Saturday, April 29, 2006

"Up by the River . . . "

Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh), India – Hey it’s late Saturday afternoon, and although the various vendors and restaurants are open, all Tibetan government offices have been closed today and will close tomorrow also . . . weekends matter here.

So what do Tibetan monks do on Saturday? They hike up the trail a couple of kilometers to Bhagsunag, make their way over to the snowmelt-rushing Bhagsunag River and wash their clothes.

On monastery grounds all seems so traditionally serious, but many of these monks are teenagers and young men in their twenties and thirties, and getting in the river water and washing their robes in the river is done respectfully, but is part frisky fun too.

They splash each other, sing as they scrub, soaping, soaking and then beating their wet saffron-colored robes on the rocks. (For those who wonder what, if anything is worn under those robes, at least for Saturdays I have the answer and its nothing exotic . . . jeans, running shorts, etc.)

I was up on the river after a hike through its canyon, and we had a ball. Lots of good conversation, many of the monks speak some English, having for years been here in Dharamsala where English language education is the "#1 encouraged worldly skill" within the Tibetan community.

As an American, they wanted my opinions on:

(1) the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (I told them it is unfortunate that China seems to be rewarded in such a way but hoped that the Olympics would bring a shining of the world’s light on China, which could only be a good thing regarding human rights, and maybe Tibet too),

(2) what is a democracy and which countries in the world are not democracies? . . . (this a result of HHDL’s long-time efforts to set up a democratic Tibetan government in exile which would be securely in place when he passes),

(3) had I been to Tibet? (no, I explained that I was originally going to go there last year but chose not to when I discovered that the only way to visit Tibet as a tourist was a member of a tour group that is under-the-thumb guided by Chinese govt.-controlled travel services – this brought about a sad string of comments about their lost homeland.)

(4) had I heard news of HHDL’s visit to South America? (I had, and pulled from my knapsack today’s Times of India newspaper which had a story about his doings in Chile that we read together.)

(5) what did I think of George Bush? (taking note of the group, I tried to give a “compassionate” assessment).

(6) can the Mets *really* beat out the Braves this year – no, they didn't really ask that . . . (but bernie the optimist in brooklyn thinks they can . . . me, i think not, uhh uhh -- it's the *mutts*, remember??).


Speaking of English language education, beginning on Monday and for the next seven weekdays I’ll be “holding” a two-hour English conversation class with a group of recently arrived Tibetan refugees at the Tibet Charity Multi-Education Center down the hill from the main temple. I have no idea how many students I’ll have, how old they’ll be or even what I’m going to do. I guess we’ll start talking and see where it goes. I do know we’re going to laugh a lot. And I'll probably learn a little Tibetan, too.

Have also been working English with Lobsang, the 28-year old manager of the guest house at which I’m staying . . we’re working on his pronunciation -- what we do is sit in the garden, he reads from a book and we go over some of the words and letter combinations he needs help with (“th” is tough).

So, after two full days up here, life in “Dhasa” is comfortable and good . . . I have a small but growing circle of friends with names like Lobsang, Jigme and Tsering, people I did not know two days ago, and feel I’m doing some “good” work from the heart while soaking up as much as I can of this incredibly rich Tibetan Buddhist culture that so values the virtues of “quiet mind” and joy.

(Btw, “Tsering” means “good healthy life” in Tibetan and is equivalent to “God Bless You” i.e., what one says to another following a sneeze.)

Happy days, Mark