After the intensity of our inner and outer experiences of recent weeks, my friend Artyom and i were ready for a holiday. We hired a jeep to Sikkim, had good talks and good momos, and then he caught a jeep eastward to Rumtek Monastery (the exile HQ of the previous Karmapa, though the Indian government still won’t allow the current incarnation to take his seat there, or even visit, for fear that China would be none too pleased) and i caught a series of local share jeeps northwest to Ravangla, one of several towns in a breathtaking cluster of centuries-old mountaintop settlements worthy of the mythic moniker of “Shangri-la.”
After a magical, nearly dead-silent day of rest and reflection in a cabin on a hill above Ravangla, near Kewzing, i hitched a ride onward to Gyelzing with some grad students from Gangtok who were conducting a state-sponsored survey of all of Sikkim’s schools to assess their material needs so the state government can fulfill them. Just like that. This many pens, that many books, here ya go. (Wow. I thought India was supposed to be a “poor” country and the US was supposed to be a “rich” one, so why do so many of my teacher friends in Oakland have to buy their own chalk out of pocket?) The inquisitive students asked me, “What is the greatest problem facing America right now?” I answered right away, “George Bush,” which earned me a high five from Manu, the Poli Sci major in the passenger seat. (No offense intended to anyone who might feel aligned with him; i’m not a partisan, but i do place a higher value the lives of others and healthy international relations than this president has demonstrated, and i do view his actions as a grave threat to the peace and prosperity of the US and the world.) After giving it moment’s thought, though, i nominated another candidate: “selfishness.”
Speaking of Dubya, he just arrived in India for his first-ever visit to the subcontinent, in search of a face-saving way for the figureheads of both countries to gain domestic and international political capital by coming to an “agreement” about the nookyaler plans that India will pursue whether “the Decider” likes it or not. There were tens of thousands of Indians on hand in Delhi to protest the arrival of the man some referred to as “the world’s greatest terrorist,” and our beloved Arundhati Roy is all over the TV (even BBC World felt it necessary to cut her off repeatedly and change the subject when she made her case compellingly). Today, around 150,000 protested in Delhi, and i’ve been overhearing people criticizing Mr. Bush high and low in West Bengal and Sikkim as well. A dose of comic relief came today , however, when i read in the Kolkata paper that officials from the US Library of Congress attempted to buy some of the protesters’ signs and T-shirts for documentary purposes…
The talk of Dubya and selfishness led to a conversation about the role of educational institutions in preserving, creating, and shaping culture. I thought of the inspiring two-hour talk i heard the Dalai Lama give in Sarnath just a couple of weeks ago, addressing Tibetan and Indian academics, in which he called for a radical revision of the traditional monastic curriculum. It’s not enough to study the traditional Tibetan Buddhist canon, said the envelope-pushing reformer: monastic students must familiarize themselves with the entire body of Buddhist literature, from the Pali and Sanskrit texts to the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and other iterations… and, due to the irreversibly globalizing nature of the world of today, monks and nuns must also study at least the basics of the various spiritual traditions of the world as well as western philosophy, the natural sciences, computers, environmental issues, and social activism… and the monasteries, nunneries, and other Tibetan educational institutions must reinvent themselves to serve these updated objectives. If only the rest of the world’s spiritual leaders felt the same way… (Disclaimer: My Tibetan is rather shoddy, so i hope i’m conveying his message accurately enough. I did ask around to double-check, so i’m fairly confident in what i’ve written here, but in case of any errors, i apologize.)
Interconnectedness vignette: I spent Losar (Tibetan New Year) afternoon at Pemayangtse Gompa (trans: Sublime Lotus Monastery), an 18th-century marvel of otherworldly art and architecture near the remote village of Pelling in West Sikkim. Most of the monks were knackered from two solid days of tantric cham dancing in heavy, hot, god-monster costumes, but when i leapt to help one still-effervescent lama move a butter-lamp table, i discovered he teaches about Buddhism in my alma mater’s Nepal program, which (unbeknownst to me until this moment) had transplanted itself from Nepal proper to Kalimpong a few years back when the so-called “Maoist” violence in Nepal escalated to a civil war. But the world wasn’t quite small enough yet. Standing behind me when i asked this lama how to find Zangdok Pelri, Guru Rinpoche‘s Copper-Colored Paradise, was a friendly South African computer programmer (the first Western face i’d seen in a couple of days) who, it turns out, used to take classes at the DrumCafé in Cape Town, which was founded by relatives of brother Guy Lieberman, who was the person through whom i originally met Leigh, who introduced us to Ani Sonam La… and he knew Guy’s uncle Steve Barnett, who had joined us for one of our programs in Dharamshala. Yep, that’s our global village. 🙂
And so ends this visit to India. Whatever may come of the possibilities that have emerged, i’m immensely grateful for my time here. So many reminders of simple wisdom too easily forgotten when life speeds up… and some new learning that i can already feel doing its thing in me… opening, softening, humbling, strengthening, forging, inspiring…
Thanks for being with me on the journey.
PS – New Bollywood fad: guys wearing long black fishnet kurta shirts over vests and trousers… wow…