Though the original Buddha was officially born in Nepal, Buddhism was made famous, and spread across the entire Asian subcontinent, because of India. It is interesting, then, that in the modern era, Buddhism has essentially died out in the country. The only Buddhists in India today are a few thousand converts, and the large Tibetan Diaspora population. After the invasion of Tibet by China in 1949, and the fleeing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Dharamsala in 1959, Tibetans have flocked to India as political refugees. I was lucky enough to spend over a month in the Tibetan enclaves of India—first for two weeks at Rato Monastery in Karnataka, then two weeks with a host family in Dharamsala. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me, and the type of learning that is only possible on this program.
RATO MONASTERY: Feb. 11-25th 2012
In many ways, my time at Rato felt like summer camp. The monastery, located in the hot, desert climate of Southern India, was surrounded by a bustling Tibetan community and many other monasteries. Though much hotter and much more dry, this small city in the state of Karnataka was a home away from home for the Tibetan population. For two weeks, we stayed in the monks’ dorms, ate incredible Tibetan food, and studied Tibetan Buddhism. However, I think my best times were spent getting to know the monks. One monk, Tommy, was born in southern California, and acted as our translator, tutor, and friend for our entire stay. Each night, we stayed up late playing cards with the monks (monks can get INCREDIBLY competitive), learned about Tibetan history and culture, and even had a movie night where we watched the lame-but-awesome Amanda Bynes flick, She’s The Man (the monks LOVED it). Though my days at Rato were always busy, I can’t really remember what I did every day—which I consider to be an indicator of time well spent. Like I said, it felt like summer camp.
However, I did manage to write my 30-page research paper there.
We were lucky enough to spend the Losar Festival (Tibetan New Year) at Rato. Losar is typically a big event, but because of many recent self-immolations and increased violence in Tibet, the Losar festivities this year were toned down. However, I did get to wake up early and attend the Losar prayers at 4 am, as well as help the monks make traditional Losar cookies.
Though I spent four years on my high school’s debate team—I was even an officer for the team my senior year!—nothing could have prepared me for watching Tibetan Buddhist monks debate. We happened to visit during a time where the monks were having their exams and debating daily.
After watching just two hours of a marathon debate one night, I was convinced that being a monk is incredibly hard work. In order to advance to the next level of study, and eventually receive their Geshe degree (basically, a spiritual PhD with about triple the amount of work for a regular PhD,) the monks must debate to prove their knowledge of Buddhist scripture. To be a successful debater, a monk must be able to recall thousands of pages of philosophical texts, while sitting in an assembly of dozens of other monks that are constantly heckling, clapping away ignorance, and asking difficult questions. I even saw the beginnings of a wrestling match between two monks who both wanted to ask the debater a question! Though I couldn’t understand a word of it (and even if I spoke Tibetan, I’m sure I wouldn’t have understood the complex philosophical concepts that they were debating,) the monks’ debates were incredibly captivating.
I also had the joy of playing with the adorable and incredibly rambunctious young monks. The young monks, or as I called them, the “monkeys”, were all age 6-7 and very wild. They had only become monks a few months earlier, when the abbot made a trip to Nepal and was convinced by a few families to bring their young sons back to India. Basically, they were inexhaustible wild things in monks’ robes, looking for attention and bored with studying and chanting all day, and always fun to play with.
Oh yeah, I learned one more thing—though they are monks, some were incredibly into western music. I discovered this when I was walking around the monastery one afternoon and I heard a few monks listening to Taylor Swift on their cell phones. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, even monks love Taylor Swift. Though I got the sickest of my entire trip while at Rato (and coined our program’s catchphrase, “Pac Rim 2011-2012: Out Both Ends,”) it was still an incredibly memorable time. Buddhists are some of the nicest people on earth, and I was lucky to spend two weeks with such kind, welcoming people.
DHARAMSALA: March 3- 28th 2012
After a short stint in North India (Jaipur, Taj Mahal, blah blah blahhhh… we’ll get to that later,) our group took an 8 pm- 3 am train and a three-hour, torturous bus ride to Dharamsala. For the first time on Pac Rim, I found myself in the foothills of the Himalayas. Immediately, I knew I would love Dharamsala. On my very first morning, I groggily wandered around at seven am, before the city really had a chance to wake up, and soaked up the incredible view of the mountains, the kind faces of Tibetans setting up their shops, and the prayer flags fluttering on every store, house and hillside. Dharamsala is the capital of the Tibetan Diaspora and the home of the Dalai Lama, and nearly 90% of the residents are Tibetan refugees. It was the closest to Tibet I may ever be, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
MY PALA WAS A POLITICAL PRISONER
The most memorable part of my stay in Dharamsala was my host family. For the first time this year, I was able to stay with a host family for two weeks. My host family consisted of my pala (father), my amala (mother), and my host-uncle, Trisong, as well as three children who were away at boarding school. Living with a Tibetan family was a completely unique experience. Their tiny apartment had two rooms separated by a curtain, a bathroom, and a little kitchen, and somehow the entire family was able to share such a small space. I slept in the shrine/living room with my host “sister” Emma, and the close quarters allowed me the opportunity to really get to know my host family.
My family was pretty different from some of the other host families in Dharamsala—while most had moved to India when they were very young, or had been born in Dharamsala, my amala and pala had only fled Tibet eight years earlier. After growing up as nomads and herders in Amdo, they left their entire family and to escape Tibet. Their two children were barely able to walk when they made the arduous, month-long trip over the Himalayas to seek refuge in India. What was even more unique about my family was that from 2006-2009, my pala had been a political prisoner in Tibet for attempting to fly a Tibetan National flag in Lhasa. On my second day in their home, I was amazed to learn that my goofy, ever-smiling, and sweet host father had been in a Chinese prison camp for three years of his 30-year life. The story goes that after meeting the Dalai Lama and spending a few years as a refugee in Dharamsala, my pala was inspired to peacefully protest the Chinese human rights violations and political oppression in Tibet. At the time, his wife had just given birth to his third son, but he made the trip through Nepal to sneak back into Tibet. Once he reached Tibet, the organization that was helping him organize his protest, Radio Free Asia, informed him that he was being watched by the Chinese police, so he fled to his home province of Amdo. However, upon his return to Lhasa, he was arrested and tortured into confessing. Though he only spoke a little about his time in prison, he was tortured on a regular basis and continues to feel pain from his injuries from prison. Upon his release in 2009, my pala had to make the incredible trip over the Himalayas for a third time to escape back into India. His final escape from Tibet was the most dangerous because they traveled through the Everest region of Tibet, an area that is constantly being monitored by the Chinese police. However, he made the trip back, and upon his arrival received a private audience with the Dalai Lama.
Back in Dharamsala, my host father’s life is much more tame, but he is still incredibly politically active. We were in Dharamsala for Tibetan National Uprising Day, in which the entire Tibetan population marched through the city with Tibetan flags and protested. There were also many self-immolations in Tibet while we were in Dharamsala, and there were candlelight vigils for the victims bi-weekly. Walking around the city with my pala and hundreds of other passionate Tibetans, I couldn’t help but be inspired by their continued peaceful protest and endurance for the Tibetan cause. For the entirety of the two hours that we marched, my pala sang the Tibetan National Anthem at the top of his lungs and held his flag high. I don’t claim to understand the intricacies of US foreign policy with China, and I must admit, before coming to Dharamsala, I was a little pessimistic about whether or not Tibet could ever be free.
After 50 years under China, the movement of a large, ethnically Han population to the Tibetan plateau, and China’s growing stance as a primary global power, this issue is much more complicated and difficult to solve than slapping on a ‘Free Tibet’ bumper sticker on your car and posing a few facebook statuses. But I will say this: I was inspired while in Dharamsala. The eternal optimist in me has to believe that sooner or later, the world has to listen to the pleas of Tibetans, and change can occur. Maybe these things always seem impossible before they get better. Look at South Africa and apartheid, or the United States and slavery—there is historical evidence to prove that the impossible can happen. With the renewed Tibetan protests, I sincerely hope that the world begins to listen, and that Tibet can become a free nation. They have certainly gained my support.
MEETING HIS HOLINESS
I couldn’t post a blog about Dharamsala without including this moment. In terms my 20-year life, meeting His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is definitely one of my top-five best moments of all time, forever. When we came to Dharamsala, I knew the Dalai Lama was in town, but I had no idea we would be lucky enough to actually meet him. On March 8th, we attended his yearly teaching on the full moon after Losar, and just being in his presence was an amazing experience. Then, on the morning of March 10th, which happened to be National Uprising Day, word was spread through our group that we were given a private audience to meet His Holiness. We spent about two hours waiting at the monastery beforehand, and the meeting was just a very quick handshake and picture, but I will never, ever forget what it was like to stand right next to the Dalai Lama. I am not one to pick up on “energies”, but being in the presence of His Holiness brought me to tears. I consider the Dalai Lama to be one of the most compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring world leaders of all time, and he is now my all-time hero. At the time, I had just finished reading his autobiography, My Land and My People, and getting to shake hands with His Holiness was just about the greatest thing of my life. Ever. I feel incredibly lucky, and it is a moment I will never forget. When my host father found out that we met His Holiness, he was almost beside himself with joy. He shook my hand for about five minutes, and recounted when he met Dalai Lama with his young son after returning from Tibet.
On a completely different note, I also went skydiving! It was fairly dangerous, but incredibly fun. I was the first of my group to make the leap, and the guides didn’t really speak any English. Here’s how it went:
Guide: “Run. Don’t jump, don’t sit. Run.”
Me: “Run off that cliff?!”
Guide: “Run. Run. RUN!”
(He started to push me, so I just started running…)
Somehow, my parachute caught some air and I spend 15 glorious minutes soaring over Dharamsala. It was fantastic. And I didn’t die! It must have been because I was blessed by the Dalai Lama.