Saturday, March 14, 2009

Heading Home

Today we leave Dharamsala. This trip has been very rich, but I'm ready to come home. The trip back to Seattle will be a long slog. A 15 hour overnight bus to Delhi, a plane ride to Kolkata with an overnight to recoup a little, then a plane ride to Bangkok. Another rest-up overnight, and then the really long haul from Bangkok to Seoul to Seattle. Back into Seattle on March 19.

Then resting up, and trying to process all that happened. See you soon.


Tibetan Children's Village

"The greatest gift the Dalai Lama has given the Tibetan people is the education of the children" Tensing Sangpo, the Director of Education for the Tibetan Children's Village Schools told us today. Today there are eight different school sites across India serving more than 16,000 refugee children, but when the first refugees arrived in 1959, there were no programs to educate the children. The first refugees were put to work building the mountain roads in the lower Himalayan mountains. The children came along on the work crews and were parked by the side of the road while the refugees worked 15 hour days. When the young Dalai Lama visited these work sites, he realized that the future of his people was in jeopardy if the children could not be educated, so he enlisted his elder sister to open a nursery for the young children that eventually grew into this cluster of schools that blends the teaching of traditional Tibetan culture (language, religion, crafts) with education for the modern world (English, mathematics, civics, Hindi, technology).

Today many Tibetan children in Tibet do not have access to any education at all, or if they do, it is an education that is taught in Chinese and focuses on Chinese culture and values. Tibetans are also restricted in their ability to practice their religion, especially any connection to the Dalai Lama. So Tibetans who want their children to learn about Tibetan values and culture will walk their children over the Himalayan mountain range, eluding Chinese patrols, to bring them to the Tibetan Children's Village (TCV) so they can be educated. Parents leave very young children and return to Tibet, knowing they may never see their children again.

TCV has programs for infants through the 12th grade, and if a student wants to go on to college, they also seek to find the support for them. TCV is organized in 'homes' with 25-35 children per home with a 'mother.' The older children help with the chores, cooking and care of the younger children and they stay in the same home from the initial placement through 10th grade. In grade 11-12 they move out into a 'hostel' to prepare for increasing independence.

The curriculum in grades Pre-K is Montessori based with a Tibetan twist in the materials. For example, these matching blocks use images of people in traditional Tibetan dress, all the teachers wear traditional dress and the images on the walls are of Tibetan landscapes and symbols. The grade 1-8 curriculum emphasizes learning Tibetan language and culture as well as the other basic skills. Once the children are in high school, the Indian government has a prescribed curriculum.

The impact of the Dalai Lama's vision is palpable. The contrast between the children in these schools and the children we saw in Sarnath, or even the children in the early photographs of the Tibetan refugees, is stark. These children are healthy, well-nourished and thriving. They have hope for lives that move beyond begging or hard manual labor and they have pride in their culture, even though they live without a country.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Trekking in the Himalayas


I am proud to say that I trekked up to Triund, a high pass (nearly 10,000 ft) in the Himalayan range up above Dharamsala! We carried up our own personal supplies, and our guides brought up all the food and other gear required. We stayed in some stone houses (10 to a room) that are maintained by the forest service, and they were a good protection from the wind that came up later in that night.

Most of the climb, up through rhododenron forests, there are only glimpses of the range through gaps in the ridge, but up at Triund, once you crest the ridge, mountains taller than Rainier march across the horizon. There's not much vegetation up that high, and this year, because it has been so dry, some of the mountain faces that typically are snow covered all year were bare and the tundra grass was browning.

We caught a glimpse of a snow leopard up along the ridge in the early evening, and the dogs who had climbed up from Dharamsala with us kept up a barking chorus all night long, maybe because of the full moon, but maybe also to tell the leopard to stay away.

As the evening darkened and the stars started to come out, some of us climbed up to a little higher ridge to watch the sky lighten again behind the mountains as the full moon started her climb. She finally rose over the top of a crag and bathed the whole mountain valley in a magical light.

This trek was a wonderful capstone to this trip, testing my own physical limits and offering incredible beauty and majesty in return.

Hindu Family Festival


Ted and Peg Hope, who have organized this trip, have been working with Arun, a travel agent in Dharamsala, for a number of years. This year Arun invited them to attend a family festival, and I was fortunate to be able to come along. The festival marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Arun's grandfather-in-law. In the Hindi faith in this part of India, this date is celebrated with a huge family gathering. Arun said that more than 900 people had gathered from all over northern India to celebrate. According to Arun, this four year marks some aspect of the movement of the spirit from one place to another, perhaps now ready for reincarnation. His English, although good, was not quite up to the task of explaining the complicated meaning behind the festival. The family, relative and friends gather for three days, telling stories, doing pujas (religious rituals), culminating in a feast. The feast was served in shifts, with first men, then us (the foreigners) and finally the women lining up on mats on the ground. We were given plates made from large leaves and servers came by and served first rice and then one delicious Indian dish after another.
Afterwards we spent time with Arun and his family in their home in the village. Arun, as a quite successful businessman, has a large compound where he, his wife and young son live with his wife's parents, three sisters and their families and assorted other relatives that I couldn't quite place in the family tree. They are building other homes around the large central courtyard, which has a commanding view of the Himalayan mountain range.

Uprising Day

March 10 was the 50th anniversary of Uprising Day, the day Tibetans rose in protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Chinese entered Tibet in 1949 and after 10 years of increasing repression and increasing concerns about the safety of the Dalai Lama, they rebelled in a non-violent protest. The Chinese government's voiolent response triggered the decision for the Dalai Lama to leave Tibet for exile in India. No one at that time dreamed that 50 years later he would still be in exile. Each year on Uprising Day, Tibetans and their supporters all over the world mark that first uprising. The Dalai Lama spoke, emphasizing the challenging conditions in Tibet where people are not even allowed to have a picture of His Holiness in their homes and can be put into prison for 15 years for raising a protest banner. He continues to call for an autonomous state of Tibet within China (the middle way) and did so again in this year's address, but it's hard to believe that this dream will ever come true. This little girl was born in exile, and although her family are teaching her what it means to be Tibetan and the ways of her culture, she may never see the country that her parents left and still long for.

The ceremony was moving - hearing His Holiness speak and continue to advocate non-violent protest after all these years, and then listening to the songs and the music, a march through the city and ending with a candlelight vigil for all those who have died in this struggle.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Karmapa Lama

This afternoon we had an audience with the 17th Karmapa Lama, Trinley Thaye Dorje. At 26, he is the head of one of the major sects within Buddhism and is seen by some as a potential successor to the Dalai Lama's leadership roles in the Tibetan communities. He was named as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa by the Dalai Lama in 1992 at the age of seven and escaped from Tibet in 2000. The Karmapa reincarnations are the oldest of the Tibetan lines and stretch back to the 13th century.

Tibetans in exile fear that when the Dalai Lama dies, the Chinese will 'find' the 15th reincaration and name him. The Dalai Lama himself says that since reincarnations happen because there is still work on earth to be done before Nirvana, any reincarnation should happen in exile, because the cause of a Tibetan Autonomous State has not yet been achieved.

The Karmapa Lama granted our group an hour audience in which we could ask questions and receive his blessings. He is very wise for his years, and fielded questions about finding peace within oneself in order to create peace in the world and about the current status of Tibet skillfully. I think that it was powerful for the students to see someone so close to their own age in such an important position within both the religious life of Buddhism and political life of Tibetans in exile.

Dalai Lama - Long Life Ceremony

No pictures today. This morning was a celebration at the Temple to ask for long life and health for the Dalai Lama. The security was very tight for the ceremony and no cameras were allowed. The three hour ceremony drew in thousands of Tibetans (and some tourists) who love the Dalai Lama and we watched him process in with all his attendants, and then, if you were lucky (and I was) watched the ceremony on a big screen TV. Most of the attendees couldn't see anything, and just listened to the chanting for three hours.

I had been reading about the oracles that the Dalai Lama uses to help him make choices and decisions and today we were able to see them doing their devinations. The oracles wear very elaborate robes and large headdresses; as they begin to do their work, they dance - first slowly and then increasingly quickly, until they dance themselves into a trance. At that point the oracle takes over and whatever they speak is carefully noted. This morning the oracle collapased after giving his proclamation, and had to be carried out of the room.

The love of the Tibetan people for the Dalai Lama was papable in the crowd. One of the ways lamas are honored is with long white scarves (all the photos of the Dalai Lama are draped with them). At the point in the ceremony where the Dalai Lama spoke to the crowd, people in the crowd began to throw their scarves toward the TV screen and to say the 108 beads of the mala.

It was an honor to be there today. Even though I didn't understand a word, I know that I was in the presence of a truely remarkable human being and a great spirit. I add my wishes for his long and healthy life.