My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 18, 2010

The night before, my stomach nudged me with gentle touches of the butterflies. With the clothes that I had selected to wear for the oral examination folded neatly on my chair, under candle light, I sat. Three years of study for this coming moment. “What if I didn’t get in”, I thought, “What if I do get in”. Back and forth it went through all the variations in between. The smell of incense reviving me at every second telling me not to worry for whatever may come, let it come. And so, slightly earlier than usual I went to join the slumbering ones, for tomorrow brings new unknown tidings.

At 6:00am to the sound of All India Radio’s Hindi news blaring from my radio I open my eyes like the quick snap of vertical blinds being suddenly opened. My mind takes a minute second or two to focus and to send the signals to my body. Out of bed I go, with no remembrances of dreams I commence my morning toileting ritual. 6:30am the bell is sounded for morning prayers, most mornings since I have been at Sarah I have attended them, and it feels so normal to me now, but this morning there was something different. It had to have been coming from me; I was heavily weighted but also light. It was dawn; the sun still had another 45 minutes until it crested over the lower easterly side of the mountain range. A few of us sit in the temple reciting a milieu of prayers, refuge to the three jewel, the four immeasurables, which wishes that all sentient beings to be free from suffering, offering of the mandala of the universe, the 21 praises to the Female Buddha Tara, supplications to the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjushree, we flow from one prayer to the next in a neat rhythm, half hour later, it is over. We all get in to line for breakfast, the habitual round of Tibetan bread and a cup of tea. Now our day begins.

With my new room on the back side of the top fifth floor, I can sit on my balcony and watch the sunrise. Before the sun pops over the mountain its presence is anticipated by its rays that hit different parts of the snow-clad mountains. The birds are chirping their song; hawks spread their wings proudly searching for the warmth of the terrestrial emitting heat thermals that allows them to soar to greater heights with out much physical expenditure. House swifts, darts in and out of our dormitory, showing off their mastery of aeronautical flight, I take this all in as I think of the exam to come and what it means to me and to life. I water my wild orchid who is still struggling but I have been giving her lots of love so I hope that she will eventually warm up and perk up for me.

On a small white broad, I wrote out the short version of a prayer called “Bar Che Lam Sel” for clearing obstacles from the path. With it written out in front of me, I studied the grammar and the construction used in the composition of the prayer as a way to possibly activate whatever intentions are instilled within it by the author. I recited it slowly, paying attention to the words that made up its meaning. I did this for a good half an hour. Then I got dressed. The day before I went to Gaggal to get shaved, so my face was silky smooth and I, though still very nervous, was ready to get to show on the road. I arrived at the office and several of the other prospective students were waiting outside, a conglomerate of various Asian faces waited me, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, China, and India, were all represented. 15 of us total, all vying for this opportunity to join the Dialectic School. We were all cordial and friendly; a Brazilian friend of mine gave me a lot of encouragement and gave me a blessing cord that she had received from my root teacher, H.H. Sakya Trizin when she had gone to Dehra Dun to receive his audience during the Losar vacation. Some pictures were taken, as we stood on the veranda in front of the office on this brisk morning, Tibetans students on their way to class were wishing all of us good luck. In fact, throughout the whole morning students had been wishing all of us luck with the exam.

Eventually my name was called, here at Sarah I use my Tibetan name Ngawang Lodoe, so I heard the Secretary say, “Ngawang Lodoe la nang la phe sho”, I was like, alright it’s business time. As I walked in I saw three tables set in a line towards the back of the room, and behind them sat, Gen Lhakpa la, my professor from my first year at Sarah, Gen Gelek la, one of the professors from I.B.D. and Gen Ngawang Dorje la, my orthography/ calligraphy professor for the pass two years. In front of them lay one lonely chair, in a certain way the arrangement made me think that I was going to be court marshaled instead of being interviewed. I sat down, and then it began.

Gen Lhakpa la started by asking me to give a brief introduction of myself. Then he asked me since English is my first language, I corrected him because Spanish is my first language, anyways he said, what did I think the differences between Tibetan and English and/or Spanish. I was like, shoot the differences are huge, and it would have taken me a lot longer than the allotted 15 minutes we are given for the interview to explicate all of it in full, so I gave an extremely brief answer. I felt that due to my nervousness that my Tibetan was choppier than normal, I held the crap of the blessing cord as the examination progressed. I focused all my nervous energy on the cord, which by then was swimming in my palm sweat.

The next question came from Gen Gelek la, he said, “You know that you should not expect to learn all that there is to know about Buddhism in a couple of years, like 2 or 3. It takes many years just to finish the Sutra side of Buddhism, and that is not to mention the study of Tantra, which takes many more years to study, how will you be able to sustain yourself financially through all that study?” I told him, that I am dedicated, that my whole purpose of being at Sarah College since 2007, learning Tibetan and all, was for this course. I have had the syllabus for this course before I even I started Sarah, so I knew that many years are involved. I knew that if I wanted to have an in-depth look into Buddhist philosophy, the long and tedious training that they provide will prepare me for that and place me in a good position for proper translation work. As for how I will sustain myself, I told him that I had a sponsor. Then he asked “Who’s your sponsor?”, and I was able to say with pride that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s Foundation is sponsoring me. “How did you make that connection?” I said my good friend from my first year class at Sarah help me with that.

The next section came from Gen Ngawang Dorje la, he was holding a book and he started by explaining that they wanted to see how our comprehension and reading skills are, so first he will read a random passage and then we are to explicate on that passage’s meaning. I was like, shit! I started getting more and more nervous. My mind to was saying, “I hope that he reads something easy”, over and over again. So he started reading, and I just stared at him, I was like “fuck! I am so done”, besides the first few words I had no idea what he had just read. Like a deer staring into the headlights of an incoming car, I just stared, and then Gen Lhakpa la suddenly said, “Should he read it again?” I was like, damn straight! And Gen Ngawang Dorje La, said “Ok, I will read something easier, I thought that I should start with something difficult and then move to something easier!” Then again he started reading after a few flicks of the pages, and I understood everything he said and on top of that it was a about a subject at that I have studied before in Tsamjor, Tibetan history. I was able to explicate further than what was stated in the passage, pheww! I thought what a relief. Then Gen Ngawang Dorje la, gave me the book to read out loud the exact same passage, I have to say that this was the easiest part, for since I started studying Tibetan in 2004 I have made it a point to always read aloud, so that was a hit.

Gen Lhakpa la, threw out the final question of the exam, “As a student of the Tibetan language here in exile, one encounters many different dialects and accents, what challenges does that bring to the student?” Well hell, I thought, I said that if one is interacting with that person, whose accent/ dialect is difficult to understand regularly then eventually one will get to a point when they will start to understand his/her speech pattern. Since coming to India, I have spoken to folks from all over Tibet, Kham, Amdo, U-tsang, etc and at first it is always difficult. Tibetans themselves struggle with different dialects, so for us international students is harder, but it is not a total blockage to understanding. In Tsamjor, my classmates are from all over Tibet and eventually you just get use to how this particular person speaks. And that was that, my oral examination was over, ten minutes total!

I walked out of that room, called the next person in and unto the veranda where the other applicants were waiting. They fired questions at me, “was it hard?”, “What kind of questions did they ask?” etc… Some got scared that there was a reading component for that was not announced as a something that we will be tested on, so many of them started to practice reading. I wished the others luck and went to my room. As I walked up the stairs, I kept receiving “Good Luck” and “How did it go?” I knew that because I was nervous that I spoke very brokenly and because I did not understand the first passage that Gen Ngawang Dorje la had read that I was worried that I did not do so well. I relaxed for the rest of the day, chatted with friends, and at around dinner time, which is 5:30pm at Sarah, I went to the office to see if the results were out. As soon as I walked in the door of the office, the school warden was the only person in the room. I asked him where the others were and he just points to the bulletin board where the results were posted. Instead of 3 nuns like I originally assumed, they took 4 nuns out of 9 with 1 on the waiting list, meaning that if one or more of them drops out then the nun on the waiting list can join. One Vietnamese nun, one Chinese/Australian nun, one Korean nun, and one Singaporean nun, who had just showed up at Sarah a few months ago, her and her sister were studying at a nunnery for international nuns called Thosamling since January of last year, and came to Sarah maybe around October-Novemberish. Though they joined the beginner’s foundation course both of them spoke decent Tibetan for the amount of time that they have been studying. So her getting in is pretty neat and also a very tiny and cute Vietnamese nun who has been in the foundation course since July, got on the waiting list, which in itself is a huge accomplishment, surpassing others who have been studying for two years. This nun picked up Tibetan rather quickly and though I thought that her chances of getting in were slim, the fact that she got to the waiting list is quite cool. Her name is Nga, and in Tibetan Nga is the word for “I”, so I am always joking with her. On the guys side, there is the topper with 77 out of a possible 90 points, the only Indian student, Kailash, then there is me (Ngawang Lodoe), the only westerner of African decent, at second place with 76.5, Ombak, the youngest one from Taiwan, who flew here just to take the exam and leaves soon to return, at third place with 72, last is the only monk, Tenzin Kunzik from Korean, with 63.5. There was one lay Korean, Tenzin Rabjam, with 71.5, but he is on the waiting list. I think that Tenzin Kunsik got in over the other one for several other reasons beside points. So there you have it, the new international students for the Buddhist Philosophy course. A side note, on that same day Feb 18th, 2010 on the other side of the globe HHDL met with U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.

Through out the past few days, I have been receiving congrats from around the globe, and because of that I have been so happy that so many people believe in me and are happy for me. I thank all of you for sending me your love. I love all of you so very much, please remember this. From amongst the students it has been nice. One of my Tsamjor classmates told me a few days ago, “don’t ever forget that you are a Tsamjor student no matter what, ok?” I think that was his way of telling me to stay humble, to remember where I came from, not to think I am some hot shit now just because I am got into the philosophy course, I appreciated his concern and held it in my heart.

So now the future is ahead, the examination for the prospective Tibetan students is not until the 28th of Feb at the I.B.D. campus in Mcleod Ganj, and the class probably will not start until after the anniversary of Tibetan Uprising day which is on March 10th. So that means that we will start with just a month or so of class and then two months summer break for May and June. I will be returning back to the U.S. of A for that time so look for me or give me a holla! I am excited, but also nervous, this course will be very intense the whole way through and there is not easy part to it, memorization and reasoning are the keys to success in this style of course. I hope that the little of debate that I have studied in the pass year will prepare me for what is to come. I have a surface idea on what to expect, but I also know that it is best to have no expectations. I know that I want to do well, that I want to pass my exams. I might totally suck at it, I have not clue at this point. I know that many years of study are ahead of me, and at this point in time I feel that I am ready. We will see as the course commences how it goes.

Wow, I have accomplished an objective, Dialectic School is a wonderful opportunity, and I am soo happy that they deemed me worthy. Now many more objectives are to be accomplished, I hope. I hope to keep all of you up on this new but very ancient learning process, a process that was Tibetanized, but that drew its inspiration from the great debates of old in Ancient India between the various masters and yogis of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions. From those and possibly earlier beginnings, I will now join in the learning of this process. My hope is that I can take you along for this ride (without boring you to death, hehehe). Once again, to all of you around the world, I love you all and a hundred and eight thank you.


Friday, February 12, 2010

To Bring in the New…

I know that I do this every time that I make a new blog entry. First of all, since it has been several months since I have posted one, it makes me wonder if I will have any visitors. The main thing about having a blog is having a constant readership which means one should update regularly. But in my circumstance, due to technology, time and part laziness I don’t have that privilege. So many things have happened and I contemplate what I should view as important enough to or not to mention. For starters, as many of you know I am applying for the Buddhist Dialectics course that is offered every 2 to 3 three years here at Sarah College through the mother school the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. About three months ago, I wrote my request for an interview, and now I am less than a week away from this very important day. On Feb, 18 I will try to see what the shape of my future will be. I just received the interviewing schedule and I am first on the list. There are 14 interviewees applying for the seats allotted to international students out of whom only 7 will be accepted, 3 nuns and 4 lay or monastic men, or least that is what I have been told. I am the only non-Asian applicant, there are bunch of Vietnamese and Koreans applying, one Indian, and one Chinese, I think. So there is a 50/50 chance of getting in, which I honestly don’t think is too bad. But since I do have doubts, I am still scared shit less. This interview will look out for our Tibetan speaking and listening skill, and our fluency. Each interview will be between 10 to 15 minutes. There are Tibetans applying also but they have a separate application process. So that is a lot, I am full of hope and scared at the same time. For all of you out there I could use all the prayers, luck and wishes that you can muster. It will be so appreciated.

To me this exam will be like a show or proof (in away) of all the hard work that I have placed into learning this language. Tibetan is not an easy language to learn, and Tibetans themselves very rarely show any sense of appreciation to those who attempt to learn their language. At least that has been my experience. From day one, it has been the exact opposite, and because of that I have gotten severely bummed out at times, because I know that I am trying hard, I know that I am not perfect but I am trying. It saddens me to see what the beginning students have to go through. It amazes me at how we have beginning students who have been at Sarah since July who can not even say hello in Tibetan. Now to be fair, a part of it is the students own fault, they do not tend to hanging much if at all with the Tibetan student body, or like don’t do their language drills. But the other half is that the xenophobia at Sarah is so high that an international student does not feel totally free and comfortable to attempt to speak in Tibetan. Especially if they are from the west for naturally when Tibetans see a westerner their first instinct is to speak in English, regardless if that person can speak it or not. For those students this is where the extra challenge for learning Tibetan at Sarah comes. I was lucky in that before a came to Sarah I had a years experience with this phenomenon in McLeod Ganj thatI placed myself in a environment where I could speak the most Tibetan that I could and that was when I lived for six months with a Tibetan family. That was not easy either because when I first moved in they where not accustomed to speaking to me in Tibetan for the first few weeks, even though I always spoke and replied in Tibetan. Finally after being discouraged by that I decided (after getting some advice) I will tell them to speak Tibetan or I wouldn’t pay my rent. Boy, that did it, and since then it has not been a problem. I was amazed though, that I had to go to that extent, that I had to beg for it. Many students are not willing to beg or even acknowledge that they have to. I had this thought wondering if French language students living in France has to beg folks to speak French to them, hmmm?

My first Tibetan teacher from the Cornell Tibetan summer intensive program, Tenzin Thinley la, had warned me about this before I first came to India. He told me that Tibetans in Dharamsala must get used to speaking Tibetan with foreigners, and that I should speak Tibetan regardless if they use English. He said that it will be good for them to learn such things. When I heard this I was quite surprised, because I figured that that should not be a problem for people whose language they are trying preserve. I figure that they will be appreciative of other people, who seriously try to learn, but now I understand what Thinley la meant, and it has saddened me in a way, because I think it might the case why many people give up learning Tibetan after the first year, and Thinley la must have known this from his many years experience of teaching Tibetan in the states.

It is more due to the environment that a language student must deal with rather than the difficulty of the language (which is immense). This is an exile situation, at Sarah for example once you step off campus, you are faced with a totally different language and either you use Hindi if you took the time to learn it, or English. So it is not like living in the country in which the language is spoken. This is India and out side of Sarah and the Tibetan settlements Indian Languages are used. So that makes another challenge which Tibetans don’t see, and then one hears criticism about how bad many international students speak Tibetan.

A few days ago, there was talk on Korean acupuncture done by a Korean acupuncturist who has been at Sarah for a few weeks giving free sessions. He had a Korean nun, from the dialectics course translating for him, and no doubt that she was having a hard time translating and it was difficult to understand. The students around me where saying how bad her Tibetan was, that she should speak better etc. She was around 40 years old when she started learning Tibetan, after she finished the beginners’ language course; she was accepted into the dialectics course. That is no small accomplishment, that course is very difficult and intense, debating difficult philosophical points in a foreign language. We all know that as one gets older it is increasing difficult to learn a new language and this Korean nun totally rocked it out. But was there any appreciation for that, well from what I have seen, no. That fact that her translation was difficult to understand and her Tibetan fluency was lacking is more a reflection of the community that she has been learning from than it is on her, because they are the native speakers, if they actually were easy to engage with. I can recount some many times when trying to start a conversation, and then getting the sense from that person that they don’t want to be seen talking with me because I am foreigner, that awkward silence between quick reply to my questions. Instead of just walking right by you without making eye contact, if there was a sense of comfort that she was speaking the crap out to the language, from day one, being forced to speak by the community, her fluency will be just fine. It is a classic case for finger pointing. We always forget that for that one finger that we are pointing out, those leftover ones are pointing to crux of the matter. I have reflected on this for such a long time, from speaking with beginning students, seeing that this situation is happening to so many who try hard, who have given up their lifestyles, careers, luxuries etc to study this rare and difficult language.

I have mentioned these things to the administration but nothing has come of it. One student tried to set up a space for conversation partners to do a language exchange but that did not seem to have gone anywhere, one of the problems being that most of the beginner’s students being from Korea and Vietnam don’t know English and if they do not very well, which is what got the Tibetan students interested in the first place. For me, with this being my third year at Sarah and my fourth year studying Tibetan, I am comfortable enough in most situations using Tibetan, my reading skills has improved immensely, my reasoning has been improving due a dialectics class I have been taking this academic year in the B.A. program and a Swiss nun, Tenzin Wangmo, who has been so kind to take time from her business schedule of being in the dialectics course to help a few of us in debate.

On the badass, the current college captains, Sarah has a captain for both girls and boys, have been working really hard to create a one-school feeling, by buying sports equipment so that more people can play, and trying to break everyone’s habits of sitting with only those that they know from class or village-mates in the dinning hall. For generally, the Ladakhis, Amdowas, Khampas, and international students tend to eat in their own group without much interaction, and I was so happy to see that the college campus captains ( I am sure due to some insightful nudges from a far-seeing faculty member) took the challenge and the initiative, that as students entering into the dining hall they stood at the entrance telling folks to sit next to someone that they have never sat with before. They arranged the tables and chairs in rolls to break up the clusters of groups that it was. I really hope that it works, since then I have interacted to people that I have seen for three years but never even said hello to. I appreciate the far-seeing hard work that these individuals have taken. Wow, I just felt that I have unloaded a lot. I hope that this unloading doesn’t impede in the reading of this entry.

The current philosophy course which has been at Sarah since I have gotten here had their final exam last week. And now they are completely finished at Sarah and their next class will commenced at the I.B.D mother campus in March up the hill in McLeod Ganj. Thus being the reason why a new class is starting now. I just changed rooms, from the one that I have been for the pass few years on the third floor. Jeremy, an American student in the dialectics course let me take his old room, which is so cool, his room has a fan, nice porch, linoleum on the floor (which I can mop!!!), and a very sad looking wild orchid that a Korean nun from his course had dug out from the surrounding forest and planted in a huge loofah sponge looking thing that one can hang. This new change is so nice, the Tibetan New Year is around the corner, which this year lands on Valentine’s Day (Love, Love, Love), and my future will be decided four days after that, so it is quite a light delightful feeling. Moving helps to breaks old habits, and to starts new (and hopefully) better ones. Environment is everything and this change of environment is great with hope for the future. I have such a badass view of the mountain range and the neighboring village since I am on the top fifth floor.

I would like to mention one more thing; on Friday, Jan 15th I got to witness the annular solar eclipse, which was so cool. It was partial in this part of India but it was great to see it. The last one I saw was a total solar eclipse that happened my second year of high school in Coral Springs, Florida some 15 years ago. I went to show Jeremy who had never seen a solar eclipse before, when he then recounted a debate he was having with a monk who only knows and holds the Buddhist cosmological view of our world which entails the multilayered Mt. Meru which is surrounded by four continents of the four directions of which our world is the southern Jambudvipa, which in turns is orbited by our sun. So after viewing the eclipse, Jeremy calls the monk with whom he was debating this with and had him check out the eclipse. He did not know what is was at first, but I think he then understood what was going on once it was explained to him. I thought that that was so cool, monks in pass have not gotten a modern education, so when it comes to these things many are completely ignorant. This monk did not freak out that his view of the world was incorrect. He saw the proof, accepted it and moved on. Now for most, one might say, “So what, what the big deal?”; this reminded of an experience I had when I was attending Berea College in my sustainability class, the professor was talking about the age of rocks and how scientist can check it with carbon dating, and one of the girls sitting next to me in my class turns to me and says, “Oh I don’t believe in such non-sense”, and I asked what is there not to believe, she replied, “Our universe is not more than 3,000 years old, that is what it said in the Bible and the bible’s word is the word of God, so this stuff about million year rocks is non-sense!”. My mouth just fell agape in amazement upon hearing this, a college-going intelligent young woman saying such things and on the other hand seeing this traditional educated Tibetan monk who once he saw the proof that his world view was incorrect accepted it with no more of a shrug and smile, both them very dedicated to their faith. That just blew my mind. There is nothing like planetary activity to put things into perspective.

I will end with that note; a new beginning is coming for me and for all I hope. A beginning that brings us all closer to loving each other, loving ourselves, our lives, our preciously short time on this tiny blue spinning ball, our dreams for a better future with understanding and wisdom. A beginning that allows us to think big, way way beyond ourselves. To all out there in the world and beyond: Much Love, ¡Un abrazo muy fuerte!