My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My last India blog entry for the next two months ;-(

Well yall’s this looks to be my last blog entry written in Northern India, for on Saturday the 24th of April @ 1:15pm from the 108 degree city of New Delhi I will depart for London and then from there to NYC, that is, if the volcano near the Eyjafjallajoekul glacier in Southern Iceland stops spewing its microscopically vitric dust particle filled ejaculate 7 miles up into the atmosphere. I know that it has blocked a lot of trans-Atlantic air traffic this week and no one knows when it will stop. I hope to see many of my friends and family during my two month stay in Amerilandia and I have a wish list that I would like to see fulfilled while I am there. I seriously doubt that I will post anything during my stay so you might have to wait until I return in late June; but check periodically though.

This has been a week filled with differing and at times conflicting emotions, but I guess that is just life right? As far as class goes, getting to know my classmates has been really intriguing, I think that we are slowly getting used to each to some extent, though some are still marveled by my matted hair, but as I have said before, many of them are in there late teens and come from very desolate areas in the Indian Himalayas. So the maturity level can be quite low. Today as we were doing our weekly clean-up of the debating courtyard and our classroom, the monks were having a kick out of dousing each other with cold water and pulling each others shorts down to the ground. Some tried to get my shorts but luckily they were tied nice and tight for if they were not they would have gotten the surprise of their lives since I always prefer to go freestyle if you catch my drift. This was done amongst laughs and giggles galore. Like I’ve said, it is like having a bunch of lil brothers around.

Seeing that we spend at least 8 hours a day with each other and almost all of the students from the course live on the same floor having roommates also from the same course, naturally a group consciousness develops, which is really interesting in a way, for when it comes to debating each other it might seem like we hate each others guts. For instance, we had a damja yesterday and from amongst our group, Ani Nga la, a really tiny Vietnamese nun and a monk were selected to sit as defenders (dam ‘ca ba) at another group. It seemed like that group had thrown to them an impossible quandary. At points throughout the debating session one could hear lil Ani Nga la’s voice trying to hold her own but the group that she went to had some monks who are really good at asking brain and tongue twistingly hard questions.

At the end of the damja I went and asked her how did it go and she replied, “man, they were so mean, they gave us an impossible question to answer and when we couldn’t answer they asked us if we were stones or if we were dumb”. In the debate format that will kind of look like this; regarding the subject “you”, it follows that you are a stone because you can not speak, (khyerang chos can, rdo yin par thal, bshad ma thub pa’i phyir). And remember, there were probably 4 or 5 monks screaming this at the top of their lungs in front of the defenders exclamating their statement with a huge clap and a stomp. I told her that she probably held her own well which shows that she is progressing and that is what is important; everything else is just a part of the experience of taking this type of course. When one is debating one on one it is not that much of a thing, unless someone is listening in and wants to challenge you which happen rather regularly. We have a new staff member at Sarah, who was a monk and studied up to the Madhyamaka class (which means about 12 years of study) at IBD when he disrobed. He comes to our debates regularly and I think that he gets a kick out of whooping our asses in the park more than likely thinking, ‘boy! These kids have a lot to learn’. It is good that he comes because I think that it raises or could potentially raise the standard of our debates as a class.

As the week carried on, I came to know (though I can say that I knew already) that some of our classmates had studied Buddhist philosophy before. I have noticed a few students who are not studying, lazing around but kicking ass in debate while the rest of us are cramming like bad and sucking ass. One monk, Namgyal, has studied down in South India for some time, and there is a lay student from Spiti who was a monk also in South India. I knew this had to have been the case but at the beginning of the course they nonchalantly said the contrary when Gen la asked if they had studied Buddhist philosophy before. Anyways, a few nights ago I was debating with Namgyal, I was the defender for the start of the debate and man! He threw some tough questions at me and eventually I was like, “Ugh! are you pulling this stuff out of your ass for I know from the questions that you are asking and for the fact that I never see you studying that you must have studied some where else for these topics are in the chapters that are to be studied next year!”, and it was then that he told me that he was a monk from one of the three big monasteries in South India.

I was a bit frustrated and but I chilled out quickly. It must be so boring for him, but then I wonder, why is he here? The quality of the debating in those monasteries, from what I have heard is 100 times superior to that of IBD, there are more scholars teaching there (with most of them at the acme of their profession) and there are more people to debate with which means one gets to encounter a multiplicity of ideas. Those monasteries are like the Harvard, Yale and Princeton of Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism, why would one want to come here, which is like, lets say going to my alma matter Berea college (which is a great school no doubt), and where one has to start from square one, when one has the opportunity to learn from the best in the field. I think that first of all, they were more than likely sent here by their Lamas and secondly, compared to South India were in the debating courtyard is filled with hundreds of monks from various classes one would be some rather small fish in such an environment, where here one can rocking it out and don’t (at least at this point) have to work nearly as hard as the beginners, and thirdly, compared to South India, Dharamshala’s weather is more agreeable.

During one of our study periods, during which time I was practicing memorization, which I do following the Tibetan way: pacing around the temple saying the phrases over and over until I can say them without looking at the book, some of my classmates approached me casually and a conversation developed out of our congregation. I talked a bit about my life, being homeless and all, and that now I have found something that I enjoy. I was asked if I had a wife back home and I said no. One monk said putting his hands by his front thigh,” when you become a translator those girls in America who wear really short shorts will grab your arm (here the monk grabbed my right arm to show me his example) saying how much they want you”, I just started laughed saying that I am not interesting in those kinds of women, plus after you are done you’ll probably have to pay I said jokingly, probably not a smart move.

Standing in our congregation was an Amdowa from Lake Kokonor (mtsho sngon) named Tak Bum (stag ‘bum), meaning one hundred thousand tigers, which I think is such a cool name, many Amdowas have such awesome names, at Sarah there is a girl from the first year B.A. course named Min Nang Dzë (smin snang ‘dzes) meaning something like Beautifully Ripening Illumination, and another girl from the second year B.A. course named Sung Dü Kyï (gzungs ‘dus skyid) which means something like the Joyous collection of Mantras and Tantras, in a previous blog entry dedicated to the Tibetan women’s uprising day I have posted an essay that she wrote.

Anyways, Tak Bum asked me how much does a prostitute cost in the U.S. I told him that I did not know, but maybe a high class one is like $200 for a night. Then he goes on to recount that in Tibet they go for 500 yuan for a night (I have not clue how much that is), he was telling us how him and his friends were once in Lhasa and after coming from doing prostrations and praying at the Jokhang temple on the Barkor (a circumambulatory path) his then went walking by an area with brothels where the ladies standing at the entrance would try to pull one by the arm to get you to enter the brothel. These ladies he said, many of them Chinese but also Tibetan will tease you to get you into their lair saying things like, “Where you going, Big boy?”, “I can take care of you if you wish”. He said that they are really good and also that in India, the ladies here are also really excellent, hmm? I know that the going price in Delhi was 100 rupees or like 2 bucks, not a good idea.

I was feeling a little bit uneasy at the downward turn of our conversation. Besides Tak Bum and I, everyone else around us were teenage monks and I could tell that they were really interested in what he was saying. They started to ask me repeatedly if I had ever been to a brothel, I was like, hell nah! I explained the dangers of such activities to them. It was not the type of conversation I was expecting at that time. But knowing Tak Bum, it doesn’t surprise me to hear such things coming from his mouth. It just seems natural to his personally. He has this thing of smacking the shit out of my upper back thigh when I least expect it and then tells me that I have no ass. I am like, well hell; you sure don’t need to be rocket scientist to deduce that one do you?

Yesterday in class Gen la, covered the three divisions of established bases (gzhi grub) or existents into virtue, non-virtue, and those that are not indicated in the scriptures, established bases can also be divided as permanent and impermanent. Tak Bum then bombarded Gen la with tons of questions. Is homosexuality non-virtuous? Gen la, yes since same sex couples can not reproduce and are together only for sexual enjoyment in Buddhism it is considered sexual misconduct, but in the political realm like in a democratic country, then they have there own rules because not everyone in a given country are religious so they have the political freedom to do as they please, at least in some countries. What about abortion? Gen la, “Oral contraception is fine, but once a new born fetus has develop quite bit then it is considered a person and one of the ten vows that a Buddhist takes is the vow of non-killing thus it being non-virtuous according to Buddhism. Can two monks get married? At this Gen la and all of us about died laughing, “Of course not, monks have taken a vow of celibacy and if they are in sexual relations with each other then they are no longer monks!”

But I also I know that there have been hidden homosexual activity in the monasteries, one monastery near here had a quite bad hepatitis B outbreak, but I have never been able to get any one to talk to me about it. Generally, at least in the Tibetan exile community sexually is far from being open, though there are many awesome people that I know who are trying hard make it a issue that is worthy talking about because VD’s are getting passed around the community really quickly. Anyways, one again, Tak Bum had a roll, he proceeded to quote the great Tibetan poet from Amdo, Gendun Choephel, who translated, the Kama Sutra from Sanskrit to Tibetan in the 1920’s or 30’s who stated that sex in general and particularly with prostitutes was a perfectly virtuous activity. Gen la, who has been a monk all of his life did not agree to that at all, though he chuckled at the mention of the great scholar’s name. I am totally fascinated by Gendun Choephel, I think he must have been and still is the most radical and progressive product of Tibetan society.

A few days before that, Gen la revealed a little bit himself. He is not Geshe, but had studied pretty far. He was from the first batch of IBD students which started in 1973. It is great to know a little bit about him, since there is this air of mystery about him. He constantly wear sunglasses because he has a eye condition where bright lights bothers him and with him being a monk his is totally bald, I see why an American student from the previous class said that Gen La reminds him of Morpheus from the Matrix who leads one down the rabbit hole of Tibetan Buddhist dialectics.

On a really sad note, as anyone who has read my previous entry knows, there was a devastating earthquake that hit Jyegundo, in the Kham province of Tibet. From the pictures that I have seen, it looks like an extremely bad situation. Several schoolmates, including a classmate of mine are from that town. One lay student, Jampa was absent from class the day after the earthquake hit to go to McLeod Ganj to see if he could get in touch with his family. The next day I spoke with him and I asked him how does it looks like and he said that he couldn’t get through with landlines but was finally able to get through with cell phones. His uncle and his three family members in the household all perished in the earthquake but Jampa’s folks seemed to be ok he said.

Were you close to your uncle and your family I asked? Yes, of course! We always spoke through on the computer since I have been in India and in Tibet also of course. You must be totally devastated! I asked. He said no, what is the point? What the benefit of all that? I am here in India and I was totally incapable of helping them, what is the point of being all sad for? He told me. That took me a back for a second. How could he not be sad? Back at home if that was one of my close relatives I would be all thrown apart with mourning. I knew that this attitude towards death is quite pervasive amongst Tibetans, my colloquial Tibetan tutor who tutored me for a year between 2005 until 2006, did not show a bit of sadness when her father died. I told her that it is fine if we don’t have class for awhile, but she said, just because my father died doesn’t mean that I have to disrupt my entire life so let us continue as usual. One of my old classmates from last year’s Tsamjor course, Sonam, who is also from Jyegundo had some loses, I spoke with him today and he said that his parents are alive but they lost almost all of their friends. He too, had this stoic outlook but it I think that there is just a thing about showing certain emotions in the public sphere or to folks whom one is not close with.

Yesterday also, in front of the boy’s hostel many poems with declarations of mourning for the people of Jyegundo where taped to the wall stating solidarity with them, stating that we are brothers of the same Tibetan blood, read some of there along with the other students gathered in front of these poem. A friend just told me that all of Bir, a Tibetan settlement nearby is virtually shut down, with many prayer activities going on. Many of the original Tibetans who settled in Bir are from Kham, with most of them being, I think, from Chamdo and Derge, but I also think that some folks from Jyegundo and other parts of Kham there also. This shows to me that there some public display of emotions, though I have not been to Bir recently to see it myself. Folks are devastated regardless of whether they chose to show it or not.

I also think that though most Tibetans are not very knowledgeable about Buddhist philosophy, that there are certain aspects of the philosophy that has become apart of their lives culturally. You ask almost any average Tibet, Are you a Buddhist? Yes. Can you explain to me Dependent Arising? Blank stares. I think that it is the similar with western cultures, so many of the ideas that we know take for granted came ultimately from philosophy, in medieval Christianity, St. Thomas Aquinas strongly and freely used Aristotelian philosophy with theology which in turn has diluted itself and prominent traces of it can be found in Modern Christianity, our strong sense of individuality that we sure as a society, democracy, socialism etc, are also embedded from ancient to modern philosophy and secular thought. It is so much apart of us that we can’t see it or that is it very difficult to see it. Like a fish in water can’t not conceive of life without water or us without air, totally engrained. With regards to this disaster, it has amazed me, once again how some thing so far away can hit so close to one’s heart.

What a week it has been, mentally duking it out on the debate courtyard hours a day, knowing that some long hours travelling is in store for me as I traverse the globe and U.S. continent, and that I have to face Amerilandia: my mind is all over the place. It has been three years since I last left the US, the last time I went home I had a really hard time and that was after a year, now this time it is after three years. U.S. and India are two totally different worlds and I live in a smaller world within the world of India with exiled Tibetans and Indian Himalayan people. As I look out my window, with the Indian heat beating down on me like a cop beating a brother in the hood because he looks like Tyrone who robbed a convenient store, the mighty Dhauladhar range are spreading majestically before me, its foothills spew columns of smoke into the air because the woods are simmering, I think, man! Amerilandia is going to rock the shit out of me and I am not sure if I am ready for it.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

6.9 Earthquake in Kyegundo, Kham, Tibet: Please Donate!

A major earthquake has hit Kyegundo, Kham, Tibet. Many of my schoolmates are from Kham and are very worried about their family. I got this message on my facebook Tibetan Freedom group. Kate has succinctly provide a lot of info that I would otherwise not have access to. Below is the message in full. Please take the time to read and help if you are able!

Devastating Earthquake Hits Tibet - Please Help

Dear friend,

Early this morning, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake followed by a number of powerful aftershocks struck Kyegundo (spoken: Jyegundo) in Kham, eastern Tibet (Ch: Jieguduo or Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province). Media sources have reported nearly 600 people killed and more than 10,000 injured. Tibetans with contacts in the area have heard the death toll may be as high as 4,000.

All of us at Students for a Free Tibet send our heartfelt condolences to the families who have lost loved ones in the earthquake. Our thoughts and prayers are with those in Kyegundo and the surrounding area. We will continue to post updates on SFT's facebook page:

How you can help:

1) Donate to organizations working in the region and help support emergency relief efforts:

* Tibetan Village Project:
(Note: you can also donate via Causes at:

* Tibet Relief Fund:

* Machik:

* Tibet Foundation:

2) Help spread the word. The media is reporting that this awful tragedy occurred in western China. Please help educate everyone that the earthquake struck in eastern Tibet, not China.

* Change your Facebook status and tweet: Quake in Tibet. Please help. Donate here: (Please RT);

* Read and share a moving blog post about the earthquake with reactions from Tibetans in Tibet on High Peaks Pure Earth:

* Read and share the statement on the earthquake issued by the five leading Tibetan exile organizations in Dharamsala, India (including SFT India):

* Write to the editor of your local newspaper to educate him/her that the earthquake struck Chinese occupied Tibet, which is at a minimum disputed territory. Kyegundo is in the Tibetan province of Kham, annexed into China's present day Qinghai Province.

Fears over potential dam burst: The BBC has reported that a massive dam at the headwaters of three rivers in the area has been damaged and that people have fled to the mountains in fear that the dam might burst. A crack in the dam wall has reportedly prompted Chinese officials to drain the reservoir. The Chinese government has plans to build over a dozen more dams in this earthquake prone area. Read more on the Tibetan Plateau blog:

For updates on how you can help the people of Kyegundo, please visit the SFT blog:

With the people of Kyegundo in our thoughts and prayers tonight,

Tendor, TenDolkar, Mary Kate, Schuyler, Kate and all of us here at SFT HQ

Read more:

His Holiness the Dalai Lama sends his condolences to the earthquake victims:

Statement by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi:

World News Blog (The sensitivity behind the latest Chinese

BBC (China earthquake kills hundreds in Qinghai):

NPR (Earthquake In China Kills 400; Thousands Injured):

New York Times (Strong Quake Kills Hundreds in Western China):

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chö ra: The Debating Courtyard

The place where we spend the most of our time in the Buddhist philosophy course is in the debating courtyard (chos ra). At Sarah’s campus our debating courtyard is in front of the main administrative building at the center of campus where the various offices, a computer lab, library, temple and our classroom are located. We spend a minimum of 6 hours day in the debating courtyard, during the morning debates (8am until 9:30am) under the cool shadows of the trees and during the nights debates (7:15pm until 9pm) under the starry night sky, these days usually clear. Gen la said that the debating courtyard for philosophy students is what the laboratory is for scientist. There is where we do our work of analyzing and testing what we are hearing and reading, exploring and clearing our doubts. I am not so sure as to how I feel about that statement right now because our goal ultimately has a soteriological purpose, where I am not sure that that holds true for scientists.

Our class is extremely tiny, with fewer than 40 students, as compared to the three great Gelukpa monasteries (Sera, Ganden and Drepung) in Lhasa back in their heyday, when the populations of those monasteries included thousands of monks. In exile these monasteries have been set up in South India, where the monk population though still rather large doesn’t compare to what it was back in the day. So in the debating courtyard of these monasteries for starters, each class probably had several hundred monks in them and when debating time came all those monks along with the monks from other classes, higher or lower, will match their wits in the debating courtyard.

If you have never seen this before, then at first sight one might wonder, WTF are they doing? Are they pissed at each other? And what are they so pissed about? One will see the courtyard just packed full of monks in groups of two or three with one monk standing clapping his hands and stomping his feet and one or two monks sitting on the ground responding to the standing monk’s inquiries. One has to remember that all these pairs of monks are doing this all at the same time and thus it turns out to be a quite loud and cacophonous affair.

One tends to see some very un-monk like behavior like pushing and shoving. The typical images of Buddhist monks walking around slowly with joyous solemn faces of meditative beatitude are thrown out the window here. It is quite common to see several groups come together and in union challenge a defender or two. I remember one incident in the summer of 2006 when my friend Jason Fults from college had come to visit me when I lived in McLeod Ganj to attend some teachings that the HHDL was giving.

Jason, James from England, and I went to the temple the night before the teachings around 9pm to reserve our spots, and as we were getting closer and closer to the temple, the sounds of clapping and yelling got louder and louder. Then when we ascended the staircase that leads up to the courtyard in front of the temple which is on the second floor, we saw the strangest thing for us: three standing monks clapping, stomping and asking in loud voices questions in rhythmic unison to one monk screaming at the top of his lungs in one section and several other similar situations all throughout the courtyard. As we walked to one of the staircases that led up to the second storey where the teaching area was located, we just stared in awe on what was going on before of our eyes. Jason asked me if I know what was going on and besides telling him that they were debating Buddhist philosophy I could not saying anything else.

After we had finished reserving our spots by taping cardboard with our names written on it to the floor beside of the temple where the HHDL was to teach, we looked on from the second floor down to the courtyard where all the action was happening. From our bird’s eye view we saw one lay Korean lady (that was back in the day when they allowed lay women to join the course) sitting on the floor surrounded by standing monks. Some of the monks in front of her were pushing and shoving trying to get a chance to make their point. Many were carrying cushions in their hands and proceeded to give each other several whacks upside each others heads with the cushions. When that had subsided, they again resumed their contest with the Korean lady who seems very adamant to hold her point to the teeth.

As we left the temple, I told Jason, “Man, we were looking for a party to kick it at in the wrong spot for it seems that those monks had there party going on”. It was not until I came to Sarah that I found out what that was all about. It is called a damja (dam ‘ca) and it literally means thesis but in this context it means a certain debate format where a class will divide itself up in groups. Each group will then send two people to the other group to answer questions. Any person in those groups can ask questions to them and when they can not answer the whole group will yell a certain cheer in unison three times. So far we have had 4 or 5 of these damjas since I have started.

The person standing up is called the challenger (rigs lam pa) and the person on the ground is called the defender (dam ‘ca ba). Generally the challenger is not required to hold a particular point of view and can ask the most ridiculous of questions depending on how the defender answers. The defender is generally restricted to only four replies depending on how the questions are asked. Only if the defender is asked by the challenger to posit a reason that he is allowed to explicate beyond the four types of answers. In class when Gen la debates with us and some one goes on arguing outside of the set format; Genla will say , “drung shay mu go” “I don’t want all that lip” “You have to learn how to defend your assertions within the format, you can say all that you want within it”. It is not always followed on the courtyard especially at the beginning where one can hide their lack of understanding behind eloquently forceful words. Depending on the text that we study, the position that the defender must hold is called our own position (rang lugs) the philosophical stance of that text and especially at the beginning it is essential to ones training that one holds to that position. Once one has mastered this then one will gain the skills needed to develop a quite thorough position of one’s own.

To the general Tibetan audience debate must be very odd and bemusing. Many colloquial Tibetan words are used in such a different and technical way that many might feel that the exercise is ridiculous. Daniel Purdue recounts a story he had heard for Lati Rinpoche and one that I have also heard here at Sarah from one of the my teachers when I was in Tsamjor. It states:

“At the time of the Great Prayer Festival (smon lam chen mo) traditionally held in Hla-sa at the beginning of the Tibetan New Year, around February 20, the monks and nuns of all the great Ge-luk-ba monasteries gather for several days of community prayer, celebration, and the Hla-ram-ba Ge-shay examinations. During this time, even the monks who were not taking their examinations would naturally find opportunities for practicing debate. A layman who encountered two monks in heated disputation understood that they were arguing about a gold pot but nothing else about what was being said. Not understanding their debate, he worried about these two monks’ arguing over material possessions.

The next year at the Great Prayer Festival when he again encountered these same two monks in disputation about a gold pot, he moved to intercede. Reprimanding them he said, ‘Last year I saw you’re here arguing about a gold pot, and now this year you are here arguing about it again. Please stop arguing about this thing! I will give you each a gold pot if you just stop arguing’”

End quote.

A pot (bum pa) and it various manifestations gold, copper, silver etc and a pillar (ka ba) are used as classic examples in debate, so these words are heard frequently.

While I was once visiting H.H. Sakya Trizin’s residence in Dehra Dun, one of his attendants (who was from Sakya,Tibet) told me about the first time he had gone to Lhasa along with His Holiness and saw a debate there. He said that at first he was rather confused because to him it seemed that the monks were arguing over a tobacco pipe. He said that he taught that these monks must have been the worst monks of the monastery to be arguing over something as immoral as a tobacco pipe since monks are not allowed to take any type of intoxicants. It wasn’t until later that he realized or was told that the word used for pipe in Sakya “gang zag” is the word same word used for person “gang zag” in philosophy. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing at one.

There are so many such mistakes that can be perceived by the unknowing ear. For example, the word for you “khyöd” is used very similar to how the variable “x” functions in mathematics. Also khyöd is not the most particularly polite way to address someone unless they are a close friend or a child, very similar to tu and tum in Hindi. When hearing monks screaming this word, one might think that monks are just über mal-mannered. Another one that I am fond of is “one (gcig)” and “different (tha dad)”. One is something that is only itself and different is its obvious opposite. A traditional example is pillar (ka ba) because only pillar is one with pillar in both name and meaning, the word for “and” and “with” is the same in Tibetan “dang”. So this can be strung out like hippie beads for as long as one wants where one might hear, one with one with pillar, ka ba dang gcig dang gcig. The only thing that is one with one with pillar is one with pillar. The same applies to one with one, gcig dang gcig, the only thing that is one with one is one. This previous phrase in particular can be turned on its head if one hears “dang” not as “with” but as an “and”. In which case someone could say gcig dang gcig chos can gnyis yin par thal, regarding that subject one and one, it follows that it is two. Once in class Gen la asked us to posit something that is one with one and we all said one. He then said the regarding the subject one rupee and one rupee, it follows that it is not two rupees. These things just crack me up all the time.

Having a hard palate can be a huge obstacle when it comes to debating in Tibetan. Though my pronunciation is no where near perfect some of our international students are struggling with it. One case is our Korean monk, Tenzin Kunzig, who after attending one of the best universities in Korea for bio-engineering and being a genetic engineer until the age of 25, decided to become a monk and has been one for 20 years now with 4 or 5 of those years under Tibetan ordination. One can tell that he is a really sharp guy but his tongue really limits him at this point. I have been told and I now believe it after being around Korean students that in the Korean language there is not the ra or r-sound and it tends to be perceived as a la or l-sound. One common example of a non-existent is the horns of a rabbit (ri bong rwa) pronounced more like ri bong ra. Our Korean friend here can only say li bong la, which had me rolling the first time I debated with him; the defining characteristics (mtshan nyid) for a consciousness (shes pa) is that which is clear and knowing (gsal zhing rig pa) pronounced like sel shing rig pa. Now with the r-sound being replaced with the I-sound one gets sel shing lig pa which in Tibetan lig pa means dick and I am not talking about the short form for Richard. So I was thinking that sel shing lig pa could then be translated as clear and dick or more correctly as clear and penile? The other monks are just having a field day with him, but one monk is actually trying to teach him how to pronounce the r-sound, but so far to no avail, “you can take a man out of the woods but you can’t take the woods out of a man”.

Lastly, yesterday, a second Saturday, I gave a visit to my host family in McLeod Ganj after a long time not seeing them and found out at my little host sister Chöyang who is about 11 now has learning elementary Buddhist reasoning in her curriculum for the pass month and it seems that she has some interest in it, which I think is awesome. The HHDL has been an advocate to spread at least this kind of elementary Buddhist reasoning to the Tibetan schools. I debated with her for a little bit and many of the examples she used were totally meant for kids her age, instead of comparing a form source sphere and that which being it is not possible they would compare bull and animal or Lotus flower and the waters it grows from. I really think that this could build a young child mind to tackle various other subjects that they will encounter in their lives, it wouldn’t have to be done at the intensity that we are doing here at Sarah, but it is great for the young inquisitive mind of an 11 year old.

Once this pass autumn there was an inter-collegiate debating competition at the lower Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) campus in Dharamshala and before the competition was to commence two groups of TCV students, one from Bylakuppe TCV from South India and an another from Gopalpur TCV about 1 hour from Sarah came to Sarah College to practice debate with the philosophy class students and with the 1st year BA Buddhist dialectics class that I was attending at the time. These kids where all between the age of 13 and 14 and man they were really good, both the guys and the girls were tearing it up. These particular students were sent because they were some of the better debaters from their respective institution. Out of the Gopalpur TCV students a few of them were my students from the 10 day English camp that I volunteered to teach at last summer and I was happy to have seen them. That was one of those experiences that will stay with me.


Sunday, April 04, 2010


Normally back at the home front after the initial relief of making it pass the hump day (Wednesday) there is the final respite for the arrival of Friday. As I remember around campus while I was in college it was not unusual to be saluted with TGIF (Thank God/Goodness it is Friday) from other toiling students. But here at Sarah College TGIF does not hold true because it is only the second Saturday of every month that we have off, such as the next coming Saturday. Normally we have half Saturdays, classes until noon, and after lunch we have a mass campus clean up until 2pm.

Before when I was in the Tsamjor course (Bridge Course) there was more of a sense of spaciousness that accompanied the course especially that as an international student our teachers did not hold us to the same restrictions that applied to the Tibetan students. This is because most but not all of the Tibetan students in Tsamjor are studying in that course in order to pass the exam that is required to enter the B.A. course (Rignay) in Tibetan Literary culture. Most of the international students are interested in improving their language skills and the Tsamjor teachers realize this. So being in Tsamjor was just perfect for the level of Tibetan that I had at the time when I started two years ago and I was at liberty to choose what and how many classes I wanted to take.

But being in the Buddhist philosophy course is different, for when I was in Tsamjor we were considered casual students, in this course I am a full fledge Sarah student, and I must abided to all the restrictions. Which I think is great. As I have said before, this course is very time intensive; not including one’s own self-study, the course itself takes about 8 hours out of one’s day. The days go by über quick and at night you just pass the hell out. So when Friday comes there is not the respite of like, “oh, I can sleep in tomorrow”, but not to fret because it is about to be in “da house” the following day. And so, TGIS gets in effect, a nice chillness settles down around campus, many students go on visits to McLeod Ganj or nearby Tibetan settlements to visit friends, and things slow down, though normally Sarah is very slow compared to US standards.

One thing that is interesting at this point is that even though our course has just started three weeks ago with the intensity and depth of our subject matter increasing day by day, all of the other classes are winding down. Some of our international students have left already. On the third week of April all of the classes will have their end of year exam, in which anything which has been taught since July 1st could be covered. For every one who doesn’t know about Tibetan style teaching, the teachers tend to give you tons of information everyday per class, any whisper or comment said in passing by the Professor could be on the exam. I remember so many times when the teacher will ask the students about something that was briefly mentioned two months earlier and when the students could not answer effectively, he will go on to scold the students for not pay attention in class. So with this attitude from the teachers, when testing time comes around, regardless that the week prior to the exam there is a week of mandatory self-study, the teachers will suggest to the students to have study period during class time. So now, many folks are studying their little Tibetan asses off. For all exams taken one’s grammar and calligraphy are also marked meaning that one has also to be aware of that also.

In our course, we have just finished the chapter on colors, in which we should now be some what familiar with the world of form according to the Sautrantika Buddhist tenet system. Established Bases (gzhi grub, vastu siddha) is chapter two. And now what has just happened is that whole entire view of existents according to the above mentioned tenet system, which is considered a lower view than the view that Tibetan Buddhist hold as “the” view called Prasangika Madhyamika, is being introduced to us. We will not study Madhyamika for years to come for it is quite terse and difficult to understand.

So with the established base chapter our view has been immensely widened. Where with the chapter on colors we were only concerned with the world of form which can be perceived with all of five senses, the next chapter is concerned with all existents and by implication non-existents as well. The chapter on colors is included within form, and form is included within other heading called functioning thing: “That which is able to perform a function” being its tsan nyid. All functioning things are mutually inclusive or have the same meaning with impermanence with its tsan nyid being “momentary” meaning that it is a phenomenon that disintegrates moment by moment.

On a brief note, Gen la mentioned last week that though normal humans can not directly experience impermanence that scientists through the use of instruments can get really close to that experience. For example, the knowledge about atoms and how fast they move, the amount of space a single atom contains and so forth. Though it is not Gen la’s field of study it is cool that he put these kinds of things out there for us, showing that our studies can have correlations with other fields of study, particularly modern ones. In particular, he mentioned the huge particle collider device on the Franco-Swiss border for their success in smashing some particles together, it being cited as “A New Era in Physics”.

Moving back to my previous thought, functioning things are composed of three divisions: form (which we just studied), consciousness, and non-associated compositional factors (which are functioning things but are not any of the two, form or consciousness). In contradistinction to these which are all impermanent there are “permanent phenomenon” and these two impermanent and permanent in turn are the two main division for established bases i.e., existents.

It seems to be that from now on that this chapter will be the foundation for all further study. It multiplies the amount of information to be memorized and the comparison combinations that can or can not be done between the various phenomenons. Some of the students are finding it quite difficult, as instead so am I, and as one young monk told me two days ago, “My motivation is broken”, I reminded him that it has only been three weeks and that if sticks with it he will get better. There are many young monks in our class around the age of sixteen/ seventeen. And I have the feeling that this might the first time in their lives that they are required to bust ass at something. This course requires all of thinking and taking the time to do so. With the little time that I have spend at monasteries, thing can be quite relaxed there, especially at monasteries that don’t teach philosophy where the young monks have lived since their childhood. As child monks their education includes memorization of prayers, learning ritual instruments, sand mandala construction, butter sculptures and the making torma offerings (offering cakes made out of roasted barley flour called Tsampa), all of which require mainly learning the motions but little intellectual content. It is only after learning these that monks may learn some philosophy. Seeing that this could be the case, I can understand why this young monk said what he said. So far with my experiences with memorization, especially doing it the Tibetan way, it is a rather brainless activity in way. One just repeats a phrase over and over until it can be said without looking at the book and then you add another one to that phrase until you have down and can just spit it out. It also puts you in a zone or trance so to say. The monks have several various tunes that they used for memorization, but I am trying to come up with my own based on the long clave rhythm, but so far no luck, hehehe. But in this course memorization is not enough, it is just a basis to work from, for if you don’t have some understanding, then all that will become able apparent in debate.

Having all these young monks around is kind of like having a much of lil brothers around. They are always playing with ya, smacking on ya, wrestling with ya and so forth, which is kinda cute, I guess. There are older students also so you can have the goof off time with the kiddies and more cool intelligent conversation with the older kats. Anyways I am getting tired so I will stop here, I initially wanted to write just a few lines but I guess some extra stuff ain’t too bad it is?