Wednesday, January 15, 2014

India Adventure: “Protector of the Land of Snows,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Last winter His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a 10 day teaching on Lam Rim, the path to enlightenment. The teaching was held at a monastery in the north Indian city of Dharmasala, near the Himalayas. This winter His Holiness continued teaching on Lam Rim at a second 10 day teaching. The teaching was held at Sera Monastery in the south Indian city of Bylakuppe. My mom and I got to attend this winter’s teaching.

I learned at the teaching that 100,000 exiled Tibetans live in India. Tibetans – including His Holiness - live in Dharmasala, the seat of the exiled Tibetan government. Tibetans also live in Bylakuppe, a large piece of land given to the Tibetans by the Indian government. Bylakuppe is a protected area where Tibetan Buddhist monks are educated, and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is preserved. Bylakuppe is closed to foreigners, so in order to attend this winter’s teaching at Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe my mom and I had to apply to the Indian government for Protected Area Permits (PAPs).

We received our PAPs a week before the teaching began. Thanks to the volunteers who run and study at Bangalore’s Tibetan Buddhist center, CKSL, we were able to secure transportation to Bylakuppe, lodging in a monks’ dormitory at Sera Monastery, and finalize our registration with the Lam Rim teaching committee.

CKSL building in Bangalore.
Prior to my mom’s arrival in Bangalore on December 23, I visited Dee at the CKSL office to finalize logistics, and ran around Bangalore to find and purchase the items we would need to bring with us to the teaching – meditation cushions and small rugs for our feet, spoons and bowls, bottled water, an electric water heater for baths, photocopies of our passports and Indian visas, toilet paper, appropriate clothing (long tops called kurtas to be worn with leggings), and batteries. We borrowed or already had blankets, FM radios, earbuds, flashlights, notebooks and pens, towels, bathroom kits, and hand sanitizer.

Dee sitting behind the computer monitor at the desk on the right, inside of CKSL.

Picking my mom up at the Bangalore airport. She's wearing a t-shirt with an image of Hindu god Shiva on it.
My mom and I traveled to Bylakuppe on December 24 in a hired minivan coordinated by Dee, with three very interesting Indian women and one of their young sons. Our arrival at Sera Monastery was delayed by the impending arrival of His Holiness’ vehicle. Tibetans lined the streets of Bylakuppe to watch for his vehicle and wave to him as he drove by.

People lining the roadside, waiting for His Holiness to arrive by car.
We got out of the traffic, and ate lunch at a small restaurant in Bylakuppe. It was my first Tibetan meal in India.

My first Tibetan meal in India.
Sera Monastery, where the teaching was held, is home to Tibetan Buddhist monks who live and study on the monastery’s campus. Young boys are brought to Sera Monastery, where they live in dormitories with their teachers, and attend schools on campus that teach traditional academic subjects. 

I love this group photo of the students. This calendar was hanging in the dorm room I stayed in.
We stayed in one of the dormitory quads with the monks, three CKSL members from Bangalore per room.

One floor of the dorm where we stayed with the monks. Each dorm room door is covered by a different fabric. Behind the fabric is a wood door.
 The room my mom, a young Indian woman named Kavita, and I stayed in belonged to two monks who moved out for the duration of our stay.

The dorm room my mom, Kavita and I shared. That's the monk's altar in the middle, surrounded by his religious texts. The only furniture in the room was that set of drawers, a table with shelves beneath it, and a deep shelf that ran along the top of one side of the wall.
Three of the monks who live in our dorm quad, who assisted with our stay. The monk in the front coordinated our stay at the dorm. They were so kind. This was taken in the room I stayed in.
The monks who gave up their rooms slept on mattresses laid out on the floor of the Tibetan Buddhist temple that was in the center of our dormitory quad. Each dormitory quad seemed to have its own temple in the middle of the quad.

Temple in the center of our dormitory quad.
Our daily breakfasts and dinners were prepared by monks who live in our quad. Meals were served to guests buffet style, underneath a tent located behind the temple. As a result of the tradition’s focus on compassion and specific Tibetan Buddhist texts’ prohibitions against meat eating, Tibetan Buddhism promotes vegetarianism. Meat is not prepared, sold, or consumed on the Sera Monastery campus. One of the texts we studied during the teaching said “O King, do not kill! For their life is what all sentient beings hold dearest.” 

Dining area in our dormitory quad.
His Holiness also discussed the importance of vegetarianism at great length during the teaching. He said he eats meat 2-3 times a week because he suffers from jaundice when he does not eat meat, and turns yellow like a golden buddha. He instructed that us to take vegetarian meals unless our health requires us to eat meat. He said that when Sera Monastery couldn’t explain what would happen to the hens that could no longer lay eggs (he suspected the hens could be killed by locals for meat,) His Holiness instructed the monastery to close the monastery’s egg farm.

Each dorm floor shares a bathroom containing two Indian style toilets, one sink, and two shower stalls that had overhead spouts with water that was heated by solar panels on the roof. (I never had warm water, but was thankful for the overhead spouts – I had assumed we’d be taking bucket showers.) We shared the bathroom on our floor with the monks who lived on our floor.

I spent many afternoons after the teaching had ended for the day, and before dinner, sitting in the middle of the quad, reading and watching the young boys play games. Living with the monks was one of my favorite parts of the teaching. One of the monks living in our quad is the subject of film An Unmistaken Child.

Dinner time for the monks who live at the quad. They sit in rows, and use their own bowls for their food. I took this photo from the place where I liked to sit, read, and watch the monks play and study.
We arrived in Bylakuppe on December 24, but the teaching did not start until Christmas Day. On the afternoon of the 24th all attendees were permitted into the teaching hall to reserve a place for their meditation cushion on the floor, ideally somewhere where they could see His Holiness’ throne, or one of the large TV screens.

First day in the teaching hall, people finding and reserving spots to sit for the next 10 days.

The end of the craziness, when almost everyone had left the teaching area. His Holiness' throne is on a raised stage in the far right corner of this photo.

A close up of His Holiness' throne.

Standing on the stage that was higher than the rest of the area in the teaching hall, where His Holiness sat in the throne at the very far back of the stage.
The teaching was held inside of a temple that was open on three sides. The monastery erected tents over the areas of the temple not covered by a roof, and laid a green plastic carpet over the entire ground space. His Holiness sat in the very front of the room, on a large wood gold painted throne, his body supported by bright yellow cushions.

The seating area in front of His Holiness’ throne was reserved for the Tibetan monks who study at Sera Monastery.

seating area in front of His Holiness.
His Holiness’ left and right sides were occupied by the lamas. (Lamas embody bodhisattvas. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an incarnate of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning ocean.)

The seating area further beyond the lamas, on His Holiness’ right side was occupied by monks. Tibetans and residents of the Himalayan region were seated next to Sera Monastery’s student monks.

“The foreigners” were seated to His Holiness’ left, behind the lamas seated on His Holiness’ direct left. We were organized by our native languages – so there was a section roped for English speakers, a section for Mongolians, Italians, Russians, Chinese, etc. The English speaking section was the largest. It was taken up by English speaking attendees from all over the world. There seemed to be few Americans present at the teaching.

The foreign monks and all of the nuns were interspersed with the Tibetan, Himalayan region, and foreigner attendees. For example one of the foreign monks, an American named Tenzin Legtsok who lives at Sera Monastery and teaches the Indian Tibetan Buddhists who study at CKSL, sat with the CKSL group in the section reserved for Indians/Hindi speakers.

Practically speaking, the monks and nuns could sit anywhere they wanted in the teaching hall because they all speak Tibetan and read Sanskrit. The Tibetan Buddhist teachings are all in Sanskrit. Some of the teachings have been translated into different languages, including English. In order to really study Tibetan Buddhism you need to be able to read Sanskrit and understand Tibetan.

The view of the stage from where I was sitting for the 10 days. If you see any professional photos that were taken at the teaching, then you might be able to see me because I was wearing a bright bright blue pullover jacket for most of the teaching.
Teaching attendees reserved their space on the ground In order to reserve your seat on the ground, you need to bring a large piece of cardboard, paper, or a piece of fabric, and tape to fasten it to the ground. That spot becomes your seat for the next 10 days of the teaching.

My mom and I sat next to a nice woman named Carolyn from Pleastantville, CA, and behind a contingent of Chinese Tibetan Buddhists and five Tibetan Buddhist Chinese nuns.

Each morning my mom and I would from the dorm down to the teaching hall, carrying our cushions and the small rugs we brought for our feet.

Wearing a kurta (long shirt), a typical outfit I wore during the teachings and when visiting temples. Here, I'm standing outside of a temple at Sera Monastery. I have 3 kurtas. This one is my favorite.
Some mornings we would stand in the back and watch His Holiness enter the teaching as part of a procession that included lamas and security personnel. Other times we stood along the path he took once he entered the teaching hall, to bow and watch him walk by, waving and smiling to the crowd. Other times we just sat in our seats and waited for him to assume his throne in the front of the room, and start the day’s teachings. He would begin at about 9am. Monks served us tea in the morning and again in the afternoon, and lunch while we remained seated in our spots. We took a 1.5 hour break for lunch in the middle of the day, and the teachings would wrap up each day around 3pm.

His Holiness had assigned the Lam Rim text for us to read before arriving at Sera Monastery. Lam Rim explains the path to enlightenment, and gives detailed instructions on how to attain enlightenment.
The monks distributed two texts about Lam Rim to each attendee on the first morning of the teaching. We reviewed these texts about the path to enlightenment from cover to cover over the course of the 10 days. Often he would read directly from the texts, flipping back and forth between pages.

These were holy books. They cannot be placed on the ground, cannot be stepped over, and must be stored in your home in special bags made of Tibetan fabric. I learned that is how you are supposed to treat all of your Tibetan Buddhist texts.

I also learned that there are different Buddhist traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, led by His Holiness, is practiced the world over, but particularly in India where Tibetan Buddhists in exile live, and in Tibet. It is known as Tibetan Buddhism or the Mahayana tradition. Other Buddhist traditions are practiced elsewhere, such as in Thailand and Sri Lanka. For example, my teacher at the Nairobi Buddhist temple, Bhante Wimala is from and went to a monastery in Sri Lanka, and is from a different Buddhist tradition. (Although His Holiness wrote the introduction for Bhante’s text.) His Holiness instructed us to engage in conversation with other religious traditions by inviting leaders of other traditions to visit Sera Monastery to learn from other religious traditions and promote harmony, instead of remaining isolated.

As the teachings went on, it became apparent to me that the teachings were primarily intended for the Tibetan monks present in the room. His Holiness faced forward almost the entire time, directing his words to the Sera Monastery students sitting in front of him, and his daily introductory daily remarks were mostly meant for their ears.

His Holiness spoke in Tibetan, except when wishing the foreigners a Happy New Year on the morning of January 1st. He said if we have compassion inside of us, then there will be compassion in the world.
His teachings were translated in real time by a team of translators whose translations were transmitted on various FM radio stations. Non-Tibetan speakers followed along using personal FM radios and earbuds.
This method of teaching was in stark contrast to the 5 day Lam Rim teaching my mom and I attended at Lehigh University in 2008, when His Holiness spoke in English with the aid of a translator who would help him recall some English words. The teaching at Sera Monastery was a fuller, more intimate experience but I enjoy hearing His Holiness look at you and speak in English.

Each morning His Holiness would begin by giving a talk directed at the Tibetan Buddhist monks focused on preserving, protecting, and promoting Tibetan Buddhism, which is the best tradition for teaching compassion. He said the monks are at Sera Monastery to reach enlightenment and buddhahood so they can aid sentient beings. They are not there for the food or alms. (Each of the monks at Sera Monastery has a financial sponsor. My mom and I sat near an older American woman who sponsors a monk in his early 40’s.)

His Holiness encouraged the monks and nuns to take their studies seriously, have the proper aim of attaining enlightenment and not of personal financial gain, how to identify and find a qualified teacher, and the importance of exposing fake teachers to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He referenced a statue of an emaciated Buddha that he saw in Lahore. He keeps an image of the statue to remind himself to remain committed to his practice. Being a monk isn’t about taking it easy and wearing a monk’s robes. You should feel ashamed and embarrassed if you go against your practice and vows. We are all our own masters. No one can do the work for you. Buddha didn’t lead sentient beings to enlightenment himself, but through his teachings.

He stressed the importance of listening, studying, reflecting, and meditating upon the texts as an entire practice, and not doing just some of those four instructions. He said that it’s also not enough for lay people to do the mantras, visit monasteries, and do the circumambulations. We must all do those four instructions. He instructed the monks to train through debating with each other (an integral part of the Tibetan Buddhism 19-20 year training course, which we observed during the last two days of the teaching), teaching, and writing.

We would then open our texts and resume our studies. He often read aloud, quite rapidly, from the texts. We had a lot of material to cover. Also, monks and nuns must memorize all of their religious texts. Hearing His Holiness read the texts aloud is very important. However His Holiness instructed us not to read the texts fast when studying – we must concentrate on, and contemplate the text as we read it. He also said that just taking a quote from a text won’t work – we need to study the entire text.

The goal is to attain enlightenment and buddhahood so we can end the suffering of sentient beings. You can become enlightened by cherishing others. Cherishing the self keeps you in samsara (suffering) and your health suffers. The more you are dedicated to others’ wellbeing and giving your own virtues and happiness to others, the closer you become to becoming a fully enlightened being.

He taught that being born in this life with the ability to practice is due to the merits we acquired in our past life. A human rebirth only comes once in a million rebirths. The odds of being born a human being are like the odds of a turtle rising up to the surface of the ocean and putting its head through a ring. For all of the times we have been reborn, we may have been re-born as a human only once or twice. We must consider how hard it will be to have another human rebirth. We must consider how precious this rebirth is, as one of our practices. Meditate on how joyful it is to have been reborn human with the results of virtue, and the potential to accumulate virtuous and sinful karma during this rebirth.

His Holiness’ teachings focused on attaining a higher rebirth and definite goodness, by attaining freedom from conflicted emotions and samsara, through not grasping at the self and ridding yourself of all distorted views. He said the texts contain instructions on how to practice, including the texts we were studying during the teaching.

Meditating is an antidote to conflicted emotions, and is necessary to attain further realizations. When we meditate, the mind’s concentration is like mountains. He instructed us on how to generate a neutral, clear mind through meditation, by focusing on the present (as opposed to past or future) mind.

Focus on your breath as it goes in and out, and count each breath. You’re your eyes on the tip of your nose. Don’t keep your head raised too high, in pride. Keep your back straight, your nose in alignment with your navel. The tip of your tongue should touch the top of your mouth. Your hands should be folded, with your thumbs pressing into your body. Breathe softly, in and out, to calm your mind, until your mind is settled. Then go into meditation.  Imagine a small buddha image sitting at the height of your forehead. This can be the object of your meditation, and can help you improve your focus. Don’t make the image too big or colorful, or it will distract your mind. 

If you get distracted then bring yourself back to mindfulness by being watchful, and thinking about the object again and again. If you cannot then stop, wash your face, and go to a place where a cold wind is blowing. Or, if you get distracted by excitement then focus on samsara, impermanence, and the lower realms. You can also focus on the qualities of the three jewels, or imagine a pink ball of light that begins at your navel and rises up through your body, eventually merging with space. Once you can focus on the image of the buddha for some time, then you can do further meditation. He said you generate what is in your mental stream, so in order to generate a more compassionate world, meditate on compassion. Masters of meditation will see visions of the bodhisattvas and buddhas.

His Holiness talked a lot about preparing for our deaths. One of the texts we were studying said “maintaining the idea that you will not die is the source of all misery.” Instead of trying to prolong life, which is the cause of many problems, doctors should promote living peacefully. He said that each day, we should be aware that we could die that very day. He goes through his death process five times each day, to prepare himself for the moment of his death. If you can retain thoughts of emptiness at the moment of your death instead of rehashing wrongful deeds, then you will have a better rebirth. You must really train your mind through studying and understanding the text, so you are prepared for death.

He told us that even if he is our guru, we cannot go with him when he dies. One of the texts said “friends and relatives are like leaves that will be blown away by the wind.” His Holiness stressed the importance of separating our paths from our bodies. One of the texts says “if all buddhas and solitary realizers and Buddha’s listeners as well must give up their physical bodies, what is to be said of ordinary beings?”

When he fled from Tibet in 1959 he was unable to take the clothes of the former Dalai Lamas, or the gifts that had been given to him. He said what helps in the next life are the virtues we’ve left, which we should acquaint ourselves with daily. Don’t wait until you grow old to begin to prepare yourself for death.
He also instructed us not to form attachments to personal belongings. I often think of the words my friend Amanda Harrowfield’s spoke to me when her grandfather died and she was going to visit his house to clean – we come into the world without possessions, and we leave without them. As one of our texts said “I am not describing the benefits of giving. I am explaining the drawbacks of retaining.”

His Holiness talked about the “I”. He said that the “I” seems to exist interdependent from our minds and bodies, and that things are designated by names. That is the object of negation, which we must reject. These things, designated by names, do not exist. Consider that “I” cannot exist without the body, or the mind, or both the body and the mind because when we say “my body” we are using two words, including the “I”. So the “I” is not separate from “body”. But when the body dies, we do not die with the body. We experience rebirth. Hence “I” does not exist by itself. There is no “I”, no “self”. This is dependent origination. If you believe that “I” exists, then you will be grasping at self. His Holiness instructed us to meditate on selflessness.
Once you have realized the emptiness of particular objects and that objects don’t have independent existences, then you’ll see that what you see in one particular object is true for all objects, including yourself. You aren’t your mind, body, or even “I”, separate from your mind and body. Clinging to this illusion of “I” causes a lot of suffering and samsara. It’s foolish not to see your fault in this, and let it go.

His Holiness discussed the importance of the three jewels, and understanding the Buddha’s teachings through our own experiences and those of our teachers. Teachers are necessary to bring us closer to enlightenment by leading us on the right path, and preventing us from falling into negative rebirths and challenges such as illnesses in this rebirth. You should offer your teacher the best of what you have, praise the qualities of your teacher, listen to your teacher, and offer your teacher your help.

His Holiness talked a lot about compassion. Intermediate beings are concerned with personal peace alone. Great beings are concerned with eradicating suffering borne by others. Things come from compatible causes, so if you help others then you will experience happiness. The reverse is also true regarding harming others. He said the path to enlightenment explained in Lam Rim is the development of altruism, or bodhichitta, and the cessation of grasping at the self. In particular, His Holiness discussed the importance of treating each sentient being as you would your mother. Having had so many rebirths, it is possible that every sentient being alive today was once your mother. Meditate on all of the wonderful things a mother does for her offspring, in order to cherish and bring happiness to others.

He also said that a person isn’t our enemy – our afflicted emotions are our enemies. Rid yourself of your afflicted emotions and you won’t have any enemies. Reflect upon “may I be the cause that brings happiness to all sentient beings.” Whatever happiness I have in this life is due to other sentient beings. Lord Buddha is always working for others, and he’s happier than all of us. When exhaling breath through your nose, send benefits to all sentient beings.

At the conclusion of the 9th day of the teaching His Holiness told us “the most important thing having received these teachings is to practice.” I’ve received these teachings, and now I’ve passed them on to you.
I visited Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche's home several times while at Sera Monastery. His beautiful house is located a short walk away from the teaching location. He did not sleep at all for 40 years because he was fulfilling his commitment to end the suffering of all sentient beings, and liberate animals. He now sleeps for 2 hours each night. He blessed me on two occasions. One afternoon he instructed us to pay close attention to His Holiness’ words, but not to worry if we don’t understand all of it. Some of His Holiness’ teachings may resurface and make sense to us in our next lives. His compassion was much appreciated because the teachings were hard. The first two days I squirmed on my meditation cushion. After that I was able to sit in one of two positions for the duration of the day.

I was also blessed by a reincarnation of one of His Holiness’ teachers, H.E. Ling Rinpoche, who as a result of a bad accident is in a wheel chair. When you are blessed you are given a blessing string that you then loop around your neck or wrist.

Lama H.E. Ling Rinpoche blessing people.
In addition to blessings I performed circumambulations around temples and Rinpoche’s house, attended three pujas, explored the Sera Monastery temples, celebrated New Years Eve with a puja for my favorite deity, Tara, led by a young American monk, Tenzin Namjong.

New Year's Eve. We sat on the mattresses with Tenzin Namjong who led the puja. Statues of Tara are in the middle, with the candles.
I also got to meet and talk with a few monks and nuns, event photographers Neal (his photos from the teaching are on this page) and Bill Cane (his photos here), see a Sri Lankan movie star who played Buddha in a film we watched one afternoon when His Holiness left the teaching hall early due to illness, meet a former monk who used to live with his sponsor in NYC, dedicate butter lamps, visit the Golden Temple, and go for a long run along the road leading to Sera Monastery, dressed conservatively.

Spinning the prayer wheels at the Golden Temple, releasing the mantras (prayers) contained within for His Holiness.

Walking around the stupas at the Golden Temple with my mom, Dee, and Kavita.
Inside of the teaching hall after the teaching had ended and His Holiness had departed Sera Monastery, and I was allowed to bring my camera inside.

The monk's main entrance to the teaching hall. The flags on the right are for Tibet, and the teaching.

Exiting a puja held at the temple in the center of the dorm quad next to our dorm quad. A decent view of what the Sera Monastery campus looks like.

The streets of Sera Monastery.
Inside one of the temples at Sera Monastery. Each temple has a throne for His Holiness. that's the throne in this temple, in the middle of the photo.

View from inside of a temple, standing near the front. The temples are very deep/long - it's a bit of a walk from the entrance/exit doors at the back to the front of the temple.

His Holiness' throne in the temple nearby to the butter lamps booth.

Monks performing a puja inside a temple.

A former monk my mom and I met at the teaching, my mom and I in front of a temple on the night that people walked around Sera Monastery campus carrying candles, after the puja above.

His Holiness' throne inside of another temple.

Singing songs from a prayer book at one of the pujas. A woman nearby kindly let Kavita and I read over her shoulder.

So beautiful. Inside of a temple.
One of my favorite things was observing the compassion exhibited by the monks of Sera Monastery. The dorm quad where we stayed has a few resident street dogs and one stubby legged, long bodied puppy. I watched the monks lovingly pet and care for the dogs and puppy.

A Tibetan girl and monk with the puppy, in the dorm quad. This may be my favorite photo from the teaching.
The streets within Sera Monastery are mostly paved, but relatively narrow considering the large number of visitors present for the teaching. One afternoon a car drove up behind me as I walked along one of the streets. I moved over to the side of the street, out of danger but the monk walking behind me still firmly and silently held onto my arm and steered me to assured safety.

I also saw a young boy dressed in robes embrace an older monk, and another older monk carrying a young boy also dressed in robes, in his arms. The teachers who live in the dorm quad we stayed in have 4 students each. One student shares a room with his teacher, and the other students live in nearby rooms. The people I got to know at the teaching were so incredibly kind. Sera Monastery felt like home (even though women had to leave campus before January 6, three days after the teaching ended, and 3 days after His Holiness departed from Sera Monastery.)

Waiting for His Holiness' car to pass by. The white scarves are offerings.

His Holiness is in the front seat. So great to be so close, as he left.
The 10th day of the teaching was reserved for the Tibetan Buddhist initiation ceremony. I participated in the initiation. Attendees were invited to take their Tibetan Buddhist vows, and His Holiness offered us refuge. People who took their vows indicated that they had the right motivation – they won’t harm any sentient beings, and they will seek buddhahood not for themselves but to help all sentient beings. They agreed it is worthwhile to cultivate Bodichitta (the understanding of emptiness) even if it takes eons, and that they will meditate for a minute a day on the benefit of becoming a bodhisattva for the benefit of all beings. There are so many other sentient beings, which are more important than us.

The very last thing His Holiness said on the 10th day was addressed to the monks sitting in front of his throne. He said he wanted to thank the westerners who by their presence aren’t supporting Tibet, but justice.
Being a Tibetan Buddhist means you have taken refuge with a teacher, study the dharma, and participate in a sangha, a group of dharma students. Buddha said a teacher cannot teach a person until that person has come to the teacher and asked for teachings. If you are traveling to India then look up the Introduction to Buddhism courses offered at the Tushita Buddhism Center in Dharmasala, and the Root Institute in Bodgaya. Also look into Deer Park, located outside of Dharmasala, and Kopan Monastery in Nepal.

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