A Travellerspoint blog

Meeting His Holiness


What can I say? It's everything you'd imagine it to be and more. I'll try not to use too many more clichés.

Firstly, Pala found out I don't have a chuba--the traditional Tibetan dress outfit--and made me wear his. As it turns out, we're exactly the same size, and I felt really wonderful wearing it.


All of the alumni were invited as well, though only we "current batch" students could speak. We'd prepared five questions, and mine was #5--so I wasn't sure if I'd be able to ask it. But His Holiness seemed to have in his mind that we'd get five questions, and we did. We asked him about personal inspiration, achieving inner peace as a means towards world peace, and other topics I can't remember right now--but I eagerly look forward to seeing the recording of the meeting.

My question was, "Given that different religions have beliefs that are conceptually and practically incompatible with one another, how does one effectively adopt ideas and practices from different traditions into one's own life?" I don't want to say anything about what he said in response because several of us have been arguing that ever since. They say the Buddha would give multiple teachings simultaneously to people of different dispositions... so who knows?

In any case, he spent over 70% of the time while answering the question looking directly at me. That may have been the most intense gaze I've ever seen. But it's the kind of intensity you can hold, because His Holiness has a certain aura about him--incredible power but presented in the softest, most gentle and welcoming way possible. Later on we'll be meeting with His Holiness the Karmapa, a much younger man who's a similarly high lama and I look forward to comparing the two.

But for now... I MET THE DALAI LAMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Photo credit: Tenzin Choejor

Posted by cageissler 04:51 Comments (10)

Losar Pilgrimage, Part II

Tso Pema (Rewalsar) is my favorite town on the continent. For now.

The drive to Tso Pema was pretty epic, and unfortunately none of my pictures of the tea plantations really came out. Also, these pictures just don’t do justice to the scale of the terraced farms (for winter wheat and mustard greens in the winter/spring, and rice in the summer/fall, apparently). But maybe you’ll see why the Tibetans say the Indians are like mountain goats—anywhere that it’s possible to live, no matter how high up the mountain, there are people living. And their terraces, and shacks selling chai and Maggi (basically masala-flavored instant ramen).



I’m going to miss this place. But not the carsickness.

This picture was taken in a town whose name escapes me, not far from Tso Pema, and beautifully demonstrates the flexibility of the English language here in India.


I’d have to agree. This is the best Hair Staylist Saloon I’ve ever seen.

So, Tso Pema itself. Much like Dharamsala, in inner section (here the street around the sacred lake) is primarily Tibetan, while the outer section (the street that connects to the main road) is primarily Indian and has shops selling all kinds of practical things. Unlike Dharamsala, this is what you see from all the way down the valley as you approach:


That’s Guru Rinpoche (Sanskrit name: Padmasambhava. Other Tibetan name: Orgyen Pema Jugne), the tantric master who was brought to Tibet because, although the king at the time and the Indian teacher Shantarakshita really wanted to establish Buddhism in Tibet, the local demons/gods/spirits weren’t letting that happen. So they called in Guru Rinpoche, who used his powers and pacified the demons of Tibet, making the land safe for the Dharma. And he has crazy eyes:


The story goes that, before coming to Tibet, Guru Rinpoche and his consort, the Indian princess Mandarava, were staying somewhere around here when the local king, not a Buddhist, decided he didn’t trust them and ordered them executed. So they built a big pile of wood, poured oil on it, and tied up Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava. The flames roared up and lasted for several days. But when they died down, it became clear that the oil had turned to water, forming the lake, and inside the lake were the two executes, sitting unharmed in a giant lotus flower. Nobody gave them any trouble after that.

But that’s not the only story going on here. Tso Pema (tso = “lake,” pema = “padme” = “lotus”) is the Tibetan name, but the Indian name is Rewalsar. Here it is said in the Mahabharata that the five Pandiva brothers and their mother hid here while exiled from their kingdom, before taking it back. Nearby there’s another lake, arrow-shaped, which one of the brothers formed by shooting an arrow into the mountain when they were thirsty. There’s also a Sikh gurdwara (temple) here, though I’m not entirely sure why.

Isn’t that fascinating—three religions coming together at one lake? It leads to an interesting assortment of people doing kora (circumambulating) the lake, though the Tibetans have really built big in the town, and most of the pilgrims we saw were either Tibetan or Himalayan—especially Kinnauris, easily distinguished by the green bands on their hats.

Here’s a view of the lake from the base of the statue. The yellow rooves from right to left are a Kagyu monastery, a Nyingma monastery, and a small shrine. The red building on the other side of the lake is another Kagyu monastery, and the large white structure is the Sikh gurdwara. Out of the frame to the left there are two Hindu shrines—lavender purple and pastel blue, if memory serves, and an enormous new Nyingma monastery on the opposite hillside. When I visited that one the monks and craftspeople were busily adding the finishing touches, painting the gold on the decorations, etc.


The first place we visited was a large Hindu temple complex at the top of the mountain behind Guru Rinpoche. Our jeeps took us there, but it took us about the same length of time to walk down the stairs as to drive up the windy road:


Here’s the view from slightly below the temple. Tso Pema is off to the left, and the messy jumble of rocks and trees in the lower-left of the image is actually covered with prayer flags. That’s where we went.


It’s traditional to hang prayer flags on the third day of Losar, and this was only the first day, but the astrologers had said this was the more auspicious day. Who are we to disagree? Passang-la led the event by making a fire of juniper twigs over which he recited mantras and we passed our really long string of prayer flags (it was at least 70 feet once we’d tied everyone’s together). We wrote our names and those of others on the flags before hanging them to help direct some of the blessings that are still flying out to the gods as I write this.


It was really impressive how good these Tibetans are at hanging prayer flags—but they have practice enough to overcome their short stature. Phil had the honor of climbing the last pole to secure the end:


Another pretty view of the site and the surrounding mountain villages:


And this is the other side of that same spot, which is on top of/behind a small nunnery:


Inside the nunnery is a series of rooms in a cave where Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava are said to have meditated. Three chambers in, there’s a 12+ foot statue of the master himself which wasn’t really an appropriate place to photograph.

Nearby we stopped in to see the cave with what is supposed to be Guru Rinpoche’s footprint, tended by a yogin (dressed as a monk but with long dreadlocks; probably Kagyu or Nyingma) who’d been living there in a little hut for something like 18 years.

We walked around a nearby village and down the hill, passing this fellow and his goats:


Back at the hotel, I turned on the geyser (water heater, pronounced like “geezer”) for a shower. About an hour later, the tank was still warm… and there was a little lizard curled up for warmth. See his tail?


And guess what was on TV? The Lord of the Rings, dubbed into Hindi.


The next day was for exploring town, including the statue. Underneath was this beautiful new temple where workers were just putting the last few strokes of paint in preparation for the Dalai Lama’s visit to inaugurate the place on April 2. So here’s the main Buddha statue…


(Naia would have loved the three garudas on the ceiling, of which this is one)

The view out the door, with some ladders and such…


a few panels telling the story of the construction of the place…


… and the Gelukpa masters, with Je Tsongkhapa in the middle. Recognize the fellow right below him?


Later on, I met up with a friend, bought some puffed rice, and fed it to the fish that live in the lake:


[Insert musings about how symbolic this is of our shared state in samsara…]

The next day, driving back, we stopped at Dzongsar Shedra, the monastic university run by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, the Bhutanese-born rinpoche who’s the author of What Makes You not a Buddhist? and the producer of the first films made in Bhutan, The Cup and Samsara. The temple there is apparently the largest building in Himachal Pradesh. Kinda reminds me of how the Middlebury College Science Center was the largest building in Vermont until the new Vermont Teddy Bear Factory opened up.


Here’s a view of the grounds. There are three large cloister-like areas like this. The facilities are about as nice as at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, but that place has 70 nuns, while there are about 600 monks living here. Dzongsar’s other monastery nearby is my roommate Dimey’s home base, and he considers Dzongsar Kyentse one of his main gurus (even though Dimey is Shakya and Dzongsar is Kagyu. Funny how that works here.)


An American monk we got to know at Sarah gave us a nice tour, though I didn’t appreciate that place quite as much as I would ordinarily have—the mountain roads had me feeling a little queasy. I haven’t gotten carsick much since I finished elementary school, and the only time I remember feeling off in the last several years was a bumpy van ride with the fencing team on the way to winter NIWFAs. But these Himachali roads are a whole new level and part of me is glad to be staying in town for break.

We also stopped at this lovely Shiva temple on the way back because a festival was going on. Passang-la told us the story, though honestly I can’t remember it. What I do remember was greatly enjoying that this place was much more open and clean than most Hindu Temples we’d seen.


So… that’s all for now. I’m starting my 8-day retreat tomorrow and won’t have Internet access during that time. Feel free to comment, email me, etc., but I won’t respond until the end of next week at the earliest.

Posted by cageissler 02:38 Comments (6)

Losar Pilgrimage, Part I

Only a month late...

About this time last month (February) we undertook a pretty major trip—our “pilgrimage” in celebration of Losar, the Tibetan new year. Losar is traditionally a three-day extravaganza preceded by countless hours of frying kapse (which are still being eaten in many homes) and has three primary aspects: private family gatherings, public religious ceremonies, and large-scale drunken revelry.

This year, though, in commemoration of the current situation inside Tibet (the self-immolations, Chinese crackdowns, etc.), the CTA officially cancelled all celebrations—for the third year in a row. To paraphrase Tara-la, it’s as if the government cancelled Christmas, or at least all the decorations, parades, and other large spectacles, but religious events and small family gatherings still took place. Most of the Sarah students left campus to visit friends, family, home-base monasteries, and the like, but it was a pretty quiet affair.

Without families here in India to visit, we Emory folks experienced the other kind of Losar by going on pilgrimage (of sorts) to some sacred sites to the East of here in Himachal Pradesh. The straight-line distance was pretty small, but driving back from the farthest place we visited basically took all day—there are mountains in the way and the little roads have to do all kinds of snaking around them.

Also, to put a damper on things, Tara-la got sick our first night away, but under the leadership of Passang-la (General Secretary of Sarah College, aka the most competent person I know) and TAs Gordo and the other Tara, we made it just fine. As a bonus, Wendell, a New York-born fellow studying Buddhist Philosophy at Sarah (who just moved up the hill to IBD) came with us too. Here’s a general outline of the trip, as far as my memory allows:
- Day 1: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling. Watch cham dance at Sherab Ling Monastery, sleep at Sherab Ling’s guesthouse (a huge and rather fancy hotel by our standards)
- Day 2: hat ceremony at Sherab Ling, drive to Tso Pema
- Day 3: Visit Hindu temple, hang prayer flags, visit caves/nunnery at Tso Pema
- Day 4: Visit big Guru Rinpoche statue/temple, split up to explore town. Feed fish.
- Day 5: Drive home, stopping at Dzongsar Shedra and Shiva temple

So, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (“Jetsunma” is a title given to especially holy women; Tenzin Palmo received this a few years ago. Born in England into a Spiritualist household, she discovered Buddhism at a young age and came to India not long after the Tibetans themselves moved into exile. She proceeded to become a nun in the Drukpa Kagyu lineage (the second Westerner to become a Tibetan Buddhist nun) and spent 12 years in retreat in a cave (really a clay hut built into a hollowed-out bit of rock) way up the the mountains almost at the border with Tibet/China—she has various stories about almost dying from being snowed in and such which she’s tired of telling and doesn’t like to talk about much. After coming out she travelled around promoting women’s status in Buddhism, being famous, giving teachings, and raising funds for the nunnery she founded, Dongyu Gatsal Ling. The goal of this place is to revive the togdenma lineage, certain elite female meditators in the Drukpa Kagyu tradition; the male version has survived but the women’s line unfortunately died out. Though run by a Westerner, the nuns are primarily Tibetan—but since most Tibetans in exile aren’t that interested in becoming monastics these days, the nuns at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, like most young monks and nuns in India, are from the trans-Himalayan region (Spiti, Lahoul and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and even Bhutan and Nepal).

First we were taken on a tour by an Irish-born nun there. Here’s their new temple (“We have to have something to show off!” our guide said), currently under construction, with a peek inside the Tara mandala on the ceiling:



View from the roof of the two square retreat houses, one for long-term retreats (traditionally 3 years, sometimes longer), and one for shorter retreats (a few weeks or months). During that time the handful of nuns inside don’t come out and are given food through a little trapdoor thing with a door on each end, so they don’t ever see any outsiders. These are built with a little courtyard in the middle with the roof shaped so that they can see the sky but not any other people. Pretty intense.


Next to that are two round buildings where the ~70 nuns live.


There’s also a classroom building (with shrine room) and a guesthouse/office building where we were received. Except for the temple, all the buildings are built in this very non-Tibetan style—they were designed by some fancy European architects and incorporate all sorts of green building techniques. For the monsoon, overhanging rooves were incorporated as much as possible into the design so the nuns can go outside without getting wet. Anyway, thanks to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s fame in the West, this place got all the nice funds—most nunneries are significantly poorer than monasteries, since traditionally donors from Buddhist countries (rich Taiwanese largely fund the Tibetan community) give much more to monks than to nuns. So it’s good to see folks working on that.

Anyway this is the shrine room the nuns actually use. The central figure is an unusual choice—Prajnaparamita, the female buddha who is a personification of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (prajna = “wisom,” paramita = “perfection”). She’s flanked by Manjushri (with the sword, the manifestation of all the buddha’s wisdom) and Green Tara (compassionate action).


Our first Losar torma (butter-and-barley flour sculpture)!


The back wall was adorned with some incredible paintings of various (female) buddhas, bodhisattvas, and tantric deities, painted by the same Dutch thangka painter who occasionally visits the Tibetan Buddhist Center in Philly. Her name escapes me now, but for this she chose to use some non-traditional, almost pastel colors—and to include this nunnery in the landscape too!


We were also taken to see some of the thangkas that will eventually hang in the new temple but are currently under construction. Each one takes lots of people a very long time, and there were a lot of them. Here are a few samples:

Part of the Kagyu lineage:


Detail of some critters in the corner of one of the paintings:


Materials (stone-based pigments), with some scary-looking protector deities in the background:


And here’s one of classrooms we saw. Nice, no?


As for our audience with Tenzin Palmo—for me, that single-handedly made this entire semeser in India worthwhile. Someone asked a question about… I don’t remember quite what it was… and she responded by saying, more or less, “Look, if you want to get enlightened in this lifetime, it is possible, but you’ll need to dedicate all your time and energy to it and spend years and years in retreat. If not, be honest with yourself that you’re not going to get there, but there are still things you can do.” She proceeded to give a teaching on the Six Perfections (generosity, ethics, perseverance/effort, concentration, and wisdom) which was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Her direct and no-nonsense attitude were frankly quite refreshing, and her eyes were almost frightening in their intensity. But I agreed with every word she said.

So naturally I bought her CD, and some incense for my roommate:


That picture was taken in the car, and the tangerine and banana were given to us by some locals who came up to the car and started handing us fruit through the windows! They’d just come out of some kind of services at a Shiva temple, and the food was prashad, offerings to a deity that are blessed and given out to be distributed and enjoyed. I’m not too knowledgeable about Hinduism, but these were the most delicious fruits I’ve ever eaten.

Being stopped on the road so people can give you surprise sanctified fruit? I’m going to miss India…

But soon enough we weren’t in India anymore, because we were at Sherab Ling Monastery for the cham dances. Sherab Ling (“Wisdom-Place”), which is the seat of the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the highest Kagyu lamas and an emanation of Maitreya (I think), was built on land given by the Indian government for Tibetans to settle on. Claiming the land was haunted, the Tibetans refused to move in, so Tai Situ Rinpoche came along, pacified the problematic spirits, and built his monastery there in these gorgeous (and decidedly non-haunted, except by langurs—shy, white-colored, non-problem-causing monkeys; we were lucky enough to see one) pine forests. So here’s the stage, in the monastery courtyard in front of their temple, with a Tibetan child running around before the action starts:


The dance we witnessed was the Black Hat Dance of Guru Rinpoche, which is one of the slowest and most boring spectacles most of us had ever seen—but it was still fascinating to watch. This altar was set up in the middle of the courtyard with huge tormas and pointy thingamajigs on it and a giant mask-like image of Mahakala (a protector deity) inside. Two by two, dozens of monks danced out of the temple and circled around the altar for maybe two hours. With a ritual dagger in one hand and skull cup (made of plastic, not a skull!) in the other, they pulled all the negativities around and put them into the image and tormas in the middle:


Afterwards, they disassembled the structure and brought the pieces outside to burn, thus purifying all our problems from the last year so we won’t have them again this new year:


cham literally means “walk,” and that’s a more fitting description than “dance.” It was slow and methodical, with lots of circular stepping on one foot while moving around clockwise. Some of the younger monks found other ways to amuse themselves:



Also, outside, there was this Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa, the same kind as the one at Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha is said to have attained Enlightenment) with lots of mani prayer stones around it:


Inside the temple were, among other things, an enormous Buddha-statue and an impressive display of tormas:


As we were walking around, this Tibetan grandma came up to me and asked me to help her get change—it took some explaining since we didn’t really have a common language, but basically she wanted to put 10 rupees on the mandala (offering in front of the statue), but only had a 100 rupee note, and was too short to reach up for more bills. Interesting experience that was.

By the time we came out the monks were starting a Mahakala puja, complete with these trumpets.


Walking out, we passed the monks’ dormitories, which are unmistakable based on the clothes hanging out to dry:


After circumambulating 108 little chörtens in a nice long row along the hillside, we called it a day. One thing I’m really going to miss when I’m not in Tibet-land anymore is the lack of things to circumambulate. It’s a really nice thing to do—just walk around some holy object or place in a clockwise manner, often spinning prayer wheels set up along the way. It’s fun, calming, and a way to accumulate merit all at the same time!

The morning we left there was a ritual going on whose significance I still don’t understand. For the Tibetans gathered there, it was straightforward—another occasion to get blessings. Monks were going around handing out colored-paper packets of blessed pills that can be eaten, or put in little bags and worn, or hung up near a doorway to bless your home, etc. Meanwhile, Tai Situ Rinpoche was up there doing something with his hat


I’ve heard several different stories about what was going on. In one version, Tai Situ Rinpoche is, in the very moment in the picture above, going into his true form as Maitreya, though it takes a more subtle sort of awareness than most of us have to see it. In another version, there’s some spirit in his hat that needs to be tamed periodically. What both stories agree on is that it’s very important he keeps hold of the hat lest it fly away. Apparently in the past he (or his previous incarnation(s)) have let go and the hat has gone flying around the room and took a while to get back. Regardless which version is the “true” story, I did see the hat was carefully kept in a box with a lid, carefully brought out, given to Rinpoche, kept on his head for a few minutes, put back in the box, and secured with the lid.

Oh Tibetans.

Posted by cageissler 02:33 Comments (2)

Anticipated Absences

I'm going on retreat!

So by now you've noticed that my blogging output has seriously declined lately. Living with a family without Internet and with a two-year-old has been taking its toll. But I will catch up!

The biggest thing that has been occupying our minds lately has been going on break. As lovely as our families may be, we'll be leaving them this coming weekend and don't start classes again until next Wednesday. So what to do? Of the sixteen of us:

- Eight are flying to Kerala, far to the South, to cruise on houseboats, experience a very different region of India, and probably sweat a lot. Two separate groups are going, and one of the guys is bringing his group to visit some of his family friends who live around there
- Three are heading to Rajasthan, a desert region to southwest of here which is noted for its brightly colored clothing and buildings, a history of resistance to Mughal and British rule, and its camels. When I asked my roommate at Sarah where in India he'd like to go but hasn't yet, he said Rajasthan--to ride a camel.
- Two are flying to Kathmandu. Nepal!
- One is joining one of our TA's and heading a little bit North of here to go skiing/snowboarding. IN THE HIMALAYAS. I must admit to being more than a little jealous.
- One is travelling with her mother and another relative who are coming to visit.

As various groups were forming, I tried to put together a group to visit two major pilgrimage sites about 12 hours to the East of here by train--Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment) and Varanasi (the biggest Hindu pilgrimage city, located on the Ganges). But, unlike most years, nobody else signed on to this trip--and I wasn't willing to travel across India alone. Then someone happened to mention a program at the Tushita Meditation Center, located within walking distance up the mountain from here. I looked up their programs and decided to go for it!

I've never been on retreat before, but I'd definitely heard of Tushita before--they're probably the best-known and most highly-regarded retreat center for (primarily, I think) non-Tibetans looking to practice Tibetan Buddhism. The main retreat I'm going on is residential, meaning I'll be living there while studying and meditating on this:

But, since the times work out, I'll be gearing up for this with a two-day non-residential retreat on Shamatha (calm abiding) meditation, a foundational practice common to all Buddhist schools. So here's my schedule:

Sat-Sun, 3/24-25: Shamatha retreat
Mon-Tue, 3/26-27: Time off in McCleod
Wed-Wed, 3/28-4/4: Residential retreat
Thu, 4/5: Start classes (one day late; thank you Tara-la, Geshe-la et al. for letting me stay!)

So during that two-day period when I have nothing to do, I'm planning to catch up on the blogging I haven't been doing.

I'm still kind of amazed this all worked out. I was getting kind of worried and stressed about what to do when this opportunity just landed right in front of me. It's a chance to practice in a way I never have before and should be a fantastic time.

Posted by cageissler 05:04 Comments (2)

Mini-Lexical Note

Reason to love Tibetan #459405825230293

The Tibetan word for weather, nam-shi, is a composite of the words for "sky" (nam) and "personality" (shi-???).

te-ring nam-shi tsa-mo re
The sky-personality is warm today!

Posted by cageissler 03:04 Comments (4)

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