Saturday, February 4, 2017

India Adventure III: Farewell, McLeod Ganj ... at least for 2016.

My overnight bus from Delhi reached McLeod Ganj just after sunrise on Monday, May 2, 2016.

Walking down to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's 2PM class that day, I ran into a familiar face. He was sunning himself outside of a cafe on Temple Road.
Friendly face.
Since this was my second to last week in McLeod Ganj, I decided to make the most of it by circumambulating His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple and palace after Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's class ended at 6PM. I was joined by some friends who are also studying Buddhism in India.

Ladies night.

One of the big stupas on the circumambulation path.

This is one of my favorite stupas. Beautiful artwork, beautiful setting.
We walked along the path, slowing our steps so we could spin the prayer wheels.
Spinning prayer wheels.

Prayer wheels.
I finally had dinner at the vegan restaurant on Jogiwara Road. I got one of the two burritos. (I ordered the other burrito on the menu another night.) The burritos were good, but not as much fun as when I made vegan burritos for friends in Bangalore ...

Vegan burrito.
Lower Dharamsala

The following morning I followed the steep winding roads and paths down the mountainside from McLeod Ganj to Lower Dharamsala to do some shopping in the local India market. I then walked back up the hill to Men Tsee Khang's Tibetan medicine clinic near Delek Hospital.

I was early. The doctors hadn't yet started seeing patients. I took a seat on the wood bench in front of my doctor's office and waited for a chance to see her. I've been going to see Dr. Y.K. Dorjee since my first visit to McLeod Ganj in 2014. It is always nice to sit down on the stool next to her desk, and see her smiling, reassuring face. This time, I just needed a refill.

From my seat on the bench I could hear prayers being chanted in Tibetan a nearby room, and then realized it was the entire Men Tsee Khang clinic staff. It was a real treat to not only hear them chant the prayers in unison, but to know that this is a group practice done by the staff.

I have been to three Men Tsee Khang clinics in India, and have noticed paintings of Medicine Buddha hanging in all of the offices.

Medicine Buddhas thankga by Bob Cayton.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche has said:

“If you pray to Guru Medicine Buddha, you will quickly accomplish all that you wish. Just hearing the holy name of Guru Medicine Buddha and the sound of his mantra closes the door to rebirth in the suffering lower realms. It is written in the scriptures that you should not have a two-pointed mind (doubt) with regard to these benefits. …”

You can listen to him chant the Medicine Buddha mantra here:

After my appointment I gave the script prepared by Dr. Y.K. Dorjee to the pharmacy, and waited for them to prepare my prescription.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's physician Dr. Yeshi Dhonden explained the role Medicine Buddha plays in the creation of Tibetan medicine. Lama Zopa Rinpoche has taught a practice to do when taking medicine.

Men Tsee Khang Dharamsala clinic pharmacy.
I then rushed down the hill to meet my friend Yaron at his place of work, the Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo Translator Programme (LZRTP). The LRZTP center is below McLeod Ganj and just above the Dharamsala market. We had made plans to meet around lunch time. I had been looking forward to visiting LZRTP.

Yaron in front of the LRZTP center.
LZRTP is a four year Tibetan language training program intended to prepare native language speakers to serve as Tibetan language interpreters in FPMT centers around the world. Yaron is a graduate of the program and is now LZRTP's Director.

Students spend the first two years in Dharamsala, studying Colloquial Tibetan, Literary Tibetan, Dharma terminology, comprehension of Dharmma teachings, as well as methodology and techniques of interpretation (simultaneous and consecutive interpretation). The last two years are spent at an FPMT center serving as an interpreter for a geshe teaching Buddhism at that center.

LRZTP daily schedule.
Yaron invited me to join them for lunch. It was great. I got to have lunch with Yaron, one of the teachers, Franziska and the current class of students, who began their studies in Dharamsala in October 2015.

First class of LRZTP graduates with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
The LRZTP has a nice patio with picnic tables, where buffet lunch is enjoyed each day.
LRZTP patio.

LRZTP buffet lunch.
Yaron gave me a tour of the LRZTP center. They have a nice library with a nice collection of books students can use to learn Tibetan.

Children's book in Tibetan.
The classroom is colorful and welcoming. There was some student artwork hanging up on the walls.
LRZTP classroom.
LRZTP is offering a short course from April 24 - June 2, 2017. I think this short course is offered from time to time.

After lunch I climbed back up the mountainside to McLeod Ganj and rushed over to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's 2PM class, followed by Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's 4PM class. (Yaron introduced me to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche; he took me to class in 2014.)

Lha Charitable Trust: Institute for Social Work & Education

The following morning I met up with my English language student, Youdon for some informal English language conversation over tea.

This was the first year I had been able to volunteer with Lha Charitable Trust: Institute for Social Work & Education (Lha). Located on the second story of a building on Temple Road, Lha is a fantastic NGO that aids the Tibetan refugee community in so many ways. In previous years I had stopped at Lha to make clothing and household good donations, but had never gotten to do what I really wanted to do, which was help students learn English.

I met an American on my first trip to India who told me how much he enjoyed teaching English at Lha, and then my friend, Piyali was volunteering with them earlier in 2016. Finally, I got to sign up as a volunteer.

Lha Charitable Trust on Temple Road.
Entering Lha Charitable Trust from the road.

Welcome to Lha Charitable Trust.
Founded in 1997, Lha facilitates the transition of Tibetan refugees from Tibet to India by providing long-term rehabilitation and education resources. Offerings include free English, French, German and Chinese language classes, cultural exchange programs, IT classes, vocational training, health and environmental awareness education, distribution of clothes and medicine (travelers can donate their unneeded items by dropping them off at Lha's office in McLeod Ganj), and a community kitchen serving 50 - 60 low cost meals per day to Tibetan refugees.

Travelers can volunteer if they can meet the minimum time commitment.

Before committing to a regular volunteer role, I stopped in to Lha one weekday afternoon to volunteer at the drop in English conversation groups. I was assigned to a small group of young men from Nepal, Bhutan, and Ladakh who had come to McLeod Ganj to learn English. The Ladakhi brothers work in tourism in Ladakh. The small room was full of circles of people speaking English, knees touching. It was boisterous and fun.

Rabsel then signed me up to be an English Language Tutor, which meant I would regularly meet with an English language student for one on one conversation class, and any other help the student needed.

Lha Volunteer Coordination staff.
I was matched up with Youdon, an Intermediate Level English language student at Lha.

Rabsel had explained that Youdon and I could meet for our hour long sessions anywhere we wanted to, but that many people meet on the Lha roof or at a local coffee shop. So I was surprised when I first spoke with Youdon to schedule a time to meet, and she invited me to her house in McLeod Ganj for tea.

Youdon and I in her house.
The Lha volunteer coordination team had told me that I would benefit from serving as an English Language Tutor, but I wasn't so interested in that - I just wanted to help a student. But already on my first morning working with Youdon, I learned so many things.

Simply walking to her house with heer, I learned the neighborhood off of Bhagsu Road is called Kham. When Tibetan refugees first settled in the area, that neighborhood was occupied by Tibetans from the Kham region of Tibet. It's now a mixed neighborhood.

Kham neighborhood in McLeod Ganj.

On the way to Youdon's house.

Youdon's apartment complex.

Youdon's altar and Tara statue.
Youdon and I met as often as our schedules permitted (we tried for every weekday morning), usually over tea at her house. One morning she told me to meet her outside of the gate leading to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple, near where she drops her son off to catch the school bus. She took me to a nearby second story cafe frequented by local Tibetans to meet her friends and join them for tea.

Second floor cafe.
They were already sitting in a corner booth sipping tea, American diner style. They warmly welcomed me, I slid into the long bench. They all have kids who attend the same school as Youdon's son, and sometimes gather after dropping the kids off at the bus stop. They are all from Tibet, and were speaking in Tibetan, with Youdon translating for me. One woman shared her notebook page on which she had written sentences for her English Language class. I got to give her some suggestions. I had so much fun. This tea break was one of the highlights of my time in McLeod Ganj.

View of the square outside of the main temple from the second floor cafe.
Jamyang Choling Institute of Buddhist Dialectics

After meeting Youdon for tea at her house on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 I hired a taxi to take me to visit my friend Elena for lunch. Elena and I met at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Jangchup Lamrim teachings in south India just a few months earlier.

Elena is Russian but lives in India at a nunnery along with nuns and a few other lay women. The nuns come from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Ladakh, Zanskar, ,Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Garhwal, Darjeeling, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.

Elena is studying Buddhist Philosophy, which is taught in Tibetan. Although Elena speaks Russian and English, after years of studying at the nunnery I think she prefers Tibetan.

The nunnery offers a seventeen year study program, during which time students are prepared for a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. Students study Buddhist philosophy, meditation, Tibetan, English, Hindi, and computer and administration skills.

Welcome to Jamyang Choling Institute of Buddhist Dialectics.
When I arrived at Jamyang Choling Institute of Buddhist Dialectics the nuns and a few lay women were practicing debate in the nunnery's courtyard. I found Elena on the debate yard. Amazing and inspiring.

Debate session.
Jamyang Choling Institute of Buddhist Dialectics, founded in 1988 operates under the auspices of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile's Religious & Cultural Affairs Department. It is an officially recognized Tibetan Buddhist nunnery.

Elena has her own room on the nunnery's campus. We took her plates down  to the dining hall and collected lunch that had been prepared by some of the young nuns, and then enjoyed our lunch while hanging out in Elena's room.
Elena's bed, table, and window.
Hallway leading to the common bathroom on the floor.
Enjoying lunch with Elena.
Elena's altar.

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Afterwards Elena gave me a tour of the nunnery's campus. We visited a classroom building, and I got to meet a few of the nuns. This little girl recently arrived at the nunnery.

New to the nunnery.

Classroom building.
We then walked over to a nearby building where one of her friends, a Tibetan laywoman stays.

Beautiful trees on campus.

Elena and I outside of her friend's room.

Elena and her friend.
We then continued on our walk, passing by a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya.

Elena in front of a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya.
She has an umbrella to block the sun. It was a hot day.
Replica of the Mahabodhi Temple.
Our final stop was the nunnery's main temple, where I go to go upstairs and see the chair that had been used by His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he visited the nunnery. There is also a relic encased in glass, sitting on top of the table.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama's chair.
Better view of the relic and purple lotus shaped light offerings.
The nun who is responsible for the temple had kindly taken time out of her busy schedule to unlock the room upstairs for us. She locked it behind us on our way out.

Locking the door to the upstairs room.
Downstairs, I got to see the temple and main Buddha image.

Nunnery's main temple.

Main Buddha image.

Elena, one of the nuns, and I outside of the gate.
I couldn't stay much longer - I wanted to get back up to McLeod Ganj in time for Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's 2PM class, followed by Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's 4PM class. It had been so nice to get to spend time with Elena and see her nunnery. I look forward to my next visit.

Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's  2 - 4PM class, May 4 or 5, 2016.
Khylonga Rato Rinpoche: Bodhicitta - The Light of Enlightenment

The following day I hiked up the mountainside to Tushita Meditation Centre to attend a teaching on Bodhicitta - The Light of Enlightenment, given by Khylonga Rato Rinpoche. I had last gotten to see him (but not receive a teaching) at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Jangchup Lamrim teachings in December 2015.

Born in 1923 in Tibet, he eventually settled in the US. He was the director and main teacher at The Tibet Center, the oldest Tibetan Buddhist center in New York City, for more than 30 years, teaching primarily in English.

Khylonga Rato Rinpoche at Tushita Meditation Centre - May 5, 2016.
Photo by Tushita Meditation Centre.
Khylonga Rato Rinpoche giving advice to students in a retreat at Tushita Meditation Centre.
Photo by Tushita Meditation Centre.
It was so nice to see and sit with him in Tushita Meditation Centre's main temple. The temple was full of fellow students. I remember he started off his teaching by humbly telling us he doesn't really know much about Bodhicitta. It was nice to be in his presence.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Temple

Afterwards, I decided to make the most of my limited remaining time in McLeod Ganj by paying a visit to His Holiness' temple.

I was lucky to get to see the statues in His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple unhindered by the protective metal gate that is almost always closed. When I visited a monk was taking care of the water bowls that are offered daily to all of the holy objects in the cabinet.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

Students were also debating in the courtyard outside of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple, as part of their study program. It was fun to stop and watch. I am intimidated, just standing on the sidelines, watching.


After visiting the temple I went for a walk through the woods, following the circumambulation path that wraps around His Holiness the Dalai Lama's palace and temple. After turning the first corner I came across this baby monkey playing in the puddle.
Baby monkey in puddle.

Baby monkey playing.

Geshe ma Exam

Just that week, I had heard that the nuns who were in the process of taking the five year geshe ma degree were in McLeod Ganj, sitting for part of the exam. I figured out they were probably at the nunnery on Jogiwara Road, and headed over to find out if I could see the nuns.

When I arrived at the nunnery, all was quiet. I found an older nun who was outside doing wash. Thanks to my limited Tibetan and some body language, I was able to figure out the nuns I was looking for were at lunch.

Empty exam room.
Exam schedule posted on a wall, in Tibetan.
I sat on the curb outside of the exam room, just inside of the nunnery's main gates to wait for the nuns to return from lunch.

Nunnery main gates.

Nuns returning from lunch.
I wasn't sure if I was welcomed or not, and there were no other spectators to ask, so I quietly went inside and sat at the back of the room while the nuns prepared to resume their oral exams. The oral exam was done in the form of a debate. One nun at a time would step up to the microphone in the middle of the floor, and debate with the monks who were administering the exam.

Preparing for debate.
The man seated on the chair was very kind. He invited me to join him at the table so I could see better and he could answer my questions.
I learned the women I was watching were taking the first year of the five year exam. I had just missed seeing the nuns who were taking part five; they had taken their final written exam that morning. (All twenty nuns passed the fifth year of  the exam, and went on to receive their geshe ma degrees from His Holiness the Dalai Lama at a celebration held in south India in December 2016.)


After visiting and honoring the nuns who were sitting for their geshe ma exam, I went to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's 2PM class, and then to the Pema Thang Hotel Restaurant to meet my friend Felipe, from Bolivia for dinner.

I have never stayed at Pema Thang Hotel but would recommend it. The restaurant is a very pleasant place, with an amazing view of the mountains and valley below. It was the first restaurant I ate in, when I first came to McLeod Ganj. Felipe and I got to enjoy the outdoor patio, even when the downpour started. First we moved to a table underneath the awning, and then eventually inside.

Downpour during dinner. I think Felipe had veg momos.
Morning Hike

The next morning I was up and out of my room before sunrise, and out on the street searching for a taxi to take me down the mountainside to Thosamling Nunnery and Institute for International Buddhist Women (Thosamling). I met my American friend Mary when I first came to Himachal Pradesh, and spent a week staying at Thosamling. Mary was staying at Thosamling, and kindly invited me to join her for one of her regular hikes through the area hillside.

Several women staying at Thosamling joined us for our hike. We left Thosamling by foot and set out across the fields for one of the nearby hillsides.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.
We stopped for breakfast at a quiet hotel, and then carried on through the countryside.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.
We stopped off at a Hindu temple that Mary knows of, and enjoyed looking around.
Hindu temple.

Hindu temple.

Hindu temple.

Hindu temple.

Hindu temple.

Hindu temple.

Hindu temple.
From there it was a downhill walk, along country roads and then fields.
Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Tea field on morning hike.
We entered a pine needle forest, and walked carefully so we wouldn't slip. This forest was my favorite part of the hike.
Morning hike.

Pine needles on morning hike.

Tree hugging on morning hike.

Tree hugging on morning hike.
After reaching the base of the hill, we passed back through the fields that surround Thosamling, passing by piles of wheat and animals munching grass.
Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike.

Morning hike. Thosamling in the distance.
It had been a beautiful morning. I went back to McLeod Ganj before my afternoon classes began at 2PM, passing along the mountain road that leads into McLeod Ganj.

Mountain road leading into McLeod Ganj. Those are animals eating out of the dumpster.
I made it back for Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's 2PM class, followed by Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's 4PM class. I was happy that I had been able to make it to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's class every day that week. I also made it to Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's class each day it was held - Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So it was a good, full week of teachings.

Geshe Kelsang Wangmo teaching in a classroom at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics.
Venerable Sumati (Venerable Kabir Saxena): The Genuine Heart of Sadness - The Warrior's Path to Awakening

The next morning, Saturday, May 7 I made my way back to Bir by bus (again) for another retreat offered at Deer Park Institute. Venerable Sumati (Venerable Kabir Saxena) was leading a three day retreat on The Genuine Heart of Sadness - The Warrior's Path to Awakening.

Retreat flyer hanging up at Deer Park Institute.
Although I had gotten to meet Venerable Sumati in the past, this was the first time I was able to take a teaching from him. I was really looking forward to it.

Venerable Sumati teaching at Deer Park Institute.
Photo by Deer Park Institute.

Venerable Sumati teaching at Deer Park Institute.
Photo by Deer Park Institute.

Venerable Sumati teaching at Deer Park Institute.
Photo by Deer Park Institute.
While I was at Deer Park Institute I got to meet up with my friend Anqui again, who was still staying in Bir. We hung out on Saturday between class sessions.

Anqui with a Buddha statue recently gifted to her.

Buddha statue.

This was a very special statue.
Venerable Sumati teaching at Deer Park Institute. View from the back of the room.
On Sunday, I went into town for a meal and got to see something new.

Beautiful animals.

Beautiful animals.
After attending Venerable Sumati's last class on Sunday and bidding farewell to Bir for the last time in 2016, I headed back to McLeod Ganj via the bus. I missed the retreat group photo, which must have been taken the following day.

Venerable Sumati and retreat students.
Last Week in McLeod Ganj

When I visited Rabsel at the Lha office on Monday morning, May 9, 2016 to officially end my term as a volunteer, I was surprised with a certificate, khata, and photo shoot in the Lha library. I was so touched by Rabsel's kindness and thoughtfulness. I  will be back to volunteer again.

Lha volunteer appreciation photo shoot.

Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche and Geshe Kelsang Wangmo

I had my last three classes with Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche that week - Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and my last day of class with Geshe Kelsang Wangmo that Monday.

It was hard to leave. Class goes on, even without you.

Altar in Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's classroom.

Bookshelf in Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's classroom.
Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche teaching. Tuesday, May 10, 2016.

Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche teaching. Ben carefully listening. Tuesday, May 10, 2016.

Hallway outside of Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's classroom.
His English language interpreter, Ben is outside of the doorway.

Downstairs doorway leading to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's class.
Walking through the gate to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple, and then
up the stairs to the right to enter the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics campus,
and Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's classroom.
Institute of Buddhist Dialectics office sign.

Prayers at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Temple

On Monday, May 9, 2016 I walked from Geshe Kelsang Wangmo's class to His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple.

Just inside the entrance of the temple housing a large statue of Buddha.
When I went into the temple to see the Buddha, I found the space had been transformed by the addition of a gigantic applique thangka of Avalokiteshvara and an unfamiliar statue.

Main temple with addition of statue in far back corner.





Avalokiteshvara thangka.
I asked around, and learned the statue's story. Unfortunately I will have to ask someone again so I can share it here. The statue is kept tucked away and can only be seen once a year, when it is placed in the main temple. I got to visit the statue a few more times before I left McLeod Ganj later that week.

Main temple.
The temple also looked like it had been set up for an event. I learned more about that when I went to go meet Youdon outside of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's temple on Wednesday morning, May 11, 2016 the day I was leaving McLeod Ganj. She had just told me to meet her there; I thought maybe we would have tea. Instead, she came to meet me dressed in a beautiful Tibetan chuba, and told me to come into the temple with her.

We walked in and I found the main floor was full of people, mostly Tibetans, sitting on cushions and reciting the Avalokiteshvara mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum. Everyone was seated facing towards the altar inside of the temple.

Youdon had already been there for a while. She brought me over to her spot near a wall, where she was sitting with some other young Tibetan women. We all sat together and did the mantra. I had such a nice morning.

Youdon spinning her prayer wheel and counting her
mantra recitations on her mala.
The mantra recitations stopped at a certain point, around lunch time. Youdon and her friend then introduced me to the lunch time ritual. We went downstairs with everyone else to the courtyard, where buckets were being set up on the floor.
Lunch break.

Lunch break.
Youdon's friend had brought an extra empty plastic lined juice container with her, with the top cut off to form a bowl. She gave it to me to use. Someone else had a spoon I could borrow. We then waited to be served rice from one bucket, and a vegetable dish from another bowl. I think Youdon and her friend may have brought some chili sauce with them, to add to the meal.

We took our food back to our seats and had a picnic. It was so much fun, and the food was delicious.

Lunch break.
Lunch break.
Lunch break.
Buddha statue with offerings of food.
Inside of the temple. Lunch break.
Prostrating before the Buddha. Lunch break.
Lunch break.
Lunch break.
Lunch break.

Lunch break.
I stayed until shortly before Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche's class began across the street at 2PM. It was such a wonderful and unexpected morning, thanks again to Youdon.

After saying goodbye to Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche, Ben, and our fellow students I collected my luggage and headed outside to the street. There, I met up with a few people with whom I had prearranged to share a taxi to Tashi Jong Monastery, for the start of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's five day Mahamudra Retreat. Farewell, McLeod Ganj.

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