We plant trees. We come back later. Some have died, some are still standing… and some have spawned magical forests!
After five years away from my old hOMe of Dharamshala (a small but densely bustling town in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, which serves as the exile home for H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile), and hearing how much it had been overbuilt since i left in 2001, i had long felt a bit apprehensive about returning (sad to watch a flower wilt). But when i got word that HH would be teaching for a week on the Path of the Bodhisattva (revisiting the topic of the first teaching of his that i had ever attended, back in ’95 — the one that inspired Scarth and me to abort our round-the-world journey midway and stay here, to study and serve), that was all i needed to hear. Two long days of uniquely Indian travel later, i checked into one of the very last rooms available in the teeming town, just seconds before the monsoon clouds dumped an ocean on the streets, driving everyone but the cows indoors.
The deluge died down by dinner, and a five-minute walk (climb) later, i was ordering a “Tao of Pao” and a hot apple cider at KhanaNirvana and catching up with our old friend Samdup. It was a quietly magical homecoming.
Samdup is a Tibetan refugee in his early 30s, a former medical student in Tibet, whom we hired as a waiter in around ’98. He worked his way up to the management and we eventually turned the place over to him to run as his own, with the understanding that he would also continue some of the service programs of the Dharamshala Earthville Institute (DEVI), which we had based at KN and which, for me, were KN’s raison d’etre. As i walked up the three flights of steps to our café in the clouds, i was intensely curious about what i’d find behind the teal doors…
When i reached the entrance, there was Samdup, chatting with a customer from behind the BuddhaBar (our juice and smoothie bar that serves as a sort of cockpit for the KN mothership). He hadn’t checked his email, so my arrival caught him by surprise, and the way his busybody face blossomed into smile was precious. It struck me immediately that, while he and i always got on well, this felt like the happiest we’d ever been to see each other.
He joined me at my favorite corner booth while i tucked into my tofu, and told me that the years had taught him a new respect and appreciation for what is special about KN/DEVI and the value of what had been our unorthodox approach to running it. And, looking around, i could see what he meant: he has been stewarding the KN/DEVI vision like the devoted curator of a living exhibit, taking pride in the works he inherited, and rearranging a few things but mostly going out of his way to keep KN true to its origins. Healthy hanging plants, four coats of paint to try to match our elusive grape-chocolate shade on the walls, and a trip to Delhi to buy more of the same simple yet elegant black crockery. He continues our tradition of using only natural ingredients, even when he could’ve lowered his costs by using inferior stuff. Still the best burrito in Asia, and still under a buck and a half. Ali Farka Toure, Nina Simone, Buena Vista Social Club, and the Neville Brothers still rock the stereo, along with some well-chosen new stuff, and the vibe remains alive.
But what gave me the greatest joy was seeing the way our baby is still serving the community under Samdup’s care. DEVI’s “Sunday@Sunset” speaker series still brings former Tibetan prisoners of conscience to tell their stories every week, with Samdup translating into English and delivering the pitch for volunteer support at the end, to a standing-room-only audience. Documentaries on Tibet and other relevant topics air every Thursday (followed, surreally, by the World Cup). And the weekly open mic and jam nights still pack the house with the most eclectic mix of music and poetry one could ever hope to find in one place (see Pico Iyer’s colorful description), and though performers vary as much as the elevation in the Himalayas outside, the crowd is still warm and enthusiastically supportive of everyone.
I had a bit of slightly naughty fun: sitting incognito with the other guests, watching their lights come on, and hearing what they had to say. “This is exactly what i need right now,” said one smiling traveler as she and a few friends took their seats on the cushions next to me, fresh in from HH’s teachings. Scarth and Dara, you’ll be pleased to know that i heard regulars describing various menu items to newcomers as “divine,” “to die for,” “best one in India,” “as good as it gets in samsara,” and the like. I was tickled to overhear that i’m not the only one who regards KN’s Ferderferburger as a fully realized mahasiddha in the realm of veggie burgers. 😉 (If i sound like i’m bragging about the successes of my precocious child, please forgive me: i’m just bubbling over with the joy of witnessing that something we put so much work into has not only survived but is still being enjoyed richly, years later.)
When several different people, not knowing i had cofounded the place, described KN to me as a kind of magical connection hub where one inexplicably has just the right experiences at just the right time, all i could do was smile… 🙂
Indeed, though of course some things have changed, there is still magic at KhanaNirvana. From where i sit today, what surprises me the most is how surprised i am — why am i surprised to see that the place amazes and inspires as much as it does? We and our many angelic friends put a lot of heart into creating something special for those who come, and Samdup and his new crew are doing the same, so of course people will feel the love.
Even during the years when we slept (too briefly) on the floor every night and woke up to work another relentless all-day shift, i always felt the fruits of this labor of love were worth every moment… so imagine my joy when i saw so much of that beauty still shining and all there was for me to do was breathe and enjoy it… 🙂
Speaking of return on investment, i also had the great joy of catching up with some of my former students and seeing they’re doing great things. One is now producing DVDs of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamshala and around India. The other has started a full-service computer service center and has compiled a 200-page computer education textbook, and he proudly told me that, in the spirit of my volunteering to teach him and help him start his computer classes, he is paying it forward by donating hundreds of copies to refugee training centers around India. He has also trained countless teachers, who have gone on to train others… and, for refugees, that training can make the difference between being able to support their families or not. I was happy to see his success and especially his kindness to others. It was also instructive to see how the humble seeds Dave and Don and i planted a decade ago have grown into a forest of opportunities that have empowered hundreds of refugees to support themselves, their families and communities, and their culture. I wouldn’t have expected the ripple effects of our small projects to extend and expand the way they have, and it’s encouraging to see how such small efforts can lead to greater results when the causes and conditions come together.
Likewise, i was elated to learn that many of KN’s alumni have gone on to manifest dreams of their own, and some of them are also paying it forward by serving others. Tashi still teaches English everywhere he goes — as a volunteer, with no motivation other than to serve. Lobsang is running a magazine. Jampa now runs a nonprofit community center and teaches yoga. Others are also teaching or pursuing higher studies.
I never doubted the value of dedicating most of a decade of my life to volunteer service (it felt deeply right, so i never spent much time questioning it), but now, seeing how our humble work has inspired others to pay it forward, it’s a choice that feels even better. I also feel such gratitude for all the myriad forms of support we received (at just the right time, again and again) from countless local and global friends. My heartfelt thanks to you all…
I banged out a couple of tunes on someone’s “Givson” guitar at KN’s open mic night and was amused to discover later that i had been spotted by a recruiter. Samdup’s friend Shodar, a talented young Amdowa impresario, told me he was putting on a show at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) and he wanted me to be the opening act. He also wasn’t ashamed to mention that he wanted an inji face on the poster to draw a bigger crowd. Well, he wasn’t joking: even though i only played two songs in the two-hour event, my face took up about 1/3rd of the poster… i was embarassed, but it didn’t seem to scare anyone away, as the hall was sold out to about 2000 exceptionally enthusiastic refugees from Amdo (the northeast region of Tibet) and a few of their neighbors from the other provinces. It might’ve been gratifying that they cheered wildly for my songs, except for the impression that it probably didn’t matter at all what i did — they were all so easily pleased. But i had a great time, bad sound notwithstanding, and i felt some personal satisfaction playing one of the first songs to be born in my old “cave” at Samadhi House, just a few steps up the road from TIPA, in the forest, over a decade ago. The rest of the night was a motley variety show of traditional Tibetan folk songs and dances (great!), Shodar and his friends doing hip-hop dancing (precious!), and a few singers doing the heartfelt karaoke thing that somehow enjoys the status of legitimate stage performance in much of Asia.
Ah, there’s more that could be said: deeply transformational retreat time, meetings with dear friends old and new, another offer of land for an Earthville campus (25 hilltop acres of monastery land in Sikkim this time), and other adventures, but my time online is about to expire, so i’ll wrap it up for now.
The bottom line is that, after my retreating and advancing, i feel great — on balance, probably better than ever, and in a way that feels a little more more stable by virtue of being a little less dependent on what’s happening around and inside me…. Let’s see how that holds up back in the Land of the Free-for-a-Fee… 🙂