Men, women, and children formed a colorful array of gonchas and chubas. Everyone gleamed radiant in this traditional attire—elaborate waistcoats spun from richly colored Tibetan wool and embellished with bright Himalayan weaves and textiles. We were in Choglamsar, a small town that is home to many Tibetan refugees, only eight kilometers from Leh in Ladakh, India. It was the obvious site for the unofficial leader of Tibet to give a religious teaching. Thousands of pilgrims and foreigners (including Richard Gere) flocked from all over the world to be a part of the Kalachakra, a complex Tibetan Buddhist teaching that would span several days, conducted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama .
Under the impression that a religious congregation would view frivolous accessories as indicative of valuing materialism, I did not wear a hat or sunglasses despite the typical summer day heat. When I scanned the crowd, however, I saw people sporting hats, caps, sunglasses, and umbrellas. This observation made me realize how condescending my way of thinking had been.
Dolma quickly shook this thought, redirecting my attention to a different aspect of the crowd. “Isn’t he so cute? I think Sonam might know his mother.”
I couldn’t help but let out a hushed laugh as I attempted to avoid eye contact with this potential suitor. Indeed, it seemed as if the path to the main venue of the Kalachakra was a runway. Clusters of girls would point fingers at the boys and giggle to each other, possibly inquiring after his origins—was he Tibetan? Himachali? Ladakhi?
“Himani, look! This one is tall, and he looks Himachali! Good choice for you.”
I had known Dolma for hardly four days and already she’d taken it upon herself to play matchmaker for me. I had wandered into this beautiful homestay at the recommendation of my two friends from Manali. I stumbled through the gate, finally feeling the full impact of the intense heat, the high altitude, and the weight of my backpack. Two women, Achy Karma and Dolma, continued washing the dishes in the vegetable garden while occasionally glancing up to check whether I’d finally caught my breath. As soon as I stood up, Achy Karma, probably used to surprise visitors like me, invited me to the back garden and offered me some tea. There, I met Acho Tashi, Achy Karma’s husband, Dolma’s cousin, and my homestay father-to-be. Immediately sensing his sage fatherly air, I began venting to him about the complications that had arisen during my journey from Manali, the inadequacy of my funds to support myself during this visit, the challenge in choosing a topic for my thesis, and the difficulty I’d had finding a place to stay because of the inflated prices—a result of the influx of pilgrims who had come to Ladakh for the Kalachakra.
Acho Tashi listened to me with an amused expression on his face before calmly responding to my frazzled self: “My father, Tashi Rabgyas, was the first graduate from Ladakh, and he can help you with your research. When there are no rooms available, you can stay with my daughter, Idzin. Until then, stay with us for as long as you want.”
And that was how I found myself at the Tukchu Homestay, my new family’s housing complex. It took approximately one day for me to feel as if I was a part of the family. Achy Karma would yell at me every time I made a mess of the kitchen, and Acho Tashi would drink whiskey-soda with me at dinner while talking about how to rework the ecotourism market in Ladakh—a prominent topic at the time, as the market was becoming increasingly superficial in practice. Even Tashi’s youngest son, Karma, and I engaged in some wrestling that constantly wavered between playful and painful. When I left India this time around, I knew I was leaving two families behind: my family back in Bangalore and the new family I had made here.
I was baking in the voluminous woolen folds of my goncha, sitting amidst a crowd of about 160,000 people who were relaxing under the shelter of colorful umbrellas while sipping copious amounts of goor goor (butter tea).
I put my earphones in and tuned into English Radio FM 89 to be greeted by the translator’s drawl. Over twelve radio channels had been dedicated to translating His Holiness’s Tibetan speech into languages varying from Russian to Taiwanese. None of the translators, however, matched up to the oratory skills of the Dalai Lama. This particular translator proved most disproportionate to His Holiness, as he punctuated his speech with constant hesitation.
“His Holiness—I mean, I—will be talking today about ‘Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland,’ which is a text called ‘Letter to a Friend.’ The Buddha was no god. He taught about cause and effect—our actions and the consequences of our actions—by example. His philosophy should be imposed on people; one must be willing to learn the teachings of the Buddha. I have already told you to not look upon me as a god. Don’t think of the sight of me or the sound of my voice as some sort of blessing. Listen to what I have to say.”
His voice trailed into a whisper. The translator went silent, and all I could hear was the sound of the breeze against the microphone.
“You’re all falling asleep already! Tell me, who here is Ladakhi? Pahari? Ah, I know you all love your chhaang!”
There was laughter in the audience, a sign that we did indeed all love our chhaang—the Himalayan version of beer brewed from barley, rice, or millet.
“So which is better: Himachali or Ladakhi chhaang?”
The majority shouted “Ladakh,” successfully waking up all the Tibetan Elders who were being lulled to sleep by the heat of the sun, while a smaller group chanted “Lahauli! Himachali!”
It felt as if some universal parent was telling me that it was okay to be flawed, to be weak, to be hurt.
His Holiness chuckled. “I was in Ki Gompa, in Spiti Valley, when I met this young Tibetan monk there. He seemed very respectable and sincere, so I asked him, “‘Tell me, which chhaang is better: Ladakhi or Himachali?’ And without a second of hesitation he answered ‘Ladakhi, of course!’”
The congregation burst out laughing. Everyone had woken up by now. His Holiness’s laughter died down a little while after the rest of the crowd’s but his laugh: so genuine, so true, so humble. There was something comforting about the presence of the Dalai Lama. This was my third time hearing him speak; each time, I felt the same thing. In the most clichéd sense of the feeling, it was like going home. It felt as if some universal parent was telling me that it was okay to be flawed, to be weak, to be hurt. It was okay to be angry, to do wrong, and to be wronged as long as you were aware of the consequences.
“Anyway, the monk realized his error and apologized profusely. I was not angry but, as a monk, he has voluntarily chosen a certain way of life that adheres to the path to enlightenment. It’s okay to drink, but try to do so in moderation. Nothing is resolved when unwillingly taken to either extreme. I know chhaang is part of Himalayan culture; it keeps people warm in the winters. I know you westerners enjoy drinking wine at parties and during meals.”
His reassuring words were once again soothing me. Buddhism shares a symbiotic relationship with humanity. Both are in a continuous process of change and renewal, and both must be receptive of the other’s need.
“We are all born into the Cradle of Nothing and the Being of Emptiness. Nagarjuna warns of misunderstanding emptiness. Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.” Instantly, His Holiness’s words transformed my confusion into philosophical examination. I began to consider the interdependency that exists between all worldly entities and the impossibility of something existing without another. Emptiness, thus, seems to be the realization that interconnectivity is inevitable and independence does not truly exist. As I tried to make sense of these overwhelming thoughts swirling in my mind, my slightly conscious state realized that the lecture had concluded and everyone was beginning to leave.
The hectic atmosphere eluded me, and I allowed the crowd to push through as my mind swayed under the influence of the heat and attempted to piece together this experience. It surprised me to see that over a 100,000 people were willing to come together under the hot sun for hours to understand a philosophy explained in the simplest and most profound manner possible.
Acho Tashi didn’t drink for a while but his whiskey-soda made a comeback to the dinner table by the time I had left. I’m not sure when exactly it made its reappearance, but I remember Acho Tashi telling me, “I value the Buddha’s teachings, and I practice compassion, but I don’t feel the need to stop drinking.”
From time to time, I recall the Dalai Lama’s philosophical speech from that fourth day of the Kalachakra. I don’t consider myself religious in the sense that I don’t actively practice any religion institutionally, but I do use Buddhism to articulate my place in relation to the world because it’s the religion I’ve been exposed to the most. Upon first attempting to understand the concept of his sermon, I admired it but didn’t fully feel as if I could willingly adhere to it without voiding myself of all emotion. Yet, in that moment of concentrated thought, I reached a new appreciation for the fluidity of the world around me; I recognized that the beauty of our worldly sensations and desires lies in an ephemerality that is ungraspable and inconceivable.
~ By Himani Sood.