Thursday, April 3, 2014

India Adventure: Deer Park Institute - Tibetan Bir Colony

Deer Park Institute and a double rainbow after a rainstorm.
On the date of my last post I learned that my Uncle Dick had passed away on Tuesday, March 18. In my earliest memories of my mother’s brother, he’s giving me noogies at family parties, and has a sheep dog named Winston. My freshman year of college, my Uncle Dick carried my piles of The New York Times down three flights of stairs from my dorm room to his truck, without comment, so that I could take those papers home for recycling. The last time I saw him, I walked out of his house in New Jersey smiling, inspired by his optimism, craftsmanship, and creativity.

The morning after learning of his death, Friday, March 21 I climbed the hill to Tushita Meditation Center to receive guidance from my meditation teacher, Richard. We lit butter lamps for my family outside of Lama Yeshe’s stupa, and said prayers for my family. Richard and Tushita’s Spiritual Program Coordinator, Venerable Khunpen kindly added my family’s names to their prayers.

I then walked back down the hill to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple, and left my Uncle Dick’s name with the His Holiness’ office for inclusion in His Holiness’ prayers. I lit 90 butter lamps inside of the temple complex with the assistance of a monk in the office who kindly came with me to the butter lamp offerings room, and translated from English to Tibetan for me so that I could communicate with the women running the butter lamp offerings. I also circumambulated the temple, and made offerings to both of the Buddhas inside of the complex on behalf of my Uncle Dick. May he have a good rebirth, and may my family find peace.

After saying goodbye to my uncle, I put my things in the back of a taxi, and traveled 3 hours with new friends Tazzy, Yaron, and Sharnon to Deer Park Institute in Bir Colony. It was a beautiful drive through forested countryside along narrow, winding back roads. I got to learn more from them about Tibetan language courses offered in India and the Mcleod Ganj expat community.

The taxi dropped Yaron and I off at Chokling Guest House, where we had both made reservations, and Tazzy and Sharnon off at another guest house a little bit outside of town. Deer Park Institute had recommended Chokling Guest House because Deer Park’s accommodations were full. It was a great place to stay, run by a kind group of young Tibetans and Indians.

The 3 of us ate lunch at the Y Corner Café, a Tibetan café run by young monks. After lunch Tazzy, Sharnon and I explored the small town, one of the original Tibetan refugee settlements, went shopping for a Tibetan carpet for Sharnon’s Mcleod Ganj apartment, and then wandered through the beautiful, peaceful countryside outside of the center of town. Tibetan Bir Colony is in a valley, surrounded by snow covered mountains. The Indian and Tibetan residents keep some livestock and grow crops including tea.

We met up with Yaron for dinner at an Indian guest house on the outskirts of town, and were all in bed early, in anticipation of the following day’s teaching. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of monks chanting prayers at one of the nearby monasteries.

I woke to the sound of morning prayers the next morning, and then walked up the hill through the original Tibetan refugee community’s long, low cement buildings, now seemingly mostly abandoned, to the Deer Park Institute campus. Deer Park Institute is a Buddhist retreat center that unlike the Root Institute and Tushita Meditation Center is unaffiliated with any particular Buddhist tradition. It is an absolutely beautiful campus. Deer Park’s gompas contain some of the prettiest Buddha statues I have seen in India.

The teaching took place inside one of the gompas. The room was full of mostly foreign women, a few of whom I recognized from my India travels and Buddhist study activities, including friends who are taking Thosamling Institute for International Buddhist Women’s Tibetan language course. Actually the event was more than full - there were students sitting on the balcony outside of the teaching room, watching and listening in through the open windows.

Tenzin Palmo, a very famous western nun taught us about Mind Training, following Lord Atisha’s Root Verses on Training the Mind. (“The supreme learning is to realize the meaning of selflessness – absence of self. The supreme spiritual discipline is to tame one’s own mind. The supreme good quality is great altruism. The supreme oral instruction is to observe the mind at all times. The supreme remedy is to know that nothing has any self-nature. The supreme conduct is to be in disharmony with the world. The supreme accomplishment is the continuous decrease of disturbing emotions. The supreme sign of accomplishment is the continuous decrease of wishes and wants. The supreme spiritual teacher is the one who exposes our hidden flaws. The supreme instruction is the one that strikes those hidden flaws. The supreme companions are mindfulness and alertness. The supreme inspiration is enemies and hindrances, disease and suffering. The supreme method is to be natural. The supreme way of benefitting is to help others enter the Dharma. The supreme benefit is a mind that turns towards the Dharma.”) 

Tenzin Palmo taught for 2 full days – Saturday, March 22 and Sunday, March 23. She was fabulous. Her teachings and stories were funny, touching, and inspiring. Fortunately the Deer Park staff recorded her teachings, and I will be able to buy a copy to re-listen to, later.

On Saturday night she gathered us together in the Deer Park movie hall to watch a documentary called Blessing about a small group of western women (and one western man) who traveled to remote eastern Tibet to visit several nunneries. I recommend the film, if you can find it. It is narrated by Richard Gere. It partly explains how some Tibetan nuns went into hiding in caves, to practice for years after the Chinese invaded Tibet, and then emerged to physically construct the nunneries to give women places to live, study, and practice together. Supporters can learn more and donate to the nunneries through DGLI and at www.gebchakgompa.org. For an excellent, brief and emotionally moving overview of current conditions in Tibet see this pamphlet "Religious Freedom in Tibet, November 2013" published by the Tibetan government in exile in India.

Most of the students in Tenzin Palmo’s 2 day course left Bir Colony once her course ended on Sunday afternoon, after we’d seen Tenzin Palmo and her assistant off in a car. Many students headed back to their lives in Mcleod Ganj, including Tazzy, Sharnon, and Yaron. I stayed on in Bir Colony, in anticipation of the next course, a 5 day Bodhicittavivarana Retreat with Geshe Dorji Damdul. That course would be taking place at Deer Park from March 28 – April 1.

Luckypuppy at the Upper Bir vet's office, following his accident.
I spent most of my time between the end of Tenzin Palmo and the beginning of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s courses caring for a 3-4 month old male street puppy that was hit by a taxi driver on the main road in Bir Colony on Tuesday, March 25. I had just ordered lunch at the Tibetan Y Corner Café, when I heard a dog crying on the street below. I rushed down there to find a badly bleeding brown puppy. Long story short, Ragindal who works at Deer Park, and a kind taxi driver introduced me to the Upper Bir veterinary practice, where I spent 3 days with the puppy, getting his wound cleaned and examined by 2 vets and several staff members.

When not at the vet’s office, the puppy lived in a cement shed owned by a kind Tibetan family who feed the street dogs. The puppy was sleeping inside of a cardboard box I turned on its side to make into a crate of sorts, on top of a pair of discarded jeans that I found in a bin at Deer Park. The very kind Tibetan family were feeding him, and gave him chicken bones to chew on. (Just like my dog, I also found him lying on the blanket that the Tibetan family gave him, eating paper one morning. That cheered me up.) Deer Park’s Tibetan language course teacher, Bhutanese monk Pema helped me name the puppy - “Luckypuppy” in Tibetan.

In addition to Pema, I received support and sympathy from a young German doctor named Pia, who has also been staying at and studying at Deer Park. There were many other people at Deer Park and in the community who listened to me, and gave Luckypuppy their best wishes, but he needed better care if he was going to get better.

I took the puppy by taxi (a 3.5 hour ride, that he made while sleeping in a cardboard box in the hatchback trunk of the taxi) to the Dharamsala Animal Rescue on Saturday, March 29, skipping the afternoon of the second day of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s course.

I felt better as soon as the taxi driver, Luckypuppy and I arrived at the Dharamsala Animal Rescue where we were met by two smiling, compassionate staff members - a young English woman named Carlie, and a young Indian man named Kamlesh. They cleaned Luckypuppy up, and made him comfortable in a dog crate complete with a blanket, that was inside of a building on the campus.

Kamlesh said that the vet would likely amputate Luckypuppy’s leg on Monday. Luckypuppy’s rear right leg is likely fractured in 3 places, is missing skin so that you can see the bone and tendons, and part of the bottom of that foot is in bad shape. Carlie and Kamlesh assured me that Luckypuppy would adjust to being a 3 legged dog, and that I could come back to visit and meet the organization’s founder, a woman from San Francisco. (As soon as I heard she was from San Francisco, home of some of the best animal care facilities in the US, I knew I had taken Luckypuppy to the right place.)

When I called Dharamsala Animal Rescue this past Monday afternoon to learn how the amputation surgery had gone, I got to speak directly with the vet. He told me that they were looking into alternatives to amputation, and that Luckypuppy was on medication and doing well. I look forward to seeing him next week when I visit Dharamsala Animal Rescue to volunteer. For all of the pain he must have been going through, he was a happy puppy, often rolling over onto his back, his bad leg flopping into strange angles, so that I could rub his belly. Please send Luckypuppy your love.

My experience of Geshe Dorji Damdul’s (Geshe-la's) course was overshadowed by my concerns and care of Luckypuppy, but it was a great course. Most of the approximately 40 students taking the course were Geshe-la’s Indian students who live in Delhi and study with him at Tibet House in Delhi when he teaches each week. This was my first Buddhist Philosophy course. (In Buddhism, we have Buddhist Philosophy, Buddhist Psychology, and traditional religious practices like art and culture.)

Geshe-la’s course was extremely difficult. We began the retreat each morning at 6am, with 2 hours of practice that included the reading and chanting of prayers in English and Sanskrit from a book that Geshe-la created just for our use in the course. We would then spend the rest of the day learning the meaning of 112 stanzas in “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” by Arya Nagurjuna. We were studying the Buddhist concept of Emptiness as it relates to generating Bodhichitta.

Geshe Dorji Damdul (Geshe-la).
I had been looking forward to taking this course because I heard that Geshe-la is an outstanding teacher, and he was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translators. (He was even in the audience at Lehigh University for the teaching I attended with His Holiness in July 2008.) Once you sit in on one of Geshe-la’s teachings, it’s very easy to understand why he was tasked with the job of assisting His Holiness and running Tibet House in Delhi. Geshe-la is incredible and awe-inspiring. I felt so fortunate to get to spend 45 minutes in private conversation with him one night, receiving further teachings. He blessed me before he left Deer Park (upon my request) and said he hoped to see me again. I aspire to become a good Buddhist philosophy student. I haven’t been able to watch it yet, but there is a series of recordings of one of his “Introduction to Buddhism” courses on YouTube.

I was supposed to leave the retreat a day early in order to begin a 10 day Vipassana Retreat in Mcleod Ganj, but decided to stay at Deer Park so that I could complete Geshe-la's course. (I also missed His Holiness giving the Medicine Buddha empowerment in Mcleod Ganj this past Monday, but I really just wanted to stay at Deer Park.) In addition to Geshe-la’s course and the peaceful environment, I have been informally studying with two Thai monks who are in retreat at Deer Park, Srayuth and Damrongdham. I am really enjoying my stay in Tibetan Bir Colony, which aside from the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary outside of Agra, the most peaceful and rural place I have been in India.

Srayuth and Damrongdham.
Srayuth (who goes by the nickname Oat) has been Damrongdham’s student for the past 3 years. They have been leading 6:30am morning meditations and Pali chanting in one of the Deer Park gompas, and informal teaching sessions at 7pm in the same gompa. They are Theravada Buddhists who speak and read the language Pali. They are the same Thai monks that I met at the PAP (Protected Area Permit) office in Dharamsala before traveling to Deer Park to participate in Tenzin Palmo and Geshe-la’s courses. They are really wonderful. They are traveling to Berkeley, California this year to spend 4-5 months studying English. If you are interested, then I can tell you if they will be teaching in the Bay Area this year.

I am leaving Deer Park this morning to travel down to Tushita Meditation Center in Mcleod Ganj, to attend another teaching offered by Tenzin Palmo, followed by a one day workshop offered at Tushita by western teacher Glen Svenson, who I have been hearing a lot about. After those 2 teachings end, I will stay in Mcleod Ganj to study, volunteer, and see some friends, including Luckypuppy, before returning to Deer Park to further study with Srayuth and Damrongdham. I will then travel from Deer Park to Delhi, to catch my April 26 flight from Delhi to Thailand.

So my time in India is coming to a close. I’ve been in India for almost exactly 4 months, now with just a few weeks to go. Thanks for following along as this adventure unfolds. Thanks, too for your prayers for my Uncle Dick and family, and Luckypuppy.

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