Sunday, 8 November 2009

Dharmic Dilettantes

It’s been a long gap, so apologies if you missed me. I sit here copying this onto the blogger website in the Tibetan internet shop in McLeod Ganj, as a Buddhist monk types away next to me in Tibetan script. It's slightly odd to see him answer his mobile, ringing from the folds of his red robes, but the Buddhists are definitely moving with the times.

I appear to be less technologically savvy. Sadly, my new netbook seems to be sick and has refused to go online since Leh. I have shown and asked various people and all the obvious solutions aren't working. I am trying not to get very upset and trying to practise non-attachment (and generally not doing very well). It's deeply frustrating as I bought the netbook especially to go online on my travels. So if any of you has any ideas (or contacts at ACER), I'd be grateful to hear. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time moaning that I didn't buy another Apple - but that was rather beyond budget and big.

But enough of my woes. Onto the real stuff:

I flew out of Leh to Dharamsala via Delhi on October 23rd, and other than four friskings in one day (slightly more intimate than I’m used to), all was pretty uneventful. Once I got to McLeod Ganj (where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile have their bases), it was pretty hairy finding accommodation as His Holiness had just finished teaching and everywhere was packed. But all was well that ended well and I found a very nice, if slightly overpriced room, courtesy of my taxi-driver, for my night before heading to my Buddhist retreat. And here is a cow on the road towards it (my room, that is):

Tushita, where I did my retreat, was a great place where the monkeys put on regular shows and made some of my yoga practices memorable (and slightly alarming on occasion). Dharamsala is a bit like the southeast of England, in that it is the second wettest place in India but there are water shortages. Tushita suffers particularly acutely with this, being towards the top of the hill, and probably the thing that marked me most during the retreat was only being allowed three bucket washes over the ten days (spot the attachment there). The loos were pretty grim at times too, as we were requested not to flush unless absolutely necessary – but I suspect you'd really rather I did’t need to go into that! I was in a dorm with eight other women and thought I’d escaped the cold going round, but alas, succumbed in my last couple of days. However, all is better now and I was very grateful for an extremely clear grounding in Mahayana Buddhism (of the Gelug school, for those who like to know these things). We were taught in the main by two Australians but on two occasions, the Dalai Lama’s main translator, Geshe Dorji Damdul (I hope I’ve got that right) came and taught us, which was completely wonderful. It just proved to me that I’m a sucker for a great teacher, be it Dharma or dancing. I was really glad he made the time for us before jetting off to Japan with His Holiness.

The teachings themselves left me a bit torn. I have a lot of time for much of it and know and love many Buddhists. However, the Buddhist nature of reality doesn’t quite sit with me (they might well argue that I’m just too dense to get it) and sometimes I felt like I was simply the recipient of endless lists (e.g. “Calm abiding is attained by progressing through the nine stages, relying on the eight antidotes to abandon the five faults. This is accomplished through the six powers and the four mental engagements.” I kid you not). Being a rather anal sort of person, I like to make my own lists and it somehow spoils the fun if they’re already made for me.

So, I knew it beforehand but it quite confirmed that I’m not a Buddhist – though lots of the practices are very useful to me. Interestingly, I didn’t find keeping the silence difficult over the ten days, and sometimes even wished away the discussion groups (our hour of allowed talking on each of the first seven days). It wasn’t unlike wandering around London at times: lots of bustle all around but quiet in my own head – or maybe that just makes me very antisocial!

Shiva made an appearance in some of the visualisations we were doing, and I was very glad for his company and am beginning to wonder whether I’m not getting too attached to my godhead visitations. The day after we left Tushita, back at McLeod Ganj (in a fantastically nice and cheap room this time, as His Holiness had left town and my hotel is at the bottom of some serious steps), I found myself with a group of four Hindus from the Tushita course on the way to a local Shiva temple. Apparently, the lingam there has been a site of worship for 10,000 years (and even if that’s an exaggeration, it’s very old). It was a lovely introduction with lots of explanations from Zubin (from the course) to my first Hindu temple, and after a bit of prompting, I shared a little of my Shiva visitations. It seems I’m very lucky and such things are very rare and prayed for by Hindus (seems a bit unfair that I should get them then, but I’m not complaining). On the back of that, I was recommended to go to a Shakti temple about 60km away.

So, a couple of days later, in the company of three women I’d met at Tushita and after a morning with them of Dharma talks from Lamas at the Tibetan library in McLeod Ganj, I set off for the Jwalamukhi temple.

The story goes that Shiva went crazed with grief after his wife, Sati, immolated herself in protest at an insult to him, and set about destroying the world while carrying her body (I think I have this right). In an attempt to calm him down, Vishnu cut her body into pieces, which landed in 51 places over India, each one now sacred to the goddess and a place of Hindu pilgrimage. Jwalamukhi (I think) is where her tongue is supposed to have landed. The hill spurts fire in places and is apparently impossible to put out, even when water flows over it – original girl power. All ended happily, however. Sati was reincarnated as Parvati and all around the temple are little stalls selling portraits of the ultimate nuclear family: Shiva the destroyer, Parvati the goddess and their son, elephant-headed Ganesha, all smiling beatifically.

Here are a group of pilgrims on their way to the fire enclave:

It was a really wonderful afternoon, and after being blessed by the Brahmin and the fire, we climbed to the top of the temple complex where there was another temple to the goddess, in the form of Tara this time, and at the back of which was a beautiful view of the hills. I could quite see why a goddess would choose such a place – and then I looked down to all the rubbish. From the divine to the disgusting in the flicker of an eye: therein is encapsulated the duality of India. My feet have never been as filthy as they were at the end of this trip round the temple. The goddess clearly wants us to approach with our feet in the dirt. Here is one of mine on the way back to my shoes and wetwipes:

And here are three of the four of us in front of Durga, the goddess (Anna from Finland, me and Barbara from California - thank you Veena, Canadian of Indian origin, for taking the picture):

We also became the focus of two teenage boys who were desperate to be photographed with the foreigners. This was not unlike my experience at the Dalai Lama temple a couple of days previously when a group of girls from the Punjab (on a sports tour) very politely requested photos with me and then bombarded me with kisses. I think I was the highlight of their visit to the temple, which seems a bit wrong somehow.
I really enjoyed being somewhere hot and sticky and full of joyful Indian tat: bangles and toys and plastic pictures of the gods. It convinced me that it was time to move down from the cool Buddhist mountains and down to the hot Hindu plains.

And after days of trying to contact various people unsuccessfully (clearly I was meant to stay put for a bit), I finally managed to organise myself. I leave for Rishikesh (otherwise known as yoga Disneyland) tomorrow night where I will be staying at the
Dayananda Ashram for ten days and hopefully learning a bit more about Vedanta. I may well be incommunicado there too. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to the overnight bus trip, but really it seemed the simplest way to get there – and the most direct.

So until I emerge from the ashram, sending love and joy,
Lucy xx


  1. Apologies for the strange formatting - you wouldn't believe how difficult it's been - oh for a working online computer of my own!!

  2. Thanks Lucy...I am truly enjoying reading these. Bear in mind though that you only encountered an old form of buddhism. More modern forms are based in the Lotus Sutra, the last sutra wrote by the original Buddha, Shakiamuni. In the Lotus Sutra "earthly desires" are enlightment! and we women are as capable as males of attaining buddhahood and even better yet: in THIS LIFETIME just as we are...we don't need to be monks and seclude from the world; the world facilitates our enlightment. Interesting?
    Big hug my friend,
    Every obstacle is an opportunity!

  3. Hi Lucy, I agree with you about the Tushita's terrible toilets!! No wonder I vanished after 4 days!! Couldn't take it anymore... Anyway, I loved the 'intense & mindful' questions you asked the Geshe Dorjee & the Australian teachers. Since we were in a 'silence mode', I couldn't interact much with you although we were sitting beside each other. Looks like you've been busy as a bee visiting Rishikesh, etc. It was fabulous encountering so many foreign nationals visiting India & staying here for 3 - 4 months at a stretch!! Can't imagine me doing that in England or any other country...I really love you guys for loving India so much. Keep it up & take care...

  4. I kiss all of this beautiful and dirty soles.