When we first found out that HHDL was to give another Kalachakra Empowerment in India and that it was to be given in Bodh Gaya, the location of the Buddha’s enlightenment, many of us made a pact that we will attend it together as a class. This event was important, so much so that the entire school was to attend and as we came to find out our class schedule was modified to account for the time that will be lost due to its mass attendance. Our second Saturday vacations and the school picnic were cancelled. In our class, an 8 month course was crammed out in 4 months but in that regard I am getting ahead of myself. 3 months before the empowerment we had prepared our travels arrangements to and back from Bodh Gaya. With this being my first time there I was naturally excited. Due to time and finances I don’t get the opportunity to travel around India as much as I would like and so this occasion was special. We were lucky to receive substantial donations from our classmates. That allowed our going to go a bit easier given that travelling in India is a bit trying for those not accustomed to it and was glad to be in the company of my fast Hindi speaking classmates.
On a cold Monday afternoon, 12/26/2011, the day after Christmas (Merry belated X-mas everyone!!) 25 or so of us including students from the foundation Tibetan language course and acquaintances from outside piled all of our shit on top of two vans and with us crammed inside them headed for Pathankot in the Punjab to catch the train “the Sealdah Express” headed directly to the City of Gaya, a thirty three hour train ride. Most of us were travelling 2nd class sleeper but we were scattered all throughout the train. On the way we stopped to make a quick pilgrimage to Tilopa’s meditation cave, which I had visited a few years back when I was a student in the Tsamjor class (Bridge course) for my first time.
When we got to the Chakki bank train station that night we found the entire platform packed with Tibetans (I think many of the Punjabis must of have found the sight quite amusing to say the least), heading towards Bodh Gaya. I saw several acquaintances there with their families and luggage waiting for the train. After I saw the crowd, I had a feeling that things could get a bit tricky as far as getting on to the train was concerned. Even though everyone had assigned seats and everything, getting yourself and your shit on to the train through two doors, one on each end of the caboose, is on a first come first serve basis. Since we were scattered all throughout the train and within our subsection we had only one native, a monk from Spiti who spoke Hindi and Tibetan, besides me there were two Koreans, a monk who spoke some decent Tibetan and lay guy who only spoke Korean, 5 Vietnamese nuns which out of them 3 spoke Tibetan and the other two who only spoke Vietnamese. Out of the 3 who know Tibetan only 1 spoke it good with other two on a so so basis.
Before the train arrived, we all mingled and chatted together, trying to figure out where on the platform we are supposed to stand to enter the correct caboose for the train will only stop for 5 minutes and then quickly bust a move whether yo ass is on the train or not. Seeing the packed platform of mini-Tibet at the Chakki bank station and my group of companions I was a bit worried. Eventually our train arrived and when it finally stopped everyone grabbed their shit and bum rushed the train. I had all my shit ready and I was the second or third one in our caboose. I don’t play! I had my game face on for sure. Folks were carrying all kinds of shit with them. One guy in front of me had a box of glass canned goods (probably pickled chilies knowing Tibs) that broke on him as he entered the caboose and the cans crashed on the floor. I hopped over him quickly and found me a temporary spot for my shit with the intention to help my companions with their stuff but they were not to be found for they had entered through the other door. The aisle of the caboose were über slim thus moving around was quite trying. I had then realized that I had made the mistake of not knowing my seat number so I sat where I was while the waves of bodies screaming and yelling flooded the train. In the midst of the madness like the blink of an eye I felt the train moving; Gaya, ho!
After awhile I found the Spitian monk “Nono” (which apparently means king in Spiti dialect) who had our tickets with him that told us our seat number and we slowly figured out the seating arrangements. Some of the Vietnamese nuns where in a different box from mine and apparently had had a hard finding their seats since they had brought their tickets separate from ours. Nono was such a good sport and had got everyone squared away. The nuns had lost their tickets and passports and he helped them scorched the train to find it. Initially, the nuns were yelling in confusion in Vietnamese and after having to sit with them in the back of the van from Sarah College for four hours as they jibber jabbered away this yelling was starting hitting a sore spot. On the way back from Bodh Gaya I was thinking that the sound of the Vietnamese language was like if someone had enlarged some chipmunks to human proportions and they were having a conversation amongst each other, another classmate referred to it as duck speak (ngang pa’i skad). Eventually, the tickets were eventually found, but Nono then realized that he had not had his luggage with him and thought it was lost but luckily it wasn’t as we came to find out once we had arrived in Gaya. In the meantime I let him use an extra blanket that I had brought with me. It was mighty cold that night and it was rumored that Bodh Gaya was also cold.
The 2nd class sleeper experience was generally ok. Each caboose of the train is divided into various compartments back to back and each is divided with large and small compartment on each side of the train, one to fit six people on one side of the train and another thinner one to fit two people on the other side. I was in the thin compartment. In the bigger one there is a low seat to sit on and a bed hanging above that on both sides of the compartment perpendicular to the aisle. At night the back rest of the low seat is swung upwards and attached to some chains that are placed in the above bed to make another bed, thus with both sides of the compartment there are 6 beds and in the smaller one across the aisle there are two on top of each other that lay parallel to the aisle.
There was a very nice Tibetan family seating with us and they were so cool, we all chatted together. These folks came prepared; they had all kinds of yummy grub with them and were gracious enough to share. Other folks who I had met throughout my time in North India were also on the train, like the kids from Gopalpur TCV, it was great to see them again. Small interlude, my hands are fuckin’ cold yo!!!
Chai and coffee-walas floated about the train screaming in a zygyt throat singing style pitch, garam chai (hot tea) garam coffee (hot coffee) over and over again. Beggars, handclapping hijras, street performers, junk food-walas also passed to and fro working their hustle for that rupee. Classmates scattered amongst the other cabooses visited us and vice versa, cruising the train like we owned the shit.
Sleeping rather sucked though because the window next to me would not stay bloody shut and I could not physically fit inside my sleeping bag and my bed at the same time; which led to me assume a modified fetal-like sleeping position and to my sleeping slipping and sliding in all directions which allowed that cold ass air to hit all my tender sensitive spots.
By 8 am of the 28th we arrived at the Gaya train station, we rushed out of the train and into the madness. After we had all grouped up, we carried our luggage outside to be immediately accosted by taxi and rickshaw-walas. Our substitute class captain, another Spitian monk “Gelong” (since he is a fully ordain monk, it is the Tibetan word for the Sanskrit bhikshu), who took the responsibility to arrange our rides to the campsite where we will be staying during the remainder of our time, was working his hustle to get us a good deal on the rides. I understand some Hindi and was seeing the kind of dance one must perform in order to get a good deal which involves: 1) yelling at the top of one’s lungs, 2) sending insults, and 3) the fluctuation of the price back and forth in between steps 1 and 2, and finally 4) the typical Indian head wobble from both parties which signifies an agreement on a suitable fare. It is a rather trying and tiresome process but which is also essential for India in general and particularly in Bihar the poorest state in the country generally known as the trash dump of Bharat (India). There is trash almost everywhere so that is a big statement to make and that ain’t no joke. Many of the multiple deals we had since leaving Sarah, ordering food in a greasy nasty dhaba, arranging almost anything required this ritual. In a way, it reminded me of da ‘hood.
Our tent was paid for by the school, there was five tents in total, four 4 big ones and 1 smaller one. We were one of the first ones to get there. The Vietnamese and the Koreans had their own arrangements so they dipped out. The school captain was there already and he showed us the 2 guy tents and one tent for the ladies and another for staffers. He said that we could stay in one of the big tents for the first night but that we would need to moved to the smaller tent once the other students had arrived which at first I found it rather odd mostly based on his tone of voice; some of the guys were a bit annoyed at his implications that made it seem like the Sarah philosophy guys are screw loose. But in the long run I was glad that we had our own tent.
Once we had placed all of our shit on the ground and relaxed for a bit we headed to the spots of all spots. Like Mecca is to Muslims, like Bethlehem and Jerusalem is to Jews and Christians, Bodh Gaya and particularity the Mahabodhi temple is to Buddhist. That is the spot where it all began, the ascetic Gautama Siddhartha is believed to have achieved enlightenment at that spot where this temple currently stands and was thereafter to be known as the Buddha the awakened one. I was quite surprise to find that the temple was not within walking distance. Unlike the 2006 Kalachakra in Amaravati, everything was not in walking distance. The campsite was erected on the grounds of the Magadh University campus a few kilometers from the Mahabodhi Temple and the empowerment grounds. So we caught some rickshaws that could only take us part of the way and we had to either walk or catch a bicycle rickshaw the rest of the way.
Though it was still some days away from the teachings and the empowerment, there were already tons of people. The whole Bodic family was on full display. The folks from the three provinces of Tibet, Kham, Amdo and U-Tsang were all sporting their particular native garb and tongues. The folks from the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Bhutan were in the house; Bhutanese ladies with their short brushy box-like haircuts and their teeth bleeding red with betel nut juice, which is kind of gross looking if you ask me. Monpas from Arunachal Pradesh in their reddish garb and funky looking black felt hats, many of my classmates are from Mon-Tawang and I asked one of them, “Hey wassup with ‘em hats?” The hats are round and every thick that the top like a thick ass pancake and from the four sides hangs a spike of felt that hangs from the hat to the sides of the face in the front and the sides of the neck in the back. He said “In Mon, during monsoon it rains a lot so the four hanging spike directs the water away from the face”. I immediately busted out laughing and so did he.
Also, one saw all of the sects of Buddhism there representing, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh (of which I found surprising), China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Mongolia etc; all these vast range of folks spiraling around this Temple of Grand Awakening, the Mahabodhi. Finally seeing it with my own eyes was spectacular, circumambulating it was difficult since many people where there. There are many levels to the location of the temple. An outer circumambulating walk way which is higher than the base of the temple that sits like a huge tall trapezoid of ancient stone.
Below there are also two other such walkways an outer and an inner one. The in between was filled with various sights, prostrating plank-board crammed in one section with folks doing full body prostrations towards the temple repetitively, ancient stupas, folks sitting in meditation, some conversing, some reciting texts or prayers. Water offerings made in tiny plastic cups with yellow and orange marigolds set singly in each one. Many times these offerings formed words or beautiful pictures. In the inner walkway laid the entrance into the temple itself (which I never got the opportunity to go inside) was a beautiful gold statue of the Buddha in the front; this walkway is surrounded by a high wall of three sectional horizontal stone beams high, middle and low intercrossed at regular intervals by a vertical stone pillar. On the wall itself there were faded round floral like cravings. The base of the temple itself is filled with cravings of various Buddhas. Towards the rear grows the apparent sibling of the very tree (ficus religiosia), the Bodhi Tree, under which the Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment. The tree is big; its base is surrounded by a wall similar to the one that surrounds the inner walkway. Here one finds many pilgrims in prayer, rubbing their prayer beads and their bodies up against the gate. I was definitely moved by the sight. Folks tossed money, white silk scarves (kataks) in the gate to the base of the tree. On the day before I left I threw in a quartz crystal that someone had given me while I was in Kentucky the summer of 2010, think the guy’s name was Henry. The floor of the inner walkway is also laid with marble or some other marble-like stone.
Like I said I was moved when I saw and was near to the tree, it was quite unexpected, it just happened. I have never been the one to shed tears and this got me by surprise. On the last day I ran into a English upperclassman of mine there listening to a dharma talk and I told him about it and he said “ I bet ya folks back in Brooklyn will find it strange that you cried at a tree”, “Yay” I said “Brothas crying to a tree don’t last too long in da ‘hood”. The story of the enlightenment on all that, though I believe it is possible, I still have the doubt lingering in the back of my head. I have been called gullible too many times as a kid that I try my best to push towards its opposite.
Anyways, after the tree on the floor there were seven stones in the shape of lotus flowers to mark the steps the Buddha made after he got up from his meditation seat, which Tibetans call the diamond seat/ dorje den (Tib. rdo rje gdan, skt. vajraasana). On the middle walkway there is a beautiful long wall stone sculpture depicting the various stages of the life of the Buddha. On the higher outer walkway there are prayer wheels in the inner side and on the outer side there is set-up in a line on gold plates for the entire side of that wall the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 verses written in the Sanskrit in Lansta and Devanaagari scripts and in the Tibetan uchen script. The spot where it is said that a cobra or a naga of some sort protected Siddhartha from the rain as he sat in meditation is dedicated with a pond with a statue of the scene in the middle.
A marked scene at the temple while circumambulating the outer walkway is the beggars, first after turning the second corner, dark faceless hands are poking out of wall hold plastic bags of water filled with fish for sale to liberate them in the above mentioned pond, the act known in Tibetan as tsethar (tshe thar) literally to liberate life. The idea being that by liberating these fishes or other animals one accumulates positive merit. Some of my classmates told me that it is a total scam. These guys grow the fish or buy it cheaply from someone who does so in big buckets until the buckets are filled with tiny fish, I think that they might be catfish. The bigger ones are sold for meat; I was surprised by this fish farming practice. Back to the wall, as one approached this side of the wall one hears the sellers screaming to get your attention in multiple languages, “Amala! phe sho” or “Pala! Phe sho” they shouted in Tibetan.
Further down others sold butter lamp offerings, and further down still a butt load of dark hands, a hundred easily reaching out through all parts of the wall high and low, like pins jutting out of the face of Hellraiser’s Pinhead, holding small aluminum bowls soliciting and urging pilgrims to drop money into them. This, my first sight of Bodh Gaya will probably stay with me for long time. I went to the temple at least once a day, sometimes twice with my various classmates. A few days later, I remembered walking amidst the crowds of pilgrims and I felt someone tug on one my locks and I turned quickly around to find a young man from Kham, sporting the distinctive red ribbon that Khampas wrap around the top their heads. I told him politely not to pull on my hair. He then asked me for a piece of my hair and I was like ‘what’, again he said take off a bit of your hair. And so while continuing my walk I searched my head for a piece of hair and asked him if he wanting the bit I was holding in my hand. He said yes and I ripped it off and gave it to him. He then placed the lock in his pocket and quickly vanished into the crowd. I wanted to ask him what he was going to do with my hair, hoping that he wouldn’t do some Tibetan Voodoo on it or something, but I was stuck for a bit answering the curious questions of a middle-aged Tibetan lady from Portland, Oregon and thus I lost my opportunity.
On our second or third day our class together went on pilgrimages to the various ancient Buddhist sights of Bihar a couple of hours away from Bodh Gaya, one of the most impressive of them being the Vulture Peak (Tib. bya rgod phung po’i ri) where it is believed that the Buddha turned the second wheel of his teaching with the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred verses and the Heart Sutra thus teaching the Mahayana view. This sits on a peak as the name suggests and it was packed full of people. Once we had climbed to the peak we recited the Heart Sutra. One the way down we saw Chinese pilgrims doing full body prostrations up to the peak, the beggars who sat on the edge of the stairs from bottom to top starting to chant “Ami Tou Fo” the Chinese mantra for the Bodhisattva Amitabha. I turned to my one of my classmates mentioning that these beggars are very adept at changing their tune depending on which race or nationality of people happen to be walking in front of them, when we were hiking up this hill they chanted “Om Mani Padme Hung” and now without a second to breathe is “Ami Tou Fo”! To this he laughed; I then thought myself, well hell bells! It’s great marketing sense, one gotz to kno yo’ costumer to make that rupee.
We also visited two Jain meditation caves built by King Bimbisara of the Magadhan Empire (c. 543-491 B.C.E), who is known as legend has it to have place a treasure vault behind one of the caves. This vault door is still there today, but I doubt that the booty is still in there.
Later on we visited what I would call the height of the pilgrimage, the ancient Nalanda University which many believe to have been the one of the world’s first universities. This place truly blew me away. I have seen pictures of it on the internet, the HHDL is has stated many times that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is descended from the Nalanda tradition, many if not all of the Indian Buddhist masters of olde whose works we study are Nalanda graduates. It is now believed that the university was founded around the 5th cent. C.E. At its height it had 2000 teachers and 10,000 students and the subjects offered were the study of Buddhism in their Mahayana and Hinayana manifestations, the Vedas, philosophy, math, logic and medicine. It is also believe that it was tuition-free. In the 12th cent. it was waylaid by the invading Turks leaving the place in absolute ruins and that signaled the end of Buddhist learning in India.
When we finally entered the university ground, though everything is in ruins, one is immediately impressed by it size. It is huge! It leaves the observer in wonder imagining what this place looked when it was in its prime. For us, students of Buddhist dialectics, we can almost hear the sounds of debates reverberating off those ancient walls, we read about these infamous Nalanda debates and now with the visual senses activated walking through this place the echoes of antiquity seems to come alive. Oh! How I so wish that I possessed the skill to be able to paint a picture of this place with the various colors of words, but alas I can’t.
In order to make a connection to this grand place, some of guys staged a brief debate, gullibly wishing that the wisdom and realizations gained from the debates held here back in the day will somehow pour into us. Eventually as we did so folks started to crowd around to see what all the commotion was about. Later on, we came to find out that we were not the only ones who wanted to make a connection with the place. I saw from the distance in the ruins of what was once a massive hall, a group of monks shouting, “OHHH, chiiir ,chiiir, chiiir”, The distinctive call given when a defender is unable to answer the posited query, next followed by a “Ohhh, tsaa, Ohhh, tsssaaa, Ohh, tsssa”, signaling that the defender was caught in a contradiction. Many of us tried to get there to see their debating but by the time we got there the monks had already dispersed. While at Nalanda I really wish that time travel was possible, I wish I had a TARDIS, to navigate me towards the Nalanda of its height. One can dream right, but still knowing that our studies are rooted from the masters who studied on these grounds, I left Nalanda thinking ‘there’s no school like the ‘ol skool’.
On the way back, we hitted up some hot springs. It seems to me that every hot spring that I have visited so far in India is always inside a Shaivite Temple, and I wonder why is that? This place was packed and I didn’t bring no swimming gear, so I stood outside chatting with my classmate a nun and her sister who hail from Sinpapore for a bit. The other guys weren’t in there too long; they said that it was utter madness. Public holy hot springs Indian style!!! While on the pilgrimage, riding around the Bihari countryside one really sees how busted up this province is. Generally, it is known that India is a dirty place with trash all over and what not, but I have never seen anything like what I saw cruisin’ through Bihar man!
On the last night of 2011, the night before the first event that the HHDL was to give, as I tried to curl into my undersized sleeping bag I felt something that I thought wouldn’t be an issue in Bihar, tiny rain drops. Bihar is known for being a relatively dry province. And as anyone who was in attendance knows that the dust in the air was intense, towards the end the sounds of coughing were in stereo! Anyways, our tent was not built very well and either were any of the others. It was apparent that the tent constructers did not factor in the possibly that it might rain. All the tents are made from canvas and built in long rows with partitions to separate individual living spaces. In our space the tent roof did not touch the side of one of the partition where my and several of our heads were positioned as we slept. Just like the tent constructers we didn’t think it will rain, I had first taught that it might not last too long, but ohhh, how wrong was I.
And sooooo, Happy New Years!!!! It rained the whole day and stayed cloudy and rainy for the next three. All that dust and dirt turned into mud. Water was easily seeping into the tents. The entire campsite turned into a quagmire of mud. The toilets, which from the beginning were already chocked full, had become the grosses toilets I have ever seen in my life. The toilets were so bad that piles of dudu were just everywhere. A few times in the mornings I remember seeing some old Kinnauri and Ladhakis ladies entering a toilet, gasp in horror, just to turn around and do their business in plain sight beside or in front of the toilets all while holding a conversation. One day I got really sick from some Bhutanese food, which required me to frequent those toilets more times than I would like to admit and very time my stomach just couldn’t take it, I had to put my game face on just to prepare me for the fecal slaughter that I was about to witness again for the umpteenth time.
So back to New Years, getting to the Kalachakra empowerment tent was a dismal affair, slipping and sliding in the mud. I saw many folks straight bust their shit, falling on their asses. I had heard that the estimated amount of folks who attended the empowerment was more than 300,000, with some estimates reaching as high as 500, 000. So as you can imagine, the lines to enter the huge empowerment tent were long. Luckily, for me the line for the foreigners, which was gender segregated, had a virtually non-existent male line, while the line for the females were very long. For some reason it is always like this, there are always more foreign ladies than dudes at Buddhist teachings in India or even amongst backpackers now that I think of it. This ratio might be pervasive across religions too, though I don’t know, I just wonder. Anyways, I quickly get inside, my sneakers are heavy with the mud caked on them and I come to task of finding me a seat.
The areas are segregated by profession and nationality, the foreigners section, the monastic section, the Himalayan region section, the Tibetans from Tibet section, etc and so I am a foreigner and so headed off to that section which was by then almost totally packed. Normally, the “smart” people are supposed to mark off their spots in advance before the beginning, but from experience I have learned that that can be a nightmare and though not doing so is a nightmare in itself it is not as much of a nightmare as the mini territorial battles that happen in the foreigners section at teachings plus I always tend to find a seat somewhere. As I scope around, I saw that a group from some dharma center, obviously North American, had placed a huge tarp on the ground with the name of their dharma center written it that could fit, if one sat like how the Tibetans sat all smushed on each other, 60 people easily. On this tarp were about 6 people holding down the fort shooing away any interlopers and one guy kindly asked if he could sit there. Then one of the dudes who sat on the tarp told him no, which I can understand, but then continued to talk about how his group had woken up early in the morning to reserve their seats and that if one is not willingly to do the same then they are not allowed to attend the teachings. Now this took me aback, I was standing looking out throughout the entire tent, the Tibetan and monastic sections were just packed like sardines in a can, folks are cramming where they can and here is this guy with a huge near empty tarp that could fit a butt load of folks not willing to let the guy sit down just for a second to relax at least. Though I wanted to say something, I held my tongue thinking it to be wiser than starting something, but seriously, why the fuck do folks come to see the HHDL for when he is constantly teaching about cherishing others before oneself. No doubt very few are able to live up to the ultimate goal of the ideal, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t try, let the bro take seat. It is rainy, the tent roofs are leaking on everybody, we are all miserable. Everywhere else folks welcome you, share what little they have and they all bear the pain together, at least that is what I have experienced over and over again when seating with Bodic folks, not saying that they live up to the ideal either because like we will see later they don’t but in this respect we can learn something, which is why we go to teachings in the first place and why the HHDL constantly is teaching about compassion like it is never going out of style. Like I said, I eventually found me a nice muddy spot to sit in after I had walked all over the place with folks staring at me like I had just stepped out of spaceship. We are all wet, but while the HHDL did his thing he pointed towards the miserably moist conditions which we were all enduring, I think we all felt better after he made that observation.
Towards the end of the first day of the New Year the conditions had gotten worse though the rain had kept the dust down providing some relief to our throats. I didn’t bring any raingear and I was wishing that I had. Taking advantage over the situation street hawkers were trying to sell 50 rups umbrellas for over 300 rups to the crowd spilling out of the Kalachakra empowerment tent who mostly looked like a bunch of wet rats. Back at the campsite the organizers had made several announcements through the loud speaker located throughout the site indicating that they had turned off the electricity to prevent the danger electrocution. My classmates could not understand why the electricity was shut off, mainly because they want to charge their phones so they could update their facebook status, and I tried to explain the concept that water conducts electricity. That night we all slept early, our tent was wet except for the middle; luckily we had brought tons of straw that we placed on the floor when we first arrived which I think helped us out a lot. We ended up sleeping with all of our shit bundled in the middle of the tent.
The next day there were no teachings going on but we saw many people getting the fuck out dodge for realz. Auto rickshaws crammed with luggage were seen exiting the Magadh University campsite. Locals were walking the streets offering rooms for rents. About half of the guys in our tent split too. I almost ended up moving but I was way low on funds (thanks Aunt Marlyn for the hook up for which without I would have been really scarred) and I wanted to tough it out with the guys. One guy approached us offering us what at first seemed like a good deal for 9 of us. 3,500 rupees for the reminder of our stay he said and he showed us the room, but then he changed his tune to 3,500 rupees per day since he was offering free use of his motorbike and cable T.V. We laughed at the guy and told him that he was crazy and we split. Our tent started to look like the leaning tower Pisa, one of the bigger tents that the other Sarah guys were staying in had completely fallen early that morning and they were heading on pilgrimage like we had done before. I saw them trying to set the tent back up but that was not going to fly. Half of their other tent had fallen as well and they were able to recover that and all the guys had to move into that tent. At the end of the day there was an announcement stated that the money for the tent will be refunded. Eventually the sun came back out and things got dry and dusty again.
There were six campsites in total and we were located in camp 6 the dormitory camp. The first camp had Swiss cottages, nicer white canvas tents, but the others not so. With many of the different camps emptied out in a few days after the mass exodus from the campsite, those of us to lived in camp 6 were ordered to let a hike and look for another tent in the other camps because they said that our camp was not as full as the others to begin with and after many of folks had bailed out due to showers they wanted to fill up the other camps. They said that it was hard to keep an eye on our camp and a lot of thief has been reported to have happen there. That night after returning from the Mahabodhi Temple I high tailed it to our tent. Nono, had been sick with diarrhea for 4 days now and had been sleeping in the tent pretty much the whole time. Some of the other guys were there and we went to look for a new tent. First we went to camp 4 right across from ours and found a decent dry tent to co-op, seeing that there was a tent searching madness going on I wanted to move into the tent right away. We made a sign in Tibetan and English claiming the tent and went back to our old tent. Nono being sick didn’t want to move until tomorrow morning but I urged that if we don’t move now we are not going to get a nice tent.
During our time at Camp 6 we had bonded with a Tibetan family next door to us, their cute daughter Choying who was about 2 or 3 years old came over to play with us many times. One of the ladies who lived next door who we just called ‘neighbor sister’ (Tib. khyim mtshes a cag) had asked if we had found a tent. She urged us to combined forces to find another and we went together to search again, we showed her the tent that we had chosen in camp 4 but our bilingual sign claiming ownership was obviously ignored. We cruised throughout camp 4 checking various tents. We were about to walk into one tent until we heard someone yell from an adjacent one, “Hey, watch out! People having been shitting in that tent!” I was like ‘no way’ and walked into tent with my flashlight. Lo and behold the proclamation held to be true and I turned around and told neighbor sister, barely keeping myself from laughing that there was shit all up in that tent. Tears were rolling down my eyes as I passed her the flash light so she could see for herself after which she too and the rest of us were doubled over in laughter. Even the folks in the adjacent tent were laughing now. I was like, “WTF is wrong with people! What! Can’t they tell the difference between a tent and a toilet” and again more laughter. Now, I knew that the toilet situations in the camps were bad but this was too much. As we continued searching tents neighbor sister will send me in first and then yell, “Is there any shit in there?” We found many such toilet tents. I walked into one tent and caught two kids red-handed or would it should be better to say red-assed. I immediately started yelling, “hey, what the hell is wrong you, aren’t you ashamed, don’t your parents teach you any everything”. Poor kids! They bolted, ass hanging, like a bat out of hell. I think I put the scare into them good. Eventually, with the help of neighbor sister we got a nice tent in Camp 2, which had nice clean toilets for a change, though that camp too was not exempt from its share of shitty tents.
To the disappointment of Nono we moved all our shit with the quickness, straw and all. And after we had been all set up we all went to bed really stinking tired. The next morning I woke up and a Ladakhi monk asked me if I had seen his cell phone which he had placed to recharge next to my sleeping head early that morning. I did not see his phone; we all suddenly got up to search for it, not to finding it anywhere. We all then realized that someone had walked into our tent while we were sleeping and ganked his phone. He was pissed; he had just brought that phone one month ago. Another Ladakhi monk had his glasses stolen while he was washing his face which he had placed hanging on the wall by the water spigot. I taught that it might be locals coming in and ganking people’s shit but they said that they thought that it was young Tibetans hooligans doing the stealing.
Attending the Kalachakra and being there after awhile I came to see that not everyone who comes comes for the teachings. I mean I knew this before from my experiences at Kalachakra 2006, but unlike this Kalachakra I was then with other foreigners and had only been in India a few months. With this experience I was with my classmates and also been in the country for a few years not months so the realization was deeper. With the entire Bodic community plus the Buddhist community at large represented there, many motivations are bound to pulling each of us in various directions. I saw many there to reunite with family from Tibet. Various calls to join different movements were also in effect, Free Tibet movement, Tibetan Language Purity movement, Tibetan environmental movement, Tibetan Veganism and so. Plus with the variety of businesses going on, Kalachakra is an interesting combination of business, politics, spirituality and rock & roll. There were several different markets to choose from to buy all kinds of stuff. I enjoyed joining my classmates as they went shopping pursuing the bazaars, taking notes on their bargaining skills. They tell me that Indian merchants are easier to deal with than Tibetan merchants because Tibs generally do not like to cut down on the price, while Indians love it and are accustomed to the bargaining dance which I think is also a culturally quality Indians possess as compared to Tibetans.
One night some of us went to check out on some of the various concerts being offered. In one I saw, which was attended by a shit ton of monks, a cute Tibetan girl on the stage shaking her hips (surprisingly well I might add) in a skimpy shiny outfit to the popular Bollywood music hit ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’. The monks were just going ape-shit over this. I was lodged in a midst them and at one point thought that I they were going to stampede kicking my skinny ass. But for realz, they tore down several parts of the zinc-plated wall that bordered the makeshift concert venue as that girl shook her money maker for the crowd. The stench of monk testosterone was too overbearing and I had to dip to the bird.
Chillin’ with the guys was really cool; it was I have said before, like having a bunch of little brothers. I met a lot of their friends; many did not believe that we were in the same class. A learned a lot about the inner world of their part of the Himalayas from which they hail, high up in the Himalayans near the Tibetan border and though are Indian citizens, when they travel to other parts of India they are not treated like other Indians which they expressed bothers them. Mostly they identify themselves from the places that they come from, I am Ladakhi, I am Spitian, I am a Monpa they would say to Tibetans; I am from Arunachal Pradesh, I am from Jammu-Kashmir, I am from Himachel Predesh they would say to Indians. So many interesting things they shared with me and vice-versa, I wish I could write all down.
When I was alone, one of favorite things to do was people watching, one of my old pastimes from my days of living on the streets. When I used to live on the streets of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida way back when, when I would take of break from spare changing, the act of going up to strangers and directly asking them to spare any change (which we then called spange-ing), I would sit on the low white wall of the Ft. Lauderdale strip and just watch people go to and fro, beside the random rastaman who might share a spliff with ya and chat you up philosophizing about I & I and Jah or whatever, just sitting there watching the people go by always brought me a simple pleasure plus being on the beach and being a teenager watching the bikini mamas was an extra icing on the top.
At this Kalachakra, I once again took to this habit. I easily passed hours watching folks go up and down, many times seeing old friends. The cornucopia of people, the kaleidoscope of traditional garbs, the street hawkers, the beggars all in a dance of movement and the universal murmur of multilingual jibber jabber shifted in and out of focus in front of one visual and audio field. One time a middle age Burmese refugee lady sat next to me outside the Mahabodhi Temple and chatted me up in mixture of Burmese, Hindi and English. I showed her the Burmese bag I was carrying which I had traded from my Burmese roommate the summer of my freshman year at Berea College, Licky Sung. This lady was surprised to see me sporting a Burmese bag and I was happy too.
For me I gained a cultural significance out of this Kalachakra as compared to the Amaravati one. During the teachings and the actual empowerment I met and got to know some Mongolian monks and one from Siberia whom eventually I invited me to sit with them for the rest of the event. Before the teachings every morning, inter-denominational debates where going between monks for all the sects of Tibetan Buddhism, which was the first time that I had seen such a thing, and hope that more of it will happen in the future. All the debates were really short. The defenders stayed the same but the challengers would line up and each had about a one or two minutes to challenge the defender on whatever topics they chose. I heard everything from the basics debates on colors to advance philosophy being thrown at the defenders. Young and old were too involved, one young monk of about maybe 7 or 8 years old went up and had everyone rolling with laughter. One day the defenders were from the Nyingma sect and many were surprise at how well they held their positions. Generally Nyingmapas are not known for their dialectical debating skills since it is not emphasized as much as tantra is in their tradition.
The actually teachings and empowerment were awesome of course, but my attention was different drawn somewhere else. The teachings section was easier to understand especially since know I am studying some of the topics that the HHDL had mentioned, but when it comes to tantra I am lost. I used to have a huge interest in it but now I feel that it is way above my head and that I need to stick to simple practices more conducive to my level and not just ride the tantric bandwagon without knowing WTF it is about. Every morning before the empowerment, the HHDL will have the Heart Sutra chanted in various languages. My favorite of course was the Sanskrit version and I noticed that the chanters were the same monks who here at Sarah last year studying Hindi & Sanskrit and kicking our asses on the debate courtyard. My least favorite was the English though it was chanted by none other than Richard Gere himself and company. The English version lacked the rhythmic flow that is found in the Tibetan and the Sanskrit, though yes of course that it not as important as the meanings of the words, a bad ass beat to ride on drives the point home deeper I think.
On the last day of the empowerment we had to wake up really stinking early since it was to start at 6am. We all high tailed it from our camp to the empowerment site which was so full, the lines were very long. The foreigners’ line for the ladies did not even seem like a line and the one for the men was intersected by the monk’s line. There was one road that led to both the gates the monks had to enter and the one the foreigners had to enter; obviously there are more monks than any other participant at the event. Anyone who stuck their necks under the tent for a second during the teachings will immediately notice the infamous sea of maroon red overpowering in size. Anyways, this one road led to a bottleneck situation and many monks being pranksters were pushing from the back on purpose causing a rippling effect through the rest of crowd. Again I got scared for a bit thinking that it wouldn’t take much of this to easily turn into a stampede situation. Once I was close to the point of the bottleneck all I could do was go with the flow as best as I could. One monk got up on a high ground in frustration and started screaming at the monks saying, “What is the matter with you? Why do you study the scriptures for? Are you learning anything?” and the prankster monks just started jeering making fun at him, no one really listened to him unfortunately. On the foreigner’s line I thought some fights were about to break out because of all the oscillating going on. Old Mongolian ladies were cutting the line left and right to the frustrations of all the ladies standing in the line behind them. After I eventfully got in and found my new Mongolian monk friends, I told them that I have been totally flatten, flat like Tibetan bread. I was relieved for this last part of the empowerment, which went quickly but then there was madness concerning the distributions of offerings and blessed water. The offerings which mainly consisted of various cookies and candies were straight up thrown onto the seated crowd. Folks threw themselves at the treats as if a piñata had exploded. Later on Richard Gere announced the release of the HHDL new book titled “Beyond Religion”, some Tibetan traditional songs were sung and several Indian politicians spoke. Including among them was the son of the late Chief Minister of Arunchal Pradesh, a Monpa named Sri Dorje Khandu the main sponsor for this Kalachakra, Pema Khandu. There is some controversy surrounding his death; he died in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh around September 2011. Some believe that is might be political motivated. In that state the Monpas make up a small percentage of the population while the rest in made up of what my Monpa classmates called Lopas and the two groups are not amicable towards each other.
Anyways, we had one more day left after the end of the empowerment, so some of us went on other pilgrimage to some places in waking distances. One called Lotho Kawa, where the Prince Siddhartha is believed to have spent his ascetic years starving himself in meditation for six years and the village of Sujata where after realizing that not eating food wasn’t getting him any closer to enlightenment (obviously I do not think he would have advocated for the so called breatharian diet) that then village girl named guess what? Sujata gave the starving prince ascetic some milk and rice to chow down on. The village of Sujata was some sad shit to look at and quite depressing to walk through. The temple dedicate to Sujata was equally bleak, there was a school attached to it with kids just sitting on the ground in their school uniforms but they were doing nothing but eating candy. Each kid had a mound of candy in front of them and right across the way there was the candy-walas soliciting pilgrims to buy candy to give to the children. Overall, it was very sad but that day was also our last full one there so we got most of our classmates who by then had scattered across Bodh Gaya to meet at the Mahabodhi Temple to recite the “Ornament of Manifest Realization” and the “Heart Sutra” together which was very nice especially since we did it covered by the branches of the descendent of the bodhi tree. Several passerbies also enjoyed in as well.
On the last day in Bodh Gaya, I spent the morning at the Mahabodhi temple especially, close to the base of the temple in the innermost walkway for one more glimpse; I later joined a friend who wanted to go shopping. The monks did really well at the Kalachakra because almost every day they received 1,000 rupees notes as offerings and so with that extra money his pocket we glided through the bazaar. By 9pm we packed all of our shit and went to the rendezvous spot to await our bus to the Varanasi. Even though we booked our train tickets three months in advance we could not find a direct train back to Pathonkot and so we ordered our train tickets from Varanasi which was only four hours away from Bodh Gaya.
Once we had arrived in Varanasi early in the morning, we went to Sarnath, another important Buddhist site, for the Buddha taught his first teachings on the Four Noble Truths there. There is a huge ancient stupa called the Dharmekha and the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies and multiple monasteries of various Buddhist countries. We stayed in a Jain Digambara Dharamshala, which is a place that provides very basic lodging for pilgrims at mad cheap prices. The word Dharamshala means a place of refuge, so it is a place where poor pilgrims seek refuge while on pilgrimage. It is interesting that Tibetan refugees would end up with their exiled capital in a place called Dharamshala. Anyways, when we got to the stupa we saw a part of it covered in kataks. I immediately wondered how the hell people were people getting those kataks up there. The stupa is round, the bottom half was thicker than the top half. People were circumambulating it at the base. On the outside folks were putting rocks into their kataks which they then whirled quickly beside their bodies as it gathered enough centrifugal force to hurl it at least over the second bigger half of the stupa. Local boys were marketing their katak hurling skills on the behalf of the inept pilgrims. This made the circumambulating a bit scary because many who tried where not necessarily sharpshooters and easily missed their mark which left the rock filled katak to fall and knock some poor pilgrim upside the head. I saw many mis-aimed attempts. Some started to scream to folks to stop, plus it made the stupa look trashy. Afterwards we grouped up and spat out some prayers and we dispersed. I and a few of us visited a temple built in 1904 by the Sri Lankan Buddhist activist Anagarika Dharmapala who restored many important ancient Buddhist sites including Bodh Gaya and Sarnath. Also we went on a boat ride on the Ganges River which was very cool. Then we visited the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies (CIHTS) in Sarnath, which was quite impressive. They offer various degrees there at a graduate school level. It is under the Government of India. They offer Tibetan Medicine, Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, English and one can study with teachers from all the schools of the Tibetan Religion including Bon. I have always had a thing for nice libraries, becoming more appreciative of them since Sarah’s library blows the hairy meatball. The CIHTS’s library is a tiny gem for Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist students and their texts in English on various topics was also quite impressive. I was impressed but from talking to a friend who had spent two years there, it is not all that it is cracked up to be after it went under Indian government administration. I would love to spend some time there to study Sanskrit well, one of the best Buddhist Sanskrit scholars in world teaches there, but his is very old. Several of the guys have mentioned to that they would like to attend CIHTS after the finishing at IBD to learn Sanskrit; I don’t think monks have to pay to go there.
The next day, was all about getting to the train station since our train was to leave at 12:50pm and we were a ways away from it. Varanasi is quite a huge city. At the station as we were hauling our shit to the platform while we were walking on an overpass bridge, I saw a shit ton of black ass smoke soon to realize that a caboose of a train had blown up. It had a huge hole on the side of it and flames were jutting out of it pouring black smoke. This platform was almost empty of Tibetans. We kicked it on the platform relaxing eating papaya as we sat on our bags which we had placed on the floor in a pile. We had to switch platforms but before too long we were on our way back home. As the train pulled out roaming towards the outskirts of Varanasi I saw out of the window that the sky was filled with kites. From almost every roof top I saw kites whizzing and buzzing through the air. It turned out that that day was a kite fighting festival. It reminded me of a section in “The Autobiography of a Yogi” where the young Mukunda was participating in a similar kite fighting festival in Calcutta and he had lost his kite and to retrieve it he prayed to the Divine Mother to bring the kite back to him and the kite naturally floated back directly to his hand. Seeing all these kites in the air made that scene come alive to me. Anyhow, this time on the train we were all close to each other to the amazement of the other Indian passengers. We walked up and down the aisle, shot the shit on various topics, on our experiences during Kalachakra, on all the crazy stuff that went down, their views about village society, etc. Many played cards which they can do for-fucking-ever non-stop. They are some gambling fools, they always played a game called ‘thousands’ and many times at Bodh Gaya tried to get me to play but I suck at cards games and I do not like to gamble.
Before too long we arrived at the Chakki Bank train in Pathonkot, Panjab and the two vans that had brought there the first time was there waiting for us. It was raining though. After getting some breakfast and drinking some chai from some roadside stalls (I have eaten the most street food than I have ever had since I have been in India) we head back to Sarah. Back at Sarah and back into my room one of my plants was dying, I had no one to watch it for me though I think it will survive. While we were away I learned that it snowed at Sarah all the way to the Pathankot. It never snows at Sarah and it in fact it was the first time it did so in 56 some odd years. It was definitely the coldest I have ever felt it. I have been back a week now today being Sunday 22nd of January. We started a new topic 5 days ago, with our root text being Dharmakiirti’s commentary on Dignaaga’s compiendum on Valid Cogition, (Tib. tshad ma rnam ‘grel, Skt. pramaanavaaritika) a very important text on Buddhist Logic. Both Dharmakiirti and Dignaaga are Nalanda graduates. Pretty much we have about a month or more at Sarah it so seems and after the Tibetan New Year at the end February we are suppose to start class at the IBD campus in McLeod Ganj and continue the rest of our studies there. This is my fifth year at Sarah College and it is going to be interesting living in the madness of Da Ganj again. I have become quite used to living here regardless of all the difficulties I have had throughout the years. I have lived there longer than I have been a student at Berea College, which is weird to think about. Anyways, I am tired, been writing since yesterday afternoon, it is 7:30pm and my hands are cold.
P.S. As you have obviously noticed this is a late entry, I had wanted to post this and write other blog entries since then but with lack of internet at Sarah and since the f-button on my laptop refuses to cooperate I have been unable to do so. I am now at IBD in McLeod Ganj and regardless of my busy schedule I hope that since there are many accessible internet cafes in town that I will be in a better situation to keep in touch with friends and family and to update the blog more regularly. I have been very sad that I have not been able to do so. Much Love, kangpa tshapo!!