My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

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.


1 comment:

Tsa said...

so lovely to hear your tales from dharamsala!!! Seems like being there again.... you brought fresh air to my afternoon, just like the moonsoon! besos!