Sunday, December 30, 2007
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 movie (beard and sandals).
I used to be far more tolerant of this sort of thing. At one point, it was what 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 comb 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, not 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 put 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.
Location: The Blogosphere
I just glanced at my sidebar and noticed.
So, this is what our ancestors in the primordial ooze felt like aeons ago.
I have moved up in the Truth Laid Bear Blog Ecosystem!
(For non-bloggers, this is one of the more fun and cleverly arranged blog-ranking snob systems. Blogs begin as Insignificant Microbes -- actually I was lucky, I started off as a Multicellular Microorganism -- and move their way up to Slimy Mollusc, Flappy Bird and finally Mortal Human.)
I am really not sure what the criteria are...except survival of the fittest or best-adapted.
I am proud to say that my blog - and perhaps by extension, myself - has evolved from Multi-Cellular Microorganism to Flippery Fish. I share this distinction with about 1000 other blogs including those named "Two Sock Knitters" and "Ziggurat Of Doom."
Before you know it, we'll be walking on land. No offense to those who don't believe in evolution (like some of my family members).
So my badge now reads:
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Tibet Colony, Delhi
God, the Yamuna stinks.
The Yamuna is, or rather was, the river that runs through Delhi and the same river that runs past the Taj Mahal. It doesn't run any more...just kind of oozes.
There is some kind of billion-rupee campaign to "save the Yamuna." I have news for them...it's too late.
And the rotting body of the river is stinking up anywhere within radius. Here in Tibet Colony (aka Majnu Ka Tilla, aka New Aruna Nagar, aka MT), we are a mere stone's throw from the Yamuna.
I had decided I wanted to both save a bit of money and support the refugee community by staying here. But the stench! About half the day, it aggressively smells like a sewer. All I can do to escape it is go in my room and light Tibetan incense.
Above is a recycled photo from 2 years ago in MT. Not much has changed - the exact same ear-cleaning guys are there wearing the same red monkey caps. But in what is obviously the way of "the new India," there are now several brand spanking-new flat-screen late night net cafes with good connections, as well as a couple of more upscale coffee shops serving espresso...in addition to smelling much worse and hosting lots more imported beggars.
In fact, now there are even a couple of Tibetan beggars (young men). This is very rare, and I sincerely hope it stays that way.
On the plus side, the upscale coffee shops, a couple of new guest houses, and state of the art net places mean that individual entrepreneurship is on the upswing. I like seeing these businesses, run by talented and efficient young Tibetans and Indians. I just wish someone could figure out how to make direct money by cleaning up the river (or the sidewalk).
Coming down the mountain
Now entering Day Four of descent to Sea Level and I still feel partly hung over, partly as though someone's hit me on the head with a frying pan (like a cartoon).
I spent most of yesterday getting out to the Delhi Bureau of HHDL, who told me that despite having been submitted 9 weeks ago, my permit still wasn't ready. The web site says it requires 8 weeks. Now the office says it requires three entire months.
I made a polite fuss and they issued a "permit still under process" paper that is evidently very common, bearing the Snow Lion stamp of the Tibetan Government In Exile.
If you do need to get to the Delhi Bureau of HH the Dalai Lama, it is wayyyyyy out on Ring Road (for foreigners: Ring Roads are bypass roads that are usually on the outskirts of town...making a ring round the congestion), in a place called Lajpat Nagar. An autorickshaw there from M T will cost you about 90Rs. The drivers at MT will insist it's 120Rs. Lajpat Nagar is an enormous sprawling shopping area and you have to find Phase 4, #10 Ring Road.
If you stop a rickshaw and say, "Bureau Office Lajpat Nagar?" the driver will automatically say "Yes, get in." This does not mean they have ever heard of it or know at all where it is. It just means they are game to try and find it, if you are willing to take extra time, stop about half a dozen times literally, and ask dozens of people. Of course, YOU must pay for all the time wasted wandering around asking questions.
I tried to imagine a system like that of London in which prospective drivers must really study city maps and take exams in order to get a taxi license. It wouldn't work in India. Here, they would just pay off the examiner...or operate without a license.
"The last great imperial adventurer"
Since some of my readers think (judging from comments) I am some kind of patronizing imperialist (albeit one who receives no profit from their empire), I decided to read Patrick French's bio of Sir Francis Younghusband, who led the British invasion of Tibet. It does help me go to sleep at night. To be fair, it was French's first book. I think Tibet, Tibet which was many years later is a much better read.
In the back of the book there is an "interviews with the author" section, including "Life Drawing" questions.
Here are Patrick French's replies, followed by my own.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
French: Freedom from the state.
Sirensongs: A bottomless pot of tea and a good book.
What is your greatest fear?
French: Being caught in a moving car with a live rook.
Me: Being caught in a moving car with a bridge railing coming at me. Wait a minute, that already happened in 2001.
Which living person do you most admire?
French: It's not about admiration.
Me: HH the 14th Dalai Lama.
What objects do you always carry with you?
Me: Camera, ink pen, notebook, eye liner, sunblock, contact lens case, eye drops, Ibuprofen, Hajmola and a nail file.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Me: The unimportance of emotions (as opposed to feelings, which are different). Oh, that and to be wary of the interests of others.
Which writer has had the greatest influence on your work?
French: F Scott Fitzgerald.
Me: Lester Bangs.
Do you have a favourite book?
French: It changes every week.
Me: What kind of book? A couple of spiritual classics that I keep carrying around with me are Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa and The Sunlit Path by The Mother.
For reality-based stuff: I practically memorized Popism: The Warhol Sixties when I was 18.
As a scholarly work that you can actually enjoy reading, Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is un-put-downable. If I feel blocked, I just have to read a few graphs and words start flowing again.
Travel writing: A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton really set the standard for the type of "spiritual journey" autobio travel books that are now so run of the mill. It's fantastic --not only did he meet so many luminaries who are now gone but he describes it all so magically.
I noticed that late in Younghusband's career, he managed to meet up with Brunton. Patrick French takes a dim view of this apparently because Brunton was born as Rafael Horst, then changed his name. Like that invalidates everything he wrote....?
Where do you go for inspiration?
French: BHS (Siren note: what is that??)
Me: The mountains and forests.
Which book do you wish you had written?
French: The bio of VS Naipaul.
Me: Let's be practical. Any of the Harry Potters, because then I would never have to work again, and neither would any of my family.
What do you think of literary prizes?
French: Arbitrary but useful for young authors.
Me: They're good and someday I will win one. Unfortunately, there is not (yet) a Pulitzer for Spiritual Investigative Reporting.
What are you writing at the moment?
French: The bio of VS Naipaul.
Me: News feature story about the search for the reincarnated Kushok Bakula Rinpoche.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Tibet Colony, Delhi, India
I'm in the New Sakya Cyber Cafe in Majnu-Ka Tilla ("Tibet Colony"), Delhi. The cyber guy is playing Chipmunks Christmas music ("Please Christmas Don't Be Late"). I knew Christmas in Delhi would be weird, but I never could have predicted the Chipmunks.
I had to come out here, even though it's not centrally located, because it was a little bit like Ladakh. Or Dharamsala, without the good restaurants.
I am still recovering from the drop in altitude and culture shock. Give me a day or so to produce a proper blog entry. For now, here's the Lamawatch.
HH Dalai Lama Begins Teachings of 13 Deity Yamantaka
Dharamsala, December 22: His Holiness the Dalai Lama began a five-day teaching at the Main Temple (Tsuglagkhang) at the request of Gandan Thegchenling Monastery of Ulan Bator, Mongolia. After the five days' teachings, on the morning of December 27, the Mongolian Buddhist group will organise a long life offering ceremony to the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Some 250 Buddhists from Mongolia, mainly monks from the monastery, are attending the teachings. Hundreds of Tibetans and, a sizeable Buddhists from Korea and western countries, and some Chinese Buddhists attended the first day teaching here today....
...Tenzin, a monk student from the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, said that an initiation is a must before carrying out a formal teaching of Guru Puja. “His Holiness has decided to confer Lha Chusoom Jigjey Kawang, one of the highest tantric initiations, for two days this time”, Tenzin says.
Maybe I'll shoot on up on the 12-hour bus ride to Dharamsala. Who better to play Santa Claus than the Big D L? Here's a photo I took at the 2006 Kalachakra in Andhra Pradesh.
Rumour (not yet verified) has it that there will be a January 2009 Kalachakra, again in Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh. Shout out to the homeboys and girls in Guntur! Vijay, Teja and Asha - Bagundhi!
Saturday, December 22, 2007
For today's entry I am nicking the title of a pre-existing book about the "Vanishing Himalayan Kingdoms" Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and Mustang. I have yet to read So Close to Heaven by Barbara Crossette, but it expresses so perfectly the feeling I have when up among the snow covered hills.
Green, gold, grey, white. I have seen the Ladakhi landscape completely change colours four times. When I arrived in August the valleys were lush and green. The green turned to amber gold. There are a few weeks before the serious snow when everything just appears grey. Now from Hemis onward the valleys are blinding white, and the Indus, still running turquoise, is edged in ice.
The picture above was taken from the rooftop of Chemdey Gompa near Serthi ("Sakti") village.
Changes in latitude, changes in attitude
I had such a perfect "last day in Ladakh" on Dec. 19th, with trips to Chemdey and TakTok gompas and cozy, glowing village homes, that I decided to extend my stay another 2 days, into the Winter Solstice. There was a special chaam (ritual masked dance) at Chemdey monastery, and I was invited. A special chaam dance at a monastery on the Solstice - I couldn't resist.
As luck would have it, yesterday I ended up with altitude sickness, which ruined the next 18 hours. How, after 4 months at 13,500 feet, did I end up with altitude sickness, you ask?
I was invited to visit a remote (really remote) mountain monastery called Kaspang, past a valley called Igu, way out past Karu village. "It is so beautiful!" enthused my friends. "You won't believe it."
When we arrived at Igu Village, the entire local populace appeared to be out in the winding street, except for a few kids with makeshift snowboards who were skating on the frozen river. It turned out to be a cremation and funeral. A young woman of the village had died - no more than 25 years old or so.
My friends and the driver could not be deterred from their mission to the monastery. So we drove through lanes that became increasingly less dirt and more snow. About 2 kms from the monastery, the road was just covered in snow - about 4 inches. Not bad to walk in, but too much for the car (not a jeep) to make it uphill.
My Ladakhi friends insisted we abandon the car and walk, uphill, for the next 2kms. After about 1000 feet it became painfully- literally painfully - obvious that we were up too high for me to go hiking.
"How high are we anyway?" I puffed, seeing sparkles like confetti before my eyes.
"Oh, about 15,000 feet" Dorje answered.
For a Ladakhi, that is no problem. For ordinary lowlanders, once you get about 10,000 feet, every 1000 feet or so requires a new adjustment period. If you don't believe me, just try it.
At this point we had been at 15,000 feet about 2 hours. We had gained about 1,500 feet from our starting point in Leh valley. I was suffering in a very real way from altitude. My Ladakhi friends, never having been in this situation themselves, refused to recognize it.
"Come on! It will take only half an hour!" I looked up at the gompa in the distance, which with its white walls against the white mountains, felt like a mirage. It was at least one and a half hour's walk by my speed - including breath-catching stops. My friends could have walked the whole thing in half an hour.
Blood singing in my ears, I turned and looked back where we had walked. The entire panorama was just like Seven Years in Tibet or the Shangri-la movie of your choice - unbelievably austere, lonely, purified by aeons of snow which managed to be crunchy and soft at the same time. Amazingly, not so cold, especially when you are hiking. And no wind.
In the distance a lone man in a black goncha robe was leading an equally black and mighty, shaggy dzo (yak hybrid) through a pass. They looked like ink hieroglyphs on white paper. There was no sign of habitation anywhere around them. The man and animal appeared to have emerged from nowhere - they must have been trudging for hours. I suddenly wished I was riding the ponderous dzo. The yaks and dzos are so deliberate and grave in their movements, they are almost like walking boulders.
I looked down. Tracks of mysterious animals made pie-crust patterns across the powder. Sometimes the tracks criss-crossed one another. The trident shape of a partridge or magpie's feet, what looked like the petite hopping of a snow rabbit, and one kind of track that appeared in sets of three. Must have been a galloping wolf.
Back to reality. "There's no way," I said. "I can't make it. Sorry to ruin all your fun." From the comments, it was obvious my companions just thought I was being a wimp. Literally, I would walk fifty feet and have to collapse onto a rock. Still, they thought I was malingering.
My head was spinning. I heard one of them say, "Come on, take a picture of me with the gompa behind!" (I was the only one with a camera (quite possibly the reason I was invited.)
Finally I got angry. This s*** is dangerous, and here they were joking around about it. "Can you not see," I hissed, "that I am SICK, and ready to collapse? I am NOT laughing. This is NOT a joke. I have every single symptom of altitude, and still you won't listen to me!!! We have to go down." As soon as I was able, I wheeled around and began backtracking firmly toward the car.
By the time we got back to Igu, we had been at 15,000 feet nearly 3 hours. It took nearly the next 24 hours to recover. Moral of the story if you are not Ladakhi: Don't go trekking with Ladakhis (or Tibetans) who are not professional guides. They think you are faking altitude sickness. In a way, it makes sense. They have never and probably will never experience it themselves, unless they climb Everest. Moral of the story if you are Ladakhi: don't take foreigners up to 15,000 feet and then expect them to hike up a hill, unless you want to carry them back down.
Down to earth
When we finally got to Igu, we stopped at the house of a distant relative (all Ladakhis appear to be cousins of cousins of second cousins from their father's village). As if to prove my symptoms were real, I dropped my glass of butter tea on the floor. "I don't have coordination yet." Then I dropped a biscuit someone handed me. And I couldn't really hear anything anyone was saying - like being underwater. It's like being drunk without any of the fun.
Eventually, after seeing me move like a drunkard, my friends started to take the condition seriously. I am still pissed off that it ruined the last day and half in Ladakh. I did get to take a fun sleeping pill at home to help me sleep it off and recover, though.
The very last day (today) was additionally ruined by the LUTF strike. All shops were closed till about 3pm. Altitude sickness, beautiful scenery, spilt butter tea and political strikes - all in all a very Ladakhi day or 2.
After the teachings at Mundgod, Karnataka, HH Dalai Lama will hoof it to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, to open a Tibet festival, make a bunch of speeches and inaugurate a bunch of stuff. Here's the news item.
I am interested to see HH on Gandhi's home turf, which has been so wracked by communal violence. I wonder if any local groups will invite him to address the subject.
Here is a photo I took of HH at the Hindu Long-Life puja in Dharamsala, back in April. I wonder whether he is looking at me saying, "So good to see you!" or, "You again!!!" Or maybe, "Get outta my way already...."
Here is the kind of news item it might have carried if it were still in print.
December 20, 2007.
Ladakhis Demand Official Status for their Language
Last Thursday, several thousand Ladakhis staged a demonstration in the city of Jammu to demand that Ladakhi be added to the list of official Indian languages. Dressed in traditional costumes, over 2,000 people, carrying placards and flags, shouted that Ladakhi, also called Bhoti or Bhodi, should be included on the eighth schedule of the Indian national constitution, which lists the 18 official languages of India.
....Bhoti is an archaic form of Tibetan, and while it is not normally understood by the people of Tibet, its dialects are mutually understood by people in Leh, Kargil, Zangskar, and other regions of Ladakh—and to some extent beyond. According to Rizvi, scholars have been trying to develop a written form of Bhoti to correspond to colloquial Ladakhi, but as yet, the written form of the language is still Tibetan.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
News from Bombay
Some Bombay associates of the very cool Indo-Tibetan alliance Friends of Tibet have launched a new world map, including Tibet as it stood prior to the Chinese invasion of 1950.
If you're looking for Tibet on this new map, it is the very large white blob beneath Kazakhstan and Mongolia. Huge!
Sure, there are detractors who say "but all those areas were not traditionally governed from Lhasa;" or "in some of those areas they actually SPOKE CHINESE!" which is sort of like saying, "in some areas of New York City they speak Spanish, that means it is actually part of Mexico."
Anyway, as a big fan (almost fetishist) of maps I was glad to see it. Thanks to Rohit Singh, who conceptualized and designed the map.
Leh/Shakti/Chemdey/Karu villages, Ladakh
After a day of driving through snow-covered villages I am very tempted to change my ticket. But as it stands, I am flying Friday morning to Delhi. Farewell for now to the land of crazy pashmina goats (didn't write yet about my attack by a pashmina goat!), frozen rivers and very expensive internet.
As long as the sun is out, even December in Ladakh is a pristine fairyland, with monasteries perched like fairy-tale castles on solitary hills. And all those other cliches....:-)
But, I haven't washed my hair in more than a week. Not that it matters, neither has anyone else...
You never know who is going to be an Indian intelligence officer in Ladakh (or perhaps, some other kind of intelligence officer, in which case they would be a spy). I have discovered that a number of things and establishments presenting themselves in an ordinary way are in fact intelligence operations.
It's kind of cool, because since I fully understand neither Hindi nor Ladakhi, I am not a high security risk. I did overhear the English words "body" and "spy" in an official conversation yesterday, though, in an official office with official officials. I was given strict instructions not to reveal the true identity of the office I was sitting in. Naturally, I wouldn't, but I think the Chinese and Pakistani governments probably know already. It made me wonder how many Chinese and Pakistani undercovers are walking around town. Not something I want to know too much about...I am a "spiritual investigative reporter" (thanks, Kullu Kid of IndiaMike.com) and prefer to keep it that way.
If you want to determine whether someone is "intelligence" I would recommend looking at the shoes. The shoes tell the whole story (with everyone, not just intelligence). Black, expensive shoes are a giveaway.
What do my shoes (slate-grey Merrell hiking boots, a donation from travel-mates Lisa & Jonah Nigro!) say? They are saying "I need a new pair." If anyone is coming over, I wear an American Boys' size 9.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
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.
Friday, December 14, 2007
Chanspa, Leh, Ladakh
It had to happen sometime. I had to do laundry in freezing weather, in a gurgling stream (melt-water coming down from the mountains), my hands red and freezing and numb, the water so cold the detergent barely dissolves.
I was surrounded by Ladakhis (men and women) doing the same thing. Other people came to fill up their jerry cans and big plastic jugs with the piped stream water. I am not sure where the piped water comes from - hopefully from some place where people are not doing laundry.
A sign painted in both English and Ladakhi says very clearly "Please do not wash clothing or vehicles here." Yet this is the community laundromat.
To do Ladakhi laundry, you will need:
-at least one plastic bucket (doubles as a way to carry the clothes to and from)
-heavy duty plastic "post mortem" gloves to put over your cloth gloves, the kind my cousin the vet used to deliver foals; also perhaps the kind used to work with radioactive substances
-a big piece of plastic or something to lay the clean clothes on while you are using the bucket to wash the rest of them. Or, you could throw them over the chain link fence...but they clung with the freeze immediately to the metal.
Before I had finished washing all the items, icicles were dripping from the clean pants on the fence.
Not that I am glad others are having a hard time, but it is affirming to find that other bloggers are also combating the Anon Troll Menace.
Witness today's posts featured on the Indian blog-aggregator Desi Pundit.
As I laboriously explained in more than one personal email this week: The cyberworld is no more a free for all than the "real" world. Every emerging electronic technology has its etiquette. (Call waiting, voice mail, Blind CC on emails, etc. )
Leaving Anonymous negativity on someone's site is like lobbing a bomb at their front porch, then running away and hiding. Or, like a childish prank phone call. If your point of view is worth typing out, it's worth defending and that means signing in. Web 2.0 was meant to facilitate mutual conversations, not cyber vandalism.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Well, I do get fed up, for sure, with my inability to be everywhere at once. At any given time there are about a dozen places to be, things to do and people to talk to that I find fascinating and worthwhile. This, in contrast to my adopted hometown of Nashville where an appearance by the local belly dancing troupe is the highlight of the month.
Until I learn how to bi-locate, I will continue to miss a few things.
For instance, what looks like it was a powerful, well-organized and well-attended rally of the All India Tibet Support Groups network. The occasion was International Human Rights Day (December 10) in Delhi. (I think this is also the anniversary, in this case the 18th year, of HH the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.)
The Indian Tibet support groups (such as the All-Party India Parliamentary Forum and Friends of Tibet) are critical, I believe, not only for the Tibetan people and their status after the passing of the Dalai Lama but for Indian national security.
I especially like the banner that reads "India: Remember 1962." (If you don't get the reference, Google it for pete's sake. Here are some clues: "India" "China" "1962".)
Here are some awesome photos by Tenzin Dasel for Phayul.
The photo above is one of my own taken at Tibetan Uprising Day, March 10, 2007 in Dharamsala.
Location: The Indian Blogosphere
Here we go again.
No sooner do I remove the "sign in" bar to the comments ("this blog does not accept anonymous comments") than I start getting the Anonymous Cowards.
They are always anonymous. Evidently they don't believe their views will stand up to scrutiny. As soon as I saw the word "anonymous," I knew it was trouble. And they are ALWAYS critical -- there seem to be no anonymous compliments. Their only ability is to criticize and then run and hide behind mommy's skirts.
Judging from the tone (which usually compares me to some kind of colonialist or imperialist), judgmental phrasing, and quite often, the spelling (incomplete words, use of "u" for example) they are often either Indian, or that peculiar breed of westerner overcompensating for not being Indian. Not that it matters to me. It certainly seems to matter to the commenters, though.
Today, we get this bit of unsubtle judgment. I especially love the "you know":
Perhaps I should have put quote marks around the words "quaint, Buddhist." They are not my thoughts, but reflect the popular image of Ladakh - that is, this cute little pure land populated by monks in maroon robes. This is not my view - perhaps I did not make that clear - but the conventional one in much of popular imagination - including that of Indian tourists who seem to see the place as primarily a backdrop for their picturesque holidays.
Very few people four solid months here interviewing and living with the local families. My view of Ladakh and its Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian population is far more nuanced than that. It is my mistake to not have made that clear by saying, perhaps, "Ladakh, so long perceived as an innocent, quaint Buddhist land...."
Hopefully, this clarifies the original statement.
If you wish to be taken seriously please identify yourself. It was only a matter of a day or two, and the anonymous cowards start in again.....
We're going back to sign-ins, sorry. Cowards cannot be trusted to identify themselves and therefore carry on a mature conversation, preferring to run and hide.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The sun didn't rise yesterday. At least, that's what it looked and felt like. Complete, opaque, Liquid Paper impenetrable white sky.
Yesterday was also the Day After New Year's Day here. January 2nd is depressing pretty much anywhere, and Ladakh is no different. Most of the stores were still shut, the streets largely empty. Only a few people dropped by the house for Losar; the majority of them had visited on Dec. 10, the actual traditonal Ladakhi new year. (I get to celebrate three or four different new years over here. Newar New Year in Nepal is in October; then Ladakhi Losar, then "English New Year"; then Tibetan Losar in February; then Tamil and Hindu New Year in April.)
It was so bitterly cold I almost didn't leave the house at all. It was much more comforting just sitting in the kitchen in front of the gas heater with Dolkar. She had to make butter tea all day long for the past 2 days, for the Losar guests. I helped out by washing dishes and trying to keep the dining hall neat and clean.
However, the trade-off for all this bitter cold was SNOW - my first ever Indian snowfall. By the time I arrived home around 6.30pm, snow was falling like confetti on New Year, strangely appropriate.
In the morning, we were greeted with a Winter Wonderland. No more than a centimeter or 2 of snow...but it blanketed everything. Best of all, we were treated to a generous day of sunshine. The perfect combination - snow on the ground, sun in the sky.
Since the sun decided to show today, it was the perfect day to embark on the last leg of this particular Ladakh mission: taking the bus out to Spituk Gompa just outside town (nestled between a military air base and a bunch of other military posts). I am on the trail of a newly incarnated Rinpoche, or high Tibetan lama who has chosen to reincarnate in a particular place and time in order to help "all sentient beings."
In this case, it's particularly to help all Ladakhi sentient beings. The Lama in question is Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, who "left his body" only two years ago. Bakula, in addition to being a member of the royal family, an incarnate lama and a Geshe Lharampa educated in pre-invasion Tibet, was also prominent diplomat (he became the Indian Ambassador to Mongolia), educator, social reformer, and philanthropist. Bakula is practically worshipped as a god among many Ladakhis. His photo (with prominent brow, eyes and ears a great deal like Yoda or ET) peers down from many a Ladakhi shop counter and vehicle dashboard.
Like a lot of high lamas in Buddhist dominated areas, he got involved in politics as well. In addition to being worshipped and admired he definitely had his detractors. That bit doesn't overly concern me, though. I am interested in the process of Operation Tulku Search - finding the newly incarnated lama.
Spituk Gompa was one of the "home" monasteries of Bakula Rinpoche. As I got off the mini-bus, I noticed the government street sign was spelt "Spithup Gompa."
There appeared to be absolutely no one home. After fifteen minutes of walking around empty corridors yelling "Jullay? Azhang-le? Acho-le??" a monk carrying a tea tray spotted me. I had been directed to Lama Kanchen Sonam.
When I found Kanchen Sonam, he insisted his English was no good and I should actually speak with someone in the nearby village of Sabu.
But I persisted, and after dropping a few key words of Buddhist jargon that showed I knew more than the average tourist, he invited me in for tea and biscuits. We ended up having a long conversation (somehow, despite language differences) about Bakula's significance and life works. Kanchen was only 12 when he first came to Spituk some 15 years ago. Obviously Kanchen had known and looked up to Bakula all his life. "All people of Ladakh now are praying," he said, " for Bakula to come quickly."
I wanted to know: what exactly will they do to find the new Rinpoche? I know they had done some pujas. Will they use an oracle? Meditate, examine their dreams? When will they begin the search from house to house? How will they know where to start?
Kanchen said the Dalai Lama was consulted during his summer visit here. It was somehow determined that the new Rinpoche had already taken birth, somewhere here in Ladakh. There was a bit of controversy because the people of Mongolia, who also remember him so fondly, had insisted he would be reborn there.
Because he talked to me for so long, Kanchen was late to say his 4pm prayers. So, I had to help him empty and refill the offering bowls for afternoon worship. As if to discourage me from snooping around the gompa while he prayed, the electric lights went out promptly as he started chanting.
I caught a late bus back home to Leh. Kanchen and I are meeting tomorrow to consult with someone at the Central Institute for Buddhist Higher Studies about reincarnation. Someone who "has full English."
Saturday, December 08, 2007
News from Nepal
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the mountains.
Kathmandu, Dec 8 (IANS) Even as a red-faced Nepal government arrested two Maoist guerrillas after the tale of their assault of a Swiss tourist hit the headlines worldwide, complaints started pouring in from more and more foreigners about their harassment at the hand of the rebels, whose leadership takes pride in saying no foreigner was ever attacked during the 10-year armed uprising. A team of Swiss journalists, who had gone to the Annapurna region about a week ago, ironically to write about the tourism potential of Nepal, are alleging Maoists forced them to pay NRS 2,000.
'We were harassed by the Maoist activists and eventually, had to pay NRS 2,000,' Lorenz Kummer, foreign editor of Swiss daily Der Bund told the Himalayan Times daily.
'We argued that the (Maoist) leaders had said there would be no extortion,' the daily Saturday quoted Kummer as saying. 'But they did not let us pass.'
'They did not attack us but we had a very bad time,' Kummer said.
It's weird, but I almost have a feeling of satisfaction from hearing this. Nepal is still a mess. I can still count on that. In a world of uncertainty and impermanence, some things are permanently messy and uncertain.
When asked about travel in Nepal, I always have to tell the stories of how the Maoists were extorting donations last year, complete with printed receipt. The receipt featured portraits of Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, Stalin and Mao, in a Mount Rushmore pose.
No, I always had to say...but I have photos of them from friends who did.
This never fails to disappoint.
Well, now I have a chance to get my very own Maobadi souvenir, once again. And so do you!
Eventually, the tourists agreed to pay NRS 2,000 after being told that their Nepali porters would be in trouble if they refused to 'donate'.
After they made the payment, the group was handed a receipt with a flourish...written in English.
The 'Appeal to foreign tourists' said that Maoists survived on 'voluntary donation from well wishers and supporters' at a time there was a vicious propaganda against them.
'We loathe the very idea of extortion,' the pamphlet said. 'We humbly appeal to you to make a voluntary donation according to your capacity.'
The assault came at a time Nepal is expecting tourist arrivals to cross the half a million mark and triggered protests to the government from hotel and travel trade associations.
To be fair, it probably is safe to go trekking, as long as you don't try to haggle. All the Maoists have ever wanted from foreigners is money. So, bring an extra couple of thousand and be ready to part with it.
Don't forget to get a receipt!
Friday, December 07, 2007
Our interview was delayed by a half hour because of a forced strike called throughout Leh. Coming into town I noticed every single shop was closed and shutters "downed." Only the Aluya restaurant had been "allowed" to stay open.
That way, there is no competition from business or socializing, and townspeople are essentially forced to either stay home or attend the "meeting" most of them care little about. As Jon Stewart would say, Democracy Inaction!
Mr Ghani Sheikh said, "The shopkeepers hate it, the people hate it. They lose business, they waste time this way. But it has become so common, now they are used to it. They just accept it as part of life now."
The photo below was taken (by me) at Annual Teachings last March in Dharamsala. Most of the old lamas (and some of the younger ones) seated on the platform near the Dalai Lama are also reincarnated lamas, or Tulkus. So when the Dalai Lama looks like he's greeting an old friend, he is possibly greeting a very, very old friend (like, through lifetimes).
Here's the latest:
News from Milan, Italy via Leh, Ladakh
MILAN: Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Thursday suggested that his successor could be a woman.
"If a woman reveals herself as more useful the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form," the 14th Dalai Lama told reporters in Milan, where he arrived for a private visit on Wednesday.
full story here.
But the visit was not without its political complications, as usual
...The Buddhist leader also said his 11-day visit to Italy was "not political" and that he did not intend to "cause problems for the state and the (Italian) authorities."
Beijing has complained to the Italian foreign ministry over the visit, which will take the 1989 Nobel peace prize laureate to Rome for four days from December 12, even though he will not meet with any members of the Italian government.
A planned meeting with Pope Benedict XVI was cancelled, in a decision that Italian media reports said facilitated the ordination on Tuesday of a new bishop in Guangdong, southern China, with the Vatican's approval.
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
This morning I heard drums outside the guest house. Tsering said because it is the first day of Ladakhi Losar (the New Year celebration which ends on the 10th), the traditional drummers are making the rounds.
Ladakh has its own sort of Buddhist caste system, and musicians are a distinct group known as the Mon. Dancers, singers and musicians used to be a separate caste in most parts of India. Tsering said they go around playing the daman (drum) and surna (a kind of clarinet or shenai) in every neighborhood asking for money.
"In the old days," he said, "we used to give only tsampa (barley) powder, chappati, food, like that. Now we are expected to give some cash," he smiled. How much? "Oh, ten, twenty rupees, like that." So it's a bit like Ladakhi trick-or-treating.
-a single file line of fuzzy grey donkeys, their colour identical to that of the surrounding mountains, trudging slowly up the street in search of some prime scavenging. They always remind me of the manger scene in the Christmas Story.
-Old men and women selling baskets of dried apricots -- with faces that look also like dried apricots. Also, classic-looking elder men sitting in the afternoon sun in front of the mosque, with faces, hats, beards, and robes that bring to mind romanticized images of Silk Road traders.
-Glancing upward from almost anywhere around town and seeing the 400 year old Leh Palace originally built by (or rather, for) King Singge Namgyal. It's like a little mini-Potala just minutes away (in fact it is said to have been modeled on the Potala. Another version I heard said the Potala was modeled on Leh Palace!) (the Palace photo above is from Wikipedia).
Higher still is the Tsemo Gompa, looking like a kid's bucket sandcastle after a wave hit it. A lone monk still climbs up once every morning and evening to look after the shrines and light lamps in the crumbling former monastery.
-Hitchhiking (still acceptable, common and safe here) . Distances are vast, and it's rare that a driver does not stop. Sometimes on a deserted road, drivers even stop voluntarily to ask if you are "okay." (No, it is not just because I am a foreign female - almost everyone thumbs a ride here in Ladakh.)
-Cheerful, confident women of all ages striding down the street, unaccompanied by men, with none of the "please don't hit me" body language shared by so many Indian women.
-Single women running businesses, including restaurants, all on their own. No men in sight. No one says anything, no one hassles them, and nobody blinks an eye.
-The wicker baskets (actually woven willow) used by the women to carry vegetables on their backs, to and from the Bazaar market.
-only washing my hair once a week. It's so cold, no one is looking and I just throw a hat on it every day, anyway!