My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Sunday, February 13, 2011


It sure was looking good, I was almost about to retire my habitual layers of clothing than I have been wearing all winter but my hopes were built as usual on a grand fallacy. That winter was over. Those two or three days of near T-shirt weather last week, though it might have been a precursor to a warmer spring, it was definitely a precursor to a more immediate and ferocious entity. Starting Sunday night and lasting all through Monday, such a wind blew through the environs. It has been a while since I have seen such a wind. While waiting for Gen la to arrive before class on Monday, we were all congregated on the huge veranda in front of the classroom, one of my classmates said, “look, the wind is so strong that if you jump straight up in the air you won’t land in the same spot”, I was like, “nah nuh!” and then I tried it and ‘sho ‘nuff, I could feel while I was in the air for that split second as if someone was gently but firmly pushing on my back causing me to move forward and I landed not where I started my jump. For a couple of minutes me and this monk tried this several times getting a kick out of it. Later, someone had given us all almonds and I started chucking them in the air and catching them in my month but this proved to be quite difficult due to the then airstream velocity. Some of the other guys joined in pelting these almonds as high as they could and then trying to catch them in their mouths. I got to say that after a few mishaps’ I got my technique down despite the squall. If one would have looked from the roof of either dorm one might of thought that we were stupid drunk solely based on the way of our movements.

It was interesting to see how the wildlife dealt with this weather. The monkeys looked pitiful, while I was in my room before heading to class a monkey was walking on the hand railing of my balcony and it sadly looked at me through the window with eyes that said, “How can you be so cruel? You sitting there comfortably in you room with the door locked and not offering me shelter and so I get blown around hanging on this building for dear life”. What I can do! I did feel bad for the poor critter having to deal with the elements like that. The house swifts though looked liked they were having a hell of a good time. Their chaotic aeronautical abilities even without a shit of wind is astonishing and now adding the wind factor that lil fuckers at times looked as if they were floating still in the air, just to all of a sudden dart quickly a far distance with awesome velocity. It reminded of Star Trek how in every scene where the USS Enterprise is about to bust into warp speed, it seems all so still and then whooosh! In a nanosecond a humongous power propels it to another world. The hawks on the other hand did not seem to be having such a great time due to their bulk and large wingspan which acted more like sails causing them to be blown all over the place much like the wind carrying a plastic bag.

That evening before debate I found myself on the roof of the boy’s dorm easily mesmerized by the thick blanket of gray low laying clouds floating over my head, I felt like I could almost have touched them. Towards Kangra I watched the scintillation of lightning rapidly crashing into the ground and between clouds. Towards the mountain the blanket stretched out totally covering the snow mountain’s very existence from view. I could see huge puffs of grayish clouds traveling as if a clan of gargantuan mythic seductive siren-nymphs were trying to woo the attention of their sailor prey between the range that Naddi sits on and the main partially obscured lower face of the Dhauladhars. Once again I looked straight up to the clouds in amazement at the kind of textures that it seems to make. Some looked like the inside of a walnut shell with sharp protrusions, while others were more smooth like when one swims in the ocean totally submerged and looks up seeing the surface of the water undulate fluidly though here they are not moving. Though I know that a cloud is not solid it can sure give that impression can’t it? It can appear to be so stable, steady and substantial but as anyone who has flown through a cloud in an airplane and has lived in McLeod Ganj during the monsoon season knows they are far from solid, you can’t even get a hold of it no matter how hard you try. This could be a good simple metaphor for describing the lack of inherent existence (rang bzhin med, asvabhAvatA) wouldn’t it? Ok, enough of that!!

The initial movement of the system started by pouring nice warm wind on us but that changed as night began to fall. I, in a way felt a bit jipped, I am had been punk’d! The three days before that the clime was telling me like, “dude, you will be sleeping in shorts, and not freezin’ yo ass off in your room, etc etc” and Monday it told like me, “Pscyhe! You gullible motherfucker, you still gotz to freezzze biaaacth!” Hey! No fair, I’ve been lied to! Hahaha, JK. In all seriousness, other more reliable signs of the coming spring have already started to manifest, like some of the trees are growing fresh new leaves, though around here only a few trees lose their leaves in the winter. And so this climatic ruse might have fooled me for the moment, I feel that in no time I will be turning on my ceiling fan wearing shorts and sweatin’ my balls off waiting for autumn.

The landscape of the “Presentation of Mind and Awareness” is so far as I can tell is a very strange one indeed. Though on the debate courtyard we are still debating topics from the “Presentation of Signs and Reasonings”, Gen la has been moving rather too quickly through this present realm of study. Though it definitely seems that all of the different presentations our related they are not exactly the same. Even the method of debating them is different. This presentation like the “Presentation of Collected Topics” has a lot of formulations for comparing phenomenon, if you remember the tetralemma and trilemma that are used to compare two phenomena, which I have explained in a previous entry. So for debate, if one is not prepared before hand but has memorized the defining characteristics and the divisions then one can just ask questions working through a tetralemma, trilemma, etc. The “Presentation of Signs and Reasonings” is a whole other monster and tetralemmas and trilemmas are very rarely used in debate.

Anyways, the “Presentation of Mind and Awareness” has some tripped out shit in it for sure and it is very confusing. This study requires the student to look at their daily and normal experiences of the mind and this requires mindfulness. Just to try to provide you with a feeling of what kinds of things we are looking at here, I hope that this is comprehensible for my understanding is low; one day Gen la was talking about a certain consciousness in which he used as an example the snow mountain that appears to an eye consciousness as blue (gangs ri sngon po snang bas mig shes). Luckily we have a huge snow mountain to stare that that puts this statement into a more personal perspective. Anyways, he said that consciousness (shes pa, a) in general, whose defining characteristic is “clear and knowing (gsal zhing rig pa)”, acts a lot like a mirror. Whatever appears in front of it, it simply takes and reflects without any thought or discrimination. But one difference is that although all that appears to the consciousness it receives and takes in without judgment, it does not necessarily apprehend everything or all the aspects. An example will be the computer screen in front of me, it as an object appears in all its aspects but I can not ascertain all of them, like the atoms that make it up though they are appearing. Supposedly, with correct and disciplined meditation one can gain the ability to ascertain many things of such a nature like the subtle impermanence of things.

Obviously the subject and the object are very important and in the “Presentation of Collected Topics” a whole section of reasoning sequences are dedicated solely to subject and object (yul dang yul can) and also obviously more important is cause and effect. And so as Gen la mentioned in the above example, eye consciousness acts without discrimination because it is a consciousness, but could it be through the fault of the eye consciousness that the snow mountain appears to it as blue? He then posited this “Does the white snow mountain appear to the eye consciousness?” We all said yes! If it does so he said, “then it will follow that it does not appear as blue because the white snow mountain appears?” There is a sudden silence as we all sit there scratching our heads. He then asked, “Does that eye consciousness see the snow mountain as blue?” yes we said. “If it sees it as blue then in follows that it necessarily appears as blue because seeing and appearing are synonyms”. If this whole thing does not sound strange or confusing then this possibly might, the word in Tibetan seeing (mthong ba) and appearing (snang ba) are, according to this system mutual inclusive or synonymous. This is not the case in the colloquial language and it might not be viewed so by the other three schools of Tibetan Buddhism. That being said, even within this system which we are studying the meanings of these terms fluctuate between the two depending on the context. A clever challenger might switch between the two meanings of the words in debate and thus render an unknowing defender potentially very confused which is what Gen la did to us to as a pedagogical tool.

But it also brings up an issue; there is an agreement that ‘the snow mountain that appears to an eye consciousness as blue’ is a wrong consciousness (log shes, mithyA-jñAna). But where is it wrong? Is it wrong at the subject’s level, meaning at the eye consciousness or at the object’s level, meaning the snow mountain? Saying that the snow mountain is wrong seems obviously ridiculous but a reasoning sequence similar to the one Gen la used on us could be used to see and check how strong and stable that assertion is within the defender. Consciousness has two divisions: sense consciousness (dbang shes, indriya-jñAna), which eye consciousness falls under and mental consciousness (yid shes, mano-jñAna). Mental consciousness is the realm of thoughts and concepts whereas sense consciousness works in dependence on the world of the senses. Gen la asks, “In order to have a wrong consciousness does there also need to be a mental consciousness?” to which he then posited another classic example of: an eye consciousness that apprehends the horns of a rabbit (ri bong gi rva ‘dzin pa’i mig shes). In this example it is clear that like the snow mountain example that the object would not be at fault. This example implies a person who apprehends the ears of a rabbit and mistakes them to be horns. But is there a difference between this and the above example?

One reason could be that the person apprehending the first example could be wearing blue sunglasses or has a severe eye condition. But with the second example, the aspect of the mental consciousness comes into play. “When the horns of a rabbit are apprehended by an eye consciousness doesn’t it also appear to the mental consciousness?” asked Gen la. In this case wouldn’t the mind be faulty at that time. The apprehension of the horns of a rabbit will not be clear as it is with the eyes. Images that appear to the mind are said to be not clear but fuzzy like looking a something through fog. This also could imply that the image appears to the mind directly before the eye consciousness apprehends it. I know at I have had that similar horns of a rabbit apprehending-like experience, like when I saw someone that looked like a friend of mine and I thought that I saw my friend but it actually was a total stranger. When I think about it, the consciousness that saw my friend must of have been the mind just because I simply thought, ‘oh hey, that is so and so’ and that image of my friend appeared to it and apprehended it, but only to realize that in actuality that I was mistaken. How many of you have had similar experiences? Gen la never gives us the answers, but as he says “leads us through the map of topics to point out the difficulties in traversing certain areas of the terrain”.

One day a student asked Gen la, if we will get any study-time before the exam in two weeks. He said, “Isn’t the two hours of mandatory study-time everyday enough?” We all got nervously still of a second, he then said that he will give us three days before the exam for study-time. I got the say that I was not too happy about that. The class before us always got a full week to prepare before their exams, but I also know that we are behind schedule. Everything that we studied since the first day of the course could be on the exam depending on what ones challenger has prepared for debate while one sit as defender. We all have to prepare a debate as challenger for the exam but as defender one will be clueless, you won’t know who the challenger will be until seconds before ones debate time. I am really happy that I have someone helping me prepare a debate for I probably will be so scarred without it. But still, all those points, defining characteristics, and divisions that I have forgotten for tons of topics from the pass, I will have only three days to review them which seem asinine.

Gen la said that when took his exams back the day, that the HHDL would be there in attendance on the throne looking down on them and they had to debate in front of him. If that would have been me I would have totally “shit a brick!” Back in those days HHDL was younger and his popularity and the demands on his personal time were not like they are now. So he was able to attend these things. I could just imagine Gen la as young monk tearing into a defender. Though he might have sucked in those days, which I seriously doubt, there is no one in our class that can challenge him and some of my classmates have tried only to have failed miserably. I wonder if he was similar the monks in my class who are always shit-talking, joke-cracking, pranking on each other.

After about 6 months, the monks and nuns from the Advanced Hindi Teachers Training course left us this Friday. They will finish the remainder of their course at the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath near Varanasi. They have also been studying some Sanskrit here and they will continue further Sanskrit study at the Sarnath campus. It was very sad to see them go, they were some cool folks. There is no official affiliation between Sarah and Sarnath. The Sarnath School has more to offer as compared to Sarah. They have classes in Hindi, English, Sanskrit and Pali. They have classes in Buddhist philosophy but no debating; they have Tibetan culture classes just like Sarah and they also teach Tibetan medicine. I have some friends who attend there and in fact, one of my classmates was a student there before enrolling in our course. The degree you receive from Sarnath is called an Acharya (slon dpon) equivalent to a Master’s degree which takes 6 to 7 years to complete. They also have a multiple majors were at Sarah they really only have the Bachelor’s in Tibetan culture degree (rig gnas rab jams pa).

The monk from their class, the one who always came to our debates, came to the last few still giving it to us good. He tore into me really well on Thursday night, but I held up better than I did at the beginning and I learn so much from listening to him even if I am not on the receiving end. Yesterday before he split, we held a small function in the temple to give our appreciations and thanks to this monk and he gave some great advice. He has been helping us out a lot. He studies at Sera Je monastery in South India. Although he is not a Geshe he has been studying for 17 years. He told us that when he started as a young neophyte studying the “Presentation of Collected Topics” that there were 300 hundred monks in his class and that now maybe only 60 or 70 monks are left. Though it took them three years to study what we do in one, he said that that might be a better way to go for many did not understand much even after three years in his class, he also said that we are doing pretty good giving some praises to one of our exceptional students. He said that many of them when they started were not very serious and he took several leaves of absences saying that he held the record in his class for take the longest. This monk is from Ladakh and a village mate of his who is studying at IBD asked him if he could help our philosophy class on the path of reasoning and so that is how he came to be involved with us. We had tea and snacks together and our class made an offering to him for all the help that he has provided us. The advice that he gave us was really inspiring and it forced us to think about the reasons and our intentions for undertaking this study. Many do it so that they can be called a great scholar, but really what does being a great scholar really mean.

He told this story: back in antiquity there was a famous South Indian Buddhist monk who was renowned throughout the land for being extremely learned. One day he runs into a simple villager by a beach that recognizes the scholar. The villager asked him, “So you are a great scholar (mkhas pa, paNDita)?” to which the monk replied, “Yes”. “Are you a scholar in swimming? I am! I can swim all the way to that island you see out there in the sea and back” said the villager. “No” replied the monk. “Hmmm….Well, are you a scholar of house building or agriculture? I am!” “No” replied the monk again. “Well how can you call yourself a great scholar? Even if you know one thing very well but are ignorant of most things you can’t call yourself a great scholar. Only and only when one has achieve liberation from cyclic existence can one truly call themselves a great scholar”, said the villager. To this the monk realized the truth and power to the words spoken by this simple villager. So through this story the monk told us, doing this only to be recognized as a scholar is pointless and should not the goal, in short “Keep yo’ eyes on the prize.” I am going to miss this monk and his other classmates and I know that I am not the only one; I hope all best for all of them at Sarnath and beyond and hope to cross paths again to the future.

Lastly, last night being of course the Friday before the second Saturday of the month, we had an all-night debate, though when I think about it, the name all-night debate is misleading as you may already know. In Tibetan it is too misleading. It is called a tshe me damja (tshad med dam bca’) which if translated directly comes out a measureless thesis or proposition; measureless here referring to time since these debates go on for hours instead of the usual hour and a half. But it is measured for we debate for up to 5 hours. But I saw something somewhere that there is a particular measure for the three immeasurable countless eons (bskal pa grangs med gsum, trikalpAsaMkhyeya)! How can that be? It is just one of those things that will probably never make sense to me.

So we had our all-night debate and for preparations, one of our classmates asked the Ladakhi monk for suggestions on making debates because none of us have a clue how to do so and he told us that what they do in his monastery is to take the group in to the middle of woods. Each member brings a doubt and everyone takes turns as defender while the rest challenge as a group until the debate becomes smooth. So we tried that, one group went to the classroom, one stayed in the temple and we went to the courtyard but it did not go according to plan though we had some excited and hilariously impromptu debates. Nevertheless, that night all the debates where really hot and intense, all the groups debated topics from the “Presentation of Sign and Reasonings” and the tension in the temple that night was thick but also with these things there are tons of tensions breakers too.

I noticed that as a group we are getting more accustomed to everyone debate style as defenders and as challengers. I have been very keen on this observation but I am still struggling on how to describe the various styles that I witness daily, the way a one person face crinkles when they are thinking, the look of the eyes when deep in thought or when they think that they have gotten you cornered and many other more subtle moments that occur. Especially so as a challenger, everyone has their style which is like a fingerprint, none are the same, and they too vary as the intensity of the debate goes along, with some becoming more and more dynamic in their movements. When the debates get über intense like they did last night I can not help but laugh my ass off for some reason. Still though, my favorite part about all-night debates is the food, the cooks hooked up some dank ass thenthuk for us that was just ‘ugh!’ We all sit together and enjoy each others company whereas before we took food together it looked like everyone was about to kill each other. This is an interesting thing about this course, though emotions get intense so far not one takes it to heart and I think that if this class was all Americans instead that fights would have broken out and egos damaged long ago.


P.S. If you are interested in looking further into the “Presentation of Mind and Awareness”, I recommend that you look at “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinbochay Translated by Elizabeth Napper. The text that we memorize is translated there with additional commentary.


Anonymous said...

Great post!

jamesbehave said...

Hey Wendell!!!
This is James Sibelle from Florida. I'm sitting here with John and Paul right now- we've been looking for you, hoping you're alright- looks like you're great!
When you find the time, I'd like to hear form you.
My email is
Talk to you soon.