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.

Pax

1 comment:

sociosound said...

I love reading your posts. I have so many questions I'd love to ask you!