When I got to India a couple of weeks ago, I had expectations about what I would find here, and it's been fun to realize that most of them were more or less nonsense. I hate to say that something is indescribable (in part because that's a description), but India has me beaten. I have been in India for just a few weeks, but I am already convinced that this is one of the greatest places on Earth. And to learn from and enjoy this place, I've been learning to put myself on hold for a little while, because things just do not fit into a Western set of expectations about the way things should be.
I started in Delhi at the end of September. I found a great hostel on the second day there, and I did a lot of normal tourist things with people I met there. I saw the Red Fort, went to a bunch of temples, was overwhelmed by several markets, and just generally relaxed from a long flight and an awful jetlag. A few friends and I booked train tickets to Agra, where we made it just in time to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. But the highlight of that day was watching all the tiny villages and the hundreds of shrines and temples we passed. Each village and each person's clothing is like a drop of bright colors splattered on a canvas of the greenest green farms and jungle. But slums are a real thing here, and trash is piled high all over the place.
I came from there to Mcleodganj about a week after getting to India, because I was headed to see the Dalai Lama speak. Without thinking, I planned to travel the night before a national holiday, so I was competing for tickets with tons of people trying to get out of the city for the weekend. A friend and I ended up getting the last seats on a bus, and right after we got our seats, the aisle of the bus was filled with people who were going to stand during the long night trip. There were so many people packed in that the driver latched the door closed from the outside so that he could fit a few more guys in the stairwell of the bus. I slept until about 6 AM when I was kind of woken up by a really nice guy who wanted to chat about his job, where he is from, and the upcoming holiday.
We got in at about 8 AM. Mcleodganj, the home of the Dalai Lama, is located on the spine of the long ridge between two river valleys. Below the other hills there is a wide valley covered in farms and a few small cities. When there is no mist, you can see the first white peaks of the Himalayas above town.
The main reason I came up here was to hear the Dalai Lama teach. I got here a few days early just to make sure I could get my permit sorted out, which was surprisingly hassle-free for India, and I spent some time just walking around. A lot of people from my hostel in Delhi came for the teachings as well, and then I started forming my Indian friend group through one of them.
The teachings started at 8AM and lasted until 12. He taught in Tibetan, but we were allowed to bring a radio and headphones to listen to the live English translation. Actually, the Dalai Lama would talk for a bit, and then stop, and then the translation would kick in, so I got to do a lot of people watching and I got to listen to the original Tibetan as well. People would stand up randomly during the teachings to do prostrations before him, and I was surprised by how few tourists were there. Occasionally volunteers and monks would walk around giving out Tibetan bread and Tibetan butter tea.
While drinking tea, a lot of people would pass out cookies that they had brought, and such was the case for a really kind old Tibetan woman who sat next to my group. At one point, I had to step over her bag to get to my seat, but at some point when I was mid-step, the lady pulled the bag towards her with great anguish on her face and the strength of a person much younger. Of course, I immediately felt just awful, and I tried everything to apologize to this lady, but she was actually comforting me by the end of it. Inside the bag there was a another bag, and in there was a book, and in the book was a picture of the Dalai Lama, and it is very rude to step over something like that. She offered me her cookies right after this, making me feel way worse. And then, the next day, when I thought I would be clever by bringing her more cookies, she brought me cookies and candy! I get into situations like this all of the time where I accidentally offend people, but it's interesting to learn what value people put in different things.
The Dalai Lama focused on Buddhist teachings, but he made a quick comment about the West that I thought was very interesting. He praised non-Buddhist religions for their commitment to changing the conditions of poor people and others in need of help, which is a line that I had heard many times from his books or speeches intended for Western audiences. But, unlike I had seen him do before, he went on to add a major qualifier to that. After specifically complimenting Christians and other non-Buddhists, he said that without the desire to arouse bodhicitta and without focusing on the five other great perfections, there is no possibility for enlightenment and nobody gets closer to escaping the cycle of suffering as a result of altruism. It was really interesting to have seen him say one thing in English to Americans and then say the same thing in a dramatically different way in Tibetan to Tibetans. Other than that, he focused totally on Buddhist stuff, which was a great window in. My favorite note that I took is probably this one: "Nirvana is not a thing and Nirvana is not a non-thing... All suffering comes from wishing ourselves to be happy, and all happiness comes from wishing others to be happy."
Those teachings ended about five days ago, and the town has gotten a lot quieter since then. I have stayed because I have been learning a lot from and having a lot of fun with the Indians I have met here and from volunteering a little bit. In the afternoons, I try to volunteer at the Tibetan center, because now I have made friends with a few of the regulars. When I got here, all of the hostels and guesthouses were booked up, but I was lucky to get the last room at a Tibetan Cultural center. Actually, in the room next to mine, they have conversation groups for people trying to learn foreign languages, so I go to the English conversation group pretty frequently. I've met a few monks and others who live in the area, and it has been great to talk with them about what they do on a daily basis and what they think about things. In perhaps the most American 5 minutes of my life, I explained what the President does, how baseball is played, and who Jesus was. I have also been able to ask them questions about Buddhist teachings and it's really fun to listen to them argue among themselves about the answer. Last week during the teachings, one of them invited a group of us to come meditate with him the next morning at his monastery, so of course we went, even though that meant getting there at 5:30.
After volunteering I usually head across the street to drink chai and play cards in my friend's tattoo parlor. I have learned a few Indian card games, and I think I may have even impressed these old Indian men with a few of my hands. Yesterday I went out to the countryside with the tattoo artist I play cards with and we visited his astrologer, who read my star charts for me while my friend translated.
The key to traveling here, and something that I hope to keep with me for a long time, is that you have to just stop judging the world around you. Things not working, buses being locked from the outside, the blackouts, the bathrooms, the arbitrary rules, the non-stop honking, accidentally offending people, the delays due to cows, the trash piles, the incredible number of people, the random smells - all of it is just part of life here. I have met travelers who get really upset by all of this, and I think this blocks them from having experiences like befriending monks, learning from people you've upset, playing cards in tattoo parlors, and going to the countryside to visit holy men. I have been trying hard to be able to look at a thing like the extreme poverty and think "I wish they didn't have to live like that" instead of thinking "that place and those people are gross." Passing negative judgement on things like this only hurts the traveler. I am glad I came to India after traveling for a while, because I learned a while ago that it never helps to pass judgement like this on places. You have to come with a strong dose of cultural humility and a willingness to understand why things are the way they are. More on my experience learning how to do this in my next post. Hope you're doing well, and thanks for reading.