Bodhi Blues: A Year in India
WRR, Volume 1, Number 2
It is 4:30 am and there is a lone monk chanting outside my window. I don’t bother to peek outside this time. I have seen him there early early morning after early early morning in the same position — slouching over his long, narrow rectangular text on the steps of the mani wheel hut, the streetlight above like a spotlight illuminating a soloist. The monk quickly tumbles over his words, like a waterfall cascading into a gorge. He slurs the Tibetan syllables together, racing towards the finish line. For him the text serves as a magic spell, which only needs to be spoken aloud to yield the promised effects of ripening one’s good karmic seeds. I find myself wishing again that he would wait until dawn, or weave a spell that was as silent as potent.
I remember how much I used to crave such chanting when I lived in the Tibetan monastery in Kushinagar a few months back; my own magic seems to have backfired, and I’m reminded of the old adage to be careful what you wish for.
I don’t live in a monastery anymore, but I live right next to one. I have moved away from Kushinagar for the time being. For the past two months I have been happily tucked in the foothills of the Himalayans, and having escaped the brutal heat of the pre-monsoon plains, I am grateful for the refuge that Dharamsala provides. Of course, the town is famous for being the saving grace of the Dalai Lama and his followers; it has been giving refuge to Tibetan exiles for the past fifty years.
Fifty years ago Dharamsala was an abandoned colonial hill station, whose heyday had seemingly come and gone. Besides a few old shops and aging British buildings, the area population consisted primarily of the small nearby villages of local Gaddis. Most Gaddis still lived a quiet existence, farming, herding, and gathering life’s necessities from the bosom of the forests still winding their way up the valley and up and up to the apex of the mountain. Some of those Gaddis are rich today because they own land and property being used to the hilt in today’s bustling Dharamsala, others sell vegetables at the market, and watch jealously as the benefits of tourism are plucked only by those with access to capital, while still others have been driven further and further away from the center of the action, deeper into the forests, and steeper up the hills.
Dharamsala is actually spread out over several distinct areas, the most important being — from bottom to top — Lower Dharamsala, Gangchen Kyishong, and McLeodganj.
Lower Dharamsala is the bustling Indian town at the bottom of the mountain, which is usually ignored altogether by tourists. If you’ve seen an Indian mountain town, well, then Lower Dharamsala has few surprises to offer. It has its charms though. I have hiked up and down the mountain countless times just to enjoy the delights of a dhaba where two curried vegetable dishes and unlimited fresh chapatis cost just about fifty cents. At the dozens of sweet shops in town, milk cakes, coconut cookies, creamy ras malai, and syrupy gulab jamuns sit temptingly behind the counter glass. Noisy place, but yumlicious Indian eats.
Halfway up the mountain, Gangchen Kyishong or Gangkyi, is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. The Central Tibetan Administration used to be the home of the Dalai Lama’s hand-picked government officials, but over the past few decades the CTA has become increasingly democratic. When the Tibetan in exile community held elections recently, I watched as old women in traditional dress and middle-aged men in Western suits queued up together in front of the polling station. I heard whispers from some exiles though that the election, like the exile government is pretty irrelevant to their lives. While Tibet remains a perennial dream, most exiles just yearn for real citizenship, somewhere, anywhere — India, England, Taiwan… That’s right, even those Tibetans who have been born in exile are not given Indian citizenship, not even those who have served in the Indian army.
The prestigious Library for Tibetan Works and Archives sits in the middle of the government offices; it one of the biggest attractions in the area, since several dozen foreigners come every day to avail themselves of the Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy classes. Geshe Sonam Rinchen, one of the teachers is nearing retirement, but he’s still like a rock star in the Western Buddhist community. The Library houses thousands upon thousands of sacred religious texts, and is therefore considered a sacred space by many Tibetans. All day elderly grandmothers and grandfathers circle clockwise around the Library, or make prostrations in front of it. In the evenings, it takes on a more festive atmosphere, whole families come out to do kora around the Library, as likely to chat and gossip with each other as they are to utter mantras. I sometimes put on my ipod on shuttle, and do laps of speed walking around the Library. Making merit, working out; I skip over the gansta rap—I wouldn’t want to be inappropriate.
Gangkyi is also dotted with the monastic compounds of state oracles. The state oracles go into ritual trance at prescribed times each year, often whispering frenetically into the ear of the Dalai Lama. The Necheung Oracle’s monastery is right beneath my window. I live in the scholar’s block of the Library, but the Necheung monastery dominates both my view and my earshot. The mornings are often peppered with chanting, the sound of giant horns and cymbals, while the afternoons and evenings often bring the sounds of heated debate. Debate has been elevated to art form and preferred pedagogy in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Across the courtyard comes the ringing of sharp claps that mark the end of a debater’s point with a challenge to his opponent, and the group cries of “Khyer, khyer, khyer!,” which can be loosely translated, “Bring it, bring it, bring it!” Debate can be passionate and physical, as the monks crowd around each other and sometimes even lift an opponent up and away in order to try to get in the fray to make their point. Leading up to Saka Dawa, the most holy day of the calendar year, the monastery shifted into high gear, ritually burning a butter statue offering after a week of preparations, and also inviting the Necheung Deity to possess its human host. My boyfriend and I are very careful to keep our curtains drawn tightly whenever we’re making out. Accidentally flashing the Necheung Oracle would be heinous karma.
McLeodganj sits still higher up on the mountain. It is the home of the Dalai Lama’s main monastery in exile, and has become a tourist haven extraordinaire. While it is especially swamped during the public teachings of the Dalai Lama, it is fairly well packed through the spring, summer and fall. It is only during the rather harsh winters that McLeodganj has the chance to recuperate and exhale. McLeodganj is chock full of shops, hotels, and restaurants mostly catering to Western tourists. On a stroll up from Gangkyi one is struck by the enormous number of little shops and stalls selling Tibetan jewelry, Buddhist statues, and thangka paintings, and both traditional Tibetan clothes and “Free Tibet” t-shirts.
Kashmiri merchants have also taken refuge here, since the low intensity civil war being waged in Kashmir has reduced the tourist biz in Srinigar to a comparative trickle. Kashmiri merchants are almost as prevalent as Tibetan ones; they sell Kashmiri paper machŽ ornaments and jewelry, and bat their long eyelashes at Israeli girls just out of the army. Not to be outdone some dashing young Tibetans newly arrived to India, sit perusing their books at Kunga’s (a.k.a. Nick’s), waiting to ask unsuspecting female travelers for help with their English, oh, and to fall for them and take them away from this awful place.
There are various tourist sets in Dharamsala, some interact and some stay relatively separate. The hippies still run in packs, and they are often trailed by local Indian tabla and flute makers. The serious Buddhist practitioners often visit the Dalai Lama’s monastery and then shoot straight up the mountain to a Buddhist center that teaches packed philosophy and meditation courses. Indian middle and upper class families from Delhi and Chandigarh and elsewhere often come up to McLeodganj to see what all the fuss is about. There are the consummate travelers, the college students on study abroad, the Vipassana meditators, the party animals up for the full moon rave out by the lake. And then there are many others that defy categorization, like the wild eyed blonde man who zooms around town in silver one-piece bodysuits looking like a space-aged Jetson, or the exceptionally tall tourist who walks around wearing an imposing grimace and carrying a seven-foot long metal trident as if an avatar of Shiva. On any given morning the Tibetan cafŽ, named after the JJI Exile Brothers Tibetan rock band, may be serving veggie omelets and French toast to a group of alternately dreadlocked and shaved Israeli and British hippies still all reeking with the pot and trying to maintain the feeling by rocking out on the table with silverware, or making pancakes (sadly, always without syrup) for a group of middle-aged Western Buddhists talking over the merits of the Theravada vs. Mahayana meditation techniques, and setting Tibetan porridge and butter tea in front of curious, giggling Punjabi newly-weds. McLeodganj may rival the Big Apple for density of international and linguistic diversity.
As a woman walking alone down one of the narrow lanes of shops, you are pure bank to any jobless Tibetan youth or bored Kashmiri charmers. “Hey you, you come inside, just for tea, please,” “Hey beautiful—you have a nice walk—like a model from fashion channel!,” “I like your hat, so you just come in for a look okay?” For months I dodged these guys, and basically never entered any shop — knowing all too well what lies in wait from my last long stint of research here in 2000. You just want to look at a few shawls, but suddenly there is tea being brought for you. Tea becomes the hard sell for more, either “You must come to dinner tonight, I have a chicken in the back that I will cook in special Kashmiri way. If you don’t come I will cry into my pillow all night,” or “You come to Srinigar with me. Come, you stay on my houseboat.” And then, every time you walk past such a shop, there is obligatory chatter with the owners — “You didn’t come for dinner. I wasted so much chicken. You owe me a dinner, so come tonight, okay? I will be very upset…” You begin to fantasize about big American stores where you are invisible—you can browse for hours and no one will look twice. You fantasize about price tags, and the happiness of not having to bargain. Bargaining can be painful; almost always you feel like a naive fool about to get completely ripped off, or you’re made to feel like a pukka asshole trying to rip off some poor shopkeeper. Or in the rare case when you feel you’ve gotten a fair price, you wish there had just been a price tag on the damn thing to save you all the trouble. In fact, as Mcleodganj gets bigger it is changing, and I realize that things have become a touch more anonymous than they were five years ago. I watch the grand opening of the first super-store, and I see the shopkeepers on the same lane sit and drink chai as their business drifts away. I watch as the swell of tourists renders other shopkeepers ambivalent and unfriendly. I remind myself to again be careful what I wish for… the intensity and insanity of Mcleodganj is its heart and soul. If it turns into a clean glorified shopping mall, I will cry into my pillow.
Besides, it’s easier now that I don’t live in the thick of it. All those years ago, I used to have to run the harassment gauntlet every day multiple times — an uphill climb that was more emotionally exhausting than physically challenging. Now that I live down in Gangkyi, I only have to enter the fray in McLeodganj when I’m craving gnocchis at Nick’s (a.k.a. Kunga’s) Italian Kitchen, veggie Japanese sushi at the Lung Ta, or gourmet pizza from the cafe run by the monks at the Dalai Lama’s home monastery. I only climb up if I need to buy herbal tea at the Osho shop, or exchange novels at the used bookstore. I only venture out of the eyeshot of the Library’s ever watchful guard dogs if I need to go up to McLeodganj for that special blend of cultures and aesthetics that makes it one of the most fascinating places in the world.
There are banana trees outside my window. The bunches of bananas have been growing at a steady pace since I arrived, and they are ready to eat. I buy fruit every other day from the vendor who sits in the sun at the gates of the CTA compound. Papayas, mangos, oranges, melons, even litchis. And yes, I’m still begrudgingly buying bananas from him. I make fruit salads for breakfast — cutting up fruit with my Swiss army knife, and leaving the rinds in a can outside to keep the fruit flies out of my kitchen. Every day as I eat my fruit salad I sit and look out the window at the bananas on the tree that hang like a bevy of green alien hands waving with the breeze. They have been ripe and ready for too long. Why doesn’t someone come and take them already? In this land of both extreme plenty and extreme poverty it seems sad that the bananas may rot away on the tree. I have lain awake a few times thinking of ways to get some of those smooth bunches. I would have to go out to the thin patch of backyard and try to pull down one of the lower branches. I balk at the thought; for the past few months I have been throwing all the spiders, earwigs, and scorpions I have caught in my bedroom straight down into that backyard. Hmmm.
One morning a few days ago, outside the fence on the narrow path that bisects the library and monastery, I saw a little Indian girl looking up at my bananas, which were gleaming in the rising sunlight. I recognized her mother as one of the women who sweeps up in the complex. Not beggars, but they are very poor. Chances are that the little girl was hungry. The woman had caught up to the girl, and then pulled her along away from the trees. She looked back a few times. I wish her a lifetime of endless bananas, and afterwards I begin hoping that the bananas will disappear into the night, on the back of someone whose belly needs it more than mine.
Poverty is a reliable traveling partner in India. Everywhere you go it is there with you, or at least haunting the outer edges of your line of vision. In India poverty is not often kept out of sight, squarely on its own side of the tracks, the way we tend to try to do in the States. Here poverty is the norm, not the exception, and it is usually staring you hard in the face, not unlike the passengers of local Indian buses that would rather unblinkingly watch you squirm with discomfort than pay attention to the passing farmland. To almost every visitor to India the constancy of poverty is depressing and distressing. What is one to think about the leperous beggars with no fingers? Or the women carrying babies with dirty bandages on their faces or hands? Or the naked infants crying with distended bellies as their mothers work on the side of the road breaking rocks? Even the packs of wild dogs, many mangy, and bloodied, with all their bluster, can look up at you with eyes brimming with little more than patient suffering.
The answer for many people has been to fling money at the problem. Literally. I have seen rich tourists throw money out the window, as if afraid that if they hand over the bills the dirty beggar might actually touch them. But, the urge to give is primarily selfish. The best way to get the beggar out of your sight is to give them money to leave you alone. Plus, as the taxi pulls away, and the tattered beggar is left in the dust, you get to feel good about having helped them out. But sadly, charity is not that easy. Many of the most aggressive and obvious beggars are part of a large scale racket. Often they are controlled by bosses who parcel out corners to those who look the most pathetic, and take the lion’s share of the loot for themselves. In Delhi nowadays bloodied bandages are the newest accessory; it was shocking at first, but now that I know the blood is either faked altogether or deliberately made, I tell them in Hindi exactly what I think of the charade, and I even roll my window down a crack to do so. In McLeodganj I’ve seen women pinch their babies so that they will scream and cry, as if hungry. Don’t get me wrong— many of these beggars are legitimately impoverished, but there’s no question that by giving to people in a racket, you are strengthening the racket, and making it economically viable to maim and abuse children into being more effective. Real generosity requires serious thought about the consequences of one’s donations.
On Saka Dawa, Tibetan Buddhists believe that any act of generosity will be rewarded thousands of times over with extra karmic merit. In Mcleodganj, on Saka Dawa, beggars line the streets in the hundreds to reap the benefits of the religious munificence. Many of these beggars are not locals, they have been bused in from all over the state. Some beggars actually rent buses to bring them in for the occasion. Buddhists have complex ideas about giving. They believe that generosity and non-attachment are crucial elements of a spiritual path that will alleviate one’s negative karma and eventually lead one towards enlightenment. There are stories about the Buddha in his previous lifetimes giving up his life or his body parts in order to help others.
I attended a Buddhist course at a center up in a secluded forest above McLeodganj. One participant noted that she wanted to be generous, but she felt also that to give to beggars fed into a culture of dependence. The Western monk told her that he had similar qualms, but that his priority was to open himself up to generosity, and therefore he always gives money to adult beggars.
I am reminded of a generous Buddhist pilgrim in Kushinagar who bought ice cream for the two dozen or so local children that had been haranguing her group for money; as she walked away feeling good about herself, a fight broke out between children as the ice cream was meted out unskillfully. Her good deed left not only a rumble in its wake, but also reinforced the lesson that the harassment of foreigners will be rewarded.
I recall another story told to me by a couple in Kushinagar who removed their young daughter from a Buddhist school which was getting regular visits from wealthy pilgrimage groups who would shower them with pencils, sweaters, and other goodies; they claimed that their daughter was being trained to think like a beggar. One day their daughter heard that another school was getting freebies, so she lied to her parents and snuck out to beg for her share of the booty. This couple clearly argued that charity is a double-edged sword, it can hinder more than it helps. If the freebies were costing their daughter her integrity, then the price was too heavy for them to pay.
So, what would Buddha do? I have no desire to answer that heavily charged question, but I think that the question is worth asking. The sutras attributed to the Buddha do emphasize generosity, but at the macro level the Buddha was committed to systematic change in thought and action. A moment of pleasure is fleeting, so is the taste of ice cream, and so is the feeling of self-righteousness that flares up in one’s smile after flicking five rupees at a leper. The laws of karma in Buddhism often stress that the karmic reward for generosity is dependent on the righteousness of the recipient. Despite the fact that caveat was likely a way to keep gifts flowing into the monastery, I take the lesson to heart that the giver must pay attention to the suitability of the gift. All gifts are not created equal.
I make larger donations to good-hearted and well-managed non-profits that will channel my contribution into projects working towards a systematic change for the better. In Kushinagar, there are many small village schools being run by local non-profits as a labor of love, and I have become an advocate for one of them. In Sarnath, the proprietor of the Jain Guest House and his wife have poured their time and energy into creating several educational village programs for those who would have otherwise been left in the dust. In Bodh Gaya there are many amazing non-profits including one designed to aid and rehabilitate lepers. That’s not to say that all non-profits actually think deeply about the full effects of their work. I have seen examples of non-profits and development work that hurts far more than it helps so it remains incumbent upon givers to pay attention to the suitability of the gift. Thou shalt not fling money!
And still I torture myself regularly with the knowledge that I’m doing very, very little good in a world such as the one we live in today. The little girl is probably still hungry, the bananas are still hanging there uneaten, I still sometimes lay awake at night, and that monk still rocks and hunches over a spell that doesn’t seem to be working.
Jessica Falcone is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She is currently spending a year in India to conduct research for her dissertation on the changing dynamics of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. This is Jessica’s fourth trip to India.