After exploring the golden triangle we needed a change of scenery. Alex has an interest in Buddhism and meditation and feels strongly that the Tibetan Buddhists were forced out of their homeland by the Chinese, so the next logical step was visit the Himalayan town of Dharamsala – A piece of Tibet in India.
We flew into Dharamsala airport (Kangra) and made a beeline for the smaller town of McLeod Ganj, the real epicentre of the Tibetan diaspora, higher up in the Himalayan foothills. The change of scenery from the dust and chaos of Rajasthan was remarkable. Now we were amongst mountains, gorges, gushing rivers and tall trees swaying in the wind, not to mention hundreds of Buddhist monks. Due to the altitude and being further north, the climate was also quite different. Although warm during the day, at night the temperatures were dipping below 10 degrees and in the winter this area is snow-covered. The new environment, coupled with the markedly different culture made us feel like we were no longer in India at all.
A bit of History – The Brutal Chinese Repression of Tibet
After hundreds of years of independence, the existence of the sovereign state of Tibet didn’t feature in Mao Zedong’s plans for a unified China after the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In 1959, following persecution by the People’s Liberation Army of China and in the wake of the failed Tibetan Uprising against Chinese incorporation of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama and his entourage fled their homeland, never to return. They crossed the perilous Himalayas and entered into India, where they were permitted to settle and form the Tibetan Government in Exile (now called the CTA or Central Tibetan Administration) in Dharamsala, or as it is often known – Little Tibet/Dhasa.
An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives due to the conflict with China and the human rights abuses, as well as the incalculable losses to Tibet’s cultural legacy remain unaccounted for, with the international community largely trying to avoid the issue with the superpower that China has since become.
The Tibetans may have lost their homeland but they weren’t defeated, Dharamsala is now home to a significant Tibetan diaspora (130,000 Tibetans are estimated to be India alone), as are certain areas in Nepal and Bhutan. In this north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, thanks to India’s hospitality there are now several generations of Tibetans who are preserving and causing to flourish the tradition and culture of their motherland. This is why there are schools, hospitals and so forth following the Tibetan tradition here.
The 14th Dalai Lama
McLeod Ganj is hardly more than a few steep streets on the hillside, but it is also home to the Tsuglag Khang temple complex which is the Dalai Lama’s temple and also his home. You can enter the complex, turn the prayer wheels, light a butter lamp, burn some incense sticks and visit the small but informative museum about the Tibetan cause. For many this is a holy place worthy of a pilgrimage.
To our delight, we discovered that the Dalai Lama was in residence and also giving a talk in the Tsuglag Khang complex and speaking at a conference in Dharamsala. We felt very lucky as his diary is generally quite limited and at the age of 83, his appointments are being scaled back. You can check out his schedule here.
We decided that the conference sounded more interesting and it also meant that it would start at a reasonable hour, rather than us having to get up with the monks for the more technical talk he was doing the day before! The subject of the conference was Science, Religion and World Peace and the Dalai Lama was the first to speak. We found him to be very down to earth, genuine, pragmatic and also funny! If anyone has ever watched him speak, it is his giggle that puts everyone at ease!
The Conference – Science, Religion and World Peace
The Dalai Lama’s main argument is that science has given us, and continues to give us many wonderful advancements and it helps us to provide people with the basic rights and health that we all deserve. However, there are still gross inequalities in our world, and we continue to destroy our environment with a reckless abandon.
Despite being a Buddhist monk, and generally a supporter of spirituality, he argues that the world now needs a new form of ethics; secular based ethics. Rather than trying to shoehorn believers of various religions, and non-believers too into each other’s ethic schemas, secular ethics must be negotiated on a humanistic basis, completely independent from religion, making use of our intelligence as common and progressive ground for all.
It was quite refreshing to hear the Dalai Lama essentially say that religious tradition and empty prayer is ineffectual and if we want to change the world we must stop asking God/a higher power for help and change ourselves! He even joked that he is a nihilist (but a happy one!).
The Dalai Lama is not against process or technology per se, in fact he has always had a keen interest in science, but he argues that the emphasis mast shift from pure greed and materialism to the understanding of the self; more specifically he believes that the human race, in order to survive needs to practice compassion. He believes that humans are naturally compassionate creatures rather than conflict hungry, angry people. If we can all practice compassion (first towards yourself), then this will snowball into our interactions on a social scale (as we are social animals) and lead us towards world peace. He placed a lot of emphasis on the young (bit of a cop-out!) as it was a new century and we could learn from the mistakes of his generation.
The other interesting point that he touched upon rose from a question on universal consciousness. His Holiness was quite quick to say that he did not believe in a universal consciousness and that consciousness is a phenomenon arising very much in the brain on an individual basis.
We weren’t able to record any of his speech, by way of example, here is a quote from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
“With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things, This understanding s crucial if we are to take positive and decisive action on the pressing global concern with the environment”.
The town of Mcleod Ganj is quite interesting to stroll around and there is a newer Buddhist temple right in the middle. Although it is very much geared up for the souvenir trade, you can observe the monks walking around and going about their daily business. The myriad of little shops and stalls sell endless monk’s rosaries, Tibetan singing bowls, precious stones, jewellery and fabrics.
There are also lots of tourist friendly cafes with pancakes, cakes and WIFI and the Tibetan cuisine was a welcome respite from heavy Indian food (although you can still find it if you want it). The food, like most of the Indian food we had been eating, was mostly vegetarian. We enjoyed the traditional noodle soups named thukpa and thenthuk and also the stuffed dumplings called momos.
One of the Dalai Lama’s great achievements is in the preservation of Tibetan tradition and culture. For example, there is an Institute of Tibetan Performing Arts, a Tibetan Library, as well as Tibetan doctors and astrologers. Keen to immerse ourselves in, and support the Tibetan culture, Jess had a 4 hands full body Tibetan massage and we both visited the Tibetan doctor and bought some herbal pills. Many travellers come to this area for extended periods to study meditation, Buddhist works, yoga, medicine and so on. Because of this, the area often has a new-wave hippie kind of vibe.
Interestingly, we noticed that the overwhelming majority of the pilgrims were westerners in their 60s, 70s and also 80s. They mostly come to these parts to further their studies in Buddhism, meditation and the Dharma, that is the way to Nirvana and the end of the eternal cycles of death-rebirth as shown by the Lord Buddha. They are often retired and join silent meditation retreats for months at a time, to study Buddhist principles. We met people who were there for the third time in a year. Now, obviously we don’t know the reasons why this particular demographic are so interested in Buddhism, and we couldn’t ask each one of them for an extended bio.
Could it be though that they, after a certain age, when work finishes, the children are grown and life slowly but inexorably draws to its conclusion, found themselves unsatisfied with western materialist and often dogmatic views that often confuse pleasure with happiness, and have come in search of an alternative answer to life’s questions, one that goes deeper than owning a house, car and being just comfortable?
It is our experience that even secular westerner Buddhism can provide the tools to master one’s mind and thoughts following a series of teaching that don’t involve dogma, but a series of verifiable methods that can help us become masters of our own minds rather than its passive victims. These are claims largely supported by science to date, and the evidence is accumulating that meditation literally can rewire the brain and undo years of negative thinking patterns.
In an important statement the Dalai Lama said that if Buddhist methods were to be disproved by science, Tibetan Buddhism would have to rethink its whole belief system. Can anyone think of another spiritual world leader saying something of this magnitude? Perhaps this is why many older people, once they free themselves from the grubby hands of materialism and western expectations of what is right, have come to reject dogma and materialism and opened themselves up to a culture that has really dedicated its history to the understanding of the mind.
Around McLeod Ganj
Outside of McLeod Ganj, you can visit the Tibetan Government area which also contains the library and the peaceful Nae Chung monastery with its cheeky monkeys and beautiful mountain views. Unfortunately for us, we really only saw the snow-capped mountains once as it was quite often very misty.
There are also several walks to nearby sights such as the 18th century St John in the Wilderness church (just a church!) and the Bhagsu Waterfall (pretty, but water is full of rubbish and there is so much construction going on in this area of massive hotels). For the more adventurous there are multi-day treks into the Dhauladhar mountain range and also hang gliding experiences.
We are not Buddhists (although Alex thinks the monastic life would suit him), but there is a huge amount of Buddhist teaching that is just common sense! That’s part of what makes it an attractive way of life to follow. It can be easily understood and adapted as an aid for everyday life in a western secular way.
The area is not wildly beautiful unless you really get out trekking in the mountains, but it is the distinct cultural bubble that the Tibetans have managed to preserve that we wanted to experience. Visiting also, in a small way, helps the Free Tibet cause. Many young Tibetans in fact still feel strongly about their motherland in Chinese soil and hope one day to return to their ancestors’ land, a land that many of them have never seen, but they feel in the bottom of their harts to be theirs. Having come to know Tibetan culture a little and having known and observed these pacific and devout people we can only hope that their dream will one day come true, that the international community finally does something to undo a historical wrong that has been ignored now for far too long.