Sunday, June 6, 2010

Notes to Self (and Others)

I feel it's necessary for me to take a moment to clarify: This journal-of-sorts won't just be about the beauty and splendor I see on my trip. For all intents and purposes, I will be documenting the whole experience, and that means the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I'm sure that overall it will be a positive one, I don't wish to mislead my friends and family (and any other readership I may have or garner later) by just mentioning some things and leaving out the rest, thereby muddying the truth. I won't be harsh, but I will be blunt and honest. That said...

You've never seen pollution and poverty until you've seen Delhi
. I am utterly amazed and humbled by the fact that people subsist in such conditions, with smog so thick that there's virtually no visibility and the air such a sickly yellow/beige hue. The amount of shacks, shanty towns, and slums is beyond belief, and the rubble and construction on the roads is everywhere. It was like living in a Christian Childrens' Fund commercial, and I can only imagine that that's what the other side of the wall in the Palestinian areas is like after seeing them from afar on my trip to Israel...

I know it's a stretch to say this, but even with the rough living conditions and hardship I've been through both growing up and now, I don't think I can complain any longer about having been homeless, or the amount of construction and the hassle it causes back in Tally. It breaks my heart to see people in such conditions, generating great compassion for my fellow human beings at such a sight around every corner. Expect me to come back and be much more active in organizing relief efforts and trying to feed the hungry, etc. Places like and now mean more to me than ever...


More about my bus ride to Dharamsala in the next entry...

The Jew in the Lotus

Ok, since I slept for a good portion of yesterday and am now awake and having trouble sleeping again, I figure a short entry is in order before I get a jump on my 4th day.

I spent a 12 hour bus ride from Majnu Ka Tila to Dharamsala yesterday. After fearing I would miss it, I wound up being early. Spotted a group of monks and struck up a short conversation with a young monk who spoke a little English. He and his Dharma brothers were Gelukpa, also on their way to Dharamsala. When his bus arrived, we parted company and wished each other "Tashi Delek!"

I spotted another monk and again tried my luck while waiting. This one politely told me "No English," and so I let him be. As it turns out, when the bus arrived and I boarded, he came up to front after I was seated and revealed that his spot was next to mine. His was seat 3, mine seat 4. Along the journey, punctuated by long periods of sleeping, we spoke a bit in pantomime and what extremely little Tibetan I know, including an exchange of names. His was Söpa.

After a harrowing experience with a group of bus drivers who must've thought they were competing for the Indy 500 amongst faaaar too many twists and hairpin turns in the foothills of Himachal Pradesh, we finally arrived at Dharamsala @ 8 a.m. From there I took a cab ride up to Norbulingka Institute, where I checked into the Norling Guest House on the grounds. For breakfast I had french toast and some bananas with honey, and said hello to some monks sitting at the table across from me. It's so surreal to see them having Pepsi's, burping, and carrying on.

One of them was showing his friends a nice little golden stupa, and then brought out an 10 inch tall, very finely crafted gilt statue. He asked me where I was from, I told him, and then complimented him on the rupa, accidentally calling it a rudra at first. I asked (since it was female and peaceful in form) whether it was Green Tara or White Tara. He told me it was a White Tara given to him by the Karmapa himself not long before. I must admit, I was slightly dumbfounded when I heard this, as I had not realized that the Karmapa resided at Gyuto monastery just 15 minutes away.

Luckily I was saved by a fellow American who passed by, said "Tashi Delek" to the monks, and the proceeded to converse with me after hearing I was from Florida. Turns out he's from Atlanta, one of the staff from Emory here to help establish the Dalai Lama's initiative to teach science to young monks and nuns. He told me about how on the 5th, while I was in transit, he was receiving a teaching from the Karmapa (totally in Tibetan), then a speech in English on preserving the environment (since it was World Environment Day), receiving a little dharma chord and all. While Methodist and not Buddhist, he expressed a great appreciation for the people he'd met and the stories he'd heard, including recent refugees fleeing over the Himalayas and speaking to nuns both young and old. We talked about interreligious dialogue and conversion, my previous contemplation about transferring to Emory to be closer to Gigi, and the cost prohibitiveness that prevented it, and many other things, including the name and number of his cab driver, which I musn't forget to get from him before he leaves. A very pleasant fellow who happens to be 2 rooms away, just across the hall.

The Doll Museum just up the path is quite intriguing. I'm glad I had Dr. Cuevas' class on Tibetan Religions this past Fall, because I immediately recognized the Cham dance and other scenes depicted in the museum due to the documentaries we watched. I have to say, my favorites were the Cham dance with all the monks dressed as different bodhisattvas and demons; the one of all the different types of monks (including a tertön, an elderly yogini, and 2 monks engaged in dialectic), the set of monks and guards for Monlam Chenmo (with the huge torma, the monk police with the huge treebranch and the large wooden mace); and of course Milarepa in his cave (complete with a man and animals bowing before him, and Marpa Lotsawa hovering above him in the clouds).

The temple on the grounds is astoundingly beautiful. The walls are covered in paintings of the Medicine Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, Amitabha, Guru Rinpoche, and all the bodhisattvas in peaceful and wrathful forms, as well as many of the Mahasiddhas and the line of the reincarnated Dalai Lamas. There are also many thangkas hanging, including a huge refugee tree (presumably Geluk), a huge Shakyamuni Buddha, and 2 charts of Tibetan syllables. Upstairs there were many ornate statues, but the one that takes the cake by far is the humongous golden Shakyamuni Buddha mounted into the back wall behind the huge throne for the Dalai Lama. The Buddha is surmounted by a halo of all kinds of mythological creatures, and the statue complete with its throne must be between 30 to 50 feet high, comparable to the Guru Rinpoche statue at Palri Pema Od Ling that I saw in Austin, TX, on my trip to get my Indian visa from Houston.

Walking up to the temple I turned the line of prayer wheels outside, and prostrated upon entering and marveling at the statue. Once inside I said a few hundred recitations of the Mani mantra alongside a cute elderly Tibetan woman sitting there, muttering prayers and devoutly spinning her handheld prayer wheel. Then I meditated for a short while before touring the rest of the temple. I went up to the second story and walked the balcony inside as well as out, up onto the roof where I saw the two golden deer flanking the Dharma wheel, and surveyed the view, turning the remainder of the prayer wheels as I left.

Since many things were closed at Norbulingka because the staff is off on Sundays, I still don't think it's quite fully hit me that I'm actually in Little Lhasa. I'm sure that a full tour of the grounds here, including the metalworking and woodworking shops, as well as a trek up to McLeod Ganj will rectify this, however. On Wednesday, His Holiness the Karmapa will be giving a public audience and pithy teaching, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is expected to be back from Kashmir. I was planning on leaving for Tso Pema (Rewalsar Lake) on Tuesday evening, but this seems to be a sign that I'm meant to stay another day. Just to catch a glimpse of either would make everything worthwhile, no less receiving teachings. Maybe I'll leave for Nepal a day later than I was planning, or won't spend as much time in Bir. Who knows.

That's one of the greatest things about traveling by myself: No itinerary that demands I be in this place at a certain time, and no one to get mad at me for straying from the group and getting lost, as any of my fellow travel buddies from Italy and Israel could tell you I did with some frequency. Matt, this one's for you. I love the fact that, this time around, I'm not getting lost, but rather having an adventure. Flexibility and the freedom to spend as much time as I like in any given place, appreciating the place, the people, the experience... It adds so much, and there's no pressure :)

Lastly, in my restlessness this morning I took up reading the Jew in the Lotus, for which this entry is named --- and, truth be told, sums up my whole journey. Immediately upon reading the introduction I remembered what made me fall in love with this book after reading the excerpt online nearly 2 years ago. While it remains to be seen if this enchantment lasts, I have a feeling I'll be reading this during the rest of my stay in Dharamsala, possibly in the little reading areas such as the one upstairs in the temple here at Norbulingka, or out in the serene garden near the beautiful stone cairn.

It's amazing to think that so many Jewish Buddhists have been so integrally involved with the spread of the Dharma to the 'Western' world. From the first Westerner on American soil to take refuge right after the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, to Allen Ginsburg, and everyone in between, it appears that Jewbu's have been disproportionately involved. Hell, Steven Seagal is a recognized tulku! Most intriguing to me, though, is Lama Surya Das, the first Jew to become a Tibetan lama. What was his name before? Jeffrey Miller. What schools of Buddhism has he had the majority of his training in? Nyingma and Kagyu of Tibet. A Dzogchen practitioner who is self-proclaimed Rimé (non-sectarian). Except for the last name itself, the level of parallels are astounding. And he's no hermit, either. I daresay, dear reader, you've probably passed several of his books whenever you've gone passed the Religious/Spiritual section at Borders or Barnes & Noble, or even the selection at your local Dharma center. Perhaps this is an omen of the future to come. I'm certainly in the right part of the world, and the seeds have already been planted...

Ok, maybe not so short an entry in retrospect, but I've managed to kill enough time to be able to have breakfast and recorded yet another day of my adventures. One last thing before I leave you: Please excuse me if I lapse into Tibetan script in any of the proceeding posts; I installed several Tibetan fonts and keyboard layouts before I left the States, and ever since it seems that my laptop likes to make me type in Tibetan at random. If this happens within the next 10 or so days, it's probably by accident. Once I get to Nepal and start my study of the Tibetan language, however, all bets are off!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Social Workers, Shopkeeps, and Dharma... Oh My!

Had an amazing talk with a Tibetan shopkeeper by the name of Yeshi Gyatso today. He's Drikung Kagyu, like myself, but we both agreed that when you get right down to it, Dharma is Dharma and any authentic lama should be listened to, no matter what lineage, school, or country he or she comes from. We also talked a bit about politics and history, and had quite a few laughs. Hopefully this trend will continue.

I bought a few books and he also gave me a couple gratis, one for the lama I took refuge with (a copy of his publication on the Essential Points of Buddhist Practice) and one for myself (Heartfelt Advice to Carry One Along the Path). Last night I bought a small prayer wheel and a couple little rings for my 8 year old sister, and a vajra & bell set for me from a Tibetan Nepali store, and resisted the urge to buy any of the beautiful rudra statues because I shouldn't lug something that heavy around my whole trip, but rather get something like that at the end.

Oh, and before I forget, when I went to have dinner last night at my hotel they were short on tables and I had to sit with someone. I wound up having some very interesting conversation with a woman from Venice, and we exchanged stories about how each of us had come to be on our current paths (her in social work and international business, having lived in India for 3 years now, and done her thesis in 2007 on Tibetan thangka paintings). I had chicken fried rice, she had momo. We exchanged personal info so that, in case I wound up in an emergency and in Mumbai, she could help. Through her I learned of an Italian university I might consider if the International Buddhist Academy's 2 year translator program in Nepal doesn't come through. Our next conversation should be in Tibetan :)

I have a bus ride at 6 p.m., and it's now 2:30. A few more hours and I'll be on my way to Dharamsala. It's a 12 hour ride, so I should be there by 6 a.m. tomorrow, and will definitely be taking my melatonin so I can sleep on the way there. Just wanted to post this short entry before I got ready to leave. Hope everyone is enjoying reading this. Thanks for all the "Likes" on Facebook, guys! :D

~ Jeff

Friday, June 4, 2010

I have arrived!

Ok, so this is the first blog of my adventure. Currently I'm in Majnu-ka-tilla, a little Tibetan village just outside of New Delhi proper. For those of you who're interested, here's the link to the hotel I'm staying at today.

Basically, I'll be updating this whenever I can to keep a journal of my experience. I'll link to my Flickr account so you guys can see the pictures I'm taking, and every now and then I'll be posting essays on here (so be warned!)

A big shout out to all of my Sangha friends back in Tally (Eric, Ron, Rachel, Richard, Becky, Craigie, Louise, etc), the Buddhist community in general, all of my friends who are also currently overseas (Guogu, Danny, Matt, Paula & Ralph), and of course my family. Thanks specifically to Dr. Erndl for letting me do a DIS on "Religion and Culture in Nepal," (who I'll be writing the essays for). This is an amazing opportunity, and I'm utterly grateful to all those who've helped me get here to fulfill a dream of mine.

I think I'm gonna try to do a word of the day on here to reinforce the vocabulary I pick up as I learn it. Today's entry is part of the URL of my blog, and is Tibetan:

Shingta (shing rta) - trailblazer, pioneer, helmsman; chariot, charioteer; champion; spiritual vehicle, guide, mainstay; 'opener of the way.'

Obviously lots of meanings that are applicable to my journey, this blog, and -- who knows -- maybe even me. (It also happens to be the name of my router at home). Basically, this is the vehicle I'll be using to contact the rest of the world during my travels, so it feels very apropos.

Alright, folks, that'll be good for the time being. Now I need to go eat and figure out the next step. Today, relaxing... Tomorrow, Dharamsala and hopefully a glimpse at His Holiness the Dalai Lama!

Tashi Delek!
~ Jeff