Under Angels' Wings: McleodGanj and Dharamsala
Arrival and check-in—McleodGanj, India; Friday, August 26, 2011, afternoon
My friend and client Rosalie, who has stayed in McleodGanj in previous years, and her friend Nan, who lives here, have recommended a total of four possible hotels or guesthouses in which I might find lodging.
Suresh, the driver from Rewalsar, knows only how to reach the village, so we stop at the bus stand and ask directions. An over-zealous young Indian gets in the backseat, pushing my backpack aside. “I show you. Where you want to go?”
I mention the names of two establishments.
“Yes. Yes. I show you. No problem.” He speaks in Hindi to Suresh who, following directions, passes through the village’s main bazaar, then turns left and begins to descend a very rutty, rain-soaked street.
To me, he says, “You want guide. I show you. I’m very good guide. The temple. The waterfalls. Trekking. Whatever you want, I show you. No problem.”
I tell him that I have a friend in town and don’t need a guide.
“Yes. Yes. I understand. But you change your mind, you call me. I give you my number. I’m very good guide. I show you. No problem.”
The buildings become more spread out. We seem to be going out of town. Then we make another left and begin to ascend on a road that’s in much better condition. Except it’s not. Our path is blocked by a row of bowling-ball size stones from ascending rock face on one side and precipitous drop-off on the other.
“Road is closed. Landslide,” the Indian guide says. “Come. We walk. I show you. No problem.”
“How far?” I ask, shouldering both of my packs and looking up a rather steep ascent.
“Not far. Very short distance. You come. I show you.”
Within five minutes, I’m huffing and hand my computer and electronics pack off to Suresh. After another five minutes, I have to stop and rest.
“I carry your pack for you. I’m strong. It’s not far,” says the young Indian.
I decline his offer and press on.
We round a bend and the first few commercial buildings come into sight. At the first one, not on the list recommended by Rosalie and Nan, we stop. This place, Hunted (not Haunted) Hill House, has rooms available. The cost is 700 rupees per night. The view of the valley and not-too-distant mountains is spectacular from one corner room with expansive windows. The volume of black mold on the walls and ceiling, a given in this monsoon-drenched area, isn’t too bad.
I almost book the room but ask about Ladies Venture Guesthouse, one in which Rosalie had stayed and recommended.
“Only 50 steps up the hill,” says the Hunted Hill House manager.
After many more than 100 steps, his minimalistic exaggeration, along with my backpack, begin to weigh heavy on my shoulders. We walk maybe 200 hundred meters on a winding, steeply inclined hill before coming to Ladies Venture. They’re full, as are two other places we had passed on the way up and stopped at on the way down.
We go back and I check into Hunted Hill House. Suresh carries my smaller pack into the room and states that I’ve made a good choice. The young Indian guide follows. “Now, I show you McleodGanj. The temple. Come. I show you. I’m very good guide. No problem.”
“No,” I say. “I’ve promised my driver that I’ll take him to lunch.” I have only 40 rupees in small bills in my wallet. The rest are 100s and 500s. I extend 20 rupees to the would-be guide.
“Twenty rupees. That’s a cup of chai,” he exclaims unabashed.
“That’s all I have,” Or all I feel like tipping him.
Suresh and I re-ascend the hill, looking for an Indian restaurant where the food will suit his taste buds. “Some people are only interested in money,” he says, showing much wisdom and a penchant to be of service for a man of 23.
After getting change at The Taste of India (Authentic Indian Curry & Kabobs) restaurant, I pay him the 1,600 rupees that I had agreed to back in Rewalsar. That fee was to bring me to Dharamsala. With discovery that MacleodGanj is another nine kilometers up a very poor mountain road, I add 200 rupees for the extra distance. Then I attempt to give him an additional 200 for the walking and carrying he did after we parked his car back down the hill. He would only take 100, saying that my tip is too much.
Chronological note: These stories occurred from August 26 to September 9, 2011. The stories in the “Dalai Lama teachings ... and more” chapter also occurred over the same days. Yet, I’ve put them in separate chapters.
This chapter presents the community and people of McleodGanj where the Tibetan Main Temple is located and the teachings occurred. That chapter focuses on the setting and content of His Holiness’ teachings.
Logistical Note: The villages of Dharamsala and McleodGanj are nine kilometers apart, connected by a steep, winding road. Their names are often used interchangeably in regard to the Dalai Lama, who lives in McleodGanj, and the Central Tibetan Administration (aka the Tibetan Government-in-Exile), which is located between the two.
Stories within this chapter:
Arrival and check-in (posted November 12, 2011)
Harmony Through Education School (posted November 12, 2011)
A practical work of art (posted November 12, 2011)
"You Can Make a Difference" (posted November 12, 2011)
Returning to Tibet (posted November 16, 2011)
What is Tibet? (a poem by a Tibetan student, posted November 21, 2011)
Identity of a Tibetan (posted November 21, 2011)
"We Are the World" (posted November 16, 2011)
Teaching Tibetan monks to speak English (posted November 16, 2011)
Gompa, the playful monk (posted November 16, 2011)
Sleeping in the monastery (posted November 16, 2011)
Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, the Dalai Lama's former physician (posted November 16, 2011)
Wanting more (posted November 16, 2011)
Harmony Through Education School—Dharamsala, India; Monday, August 29, 2011, daytime
The school is behind an unlocked white gate. An arched sign over the gate proclaims in sky blue letters: Harmony Through Education Dharamsala Special Needs School. A slanted stone walkway passes under trees and leads to a stone-block building trimmed in salmon orange. A gable peak that rises over the front porch creates the feeling of an open invitation.
The children there—most of them with mental retardation, autism, or cerebral palsy—readily accept the invitation. Seven students enrolled when the school opened in 2006. Now there are 21 with another 25 on a waiting list.
The founder is Seth Shaffer. He was 23 then and has grown with the school too. “I was the owner of a rap music production company in Brooklyn, but I knew that wasn’t right for me. I came to India looking for something different. I saw the disabled children here and decided to do something about it.”
Seth returned to the United States and raised more than $60,000 in less than one year to start Harmony Through Education. “I didn’t have any skill or training in education of special needs children,” he admits. But in the five years since, he’s earned a PhD in general psychology with emphasis on childhood development. Born in Washington, D.C., and a resident of Maryland for most of his life, he’s now, at age 28, moving to California to accept an internship that will further his skill with these Indian children.
The children range in age from six to twenty. HTE’s goal is to mainstream them enough so they can work on their family farm or store in the bazaar.
Through semi-monthly visits with parents, the teachers and staff also teach about healthcare for special needs children. “Doctors don’t usually give the child enough examination time to properly diagnose. Then they quickly prescribe injections or medication that can easily further, rather than help, the child’s problem,” Seth says.
Seth has been supporting the school with his personal money and through fundraising, but he says HTE has reached the point where other funding sources, including grants from major foundations, will begin to share some of that responsibility.
The school is completely run by Indians, and Seth visits two months of each year to oversee and to meet people.
The staff consists of a woman principal teacher and three other women teachers and assistants. The director is Anil, who was the director of an NGO that facilitates volunteer service opportunities abroad before assuming his responsibilities here.
Each day begins with mild exercise, to the beat of a bass drum, in the courtyard. Faculty assists youths who can’t move their limbs in sync with the others.
On the day I visit, the staff is working with three groups of students according to their abilities.
One group packages candles they’ve made as fundraisers. The work is slow with the teachers doing much in conjunction with the young people rather than showing and delegating. As a result, few candles are packaged in the hour allotted. Yet, much is done to boost the students’ confidence, teaching them to feel accomplishment no matter how long a task might take. “Shabesh. Shabesh, (good, good)” repeats Anuradha, the principal teacher who has been here since the school opened, and Yamini, her assistant.
In another room, Ravika teaches printing and coloring to students who are more challenged. And in a third room, Rajni uses objects with different geometrical shapes to stimulate sensory appreciation.
Recess includes games in which the children and staff hold hands in a circle while running in to make the circle smaller and backing out to make the circle bigger. This is followed by a session of hand-patting similar to the game I know as patty-cake, patty-cake.
Harmony Through Education currently rents the building and land from the Indian government but plans to build their own school in coming years. “We have all the legal papers in place to become a self-sufficient charitable trust. This will enable us to raise funds in India. This is very doable,” Seth affirms.
His smile and confidence are both self-affirming and a boost to others. The children and staff are happy to see him and Cara, a teacher of professional development for educators in the New York City Department of Education. While the children rest after their hot noontime meal, she and Seth meet with the faculty to offer advice regarding how to reinforce behavioral change, information that the staff readily accepts.
This faculty believes that each person, even the disabled, bring something to the party of life. One example is Dimple, a mountain girl who rides the school’s transportation vehicle 30 minutes each way to and from school then walks another 30 minutes to her mountain home. She competed in the Indian Special Olympics and won the 25 meter dash in district, regional, and national competitions. “She’s now on India’s Special Olympics team,” Seth says proudly.
A practical work of art—Harmony Through Education School, Dharamsala, India; Monday, August 29, 2011, afternoon
The man standing next to the sidewalk at Harmony Through Education looks distinguished in laborer’s clothing. The woman in a colorful sari with a pot of concrete on her head has a beautiful smile. And the younger man assisting them is strong and handsome with dark eyes and wavy ebony hair and mustache. And they have a job to do.
The sidewalk is elevated about eight inches above the surrounding soil. From that sidewalk, a ramp for people with walking disabilities parallels the steps leading up to the school’s front porch. But there’s no ramp that goes down from the sidewalk to the ground that serves as the school’s outdoor recreation and exercise area. The job of these laborers is to build that ramp.
The distinguished man starts with a small pile of rocks and places larger ones near the raised sidewalk. With more rocks that decrease in size from medium to small, he crafts a general slope that extends about 2.5 feet out and down. With a hand trowel, he uses concrete to fill in the gaps and refine the slope. First, he forms one side of the soon-to-be ramp, then the other, and, last, the space in between.
This last step is puzzling work as he finds and selects just the right size stones to occupy certain spaces. When none fit, he transforms larger rocks into smaller stones with precision strikes with his cleaving hammer.
These rocks and stones are the foundation for the ramp. The woman brings more concrete, which he uses to finish the top surface, finishing it with a wooden smoothing trowel. He uses the same tool as a temporary form to concretize the sides of the ramp, completely hiding the rocks and stones that comprise the majority of its structure.
“He’s amazing,” says Seth, “doing all that without forms. It’s a work of art.”
"You Can Make a Difference"—Upper Tibetan Children's Village, up the mountain from McleodGanj, India; Monday, August 29, 2011, late afternoon
The monsoon is dumping its daily downpour as Tenzin, a lovely young Tibetan woman, leads me on a tour of Upper Tibetan Children’s Village a few kilometers up the mountain from McleodGanj.
The Tibetan Children’s Village project began with 51 children in 1960, one year after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet due to the Chinese presence there. Today, 2,000 children live in this one facility alone and a total of 17,000 children live in 20 school villages throughout India.
Tenzin and I visit one home. It’s currently empty of the 32 to 35 children who live here along with one adult “parent.” This TCV has 40 such Spartan, dormitory-style homes.
The babies’ home has 25 infants and very young children. Many are orphans. Some have parents who have made “arrangements” for their children while they return to Tibet. And some children were left as infants at a Tibetan temple with a note asking that TCV take care of the child. “Every child has a different story,” says Tenzin who was raised in a Tibetan Children’s Village herself.
“The parents want their children to receive a proper Tibetan education and to preserve Tibetan culture,” she adds.
There are four sections of classes within the TCV: kindergarten, juniors who attend classes one through five, middles who attend classes six through nine, and seniors who attend classes ten through twelve. These older students live in either a boys’ hostel or a girls’ hostel, four or five youths per group, monitored by a “warden,” to use Tenzin’s term.
After level twelve, the youths go to a university or a college. Students who desire to learn a skilled trade go to the TCV Vocational Training Center on this campus.
As the rain lets up, we visit the temple where some of these manually skilled young people are standing atop scaffolds, painting beautiful Tibetan icons on the face of the entryway arch.
Seth and Cara, who had hosted me at the Harmony Through Education school, are here, engaged in a business meeting with Thupten Dorjee, the General Secretary of all Tibetan Children’s Villages. When they finish, they also receive a tour and Mr. Dorjee invites me into his office.
“What are conditions like in Tibet?” I ask.
“They’re getting worse. People are not free to express themselves,” he replies, confirming a statement I have already heard and will hear again from other Tibetan people and officials.
By the time we talk for a few minutes, the rain has stopped and children of various ages have populated a playground. A group of teenagers are practicing a song-and-dance routine accompanied by a simple yet beautifully melodic single-string musical instrument.
Seth and Cara soon appear too. They are a handsome young couple, blessed with vision and youthful energy. And they happen to be standing in line with a sign that summarizes this entire day of visiting the children and teachers at Harmony Through Education and the people here at Tibetan Children’s Village: “YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”
Returning to Tibet—A Tibetan Internet Cafe, McleodGanj, India; Saturday, September 3, 2011, evening
“I had my second audience with the Dalai Lama yesterday,” says the young man in the Internet cafe.
“How did you do that?”
“With my class at the school. It wasn’t like the first audience. Then, he blessed us.” He gestures to indicate a close, one-on-one experience with His Holiness. “This time, we were in a group. Not close to him.”
The young man is Tibetan. He wants to return to his homeland.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I ask. “For you to return to Tibet, I mean.”
“Yes. There are two regions: One is safer. The other is the Tibet Autonomous Region. That’s where I’m going.”
“My parents need my help.”
“And they’re in Tibet.”
“Yes. Thirty kilometers from Lhasa.”
“When are you going?”
“When I get my visa. And special papers. The papers might not come.”
“And you get these from the Chinese government, right?”
“What will you do if you don’t get the papers?”
“Find another way.”
I comment about my slow Internet connection, and the young man suggests that I load Google Chrome.
“It’s hard to get an audience with the Dalai Lama,” I say and relate my attempt through His Holiness’ secretary.
“It’s his age He doesn’t do as many now. Just for elders and people who come from Tibet and Tibetan students.”
“Will you have Internet connection in Tibet?”
“Yes, but I don’t think I will use. It will be dangerous …” and he alludes to not having Internet privacy there and that going online could jeopardize the security of people in his browser address book.
Google Chrome has finished its installation. I try it, and it is faster than Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. Again, I’m delighted at how beneficial conversations with intriguing people come out of the blue—when we are open to receive them.
Larger than Western Europe, the nation of Tibet is home to six million people. Known as “the roof of the world,” the country has an average elevation of 13,000 feet. Five of Asia’s great rivers originate in Tibet, and nearly half of the world’s population lives downstream.
The history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism includes political and spiritual association with the Manchurians, the Mongols, and historical figures such as Genghis Khan. Yet, today, Tibet is not recognized as a nation by the world’s political powers.
In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army of Communist China invaded Tibet. After negotiations with the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung failed, the Dalai Lama fled from his palatial home in Lhasa, Tibet, to Dharamsala, India, in 1959.
The Tibetan Government-in-Exile is comprised of democratically elected legislative, judicial, and executive bodies. Tibetan Buddhism teaches how to achieve deep and abiding happiness, free from suffering, with an emphasis on spiritual rather than material development.
Numerous non-government organizations, many of them headquartered in Dharamsala, strive to keep the Tibetan identity alive.
Perhaps the most outstanding endeavors are being done by Tibetan Children’s Villages. Having started in one location with 51 students in 1960, TCV now houses and provides quality education to 17,000 young people—some of them orphans—at 20 schools in India.
"We Are the World"—The same Tibetan Internet Cafe, McleodGanj, India; Sunday, September 4, 2011, day and evening
The Internet cafe attracts a lot of Tibetans but needs to be promoted to international travelers.
This morning, I awaken with an idea for a handout card. I craft it on my computer then, at the cafe, we take photos. Within an hour, the card is complete. The owner is delighted and offers to take me out to dinner.
We dine on a tuna fish and cheese pizza that I bring back to the Internet cafe. The owner tells customers that he’ll close “sometime after 9:30.”
Three customers remain when his friend, the man who wants to return to Tibet (previous story) starts streaming American rock ‘n’ roll through one of the computers. He cranks up "Desperado" by the Eagles and then my request for "Loadout/Stay" by Jackson Browne.
The instrumentals are building to a crescendo. And then comes Jackson's falsetto: People, stay just a little bit longer. The last remaining customer is a monk who’s staying just a little bit longer himself.
"Who are you?" asks the Tibetan who wants to return to Tibet.
"I'm a person who enjoys life and has fun, likes people and friends and companionship." I answer, then ask him the same.
"I'm a man of faith, and I believe in myself."
"I'm killing time here,” he says more seriously, alluding to our earlier conversation about his pending departure. “I have to go there and do something for people."
He streams "Hotel California," cranking the volume and singing lyrics that appear on his screen. I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell.
The song ends. The computer is quiet. The owner and his friend sit side-by-side, engaged in conversation in Tibetan. Then comes the song “We Are the World,” written and recorded in 1985 to aid African famine relief. There comes a time when we hear a certain call. When the world must come together as one. … We are the world, we are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day.
Even though I’m tired, this music and this companionship are too good to leave. Jackson Browne has the right idea, so I Sta-a-ay, just a little bit longer. If the roadies don't mind and the union don't mind, we'll play just one more so-o-ong.
By Tenzin Namdhak,
Level 10 student
at Tibetan Children’s Village
Thank you, shae shae, and mercy
English, Japanese and French
Known around the world
But what is our identity?
A tourist seated next to me
Curiously he asked, are you Nepali?
No, are you Sherpa?
No, are you Ladakhi?
No, he kept on his queries, but I answered no, no ………
At last exhausted, he revealed his last query
Then who are you?
Immediately, I answered to him
I am a Tibetan.
The man seemed to be in a dilemma
With a heap of question
But he was totally sure
That he hadn’t heard this name before.
Let us raise our voice
And reveal our story against
The Red empires choice
Among the people of this world.
Reprinted with permission from “Metok: A Newsletter from the Tibetan Children’s Villages.” Summer, 2011. Vol. XLIX
Teaching Tibetan monks to speak English—Jangtse Khang Monastery, McleodGanj, India; Tuesday, September 6, and Thursday, September 8, 2011, evenings
“We are going to have a conversation,” I say to the four Tibetan monks sitting cross-legged in their maroon robes on the floor with me. “We will ask questions and give answers.” My speech is slow and deliberate.
Khedup is the monastery’s head monk, a very learned man whose title of geshe means his education is comparable to that of a PhD in the Western world. His English is minimal.
Penduk’s English is even less, but this man who might be the eldest of the group has deep insightful eyes and an engaging smile accented with a thin mustache and a few chin whiskers.
Gompa and Tashi are the youngest, youthful, bright, energetic. They speak English with reckless abandon that sometimes produces incorrect words and awkward sentences. Their presence is invaluable, serving as translators when the conversation goes totally Tibetan as the monks attempt to collectively compose or answer a question.
“How long you be in India?” Khedup asks. Then, because this is an English class, I and the two younger students help him complete the proper sentence structure: “How long will you be in India?”
I answer, “I will be in India four more months,” and they express surprise.
“Where will you travel?” comes the properly formed question from Khedup after more help to, again, include the auxiliary verb “will.”
I describe my earlier weeks in Delhi, Leh/Ladakh, and Manali before coming here. And I mention the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Honestly, I don’t think Penduk absorbs much of that, but he nods throughout and smiles at the name of His Holiness.
“What are your names and what do they mean?” I ask.
Barbara, the woman from California who introduced me to these monks the night before, had given me a phonetic spelling of their names. And she has given them a good foundation in English with a book titled, Say It in Tibetan. This book contains hundreds of helpful words and phrases in both English and Tibetan that the monks have practiced reading and speaking on previous nights.
Last night, Monday, when Barbara had introduced me to these men, they had practiced word and sentences from the book dealing with health, hospitals, and medicine. Then, at the end, another monk who is not here tonight had written “opportunity” on our erasable white board and asked, “What is this word?” This had led to a fantastic dialogue and given me the idea not to use the book but to teach through conversation.
When I offered to meet with them tonight and two nights from now, they jumped at the chance, eager to have more than their usual three nights a week with Barbara.
“I think they like interacting with an American man,” Barbara had told me over tea after last-night’s session.
“Maybe,” I had answered, “but you are doing so much for them.” And I complimented her again for having changed her travel plans from one month in India to nearly six months in McleodGanj—the maximum allowed on her visa—and for devoting so much time to these men.
Tonight, the men are excited to speak of their names all of which have special significance.
Khedup’s full name is Lobsang Khedup, which means “good heart” and “professor,” both of which fit him well as master of the monastery and a geshe.
Penduk has only one name, and it also means “professor.”
The formal spelling of Gompa is Lek Gonpo. Lek means “good” and Gonpo means “save (or maybe safe) for everything.” I compliment him on having a name to signify his honesty and trustworthiness. “Only in name,” he replies with a laugh, which is this joyful man’s most common form of expression.
Tashi’s full name is Dawa Tashi. Dawa means “moon,” and Tashi is a common Tibetan name that means “good” as well as several other synonymous words. We turn his name around to mean “good moon.” “Like a full moon,” Gompa adds.
We also talk about another common Tibetan name: Tenzin, which is the name of the First Dalai Lama in the 1400s as well as the current Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. It means “care for religion.” How appropriate.
They, of course, collectively ask, “What does your name mean?”
“Robert means bright fame,” I reply, recalling words from a reference book to help fiction writers give appropriate names to their characters. They like this and compliment me accordingly. But I stop short of trying to explain that my surname is the same as a “weir,” a dam or net for catching fish.
Next, I ask about the members of their families. With an answer from each, we practice words like “brother, sister, parent, mother, father, grandparent, older, and elder.” The concept of being “an only child,” which I am, was foreign to them.
With difficulty and help from his friends, Penduk asks, “What is your religion?” Well, that takes the conversation up a few notches.
“I am a Christian.”
But they have never heard of this word, nor of “Christ,” which totally surprises me. My attempt to answer elevates our conversation even more—into the realm of unexplainable. Gompa comes to the rescue with a thick English/Tibetan dictionary that contains thousands of words. I find “Christian” and the men engage in a lengthy conversation in Tibetan as they expand the horizons of their religious knowledge.
Then Tashi asks, “What is the difference between Christian love and Buddhist love?”
Oh, my. I think for two breathes, searching for an answer. As Buddhists, these men recognize Buddha as the ultimate prophet but don’t necessarily believe in a Divine Being. Yet, at the teachings last week, I heard the Dalai Lama say that totally giving oneself to God reduces a self-centered attitude
Finally, I speak from my heart. “There is no difference. They’re both the same. Love comes from God and God is with all of us, regardless of our religion: Buddhism, Christianity, Muslim, Hindu, Judaism.”
They appear to accept this. But Gompa’s next story indicates that I probably misread their nods. “Somebody asked the Buddha the difference between Buddha love and another religion’s love, and the Buddha replied, ‘Buddha love is like a fish in a lake. Your love is like a fish on a plate.’”
Choosing not to argue that point of view, I introduce the proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
That leads to much discussion, primarily in Tibetan, about the difference between a dead fish on a plate and many live fish in water. I use hand gestures to simulate catching a fish, but these are to no avail. Finally, Khedup, whose first language is Chinese, comes up with a related Chinese saying to which all the monks can relate. Like a wise professor, he makes a statement that brings the conversation to a satisfactory close. And I, realizing that I’ve been in over my head, let the class end with that.
On Thursday, the conversation begins deep with discussion about two Buddhist monks who set themselves ablaze in a desperate protest of Chinese domination in Tibet.
One monk brings forth printouts of several articles from Internet sources such as BBC, CNN, and Telegraph UK. These are all in English, and the headlines create an opportunity to present the relationship between “ablaze,” “on fire,” and “burn.”
I can’t help but ask, “What is your opinion about these men setting themselves on fire, ablaze?”
Khedup takes the lead. “We have compassion,” he says, “but we are not comfortable in our hearts that they committed suicide.” Collectively, the others, amid nods, relate: “Alive, they could have shown more compassion. Dead, they are dead.”
They then talk about the lack of freedom for the Tibetan people in Tibet. I write “freedom” and “free” on the whiteboard. Penduk’s eyes light up as he grasps the connection between these two words.
Kalsang, a student who was not there on Tuesday and who speaks very decent English, says, “We study compassion. We like compassion. But we don’t have compassion. It’s difficult to have compassion.”
Khedup answers in Tibetan, and Gompa, ever the clown, says with humor, “He said that very well in Tibetan, but it’s hard to say in English.” The men talk among themselves for several minutes, then Khedup and Gompa relate that compassion comes only through meditation, and it’s difficult to meditate because the mind wanders.
Sensing an opportunity for a change of pace and wanting to end tonight’s conversation on a lighter note, I introduce the concept of formal words and informal words: “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” versus chat-speak “plz” and “no problem.” I also bring in the difference between “you are,” “you’re,” and “your.”
Now, “no problem” happens to be one of my little soapbox issues as I hear so many people, especially the younger generation of Americans, say this phrase instead of the traditional, formal, and more polite “you’re welcome.”
The words in this discussion are already familiar to all the monks, so we practice.
“Please give your pen to me.”
“I am giving my pen to you.”
“Thank you for giving your pen to me.”
We repeat this exchange in both directions—with me, first, making the initial request of each of them, one-by-one, then each of them making the same request of me.
The last exchange is between Gompa and me.
“Please give your pen to me,” he begins.
“I am giving my pen to you.”
“Thank you for giving your pen to me.”
Gompa rolls on his side, howling with laughter that infects all of us.
When the class is finished and we’re all standing again, Khedup comes forth with a khatta, a blessing scarf, and places it around my neck. I have seen the Dalai Lama receive and give many of these, but no one has ever given one to me before. This is totally unexpected. I am deeply touched. I hug each of them.
For more about the monks who set themselves on fire, read the story "Conversation with a Tibetan journalist" within the "Dalai Lama Teachings ... and more" chapter. The comments there are by Thubten Samphel, Secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations, Central Tibetan Administration of H.H. the Dalai Lama.
Gompa, the playful monk—Jangtse Khang Monastery, McleodGanj, India; Thursday, September 8, 2011, evening
After the class, Gompa invites me to his cell, and we sit and talk for awhile.
He’s 24, he thinks. His birth certificate says he was born in 1989, which would make him 22, but he believes he was born two years prior to that. He’s been a monk since 1996, at the age of either seven or nine. “My parents decided,” he says. “I didn’t know anything then. Now, I think I’m lucky that my parents put me on a bus and sent me to a monastery.”
He’s quiet for a moment then says, “I want to write like you, but I don’t know English.”
“Write in your native language.”
“Not in Tibetan?”
“Tibetan isn’t my language.”
“What is your native language?”
“My mother tongue is Monpa. I come from Tawang village. It’s in east India, two nights by bus from here. Close to Bhutan.”
“Why can’t you write in Monpa?”
He hesitates, searching for words. “They speak it only.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you say? There are no …” He makes a gesture of writing.
“Yes, no letters. They speak it only.”
“So what languages do you know?”
“Monpa. Then I learn Tibetan. Then Hindi. Now English. But I’m not good in English.”
I think he’s doing pretty darn good, considering that English is his fourth language. I wonder what he could compose in Monpa … if the language had characters.
Sleeping in the monastery—Jangtse Khang Monastery, McleodGanj, India; Thursday, September 8, 2011, evening
Gompa has two cots in his cell. “Who shares your room?” I ask.
He replies that no one does, and I boldly ask if I can sleep there either of the next two nights, my last two nights in McleodGanj. He promises to ask Khedup, his geshe.
Later that night, back in my hotel room, he calls and says it’s okay, so I make plans to move the next day.
It’s a different way of life.
The Jangtse Khang Monastery is not a picturesque palace in the mountains. It’s not the pictorial subject of a travel brochure. Rather, it’s a functional, urban, Spartan four-story structure with the first usable floor being one story up.
The prayer area, where we conducted our conversations in English, is on the top floor. At least two monks sleep there. Above that, sits a water tank and clotheslines; the stairway to get there is on the outside of the building. And the balcony below is a gathering place for bathing, cleaning, discussion, and gorgeous mountain views.
Gompa’s cell is the size of a small bedroom. One small table holds his laptop and a few personal possessions. Another small table holds only a blanket, which leaves plenty of space for me to park my backpack. Shelves made of concrete and built into the wall house a picture of the Dalai Lama, a pile of books, and miscellaneous items.
One of two toilets is up one level, the other toilet is up two levels; both are Indian style.
For some reason, nearby eateries throw a tremendous amount of smelly garbage on the road near the steps that lead into the monastery. Each morning, cows and dogs feast there, then someone comes along and, with gloveless hands and a small piece of cardboard as a “scooper,” gathers the garbage, deposits it in a wagon, and hauls it away.
My cot is closer to the window, which we don’t close. A disco across the road plays loud music until after midnight, and inebriated young adults linger and shout after the music stops.
Yet, I’m glad to be there. Gompa and I enjoy more conversation.
On Saturday night, we go to community center where we shoot pool and play ping-pong with Rinzen, another monk who speaks English very well and was not part of the lessons. And I learn a little more about how energetically these holy men live. They compete with verve and debate relentlessly—so different than the common image of a monk sitting and meditating stoically.
Conversations with Khedup, Gompa, and Rinzen reveal that ten monks stay at this monastery. Their purpose is to pray for the freedom and protection of Tibetans still in Tibet. They also insert relics into the base of deity statues. The relic is usually a mantra of that deity. The base is sealed with wax and can’t be opened. These are sold as fundraisers.
This monastery in McleodGanj is associated with Gaden Jangtse Thoesam Norling Monastery: The Institute of Buddhist Mahayana Sutra and Tantra, a much larger monastery in southern India. Approximately 2,600 monks study there.
In fact, that monastery is actually the home of three universities: Sera, Drepung, and Gaden. Students study there in any one, two or all three of the universities. To become a geshe, the equivalent of earning a doctor of philosophy degree in the Western world, students must pass a challenging board exam.
Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, the Dalai Lama's former physician—McleodGanj, India; Friday, September 9, 2011, morning
People from around the world come to McleodGanj to obtain medical advice from Dr. Yeshi Dhonden--and for the experience. Three persons in the United States have insisted that I see him.
He sees 60 people a day—and no more, Sunday through Friday, from morning until 1:00 pm. The procedure is to arrive at 6:00 am and receive an appointment time. Bring the morning’s first urine.
I appear at 5:40 with a water bottle partially filled with my amber body fluid. A woman directs me to a food vendor at a portable stand topped with a small propane stove surrounded by a tin windshield, three cardboard carriers with three dozen eggs each, a loaf of bread, and other breakfast food items. He’s the keeper of a small piece of paper, about five inches by five inches on which two columns of sequential numbers have been handwritten. I insert my name beside the next available number: 30. The vendor asks if I want chai. I don’t.
Then I wait in the street along with others who stand as individuals or cluster in small groups but don’t total 29 persons.
Around 6:00, everyone assembles in a very narrow alley between two buildings. The space is such that two, but not three, people can stand shoulder to shoulder with their outer shoulders touching cold, wet concrete walls on either side. The alley descends several steps to the clinic on the right, a tiny jewelry shop on the left where the jeweler makes and sells rings and bracelets, and a Tibetan ayurvedic massage studio at the end. The only light is a four-foot fluorescent near the studio. Everyone between me and it appears as a silhouette.
People stand two-by-two on the steps, many of them speaking at once in Hindi. There seems to be tension, then laughter. A man part way down the steps apparently has the list. He’s calling people’s names. As he does, another man directs everyone to form a line according to the order in which the names are called. I hear “Robert.” I respond, “Robert.” The man directing points for me to stand immediately next to the man whose name had been called ahead of mine.
That man is Ashish. He’s a member of an elite branch of the Indian armed forces. He’s come from a city near Delhi to seek guidance for his mother who has pancreatic cancer.
A Tibetan monk stands on the other side of him in the number 28 position.
After about 15 minutes, the line begins to disintegrate as, one-by-one, people move from the alley and back into the street where dawning daylight is brightening buildings, the few trees visible at one end of the street, and the Buddhist mini temple toward the other end of the street.
At 6:45, there’s movement back toward the alley. I fall in line behind Ashish. Two new men are between him and the monk who has not left the alley.
“What’s your number?” we ask the man directly in front of Ashish. “Thirty-eight.” The man behind me says he’s number 35. We direct the man ahead to move back.
“No, you come here.” He points to a tiny gap between him and the other new man ahead of him.
“There’s no room,” I say.
“You fit,” he says, not moving.
I step around Ashish and him. Ashish follows. The interloper slides back half a body width. I fit sideways into the space. Ashish comes up beside me. As the line moves forward a few minutes later, Ashish steps in front of me. Neither of us bother to question the other interloper standing in front of him.
At the entrance to the clinic, the steel accordion gate has been partially opened, and a young man sits there with a clipboard and an 8.5 by 11, computer-generated form with two columns of numbers. The man asks my name and writes it beside the next available number: 37. There’s no sign of the original list, and I don’t bother to ask.
But I do query, “What time should I return?”
He seems surprised by my question. “10:30 or 11:00.”
Back out of the alley and on the street, I ask Ashish, “What time did he tell you to return?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“He told me 10:30 or 11:00.”
“I guess I’ll come at 10:00.”
I will too—just to be sure. Or as sure as is possible.
At 9:45, patient number 7 is in the doctor’s office. Patients 8 through 15 are waiting in a small room. Five others are outside. I go next door to an Internet café and check emails for an hour.
At 10:45, patient number 29 is in the doctor’s office. His assistant has the numbered chart in his hand. He tells me to enter and sit in the waiting room, which is about 12 feet square and has four benches that each hold three people. Fourteen others are there, including Ashish and the interloper who had been ahead of him in the alley. Ashish enters before the interloper. The assistant sends me back out of the waiting room to stand in queue with my urine sample and two other men who are also holding theirs. Our position is by an unadorned porcelain sink in the anteroom. The front entrance with its accordion security gate where I had attained number 37 nearly four hours earlier is four feet to my rear; the alley is a step beyond that.
After five minutes, the assistant comes to the sink. Walking feebly with him is a rotund elderly man with a very round face and wide Tibetan eyes. They stand by the sink, and the assistant holds a white handkerchief to his nose and mouth. Both are wearing white medical coats over dark-colored clothing.
The assistant instructs the first man to empty the urine sample into a porcelain tin cup that the elderly man holds with his left hand in the sink. With his right hand, the elderly man uses a forked stick to stir the urine. He empties the cup in the sink, pouring the urine down the drain. Then he repeats the process with the second man.
As he repeats another time with my urine, a man, who is probably another member of the medical staff, comes up and engages the elderly man in conversation. My sample is dispatched with a few stirs and no visual observation—at least that I can see.
Then the three men walk back into the waiting area, out of my sight.
I follow and retake a seat in the interior waiting room. Five minutes and two patients later, the assistant calls my name and ushers me into the inner office. Four other men are in the room. They appear to also be assistants. The principal assistant instructs me to sit on a stool in front of the same old man who had stirred my urine. This is the famed Dr. Yeshi Dhonden. He says something in Tibetan.
“What is your problem?” asks the primary assistant who has taken a seat to the doctor’s left and behind a small wooden desk. .
“I believe I’m healthy. Friends in the United States told me to visit you because of your wisdom.”
I hear “America” in the assistant’s translation.
Dr. Dhonden holds and examines my right hand, then my left. He takes my pulse in my left wrist. He gestures for me to remove my glasses and lifts my eye lids to examine my pupils. He says something in Tibetan.
“You have pain in your lower back?” queries a second assistant, a young man seated immediately to my right.
“Sometimes. Not now.”
This assistant puts his hand on my lumbar vertebra. “He says keep your back warm.”
The doctor says more.
The first assistant translates. “You might have trouble with your kidneys. Keep your back warm.” Mention of my kidneys agrees with assessments by other intuitive and holistic healers I’ve visited in recent years. “Otherwise, you are healthy,” he continues, moving toward the door and indicating that my session is over. The experience is just that brief, very much as my American friends had told me to expect.
“May I take a photograph?”
The assistant grants permission but doesn’t allow my continuing presence to slow the doctor’s process, and another patient is in the room and already seated on the stool by the time I take the first shot. I take two: one, as wide as possible in the limited space, and the other a portrait shot of this unusual physician.
In the waiting room, the assistant dispatches more people to stand in the urine queue and rearranges some of the people on the benches to help him visually assess who is next in line. When his attention turns back to me, I ask, “Who do I pay? And how much?”
“You don’t pay. There is no charge.”
“But I would like to pay for his time.”
He produces a half-size sheet of paper. It’s a donation form for an orphan girl. “You can give to this girl. Write your name, address, and the amount.” He hands a pen to me and points to an open space on one of the benches.
I fill out the simple form, fold it, insert some Indian currency, and hand it back to him.
He says, “Thank you,” and I respond, “Teshe Delek.” The session is over.
Except … on the way out, I ask the four men standing in queue at the urine sink if I may take their photo. They nod. The man in front raises his specimen bottle in a semi-salute.
At 12:30, I return to the clinic. A young man is closing the accordion gate. “May I get in?” I ask. He hesitates, consultations are over. “I have a question for the doctor’s assistant.” He lets me in.
The assistant, who says his name is Modan Thupa, is busy with other staff but stops his work to hear my request. He leads me into the examination room and gestures to the same stool I sat on before. Dr. Dhonden is in the same chair. An assistant I hadn’t met before sits beside him.
Seated again myself, I ask, “I wish to know how your examination works.”
Through the translator, Dr. Dhonden says, “There are five elements of the human body …” but he doesn’t elaborate. Then he says, “There are three ways to diagnose: tawa, which is to see; regpa, which is to feel; and tiwa, which is to consult or ask questions of the patient. I see the urine. Also the eyes and tongue. With six fingers—“
The first assistant, who now sits behind the wooden desk where he sat during my examination, indicates the middle three fingers on each hand. “These six fingers,” he interjects.
The translator continues, “He can’t explain in this short time.”
I ask about the urine, which the doctor didn’t seem to see.
The doctor replies. Apparently, he understands English but doesn’t speak. So the translator says, “There are four types of diagnosis for urine: when it’s hot and fresh from the body, when lukewarm, when cold, and later. Maybe days later. I watch the bubbles when you pour it from the bottle. I watch the bubbles dissolve. I see the color, and I smell. Sometimes, I test.”
And that’s the end of the interview. I conclude with one more question, asking permission to know Dr. Dhonden’s age. “He is 86,” says the translator.
I thank him. “Tashe Delek.” And leave.
Postscript: A few weeks later in Calcutta, I had healing sessions with an acupressurist who also used the three middle fingers of each hand to read my pulse. She explained that a person trained in this method of diagnosis can assess the condition of each of the body’s organs. Her comments about some chronic issues that I’ve experienced leads me to believe that this method is viable.
Wanting more—The Buddhist Main Temple, McleodGanj, India; Saturday, September 10, 2011, daytime
On my last full day in McleodGanj, I write stories and talk with monks. I turn down an invitation for a three-hour walk to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. Restless, I amble to the Main Temple one more time, one last time.
While I’m there, tomorrow’s taxi driver calls to confirm that I want his service. We set the pick-up/departure time for 7:30 in the morning.
I’m not ready to leave. Yet, I will. Plans are in place. Train tickets are purchased. Commitments to others are made.
Yes, all that could be changed. But, I won’t. In many ways, it’s also time to go.
“Always leave the audience wanting more,” states an old showbiz adage. True. Especially when the audience is yourself.