Dear Friends and Family,
I hope you enjoy this update from me. It’s kind of long, but I likely won’t be writing again for a while.
Motivation for Coming to India
I’ve had a wish to come to India, take monastic ordination, and study Buddha’s Teachings in depth for about ten years. I finally made it! But why did I want to do this in the first place? Why not finish my degree, go to grad school, get a good job, settle down with a nice girl, and so on? Or, as some may wonder, go to India and study Buddhism, but why not at least settle down with a nice girl?!
So, for those wondering, I’ll try to make it clear. I also accept that it won’t make sense to some people. That’s OK; there’s a lot of diversity in the world. This is beautiful.
Essentially, the worldview I’ve come to cherish sees all living beings, none excepted, as abiding in a state of utter equality. What is the nature of this equality? A natural quality of all those who possess a mind is the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering. With that capacity necessarily comes an innate wish for happiness and an aversion for suffering; it is built into the very definitions of the words. Sentient beings like happiness; we dislike misery. There is no difference in this regard among all beings.
This first great equalizer does not need to be proven with logic. Indeed, in order to really take it into one’s heart, it needs to be reflected upon, but it’s really quite obvious; it doesn’t take much work to understand.
There is another way in which all sentient beings are nearly equal: even though we all equally wish for happiness, we are all confused about how to create its causes. Why would someone think this? Again, it is very simple. We all wish for happiness, yet we all experience suffering. We never attempt to experience suffering; we never set out to run into problems. All day long we’re working to get some pleasure, trying with all our might to make things work out so as to feel whatever happiness we can eek out of the world and avoid whatever suffering we can. Still, we experience problems.
So what is the conclusion of this pervasive, upside-down, thorn in the palm of our existence? It must be that we’re confused about what the causes of happiness are and what the causes of suffering are. It’s certain that pleasure and pain are each results that arise from their own distinct causes. If happiness was not caused, then it would never arise – it would have no cause to arise. Or else it would always exist – it wouldn’t need a cause to bring it into being. It’s absurd to think it doesn’t have specific causes.
It’s also clear that there are different types of pleasure and pain – someone may have some physical pleasure while eating a good meal, but at the same time be very suspicious of the intentions of their dining partner and thus their mind is ablaze with anxiety and stress. Someone else may be enduring a painful illness, yet be very contented and joyful in their mind.
No matter how beautiful one’s environment is and high-quality one’s resources are, with a grumpy, depressed, or bitter mind, they’re all crap. No matter how oppressing one’s environment is and how little resources one has, with a grateful, bright, or loving mind, they’re all most excellent treasures. Thus, our mental state seems to be more powerful than our physical conditions.
A stupa (sculpture that represents the Buddha’s awakened mind of wisdom and compassion) that sits above Mcleod Ganj has a plaque with a quote from the late Geshe Rabten. To paraphrase, it reads:
‘Buddhism is neither a strange religion from some foreign lands, nor a means of fleeing one’s responsibilities, nor a bunch of dry words sitting in books in libraries. Buddhism is to be understood solely as a means of eliminating mental suffering and bringing about one’s own and other’s welfare.’
I am inspired to learn about how to do this. The essential cause of all problems is the harmful actions that we do out of an uncontrolled mind. The essential cause of well-being, then, is a tamed mind imbued with compassion and wisdom. A primary component of taming the mind is refraining from harming others – hence, the monastic precepts, which form an excellent support for that. The teachings that explain how to do this encompass thousands of texts, many of which are in Tibetan and most of which are not yet in English. Thus learning the Tibetan language can give one access to them and enable one to help translate them into English.
So the basic aim is to free our minds. From what? From mistaken understanding of how things exist; from the unskillful physical, verbal, and mental actions that naturally flow from that misunderstanding; and from the myriad forms of pain, grief, and anxiety that we cycle through as a result.
Getting to Dharamsala
Before lifting off from American soil I was generously outfitted with new luggage, shoes, etc. by my aunt in NYC. This gave me an extra boost of confidence – odd how some material things can have such influence on our feelings. Perhaps a larger component was the care and kindness that was coming. Either way, I felt ready.
And ready I needed to be, for obstacles began in no time. After the four-hour delay for the flight from JFK to Amsterdam, I missed the connecting flight to Delhi and was faced with a decision – either accept an all-expense paid daylong adventure in Amsterdam or fly to London and transfer to Delhi from there, arriving only seven hours after my initial itinerary would have it. Remembering my teacher’s words before I parted Sravasti Abbey – “Stay focused and don’t wander about here and there” – I opted to get on with it and hustle to India. I wasn’t there for adventure. That advice marks an important shift that I’m working to make in my general mentality. Flightiness has hindered me a great deal throughout my life. Luckily, I have no choice but to focus now; languages aren’t learned with a distracted mind.
On the plane I watched 12 Years a Slave. This was the first non-documentary film I’d seen in full since my last flight from India back to the States in 2010. I’m quite struck by how hard it is to really connect with suffering. Empathy comes naturally, but is so easily forgotten. Why?
On exiting the airport in New Delhi, I was welcomed by the ever-present embrace of Indian heat and immediately had a very strong feeling of homecoming. Riding in the taxi to the Tibetan colony of Delhi, I had some nice relaxed time to adjust to India’s quirkiness as I saw lane markings so faded they were actually invisible. Yet the weave of traffic took us smoothly to our destination, even as a bus spun through a roundabout at about 30 mph into our “lane” – “Very danger, sir,” my driver remarked, slamming on the brakes.
I was met with much kindness in Majnuka Tilla, a small settlement of Tibetans on the outskirts of Delhi, which from the outside just looks like a small fortress. On the inside it’s a maze-like, crowded mini city unto itself. So I sat around for a while, trying to speak Tibetan with the concierges at the guesthouse where I stopped to drop my bags. They ordered me a bus ticket and that evening I was off to Mcleod Ganj. I won’t say much about the bus ride, other than this – if you yourself are ever in India and have a choice between the non-AC and the AC bus, please take the AC. It’s 500 rupees (roughly $10) that are really worth it. Damn, that was a bumpy bus ride.
Impressions of Dharamsala
I had been fairly anxious about moving to a bustling hotspot with lots of activity and tourists from across the globe hanging out it cafes. I was in Mcleod Ganj for three weeks back in ’09, and I never envisioned myself living there. But being here, I see my mind is different now and if I simply stay focused, the distractions are really not so tempting. After all, Mcleod Ganj isn’t really a city but, as a new-found friend aptly put it, “an over-packed hamlet,” which only has slight variations on the same cafe, corner store, bookstore, and Dharma goods shop. Then what’s more, though it may sound callous, only slight variations on the same tourist, monk, nun, western Dharma student learning Tibetan (that’s me), and poor mother with infant pleading “Milk sir – no money, just milk. Baby hungry, sir.” I don’t mean it to be callous – the intention is to humble… we’re not all so different.
Mcleod was at one time an outpost for British military stationed in India. It’s a hill station, quite high up, which makes it much cooler than almost anywhere else in the country. When 100,000 Tibetans followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in ’59, the Indian government tried to figure out how they would host their new guests. After a few years of very difficult circumstances, during which many Tibetans died from heat and exposure to diseases that were unknown in Tibet, His Holiness was moved to Mcleod. Many Tibetans followed suit and created a community here. Its gorgeous mountain views help the Tibetans to feel at home, but the major motivator for many to be here is to be near His Holiness. Of course, freedom is a nice boon, too.
One impression I have being here again after nearly five years is, as I mentioned above, what a change in tone material things can bring. India’s burgeoning middle class is palpable. People’s clothes are nicer, nearly everyone has a smart phone, the selection of imported chocolate has grown, and even the stray dogs seem healthier. I’m also hearing a lot more American music than before – an excellent reminder of renunciation. This prosperity is by no means universally distributed and there’s still serious infrastructure problems, but Westernization and development continue to transform us.
Of course, it’s nice to have clothes that aren’t poorly made knock-offs – you know, genuine Nikes really are more comfortable and last longer – but where is the meaning in all of it? I myself was quite tempted to buy a smart phone, until I serendipitously ran into an Australian scholar-translator who quipped, “Smart phones aren’t so much an aide as they are a condition for the generation of attachment.” Stopped in my tracks, I decided that a little less convenience is a fair trade for a heck of a lot less attachment. A compassionate mind is what I came here for, not the Inner Peace App.
All that said, this is still distinctively India, and it’s still a developing country. While I do see a garbage truck occasionally, I don’t quite understand what it’s transporting… a hundred yards from my doorstep is a stream that functions as the neighborhood landfill.
Smoke billows out nearly incessantly from the only dumpster I’ve seen in McLeod. I do wonder if the trash-burning is somehow organized, or if good samaritans just take it upon themselves to start incinerating when the pile climbs too high. That is, indeed, how people manage the flow of traffic through these incredibly tight streets. However it happens, I just hope they give the monkey scavengers fair warning!
Another aspect of life here, which will seem totally natural to anyone who’s visited a developing country, yet perhaps surprising to those who haven’t, is that even though most people in Mcleod live comfortably, the meaning of comfort is different here. For instance, most Tibetans rent their homes, which consist of a single room (often shared) with a fridge, propane tank and burner, a couple of beds, and an altar. The bathroom is shared between the whole building. There is no indoor tap and water is only available for a few hours each day.
Very few people have a car – the only parking lots I’ve seen are filled with taxis and buses, so for those who do have cars I really have no clue where they keep them. Maybe there don’t live in Mcleod. The many mysteries of Indian life…
Anyway, many more people have bikes. This is a more popular form of transportation here in general than in the states, which makes good sense – they’re cheaper, more fuel efficient, and smaller. As you can see in the photos of the streets, this makes getting around much simpler than with a car, and the weather makes it possible to ride them year-round (though I myself wouldn’t want to try it during the monsoons).
I’m living, temporarily, with a Tibetan couple that came here in ’59 with the initial exodus of Tibetans when it became clear that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was there to stay and was not looking to compromise. Even here, which with its full kitchen and two bed/living rooms is comparatively luxurious, we share a bathroom with the neighboring family. I quite enjoy it there. They are quiet; the TV is not on much and the only music I’ve heard them play is a recording of someone chanting the Praise to the 21 Taras (a Buddhist prayer). They’re older, mid-50’s, so their children are grown and on their own. They have a beautiful altar that they make offerings on each day, and allow me to as well.
The woman speaks no English. The man speaks very good English – I sometimes wish he’d give me more of a chance to practice Tibetan! I did have chance to rejoice when I found I could understand about fifty percent of the sentences of the 3-year-old neighbor, Wangchuk. It’s a start.
There are also some cultural differences that have struck me. The niece of my homestay hosts, who initially came to get me from the bus stop, stopped going to school because “her mind is not very good.” She’s about twenty now and is applying for hairdressing school in a settlement far away. In a way, it’s not so different from American students going to tech schools, but I’m pretty sure she won’t be getting any academic education again. Bizarrely, she speaks English quite well. I wonder who made the judgment that she wasn’t good at her studies.
It has been refreshing for me to see the diversity in views among people. One of my tutors said she has no faith in Dharma. “Where is Buddha? My whole family practiced Buddhism their whole lives and never saw Buddha. Buddha is just a dream, just imaginary!” I’m glad to see people who really thinking and questioning. This is actually the Buddha’s instruction, so it’s an act of respect to question his statements. That said, this tutor is something of a joker, and being that I’m just learning the language I couldn’t really tell whether she was joking or being serious.
Then, when I asked another friend why she has faith in the Buddhadharma (Buddha’s teachings), she said, “I don’t know. I learned about Buddhism from the time I was little. All of my family are Buddhists.”
Another tutor relayed how she was at Tsuglakang (the main temple here, next to H.H. The Dalai Lama’s residence) when a group of Indian tourists began asking her, “Why do people come here? Why are the monks wearing those clothes? Why are you doing kora (circumambulations) and making offerings? What’s the use in all of it?” She said that those were very difficult questions and she told me that if she hadn’t been asked them, she never would have thought about it. How lucky for her to have such debating partners!
As for what I’m actually doing here, I wasted no time in finding a place to study Tibetan and language partners to exchange English-Tibetan conversion. Within this conversation practice, I’ve been getting a new perspective on the situation of Tibetans and how they feel about it. Maybe I will write a little more about that some time, as I will likely continue to learn.
For sure, this is a community of refugees. People where t-shirts with phrases like “Tibet is burning!” and “Tibet Will Be Free.” On the path leading to the Tsuglakhang hangs a giant poster with images of all of the Tibetans who have self-immolated in recent years. A new statue sits beside the “Tibetan Martyrs Monument” – it’s a bronze-cast image of a monk engulfed in flames. An interesting divergence from the Tibetan sculptures I’m used to seeing, with the serene and infinitely wise gaze of the Buddha. Most of the young people (under 30) I’ve met came into exile within the last fifteen years. They really miss their homeland. Above all else, the nature.
This is also a community of Buddhists. Even though not every Tibetan has faith in Buddhism, most do. Even most of those who are not really into practicing know the basic teachings and prayers, and love His Holiness. Especially among the older generation (over 50), many people have their malas (prayer beads) in hand and mantras (mind-protecting syllables) on their lips as they go about their daily business. Images of His Holiness the Dalai Lama adorn almost every establishment (honestly, the only place I can recall without one is the post office, which does have a small, slightly hidden statue of Buddha).
People of all ages flock to the Tsuglakhang from sunrise to sunset, reciting mantras, making prayers, spinning prayer wheels, circumambulating the holy objects, and doing prostrations. It’s quite a lively, inspiring scene. Even if not everyone is laser-clear about why they’re there, the fact is that the majority of an entire culture is devoting a significant portion of their lives to honor the part of themselves that cherishes peace, compassion, and the bliss of a calm, awakened mind.
Then, there’s the Indian tourists who come here by the thousands. Whole families come and look at the statues – some with hands folded in prayer, others with children impatiently tugging at their arms. Perhaps it’s something like tourists going to Vatican City or Jerusalem – just to see it, or to be in a holy place, even if they have little connection to the religion. Again, it’s very nice to see. Even in this age of skepticism and materialism, there’s something about the spiritual side of humanity that still magnetizes our attention in a powerful way. What could it be?
For myself, I’ve taken a great liking to doing kora since one friend told me a way to think while doing it that a monk once told her. We first think about all the different living beings, all the different kinds of animals and so forth. Then we think about how we’re connected to them – how in previous lives, each one has been my parent, has given me life, and shown me great kindness. So we imagine all of these beings surrounding us and we’re all walking together around the holy objects in the temple. We have compassion for them, praying that they are free of all suffering. We think that inside the temple are the body, speech, and mind of the Buddha. In this way, we can develop compassion thinking about the living beings, and faith and wisdom thinking about the excellent qualities of the Buddha’s omniscient mind.
I also simply love being in a place where you can see monks and nuns day and night. Standing in line at the post office has traditionally been a very difficult situation for me to practice patience – somehow I’m overwhelmingly impelled to get irritated and feel grumpy. But having a monk and a nun in line with me somehow changed the atmosphere. Seeing the robes is a powerful reminder of the potential that is universally shared for us to remain composed in body and mind, and to be joyful and kind in any situation. What makes their presence so effective is that the vast majority are really practicing well.
India in general is a place where religion is very integrated with daily life. Though a democracy, the separation of church and state seems totally unnecessary. Instead, they manage a diversity of church with respect from the state. Most buses and taxis have mini altars in them, with statues or images of the driver’s preferred deity. Even in McLeod, a Tibetan Buddhist exile community, Hindu shrines are not uncommon.
This is also a community of foreigners, and I’ve had the fortune to befriend several excellent scholars and students of the Dharma, including a an Israeli with the sharpest wit of anyone I’ve known (and he manages to be quite hilarious, without being offensive – a real skill! Though maybe it’s just not offensive to me because I share his views). He’s studying to be a translator and I’m very grateful for his assistance in translating when I went to visit a local Dharma teacher. I also had the opportunity to attend some very wonderful Dharma teachings. I’m quite busy with my studies and I’m really loving it. Apologies for the long post, but if you know me you already know I’m long-winded. I hope you are all well and happy!