A conversation with Tibetan Monks

Hindu scriptures say that pilgrims must stay in a place a minimum of three days, in order to gain the benefits and blessings of the place.

I can see how true this scripture is…

My first impressions of Dharamsala are now changing and taking on a different and softer shade…

The meaning of the name “Dharamsala” is: “A resting place for pilgrims,” or a place of rest for the seekers of the Dharma, the Truth.

In the time we’ve spent in Dharamsala, I have heard many stories and seen so much, and now I understand the place a little better.

Before permission was given to the Tibetans to find refuge here, Dharamsala was just a small Himalayan hill town with a tiny population.
Most of the natives now work in servicing the tourist industry, either through trade, or as guides, guesthouse owners and workers, or as drivers.

I have never seen such a small place with so many taxis and Tuktuks (motorized rickshaws).

One must not forget that Upper Dharamsala is a refugee community of people who have escaped from Chinese-occupied Tibet by risking their lives to trek over the highest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, in order to gain their religious freedom.

They walked at night, because the darkness of the night offered them protection from being spotted and captured by the Chinese, who heavily patrol the border with Nepal.

They walked for sixteen days or more with no flashlights and no hiking shoes, no adequate clothing and no bags, and with little provisions to eat, mostly a bit of butter and Tsampa flour.

They trekked at night around Mount Everest which they call Mt Qomolangma.
It is also spelled Chomolungma. (Tibetan: ཇོ་མོ་ གླང་མ,), and it means “Great Mother.”
It is pronounced: Jo-mo-glang-ma.

I spoke to a monk who told me the story of his escape, and how he trekked at night around Everest Mountain.
He said that it was hard to breathe in the high altitude and that it was very cold, steep and slippery.
He said that they had to walk on the snow, always mindful of the huge crevasses which were hard to see in the dark, and how hard it was to make this journey with his leather monks’ shoes.

He did not seem pleased that Westerners had changed the traditional Tibetan name for Mount Everest, “Jo-mo-glang-ma,” and named it after the British surveyor George Everest.

Mountains are very holy to Tibetans, and they go on long pilgrimages to climb or to circumnavigate holy Mountains.

Whenever we could, we spent money in Dharamsala, to help the people economically.
We bought jewelry or food from the many vendors on the streets, not because we wanted the goods, but as a way to support the people.

We also started to give money to beggars; we assumed that in this remote location the money was not collected for the mafia, but was actually used by the locals.

Although…. I have to admit that I do not like helping by handing money to beggars…. It just teaches them to beg more instead of being smart and using their resourcefulness to earn their living with dignity.

I have to say that we did not encounter even one Tibetan beggar in all of the town.
Only Indian Saddhus, disabled Indian people, and low caste Indian mothers with tiny malnutritioned babies in their arms, begged for money.

We wanted to learn how to cook some Tibetan food.
We decided to take a Tibetan cooking class.
It is a good way to support the locals who are making great efforts to earn a living.
It is also a good way to learn how to make tasty Tibetan food.

There are a few tiny places around town which offer Indian or Tibetan cooking classes, but the one we chose had a closed door, even though the sign on the door said that it was the day in which they will teach how to make Tibetan Momos (Veg dumplings).

In India, everyone is always helpful, and a young man volunteered to call the owner of the shop, who told him that he will not be coming, but will be having the class the next day instead.

Since we had nothing to do, we decided to volunteer to help monks, who wanted to have a conversation with English speakers.
We saw signs asking for English speakers to volunteers either to teach English, or to have an English conversation with students.

We walked up to the Tashi Choeling temple where the English class took place.

The class had eight adult monks who were so happy when we came to speak English with them.
They welcomed us warmly.
Jules and I were the only volunteers that day.

We broke into three small groups.
I had three monks to converse with and Jules had two, while the teacher took three monks.
Later I was joined by another volunteer named Natalia, a friendly young girl from Key West, Florida.

I spoke with the monks about their escape from Tibet, about their families whom they had left behind, about my life in America and about their lives in Dharamsala.

We spoke about the many Westerners who come here to volunteer, to help the community, and how much they help.

One of my monks who spoke very good English, took out a great SLR camera from the folds of his robe, and told me that he was taking a photography course.

We spoke a little bit about photography, because I was trained as a photographer.

I had assumed that a monastery or some non profit had organized the photography course for the monks, so they would have something to do…. They seemed to have very little to do during the day, and a lot of time on their hands.

They only meditate thirty minutes per day, and spend most of the rest of their time studying English.

But I was wrong, there was no organized course, just a wonderful woman from Europe who came here, saw a need and decided to do something about it.
She came to the monastery and offered to teach monks about photography, while she was in town.

The monk loved the course so much and was very sad when he said that his teacher would be leaving soon, so it will be the last of his photography course.

I also think that all the cameras and books that they had, were donated by friendly Westerners who came here to help.

The monks told me that they had no jobs and no prospects of earning a living.
They get room and board from the temple, but whatever little extra they have is what volunteers give them.

There is a great need in Dharamsala for almost everything, and this includes friendships.
The monks’ highest point of the day is if they meet a Westerner whom they have met before, and are invited to have tea together and chat, at one of the may cafes in town.

When we checked out of a Tibetan guest house, a friendly employee asked me if I have any extra clothes that I do not need….
I regretted so much that I had brought only a minimal amount of hiking clothes with me.
At home both Jules and I have so many clothes that we would have been happy to donate…
If I knew there were such a need, I would have brought a whole suitcase and even paid the extra bag fee that the airlines charge, so I could have donated the clothes.

Many Westerners come to volunteer and many donate goods or electronics as well.
In addition to the monk with the big SLR digital camera, I saw another with an iPad 2.

When I spoke to the monks about possibilities for their future, they were not very optimistic.
They spoke about how hard it is to get employment in India, which already has so many millions of people who are desperately seeking employment…

I am not sure if the monks gave me the right numbers, but they said that they have little prospects of traveling with the refugee papers that they have.
They mentioned that a visa to Europe cost about 20 Indian Lakh, (about $40,000) which is a fortune, and that a visa to the USA (where most of them want to go) cost 30 Indian Lakh ($60,000.)

I found it hard to believe that this is true….
After all, a visa is just permission to visit, and it is given by governments for a small fee….
What service were they using that cost such a fortune?…..

People in despair often are not open minded to new ideas about how to better their situation.
When I mentioned to them some people who had started in the same position as they were at, and were able to make a good life for themselves, they were skeptical, but a tiny bit more hopeful….

They did say something that I agreed with completely.

Life comes in stages…. For country boys who have come from the shelter and isolation of remote villages in Tibet, who had never seen an elevator, an escalator, who had never had anything, escaping and starting a new life in Dharamsala can be a very disorienting ordeal.

It takes time to adjust to the “modern world” and it takes even more time to build a new and stronger inner self image, that would allow one to move and to operate in this new world with some measure of happiness….

On top of the village there is a narrow mountain path that leads to the small village of Naddi, and if you hike higher into the mountains, you will get to Guna Devi, a small Hindu temple (more like a shrine) that sits on top of the mountain.

The narrow stony path passes through the forest, and at a high point overlooking upper Dharamsala, there is a place where thousands of prayer flags are tied….

Tibetan prayer flags are each printed with a sacred prayer.

It is a custom to tie prayer flags in high mountain passes, and it is believed that those flags do not just flap in the wind….. They are carrying the prayers of tens of thousands of monks and people…….on the wings of the wind….

On our hike there, I stopped before the prayer flags and added my own prayer for those monks and nuns….may the wind carry their blessings to them and may peace reign in their homeland….

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