My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Monday, November 26, 2012

Soaring High; Blazing Flame

I am definitely very happy for my new crib, especially now as we are nearing winter.  The backside of my room gets a whole lot of sun throughout the day and here where good indoor heating is virtually non-existent, to have a place that gets sun is quite a status symbol regardless of the how much the rent is or the luxury of the pad. One can have a piece of shit room and if it gets sun folks oh and ah causing one to stand slightly more straighter with the shoulders slightly more spread apart.  From my balcony, almost straight ahead and over a valley there is a little knob where paragliders launch off from.  They are really cool watch especially when they glide close to the top of the Dhauladhar range which means that they are really, really high up there. That is probably the closest a human can reach to the experience of the soaring of an eagle. Sometimes in the back of my mind I think ‘I would like to try that sometime’ but I always soon realize the fact at I am chicken shit and acrophobic. You ain’t getting me nowhere near no fucking paraglide, though it’s nice to think about.

Now that monsoon has been over, the mornings here are just wonderful.  On my window hangs two round prism thingies and when the arisen sunlight hits them it scatters many rainbow blotches all over my room. It’s like having two mini-solar powered disco balls that shoots rainbows everywhere. Every morning so long as it is not cloudy the first thing that my eyes see is roygbiv.  The sun at this point arises to the left of my apartment over the range and it rays hit very warmly. I brush my teeth on the balcony so that I can warm myself and soak up some heat. The morning skies are alive with kites, crows, and house swifts that for some reason get seriously lost and fly hyper-topsy-turvily in and out of my room two or three of them at a time.  Some times they’ll circle the room several times until they find the door.

When I first moved up here in the spring, there were these light-yellow butterflies fluttering everywhere.  They always flew from the valley up the mountain.  I remember one day as I was chillin’ on my balcony when I heard HHDL’s caravan horn announcing his arrival to McLeod Ganj that at that moment I thought, ‘these yellow butterflies are fluttering up the hill to greet HHDL back to Dhasa!’

Now as the cold is slowly creeping in eventually one is going to have to bust out the electric heaters and the hot water bottles and hope that the electricity don’t die.

Being at IBD school-wise has been extremely difficult for me, which is partially why my blog did not receive any attention.  The other part was that I was burning out hardcore and waging a war within myself between absolute laziness and studying like a fucking mad man, between being really grateful for all the beautiful delicious fruits in my life and wanting to take all my philosophy books, throw them in a big pile and light them bitches on fire. Back and forth like a yo-yo.  The move up from Sarah College to IBD implied that we wouldn’t have a proper vacation until the winter, the end of the year, which if we would have stayed at Sarah we would have had a summer vacation. With that being the case we immediately after finishing our 2nd year at Sarah commenced the 3rd year of the course at IBD pretty much without break.  

This year’s subject matter was extremely difficult for me, plus I had to keep in mind that our change in teachers had something to do with it too. Gen Tenzin Gyurmey, a.k.a Gen Drubthob, is one hard sumbitch.  He is extremely intelligent, has an incredible memory and during lectures talks miles above one’s head. I know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with his lecturing style. Unlike our teacher at Sarah, Gen Lodroe a.k.a Morphesus, who pretty much spoon-fed us; Gen Drubthob did not do so at all. Though he is extremely meticulous and a very eloquent speaker his words would not sink in for the life of me. His ability to articulate numerous styles of reasoning on a single query is astonishing. A nun in my class compared it to those gymnasts who are able to do all the various activities of the sport. I thought that it was a good analogy. On top of that, not only is he  a master of Buddhist philosophy and dialectics, he is also quite the accomplished practitioner thus earning him the moniker Drubthob (tib. grub thob, skt, siddha) which means accomplished one, one who is accomplished in the meditative arts.

Drang Nge (tib. drang nges) this year’s topic: was like our previous year’s topic drawn out of the homage of the “Ornament of Manifest Realization” (tib. mngon rtogs rgyan, skt. abhisamayAlankAra). The main text used for the study of this topic is called the “Essence of Eloquence: the Interpretive and the Definitive meanings of the sutras” (tib. drang nges legs bshad snying po) written by the founder of the Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism Je Tsongkhapa. This text provided us with an intense and in-depth study of the four tenet systems of Indian Buddhism categorized by the Gelukpa school particularly focusing on the Mind-Only tenet system (tib. sems tsam pa, cittamAtra). As far as I know, this is the only time during the long arduous years of study that the Mind-Only tenet system is studied in depth.

The main gist of this topic deals with the fact that Mahayana Buddhism divides the teachings of the Buddha into three turnings of the wheel of Dharma or three distinct sets of teachings. The first being after his enlightenment in Bodh Gaya were afterwards he travelled to a deer park in Varanasi and gave the teachings on the “Four Noble Truths”. The second being at Vulture Peak in Rajgriha not far from Bodh Gaya where he gave the teachings of the “Perfection of Wisdom” sutras. The third being at Vaishali, were he gave the teachings of the “Excellent differentiations”.  Because these teachings are outwardly very different from each other, trying to ascertain which one of these are what the Buddha actually meant is where the study of drang nge comes in. The general idea is that the Buddha’s teachings are without contradiction, so what gives? We are taught that he gave teachings depending on the capacity of the student’s ability to understand them and that is why there are three sets of teachings.

Our first analyst comes from the Mind-Only school, who asserts that the first two teachings are interpretive and that the third and last teachings are the definitive.  I don’t want to get into it deeply because lengthy dissertations have been written on this and it is confusing as hell.  To be brief, this school asserts, using a chapter from the “Sutra Unraveling the Thought” (tib. mdo sde dgongs ‘grel, skt. saMdhinirmocana-sUtra) as their scriptural source, what sutras are interpretive and what sutras are definitive.  From their viewpoint, the Buddha indicated during the first teachings and the students of those teachings asserted that all known phenomenon are established by way of its own characteristics (tib. rang gi mtshan nyid kyis grub pa, skt. svalakSaNa-siddhi) which roughly means from my feeble understanding that a phenomenon exists as an entity in itself without related cause or conditions acting on it besides its own or that it has its own distinct essence separate from others and also that certain or all phenomena are established as external objects (tib. phyi rol don du grub pa) basically meaning that objects exist out there by themselves without any relation to the mind perceiving the object.

Again from the Mind-Only School’s viewpoint, the Buddha indicated during the second teachings and those students asserted the opposite from the first teachings stating that all phenomenon are not established by way of its own characteristics, (tib. rang gi mtshan nyid kyis ma grub pa) i.e. empty.

Moving on to this school’s view on the third teachings,  in which the Buddha indicated that all phenomenon are divided three ways, they are either, 1) thoroughly imputed, (tib. kun btags, skt. parikalpita), 2) other-powered (tib. gzhan dbang, skt. paratantra) or 3) thoroughly established (tib. yongs grub, skt. pariniSpanna). This school asserts that the first one (thoroughly imputed) is established by way of its own characteristics and that the last two (other-powered and thoroughly established) are not established by way of its own characteristics. The first one can be thought of roughly as being a phenomenon that appears only to a conceptual consciousness and many though not all are permanent. The second are objects that have causes and effects, which break down momentarily like organic matter, animals, etc. The third is just this school’s euphemism for emptiness (tib, stong nyid, skt. zUnyatA), which is a huge can of worms that I am unable to open. But as one can hopefully see and as I have stated, the Mind-Only tenet system asserts that this third set of teachings are definitive.  They also assert that a valid direct consciousness and the object that it perceives are of the same substantial essence (tib. rdzas gcig, skt. eka-dravya) thus rejecting the notion that phenomena are established as external objects since they are integrally substantially related with the mind and not outside of it. The debates within this topic are very gnarly and have caused me a lot of headaches and or utter confusion. We also very briefly studied the two Middle-Way (tib. dbu ma, skt. mAdhyamika) tenet school systems’ view on this topic which is quite different from that of the Mind-Only tenet system’s view. 
The other topic studied briefly is Buddhist Logic for two straight months during the monsoon, which are hella intense because things get really competitive between the classes. We have more interclass group debates during this period and it culminates with a two day interclass debate competition held in the main temple in front of HHDL’s throne and a big Buddha statue.  This is where debate as entertainment/ spectator sport is demonstrated to the fullness. Especially with my class as the new kids on the block, watching the upperclassmen doing their thing with style and finesse was amazing to watch. The debates at times would reach fever-pitch intensities.

With monsoon rockin’ out full-power at this time, I remember during some of the regular evening  one-on-one debate sessions, with florescent light bulbs glowing and flickering and the thick, thick fog engulfing us as we debated with clapping hands and stomping feet, that I would stop for a second and looking around me feeling like I have been transported to some another world of mist, dim eerie pale white lights and dialectical cacophony.

My IBD landlords seem to have fixed the leaky roof so I was “relatively” dry meaning that room didn’t turn into a pond but my neighbors were not so lucky. Their room got flooded really badly during one of the many week long onslaughts of rain and had to switch rooms.

To wrap things up, similar to last year’s situation with the Kalachakra, this year exams were bumped up a month because HHDL will be giving teachings on thirteen texts of the genre call the “Gradual Stage of the Path” (tib. lam rim) in one or two of the big monasteries in the Tibetan settlements in South India on November 30th until December 15th and the entire school is going. Our exams consist of two debates exams and two written exams, one on Buddhist logic and one on drang nge. It was an exhausting process and in the middle of it I didn’t think that I was going to make it. We were given 15 days to study between the last day of class and the first day of exams which were the debate ones. I tried my best to review as much as a could and I tell you that 15 days was not enough.  There were 3 out 5 classes who had to take the debate exams and they required us to attend all of them which lasted four days in total, consisting of two three hour morning and afternoon sessions. For three days they were held in the main HHDL temple same spot as the interclass debate competition and the fourth one was held in the IBD temple.  The three classes were the Middle Way class and the two Perfection of Wisdom classes mine being the freshmen Perfection of Wisdom class.  The Middle Way class only had one debate exam and has a small class so they were done pretty much by lunch.  Both of the Perfection of Wisdom classes has each twice that many and two exams to take so it took longer to go through our classes.

All of the IBD teachers were in attendance plus four geshes from one of three big monasteries from South India who acted as the judges. Each day we started off by reciting prayers to the Bodhisattva of Wisdom Manjushree. It was our teacher Gen Drupthob who made all the questions for the exam. Exams went in order of seniority thus first being the Middle Way class and then the two Perfection of Wisdom classes, mine being the last. We sat on rows of thin mattresses on the floor long ways in the temple.  In the first two rolls on the right and left side of the temple were seated the class whose turn it was and all were given numbers written on colored board. There was one more row behind these on either side where the rest of us sat.  On the left towards the front where the teachers were, was a square mattress right by Gen Grubthob. Next to our teacher was where the top guys of whomever respective class sat.  In front of our teacher on a small table are a buzzer thingy, a clock, a tray with many white envelops containing two questions and a metal bowl filled with rice with pieces of tightly rolled up paper stuck into it. These papers had the names of all the students of each respective class. On the right front sat the geshe judges and between them and the teachers was the hot seat a mattress where the defender sat.

To commence our teacher would pull one of these pieces of paper and he will call out the name written on it.  Whomever that person was had to go to where the teacher was and grab any envelop from the tray sitting in front of him. Then sitting on the square mattress having chosen one of the two questions provided within the envelop, had to study the question for five minutes.  The reason why they placed the top guys of the class right there was so that they can help.  Also another name is drawn and that person would have to sit as the defender. After the five minutes are up the person who has been studying starts the debate standing up as the challenger.  Each debate lasts 10 minutes and right exactly in the middle of it the teacher will again reach for another named piece of rolled up paper from the rice filled bowl and call the name and then that person would go the square mattress using the rest of the five minutes to study for his or her debate. Once the total ten minutes are up the person who just challenged will then sit on the mattress in front of the temple and assume the roll of the defender and the other person who was on the square mattress studying will get up and debate the question they had just studied and so and so forth. The very first person of each class who started as a defender is automatically be the last person in the class to be the challenger and when they are finish its then the next junior class’ turn to go at it.

When it finally came our classes turn, my name was the first to be called out by Gen Drupthob to be the challenger.  As I sat on that square mattress, the two top guys in my class tried their best to explain to me the debate that I had picked, the another question made no impression on me. I noticed Gen Drupthob smiling at me. It was a quote that I didn’t know very well at all and plus I was way, way too nervous and so by the time that my five minutes was up, I was a total blank and froze. Somehow I made it through pretty much fumbling through a debate that I really didn’t know. I remembered the topic but barely and it was one of those things that we did not spend that much time on in lecture and in the debate courtyard. It was just my luck of the draw; I was totally embarrassed for screwing the pooch like that though I held up pretty decently when I had to defend.  Also being in the main HHDL temple which is open to the public so that folks can make offerings, worship, etc  and being in front of the other classes and teachers and being well aware that I am a non-Tibetan guy doing this just hit me all at once way harder than I expected and I got stage fright. I was glad though that since I was the first of my class to take the exam that I could now rest in my shame for the rest of the day. Later that day, a schoolmate told me that she was glad to see me there debating and being a part of IBD, that I was the first black person to debate in the Tsuklakhang, her statement definitely made me feel better.

The next day was the Buddhist logic debate exam and that went a whole lot better and the Geshes and the teachers helped out a lot.  Once it was all said done with regards to the debate exams, the rice that was in the metal bowl were all of the rolled-up pieces of paper that had contained our names, was distributed to all of us and then we recited a prayer called Tenbarma (tib. bstan ‘bar ma) in which it had a repeating verse every couple of lines that said, “ten pa yun ring bar gyur ci” (tib. “bstan pa yun ring ‘bar gyur cig”) “May the teachings blaze for a long time” or a slightly different variation of the verse. Every time that that verse would come around we would throw in the air the rice that was distributed to us before hand. The rice scattered all over the place and with each time that I chucked the rice the more relaxed and relieved I became knowing that the debate part of it was all over. I thought as we threw into the air that rice that had previously contained all of our names secretly,  that despite all the stress of preparations and exam taking, that in the end it just gets scattered to the wind, all that nervousness and anxiety, all thoughts of “what if this and that” were totally dispersed.  Even though we still had the two written exams to take eight days later I was definitely way more collected and relaxed.  I guess that this small ritual was a small lesson in the impermanence of things and in non-grasping and non-attachment.

Now I am totally on vacation and couple in of weeks I will venture to the Scandinavian country of Norway to spend the holidays with a very kind and generous friend who invited there for which I am most grateful and excited.

I have been mostly hanging out since last Thursday, Thanksgiving Day for folks back state-side, which was the last day of the exams. IBD had a two hour puja that night which one of my schoolmates called the ‘bye-bye puja’ and we received a lot of offerings a.k.a. munchie food. 

Had thanksgiving dinner with an American friend  after the puja got out which was cool, she wanted to share the thanksgiving culture with her Tibetan friends and she cooked up some dank-ass grub , though there ain’t no turkeys around maybe besides some jive turkeys but no one wants to eat those.

Yesterday, I for my first time attended the only church in the area, St. John of the Wilderness. I have been living here for seven years and had never been to this church. The night before I was at a friend’s housewarming party and an older gentlemen from New Zealand who was there though a bit forcefully invited me to go because he is an strong advocate for Tibet and a had invited a Tibetan monk and the foreign minister of the Tibetan Government in-Exile to attend the service since they were going to pray for Tibet during this spike of self-immolations happening in Tibet right now. At first, I was not sure if I was going to go or not, but since forever I have wanted to check it out and plus it has a graveyard with grave stones and shit; I miss meditating in graveyards. One doesn’t see graveyards that often since cremations are the norm here. I used to do it a lot in college. A bit back in the woods behind the college I attended, there was a small country graveyard/ cemetery a bit off the beaten path with some graves marked and other not. When I had time I would walk back there and just sit amongst the graves. There is just something about sitting in graveyards, anyways, so I got up early and walked to the graveyard of the church which was established during the British colonial rule over India over a hundred years ago. Some of the gravestones went as far back as 1850. Also many of them couldn’t be read due to weathering I assumed. The area provided a great view of both McLeod Ganj and Moonpeak which has some snow on it. The service was great; the New Zealander who had invited me, which I came to find out used to be a Jesuit priest, gave a great sermon along liberation theologically lines. I realized that in Dharamsala the Christian population is miniscule being outnumbered by Buddhist and a tons and tons of Hindus and Sikhs. I thought of the example that HHDL gives when he travels the world, he enters other faith’s places of worship and worship with them in their style no matter what the faith is, regardless if he agrees with their fundamental tenets or not and he does it sincerely. He says that by doing so one can show true respect to others religious tradition. Though my feeling at the service was initially a bit uneasy, partly because it felt out of context here in India, I thought about how and why the HHDL does it and just let go of all my resistance and just be in the moment of the service and I enjoyed it.

As it is normally done at the end of a practice session, I would like to dedicate any merit that might have been accrued from this humble act of writing this blog entry to all the Tibetans how have sacrificed their lives for their freedom through the intensity of the purifying door of the blazing flame.