.”

Malaysian by birth , Yeow was raised in a Buddhist family, but like many people brought up in a certain religion, it was just something they were, but there was never much in the way of instruction or education about their beliefs. She moved from Malaysia to London, England and spent three years there, before moving to Toronto in 1971. It was later in life that Yeow started to research the faith that she had been raised in and a strong commitment was born.

“The first time I went to India was in 1996. I took a year off and did a lot of reading up on Buddhist philosophy in the Tibetan library in Dharamsala, while I was teaching English there,” said Yeow. “I had my first audience with his Holiness. It was very different in those days, there was no security and you could be very close and take pictures.”

Yeow returned to Toronto in and in February 1997, everything changed.

“Two of his closest disciples were murdered in the monastery and suddenly security was tightened. People must now register before going to hear his teachings. It is very different now,” said Yeow.

The Dalai Lama (which means “ocean of wisdom”) was born Lhamo Dhondub, in 1935 to a farming family and was recognised by Buddhist officials at age two, as the reincarnation of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas. He was enthroned before his fourth birthday. He went on to be educated at a monastery and achieved the Geshe Llarampa Degree (a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy). It was 1959, when the he was forced to flee Tibet after a crackdown by the Chinese. He and an entourage of 20 men, including six Tibetan cabinet ministers made the perilous 15 day journey on foot from the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, over the Himalayan Mountains into India. Approximately 80,000 Tibetans followed their spiritual leader into exile, settling in Dharamsala, a city in the Kangra district of north-western India, where they had been offered asylum. His life of peaceful resistance earned him the Nobel Peace prize in 1989.

Yeow’s Buddhist beliefs are manifested in her warm and tranquil presence.

I don’t belong to a group or anything here, it’s more a solitary thing,” said Yeow. “It’s very simple and down to earth, just about being a good, compassionate and kind person.”

Yeow laughingly dispels many of the pre-conceived ideas that people have about Buddhists.

We’re not saintly people, or all vegetarians or anything like that. We’re just normal people who try to live good lives,” Yeow explained. “You can’t pray to Buddha to fix or change things; you have to do things for yourself. You can’t blame problems on other people. It all starts within you.”

She describes a common occurrence, which takes place on the streets of Dharamsala whenever the Dalai Lama’s motorcade is expected to pass by taking him to or from a speaking engagement or meeting.

People line the streets and wait quite happily for hours for that one moment when they might see him,” said Yeow. “It’s difficult to describe what it’s like being in his presence. His warmth and humour just make you feel something by being close to him. It gives you goose-bumps! That’s just how he makes people feel.”