My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

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 appliquĂ© 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.


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