Tuesday, March 4, 2014

India Adventure: Introduction to Buddhism with Venerable Tenzin Legtsok

Introduction to Buddhism students and teachers Venerable Tenzin Legtsok and Richard.
I am writing from an overnight train bound for Bodhgaya. My next Buddhism course begins tomorrow, March 5.

When I last wrote, it was February 17 and I was about to start an Introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita Tibetan Mahayana Meditation Retreat Centre, in Dharamsala. I had just left Thosamling Institute for International Buddhist Women. While there I learned that my roommate from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s winter teaching, Kavita, would also be taking the Introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita.

Kavita and I reunited in downtown Dharamsala, and shared a taxi from the center of town to Tushita’s campus to check in for the course. We had to exit the taxi on the road halfway to Tushita because the taxi couldn’t make it up the snow covered mountain road. There were probably 3 inches of snow on the ground, leftover from the recent snowfalls.

Although the Root Institute was more than halfway through its tourist season, Tushita was just kicking off its tourist season with our course. The Root Institute in Bodhgaya is at a much lower altitude, where heat becomes a problem in mid-March. Conversely Tushita is at a high altitude where snowfall, low temperatures, and a lack of indoor heating make it difficult to begin courses before mid-February.

When I checked into Tushita for the start of the course, I handed over all of my electronic devices (laptop, camera, cell phone) for storage, and agreed to remain in silence for the duration of the course. I was also assigned to a 7 bed all-female dorm room, and picked up a thick comforter for my bed.

The course began that evening with a teaching session led by our teacher, American monk Venerable Tenzin Legtsok. I met Venerable Legtsok at His Holiness’ winter teaching, and had really been looking forward to studying with him at Tushita. He has been living and studying at Sera Monastery, where His Holiness taught and where I stayed this winter, for the past 10 years. He teaches at CKSL in Bangalore, where my friend Dee is a student and volunteer. He does a 3 week personal retreat at Tushita each winter, so was teaching the Introduction to Buddhism course before going into retreat.

There were about 49 students in the course, which is a small course for Tushita – likely having something to do with the cold, wet weather in Dharamsala. Most of the students were in their 20’s, new to Buddhism and meditation, and were backpacking through India. We represented a wide range of countries. Hungary, Australia, Denmark, Argentina, the Netherlands, Brazil, Belgium, Slovakia, Germany, Italy, and Spain were each represented by one student. There were 5 students from Poland, 2 from England, 2 from Israel, 2 from Chile, 5 from the US including me, 6 from India, and 2 students from France. I didn’t get the nationality for one student.

Our mornings started with a pre-breakfast meditation session led by Richard, a meditation teacher from Holland who lives and teaches at Tushita. He was so kind and compassionate. He teaches 5,000 – 6,000 students a year. Amazing. In addition to leading the meditation sessions during some Tushita courses, he also leads a daily 9:30am meditation session at Tushita, which is open to the public.

After breakfast we had a 2 hour teaching session followed by a meditation session, taught and led by Venerable Legtsok. We then had a yoga class taught by Richard, followed by lunch. After lunch we met with our pre-assigned discussion groups, composed of about 6 students per group, to discuss pre-assigned topics related to the teachings. We then had a one and a half hour teaching taught by Venerable Legtsok that ended with a meditation session, then dinner, and then a guided meditation led by Richard.

We had a different schedule for the remaining 3 days of the course. On the 8th and 9th days we meditated all day. The day was broken up into 45 minute sessions, with each session focused on a different topic that we had covered in the course: the nature of the mind, continuity of awareness, death, karma, samsara, the purification process, attachment, anger, equanimity, seven-fold cause and effect, and emptiness.

Before sunrise on the 9th day those of us who were interested participated in a ceremony led by Venerable Legstok in which we took and agreed to keep the Bodhicitta vows for the next 24 hours. On the 10th day Richard led a session about how to bring meditation into your daily life, and Venerable Legtsok led a session about how to apply Buddhist principles to your life.

The course ended with a delicious picnic lunch, coordinated by Tushita’s wonderful spiritual program director, a German nun named Venerable Coonpen. (I know I spelled her name incorrectly, but don't know the proper spelling.) Tushita’s 3 dogs joined us for the picnic. We were observed by Tushita’s resident monkeys, who were a constant source of entertainment during the course. One of Tushita’s volunteers took a bunch of photos for us and put them on Facebook.

I had planned to take a 3-4 bus ride from Dharamsala to Bir Colony, after lunch, so that I could attend another Buddhism course, The Joy of Living – Level 1, that began the following day at Deer Park Institute in Bir Colony. I made the difficult decision to skip the course, and stay in Dharamsala so that I could visit the doctor recommended by Tushita the following morning. As an added bonus, I was able to attend the informal dinner party that Kavita had organized for the students from the course. It was held that night at the hotel where she works, in Dharamsala. Now that we were no longer in silence, I was able to talk with Martha, who it turns out not only lives in the same small town I used to live in outside of Washington, DC but also grew up in the same hometown that I did. Hilariously small world.

Before going to dinner, I checked my email for the first time in 10 days. I had a message from Shilpa, my friend who volunteers for CUPA in Bangalore, letting me know that the street dog she and I had been trying to catch in Bangalore, with the string embedded in its neck, had been caught by the CUPA dog catching team. Leo, as Shilpa and I had named him, had surgery on his neck. In addition to the string, the veterinarian found maggot eggs inside of the wound. Leo would have died of infection soon, if CUPA hadn’t caught him. I will share news about Leo as I receive it from Shilpa. Please send him your thoughts.

After dinner with Kavita, Martha, and other students from the course, I went back to Tushita and spent the night there. The following day I walked down to the Tibetan Delek Hospital. I sat in the hospital waiting room with monks, nuns, and Tibetans, looking out the door of the hospital to the beautiful Himalayan mountains. As far as doctor appointments go, it was a great day. I received medical care from a great team of Tibetan and Indian staff members who spoke with me, tested me, and after reviewing my test results assured me I was not sick.

Patients first see the doctor, and then leave their samples with the lab staff. Patients then wait several hours before they can pick up their test results from the lab, and have a follow up visit with the doctor. I decided to spend those few hours at the nearby Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. The library has one of the world’s largest collections of original Tibetan sacred texts and prayers, books about Tibet, as well as Indian culture and architecture.

On my way to the library, I stopped off at a cell phone shop to add pre-paid airtime to my cell phone. I wound up sitting on a stool inside of the closet-sized shop, chatting with the staff member, Sanjay, and another customer for at least a half hour. Sanjay is Indian, married to a Tibetan woman, with a 4 and a half year old son who is learning to speak Tibetan, Hindi, and English, and attends a Tibetan school. The other customer works for the Tibetan Parliament, the Tibetan government in exile. The government offices are just next to the Tibetan Delek Hospital and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. He taught me a lot about the Tibetan government and culture. He taught me that some of the Tibetan Parliament’s seats are held by Tibetans living in exile in North America and Europe, and that some of the seats are reserved for representatives from the various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, to ensure each tradition is equally represented in the Tibetan Parliament. He invited me to get in touch when I return to Dharamsala in a few weeks and the Tibetan Parliament is back in session.  

The Tibetan government buildings and the library are beautiful. The area was quiet, now that the Tibetan Parliament is out of session and the tourist season hasn’t quite begun in Dharamsala. It was peaceful.
After visiting Delak Hospital I walked to the nearby Men-Tsee-Khang Tibetan medical clinic to be seen by a doctor. I first walked into the shop where a wide variety of over the counter Men-Tsee-Khang products are sold, including skin creams and teas. The shop’s staff, upon learning about my ailments, recommended I visit the nearby clinic and go to room #2. I sat down in a chair outside of room #2, which according to the sign above the door belonged to Dr. (Mrs.) Y.K. Dorjee. The other 2 chairs outside of room #2 were occupied by 2 monks who were waiting to see the doctor. The older monk was a teacher who had fled Tibet in the same year as His Holiness, when he was only 6 months old. The monk beside the teacher was one of his students, and looked very sick. Someone invited me to follow the teacher and his student into room #2, so I wound up sitting in the doctor’s room observing Dr. Y.K. Dorjee diagnose some patients, before I met with her. She thought I was there with the monks, and a nun who came in after the monks to see the doctor, thought I was one of the doctor’s students. It was hilarious, and made for a very enjoyable visit.

Dr. Y.K. Dorjee was wonderful. She diagnosed me by feeling my wrists (that’s how Tibetan herbal medicine doctors diagnose patients), gave me some great advice, and wrote me a prescription for some Tibetan herbs. Long story short – my body doesn’t like the food in India, and as a result isn’t absorbing nutrients from the food. Dr. Dorjee shared a Tibetan parable with me, which says that if you are sick, then your body will get no more out of a gold brick dropped into a river as it would get out of a stone brick. She and I had a really great talk. I later learned that she recently returned from a trip to the US where she visited many of the cities where Tibetans live, and saw many, many patients. I feel so fortunate that I got to see her in Dharamsala. While you wouldn’t think that going to 2 hospitals in 1 day would be fun, it was actually a special day. I feel so fortunate that I got to explore both western and traditional Tibetan medicine in Dharamsala – and got confirmation that I’m not actually sick. (I did have the lab run a second sample, the following day upon the doctor’s advice. After review, they confirmed that I am not sick.)

I had 3 more days in Dharamsala before I needed to leave town for Delhi, so that I could then catch my train from Delhi to Bodhgaya. I went to the Seed CafĂ© for dinner with some students from the course who were still in Bodhgaya, to listen to 2 of the students play some music. I went up to Tushita for Richard’s drop-in meditation session. I spent some more time talking with Venerable Legtsok and Richard. Venerable Legtsok advised me to do 15 minutes of full-body prostrations outside of the temple in Bodhgaya for the benefit of my digestive health and spiritual growth. I am looking forward to that practice. I visited the Tibetan astrology office affiliated with Men-Tsee-Khang (and His Holiness the Dalai Lama) to learn more about a 3-day workshop being held for Tibetan astrologists in Dharamsala later this month. The conference organizer started by explaining that no other foreigners had registered for the course, so the Tibetan would not be translated into English by a translator, but they could get an astrologist to sit with me and explain the material. It would be so fun to attend and do this, but since I have a conflict with another Buddhism teaching I wanted to attend, I’ve decided not to attend the conference, for now. I’m trying to absorb as much as I can while I am here in India, and am having a lot of fun while doing it.

The Tibetan New Year, Losar is the most important Tibetan holiday. It began on Sunday, March 2 and lasts for the next 14 days. I visited the temple frequented by His Holiness on the day before Losar, and saw the Tibetan monks setting up offerings inside of the temple. I then circumambulated the hill where His Holiness lives, and where the temple is located, walking along a well traveled path lined with prayer flags, prayer wheels, and a memorial for the 100+ Tibetans who have self-immolated. I went back to the temple the next morning on Losar, with Kavita and another American student from the course who I was sharing a hotel room with, Kathleen, to celebrate the holiday. Tibetan monks recited prayers, did a short debate, and served us tea and rice. Afterwards we got in line to make offerings to the Buddha who sits at the head of the temple, behind His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s throne. A Tibetan teenager in front of me on line taught me how to make a Losar offering to Buddha. She asked me why I was not dressed in a Tibean dress – all of the Tibetans were wearing their finest outfits, which were absolutely beautiful. I wasn’t sure what to tell her, other than that I don’t have a Tibetan dress. She was very cute. After temple I walked down the hill behind the temple, and circumambulated again. There were a good number of Tibetan families, monks, and nuns on the path that day, including one of the monks I met at Men-Tsee-Khang. It felt like a great way to celebrate Losar.

It snowed and rained a few times over the 4 days that I was in Dharamsala after the Introduction to Buddhism course ended at Tushita. Sometimes the sun would look like it was going to come out, but then the weather always turned cold and grey again. I stood on the roof of our hotel one evening after it had been raining and watched the fog drift over, completely cover, and then move away from the Himalayan mountains just beyond town. There seem to be many hawks in Dharamsala. I watched them flying through the changing fog. It was so beautiful. Being up in Dharamsala at this time of year does have its benefits.

On Sunday, March 2 I took an overnight bus directly from the center of town to Delhi. This wasn’t a sleeper bus in that passengers didn’t have their own bunk beds. This bus, called a “Volvo bus” has seats in it that recline like airplane seats. I didn’t get much sleep, but it was more convenient than the train.

We arrived in Delhi at 4:10am yesterday, Monday, March 3. I took an auto rickshaw to the train station to deposit my luggage at the train station cloakroom. I sat in the train station’s Ladies Waiting Room for a few hours, reading the Class Notes section of the Winter 2012 – 2013 issue of the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin that I had been carrying with me, while I waited for the sun to fully rise in the sky and the tourist attractions to open their doors to visitors.

I then took the metro to visit the Lal Mandir Jain temple and its bird hospital, and the nearby Jama Masjd Mughal mosque. Jama Masjd Mughal is India’s largest mosque. It can accommodate 25,000 worshipers. It was completed in 1656. It was built by the Mugal ruler Shah Jahan, who also had the Taj Mahal built in Agra. It was fun to explore a different part of Delhi. I then went back to my favorite South Indian restaurant in Delhi (OK, the only restaurant I know in Delhi) for lunch, before heading back to the train station to collect my luggage from the cloakroom and catch this train to Bodhgaya.

I then waited (and ate) at the Delhi train station, because the train was delayed by about 10 hours. We finally left Delhi at about 11:30pm last night. I had purchased a 3rd class A/C ticket, but was bumped up to a seat in 2nd class A/C. I am sitting with a lovely older couple from Delhi whose son is a graduate of UCLA’s MBA program and works for AT&T in Los Angeles, and a Tibetan monk named Nyima, who is also on his way to Bodhgaya. He teaches Tibetan debate at Shri Nalanda Institute. So even though this is turning out to be a very long trip, it has been a really good one. If I was going to be bumped up to 2nd class A/C then this was the perfect time for that to have happened. I am also looking forward to getting back to Bodhgaya and my next Buddhism course, which begins tomorrow, Wednesday, March 5. If you need to reach me between now and Friday,  March 14 then contact the Root Institute’s office in Bodhgaya, and leave a message for me. The course I am taking is called “Experience Buddhism at the Root” with Venerable Sarah Thresher. Happy Losar, all.

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