Dharamsala - McLeod Ganj (A second visit)
McLeod Ganj is buzzing with tourists, monks, nuns, and beggars. The hotels and guesthouses are full, and Temple Road is cheek to jowl with tourist stalls selling everything from jewelry and singing bowls, to phony pashminas, colorful local woolen hoodies, and socks in a marinade of shades, patterns and sizes.
The cows are the fattest and the dogs the friendliest I’ve met during my travels. A pat on the head or a scratch behind the ears is rewarded with a wagging tail or a nuzzle against my leg. Even if they are strays, the dogs here are well feed and if sleeping in the doorway of a shop, rather than move them, people walk around these furry fellows so as not to disturb their naps. Although the dogs are well fed and protected by the local community, unfortunately veterinarian services here are very poor. As for the cows, everyday many of them hang around the outside of Thekechen Choling Temple Complex. Occasionally one can be seen wandering in the lower level of the temple itself. Daily, I see an elderly Tibetan man who says hello and pats a particular bull as he passes. Maybe he’s the owner. It has been my experience, when I have taken the picture of an individual cow, by the temple, each one has walked over and gently touched their nose to my sleeve as if to say thank you.
Pema Thang Guesthouse where I prefer to stay is on a dead end road above the temple. The mountain view encompasses the whole valley, the Temple Complex, and the Dalai Lama’s home situated on an opposite hillside knoll. I often walk to the temple the back way down the hillside on the rough, rocky and in the rainy season muddy path that winds down the hill around lovely Chonor Guesthouse*. Occasionally donkeys pass me on this hillside path and on the connecting small paved road, loaded with bags of sand, dirt or stones. These hard working little beasts patiently wait for their owners to unload their packs and then down the hill they go to get another load.
Just as there is an interesting mix of animals, there is also a mix of Buddhist monks and nuns from around the world. The gray robes of the Korean accentuate by the bright orange robes of the Thailand monks (Theradava sect), which mix well with the rich crimson robes of the Vajrayana (which leans toward the Mahayana sect) Buddhist monks and nuns from Tibet and the rest of the Himalayan world. Many of the Vanyana/Mahayana monks wear yellow shirts rather than traditional red under their robes, which shows they have experienced the process of three years of silent meditation to become not just a monk, but also a Lama. These religious and the foreigners, from both the east and west, are here for one major event, to experience the teachings by the Dalai Lama.
Because of this mix of people from around the world, the locals, the beggars, and the animals, Mcleod Ganj is a colorful thriving destination that never bores or ceases to amaze me. Hindu beggars are also here for the fall season after the monsoons. I have been told most are from Rajasthan. Whether they have very real or phony ailments, for these people begging is their ‘business.’ For the obviously maimed or deformed it may be the only livelihood they can have; like my yearly acquaintance, an elderly lady with no fingers because of leoporcy. I have been told some beggars are ‘controlled’ by a beggar master, while others have begging as their independent occupation.
I am sitting against a pillar on the outer covered terrace of the upstairs main temple sanctuary surrounded by monks, nuns and a few local Tibetans waiting for His Holiness to arrive. This is the second day of the teachings, and I estimate that at least four thousand people are in the temple area and out on the sanctuary Lawn waiting with me.
I am told there are a thousand Taiwanese who are the supporters of this four-day session, entitled, IN PRAISE of THE DHARMADAHATU. The supporters always sit in the front of the sanctuary near to and with a clear view of His Holiness. They also pay for the cost of lunch daily for all of the participants*. One sees them wandering around McLeod Ganj in groups of thirty walking in straight lines following their leader who carries a flag the same color as the baseball cap each member of the group wears; yellow, green, orange, red, tan, brown and even purple caps. Marching along like little soldiers more regimented then my friends and I during my childhood summer camp experiences, when we were required to wear colored shirts to denote our cabin and cabin mates. Their rigidity abounds here and as an adult, it seems a bit too organized to me. But it obviously works and I have not heard any shouts or complaints about lost participants.
There are also an equal number of monks and nuns. I am always amazed at the number of western nuns there are and also since my last visit in 2007, the increasing number of western monks. On the second day of registration for this session at the town’s Tibetan Government in Exile Security administration, a little office a few steps down a hill behind some shops on Bhagunath Road, I was told that 800 foreigners had already registered and there were more to come. Add that to the massive number of Tibetans who attend every session, and my estimate of four thousand participants might be under the mark.
There are no cameras (unless you have a special new media pass) or cell phones allowed. Everyone’s bag is searched and each individual patted down before entry, daily. During my last visit, the Dalai Lama had four plain-clothes guards surrounding him at a safe distance each carrying a repeating rifle. When security is particularly heavy there are also Indian government soldiers who guard the Dalai Lama in addition to his own security force. Yet this year when His Holiness arrived with his entourage (a number of monks, some traditionally dressed Tibetans, two or three ‘suits’ and two young monks to help him up the stairs – The Dalai Lama has bad knees), he had only two plain- clothes guards daily.
Yet, I noted that on the third afternoon a few Indian soldiers were located judiciously along the balcony railing of the upper sanctuary not far from where I was sitting surveying the crowd below. They were there during the whole afternoon session, but only then. There is no doubt that the Chinese government would love to have this man/Buddha disappear, as he is a daily thorn in their governmental side. More than one person with acquaintances in the Tibetan Central Administration, have implied to me that the Chinese have ‘plants’ at the Dalai Lamas teachings. Whether this is true, I have no idea? But nothing would surprise me.
Oddly this year, the rainy season, which officially ended at the end of August, has continued into September. Although today, the second day of the Dalai Lama’s teachings* (from September 28th through October 1), it is finally sunny and clear.
I assume there is some communication about topics the supporters wish to study, as each teaching I have attended has addressed different concepts. This year His Holiness began with a brief history of Siddhartha, the childhood name of Buddha before his enlightenment, and continued that afternoon and the second day with the analysis of Sixth Dalai Lama’s ancient poetic writings, the Suylnnatic or Smitriaga. On the third day he discussed ‘appearance and reality’ and their relationship to ‘cause and effect.’ During that day, I felt I was right back in my classroom teaching Critical Thinking.
It also reminded me of a comment my friend Rosemary made during the last teachings I had attended two years before.
“Tibetan Buddhism is basic quantum physics,” she exclaimed in the excited tone of one who had just had a revelation. I agreed but not quite so enthusiastically. Then this year (2011), I ran across, The Universe in a Single Atom, by the Dali Lama about “the congruence between quantum physics or relativity and the Buddhist concept of impermanence and nothingness,” (Steven Poole, Guardian), which also explained the relationship.
On the forth day the he taught the Mahakarinuka Lokeshvara (daily Buddhist prayers)* from the teachings of the ‘Great fifth Dalai Lama.’ After which those who wished to take ‘Refuse’ in Buddhism were able to do so. Genuflecting to Buddha three times, taking the pledge, and saying the OM, one was accepted into the fold of Buddhism. One can always get caught up in the moment, but as a sincere practitioner one must say the prayers daily and live a life following the rules of the Buddhist path; following the Dharma, non violence and kindness to every sentient being.
As with everyday, there was a hushed reverence as the Dalai Lama left the Temple. It had been another wonderful session and there was an ebullient energy among the throngs as they left the Monastery grounds. Another wonderful experience; I will return again. In fact I have already booked the Pema Thang Guesthouse for the teachings at the end of September 2013.
Note: I am certainly not a Tibetan Buddhist studies scholar, but a novice wonderer delving into the concepts of this luxurious philosophy of ideas and thought.
*I think the Tibetan Government in Exile owns Chonor Guesthouse. Art by the artists from the official Norbulingka School of Tibetan Art cover the walls of every room with traditional Tibetan paintings. This school produces all kinds of traditional Tibetan Art (Tangkas), artifacts, and wonderful gifts that can be purchased at the Center. A few items may also be purchased their Shop in McLeod Ganj, or Online at Norbulingka Shop.com.
*Round Tibetan bread (which many people enjoy, but I find tasteless), is served with butter tea in the morning daily by young monks passing among the crowds carrying vastly oversized teapots of tea.
*The Dalai Lama’s schedule can be found at: Dalai Lama’s schedule.org, on the Internet. If you want to stay at one of the better-known guesthouses during his teachings, it is advisable to book your room a year ahead.