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India Trip Notes

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4-10-11 - Dharamsala

October 2003

Another old time expat I met at the hotel in Delhi suggested I go with him to Dharamsala on the overnight bus,479 kilometers in eight hours. Of course. Where else would I go?

The ride was lurching, cramped, on and on. I related to it like a sesshin, hmm, even more like tangaryo where you don't have periods, just keep sitting, can't leave your spot. It was my first experience on the highway weaving in and out of the opposing vehicles to advance through the thicket of traffic, more compelling than the city version. Once we pulled way around to the other side and I saw a motorcycle and man both motionless lying in the road and said a little prayer for them.  Next morning's light came graciously to illuminate the green mountainside and carved curving road we climbed to come to rest above the metropolis of Dharamsala in the hill station called McLeod Ganj.

Following my leader I stayed the first few days way up further in a concrete cabin in the woods on the estate of a man with a large house he was pleased to have me enter anytime to drink tea with him and talk. His assistant took my laundry. How much? I asked. "Whatever you want," my host said.

In the early morning I watched twenty monkeys run across his roofs and swing through his trees. Walking down the road to the village I had to pass through a group that large, babies clinging under mothers, teens sparing, others sitting contentedly, me carrying a tall stick and keeping an eye on the seemingly hostile alpha male.

I went up to a stand and bought some tea and something to munch on. Had to figure out what bill to give the guy and was balancing the three things to hold. Then four - got a newspaper. Went off to sit down across the open central area, a bus and taxi turn around and hub for four roads. Someone was calling. Oh no - the guy was running at me with my wallet. Good lord. I thanked him and took out a bill to reward him but he wouldn't accept it and went back to his stand, not much larger than a phone booth. He might even sleep in it and I bet it didn't occur to him to keep another's money. The least I could do would be to patronize him from then on.

Oh, that would have hurt. I had my only credit card, only ATM card, and all my cash in there. I usually traveled with the cards separate and most precious items including passport in a sturdy, travel purse with a Velcro pocket  and a zipper pocket which I've used longer than I remember. It's purple and intended to hang from one's neck, but I tie the strings around a belt hoop and then drop it inside my pants next to my underwear - not in a pocket. I berated myself and concentrated on thoughts of being careful, paying attention, not putting things down - ever - unless they're not important like my paper which I had put down. I picked it up and read it.

So they call this Upper Dharamsala - not just McLeod Ganj but a bunch of little villages that are walking distance from each other. McLeod Ganj is the most famous because the Dali Lama (TDL) lives here. This is Tibetan territory, Tibetan monks, nuns, and laypeople, and Westerners who've come to be near them and the Dali Lama. And there are a lot of men from Kashmir standing in front of their stores.

Walking by a row of prayer wheels on a wall, watching others passing spin them, I step in a doorway to let a truck go by a car coming from the other direction. Impossible. The road is barely wider than the truck. The car finds a niche and it happens, breaking fundamental laws of psychics. There are some regular Indians up here and some cows. Lots of people and motorcycles. After a few days I got a room in one of the monastery guest houses right in the middle of the action. Was it a guest house owned by the monastery or a guest house that was also a monastery? It was run by Tibetan monks. There was a nice restaurant there. Down the street The Little Buddha was to be playing on a big TV monitor in a store front that evening.

The Tibetan Library was in a Tibetan enclave down the hill and I went there and heard a lama speak some mornings at ten and met Karma Khedup who was in charge of archiving the Dalai Lama's talks and other material. [See LTWA on cuke] There was another lama I'd hear give talks in a village up the hill from my guest house. There was no ATM in Upper Dharamsala so I walked all the way down to Lower Dharamsala to a bank to find it didn't have ATMs either. No bank did - but they took my credit card. There are some Tibetans in Lower Dharamsala as well, but it's still what I'd call India. I could get a ride back up on a bus, rickshaw, or taxi on either the left side or right side roads, but it was an invigorating walk on either or on a wonderful path through a mountain forest in the center - and a creek to cross. It was nine kilometers between upper an lower.

Up and down I walked for thirty-three days. That's the way to live, I mumbled to myself toward the end of my stay by which time I thought nothing of trotting up or down those distances. There were villages above Mcleod Ganj I'd go to by myself or with others and one day a woman from Malta and I trekked up a thousand plus meters more, passing shacks and nooks with food and water, nothing too difficult, a guest house way up. I think about the monks at Eiheiji in Japan who walk up a great number of steps to the founder's hall daily to do a service and thought that we should include a daily rite like that at Tassajara to keep the students' hearts and legs in good shape.

On my way back up from the second trip to get money, I visited an old friend named Dianne Aigaki who'd built a home in a tiny village a few hundred meters below the Dali Lama's place. A foreigner can't buy property there so she'd leased her lot and the one next door for thirty years.

We'd done some email and she was just getting back from somewhere. I'd met Dianne when she was the partner of a recording engineer I worked with back in the early eighties. I remember visiting them at their houseboat at Port Sonoma on the SF Bay Delta. She had a big duck paddle boat. That was a compromise home because her obsession back then was to own an island. She subscribed to a magazine about islands with listings of islands for sale. She showed me a photo of where she longed to build her dream home - on an island on a lake within an island on a lake.

I told her about being on the large island of Jeju-do south of South Korea in 1989 with Elin, Kelly, and Ethan Patchel (son of Tony Patchel and Darlene Cohen RIP) and visiting an island off Jeju where the women were known for diving for pearls and shellfish and then we took a row boat to a small rocky island off that island and I waded through the water to a large rock off that island then stood on a small rock off of it and said I was on an island off an island off an island off an island off an island off a peninsula.

Dianne does tours of Tibet these days - check it out - The Dream of the Turquoise Bee - botanical illustration/photography tours to Kham Tibet (as advertised on and not to be confused with the late Rick Fields' Turquoise Bee: love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama). Last year, a few friends and I went to a presentation on Dianne's tour in Sebastopol, CA, forking up ten bucks each out of loyalty - me to her and them to me. The Chinese know she's buddies with the Tibetan government in exile people but since her tour is pure science and since Kham is an area that was part of China even before the fifties, it's easier to go there. But maybe in the current crackdown they'll expel her.

Dianne was studying Tibetan Buddhism and language as well as writing proposals to benefit the locals in various ways. One was to get some money from the UN to clean up a lot of the mess that was spoiling our views off the roads. There's a Dutch guy who years ago set up a thorough recycling system for Upper Dharamsala with collection areas and people said that helped, but I guess it was just a drop in the biosphere, the rest of which was still a big inviting dust bin to all but the Western neat freaks. The view from her house was fine though, as it was away from the road, and tumbled down into a beautiful valley with a rocky creek. She said there'd been a bear down there recently.

She supported herself back then and maybe still to some degree by coming back to the States for a month every year to teach workshops on writing proposals.

She had an old guitar with a broken string which I fixed as well as I could to play, at her request, her favorite song of mine, Heart's Desire. I'm used to people fleeing when I pick up a guitar so I gladly complied.

Dianne had a great young Indian guy named Hari working for her. He'd been to a couple of years of college and lived with his family in a small cottage within calling out distance. Hari would do errands and give her rides on his scooter and more. I hung out with him some. He'd tell me how the Tibetans discriminate against the Indians. Like, he said, there were only two basketball courts in Dharamsala and both were on Tibetan property. One was by the Library. Indians were not allowed on either. I told him that wasn't a very nice way to tell your host thanks for giving you sanctuary. And now I think of the Tibetan body worker below who rents from Dhanam. She'd love to get rid of him but needs the money. She says he won't work on Indians including her. Maybe there's more to it but he's not here in the off season to ask.

One day Hari gave me a ride on his scooter and a man came out of a store yelling at him for a while and finally Hari gave him a ballpoint pen and we went on. I asked him what sort of horrible thing had the man accused him of and Hari said he'd forgotten to return the man's pen and that the guy understood it was an honest mistake. That was it? It reminded me of the flight over when two Indian men were having a loud argument and I thought they were about to punch each other out till the topic changed and they were laughing and I realized they'd just been having a conversation in a way I wasn't accustomed to. Traveling is great.

Hari came over to Dianne and told her that the landlord was showing her second lot to a Japanese man. She went over to them and asked what was going on and the Japanese man introduced himself and said that he was going to be her new neighbor. She told him in what must have been her most alpha voice, that he certainly was not! - that she'd leased that lot for thirty years and had a contract! The landlord turned to her and said with a smile, "Yes, but he is offering more money." I brought a Danish friend who'd been living there for thirty years to talk to her. He said she'd better get her property under a foundation or non profit corporation, that a woman and especially a foreign woman would have no chance in court. Thousands of dollars later she gave up.

Before she had her home, Dianne lived here and there in Dharamsala, one place being in the home of the secretary to the Dali Lama. He had these little yip yip yip dogs that never stopped their high pitched barking. It drove her nuts and no one else cared. When she returned from a trip to the States, she brought a little box that she plugged in and each dog gave one yip after that followed by a high pitched howl and then silence. We have street dogs outside where I live in Tiru and a fenced in dog next door and they get into it now and then, day or night, and when they do, I think of Dianne and want to emulate her.

Dianne and I could talk on and on but I didn't like finding myself at her place when it got dark. The first time she told me to take a stick because there were two leopards living on her property and to turn around frequently as I walked up the road to see if one was following me. I'd moved to a room off a Kashmir Muslim home whose toilet was at the end of the building I was in so the family had to go outside to use it and they didn't let their kids go out at night alone to do so. Leopards. It was said they helped to keep the dog and cat population down though.

More on Dianne here on cuke.

A Kashmiri shopkeeper I spent some time talking to got me that room. His home was next door. He took me in and his wife served us some tea and sweets without ever being introduced or showing her face. He'd tell me how wonderful Islam was and I said that I loved Rumi and Hafiz and went Sufi dancing some and he dismissed the Sufis and told me how great it was that Mohammed had  laid out every little detail of how to live and do everything. It reminded me of Dogen's detailed instructions for his monks. Somehow in one of our conversations it came up that I'd been divorced, actually twice, really three times if you include the woman I wasn't married to, and he said, "America has shit culture." I said, yeah, and lots of Kashmiris who don't want to go back to India. But he and I got along and he did give me good advice like not smoking more than one cigarette in a day and only half of it.

The path to the place he got me took off from a passageway near his store, and stepped down from the broken cement back walkway onto usually wet dirt with some mud on the sides because of runoff from the apartments above going down the steep slope. There were some small trees and plants on the down side and rocks in the mud I'd step and hop on before getting to another walk that took me down to my room. The first time I went this way with him I barely touched a large plant by the path and instantly got a massive stinging in my arm. He told me to be careful, that it was a stinging plant. A little late for that. But I sure was aware of it from then on. I knew that plant. We have it. It's stinging nettle. And this was the mother of all stinging nettle plants.

I went over to the Dali Lama's place a few times to say hi and for ceremonies and to check it out. I don't know which part of it was his. All I'd see would be lots of monks in red and gold and fantastic hats chanting or walking around and laypeople sitting and listening or walking around. I think it was there that three monks were found beheaded a few years before and I wondered which room. It had to do with a long running bitter argument about whether to worship some deity, a concept foreign to me. See The Dorje Shugden Controversy

The Dali Lama (TDL) was having a greeting day and Dianne and I went to greet him, really to get blessed. If you're on a first name basis with TDL do you call him "The" or is that an old joke? Before entering I bought some shiny, silvery white silk prayer shawls. She told me to get one for him to bless and put the rest in my pockets and they counted too and would be good for gifts upon returning to the States. There were two lines, Tibetans and foreigners. There were like 500 people in the foreigner's line and more than that in the Tibetan line and we got to go first. I wonder which line the Indians went in - knowing the Tibetans a little bit, I bet it would be at the end of one of the lines. TDL and I didn't have a lot of time to talk, but he did bless me and my shawls and had great vibes.

I'm an admirer of TDL. I think he's done about as good as a person could with a prestigious position like that holding two weighty responsibilities: being the political leader of the Tibetans in exile denounced as a devil-man by the Chinese, and being the spiritual leader of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. I'd had the honor of meeting him with fewer people around when he was less famous and the SFZC's guest at Green Gulch Farm for more than a week as I recall back in the late seventies or early eighties.

My mate at the time, Elizabeth Tuomi (RIP) was helping to take care of him and she said when she made his bed it didn't show signs of having been slept in, that there was just the indentation of someone having sat on it with their legs crossed. I suggested to her that he might have awakened early, made his bed, and then sat on it. I've used my bed to sit in for years though I haven't made it first. That would be especially hard when Katrinka was still asleep.

Anyway that was a nice visit. Afterwards Dianne and I were outside of the temple with many exhaust emitting vehicles chatting with others who'd just come out. Another Californian I was standing near complained to me of the noxiousness of the air. The people who'd been around longer didn't seem to notice though. Dianne would be counted among the later. I'll never forget standing there watching her talk to a young Tibetan girl whom she obviously knew, both smiling and oblivious of the fact that they were standing in the midst of an exceptionally heavy black cloud of exhaust being blown from the tail pipe of a bus they were standing behind.

On another occasion everybody I knew and didn't know walked way up beyond McLeod Ganj to the Tibetan School yard to hear the Dalai Lama speak. I remember going into the school and seeing a room full of little boys in monks' garb sitting on the floor and being told that they were all tulkus, reincarnations of enlightened lamas. Wow, stretched my imagination.

We were all sitting in bleachers and on the ground - thousands of Tibetans, hundreds of Westerners and some Indians. A voice was being amplified out over the throng. Someone handed me some binoculars so I could see the panel of esteemed speakers and VIPs and I could make out that one of them was the Dalai Lama. Then I noticed he was speaking. "Gosh," I said to Dianne, "That's the Dalai Lama talking." I was immediately shushed by a Western woman. I have a loud voice. I put my hand over my mouth. You couldn't hear anything he was saying and I think he was speaking in Tibetan anyway and I noticed that the Tibetans around me didn't seem to be paying much attention. They just wanted to be in his presence and have a picnic and day off.

Before I left for this trip, Michael Wenger who was head of the SFZC's Studies Center and Archiving, gave me a letter of introduction that I had used at the Tibetan Library to give them an idea of what I did and I gave a copy to a man who was something like a secretary for the Karmapa whom people said was second only to the Dalai Lama - though I would imagine for Tibetans it would depend somewhat on what sect they were in.

I'd gone on a Sunday to a temple where the Karmapa lived and which I recall wasn't one in his sect. It was near the Noblinka Institute and there was a big stupa one could walk around or pass by on the left which I learned by starting to walk by it on the right side and being gently herded clockwise by attentive circumambulators. I went to hear the Karmapa speak and he did speak but there was no translation. I didn't care. The Karmapa is head of the Karma Kagyu school and his lineage is over two hundred years older than the Dali Lama's.

I went with a young Tibetan former monk named Tenzin which is an astoundingly popular name for men and women, being the name of TDL, Tenzin Gyatso. I wondered sometimes when I was with a bunch of younger Tibetans what would happen if I yelled out, "Hey Tenzin!" The Tenzin I was with knew the secretary whom I met and who had been to the States and we knew people in common in the Buddhist world. He was a straightforward, friendly man. I talked to him about having an audience with the Karmapa and he said to call him in a few days. The next week I went back with the same Tenzin and we walked past the soldiers with automatic rifles who were guarding the temple and the Karmapa, maybe because there's another Karmapa in contention. The Dali Lama and his temple have guards too.

Tibetan Buddhists I was associating with in. Dharamsala were delighted I was going to see the Karmapa. I was too, but not in the same way. When I was walked into the room and first saw him, I was immediately impressed. He was standing on a dais dressed in... I can't remember but I think it must have looked religiously regal because I was immediately impressed. His eyes were so big and maybe it was the presentation but he did seem sort of... heavenly. I didn't do bows to the floor as his followers or other Tibetan Buddhists did, but just bowed to him standing. I'm sure he's used to various approaches. His assistant told him a bit about me and I said I was very happy to meet him and to be in Dharamsala and that I was involved with preserving the lectures and stories of my Zen teacher and was looking into the archival work going on at the Tibetan Library. He nodded and thanked me and each of us said a few other words and I thanked him, bowed and left.

Tenzin had already gone back and I was in no hurry. I remember walking back twelve kilometers through the countryside, over bridges watching women do washing on the rocks and in the water below. I went to a tiny tea stand by a river with two small wooden tables. I could tell they didn't like having me there. The tea was two rupees. I left three and the extra rupee was refused. Reentering the town I immediately ran into a Tibetan mother and daughter I'd met up top. We walked to a hotel with a back porch frequented for its tea and view. There were some Tibetan nuns walking out and I was introduced to them, one being the sister of the Karmapa. I told her I'd just met her brother and was ready to get to know the rest of the family.

Got back at night. Tenzin was sitting with other acquaintances in a semi Japanese restaurant up top waiting to hear about my meeting with the Karmapa. Same sort of thing as when I'd had darshan with Adi Da and been hugged in Santa Fe by Amma, the Kerala woman who's called the hugging guru. They want to know if I felt anything, experienced any sort of grace or bliss or high or was enveloped by their vibes. I said, no, I never do. It's just meeting another person to me, though I did admit he was very impressive and that yes I felt a sort of awe in his presence, and he had such beautiful big eyes.

"Oh you Zen people!" someone said shaking her head.

Right now the Karmapa is in possible trouble over the discovery of 8 crore rupees at his temple that was found when it was raided by the Indian government investigators in January. They use crores and lakhs here which makes for a lot of stopping and thinking while reading the newspaper. A lakh is a hundred thousand. A crore is ten million so eight crore is about one million, seven hundred thousand dollars. The papers say the money was funneled to him or his people through the Chinese. I don't understand. I thought they were enemies. Papers said he was trying to buy some expensive land and that he doesn't know anything about the money.

More Dharamsala tomorrow.

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