Decades ago, and long before I knew anything about Buddhism, I had dinner with someone who had made the dangerous journey across high mountain passes from Tibet into India at the same time as the Dalai Lama. There were just the two of us, seated at a small table sharing simple food. I look back on those hours we spent together as a rare privilege. That meal made a great impression on me, and – who knows? – may have contributed to my subsequent interest in Buddhism.

What struck me so forcibly was that, despite unimaginable hardships and the tragic loss of his homeland, there was no sense in which my supper companion was bitter or resentful. In fact, he exuded a quiet joy, combined with a playful sense of humour.

I thought about him again when I visited India recently. One of the highlights was spending time in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama and so many Tibetans still live in exile. There I witnessed the vitality of Tibetan culture, its spiritual and artistic aspects so closely intertwined; and my thoughts kept going back to that dinner conversation of long ago. The Dhammapada warns that ‘Hatred is never appeased by hatred’ (Dhp 1.5) and reminds us that if we throw a burning coal at someone, we are going to burn our own hand first. In short, we cannot control what happens to us, but we can regulate how we respond and react.

Beneath the usual bustle you would expect to encounter in any Indian town, Dharamsala makes a peaceful impression. It is home to the wonderful Norbulingka Institute, where Tibet crafts and arts are preserved and passed down through the generations. And the serenity of the Dalai Lama temple complex speaks of an environment where peace has overcome hatred, and purposeful, positive action has triumphed over talk of revenge. The very existence of such a place makes every visitor quietly but powerfully aware of the grave injustice that has been done to the Tibetan community.

Another clear impression from travelling around India is the way in which, for the most part, different spiritual traditions have rubbed up against each other for so many centuries. A visit to the Jain temple concealed within a warren of streets in Old Delhi shows that the Ashokan ideal of accepting different religious traditions has not vanished entirely. Cheek by jowl with an imposing Hindu temple, you will find the New Delhi temple of the Indian Mahabodhi Society – where I donated a copy of my book to the library.

One of the many highlights of the visit was observing the abundant distribution of meals around the clock at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where 50,000 people are fed each day. As we were led from room to room within the vast kitchen area we saw a host of volunteers, in one area making chapatis, in another peeling onions, and elsewhere kindling fires to heat huge cauldrons to produce dhal. People of all ages were giving of their time, happily engaged in communal activity to ensure that others did not go hungry. Even as observers we were offered delicious sweets as we passed. Surely the Buddha would have rejoiced to see this altruistic enterprise – dāna in abundance.

Visiting India is always a powerful and intense experience. So much more of life is open to the public gaze than in the West, from ostentatious affluence to the extremes of disease and poverty. A visit to the land of the Buddha brings home vividly the realisation that, for all the dramatic material developments of the modern age, human existence, with its moments of joy and despair, has changed very little since he first proposed his path to the end of suffering, two thousand years ago:

‘Do not be troubled’.