For the last three sunny days Cary and I have been in Tso Pema, the site of the sacred lake (Tso means lake and Pema means lotus), a holy place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. People come here from around the world for various retreats. It’s a lovely small town about 100 miles southeast of Dharamsala, not far from Mandi, a teaming metropolis. You drive over mountains and climb up winding roads with hairpin turns second to none, through pine forests and along cliffs which look down on terraced valleys to the Beas River flowing below. When you think you can’t go any higher you suddenly see this jewel of a lake come into view, and three Buddhist monasteries, a Hindu temple, and a Sikh temple. In the distance are the ubiquitous Himalayas with their snowy peaks.
The week after the teachings was one of celebration with the families of students Cary has helped, the first being the night before we left Dharamsala. These dinners are Tibetan feasts where we, as guests of honor, are treated to mo mos (meat or vegetable-filled pasta), unusual soups, rice, and dishes too numerous to describe or to eat. There’s the ever-present milk tea or lemon ginger served before the meal with cookies or a type of homemade fried pastry called kapse. Custom requires that you bring small gifts, usually fruit, butter, or specialty foods, and we, as guests, sit eating while our hosts and their children delight in our enjoyment of their cooking. This is unnerving at first, but you get used to it. Actually, I find these gatherings a lot of fun, mostly because of the children, who tend to act as our interpreters since their English is often better than the parents, and who are so thoughtful and attentive. One little girl even insisted on untying my shoelaces as I started to remove my shoes before entering (another tradition I like–no shoes in the house).
On March 14 we headed for Suja with Dolma Lhamo from the Dharamsala TCV school. En route we stopped at Norbulingka, the center for the preservation of Tibetan culture and arts, and visited the workshops of thangka artists, painters, and makers of exquisite wall hangings and furniture. Within walking distance was Nyingtobling, a school for Tibetans with special needs. Their artwork was outstanding. Further down the road is the monastery where the amazing Karmapa resides. We hope to visit there before we leave India.You may remember that he escaped five years ago from Tibet at the age of 16–a real blow to the Chinese, who were restricting his access to teachers and education, thus greatly curtailing his spiritual freedom.
Our next stop, as we wound over narrow country roads and through one small town after another, was the TCV (Tibetan Childrens Village) school in Gopalpur, where I met the 17-year-old student I sponsor, Tsema, who is studying art and journalism. You may be interested to know that Tibetans do not have a family name as we do. They usually have two names only. Sometimes I find this confusing, but even ‘though the first names can be the same, the second one is usually different. For example: Tsering Somo and Tsering Lhamo, or Tenzin Tselha and Tenzin Palmo.
Tsema, however, has only one name (and you thought Madonna was unusual?). He’s a bright young man who was in the middle of drawing a mountain scene on the computer when we walked in. His enthusiasm for his studies was evident. I also discovered that he and some other students have started a small band and especially like Hindi popular music (all these students speak Hindi and Tibetan, and are studying English with a ferocious intensity). He sang a song, which I recorded and played back to him, to his delight. Then we talked for an hour and Tsema was very open in discussing his feelings about leaving his family and home. He said it helped to talk about it. Like every student I was to meet, he is motivated to become educated and successful, because he knows why his parents sent him and doesn’t want to disappoint them. He considers being here a privilege and is determined not to squander it. What a wonderful visit!
As we wound around the hills I noticed that our driver was using multiple horns of varying intensity as he cut the corners or scattered the cows and people in the small villages. I asked him about this and ended up taping six different horn sounds, which he used depending on his mood and the number of people he wanted to terrify (my explanation, not his). He thoroughly enjoyed our interest and from then on played with the horn as if it were a musical instrument. It was anything but that!
For the next week we were guests of the TCV in Suja, a school for 2000 students, all of whom escaped from Tibet. The classes are set up not by age, but by the level each student has reached. Since the Chinese didn’t allow Tibetans to study their language or English, and the schools were very poor anyway, you can imagine the amount of “catching up” there is–not only in language, but also math and science. We were housed in the guest quarters and every morning, starting sometimes as early as 3:30 AM, we were awakened by young men shouting their lessons, mostly in English, as if this would plant the work more firmly in their memory. By 6 it had quieted down and you could hear the breakfast “blessings” being sung in tandem by groups of boys in the dorm near us. I have some beautiful tapes of the singing, which occurs before each meal.
I find it difficult to fathom the motivation it takes to sit outside in the early morning cold and repeat lessons over and over. But it wasn’t just in the morning that this occurred. Every free minute I would find clusters of students poring over their books. Now and then I’d stop to ask if I could help. One day I happened upon two boys sitting on the grass outside our room. The younger one was writing his ABC’s meticulously and the older one was reading a book. I asked how long they had each been in Suja.
The older boy said, “Five years, but he arrived [pointing to the younger boy] five days ago from Lhasa, where my home was.”
“Oh, did you know each other before?” I asked.
“No. But he is my friend. He is my new brother.” And he put his arm around the boy.
The day after our arrival was a school festival, with games and musical performances. A jolly fete, indeed. Like our school fund raisers, everyone bought tickets and tried to win a prize. Flowers from the field were sold and there were games of chance, games of skill, kick a soccer ball through a tire, or throw baskets for rupees. Cary really got into it, and I managed to kick a ball through a tire, to my amazement. It was a riot! (Football, which is like our soccer, is huge in India and both boys and girls play in the large field whenever they get a chance.)
The children had created a lavish museum showing dioramas of Tibetan culture, and beautiful drawings and reliefs of the temples and countryside back in Tibet. They proudly escorted me around the museum and collected three rupees for their school fund. In the evening was a rock concert with three popular Tibetan singers.
Cary and I spent Sunday morning (the one free day for students and faculty) with Tsering Somo, her daughters, Tenchoe and Tselha, and her husband, Sonam Hara . Mully and Cary, and the Landel family, have been sponsoring Tenchoe and Tselha for many years, and Cary visited them when she was here two years ago. We walked through the fields to Bir, where Sonam works at the Tibetan Primary Health Center, and were treated to a sumptuous meal at his nephew’s restaurant. Mo mos never tasted better, and I actually tried some salad, with no adverse effects.
In the afternoon Cary, Dolma, and I traveled along a tree-lined road to the new monastery, The Dzongzar Institute, where the monk Cary and I sponsor, Thubten Tashi, lives. The head lama is the famous film maker, Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, whose recent films are The Cup, and Travelers and Magicians. The monastery (500 monks!) and temple are beautifully laid out, with well-tended gardens, and we sat in Thubten’s room enjoying a peaceful hour together. Bless Dolma, who acted as interpreter. Cary is learning Tibetan, but Dolma made the experience much richer for all of us.
Every day in the late afternoon a group of women, including Dolma, Lochoe (the secretary for sponsorships), and Tashi Lhazom, an accountant at the school, gathered at Tsering’s, for milk tea, cookies, and good conversation. Tsering teaches the newly-escaped students English, Tibetan and Math, getting them ready for the regular classes. We sat together in a space the size of my dining room, where couches become beds at night and one large cupboard holds the family’s clothing. A small refrigerator stands on one wall and a small kitchen is off to the side.
I learned much in those conversations about the organization of the TCV schools and the dedication of the staff, many of whom are former TCV students themselves. As I was walking home one night I met a man carrying his small, sleeping daughter, and started talking with him. I asked if I could tape his story. He had escaped from Tibet twenty-four years earlier and TCV had become his family and home. After college he returned with his young family and now teaches social studies. “I want to give back some of the love and compassion that I experienced here at TCV so other children can lead happy, productive lives.”
Gifts are a big thing with Tibetans. Everyone gives according to his ability and takes great joy in it. Cary and I brought gifts from the U.S. for all our sponsored students, ranging in age from 8 to 17, and those sponsored by several friends and family members. They numbered 10, and we were fortunate to meet with each student as well as visit them in their respective “homes” with their housemother. (Of course, we drank lots of milk tea and ate the homemade kapses offered us.) This was a marvelous experience. Their English was excellent, and their gratitude for this connection with interested, caring people around the world extremely important to them, perhaps even more than the monetary help. They were so proud of their rooms and their housemates. Everyone, as we’d walk around the school grounds, greeted us with “Good evening,” or “How are you today?” Such smiles and such politeness! It made each walk a joyous occasion.
The day after presenting the gifts, I was given a long letter for each sponsor, written by his or her student and usually decorated with pictures and verses, in addition to the writing. These were spontaneous, with no help from an adult. I can’t wait to send them, along with a picture, to each sponsor.
We spent a day in Bir, where Cary reserved a room for April at a former monastery, now called Deer Park. She plans to practice and to study Tibetan in a retreat situation, socializing only on the weekends. We could hardly believe it, but while walking through the main street of this small town we heard “Amala” (Mother), and there was Dorje, our Tibetan guide from Mt. Kailash, once again. He was on his way to Suja, where he had been educated, and where his niece was in the infirmary. Like many recent arrivals from Tibet, she had contracted TB as a result of poor medical care by the Chinese, and a weakened immune system. Respiratory diseases and anemia are big problems for incoming students, especially female.
Next door at our guest house was a pediatric cardiologist from Vancouver, Canada, Dr. Marion Tipple. She is associated with TRAS (formerly Tibetan Refugee Aid Society and now The Trans-Himalayan Aid Society), an organization started by the Canadian author, George Woodcock in 1962 after meeting the Dalai Lama for the first time. He asked His Holiness what could be done to help and he replied, “Do something for the children. They are our future.” The organization was started to assist displaced Tibetans in India and Nepal. Shortly thereafter the Dalai Lama‘s sister, Jetsun Pema started the TCV schools and each year hundreds of children escape across the border. Nobody is turned down. TRAS has not only helped these schools, but has a very successful sponsorship scheme for Tibetan children and has expanded its work to help other areas in the Himalaya, including India, Nepal, Spiti, and Ladakh. They support grass roots projects directly, and have given millions of dollars over the past forty years to benefit the Tibetan people. The work of TRAS, except for one half-time paid executive, is all done by volunteers. ( www.tras.ca)
We had a very disturbing conversation with Marion about Chinese tourism in Tibet and how the religious and ecological sites are being trashed. “It’s become the Chinese Disneyland,” she said of her recent trip there. “The culture is being completely disregarded. It’s the total objectification of Tibet.”
Cary and I could see this three years ago with the impending (now completed) train to Lhasa, the mining, and the plans to build a resort near sacred Lake Manasarovar. Already the Chinese outnumber the Tibetans two to one, and Tibetan language and literature are not allowed to be taught in the schools.
Is it any wonder that these children and teenagers, who walked days, and sometimes weeks, before crossing the border between Nepal and Tibet to reach freedom, treasure this school, do their chores happily, and are grateful to be in a house with 45 other students and sleep in a simple bunk bed? They help prepare the meals, and keep the houses spotless. Flowers grow in pots everywhere, and I saw two pet goats that were kept in the yard. Everybody knows that grief, sorrow, and homesickness are part of the life here and can be shared and expressed. Then they must move on. They are strong, resilient children.
The day before leaving for Tso Pema Cary, Tsering, Dolma, and I made a pilgrimage to the Prohit Flower Nursery in Palumpur to buy plants and shrubs as our gift to the school. We had a jolly time picking out choice plants and watching the ladies bargain with the owner as only the Tibetans and Indians can. When we returned in late afternoon it took an hour, with everybody helping, to make a beautiful border around the new prayer wheel and the front walk near the guest house and administration office. That night there was a huge thunder and wind storm, and I despaired of our little plants ever surviving, but the next day they were standing erect and colorful. I swear I detected smiles on their faces.
On March 20, after Cary and I had taught two classes in English and thoroughly enjoyed the responsiveness and eagerness of the students, we took a clinic vehicle to Tso Pema with Dr. Tsering Dorjee , head physician at The Tibetan Primary Health Centre in Bir. It was a beautiful, hilly drive through pine forest, with the Himalayan peaks getting closer and closer, the higher we climbed. We had a lively discussion about the bleakness of Tibet’s future (“There will be no forests or animals, just a barren wasteland by the time we get it back”), the disastrous effects of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the medical problems in India. He treats the children who recently escaped from Tibet and spoke of their severe malnutrition when they arrive, as well as the respiratory diseases I mentioned previously. He also said that his elderly patients show few of the illnesses of their western counterparts. No cases of Alzheimer’s and only one case of Parkinson’s. They seem happy and content, but many experience hypertension due to a diet high in salt ( i.e. quantities of butter tea).
In a lighter vein, I still am amused by the number of cows reclining halfway into the middle of the road, and the skill with which these drivers avoid them as well as the oncoming cars. The rides would be perilous (passing on hills and curves, avoiding huge oncoming trucks and buses) were they going fast.
We were overjoyed to arrive in Tso Pema and settle in at Sonam Hara’s apartment, which he graciously lent us for our stay. It’s conveniently located near the Zigar Monastery, in a small Tibetan enclave, and an easy walk to the lake. Prayer flags hang in great sweeping layers along the lake and thousands of sacred, but incredibly ugly carp churn the water, waiting for people to throw crackers to them. Monkeys wait, too, gathering up the remaining crumbs and cavorting noisily along the bank.
Cary had gotten in touch, upon arrival, with Lena Feral, the English interpreter for Wangdor Rinpoche, whom we had both met on Whidbey Island when he gave a teaching. After three koras around the lake, we decided to climb the hill to see her new apartment and stop on the way at the almost completed giant statue of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the famous guru who introduced Buddhism into Tibet and is an almost mythical figure in the history of Buddhism. There are many stories about him. The one related to Tso Pema is that a king became very angry when he discovered that his daughter, Mandarava, was the guru’s consort, so he imprisoned his daughter and then attempted to burn Padmasambhava. At the end of seven days, Guru Rinpoche was still alive and there was a lake at the spot where the fire had been, with the guru sitting in the middle on a lotus flower. The king then felt great remorse and converted to Buddhism, freed his daughter, and left the two to continue their work in peace.
We walked up the steep hill to the huge unfinished statue of Padmasambhava sitting on a lotus flower. Cary was recognized by Mingchuk, the engineer in charge of the construction. They had met two years before. He was delighted to see her and showed us around, explaining about the tsa tsas, sacred texts and objects that will be put inside the body of the statue. The dimensions are enormous and his presence seems to hover over the entire town. It will be a beautiful center, with a library, meeting rooms, and restaurant, when complete.
It was great to see Lena again, and meet her partner, Joy Schulenburg, who handles the Rinpoche’s busy schedule ( www.customjuju.com/wangdorrimpoche ), and friends Pia Topgyal, a Buddhist practitioner who lives and works in India, and Nyonda Nadi, a computer consultant. I listened and learned a great deal from Lena, who had lived and practiced in the caves above Tso Pema for several years, and from Pia, who married a Tibetan Buddhist and moved from Denmark to raise her family in India. Her son is a Rinpoche and her daughter now lives in Denmark.
Lena also clued us in on a great Indian restaurant with a very unlikely name, The Chopstic Fast Food Corner, which is neither fast nor does it have chop sticks, however you want to spell them. But the Indian food (not too spicy) was unequaled in our travels. Vijay Kumar is the owner, cook, and waiter, and we spent every meal there, becoming good friends. We even told him how to improve his coffee and make a grilled cheese sandwich. The restaurant has a perfect location on a quiet street leading off the kora, opposite a smaller statue of Guru Rinpoche. Hardly any vehicles are allowed on the street, unlike Dharamsala, where sitting in front of a restaurant can be a noisy affair.
During our three days in town we met several people who are here for retreats, and all had fascinating stories. One of the young women, Jessica Black from Canada, we had met, previously, at the library in Dharamsala where she was doing research for a book. The second young woman, Audrey Haller is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist and yoga expert, whose Irish father, Ryushin Paul Haller, is the co-abbot of the Tassajara Zen Retreat Center in the San Francisco bay area. She was raised in Zen and is still assisting her father in running his many retreats. This summer she’ll go with him to Ireland for a peace meditation. Audrey and I talked a great deal and she helped me understand the three phases of the kora and many Buddhist concepts. I appreciated her clear explanation of “emptiness” from a scientific and Buddhist point of view. The young man in the group, Brook Flath from Saskatoon, Canada, has been traveling for several years and is settled here for extended practice.
While eating lunch at Vijay’s we also met Ursula Taylor from Hamburg, Germany, who comes here every year for three months of practice. She told us where to find the best parantha in town at a little stand by the bus stop, for ten rupees. What a great tip that was!
By the way, I’ve finally been able to find Indian food that doesn’t blow my head off and clear my sinuses at the same time. I’ve also branched out into a few new foods like: parantha, a chapatti filled with potato; palak paneer, spinach and veggies blended and combined with chunks of white cheese; pakora, string potatoes and some greens dipped in batter and fried, and chukki-ata, a special whole wheat chapatti. I’ve also been introduced to many kinds of curd–so much better, I think, than our yogurt–and in one case it came mixed with troma, small tubers grown in Tibet.
On our second day in Tso Pema we climbed up a steep path for an hour or more (rather than walk 11 km. up a winding paved road), past small houses and pastures, and through piles of rock to the caves when 70 nuns are living. These caves in the high mountains are Spartan, but have small stone or cinder block additions with tin roofs. Recently, electricity has been added. Cary was here two years earlier so was acquainted with several of the women. We visited two, one of whom, Orgyen Choetso, is sponsored by Cary’s friend, Mully, on Whidbey Island. We delivered some long silk underwear to her to help, during the cold winter months, alleviate her severe arthritis. It was a jolly visit, ‘though verbal communication was difficult. But there was plenty of milk tea, and, as we were leaving, Orgyen Choetso opened a large keg and gave us a bag of tsampa, the barley grain used for cereal. You mix it with a small amount of butter, tea, and sugar, and kneed it with your fingers before eating. I tried some in Suja, and it’s rather good. And certainly healthy. We didn’t understand why she gave so much to us, but she insisted. Lena said, later, that it was for Cary to use when she was on retreat. We had thought, since she mentioned the lake, that she wanted us to feed it to the fish.
Wangdor Rinpoche, who lives in a very simple room there, had headed for the monastery, so we climbed back down to town, watching the sun disappear over the mountains and the giant statue.
Lena took us to the monastery the next afternoon to visit Rinpoche. We entered his room, where he sat on a raised platform amid wall hangings, decorative candles, and piles of gifts which he, in turn, gives away. He greeted us warmly–a small man in his early seventies, who had escaped from Tibet in 1959, carrying his teacher on his back, while being pursued by the Chinese. We discussed many things, with Lena as interpreter, including his upcoming trip to the U.S. and the different Buddhist paths. The next day, before we left, we had lunch at the monastery at Rinpoche’s invitation, and were joined by Sonam Hara and his son, Thubten. We continued this discussion, which helped me understand the many facets of this powerful religion.
Before lunch we had climbed up to Lena’s, where a group of nuns from Spiti were visiting. Lena had told us the night before about their predicament since the Chinese invasion and takeover of their country. They were no longer supported by the community and compelled to do heavy road work every summer, earning about 100 rupees, or $1.25, a day (I often saw women like this in India carrying large loads of gravel on their head from one construction site to another). This money would be used for food over the winter. Some of the nuns were in poor health and getting too old for such heavy labor, but there was no other work available to them. Therefore, Lena was giving them funds to help tide them over until sponsors could be found. Cary and I decided to make a donation as well, but had not expected to be able to meet the nuns. It was an honor to help such dedicated, compassionate women.
At 1 PM on March 25 we started back to Suja, hating to leave this idyllic town, but eager to have one more evening with our TCV friends. And what an evening it was! This was Founder’s Day at the school, with speeches and dancing to celebrate the anniversary of its founding. We missed the afternoon celebration, but attended a tasty buffet where we were privileged to sit with the new director of the school and the principal. It was a treat for Cary, who received a Tibetan lesson on the spot from the director. A caring man with a great sense of humor, he tested her, urging her to translate everything I said to him. I was really impressed with her proficiency. And she was thrilled to have such a great exchange.
While at dinner we met a French lady who lives in Luxembourg, Monique Paillard, a big supporter of the TCV school in Suja. She has an organization, The Friends of Tibet, with a website ( www.amis-tibet.lu) , brochures, and tapes available. What a dedicated lady! She inspired me to start a similar project in the U.S., time and energy willing.
The next day, March 26, we were able to get a ride in a TCV car that was going to Dharamsala. Before we left, however, we had an extraordinary experience. Tsering Somo let us sit in on one of her beginning English classes, which she teaches to the children recently arriving from Tibet. What a bright-eyed, eager group they were! During the session, the new director stopped by for a word with the class. I could almost tell what he was saying by his gestures–study hard, take care of yourself and have good hygiene. Then he pointed to Cary and me (calling me Amala). Later on I found out what he’d said to the children. If they became educated they could someday take their mothers or families on a journey into the world, just as Cary was taking me.
At the end of the class I asked if I could record some folk songs. Before beginning, each child shared where he or she had come from (most were from Kham, where Cary is heading this summer), then sang in a clear voice songs that were haunting and full of passion. I looked around at the other children. They were mesmerized and following every word. One boy looked out the window as he sang about mountains and plains and his life in a nomad family. The music is so different from ours–with high runs and intervals that seem improvised, and notes held longer than usual–a timing unfamiliar to me. The tunes were intricate and flowing, painting pictures of joy, longing, and sorrow. Moments later I replayed the tapes and was treated, gleefully, to a group song before leaving.
Next episode. The return to Dharamsala.