Sunday, December 16, 2007

Trouble in paradise

Blue skies, no tsampa
Leh, Ladakh

I've been trying to wrap up my interview materials here in Leh for the past week. The interview session with the Principle of the Central Institute for Buddhist Higher Studies started off stiff and weird but turned out well.

Actually, I think the monk Kanchen Sonam, who was kind enough to come and pick me up in the monastery-owned car (one of four), is the man who really knows the inside story on the incarnation search for Bakula Rinpoche. No disrespect to his knowledge, but I think the principle was kind of a Buddhist spokesmodel. That is, he knew all the proper "acceptable" things to say to me, In English.

Anthropologists must have a handy jargon term for the phenomenon I keep encountering, but I just call it "assuming the worst." That is, whenever I approach a "native" informant (even with my rather non-corporate, non-mainstream appearance) they assume the absolute worst about me and my writing intentions. They launch into a pre-rehearsed speech (I can tell) about how modern, progressive and un-superstitious their people and ways are. How nobody believes in those old things any more. How all the people here are now educated .... blah, blah, blah.

In this case, I asked a direct question about "the search process for the new Bakula Rinpoche." I got a speech about how things were different now, you know the Dalai Lama himself is very scientific, we don't have any blind faith in Buddhism, etc.....

It takes a minimum of half an hour, usually, to crack this facade. They just assume I am a non-believing skeptical westerner there to mock their traditions. Usually, I have to do what we used to call, back in the hip-hop days, "dropping science."

That is, I have to violate what I consider a rule of interviewing (the interviewee should talk more than the interviewer) and demonstrate a bit of inside knowledge.

In this case, I think it was dropping the Sanskrit term "ishtadevata" (personal chosen deity). We were discussing the role of oracles in local Buddhist tradition, or trying to. I had to start throwing esoteric terms at him in order to prevent him explaining the whole thing from the ground up, which would have been redundant.

Finally, I got a genuine smile. Yes, she kind of understands, even though she is an Injee! "Yes, like an ishtadevata!" he repeated the magic word. In this way we finally came to an understanding, which went something like this (paraphrased): Science is all well and good and very very necessary. But we cannot discard all the old traditions, they have a science of their own. There is something to mystical traditions that is important to preserve, even if we cannot or do not yet consciously understand it.

Whew. Now, we are getting somewhere. The upshot of the conversation was: Yes, the search for the new Bakula has already begun. Since the passing of the Rinpoche, special pujas have been done, and a special mantra, designed to bring about his swift reincarnation, has been recited millions of times by the monks of all four monasteries and is still being recited every morning.

At this time, there are three boys who have come to the attention of the Spituk presiding authorities. Rather than go on a house-to-house search (as made famous in the movie Kundun), these boys came to the lamas' notice through reports. All three of the boys had shown special interest in Spituk Monastery, talking about it, insisting on visiting and so on. One of the boys had reportedly even pronounced Kushok Bakula Rinpoche's name (remember, the boys in question are about three).

One boy is from Nubra Valley, another from the remote Changtang region still inhabited by nomadic people. The third is actually of Tibetan (as opposed to Ladakhi) descent living in the Agling refugee camp outside of Leh.

At this time all three boys' names have been submitted to the Sras Rinpoche, who is heading the Bakula's monasteries in the meantime. He is conferring with other high lamas, including the Dalai Lama, about the matter. In case of any dispute, the final decision will rest with the Dalai Lama. A decision should be reached within the year.

Then, there will be an enthronement ceremony and much rejoicing. "We will invite you!"

All politics is local
It would be a real shame for the search for the new Rinpoche to fall prey to the local political infighting, but it does seem inevitable. As previously reported, the Buddhist political "scene" has for the past several years fragmented into various factions - so much so that, following the November 3rd "incident" at the main Gompa, the Ladakhi Buddhist Association office has remained completely closed. (Faction A and Faction B were fighting, the police were called, and shots were fired inside the Gompa grounds. This resulted in the rallies, protests and strikes mentioned earlier. What I really hate is that the people are practically forced to attend. Some try to make a statement by staying away entirely.)

My attempts to get quotes from local Buddhist "figures" about the Bakula situation and the role played by the Dalai Lama in local peacemaking have been so far thwarted. The LBA office is locked, and no one will even give me a name of a sometime or former or would-be LBA spokesperson to refer to . The Gompa itself (smack in the middle of downtown Leh) is being operated by a volunteer organization who are currently hosting a prayer ceremony.

I saw a notice on the bulletin board naming someone as General Secretary, so I started asking around for him. This caused a bit of consternation among the volunteers. They were just there volunteering and definitely didn't want any trouble.

"Who told you that was the secretary?" someone finally asked. Well, it says so on the board....I answered. "He is not the secretary. No one knows who is the secretary. Soon there will be new elections." But for now, no one's in charge and the whole thing is in disarray.

During the Dalai Lama's visit this year, he met with both Shi'a and Sunni Muslims and lauded them for getting along well locally, saying they were "an example for other communities." At the time I thought he meant Muslim infighting in other countries like Iraq and Pakistan. Now I think he was referring to the infighting in the Buddhist community, right here at home.


Linda (Sama) said...

I tagged ya, SS, if you want to play....

Pratyush Tiwary said...

Of late, I have grown fond of your travel blogs. I wonder though, how do you gather the finances to support yourself and your journeys? You do not appear a hitchhiker to me in any case!

I look forward to our reply.

Sirensongs said...

@Pratyush: Thanks for your praise. But this is a personal question, not the kind I answer to strangers. No hard feelings.