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.