My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Right Questions

Steadily we are approaching the darkest time of the year for those of us who live on Gaia’s northern hemisphere. In under a month her longest stretch of shadow-dwelling will be amongst us. Observing the different positions that the Sun rises and sets on the horizon and the time changes of these actions allows one to reflect that it is the thing that one lives on that is doing the moving more so than that spherical mass of hot hydrogen gas floating 93 million miles away from us, which without we could not be. Since it rises these days at around five after seven I can sit on my balcony munching on some Tibetan bread and watch it rise. First seeing its rays hit the peaks of the mountains gradually moving down unveiling its shadows until from the far right side of my balcony the warm blinding light starts to slowly peak like a curious child seeing the circus for the first time. The chirping of house-swifts and other birds serenade the newly waken Solar lord. Bees and dragonflies fly to and fro already hard at work in their menial tasks. Sounds of a freshly awaken Indian village and the college adds to this morning symphony.

As compared to my old room, this room gave me the opportunity to appreciate more of the surrounding environment than I have been able to do in my previous years here. Also by learning to apply what I have been learning in class to the realm of regular, daily experience which is opening me up to things that I have always known to have been there but with a developing vocabulary for describing them.

Witnessing my first full moon rising over the mountains last weekend was such a gift. As soon as I saw that the peaks was starting to glow I stopped what I was doing, ran to my balcony and stood there until it floated above to mountains as if by invisible strings. For me, in both the risings of the Sun and the Moon, though I am seeing it happening in real time, the very movement of those masses or more accurately the Earth has not been perceptible to me. It is moving, it is rising but it is not until after the ritual is done that I can cognize that it has done so but not during it. I wonder if others have had similar experiences.

Recently for morning debates we have moved back to our assigned debating courtyard in front of the main administrative building from the court in front of the girl’s dorm, on the grass and under the trees. Sitting as defender I always take to time to notice the waning moon floating behind the challenger in the morning sky as I ponder the presented query. The morning weather is briskly chilly; the monks are all sporting their maroon felt cloaks (zla gam). Once a monk let me wore his as I sat defender and man them suckers are warm as hell and now I want one. I have been wondering if they can make them for lay folks but it different colors, since only monastics can wear the maroon ones. I was first thinking white which is what lay practitioners can wear as far as robes are concerns but that will not stay white for long so maybe I can get one in black. I am out to investigate the matter.

This pass week has been exam week for the Tsamjor and the Rignae (B.A. degree) courses. The week before was for study and this pass week was the actual exam. Our exam is not until February sometime and it is in the debate format. There are only two major exams at Sarah a year for the B.A. degree seeking students, a half year exam and the final exam. The amount of information that needs to be known for these exams seems to be astronomical. How the students do it is incredible. After studying in Tsamjor and in one of the first year Rignae classes and attending their study sessions for two years, I was always in admiration towards my fellow students. I always opted out of taken the exams for I feared that I would have failed miserably and drive myself postal trying to study just for one of these exams let alone five of them. I think that most of the students are accustomed to this learning style while I was not. I was never told anything for being M.I.A. during these exams. For sure, I don’t have that luxury in the dialectics course.

The first year in the Tibetan foundation course I did take the exams and then as in now I found the whole test taking process rather interesting. Tests are taken in the morning and in the afternoon and if I remember correctly there are about 3 to 3 ½ hours long. Depending on the schedule, students from different classes would take any of their various exams at the same time. In the pass, students would make crafty and creative ‘Good Luck’ posters in English and Tibetan for the examiners. The exams are taken in the temple, sitting on mattresses facing the Buddha and surrounded by thangkas of Bodhisattvas and bygone Buddhist masters. Low one-person tables are placed in front of them where the students sit hunched over crossed-legged throughout the duration of the exam in thought of the subject matter before them. Thin yellow covered answer books containing several pages of regular composition paper, in which the covers have to filled out in a specific way stating name, date, class, subject, and teacher, are passed out to all of the students plus the exam sheet.

The monitors tend to be the teachers of the respective class for which one is taken the examination on. If I recall correctly you can not go the restroom throughout the duration of the exam. I remember that sitting crossed-legged for all that time was so difficult for me and the temple environment for a test taking experience was so surreal to me. One of the students told me after his exam how much his hand hurt from writing a lot. He told me how the questions that were presented on his exam required a lot of detail with one question having as many as 4 to 5 questions embedded with in. In was later when I was in Tsamjor that I got a better idea of what he was talking about. Those students sure do studying hard and I have give mad props for their efforts and I hope that all of them pass these exams with flying colors.

Because of these exams our morning debates were reduced to one hour since the courtyard is in front of the temple, the clapping and yelling would be an obvious distraction to the test takers. Also mandatory study time was in the classroom which sits on the top of the administrative building. On top of the classroom lays a golden wheel of dharma (chos kyi ‘khor lo, dharmacakra) of eight spokes which symbolizes the noble eight-fold path presented by the Shakyamuni Buddha. This wheel is surrounded to the right and to the left by a crouching male and female deer in veneration and respect to the wheel and they also represent the first teachings of the Shakyamuni on the four noble truths at a deer park in Sarnath, near Varanasi, India. All Tibetan temples have these symbols on their roofs.

To the front of the classroom on the valley side at the next level lower where the college library is located flies the International Buddhist flag, though for a time the Tibetan flag also flew. From where I sit in the classroom right beside the middle door I can see it waving in breeze as Gen la lectures. Our classroom has four huge windows, two facing the mountain and the other two facing the valley. On a clear day McLeod Ganj and the surrounding areas can be easily seen from these vantages. We have our lectures on the floor with small tables in front of us placed in rows. Our Korean nun brought back some cloth mats from Korea that we now sit on. In the front there is a pillowed wooden armchair and table with a microphone on it where we place our recorders. The classroom is rather long, so a P.A. system has been set up so that we can hear him clearly with two speakers placed in the back where I sit. Gen la never sits in the chair upright but reclined as if driving an ole skool 1969 chevy Impala hoopty low rider through the hood. Above the chair on the left is a framed picture of the HHDL with a Katak draped on it and on the right a framed picture of Shakyamuni Buddha and retinue. The classroom as has A.C.! Every Sarah classroom has a picture of HHDL in it. Originally this room was the apartment of the HHDL, when he visited Sarah to inaugurate the college in 1998 back in which I think he only stayed in it once. Since then it has not be used until it was renovated into a classroom for us this year. Before then all the lectures of the previous batches were held below in the temple.

Normally during study time Gen la would come and just walk around. Partly, I think is to see that everyone is present and studying but also to be available for questions. Since starting the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings many questions have boiled up and a general look of confusion floats over our faces as Gen la provides his explanations. So one day in front of the large balcony on the valley side in front of the classroom I saw Gen la explaining something to a group of classmates and I went to check it out. I stood a bit off the side listening to what he was saying trying to digest and he then looks at me and said an a hearty laugh, “Hah hah, do you get it?” I was not, “Nah uh!” and he said, “Slowly, slowly, see how hard it is for native Tibetan speakers to get it but you will get it in time slowly”. Gen la has one hell of a laugh, he really has a ‘ha ha ha’ type of rollicking laugh. On campus one knows that he is around because his laugh bounces off the buildings. Takbum told me once that Gen la must be really happy and I asked him why he thought so. He said by the way his laughs “ha ha ha” all time in conversation no matter who is talking with, that shows that he must be happy.

Yesterday again in front of the classroom, Gen la asked me if my hair was fake and then I explained the process of making them and how black folk’s hair is just so kinky that it mats up easily. I told him that if I didn’t mat it that it will grow out like a big black ball surrounding my head, my way of describing an “afro” being that there is not a Tibetan equivalent. He said in fun that then my head could be used for a football. I told him that I had decided to mat my hair partially because Indian barbers would not have the slightest clue as to what to do with my hair if I needed a trim. Since they do not any experience dealing with black folk’s hair, I told Gen la that if I went into a Indian barbershop that the barber would look at my hair in surprise and say “kya hai?”, “what’s this?” at which Gen la and the surrounding classmates burst out in loud laughter. I told him that it is not really that different from the locks of a sadhu baba and a topden meditator besides the types of hair used to construct them. He touched some of them and said that it felt like a blanket could be made out of them; I was like how about a cloak (zla gam)? I have not had many interactions with Gen la like this; mostly because he terrifies me since he carries such a heavy air when he is around us.

Before having that conservation I was on the roof above the classroom where the wheel of dharma sits. The surrounding walls are high enough that I can place my book on it with out slouching to read it. The panoramic view of the mountain range with McLeod Ganj resting below it was as usual impressive to me. The sky was crystal blue and above me flew a few thermal seeking high soaring hawks; I watched for a bit how long they can go without a single flap of their wings, this kind of ambience is so striking yet subtle and un-obstructive. My surrounding classmates murmured their texts or were engrossed in debate. Some were in the classroom, some in the balcony in front and other on the roof. With the exam over we will be back to studying in the temple this week.

Yesterday, Sarah’s new sports court was inaugurated in the afternoon, with a small ceremony to thank the donors for hooking Sarah up with such a nice ass court. A bit more on the unusual side for Sarah, last Sunday its campus became a film set for a Tibetan movie, about what? I have no clue! But many students from the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA) crowded on to Sarah’s b-ball court side-steps to a part of the scene acting as an enthusiastic crowd in an excited b-ball game. The main actors where playing. Some scenes were also shot on the debate courtyard and others on the road. I was quite shocked that morning with the all the extra folks. At first I did not know what was going on as I was in the kitchen of the school restaurant trying to get some breakfast but the cooks were overwhelmed with this swarm of demanding hungry mouths. Many of the TIPA females were quite pretty so I had to keep my eyes in check since they don’t carry themselves like the humble-seeming Sarah girls. A TIPA student that I had met a year or two back was there and he explained what was going on a bit. I was like, the U.S got Hollywood, Mumbai got Bollywood, and now Dhasa got Dollywood or could you say Tollywood? Anyways, while watching one of the shoots I told one of my classmates that I think that the actors might be deserving of a Tibetan Oscar Award.

I was asked once what the purpose of debate is and since then I have been thinking about it more. The practice is definitely known to develop ones wisdom (shes rap, prajña). For soteriological purposes wisdom and compassion are needed in unison as a combined force. Wisdom is said to be active and feminine while compassion is passive and masculine. But what exactly is meant by wisdom, or as the ancients Greeks called it sophia? If one looks at the root of the word philosophy, philo- is for love and -sophia is for wisdom which I think they too also viewed it as a feminine principle thus you get the love of wisdom- philosophia. For many, wisdom might mean possessing knowledge of everything, but as a Western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism finely put it, “Often, we think that knowledge means to come up with the right answers, but prajña (wisdom) is more like asking all the right questions”. It was after reading this, in the context as a neophyte dialectician of Buddhism that I have received some insight.

It is exactly this that Gen la (and the other awesome teachers that I have had in my life) have and is trying to teach us how to do, more so than mere scholarship of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It is in that training of learning how to ask the right questions, through the use of logic and reasoning in exercise, that the initial purpose of debate it about. This has made things a lot clearer, providing a grander picture and hopefully a steadier basis to build up on. And thus daily that is our task as students in this course and/or similar courses in philosophy either in dialectics, in a university, a dharma center, or privately with a qualified teacher; I think also in any field of study. Learning to ask the right questions, a mature developed mode of inquiry is a jewel that would guide ones life without fail through thick and thin. And so I hope all those out there in your respective fields of work or study that you might consider this as a tool for your life. To test it out and see what happens, Good luck. I would like to send my thanks especially to the teachers, professors, mentors, the ones who impart knowledge to us students, the ones that pushes us and guides us in the direction towards asking the right questions; you are so valuable and a commodity that the world can not live without.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Entering New Territory

When Gen la started teaching the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings this Wednesday he stated, “This presentation now is a whole new terrain (lung pa gsar pa) to which I will lead you through”. Since after finishing the Presentation of Collected Topics we have taken our first steps into this strange land. Though we have developed and gathered some tools from travelling in the region of Collected Topics, entering this new territory has left many of us in wonder as we try to stare at the panorama before it comes into focus. For starters the main text, “The Presentation of Signs and Reasonings: The Mirror that Illuminates All Phenomenon” (rtags rigs kyi rnam gzhag chos kun gsal ba’i me long) must be memorized. I have been spending a good amount of time in this endeavor. I starting during vacation this summer but I only got 2 out of 20 pages in and so when I started again the first two that I had previously memorized went in rather easily but the new sections are rather difficult. In Collected Topics the defining characteristics were short thus easier to memorized and easier to spit out when needed. On the other hand the defining characteristics in this text are long as hell making it hard to spit. The query stills follows the same format of subject, predicate, reason but the names have changes and when starting the query a more restricted, complex type of style is used, which remind me of those wooden Russian dolls in which one pulls out smaller and smaller dolls from the original.

The basic query of the text is, “the subject sound is impermanent because it is created/ a product, (Tib. sgra chos can mi rtag ste byas pa’i phyir/ Skt. anityah zabdah kRtakatvAt)”. So far in memorization and in debate we have been saying this phrase like it is going out of style. This study seems to be a deeper preparation for the study of Dharmakirti’s Commentary on Dignaga’s Compendium of Valid Cognition (tshad mad rnam ‘grel/ pramANavarttikakArikA). So far we have been taught that all phenomena can be known correctly through two kinds hmm…. I guess you can think of them as consciousness called valid or prime cognition (tshad ma, pramANna): 1) Direct prime/ valid cognition (mngon sum tshad ma/pratyakSa-pramANa) which is a consciousness that perceives its object directly without the medium of concepts, also it is not mistaken and it is new or fresh. It is said that for us normal beings only the first moment (It is believed that they are 64 moments in a blink of eye) of perceiving an object (like a table) is direct but for folks like a Buddha all their perceptions are direct without the medium of concepts 24/7 for all phenomena. 2) Inferential prime/ valid cognition (rjes dpag tshad ma/anumAna-pramANa) which is a consciousness like the one above which is not mistaken and it is fresh but with respect to its object of perception; that object is hidden and it is known in dependence on a correct or valid reason. It is here in the realm of the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings where one first really encounters valid and invalid reason and how to ascertain them and thus to ultimately understand inferential prime cognition.

The classic example is: when one sees smoke on a high mountain pass while approaching it, one correctly ascertains that there is fire. The same holds true with the above query “the subject sound is impermanent because it is created/ a product”. The rub here is that this query is not valid for all people. It is valid to the person who knows what sound is but who doesn’t know that it is impermanent and when the reason is presented to this person they then have an eureka moment leading to them to the understanding that sound is impermanent because it is created. This query wouldn’t be valid for a Buddha because they are said to perceive all phenomenon directly thus of being to no use to such a person. This query is one that also sits at the heart of Buddhism, one of the main assertions of all Buddhist is that “all compounded or created phenomenon is impermanent (‘dus byas thams cad mi tag pa/ sarvaM saMskRtam anityam)” and since sound is a compounded phenomenon it too is impermanent. It is said that since the Vedas are held as being permanent revelatory sound that it is because of this that some Hindu schools assert that sound is permanent.

Back in the day, many of the followers from all the different religions and philosophies that claim India as its place of origin involved themselves in a plethora of debates over their different views. Some these debates took place in the written arena, mainly in the Sanskrit language. One scholar, lets say, from the Jain tradition might read a text by a Hindu scholar and when this person finds points that do not concur with their own they would in turn attempt to refute those points in defense of their own by writing. Of course the scholars from the other traditions will read it thus making their objections or assertions and the process advances. This kind of dialogue happened in ancient India between Hindus, Buddhist and Jains, and also within each respected tradition.

Some of these debates happened face to face in formal dialectical style similar to how we are taught (it said that the loser had to convert to the winner’s religion though, boo hoo), but their query structure was different and both parties sat down thus without the clapping and stomping. Some say that in ole’ skool Indian style debate the challenger snaps his fingers instead of clapping; when Gen la debates us in class he snaps his fingers. We have gotten into the habit of it especially when small informal debates sprout up between us during study period. Tibetans in their mountainous snowy homeland looked to this Indian tradition and adopted it very well but here the language and the style are different. There are a multitude of texts and commentaries written on philosophy doing the same thing as in the Indian tradition. The student tends to be overwhelmed as to the amount of texts there are and to the vociferous writing spirit that these folks had and have.

With the starting of this new study we have switched the view of “our own position (rang lugs)”, where before our own position followed that of Sera Je Monastic College when we studied Collected Topics. Now our own position follows and will follow that for Drepung Loseling Monastic College and thus we distantly taking part in this ancient tradition. These positions might or might be agree with each other. Some folks are quite at odds about studying texts from other monasteries and/or other sects, but for myself I quite enjoy it because it helps me to see what other issues are and how other authors deal with similar issues.

I am enjoying observing how this process is unfolding though it is challenging. I was chatting with our nuns this morning during study period and this new topic had been so far a real brain buster. In debate no matter which way you answer there are problems which lead to contradictions. We are bound to the text that we study so we have to figure out how and why certain assertions are made. Not an easy task by any means. These assertions seem reasonable at first until one starts debating on them and then finds one self very confused, like all of sudden realizing that you have lost your sense of direction. Though in the Presentation of Collected Topics we were also bound to a text it was not so tightly restrictive. And just to think about how we are feeling now recently entering this land, we are really to suffer from severe culture shock when we start traversing through the treacherous terrain of the Perfection of Wisdom (phar phyin, prajJA-pAramitA) course and the Middle Way (dbu ma, mAdhyamaka) course within the next couple of years.

Towards to the end of this week another cold front blew in bringing rain and fogging up our view of the mountain until last night. Again like the previous time the moon had arisen, it was nearly full and the sky was partially cloudy. The range was clearly in full view, just shining like a milky pearl, so after damja I braved the cold breeze to venture to roof of the boy’s dorm and just to let my mind settle like sediment in a river after it has been agitated. The view was spectacular and I just stood there staring at the range solo as long as I could. Though Gen la is now guiding us through the alien realm of the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings last night my thoughts calmed in the realm of the Himalayas.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Old Dog versus New Kids on the Block

With in the six months of class time, we have gone through a series of studies that traditionally took two years or so complete. The study of the course called Collected Topics (bsdus grwa) includes within it the Presentation of Collected Topics (bsdus grwa’i rnam gzhag) text itself which is divided into introductory, intermediate and advance presentations, The Presentation of Knowledge and Awareness (blo rig gi rnam gzhag), and the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings (rtags rigs kyi rnam gzhag). In the three gigantic Gelukpa monasteries of Tibet: Sera, Drepung, and Ganden, it took a total of 3 to 4 years to complete the study of the Collected Topics curriculum. Here at Sarah/IBD it is concluded within one year. Due to the shortened period that we have for studying, many of the lessons are just blown right on by us and a feeling of a definite grasp of the material is not achieved. I know that many of us are overwhelmed by speed in which we go through the lessons. Especially of those like me who do not process a natural inborn ability for logic and reasoning.

Regardless, the difference between our class and those who have studied at the great monasteries relocated in South India after finishing the Presentation of Collected Topics is noticeable. Since the starting of the Advanced Hindi Teacher’s Training Course here at Sarah, a few of the monks from that class, who have studied in South India, have been coming to our regularly to our evening debates. I know that I have mentioned this before. From these interactions, I have come to believe that their first three years of training and drilling the debates found within the Collected Topic curriculum gave them a solid foundation, whereas that cannot be said for many of us within these six months. We are still missing many essential points that are supposed to be learnt during this introductory course in debate. But still despite this, Gen la tells us not to worry that eventually we will all get it, some faster than others.

The during the pass two weeks Gen la has rushed through three very important topics, last of which being the Presentation of Subject and Object (yul yul can), which is an introductory topic to the Presentation of Knowledge and Awareness. As Gen la taught this topic the heavy ambience of non-comprehension mushroomed throughout the classroom. This is due to the fact that in order to understand this topic the previous 2 topics must be understood with a fair sense of certainty. But that has not been achieved by many us because only a few days were allowed to study them. I do know from talking to some of the students from the higher-up class that these topics are so important that they will come up again and again throughout ones study. All we can do is our best, though it makes me feel incompetent because I do not process a natural talent for dialectics and most of the times I feel like I am barely floating by.

To add more spice to the curry, since this Friday was the Friday before second Saturday (we get the 2nd Saturday of each month off), meant that on Friday night we will be having an all-night debate (tshad med dam bca’). On Monday, Gen la said that since we are finishing the Presentation of Collected Topics this week and will be starting the Presentation of Signs and Reasonings on this coming Monday, in which we need to memorize 20 pages of texts, that he had invited the monks from the Advanced Hindi Teacher’s Training course to sit as defenders (dam bca’ ba) while each of our three groups are to make two debates each and stand as challengers (rigs lam pa).We are to use all the topics that we have learnt from the beginning up until now and we are to create a query that encompasses them all. As soon as he said this all of us started to feel a bit shaky and uncomfortable. We know that those monks and nuns are very experienced in debate and that Geshes are included within their class. After I taught about it a bit, it seems that we are like the neophyte chess student who from study knows how to move the pieces and knows some points of tactics and strategy is to be pitted up against a Grandmaster. Those prospects were not sounding too good to us. We tried to protest a bit but too no avail. The match has already been set up Gen la said. He had already asked them and they have agreed to it, so it was on.

We had a couple of days to prepare, each of our groups got together and started discussions as to what hell are we as the newbies are going to debate with these ole’ skoolers. The general talk was that no matter what we ask they will give us the exact answer that would be difficult to counter. They have years of debate experience, duh! I was thinking along the lines of the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” and, “that you can never con a con man”, they guys know every trick in the book supposedly. Also in Tibetan there is the saying “Don’t debate with a Geshe, Don’t bang your head against a pillar” (dge bshes lags dang rtsod pa ma rgyag/ ka ba lags dang brdung ka ma rgyag//), but Gen la had already set us up just for that, to have us banging our heads against a pillar trying to con a con man.

Nonetheless, our group had quite the difficult time coming up with something; we have three strong students but no leader types. Our strongest student is also the most disinterested of them, he has studied at Ganden monastery down South and it was quite unfortunate that he pretty much left us hanging when we could have used his experience in developing a solid debate with us and how to go about the debating format as it is done down there. So though by the end of week we had met twice for two hours we only had a vague idea on what we were to debate with these monks, pretty much we knew the main query but none of the finer internal points to pay attention for. To top it off, our group was to debate first. Process of coming up with a debate is still a phantom to me and I have been thinking and searching for an appropriate method. I have gotten many ideas from my international classmates which I feel is leading me in the right direction.

In any case, Friday night arrived with a bright waxing moon in the sky and it was time for the main event. As I walked through the temple entrance, dead center on the far side sat two monks on a double stack of mattresses wearing thick monastic cloaks (zla gam). One of them has been the one who has been tearing into us for the pass couple weeks. I thought, well at least this is a time where we can ask him some questions. Perpendicular to them on the left was a row of monks from their class sitting in order of rank. The first monk, if I remember correctly is a Geshe Lharampa from Spiti and below him I assumed that the rest were Geshes of varying degrees on down to regular ole’ monks. On the right side sat some nuns from their class. I have chatted with one of the nuns; I know that she was good in debate. Behind both of these rows on both sides of the temple sat our classmates and other Sarah students. The right corner sat Gen la. With debates like all-night debates one person from the group starts off and the rest of the group is suppose to join in. Also anyone present who knows what is going on can join in.

At the beginning our main questioning monk was having some trouble getting the words out of his mouth, which was quite unusual since his is the fastest speaker in our class who can twist consequences inside out and upside down with daunting quickness, for obviously the cat caught his tongue pretty bad: stage fright gets the best of all of us. After several attempts, he almost tried to runaway a few times, he got it out. The moment was very tense. As we got started we were able to draw some contradictions out of them just through either their shear forgetfulness and/or non-familiarity with a certain passage of text that was presented. Other students from the other groups also joined. I had figured that a row full of Geshes and advance debaters would not be able to keep their tongues resting for too long and that was definitely the case. The Spitian Geshe Lharampa spoke up from his seat and drew out consequences from the defenders like a bully stealing candy from a baby. Then different monks from the row followed suit. At one point our group was standing in the middle of temple observing all this going on without saying word. Someone in our group during this period tried to build up our courage to intervene between this barrage of side queries and to bring the focus back to us.

These kinds of debates take a certain aggressive spirit, it is normal in the tradition to cut another person off, even physically. When some is taking the stage and not giving you a chance to get your point across you have to just take it. Which sounds weird, I know! I have not seen this spirit so much in my class so far, but I remember from going to all-night debates during my first years here, watching two monks pretty much wrestling each other to get the chance to hurl consequences at the defenders. At first I found it rather unbecoming of monks to be acting in such a fashion. But I realized that it quite accepted and that normally no hard feelings are held. The monks from down South definitely have this spirit. In some ways too, it was embarrassing for to be standing there with no good way to bring things back, but we know that we are the new kids on the dialectical block and that we still have some ways to go; I was regardless of that scenario glad that see how the ole’ skool did their thang. Eventually our group’s time was exhausted, whew!

Pretty much the same type of situation happened with all of our groups. This was quite a challenging event for all of us, even for our talented students. When the third group came up to bat, the other class had swapped defenders, but they only got one volunteer and so one of our guys had to sit in but he did not say much though he usually has tons to say. The monk that they chose was quite a riot for his mannerism and his way of answering was goofy yet steady. His answers carried serious weight but at the same time made you want to laugh your ass off. Eventually the monk who had just sat defender got up and tore into the swapped defenders. One of the nuns also got a couple of good side licks in for good measure. We were trying to get her to sit as defender but she was apparently shy. None of our nuns got up with their group when it was their turn which was surprising for they are very good. I was wondering if it was because there was some high monks within our presence for our nuns are definitely not shy.

Afterwards we had a meal of Tibetan vegetable noodle stew and a creamy fruit desert. The atmosphere relaxed tremendously throughout this period as we all ate together. This is always my favorite part of all-night debates just sitting, chatting, and enjoying everyone’s company. But we had to get back to it and this time Gen la changed the format since time was short, he had each group debate each other leaving the other class from having to sit as defenders. Since we were to first to start the debate we were the first to sit as defenders. Five of us sat and luckily we were not there for too long. The topic was one of the recent topics that was taught really briefly and none of us knew it well. After we had finished the previous challengers then sat as defenders. At this point many of the monks from the Hindi course had done split and many of us were relieved.

One of our nuns got up with her group to challenge. By the time it was all said and done, 12:30am to be exact. The final smack down came from Gen la. He told us that we had none quite a horrible job in preparing our debates as a group. We need to learn when doing damjas how to ask questions as a unit, as a group. That was very true, with all of our groups only the strong students asked questions while the rest of us just being there clapping and stomping. Gen la said that there is no point if only one or two people are asking the questions and while the rest of the group stands silent. I think we all knew that we stunk that night and Gen just enforced that we have long ways to go as aspiring dialecticians. It was done though, we all made it. We got roughed up pretty good, but we weren’t a total pushover. I don’t know if this encounter hurts Sarah reputation in the debating world or not, but the most important thing is that it expanded our debate experience beyond our small group and allowed us to see what else is out there, what the possibilities are and how others do their thing. This might be one of the reasons why Gen la had asked them to sit as defenders.


Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Diwali Post

On the eve of U.S. Prez Barack Obama and his wife Michelle’s arrival to India, after the dialectical fireworks of last night’s damja, a few of my classmates and I headed the roof of the boy’s dorm look at the fireworks that was happening all around us. Yesterday marked the Hindu festival of Diwali that celebrates the Goddess of light and wealth Lakshmi and the Hindu New Year. Every year during this festival fireworks are sold indiscriminately to the young and old. On the days that lead up Diwali, the sounds of fireworks become more and more intense reaching the grand crescendo on the night of the actual festival. Since campus is cropped up on a hill and the dorm is five stories high, see could all the glittering sparks of fireworks that were launched from different places within the valley in front of us. About 15 minutes by bus, southwest of campus at capital of our district, the city of Kangra was very active, though at the time in was under a black out, the skyrockets were still being continuously launched. Directly to the south of campus lays Gaggal with is about a 10 minutes walk for here. There too the fireworks were raging. Most of the surrounding areas are villages, which were by no means lacking in the pyromaniacal fun of the celebrations. From the vantage point of the roof we had an almost 360 degree view of all the action. We made commentary grading the various skyrockets exploding around us depended on how elaborate and beautifully they exploded in the sky. Their booms echoed at various points, from varying distances and if it wasn’t Diwali, I could easily imagine that some kind of skirmish was going. Even some guys came up later on to light some firecrackers but all of their attempts were rather ridiculously dismal.

Rewinding, on the 28th of October as I was going to the temple for our daily mandatory study period from 2 to 4pm, I noticed that in the courtyard in front the temple that a P.A. system was set up along with a row of tables and chair arranges as if a talk was about to happen and in front of that most of the student body were squatting on the grass. When I saw one of my classmates and asked him what was going on he told me that a group of seven Americans have been riding motorcycles around the world to bring awareness to the Tibet issue and that they are about to arrive here on campus and give a brief speech. When he said that I did not think too much about it because every now and then you might hear such a thing; like folks cycling around India to bring awareness to the Tibet issue so on and so forth. After a bit of indecision I went and joined the rest of the folks. The motorcyclist did not arrive until an hour or so afterward, so we sat in the courtyard just shooting the shit while we waited. There was apparently phone connection with the group for the staff knew how far they were from campus and gave us regular updates.

When it was close to the time that they were to arrive every one lined both sides of the campus road to welcome them. When they arrived I realized that my classmate was rather misinformed. It wasn’t seven Americans both one American and this American was also Tibetan. Behind this one motorcyclist were about 20 or more supporting local bikes riding with him, many of the riders donning traditional Tibetan attire waving Tibetan and TYC flags and shouting, “Böd Gya Lo”, “Victory to Tibet” as they rolled in. Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress seem of have made up a majority of the support bikers. It all clicked to me then. I had read about this guy on when I was in the states during summer vacation. A Tibetan from New York: Lhakpa Tsering la, he had decided to motorcycle around the world to bring awareness about Tibet’s political situation. Here is his website link. This ex-nomad’s iron steed was no rinky dink motorcycle, but a regal BMW motorcycle the first one that I have ever seen. Many of my classmates and the boys in general were awed at this specimen of a bike. It did not have the bulldog machismo of a Harley-Davidson or of a Royal-Enfield. This bike was a gentleman’s bike. After the rider got off of his steed many flocked around the bike to take pictures of it with their cell phones and generally just to check it out. Towards the back of the bike there were two steel boxes on each side were folks from all over the world had written something on it, along with flag stickers from various nations. Above the rear wheel was a New York license plate with TIBET1 written on it. Seeing a NY license plate at Sarah seemed surreal and very out of place to me but it also gave a big smile when I saw it.

After he was settled at the tables and chairs at had been arranged in the courtyard, all of the Sarah class captains were called up to offer Lhakpa Tsering la kataks. Someone from TYC gave a brief introduction and then he took the mike. After a brief speech in which he stated his thanks to Sarah for the wonderful welcome and the reasons for taking the journey, he got on his motorcycle with his posse and skedaddled up to McLeod Ganj, where I am sure he received an even grander welcome. Still after he had left, talk about his bike was floating about. I told one of my classmates jokingly that it seems that more attention was paid to the bike than to the person who rode it. At this he giggled and said, “True, true”.

That next Saturday we had unexpected day off because it was the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Children’s Village in upper Dharamshala and since probably that a majority of Sarah’s student body including staff are TCV alumni we got the day off. HHDL was expected to be there, so that day Sarah was the most quiet that I have ever seen it. There was barely a soul to be seen. I swear that I saw tumbleweeds rolling around campus as if it was a western ghost town in the US desert.

This week one of our lay students from the “Land of Snow” is now in the process of returning to his snowy homeland. He departed few days ago and he told me that since he was travelling by road that it will take him two weeks or more to get there. What he is returning to would not be the same place that he had left since his hometown was recently devastated by an earthquake. But I knew that that was a stress for him being here while such a thing was going on at home and so after procuring all the necessary papers to enter this land he packed his belongings, he briefly spoke in class to wish us the best in our studies and how much he enjoyed our company. We will all miss him for sure; he is a funny cat always kidding around and we had a lot of fun together in and off of the debate courtyard. I hope that his journey back home goes unhindered and that the reconstruction of his hometown goes as well as it was promise by the higher ups.

This pass Thursday was another unexpected day off for Sarah students, the night before at a talk, Tendor and Lhadon Tethong were at Sarah talking about the demonstrations that are happening in Amdo, Eastern Tibet, by students who are demanding that Tibetan Language be taught in their schools. I remember seeing some essays written by Sarah students stating their support of these students in Amdo posted on a bulletin board. A march was being organized for students of Tibetan schools around the Dharamashala area to walk in solidarity with these students in Tibet who are protesting with the threat to their very lives and families to have the Tibetan language taught in school and not only Chinese. I have been hearing about these demonstrations off and on for some time but this was the first time that I have seen something happen on the public face that addressed the issue. Families in Tibet have sent their children, a majority of the times on foot over the Mighty Himalayas, to India so that they can attend a Tibetan school and keep the language going. With these demonstrations in Tibet which do not seem to be getting any outside attention beside from the Tibetan-Exile community, shows that the students themselves are willing to risk a lot to have their voices heard and to have their language taught.

Since Sarah is an institute for the preservation of the Tibetan language, classes were called off and it was strongly suggested that students participated in the march. These days it takes a lot to get me to go up the hill to McLeod Ganj but I decided to go. The march commenced at the Main Temple in McLeod Ganj and finished at the Kacheri gas pump in Lower Dharamshala. Marching with my schoolmates various calls in Hindi, Tibetan and English were chanted. It looked like all the marchers were students. TCV students led the march with Sarah, IBD and Norbulingkha Institute students taking the rear. We slowly winded down the road in between traffic and dodging cars into Lower Dharamshala on that eve of Diwali. Many of my classmates made excellent chant leaders, especially for the calls in Hindi. I find it so ridiculous that there are places on this planet where in order to learn ones native tongue in ones native land that they have to risk their lives to have their voice heard or escape to a foreign land to learn it. There is something seriously wrong with this scenario and I think that there is no ultimate reason for it to happen, but the fact that it has happened does not shine a good light on us as Earthlings, especially those in power. I hope that the demands for these students are met and that if they are not that they don’t give up, that Tibetan will be taught in its land of origin with government support or clandestinely. Learning ones native language should never be a crime.