McleodGanj. Home of His Holiness Dalai Lama. Capital of Tibet in Exile. I arrived at the end of November 2009, fleeing the culture shock of a first visit to India. A 12 hour overnight bus ride from Delhi.
The first thing I noticed was that people were smiling, unlike the other places I’d gone in India. Strangers greeted me politely.
Hundreds of red robed Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns roam the streets. Tibetan elders in traditional dress stroll with spinning prayer wheels in hand, muttering prayers, counting mantras on their malas, under thousands of prayer flags fluttering in mountain breezes.
Here, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama presides over public ceremonies, when he’s not touring the world promoting world peace. To me, these seem like mystical, magical events, where throat-chanting, conch-shell horns and clashing cymbals shifted the fabric of the universe. Offerings to the Buddha are distributed to the crowd, and everyone shares, smiling and talking, their words seeming to make sense, even though few actually speak the same language.
My experiences there over the next few months inspired me to become a Buddhist.
One of my English conversation students, a monk in his mid-30s, told our class that the thing he most regretted in his life was “I did kill a bug once, a long time ago”. Another student, a former political prisoner in his late 30s, once described his time in prison, during which he was frequently tortured, as “So much suffering. So many ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’.”
Four months later I returned to the States, convinced I’d had some kind of holy experience. It seemed like the only reason Tibet-in-Exile had survived as Tibetan was due to Buddhism, and that if Tibetan Buddhism had THAT kind of power, I absolutely needed it in my sorry life. I’d already bought a small hand-held prayer wheel, traditional Tibetan incense, a “yak bone” mala, and altar cards, although I didn’t understand how to use them.
At “home”, I read magazine articles and webpages on Buddhism, and bought a dozen dharma books. I struggled horribly with establishing a routine of mantras and offerings and prostrations. I drove myself crazy trying to adhere to the Precepts and follow the Noble Eightfold Path. I tried to help others become kinder and gentler and prayed for peace and healing for the world. In a sea of conservative “Christians” spouting anti-Islamic slogans and ranting about hunting season, I felt like a freak.
Eight months later, I returned to McleodGanj, intending to study Buddhism, Tibetan language, and promote awareness of Tibet-in-Exile to my social network in the US/Europe. I was sure I’d find a guru, sure everything would pick up where it had left off.
Almost immediately, the “rose-colored glasses” were ripped off. A former student who’d often tried to explain Buddhist principles to me tried to force himself on me after walking me home under the guise of protecting me. Monks I’d taught the previous year were now writing love letters on facebook to the beautiful young European volunteers who came after I left. I witnessed alcoholism and drug use first hand in the bar scene.
Within a month of my arrival, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama gave a 3 days teaching at his main temple. On the days preceding the teachings, attendees went to the temple to reserve seating. I watched them fight over preferred locations, tearing up one another’s markers and moving chairs, based on who had been in town longest or attended the most teachings or had the highest rinpoche. Ignoring His Holiness’ teachings to attend the teachings.
Where were the transcendent qualities I had witnessed previously, the ones which had motivated me to study and practice in the first place?
McleodGanj is a place of contradictions and complications. People offer prayers for all sentient beings and help caterpillars cross the path before straightening up to throw stones at street dogs and go home to mutton for dinner. Men meditate and make offerings at the temple in the afternoon and get into bar fights after midnight.
There are gurus, though most do not speak English, are not accessible to beginners, or leave for warmer climes around the same time I arrive. After much disappointment, I discovered that practice does not have to mean having a set routine of meditation, knowing the prayers, making appropriate offerings at just the right time. Practice has come to mean surviving each day. Surviving the same way the Tibetan exiles and local Indians do.
My practice is keeping a level head when my western expectations of the way things (cleanliness, service, common courtesies) “should be” are repeatedly let down. My practice is not judging dirty ragged roadside beggars, even giving them a few coins if I have extra. My practice is reminding myself that things are exactly what and how they are, that wishing for them to change only increases my suffering.
Is it a holy place? Hard to say. Powerful energies have been at work on me since my arrival, although not always positive ones. But it is a REAL place, with real lessons, and a real beauty despite (or perhaps because of) all the filth and pain.
Everyday Exile Project (founded 2010) is a platform which allows Tibetans in exile anywhere in the world to share their personal stories, in words and images, with an online readership with the eventual goal of sharing these stories in print format. In 2009, Tammy came to McleodGanj, India, capital of the Tibetan government in exile and home to HH the 14th Dalai Lama. She became involved in a small non-profit where she volunteered as an English conversation teacher and helped plan events to broaden awareness of the Tibetan situation. While in McleodGanj, Tammy became acquainted with numerous Tibetan exiles, including former political prisoners, monks and nuns. Their personal stories moved her deeply. When she returned to the US and spoke about her experiences, Tammy realized that a surprising number of people have little or no knowledge of the Tibetan situation. She soon began to develop Everyday Exile Project, a way to bring the Tibetan situation to a wider audience. It quickly developed into an on-going internet outlet for Tibetan exile voices.
Visit Everyday Exile on Facebook.