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A magical place

By Noor Jehan Mecklai, Dawn, c.2007

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‘Dharamsala is cloister and community, a retreat that is at once out of the world and bang in the middle of it. It is the former because one can live here in quiet seclusion and study with a teacher or work on honing one’s (spiritual) practice. And it is the latter because, well, it is a bustling, populous town that is not sealed off from vices and tensions... Dharamsala is not a mythical paradise populated by perfected individuals… it imitates the nature of life... What you learn in philosophy class or during meditation is immediately put to test as you are almost run over by a speeding motorcycle (or) negotiate a viable rent with greedy landlords... For the mind that is training itself, every moment here can be the challenge that pushes what you thought were your limits of endurance, concentration, compassion. Every such attempt is a step towards realising that the potentiality of perfection is our true nature.’

This last sentence is well in line with the Buddhist teaching that we are all born with the Buddha nature, and rounds off one of Swati Chopra’s valuable asides, which along with her profound philosophical observations contribute such a lot to the enjoyment of reading Dharamsala Diaries. She gives, with great love and compassion, a complete overview of life in this Tibetan enclave, its land granted by India to the Dalai Lama and the thousands of greater and lesser Tibetans who have fled here from their homeland since 1959. She tells us who is here and why, how Tibetans here make a living, what the common aspirations are, how to get here and having done so how to survive, what institutions flourish and what goes on in people’s minds. It would be very interesting to hear a discussion between this woman and Karen Armstrong.

Dharamsala, she tells us, is a combination of two Sanskrit words, dharma and shala, and means ‘the home of dharma’. Dharma, she explains, is derived from dhri — to bear or support — while from the same root comes dharti — symbolic of stability and centerdness. So in its range of meanings dharma includes righteousness or duty, natural law and personal ethics. It denotes the Buddha’s teachings ‘that are about truth, reality — the way things actually are… and not what the conditioned mind shows us.’

She also dilates upon the meaning of the mantra of compassion, the official mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, closely associated with the Dalai Lama, since he is widely held to be the present incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. Sogyal Rinpoche in his world-famous exposition, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, gives an in-depth explanation of this mantra. However, loosely translated as ‘Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus,’ it actually combines method (mani) and wisdom (padme), to transform (hum) the ordinary body, speech and mind of the spiritual practitioner into that of a Buddha. And while circumambulating the Tsulag Khang, the residence of the revered Dalai Lama, Tibetans and others may be heard reciting it, either as ‘Om mani padme hum’, or in Tibetan fashion as ‘Om mani peme hung’.

‘Every traveller is making travels and pilgrimages that bring her to her own self, Dharamsala reveals to all something about themselves. It can be enabler, protector, healer, mentor, teacher, according to your needs.’

As to the actual direction of the settlement, the Tibetan government in exile has a string of offices here, and has formulated policies not only for the diaspora but also for Tibet, maintaining a middle path – very important in Buddhism – towards administration, education, health and other aspects of governance. It is democratically elected by the Tibetan diaspora, and His Holiness hopes that in future Tibet itself will be a democracy. There is a great emphasis on human duties, as prime minister Samdhong Ringpoche explains. ‘(We) have to realise responsibility towards the whole universe... While talking of human rights, we’ve completely forgotten human duties. Without duties, everyone will try to protect his or her own rights, at the cost of others.’ The emphasis in this place is on good karma above good business, as Swati learns when she visits the awesome Men Tsee Khang – the Tibetan Medicine and Astrology Institute.

Sitting in the lecture hall of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, one listens to the geshe – both monk and learned Doctor of Philosophy several of whom may lecture in Tibetan, assisted by either a Tibetan or foreign interpreter for the benefit of the many, many foreign spiritual seekers from all parts of the globe. Here the author finds herself ‘wedged between a big, much-tattooed American monk … and an older Scottish woman, whose fingers constantly twitch around a rosary of fake sandalwood beads’.

Meanwhile, down in nearby Dharamkot, in a computer-lined café Swati finds many internet browsers displaying websites ending in il., suffix for Israel, and indeed, here 90 per cent of young foreign seekers are Israelis. She talks to a group of these, their young faces lined and haggard, fresh from their compulsory military service. The youngest is a vibrant girl of just twenty-one, having trained soldiers, already a two-year army veteran. She enthuses about the change of pace she finds here, something more than ‘just being out of a conflict zone,’ saying, ‘You can actually be as quiet and still as these mountains. This is what I want to take back with me, this peace, how it feels to be simple, to just be ….’

But do all Tibetans come here to stay? No. There are those who come to Dharamsala on a pilgrimage then return to their country. And there are others who return to Tibet out of frustration, like the two artists from Lhasa, who found themselves amongst people primarily concerned with survival and old traditions, indifferent to their artistic achievements. The young woman cut off a finger in her despair, and left, while the man also talks of leaving, saying that Dharamsala is destroying him.

‘Every traveller,’ concludes Swati Patel, ‘is in the end making travels and pilgrimages that bring her to her own self … Dharamsala reveals to all something about themselves. It can be enabler, protector, healer, mentor, teacher, according to your needs … In my time in Dharamsala I did look over the edge, but I haven’t flown (over) it like all those seekers whose paths disappeared into that vortex of transformation and transcendence… And now the sand in the hourglass has run out on me. Perhaps there will be another time?

________________________________________ Dharamsala Diaries By Swati Chopra Penguin Books, India ISBN 0-14310-306-7 277pp. Indian Rs295

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