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India Trip Notes

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4-11-11 - More Dharamsala

There were Internet cafes sprinkled around McLeod Ganj. The all were cheap and slow. I wasn't taking any notes or writing anything special, not adding to for the whole half year trip abroad. My favorite Internet cafe was the closest. I'd walk up from my place, carefully passing the massive nettle plant, the free-to-all Ayurvedic Clinic, cross the street in several steps and there it was. I did online California traffic school there for a couple of weeks and passed the test the first time.

All the beggars knew me. I'd drop them a rupee a day which was more acceptable then than now. There were a lot of lepers there. One of them, an old woman, was said to be the mayor of a tent city I'd passed walking from Noblinka. And these weren't REI tents but models homemade with branches, plastic, sheet metal.

I had to make an effort to keep a pocketful of rupees. India does not seem to me to be a change producing economy. Every country has its own distinct change patterns. Change is not a problem in the States where it tends to build up a little on the low end testified to by jars of pennies. Hundreds don't work well in the States. Change was never a problem in Japan or big bills. I'd see little kids there buy a candy bar with a ten thousand yen note, about eighty dollars at the time. Change would build up and when it did I could walk into the neighborhood bank and throw it in a change machine and they'd give me bills for it. In the States now there are change machines like that that charge you. How terrible. India is the opposite. I have to make an effort to get the coins and small bills and make them last. I always try the biggest bill I have and if they can't take that I try the next biggest. Frequently I see rickshaw drivers and shop people walking around asking other drivers and shops if they can break a bill. Yesterday I did some shopping at a nearby store and got 250 rupees worth of groceries. I had to give the man a 500 rupee note and I'm going back today for the change.

So keeping a pocket full of rupees wasn't easy but I did it. The money changers helped me some. There were so many beggars there that some days I'd go through fifty or sixty rupees. But just once a day per customer. I remember walking by a line of beggars near where I lived dropping rupees on the way and there was a new guy with them who hit me up my way back and the beggar next to him elbowed him and shouted something that made him retract his request.

Most people here, native or foreigners don't give to the beggars and they have good reasons, but I just don't like to ignore people and it doesn't cost that much. But I admire the people who help more significantly. Richard Geer had donated the money for the curbs and drains that were going in on the street that led to the Dalai Lama's temple. While I was there I joined Dianne to visit a free but temporary dental clinic run by Swedish dentists I think working with Indian dentists doing some serious work on lines of people and training assistants at the same time. There were a group of Danish vets who were spaying, neutering, and giving shots to dogs in Upper Dharamsala. They were paying for it too and spraying the dogs with some dye that wouldn't come off for a while to discourage repeats. They were up there a week working long hours and were prepared to work for a week in lower Dharamsala but the police chief got in a territorial spat with the mayor who'd made the deal and reduced the Danish vets' time there to two days. What's a little rabies compared to ruffled feathers?

The most serious ongoing philanthropic work was in the area of education. The Tibetans did a better job of that due to how well organized they are and the strength of their culture, but I'd still get hit up by them for donations beyond my means to put a niece or neighbor into a higher level of learning. The effort for the Indian communities seemed to be to give youngsters the opportunity to get more basic education. But one had to be careful. A German I heard of was so moved by a pitch he got for a school that he donated 50,000 Euros to get it going. A year later he returned to find that the money had been used to build a private residence for the fundraiser.

I wanted to help the archiving work that Karma Khedup was doing at the Tibetan Library of Works and Arts and spent a lot of time with him understanding what his needs were. He was really dedicated. I could walk down to the library when it was closed, stand below his window and call up and he'd come down and get me. His work was on a scale vastly greater than what I've been involved with. He's been at it for years and years and had moved from analogue to digital and eight years ago he was trying to buy expensive equipment that I don't think would be necessary now when massive hard drives can be bought cheaply.

He was such a sweet man, always laughing. He'd come out of Tibet with TDL whom he'd known most his life, and whom he spoke of with reverence. I went with him to a small restaurant in a monk run guest house near the library, the one where the Dali Lama's oracle lives, and ate and drank tea there because it was a good vantage point to see TDL and entourage go by. His plane had landed and he was on his way toward us. The streets were lined with devotees who I realized were there not just to wave to him as he went by but to receive the blessing of being near him for an instant. Karma Khedup got excited as TDL;s motorcade with armed guard approached and after it had passed he told me how pleased he was to have been able to see TDL three times in the last month.

I tried to get some funds for them when I came back and found a tech-savvy  intern willing to go there and work for half a year with him for room and board. This is something he'd requested. But I got an email from someone else working with him that said they didn't have the funds to receive the intern. That seemed so ridiculous to me. I felt like I'd wasted his time but I also started wondering why I was trying to help them at all. The Tibetans are doing pretty well. Why don't they pay for it? TDL has a good sized budget. I see lamas in America buying homes to use when they're here, Mercedes in the garage.

People are bending over backwards to help the poor Tibetans who don't seem so poor to me. I'm sure a lot of them are but other Tibetans seem to me to have plenty to help them with. I lived in Santa Fe in 92-93 and went to the Tibetan stupa there to meditate and visit and went to a class with another Tibetan teacher. I appreciated the opportunities I had to learn from Tibetan teachers but sometimes the fawning over them I saw there got to be a bit much. I was in the kitchen of a friend whose son had a play date with a Tibetan kid who came over to the refrigerator and opened it and she told him he would have to wait till dinner and he stood there as if not believing her and said, "But... but... but... but I'm Tibetan!'

I love Tibetans and Tibetan culture which I admire for its profundity and strength. They are better than survivors - they are preserving and gently spreading great wisdom throughout the world. It seems to me at times they're like a combination of the Roman Catholics and Jews of Asia. They have tons of ceremony, rich tradition, believe a lot, and they stick together.

They are also through and through Buddhists. It's not something decadent and useless except for memorial services and funerals as it often seems in Japan. It's not something for the pure monks only and everyone else can support them and hope to be reborn as monks as it often seems in Thailand. The Tibetans revere the monks but they all seem to me like practicing Buddhists. I'd talk to young women whose looks alone could support them where I come from, beautiful young women who'd tell me they were in the university studying Buddhism and when they graduated they planned to enter a monastery.


Now wait. That wasn't me on the back of the motorscooter in yesterday's story about Hari when the guy came out yelling at him about the pen, that was Dianne. I hear and tell so many stories that I forget whom they're happening to. She told me that. She tells a lot of stories too.

Dianne wanted me to meet one of her teachers, a Dutch woman who had received permission from TDL to start an international nunnery in Noblinka. Someone had pointed her building out to me from the Gyuto Monastery where the Karmapa lived, so I walked through a lovely woods and fields to get there.

On the way I met a group of men sitting in a shady opening. I was offered a cigarette and we talked for a few minutes. The first question is usually what is your country? and the next What is your good name? I never get tired of hearing "good name." The man took out his last cigarette, lit it, rumpled the pack, and dropped it on the otherwise pristine ground while looking at me, wagging his head, and smiling. I got the strangest feeling that he was sharing with me the joy of dropping it there in that beautiful, natural, spot. Walking across the field I watched a woman perched on a high, round, concrete platform shaped like a mushroom, shaking stalks of wheat I guess to separate out the grain which fell onto a huge pile of it below. Wow.

Tenzin Sangmo came out to meet me. I apologized to her for standing her up the week before. There was a misunderstanding. I had thought that Dianne was talking about Tenzin Palmo, the English nun who wrote Cave in the Snow. So when I'd called Tenzin Sangmo the week before and told her I'd be there I went to Palmo's place which was some kilometers further on in the same direction. Before going, I read her book, Cave in the Snow, which tells of her twelve years of solitary retreat in a cave way up a mountain that became an enclosed snow cave during the winter. Unbelievable she lived through it. Fascinating book.

I remember the little food shack where the bus dropped me off on the side of the road leading to her monastery. There I ate lunch and bought two books of poetry written by the man who ran it. Then I walked to Tenzin Palmo's center and announced I was there for our meeting and she came out and was gracious and friendly. We dropped a few names. She knew Dianne of course and Yvonne Rand whom I think may have hostessed her in the States. Yvonne has had extensive contact with Tibetans.

She'd also read Crooked Cucumber and was quite familiar with Suzuki Roshi's teaching which of course I was pleased with. She was interested in creating Tibetan Buddhist practice opportunities for Tibetan and other Asian as well as Western women. Check out her website. There was only one little tiny embarrassing factoid  - she hadn't been expecting me. It took her a minute to get that across, due to her kind British Buddhist manners. I was a little flummoxed. Hmm. Dianne hadn't called her? No. I hadn't called her? No.

Of course it turned out it was Tenzin Sangmo Dianne and I had been talking to. I learned an important lesson that day: When dealing with Tibetan Buddhists who have some relation to TDL or his school of Buddhism, remember them by a part of their name other than the Tenzin. Because of this and with his approval, I'd started calling my ex-monk friend Zinten.

Tenzin Sangmo was also familiar with Yvonne Rand, Suzuki Roshi, Crooked Cucumber and of course Dianne who had a relationship with her. For instance, Dianne studied Tibetan there. Sangmo said that her intent was to create a Buddhist practice center that would be appropriate for Western women and of course to all women.

I met one other woman teacher in the Tibetan tradition and that was Robina, a female Rimpoche from Australia. She was giving a week long meditation retreat in Dharamsala above McLeod Ganj and I went there to hear her speak and to see a movie made by her nephew about her life. What a life. She'd gone from wild girl of the streets to Black Panther Party diehard in New York to Radical Feminist to celibate Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher. She does extensive work in prisons through her Liberation Prison Project. She's quite talkative. A woman I knew in the retreat said she'd rather have shorter and fewer lectures and more meditation but that Robina was indeed inspiring. Here's a story about Robina.

Yvonne's name kept coming up. That woman who was in the Robina program was a student of Yvonne's. I'd met her while sitting alone on a rock in a forest, taking a break from a walk up to the Goenka meditation center. She was walking down the road and stopped in front of me and she knew my name and said she studied with Yvonne. It's interesting to be in the woods on the other side of the world and have someone come up and call one by name. But it's Dharamsala and she said she recognized me from the cover of Thank You and OK!

Women still can't rise to the top here. I don't understand how this operates, but I know that some women who want more advanced ordination or spiritual status have gone to Singapore or Southeast Asia where they can get it. And they're inspiring other women in the East and West to follow their brave lead. The story is that even Buddha had to be persuaded to ordain women as renunciates, as nuns. He finally gave in but said it would bring about the end of Buddhism five hundred years earlier or something like that. For women who take the Thus I have heard record literally, that must be disturbing.

It was something to witness these three women teachers at home in the middle of the territory of the entrenched Patriarchy of Tibetan Buddhism. It seems to me that Western women are changing the face of Buddhism in Asia. Not just Sangmo, Palmo, and Robina, but Yvonne, and Dianne and many others, practicing and interacting with Tibetan lamas and lay people in a new and influential way. One of most striking differences between Buddhism in Asia and in the West is how quickly in the West women have risen to the top. There was resistance on the part of the founding teachers, and struggle to make this happen, and it has happened and is happening. And it's bouncing back to the East.

Women had played another role that I heard about in Dharamsala, that of taking on a monk as a lover, having a marvelous few months, and then returning to their Western paradise, leaving the monk defrocked and sad. This is the story that was told to me by Zinten about him. He said there were a bunch of guys like him around, former monks who'd gone astray, and that he'd hung with them and played pool and tried his hand at getting a Western sponsor. I told him I was sure there were monks who'd gone astray and stayed monks. Sure, he said, just not him. But he'd become another sort of monk now. He did some odd jobs to survive and made friends with travelers like me, helped us out, and had us over for meals. He was always trying to feed me and he never accepted any remuneration. He wasn't sure about getting married because then he'd have to work more and have less time for friends.

I hung out for a while with a front man for a Bollywood movie that was to be made in Dharamsala in the winter when everything closed down. He booked a whole hotel and was making sure there'd be the food they wanted, laundry service, and so forth. I joined him in scouting for indoor and outdoor places to film various scenes. The movie was about someone who was searching for someone. I told him I could relate to that. I'm always on a search but what for - on a search for what I'm searching for.

He  talked about how the Tibetans let resentment build up in the Indian community below. He said that a few years back a Tibetan guy had killed an Indian in a bar fight and that an angry mob had stormed up the mountain and smashed the storefronts in. Luckily, he said, word of their arrival had preceded them and the Tibetans and Indians with stores too had split and many had doors to pull down in front of their places. There was a lot of damage done.

"Bar fight? Wow. Bar?" I asked. "Wonder where he found it."

"There are bars - just without big flashing signs - and a lot of secret drinking," he said. "Alcohol's a problem here too."

Half my budget back then was spent on drinking. In the evening I'd either have a large beer or two in a restaurant or a small bottle of vodka mixed with fruit juice in my room or on the sly. One day I was tired and decided to have a bit of the vodka straight out of the bottle right after I got it. I leaned up against a building and slipped the paper bag out of my pocket and  took a sip. An old man walking by spied me, obviously knew what I was doing, and I'll not soon forget the look of shock on his face, a level of shock that where I come from you'd have to be doing something more like masturbating in public to get. I put it away and didn't do it again.

Many evenings I went to the second floor of the main restaurant at the bus stand. There was a police office downstairs and usually a policeman outside and the restaurant waiters would wait for the police to go home at five before making beer available. I'd get a large beer, 650 ml., eat some and talk with people and get another large one later. They were 200 rupees each.

There were many young Israelis everywhere I went in Asia. Most of them were recently out of the army. They tended to stay together, often to book entire guest houses and hotels. They'd hang out in groups on the streets. They seemed mainly to be interested in having parties and not being in Israel. I met few of them at Buddhist teachings, meditations, or events which I found interesting because American Jews have such a prominent role in American Buddhism. I saw guest houses in Thailand that had signs that read, "No Israelis." I asked the owner of a hotel in Dharamsala what his experience was of having Israelis and he said he liked them, that they tended to be loud and rude, treated his staff bad at times, and always question any bill with "Why so much?" "They wake up in the morning thinking the world's out to get them," he said, "but they're interesting, intelligent, and you get on the Israeli circuit and you'll have lots of business."

There was one group of Israelis that sat on a bench just about every day and sometimes I'd sit with them and talk. I took a young born-again Christian woman from Ohio to one of their parties and they had Irish Whiskey and Johnny Walker and so forth and really good hash and we got too drunk and stoned and she wasn't used to it. She asked me if I'd escort her home which I did. It had gotten dark. We got into an argument about Jesus and god and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus.

We got a little lost too. I was sliding down a hill with her saying, "Everything's god, what does it matter. The details don't matter.". and she'd brush the dirt and leaves off herself and say "But Jesus is the only way and he's my savior and don't put him down!" and I'd say "I love Jesus too, but that's just one of his names - he's everywhere in all history and has no particular form and Christ is just our highest consciousness, not some being to be worshiped - that's idol worship." And then I fell down. "Shutup," she'd say. "They don't believe in God here."

"Everyone believes in god," I said. "They just have different approaches. God is everything and every nothing. There's nothing but God. Whatever people believe, it's just God off the mark a little. Atheists are just as good - they just don't believe in a false god. They're looking for real god and that's all there is."

We stumbled to her door.

"Never talk to me about any of this again," she said and went in.

She was cute I thought. Gotta work on my pickup lines.

I weaved back toward my place. Stopped and bought a single cigarette at a stand. It made me dizzy. I was getting a little cold in shorts and tee shirt. I went between the buildings to the back walk and stepped onto the slightly muddy ground, holding my hands to the sides for balance, made my way along a few more steps then slid right off the path and into the nettle bush. I mean right into the middle of it. Within seconds my screams had opened every window and door within earshot. This wasn't like being stung, it felt like I'd just been skinned and had salt poured over me. Every motion I made to get out exacerbated the situation. A hand reached down toward me and helped me out and whoever that was helped me stagger back up to the road where I sat in front of the closed Ayurvedic Clinic and pulsated stinging heat that penetrated body and mind and slowly disappeared.

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