Sunday, December 30, 2007

Out come the freaks

The Demographics of Devotion
Majnu Ka Tilla, Delhi

I've often commented on HH the Dalai Lama's ability to bring together
a diverse range of people. The foreground and wake of any DL event is always evidence of Life's Rich Pageant.

And, here they are now, all around me. In the countdown days to the Mundgod event they are all coming in to roost.

A guy at the opposite breakfast table this morning looked like he was auditioning for the part of Merlin or Gandalf, with a long white scraggly beard and some kind of robe. There are always a few who look like extras from a Biblical period m
ovie (beard and sandals).

I used to be far more tolerant of this sort of thing. At one point, it was w
hat we foreigners in India were known for (dropping out and dressing like slobs).

Now I have personally experienced the damage this has done to our image abroad and am a bit impatient with it. Okay, we come to India to "do our own thing," but can we please c
omb our hair (this really seems to rankle Indians, westerners with messy hair) and just not dress in costume? -- Costumes that are some weird kind of pretentious parody of things we thought we would find in India? Foreign tourists and visitors in India are still living down the image that we all come here to have orgies and smoke charas. "Real" Indian guest houses (as opposed to ones geared towards foreigners) are often wary of foreign guests and we often get the slithery eyeball ("decadent westerners in our establishment! The decadent Indians are bad enough but at least they don't draw attention!").

What's Your Movie?
You can see the kind of "trip" each one is on from their trappings. One's
on an orange-clad spiritual Krishna kind of trip, another with his mysterious black thinks he's some kind of tantric master on the road to discovering Tibetan secrets.

Then there are the followers of the Upper Middle Path. They are well-groomed midwesterners or trendy Coasters and tend to travel in large groups with name badges, usually attached to some American or European dharma centre who has organized the trip. Excuse me, pilgrimage. They are on *pilgrimage.* I watched the blow-dried group this morning, led by their red-robed monk shepherd. They insisted he say grace in Tibetan before they ate their pancakes. God knows how many thousands of dollars they are paying for this packaged chaperoned India.

I suppose I shouldn't be mocking Americans who have an impulse to explore other cultures and travel abroad - after all I am one myself, and when you consider the great mall-going masses, really these folks
are quite refreshing. This group (UMP) tend to be extremely open, almost wide-eyed about the whole thing. But, just that whole thing of ... trying to turn EVERYTHING, even pancakes, into some significant religious experience to tell stories about back home.

Then there are the career
Buddhists in the know. They travel independently and always know the date HH is arriving, the date of the long-life puja and never fail to have some kind of inside information about some top-secret ribbon cutting event that ONLY Rinpoche so and so knows about, and he told them...but don't tell anyone....

There are also Buddhist clergy of all nationalities and robe-colours, it's almost like a monastic fashion show. Maroon, mustard, and grey are the most common, but you will also find orange, black and white for various Buddhist denominations. Australian and Taiwanese nuns, Ladakhi and American monks. Tibetans speaking English, Americans speaking Tibetan, Tibetans speaking Hindi to shopkeepers...

...and of course the French, who are visibly struggling, finally having to admit that French is NOT the most important language in the world. I enjoy seeing them limp along, struggling to be misunderstood by the locals who speak much better English.
Another way to spot the French is by the cigarette smoke - indoors. That, and the fact that they take forever to order in restaurants. Every little thing must be absolutely perfect and they ALWAYS have some special exception they want made ... and they NEVER are able to explain it in good English. Try not to get stuck with a French party in a restaurant, this will delay your order by a good 20 minutes to half hour.

Don't forget the inevitable and numerous beggars (all Indian, many able-bodied and young) who flock anywhere there is a hint of "religion" and foreign money. Please don't give them anything at all, no
t even food or attention.

Go (away), big orange
There is also a cadre of Indian beggar monks (aka the Stinky Orange monks) in bright orange robes. They are trading on the fact that everyone thinks they're Theravadins from Sri Lanka. But Theravadins are immaculately clean. You can smell these guys coming literally a dozen feet away. I am really not sure what denomination, if any, they fall under; some kind of generic Mahayana I suppose.

Traditionally, monks were supposed to beg for a living --but that took the form of sitting out in the road or going from home to home with a begging bowl and accepting whatever was pu
t into it, regardless. These guys accost foreigners and beg for cash. If you give them too little (10Rs) they complain and ask for more. I think they are actually a pimped begging gang sent out by their master, an unscrupulous "abbot" from Bodh Gaya. They turn over some of the money to their master and pocket what they can.

Thank all the gods for the Tibetan old-timers. They ground the whole event with a peaceful, smiling, uncomplaining presence. Their constantly whirring prayer-wheels
create a sort of vortex around them and even on the bus or in the market, many are continually chanting mantras. They and some of the Career Buddhists are the only people wearing Tibetan clothing. The young Tibetans, with short greased up hair and tight jeans, are all dressed like Hindi cinema stars.

Gimme a break
Whew! I need to go for a walk. Maybe down by the river...nope, stinks too bad, way too dirty. I mean the ground itself even, not just the water. All the parks will be jam packed as it's the Sunday following Christmas. There's always Lodi Gardens or Hauz Khas Deer Park.

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