Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Dalai Lama Sutra

Thus have I heard.

HH the Dalai Lama was dwelling on the Himalayan Valley of Nubra in Ladakh, together with a great community of monks and nuns, lay and village people, and a select group of Westerners. Surrounded by ancient Buddha mountains with pure snow peaks. The recently blessed, hundred-foot Maitraya looks down upon the procession from the Gompa mount. Prayer flags of red, green, yellow, blue, white - representative of the five elements - color the sky, blowing prayers in the gentle winds.

Squished like bugs, we sit roasting in the Himalayan sun, waiting for His arrival. A sea of red; bald monks sizzle like lobsters, waiting to receive the precious buddhadharma. Waiting. Waiting. Cultivating scorching patience - wiggling Westerners get restless. "Put the umbrellas away!" They say, "I can't see!" When there's nothing to see. The Dharma is to be heard. Through a crackling speaker box, an English translation transmits through. The drums and horns sound. Here we go...

A big Dalai Lama smile and bow spreads through the crowd. We return by dropping our ego-minds in three prostrations. Thousands in attendance. The tea blessing begins. Thick, salty, yak butter is served up warm in big bronze pots by monks and Ladakhi women, adorned in their finest garments, deep blue turquoise chunks and big yak wool top hats. Along with the tea is served thick Tibetan bread, made fresh by the village women the night before.

The Dalai Lama raps on about emptiness. Nothing exists from it's own side. Cultivate the wisdom that knows emptiness. Interdependence is the other side of the coin. Perception, logic, ration, epistemology, subject/object, Prasangika Madhyamikya says... Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and Shantideva say... bodhicitta! Tongue twisting mouthfulls of Tibetan and Sanskrit, names and texts linger in the dry desert heat.

"Scientists are showing that those who constantly think of 'I' are more at risk of heart attack." The ego-mind is attacking the heart. Thoughts can kill.

The suffering of sentient beings is felt throughout hot, aching, itching, wiggling Western knees and spines. While the mountains sit strong, watching the endless procession in stillness. No wiggling mountains. No itching rocks. Pure Being - at the natural level. The cool snow peaks appear a mirage as giant beads of sweat slide down my brow. The Dalai Lama laughs and all suffering is momentarily ceased.


After an incredible week in the small rural villages of the Nubra Valley, on the Dalai Lama tour, drinking yak butter tea, spinning big prayer wheels, photographing big white stupas, eating momos and chow mein, saying Juley all day, taking ice cold bucket baths, living a life a little closer to a Ladakhi, a little closer to the Earth - something amazing happened. On the afternoon of the final day of teaching, HH the Dalai Lama announced he would be granting the Westerners an audience!

With a group of less than a hundred, we rallied through all the Ladakhis, security, and up to the DL's residence. The excitement was so high. The whole week we had felt so blessed to even be there. The Dalai Lama had been giving high teachings and initiations to the local monks and nuns of the Nubra Monasteries. At each one, we were fortunate enough to have a private section, right up front, with an English translation. This made for a rather unique and intimate gathering - a truly special Dharma transmission. And now we were to meet HH up close and personal!

He "lama walked" out to our group, smiling and waving, apparently unshaken by the heat, or the 3 hours of teachings he had just dished, at the end of a long week of teaching - he was not finished yet. In English now, he addressed us as his friends, speaking of the universality of the human heart. After about a fifteen minute dialogue, filled with much laughter, he willingly suggested a photoshoot. Thus our week in the Nubra came to a climactic end, with a meeting with HH the Dalai Lama.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Juley! We Have Arrived in Leh

After the harrowing journey over the Himalayan mountains, we arrived upon the capitol city of Leh. We came into a dirty bus station at about 11pm, and after 4 days of traveling, we were quickly suckered into the first guest house we were offered. We had no reservations, which is the way it usually works, you get to a place and a guy comes up to you and says, "come look at my house, very nice place." Sometimes it is, but in the case of our first night in Leh, this was not so. I think when we arrived to the guest house it was only a matter of moments before Seth announced to me, "we are leaving in the morning." The first thing we found out was that there was no water, so if you want to bathe they bring you a bucket, which may or may not be warm, and they might not bring the bucket at all!

In the morning our pseudo tour guide, Glenn, announced he had found a much better guest house about 15 minutes away. So Seth and I packed up our stuff in a flash and, still hungover from the bus journey, found ourselves walking through the cobble stone village paths of the real Ladakh - the Ladakh that we had imagined through all the stories and movies we have seen and heard. The new guest house turned out to be a beautiful traditional Ladakh home, white walled, hand made bricks, thatched roof, beautiful green vegetable garden, streams running through and around the property, and my favorite Poplar trees lining it all. Our room is surrounded with big windows, facing in all directions the snow covered Himalayan mountains. Our little Ladakhy mother brings us fresh mint tea in the morning, and there is an actual toilet, unlike most places in the area which just have a hole in the floor.

Check out the picture below of the view from our bathroom!

Heaven. Suddenly the journey here started to feel like a distant memory as we fell in love with the city of Leh.

Here in Ladakh we have learned one word, "Juley" pronounced JOO-LAY. It is one of those amazing words that means: Hello-Goodbye-Thank You- Please-Excuse Me-Peace-and HEY YOU ALMOST RAN ME OVER! We must say Juley at least 100 times a day.

We have spent our days here in Leh in preparation for leaving for the Nubra Valley, which is located in the heart of Ladakh, about 5 hours from where we are. A place that requires permits, tents, bus tickets, and all the usual travel commodities.

Leh has an influx of westerners, and therefore the restaurants offer a selection of Indian, Ladakhy, Chinese and Israeli food, which we partake in, always saying, "Well...this may be the last time we will be able to get a falafel."

The valley that Leh sits in is surrounded by peaks that host an assortment of buildings, from monasteries, peace stupas, old forts, and the famous Leh Palace that was supposed to be the reproduction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

Before coming here I had read the anthropological studies of the Ladakhy people done by Helena Norberg Hodges, in her book "Ancient Futures" (thank you Daruka). Which was written over 25 years ago, when she had become one of the first Westerners to come to this part of the word. She started an organization called the Ladakhy Woman's Alliance, that supports the self sustainable lifestyle and culture of the people. Everyday this organization shows a documentary film based on "Ancient Futures" which we went to watch one afternoon. You can all probably imagine the themes addressed in the film, a culture completely self-sustainable, producing no waste, strong community, being destroyed by the influx of globalization. People moving from the farm lands of no poverty to live in the dirty ghettos of the "big" city of Leh. Food production no longer local, grains shipped from Southern India, rather than grown in Ladakh.

Really sad, the day we watched the film, I had actually taken an hour walk, with my two girl friends, to buy bus tickets at the the very dirty bus station. Although we were staying in the image of beautiful traditional Ladakh life, to get to the bus station we had to through the nasty, dirty, garbage heap projects of Leh. Shops slanging crap, western paraphernalia, guns, sex and rock and roll, feces everywhere, no fresh water, no vegetable gardens, all in all pretty gross. I was thankful to get back to the other side of town, and to the sound of the streams running past my bedroom window, but a great perspective none the less.

Now off for a five hour journey deeper into the mountains, over the highest road pass in the world! to the very small town of Sumuur, where we will receive two days of teachings from HH the Dalai Lama.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Journey to Ladakh

I have been trying to write this post now for the past three days. I don't know if it's the altitude, writer's block, or the fact that it is just impossible to translate such an intense experience into mere words (I'm beginning to feel this will be a theme in India - the inability to describe the ineffable). But seriously, our journey to Ladakh was ridiculously out of this world. Both good and bad. Someday I'll take the time and write a longer story about this one, but for now I'm gonna have to keep it brief...

It was supposed to be a "smooth" 2-day bus ride from Manali to Leh. With a overnight stay in the desolate Himalayan town of Keylong to break up the journey, and to help us acclimatize to the high altitude. Leh, the capitol city of Ladakh, is situated at about 14,000 ft high in the Himalayas. Until the last few decades, it was pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. It is one of the highest and driest regions on the planet, only accessible about 3 months - for the rest of the year the valley freezes over, and the few road passes are all snowed in. To reach Ladakh, you must journey up to 17,000 ft, over the second highest road on the planet.

Day 1

Very excited, and with a sangha of friends from the Heart Sutra course at Tushita, including Glen our teacher, and soon to be tour guide and fearless leader, we packed onto the government bus with a few other Westerners and several Indian families. Now, we had already overheard a few broken hearts and horror stories at Manali restaurants, about how the roads had closed due to a recent avalanche. One girl told how their bus had broken down on their way back to Manali and they had to ditch the bus, walk several miles to find horses, ride the horses back up the mountain to gather their gear, and horseback ride all the way back down to Manali - all the way to the table next to us on "date night" at People's restaurant. Char and I looked at each other wide-eyed in agony for these people, but we assured ourselves the road will be clear and safe by tomorrow, nothing like this would happen to us...

Well we didn't have to ride horses. But we would have paid to! The landslide was in full effect when we arrived at the pass on Day 1. As we pulled up to the tiny little trucker stop town of Marhi at 11,000 ft, we could see the blocked pass above, lined with hundreds of jeeps, buses, and trucks, stacked behind each other like red and white dominoes all the way down the mountain switchback road. We had only been on the road for about two hours, and already had been delayed twice. Now we were to "wait it out" until the road cleared. As we gathered for chai and lunch at one of several small dhabas, we learned that there was another problem: a truck had nearly fallen off the cliff and was stuck, half blocking the road. Still we waited...all day... until nightfall, when with sunken heads we all gathered back on the bus and dreadfully headed all the way back down to Manali. Spirits defeated, we were almost back at the Manali bus stop, when ptsssssssss one of the back right tires went out like a kick in the stomach. To add injury to insult, our sister Emily twisted her ankle in the busy street as we were searching for a guest house.

Day 2

The next day we all headed back to the bus stop, a little less enthused, but still optimistic about the road ahead. There was still no word about whether the pass was clear. The government bus office sent their P.R. rep on the bus to give us a big pep talk, a motivational speech ha! To get everyone riled up, "No one is coming back to Manali tonight!!" Shouts and applause from the bus... Those words proved true... but I would have really liked to see what this guy would have had to say, oh about 10 hours later, when we were stuck waiting again in Marhi. He wouldn't have gotten off the bus so easy...

Back in Marhi we waited.... and waited... and waited.... still no word. Ladakh melted further and further into an imaginary realm beyond our reach. The domino line of vehicles was still stuck in pause. By mid-afternoon, the 11,000 ft altitude hit Charlotte and she began to feel uneasy and lightheaded. Everyone was getting restless. There was talk about ditching the bus and walking 5km with our bags over the pass... We learned that some cars had passed through, thinking the landslide was done. One car got slammed by some big rocks. One person died. Tension on the bus was getting high. Some wanted to walk, some wanted to stay the night, others wanted to go back to Manali for fear of sleeping at such high altitude.

We ended up staying the night in Marhi, after waiting around for over 10 hours... with still no promise that the road would be cleared by morning. Some had left the bus, taken a taxi up the hill and walked across the pass into the night. Who knows what lay ahead. We found a "place" to rest for the night. Behind each dhaba restaurant, through the kitchen, was a path through the tiny village to a toilet. So many toilets. We stayed in the toilet village, in a tiny little shack with bunks. Give thanks for sangha, again and again. However that night our sangha grew to include a few tiny hairy little friends. As I lay our sleeping bags on the top bunk, a big rat raced above my head across a wooden pillar. They would multiply throughout the night... But it actually wouldn't have been so bad, except as soon as I lay down for bed, the altitude hit me, hard. My head was throbbing. Tossing and turning, heart pounding, it was incredibly painful. I could barely breathe - I didn't know if I'd make it through the night. I crawled into Child's Pose and focused on my breath. Laying back down into Savasana, I finally drifted asleep... for about 2 hours.

Day 3

We were awaken abruptly, dark and early by Glen at our "window" door, "WE'RE GOING! WE'RE GOING!" Absolutely startled, we jumped out of bed. Banged my head. Char's glasses fell. We could hear the bus engine starting. "WE'RE GOING! WE'RE GOING!" We all ran out to the bus as quick as possible dragging our things behind. No one was on the bus. It was chai time.

Finally on the road again, it took us over five hours just to get through this little pass. The truck was still stuck, but one by one vehicles were being squeezed by. A group of saintly Indian man stood on the edge of the earth all day pushing trucks and buses like ours through the muddy rocks. It was quite a scene. But finally, like a newborn, we pushed through that motha!! After hours of amazing fresh mountain landscape, we made it to Keylong, two days later... Finally, we were making progress. We were told that we would stay at the finest hotel in Keylong. Which in India means we stayed in tents in the front yard of the finest hotel in Keylong. With no showers. We climbed up the river and took a icy cold Himalayan bath.

Day 4

We were back on the bus the next morning, late, at 5am, for what would be the longest most difficult day yet. We had over 250km til Leh. We were tired, weary, excited, and a bit loony. Did I mention this day was long? We covered some of the most amazing land I have ever witnessed. The diversity of the landscape and geology was insane. From the lush green mountains and trees of Manali to rugged stone scapes, dry desert plains, frozen tundra, snow like Siberia, to red rock like the Grand Canyon. It was unbelievable. All in all we drove over 17 hours that day. And I felt every single bump. We were, by the way in the very back of the bus, and could literally feel the road. Numerous times we hit a bump in the road and was sent flying off my seat, slamming my head into the luggage compartment. Once in particular, my head already throbbing from the altitude, I felt my brain do a little jiggle.

But I was really doing fine, until we hit the high pass, 17,000 ft, and stopped for a photo shoot. I began shaking, and shivering, my body weak and cold, I stumbled back onto the bus. Then flushed with hot flashes. Then again cold, hot, cold, and head was absolutely throbbing. I felt worse than ever. Finally, the little Indian ladies got back on the bus, and we began our descent. I started to feel a little better, but those last four or five hours were so uncomfortably painful. Just about everyone on the bus was looking more and more like death. People were throwing up. Every five minutes an Indian woman would let out a hideous moan, sending shrills down everyone's spine. We were almost there. Beautiful white stupas began appearing through the dark night of the dirty bus windows. I could almost feel the sheets of the guest house bed ahead of me. And then ptsssssssss - deja vu - the same tire went flat like a hospital life-line. We were stuck in the dark somewhere in Ladakh. After an hour or so, the tire was fixed. Back on the bus, we were in Leh in another hour and a half. Like tourist fresh bait, we were swarmed by taxi drivers and guest house owners. Somehow we made it to a bed that night, not the soft down comforter I had dreamed about, more like a wooden plank, but we had arrived.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

HH The Dalai Lama Turns 75!

Ever since we knew we were going to Mcleod Ganj, the exile city of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, we knew that we would be there at the same time of His Holiness' birthday. It was the one definite plan we had bef0re embarking on this journey, to attend the Dalai Lama's 75th Birthday Bash!

Tuesday, July 6, arrives, and with it the monsoons. Small sidenote about monsoons - when they arrive, it is as if God has taken a large river, placed it in a bucket then decide to pour the contents onto the land all at once. The monsoons make the rain in Humboldt County look like a garden sprinkler. Sidenote about Mcleod Ganj - we are told that this little spot in India gets the 2nd highest rainfall on the planet! I preface with this as the Dalai Lama's Birthday celebration was being held in his very humble temple abode, a large yellow building set upon the hillside, about a 35 minute walk down the beautiful woodland path from where are staying.

The festivities were to begin at 9 am and we had been advised to arrive by 7:30 to secure seats in the outside courtyard of the temple. When we woke up to the monsoon, however, we decided it might not be the best idea to stand in the rain for two hours waiting to see if the Dalai Lama would or would not show up for the festivities, as it was unclear at that point whether or not he would even be there. We had heard rumors that he is not really that into his birthday... We get there at about 9:10 and the streets surrounding the temple are already packed with hundreds of Tibetans, each with a massive brightly colored rain umbrella. There was excitement in the air - the rain, the birthday, the we squeezed through the temple gates we bumped into a rainbow umbrella which sprayed water down upon Seth and a nearby red clad monk. The two of them laughing, Seth reached out and rubbed the monk's shaved wet head, as we passed him by.

We wedged our way through the crowds, avoiding more umbrella pokes, passing old Tibetan women selling traditional "momos" veggie stuffed dumplings. Everyone was heading toward one small rigged doorway, with one large security guard, allowing one person at a time through this doorway. It was like an elephant stampede trying to get through a tiny ant hole. So there we are, crammed into a stairwell with hundreds of Tibetans, I am talking so squished I feel the pressure on my innards, and as I was on day two of recovering from India stomach - it was not good. I am starting to feel very claustrophobic, very anxious, the crowd is not moving, but there is Seth squished up next to me, announcing to the entire crowd in a joyous voice, "May all beings be Happy, We are all loving and peaceful people, just here to celebrate His Holiness' Birthday, can we please enter? OM MANI PADME HUM!" That is what I love about him, even in the most uncomfortable of situations he is able to find the light.

So after what seemed like an eternity to me, we made it through the security, and felt a deep breath of fresh air. We were allowed into the temple, but due to the large crowds, we could not be on the floor, but on the balcony overlooking the open courtyard, where as it turns out, the Dalai Lama was sitting, watching his special Birthday performances. So we were upstairs with all the Tibetans, dressed in their finest attire. Some were dressed in traditional costumes, where groups were rehearsing their bits to perform for His Holiness. Loud speakers were blaring the ceremony, and when the Dalai Lama's voice came through, I was instantly brought to tears. Though we were pressed up against hundreds of red robed monks leaning over a railing, we could not quite glance a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. Regardless there was still a Tibetan Party going on upstairs, and when some Tibetan Rock stars took stage, Seth took me in his arms for a little impromptu jig, which was awarded with a "thumbs up" and many smiles from the monks!

As we were leaving we happened to notice a side entrance into the courtyard, near where the HH The Dalai Lama Turns 75!

Dalai Lama was sitting. By maneuvering through monks, we were able to stand on some rickety plastic chairs, and OH YES, get a glimpse of the left side of the Dalai Lama's smiling face.

So there you have it. We were at the Dalai Lama's 75th Birthday and we have the sticker to prove it!

For photos of the event, check out HH the DL's Facebook page.

Dharamkot A.K.A. Little Israel

Our little friendly neighborhood

Morning asana sesh on our guest house deck

Daily view at our favorite Radha Krishna Restaurant

This guy made the bomb veg omelettes

Epic hike to the waterfall