My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Monday, September 27, 2010

30 thirty minutes to download

Though we have half days on Saturdays, instead of lecturing Gen la has given us what normally would be lecture time study time in the temple. Usually at that time I would either review previous chapters or practice memorization. The practice of memorization, though at times it can seem mindless is very taxing to the mind which is not used to the process. I have come to call it in my downloading session. The most important thing about the whole process is regularity and checking the text for correctness. Every morning and night I recite from the beginning up until whatever topic we are currently studying, all the defining characteristics and their divisions that need to be known from memory having the text near by in case I have forgotten something. Of course at the beginning reciting them did not take long because we had only studied a few chapters, but now that we have studied 10 chapters it takes about 30 minutes to recite the whole thing and of course there is new stuff to memorize quite regularly also.

I have noticed that some things are easier to memorize than others. Many times, built into a particular text are mnemonic devices to aid the process, like having certain phrases that repeat themselves after a certain set of stanzas or after a certain set of categories throughout the text similar to a chorus or a hook in a song . My classmates are machines when it comes to memorizing since they have been doing it since childhood. Our chant leader had down in his memory the entire Lama Choepa liturgy within a couple of days. It was performed this pass Thursday since 49 days had passed since the disaster in Ladakh. This liturgy is about 2 hours long and it includes various chants with different rhythms and melodies and in a certain order which must be followed. And still he had to do the memorizations for class. If I did not recite my memorizations every day I will forget them in an instant. There have been many times when I have been glad that I have kept up with the practice, because sometimes I don’t feel like doing them, it takes a while to do them and my brain really feels it, just like a hard workout. In this world one hears stories about Geshes who have memorized all of their many root texts of study, 16 to 20 years worth. We are talking thousands upon thousands of pages. Some could be tall-tales for sure it if wasn’t for the fact that in most places or monastic communities where debate is studied memorization examinations are a must and mind you that these exams are done in front of everyone. Most novice monks go through with it before they are allowed to advice to the classes on philosophy.

I witnessed some of my friends pass their examination by being the chant leader for the Vajrakilaya tantric liturgy at the Sakya Centre in Dehra Dun, which is ten hours a day for ten days. Here the chant leader has a drum part to go along with it. As I was there watching my friends knock these long phrases with complicated tongue twisting mantras for hours on end non-stop without a book in sight, I was thoroughly impress and now I have more of an appreciation of what it takes to do that. Although at IBD there are no memorization exams, without memorizing at least the main defining characteristics and their division one can not possibly debate. The first thing that we learned was how to debate a outline starting with the simple ones (colors and their defining characteristics, division, etc.) and as the chapters got more involved, more complicated ones were learnt, struggling to seek out their meanings by comparing phenomenon using tetralemmas, trilemmas, etc.

Gen la’s book, which he wrote to serve as a guide to studying the “Tutor’s Collected Topic” (yongsdzin bsdus grwa) has each chapter divided in two sections, the first being the section that has to be downloaded (blo ‘dzin gyi rim pa) and the second being the section that explains difficult points (dogs gcod kyi rim pa). Some chapters might have a page or two to be downloaded; our current chapter on the Advance Presentation of Cause and Effect (rgyu ‘bras che ba’i rnam gzhag) has near five pages though the pages sizes are not very large. When we begin our study of “Types of reasoning” (rtags rigs) we will have 20 normal sized pages to download. For the guys it is nothing but I think that I am not in the only foreigner in my class that feels a bit apprehensive about it, since we all come from cultures where memorization has not been the main part of our education. But also I think about all the stuff that I have downloaded since class has started and it adds up though I am not sure if it comes to 20 pages. Since I have heard that the more one does it the better one gets at it I have been sticking strictly to the practice. I just doubt that my mind has the capacity to hold all that stuff and as the more I memorize the more I am surprise that it fits up there in my dome some how.

My classmates all use various ways of memorizing. All will pick a certain melody and used that as an aid; since at the beginning we might not necessarily understand exactly what is being memorize the aural aid serves to help it stay in mind. I have not found a melody to use for memorizing as of yet, I don’t have a Tibetan accent so if I copy what my classmates use it doesn’t sound right so I need to find one that works for my voice. I have tried rapping it but it sounds über ridiculous. Some do it cross-legged rocking back and front or side to side on their bums, while others pace around. I prefer the pacing method because sitting cross-legged for long hours on end has been quite a challenge for me since coming to India, so I seek any moment when I don’t have to do it. With the pacing it feels quite nice, like a slow strolling but with a book in your hands and plus it gets the blood flowing after all that sitting. What I have been doing is that since most of the defining characteristics are crazy ass tongue twisters and they can be quite long, I break them up in to bite size chunks, repeating the crap out of them until I can say them effortlessly without looking at the text. Once I have gotten that then I will string them back together and repeat and repeat until I can spit it out without looking at the text. As I progress, for every line memorized I will return to the beginning of the chapter and recite it from memory up until the line that I have last memorized. As you can imagine, this is quite time consuming and I have not figured out another way to do it. I hope that with time I will be able to do it quicker.

During our studying period this Saturday morning some of my classmates and I were pacing in memorization on the veranda that surrounds the temple. As I was pacing towards the front to the temple I noticed that Sarah had a very special surprise visitor. Ama Jetsun Pema, HHDL’s sister, was just standing in front of the main administrative building. It took me as a wee shock. Ama Jetsun Pema, besides being the Big D’s sister was the main driving force behind the TCV (Tibetan Children Village) for many years, where a multitude of Tibetan orphans have been housed, reared, educated and cared for. Many call her Ama (Mother) since she has been a mother to plenty of children who have left theirs back in Tibet. She is shown a lot of respect and is highly regarded. So I was surprised to see her just standing there chillin’ at Sarah.


Monday, September 20, 2010

A hint of autumn and the end of the Monsoon…. I hope!

Circa 12:55am 09-18-2010 as the sounds of last night’s debate still resounded in my mind stream the feeling of vertigo overcame me snatching me from my R.E.M. sleep. During those first few seconds of wakefulness I immediately realized that my bed, my room, my dorm and in fact all of Sarah and beyond was oscillating. It lasted for about 5 or 6 seconds and soon afterwards the bell was sounded to call all of the students outside. Once I had walked down those five flights of stairs I witnessed a bunch of half-awake zombies wrapped in blankets, meandering the basketball court, many not knowing why the hell the bell was sounded at 1 o’clock in the morning. One of my classmates came to me and asked me, “Why are we out here?” I was like, “You didn’t feel the tremor?” “Nope” he said. “If you were sleeping how did you know that the tremor was happening?” he asked. “It woke me up, dude. My bed I was shaking, I’m bound to feel it” I said and so it went. We stayed on the basketball court for about a half an hour until we were all called back to our rooms. I knew that when I resumed to lay down that I would be tossing for a bit and as I tossed and turned I reflected about when was the last time that I had felt a tremor and also about the first time that I had felt one.

The first one that I had felt was in McLeod Ganj fall of ’05 and that tremor ended up being a devastating earthquake in the isolated mountainous regions of Kashmir and Pakistan killing over 100,000 people. Then as in now, I stayed in a very non-earthquake friendly environment a ways up on TIPA Road, though Sarah is slightly safer. The last one, I want say, happened some time last year. I was in my old room on the 3rd floor and sometime in the morning, around 9 or 9:30am my room shook and my door knocked as though the cops were about to bust a clandestine meth lab. The buildings that we live in and occupy daily are made out of about 95% cement and 5% rebar, since last night new cracks have appeared on my veranda. These items are not known for their flexibility or for their ability to absorb shock. But it does allow many institutions with low-budgets such as Sarah to build and organize a college. With me being on the fifth floor, I think that I felt the tremor more pronouncedly than my second and first floor counterparts. Our building, similar to a tuning fork after it has been struck, vibrated more pronouncedly at the top since that is where the tension is being released. I think that’s why many of my schoolmates, besides being deep sleepers, didn’t feel a thing.

It does scare me though, the whole earthquake thing, with being from the East Coast US; one is not used to the idea of earthquakes unlike our West Coast dwellers. The idea of the most solid that we know moving takes a bit of getting use to. If one hits pretty hard, if won’t be so pretty around here that is for sure. Especially this year after, Haiti, Chile and Tibet having been decimated by powerful earthquakes I wonder how steady the Dharamshala area is at this point. The last major one that hit here was during the time of the British Raj in 1904, where many of the Raj’s upper echelons frequented McLeod Ganj to escape the ferocious of heat of the Delhi summer. Even Sir Francis Younghusband, the man known to have forcefully opened Tibet up to British influence by marching an army equipped with then modern arms to Lhasa in the early 20th century, visited McLeod Ganj. This area is an earthquake hotspot, as a seismology expert showed us on a map a few years ago. But really what to do if one really hits? Diving under my bed is the best thing that I can do and hold on tight. I figure that since I am on the fifth floor I might be fine, but that is really a false hope, I asked a friend, “What is worst falling down five floors or having five floors falling on top of you?” As in Upper TCV, TIPA, Gangkyi, and Norbulingkha, Sarah has a black earthquake protecting stupa built on it at the request of the HHDL after a seemingly seismically volatile period. We’ll now see as to their effectiveness. One of my classmates told me today after lunch that he had heard on the radio news that there are possibilities for further tremors tonight and within the next incoming days, let us see what transpires.

Since moving to this room with the back facing the majestic Dhauladhar range, I have sat on my veranda wondering about the people who live up one those mountains. Of course the thought of the local Gaddi goat and sheep herders come to mind, but also since this is India one, well at least I, can not but help to think about the many caves and huts that dot the area and some of its inhabitants. I have been to a cave below the Bhagsu waterfall that was once inhabited by a Shiavite yogi known as Jungli Baba who had passed on a few years back before I had come to India. The cave’s innards contained painted cravings of various Hindu deities and a Shivalinga situated prominently on the ground. Two summers ago, I went along with a group of students from Emory University and some Dialectic School professors to a stone hut, way way above McLeod Ganj to visit an Ex-Dialectic School student who has been on retreat on that mountain for some time. Inside was quaint with a wooden meditation box, a slab of wood for doing prostrations which was bending concave from years of use. The retreatant seemed happy to see some visitors especially ones who were interested in the Dharma.

Last Sunday since we had a full two day weekend, I went to McLeod Ganj to meet with my friend Jeremy who is now in the upper campus. He is really good with debate having studied Tibetan and Sanskrit as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin Madison and as a grad student at Harvard. He also has a decent knowledge of both Western and Eastern Philosophy so he knows the exact language to use for this and his mastery of Tibetan and Sanskrit are impressive to say the least. So I always holla at him for questions. Last year before he left Sarah to the IBD campus I would go to his room to seek his advice in dialectics. Here is a clip of Jeremy in action during an all-night debate. Because he is now in McLeod Ganj and for lack of time I can’t chat him up as much as I would like so only when I have sufficient time can I take the trek up the hill. Anyways, he called me early last Sunday morning and suggested that we go and take a hike up the mountain and we’ll find a spot where I could ask questions about debate.

When I finally arrived in McLeod Ganj and met with him the weather was looking rather iffy but we decided to head on up any ole’ how. First we went to a pizzeria in Dharamkot that makes some pretty decent pizza. He was telling me that the weekend before as he was hiking up the mountain that he had met a Russian guy who had been living in a cave about half way up to Triund for the pass two years and that if I felt inclined we could go visit him. But Jeremy gave me a warning; the path to this man’s cave is quite treacherous. And after our delicious pizzas, for I was hungry as hell and since I didn’t have breakfast it was especially nice to have something else besides Sarah food for a change. So we begun our ascent, first losing our bearings but eventually we found our way. As we walked Jeremy was recounting to me about a time when he was walking on the same path that he had happened upon a group of hysterical Gaddi women crying surrounding a guy had just fallen off a roof, drunk he guessed, cracked his head and died right then and there. And there was Jeremy and another Israel backpacker on the scene as the only foreigners around. Pretty heavy! I once pretty much carried an old drunk Indian guy, who had fallen flat on his face on the road half way up to TIPA smashing his nose, all the way up this path and above to his abode hoping that his relatives will clean the drunk’s nose and but him to bed. One never knows what one will encounter when one hikes around these parts.

The clouds were bearing into the valley ahead of us as we ascended, dark, gray and light all intermingled in a kaleidoscope of “it is going to freakin’ rain buddy!” But we ignored it; Jeremy stated that when he had came up the week before that the clouds had cleared up after he had reached a certain height. But I was thinking; this is Dharamshala, the weather here is just too unpredictable.

Finally after about an hour and a half of ascension, he identified the landmark that marked the beginning of the path to the cave. It wasn’t much of a path; it appeared more like a goat path than a people path. Plus by the time we had gotten there it had been raining on us pretty good. Luckily we each had umbrellas but I was wearing my champion sneaks which don’t do good in the mud and on a bad trail. The beginning of the trail had wet grass folded over it and when I looked over the edge the possibility of a fall to imminent death seemed all too real. We had to duck and stretch around huge boulders and weave through some rhododendron groves on a thin slippery edge. This so called trail was very erratic; at times we had to climb down the path holding on to the exposed rhododendron roots and the rocks to progress further. Jeremy said that this cave dweller could really bust a move on this trail. I was like; well no doubt, he had been living there for two years.

Finally after all that we made it. I was bit muddy and wet; the guy seemed happy to have visitors and invited us in. He moved about his habitat hunched over on his haunches like Gollum but in no way creepy. He had built a small wooden door with a glass window in the front and constructed a stone wall to the right side to reduce the exposure. He had also built himself a tin stove low to the ground for heating and cooking, the stovepipe seem to lead to the back exposed part of the cave giving the smoke a decent exiting route. Close by was a creek overflowing with monsoon water and of course he also gathered rain water. To the front and around the cave there was a vast supply of wood, mostly rhododendrons. Various tools were strewn in the front, an axe, a saw, etc. Inside was quite small; the cave dweller himself was not a big man so it seems fine for just him. He was a bit straggly, about in his late forties/early fifties, his salt and pepper light brown hair was in a ponytail slightly balding on the top. He had a section in the back where he seasoned his wood, an aluminum box for storing perishable goods. In the corner immediately to the left was a bed and besides that an altar with seven tiny metal water bowls offered and several pictures of some Rinpoches and deities. I did not recognize any of the Rinpoches so I assumed that maybe he was a follower of Bon (the religion that was in Tibet before the advent of Buddhism). But also there was none of the tell-tale signs of a meditative retreatant either. His teacher is the head of a Bonpo lineage in Solan which is near Shimla. Immediately he kindly prepared us some simple food made from gathered mountain and market veggies, he proceeded to explain how he had found this cave in his distinct Russian accent.

He had initially found it 16 years ago from an Argentine guy was on retreat there for about a year. The Argentine was a student of Lama Zopa. He told us that had came there to seek a different way of life and he said that this time has been the happiest time of his life, he didn’t know how long he would stay and that he could not ask for anything more. He was living with a Tibetan monk before the finally to decided on this cave. This place is way isolated and the chances of seeing another person causally traversing that path are highly unlikely. He had an imitate knowledge of the local geography and about various other caves around the area. Jeremy was interested with what he had to say about caves and their location seeing that he might want to spend a few days in one. He knew if there was water available around them not, if the herders used them on not and so on. I asked about wildlife and his said that he had seen black bears and has heard the purring of a leopard outside his cave one night, which sounded like a deep rumbling motor but had never seen one. Being in this cave reminded me of my hobbled days on the road as a young adult; when I used to squat far off in the woods. So in that respect there was some familiarity with the ambiance of the setting.

The food that he made us was very tasty despite its humble ingredients. He said that some of his food he had gotten from the market; that he gathers some of the herbs and veggies that grew in the mountains and also that at times he would go to a farmer and just ask for veggies. I am sure that at first it must take some of those farmers aback, but upon seeing him one knows that he is not your average Westerner chillin’ in Dharamshala, even to local eyes. We stayed there for awhile since we did not expect that he would cook, and so time passed by. Jeremy and I did not get to talk shop, but this random trek up the mountain in the rain was a delight. After bidding adieu to our new friend, a Russian cave dweller, we reversed our steps as the sun was setting.

On the way down, Jeremy gave me some advice about dialectics and about being in the course in general as a Westerner which I of course found very helpful. We left the cave at about 5pm and got to McLeod Ganj at about five minutes to seven. I was a bit worried about catching a bus down to Lower Dharamsala so late. I knew that the shared taxis would have stopped running by then. After saying bye to Jeremy, I headed to the bus stand luckily to find one bus heading down the hill with its ultimate destination being Dehra Dun. My feet and legs were killing me, it hurt to the bone. Jeremy said that nothing had helped him more for his reasoning skills than a long hike in the mountains, though that is yet to been seen for me, my legs where feeling it for sure. When I finally made it to Gaggal, everything was shut down, there was not a taxi to be had and so I (with my already hurting ass legs) commenced a half hour walk to campus in the dark. By the time I had made it to campus the rain started to pour again, but luckily I had my best friend for the monsoon with me, a rainbow stripped umbrella so I was fine, except for my paws. Anyways now when I sit on my porch and look out at the mountains I wonder how my Russian hermit is fairing it in his cave in the clouds.

This monsoon just seems never ending, but I know for sure that the end is to come soon. And how do I do this? Well around the end of monsoon every year some very scary looking spiders (as the one shown in the above picture) start nesting and growing everywhere. These spiders scare the be-jesus or should I say the be-buddha out of me. But their return indicates the beginning of autumn and the end of the monsoon. The weather is slowly cooling down particularly at night, we are just a few days away from the equinox and I am ready for it. Also there is a campus picnic coming up soon for a few days which will be fun for sure.

Throughout the week during our night debates including the damjas and our regular one and one debates, the two monks who came to our all-night debate last week Friday has been returning and this time with more of their classmates. Debating with these guys is hard as hell. It is like someone who has gain some decent familiarity with chess and that person is playing against a grandmaster. The level of eloquence and reasoning is at a whole different level than what is currently in our class, but these encounters had provided us with new ideas for debate topics, different ways to looks at the topics and to look deeper into the meaning of things.

One thing that has come up over and over again with these advanced monks debating us, and why I now I have a better sense as to why Tibetans call the study of dialectics defining characteristics (tshan nyid), is because it is the defining characteristics that many of us mindlessly state as reasons without digging into their meanings. These guys know how to dig and find weakness in ones understanding and draw it out into the open. It is quite remarkable really, though at times that understanding could be one that one holds very dearly. Also another thing that stands out is that how one understands Tibetan grammar is very important to debate since the Tibetan sentence structure is very agglutinable where words can be sliced apart at different sections in the syntax that changes the meaning. Like for example, shes bya ma yin pa’i spyi (pronounced something like shay ja ma yin pe chi) could mean both an object of knowledge that is not a universal or that an object of knowledge is the universal of not being.

Other instances create a situation where the subject (chos can) losses its power (chos can nus med) and this only happens when the query has a subject tied into the predicate. For example, the subject permanent phenomenon, it follows that sound is impermanent because it is an object of hearing by an ear consciousness (rtag pa chos can/ sgra mi rtag pa yin par thal/ rna shes kyi mnyan bya yin pa’i phyir). Since there are two subjects, permanent phenomenon being the first and sound being the second, which is placed within the predicate as sound is impermanent, the first subject permanent phenomenon losses its power because sound is impermanent and because it is an object of hearing by an ear consciousness. And so it is in such a situation that the defender should accept the query or end up with tons of ridiculous consequences bombarded on them. It has taken many of us awhile to get use to this and it is like a beginning chess player learning how to recognize a checkmate or a stalemate, one does not even see it happening until it is too late or it goes by unnoticed.

As we continue to study, more and more of the bigger picture is slowly being revealed. We are slowly beginning to see what the issues are within the school of thought we are currently studying. Although it wouldn’t be until next year that we will learn to outright identify which view belongs to which school but according to Tibetan nomenclature (grub mtha’) the position of our current texts on logic and reasoning follows the Sautrantika (mdo sde pa) or Sutra school position with the others being the Vaibhashika (bye brag smra ba) Great Exposition school, Cittamatra (sems tsam pa) Mind-Only school and the big doozer Madhyamika (dbu ma pa) Middle Way school. Although the Vaibhashika is seen as the lowest school, we start with the Sautrantika which is the next one up; both assert the selflessness of self (gang zag gi bdag med) but deny the selflessness of phenomenon (chos kyi bdag med). The Vaibhashika and the Sautrantika schools are categorized as Hinayana (theg chung) Small Vehicle schools because adherents of these schools seek their own personal enlightenment and the Cittamatra and the Madhyamika schools are categorized as Mahayana (theg chen) Great Vehicle schools because adherents of these schools, make the pledge to hold off their own final enlightenment until all sentient beings have achieved enlightenment. Tibetans take the Madhyamika position that all phenomenon lack any inherent existence or that it is empty (shunyata, stong pa nyid) of its own inherent existence as being the most correct position.

Due to the fact that the selflessness of self has been used a lot in our texts and because it is the largest overall pervader meaning that if something is either an existent or a non-existent then it is necessarily the selflessness of self. But so far I think that we are still a ways away before touching that topic in-depth and we are even further away from discussions on emptiness. When asked in class Gen la just says that we will have to wait until next year to tackle it properly and I also think that he does not want to make us more confused than we already are. Our studies move step by step, each new topic depends on the previous learnt topic in order to be tackled and as we are studying the preceding chapters, one feels like a one is peeling off the layers of a humongous onion very slowly one layer at a time. Slowly I have gained some competence in debate, but I still have a long way to go though. Twice a week some of us have been meeting early in the morning before morning debate with Gen Sonam la, a Nepali Geshe Lharampa who looks like Malcolm X in maroon robes who has been answering some of our doubts. Also I just started helping a French student with some of the basics of debate once a week.

I have been happy to see that the Sarah ladies have started organizing themselves. They recently founded a group called the Daughters of the Potala palace (po ta la sras mo’i tshog pa) and last Monday they organized their first function as a group, an all female roundtable debate to discuss issues pertinent to them, there role in the community and culture. I think this is a great first step and I hope that the seeds of change in the realm of gender in the community can grow and progress.

A few days ago during our mandatory study period in the afternoon, one of my classmates came up to me as I was ambulating around the temple veranda doing some memorizations. He asked me to explain to him a song that he had written in his notebook in English. As soon as I saw the first line I automatically realized that it was the Star-Spangled Banner, I was loss for words. Besides knowing that it was written during the war of 1812 or during a battle in the war of 1812 I could not explain the meaning of it to him or even who wrote it. He did not know that it was the US National Anthem. He asked me if I had it memorized, I told him nope. In India all the children in school are made to memorize the Indian National Anthem and they sing it daily. I can still remember the Pledge of Allegiance but the National Anthem…. Forget it. He was surprised at this, but what can I say. I guess I am not as patriotic as I should be.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Dawn of the Dreads…



There are times when it comes to writing updates that I am quite unsure as to how to start and then there are times when it just comes out naturally. Sometimes I might feel that I have nothing to say or that nothing of interest has happened in this or that particular week but then I sit in front of my dinosaur of a laptop and four or five hours have passed. This week basically started with the welcoming concert for the students of Miami University which was quite nice. The room where it happened was quite hot and stuffy but I think that it gave a good intro to the campus for the newly arrived students. There is one more such concert to come when the Emory students arrive in the winter. Many students and classmates asked me why I didn’t perform anything, many remembering some of my previous performances from by gone years and I really didn’t have a good answer. I was supposed to have drummed with Takbum for the Founder’s Day concert but that was cancelled because of the tragedies in Ladakh and Amdo, so no initiative was taken to prepare something for this one, maybe for the next one though, big maybe! Today we were graced with the presence of the students of the University of California Irvine, who gave the student body an intro to the their trip here in India and to their experiences in Tibetan Exile, visiting various Tibetan schools and attending the HHDL teachings on the Heart Sutra and the 37 practices of a Bodhisattva. I was not able to attend the teachings since I had class but during break I was able to listen in on the radio. I had a sense of novelty listening to the HHDL on the FM radio.

A few days ago as I was debating with one of my classmates and in between our debate he was stating he dislike for some the writings posted around campus by Takbum. I have not read any of these postings but it seems to me that Takbum is avid writer and likes to writes his options and post them for all to see. My debate partner that day felt that Takbum writing criticizing monks was very inappropriate especially since he is a Tibetan and is here studying philosophy with mostly monks. He said it is ok for foreigners to write critically about Tibetan culture and what not, but for Takbum, as a Tibetan who has escaped from Tibet and is now living in exile, to write such things is like “shitting where one eats”. His leader as a Tibetan is a monk (HHDL), the administrative leaders of the college plus his own professor, who is teaching him dialectics are also monks.

He perceived that his writings were implying that there are no good monks saying that most of them have secret desires for the pleasures in life like everyone else. My debate partner stated that just because one is wearing robes, does not mean that they have conquered desire, but it does mean that when desire does arise in a particular monastic that they’ll refer to the teachings and practice the techniques for the reduction of desire and or that they’ll ask advice from a more experienced monk as to how to deal with it. Takbum does not know how it is to be a monk; with many becoming so before they have the faculties of choice. In Spiti where my debate partner and various monks in our course are from it is customary for the family to assign their second male child to be a monk from birth. He said that Takbum should go to Spiti and post his writings there, for then maybe that custom might be abolish and then the individual could have the choice of taking robes later on in life if they so wish which is better.

He had hear some rumors from one of his friends that Takbum was at another school where he had posted his writings starting kind of a writing battle with another student who disagreed with what he wrote and that eventually the school expelled him for his writings and that is why he is here at Sarah. But I ask the question, if Takbum is that distrustful of monks why would he apply to a course in Buddhist philosophy where one is surrounded by them. He could just join the bachelor’s degree course and be amongst laypeople. My friend thinks that Takbum is off his rocker. I do have to say that if his writings do not seem to show both sides of a picture then that writing can be damaging. I have met many bad monks (being ripped off by one my first month in India) and I have met plenty of good monks, I understand them to be human first with the same internal struggles as the rest of us and that many of them but not all have taken to heart the practice of the alleviation of suffering for all sentient beings. My debate partner said that what if he goes and writes a book condemning monks and all then that would not be good and could cause problems for Takbum and the Tibetan community at large. Anyways I found the whole discourse interesting, though I am unsure as to Takbum’s incentives for publicly posting he options around campus.

Towards the beginning of the week we did not have lecture of two days for some the monks were studying how to be an Umze or chant leader. Two chant leaders were brought down from IBD to educate them, since our monks are unfamiliar with the yearly rituals that are done at Sarah and also, during daily prayers before evening debate the melody is quite off. A lot of this is due to fact that some of the students don’t follow the chant leader and just belt out of sync or rush the chant. The other part is that our current chant leader chants in a low voice as it is so we can hardly hear him. The chant leader from our class is responsible for all the rituals that need to be done on campus including the daily morning prayers and the Wednesday night prayers. On Monday the IBD chant leader led and that was such a big difference. It was quite nice and everything flowed great. The Tibetan chanting style is quite different from the chanting of other Buddhist traditions where their style is very slow, Tibetans generally chant very fast and they have tons of prayers too, of which a lot of them memorized at a young age. Since we did not have lecture for those days, the rest of us had study period which was great, I need all the study time I can get.

This Friday was the Friday before the second Saturday of the month meaning that an all-night debate was in store. We found out from Gen la that some of the monastics who are on campus attending the Advance Hindi Teacher’s Training course are Buddhist scholars in there own right. Many having studied in South India and that a few of them are Geshes (Ph.d in Buddhist Philosophy) and amongst them one is a Lharampa Geshe (crème de la crème of Geshes) and that he gave them an open invitation to attend and participate in our all night debate this Friday. Many of us started getting nervous; though there are some of us who have studied debate in South India most of us are very green. So talk surfaced “what are we to do when some of big shot comes and smacks us down?” Gen la said that he invited them so that we can learn from it and to take it as a learning experience.

And so for two days, each group tried to organize the debates that they would ask which is hard as hell. There are so many unknown variables and factors that arise in debate that I am baffled as how to go about it. Learning this skill is very important though, especially when our final and only exam of the year comes right before Losar vacation. Our exam is pretty random, each student is to prepare a debate, at the beginning of the exam two names are drawn from a hat at random, the first name sits as defender and the second as challenger and then go at it for 10 minutes. After that time is exhausted the challenger will then sit as defender and another name is drawn from the hat and that person will be the new challenger. It goes on like this until every one has gone. Two Geshes are called in from another monastery to act as judges and supposedly have no relations with Sarah or IBD. Has a defender you will have no clue as to what topic will be presented to you. In the second year an essay element is added, so at least then if one bombs the debate exam you still have a chance with the written part. I have noticed with me that I would know a topic fine but when it comes to debating it, I don’t do so good. So this exam makes me nervous.

So for last night’s all-night debate, out of my group I was one of the six selected to sit as defender for our group. Luckily, two amongst us are pretty good and also we were to last to sit as defenders. Two monks from the Advanced Hindi Teacher’s Training course showed up. At first they sat down without saying too much, but eventually as our chaos ensued one of them stood up and took central stage and hammered every group that he debated with. It was then that it became clear to me the difference between let say the guys in our class who are good and some one like this monk who debated in a very solid and clear manner. Many of us were quite impressed and hopefully inspired and humbled. When my group came up to sit as defenders, this monk got us good. His responses to our answers were quite solid and immediate and as I looked at my classmates the feeling that we are really young and not mature was apparent. It also gave me some hope that maybe some day I could actually get good at this.

After he had left, there was still another group to challenge us and towards the end of that debate I became the butt of many jokes being thrown at us. One of my fellow group members was stuck by using the logic that if there are no impermanent phenomenon and existent phenomenon then any thing goes (gang dran dran), as it is stated in our main text. That was turned into that I did not have hair on my head because anything goes, which he accepted or if I was on top of his head and farted then anything goes, which he also accepted. At this, I and the other defenders just lost it, I couldn’t stop laughing. It went on like this for awhile. Gen la was on the sidelines for this whole episode and his laughter reverberated throughout the temple. Some of the things that my classmates come up with in debate are quite hilarious. But in the overall manner, this just reinforced to me that we are all “new fish”.

Now I have a full weekend ahead of me which I plan to combine with study and relaxation. Earlier I was on my balcony kickin’ some beats with my beloved djembe and some of my classmates gave me a visit, looking at my drum, checking out my room and the like. One tried to play it but couldn’t get a sound out of it. They asked my some questions about it and what not and I was happy to share a little about it with them. Throughout my time with them since the beginning of the course, many of my classmates are amazed that my hair is real, which is some ways is understandable but also since there are traditions in both Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism of mendicants who have narlyier dreadlocks than me, I figured that they could easily make the association in hairstyles. The Sadhus of Shaivite Hinduism have some incredible locks, as do the Topdens or Ngagpas of Tibetan Buddhism, both who do not cut their hair while on meditative retreat. When I mention this to my classmates then they make the connection. They always ask me if my hair is real, or if I wash them, or when I wash it do all the matts unmatt themselves, or if their kind of hair could be done like mine. And it is not the monks alone, since coming to India these very same question have arose, even in 2005 when I didn’t have dreadlocks. Part of the amazement is in the curliness of my hair, there are unfamiliar with folks of African descendency and so are quite taken a back not really knowing what to think with they meet one. It doesn’t bother me, but it does surprise that many don’t make the connection with the style of hair that already exist within their culture that they are familiar with. Anyways, I feel that this entry is a bit disjointed, I now wonder if all my entries seem this way.


Monday, September 06, 2010

The developing of class dynamics…

We are responsible as a class for the cleaning of the temple, our classroom and the debate courtyard on Saturdays after lunch. Due to the heavy monsoon rains we have not been debating there because it has been too wet so we have been debating in the temple. The temple is very echoey so it is hard to hear what the other person is saying so often my voice gets a bit sore and my ears feel a bit ringy after a debate session. The nice thing about debating in the temple though is that no one from outside really pays you any attention and one is surrounded by the atmosphere of the thangka’s of various Bodhisattvas, Mahasiddhas and Panditas. Also one can not miss in the front of the temple the HHDL’s throne which lay in front of an appliqué of Shakyamuni Buddha. I miss debating outside also because there one can feel the environment as you plunge into the various mental knots being flung at you. There is particularly a tree that has a bougainvillea vile wrapped all around it and when it is in full bloom in the spring with its pink and purple flowers I always try to snatch me a spot underneath it.

This morning the college secretary was touring some college students from Miami University (not to be confused with Miami, Florida) who have recently arrived at Sarah for a Tibetan Studies study abroad program for a period of two months or so, and so while we were debating he was showing them around temple. I was sitting in a corner as defender debating with a Korean nun and we were having a good debate. After awhile I then realized all of a sudden a bunch of eyes bearing down on me from curious white faces. The secretary introduced the students to me after a bit and asked me to explain to them the reasons for all the mannerism done in debate. My Korean challenger done dipped to the bird immediately and was nowhere to be found as this was going on. Now this is understandable for I am sure like me when I first encountered debate, one doesn’t knows what the hell to think since there is nothing from our own realm of life stateside that resembles it. But I have say that though in debate one is constantly being placed on the hot seat, this particular seat was a tidbit hotter than normal. I immediately got nervous and was searching for a good and brief explanation and as any one back home who I have talked to about debate or who has read this blog knows this is not something that can be effectively explained in minute’s time. I tried my best, explaining about Manjurshri and the right active compassion hand meeting with the left passive wisdom hand thus cutting ignorance with wisdom and all that jazz, but I am sure that it might have been over their heads unless they have been exposed to Buddhism before. I have always been a sufferer of stage fright, though I have stood in front of large crowds of people before in my life. In debate I am slowly getting used to it, but still when damja time comes around generally, unless I am sitting and being drilled in as a defender, I like to sit on the sidelines and listen in. Anyway, ultimately who knows what was going through these kids minds, seeing this random dreadlocked black man in a Tibetan college debating Buddhist logic with a Korean nun in Tibetan and all the other commotion going on. This couldn’t be posited as an oxymoron, could it?

So back to the cleaning, today after lunch we had to cut the grass of the courtyard. But back at home cutting grass normally means a lawn mower of some sort. Not here. Here we have the tool that represents the worker through and through. So much so that it was placed on the flag of the ex-Soviet Union, the all mighty sickle. Dull rusty ass sickles! Many of the students coming from the rural villages of the Indian Himalayas have had experience with cutting grass with this tool. They crouch down on their haunches sickle in right hand and grab a hand full of grass and weeds with their left then cut underneath the left to repeat the process again grabbing more grass. Once the left hand has more grass than it can hold it is then place aside until a decent pile of grass has accumulated. Normally there is an elderly Indian man who cuts the grass to take it to feed his beloved bovines stashed in a mud barn behind the college. But on days when we are doing the cutting he is just elated because all he is got to do is come and pick up the grass. Since being in India I have never seen a lawnmower or a chainsaw. I remember my first day in Dharamsala fall ‘05, I was in a taxi and a tree had fallen and blocked the road up the McLeod Ganj due the heavy rains. I naturally and ignorantly assumed that some one will be busting out chainsaw to quickly remove the obstacle, but the taxi driver grinning at me stated, “Oh Sar, no problem tree chap chap then go, OK?”, and then some guys appeared out of nowhere with axes and commenced on the removal process and thus I quickly learned. But at times I am still amazed at the differences in modus operandi of my host country mostly from my previous conditioning. Like the saying goes, “You can take the boy out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the boy” I guess my case in a slightly modified way fits this allegory.

As I was cutting grass with this implement I was thinking that since the grass is for the cows, why don’t they just fence them in the courtyard since it is currently not being used by us and the cows could do the work. That’s what was done back in the day back home before lawnmowers, right? So far when I have asked this question, I receive looks like, “why would we do that for?” I guess that cow dung might not be desired in the courtyard though it adorns everywhere else in India or that it teaches us, the dialectics students a lesson in hard work.

While working different types of horse play naturally develops amongst the group. A few weeks ago it was some of my classmates doing headstands in lotus posture and seeing who could do it the longest, sometimes ending with another monk unexpectedly knocking the up-side down one over. In India and amongst Tibetans, the lotus posture, which is so elusive to us chair bound Westerners, is no sweat for them. Without an ounce of hatha yoga training they can just popped into it. We have one student though, an ex-monk for Spiti who is an avid hatha yoga practitioner, who has been teaching some of the monks in the early dawn before morning prayers. But what is a beginner’s class for them is quite advanced for us. I saw him bust out some of these moves once and they were astonishing to say the least.

Today since the sun was hot; our class captain bought a case of mountain dew for us. Some of the guys were playing Kabaddi which looks like a mixture of tag and judo and red rover. As we were sitting doing the dew, one of the guys starting chucking glass bottles around and that ensued into a kind of game where someone would stand and toss a glass bottle at someone but I few feet beside them so that they had to dive soccer goalie fashion in order to catch the bottle in mid air, luckily none of the bottles broke. This went on for some time amongst tons of giggles, some one took pictures with their camera phone and the bottle divers reveled in laughter as they saw pictures of themselves. I do appreciate the seemingly small things that my classmates do to have fun. I would have never thought that the throwing glass bottles could be fun. I wouldn’t even contemplate it but it created a relaxed atmosphere and we had a great time.

Once while cleaning the temple a few weeks back, an impromptu concert on the temple’s right side veranda was formed with Ladakhi and Hindi songs galore. After each songs, the guys would yell, “Wah Wah, Kya baat Kya baat”, which is Hindi for wow wow how magnificent! They even convinced me to rap, though I cannot rap for shit, I busted out an old 90’s A Tribe called Quest favorite of mine. They have no clue who “Tribe” is but it brought smiles to their faces.

Today towards the end of our grass cutting session, a debate developed, not a dialectical one, but one about an essay written by Takbum that said some pretty critical things about behavior of monks in general. From Takbum’s perspective it was not aimed at all monks or to the monks in our class. But some of the monks took issue with it, for one, it was written by a layperson who does not know how it is to be a monk and that since many people will read it, it then presents an incorrect picture of monkhood. It was quite a hot debate. No foot stomping and handclapping in this one but with the same intensity and maybe more so than our normal dialectical debate. The idea of finding contradictions in ones assertions was still in place though. It was interesting to me to see this interaction. Takbum has been in this spot before I have notice several times, he is not afraid to say what he thinks which I admire, but it can be viewed as being insensitive to the ones around you. Especially when you are with monks, who just as equally as laypeople don’t comprehend the monastic life, do they comprehend the lay life.

Tomorrow is Teacher’s Day; our class brought our Gen la chair that he wanted. We’ll present it to him on Monday. Teacher’s Day is a holiday either started by or started to show respects to the great Indian scholar and the second president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Teacher’s Day means, honoring ones teacher as ones mentor and guide in life and learning. This kind of respect towards one’s teacher was quite unfamiliar to me until I came to India and to Sarah in particular. One is always showing respect to that person who is imparting their knowledge onto you. From elementary school on through higher education, in India the teacher is well respected. Quite the opposite to what I knew in Brooklyn where in 7th grade homeroom, we were such hellions that we loved getting our short tempered homeroom teacher all riled up to the point to where he would pull at his hair red in anger smashing books on the desk and throwing erasers and chalk at us. We of course just dodged the projectiles laughingly making him even more infuriated. We got a kick out of it, but now years later with seeing how it is done here I reflected about my relations with my teachers in the pass. In college it was different of course, I did and I do have lot of respect for my teachers but it is not like here. Here, when one’s teacher enters the classroom for example, the whole class stands up and sits down after the teacher has seated. That was something I had to get used to when I was in Tsamjor. In the philosophy class we stand up and prostrate three times after Gen la has taken his seat and three times at the end of class before he leaves the classroom.

Remembering my two years in Tsamjor, on Teacher’s Day the students will present to each teacher a gift. Also snacks, games, poetry and songs are arranged by the students. I remember my first year in Tsamjor, the students made a game that involved a bunch of pieces of paper all balled up in a receptacle and the students had to take a balled up piece of paper, open it and do whatever it said to do on the paper if they were that brave that is. One of these pieces of papers that a Khampa monk picked up stated that he had to dance with me and so I got up, the monk was doubled over in laughter at the thought of the future dance with me and I grabbed his hand got funky with the monk. The whole class, teacher included was laughing so hard that I saw tears rolling down everyone’s face after we were done. Since this is my first year in the philosophy course a.k.a Nang don rig pa, I will see how it goes.

Tomorrow the Kalon Tripa (Tibetan-in-Exile Prime Minister) Samdhong Rinpoche will be speaking at Sarah to inaugurate a new Advanced Hindi Teachers Training program for handful of monastics (Himalayan by the looks of it) who will be staying at Sarah for a month and a half. I heard that there might other activities as well. Because the Miami University students have arrived there will be a welcoming concert for them Sunday night. As for the Kalon Tripa, this is his last year and there seems to be a hot race for the next democratic leader of Tibetan exile. A huge voting and political awareness program is happening, posters are posted and talks are happening about voter registration and rights etc. It seems that this voting session will be extremely important for Tibetan exile and the appearance of a modern form of politics seems to be appearing as well. I look forward to hearing the current Kalon Tripa speak; I have heard him speak once before it might have been last year but anyways I appreciated what he had to say.