I’m not a Buddhist. I find the whole concept of Karma and an endless cycle of rebirth bemusing; for 36 years I identified with Christian ideologies.
My Buddhist Experience has been really wonderful in Dharamshala with the teachings nectar I received from HH Dalai lama.
After Anna died, it’s fair to say that me and the Big Man have had our issues. Since taking a sabbatical from work to ‘sort myself out’ I’ve read virtually the whole catalogue of classic self-help books and explored a whole range of viewpoints. The pervading theme of Buddhist philosophy is a constant in all mindfulness and modern spirituality texts.
After visiting Goa in April I had planned to visit Tibet later in the year; somewhat naively I had not realised just how hard it is to get a visa or just what Chinese rule meant for that country. So I opted for the next best thing; a trip to Dharmasala; headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile and residence of His Holiness the 14 th Dalai Lama. I arranged the trip with Soulful Tours to coincide with His Holiness providing public teaching in his Temple on the Middle Way of Buddhism.
There are various companies providing these type of itineraries; the advantage of using Tenzin Tsogyal’s (www.Soulfultours.com) company was that a local senior monk, Geyshe, joined the small party of 5 tourists to take early morning meditation and to reflect with participants on the day’s teaching. This provided a remarkable opportunity to understand the Eastern mind and extract maximum value from the experience.
When I explained to Geyshe that I was journeying to find myself, he laughed. ‘There is the problem – ego and self are the cause of human suffering. Everything is emptiness, you will see.’ I wonder what he would have made of Jackie McHale’smore literal translation as to my reason for being there : ‘it’s time to put all your shit in one sock’.
And over the following week I did see. If Catholic buildings such as the Sistine Chapel are the Armani of religious edifice, then the Tibetan centres of Dharmashala are the Primark. I knew a little of what to expect as Nicholas Cranfield had volunteered here over a decade ago, helping the refugees in desperate poverty. Simple, sometimes ugly, concrete constructions that lack the external grandeur of the rich western religions. Yet the straightforward humility of the participants is much more impressive that the haughtiness of their Western counterparts.
This humility ranged from the the hospitality of the monks and nuns as they poured chai tea for the 4,000 or so attendees, through to the sharing of provisions brought from home by the devotees. It included the wry situational amusement at being knee to knee with a complete stranger in the half lotus position for 3 hours during the teaching and extended to shared bewilderment experienced with other travellers at the more esoteric Buddhist logic contained in the dense texts being explained. A selection of the best wisdom received is below:
‘Humans talk about hygiene as very important. Humans seek help through different things. Yet they do not apply the same rigour to the mental health as washing their hands to ensure their physical health. Our unhappiness is mostly caused by our emotions and what we think should happen.’
– HH Dalai Lama
‘Humans get into habits. How often do we hear people say ‘oh I’ll just stop tomorrow’ in relation to cigarettes or alcohol? They know that the cigarette or the alcohol is bad for them but they put off dealing with it and hope that tomorrow will be easier. Tomorrow is never easier. The most powerful negative habit is not dealing with our emotional distress or our inner anguish. We need to get on with dealing with that right now, rather than trying to wait for a more auspicious day.’
– Geshe Chamba
‘Sprouts arise from seed. Effects come from actions. Sometimes the sprout might not shoot up for years until the conditions are arise. Effects may arise from labels we give ourselves and have to live up to.’
– HH Dalai Lama
‘The root of overthinking is an attachment to a thought construct that something should be like this or like that. But you are not in control of how others behave in your paradigm.’
– HH Ling Rinpoche
‘The main problem in the western world is that you assume that you will be around for a long time as everything is permanent. This undermines both your self and others by creating counter-productive ideas. Buddha teaches that nothing is permanent.
My Buddhist Experience: In the east, people are comfortable with the concept of death. Right until the moment Westerners actually die, they think it will not happen for quite a while yet. This attitude causes you to put off achieving the great aim of real, lasting happiness. You put off doing things to make you happy for another day. Look at how animals behave compared to how humans behave. Animals do not plan ahead. It may take a badger or a rabbit a few
hours or even two days to make its borrow and then it is happy – the creature can live, nurture its young and be in the moment, not knowing when death will appear but not wasting time building extra rooms or making it look nice.
By contrast, humans spend 30 years paying for five rooms of an apartment in a city they don’t really like because it’s too busy, dirty and expensive so that they can retire to a cheaper property in the country which they can’t enjoy because they’ve burnt their health out by fighting everyone for those 30 years. It is a madness.’
– HH Dalai Lama
‘Man’s disease is to keep constantly chasing and putting pressure on ourselves. Social media is a curse. It makes us think that our life is so terrible. The reality is we are so lucky to be alive as a human. We could be a battery hen or a stray cat. What we should do is take our hand and touch our arm. We should breathe. We should rejoice that we are still alive, that we are still needed by family and friends and that in this moment nothing is hurting us.
Buddhism teaches that we can lose everything including our loves and our possessions and still be okay. It happened to Tibetans and we are still here. Humans go crazy and destroy their own peace.’
– Geshe Chamba
On the final day of the teaching, just as His Holiness had commenced the Bodhichitta blessing, which involves everyone kneeling on their right knee, a man in the audience collapsed. What happened next will stay with me forever; the Dalai Lama noticed before anyone else, stopped his blessing, called for a Doctor and then offered the man his own bottle of water which was next to him on the throne. Whilst the man was lying on the floor, His Holiness made a number of suggestions, including ensuring that no one moved the man until it was ascertained if he was epileptic and was safe from biting his tongue; insisting that the man lay down until he could be moved safely and offering for him to have a seat next to His Holiness if it would help the man breathe better. This was the leader of a nation, the living embodiment of a God and the figurehead of a worldwide religious movement. What on earth was he doing interrupting the most important ceremony in Buddhist tradition which was being webcast to over 5 million people and which was available on every TV set in India? He had 4,000 people in the Temple with him still balanced precariously on one knee, after all!
I asked Geshe Chamba about this afterwards. Why not let other people deal with the man? He was genuinely baffled by the question. ‘His Holiness is the living form of the God of Compassion. The man needed help.’ He shrugged his shoulders as if I was a fool asking an imbecilic question. There was no need for an extended explanation – the Dalai Lama stopped because he needed to.
Excuse me if I’m wrong, but I can’t see the Pope doing the same thing.
My Buddhist Experience: Alongside the discussions were private audiences with senior Buddhist religious figures; walking meditation whilst spinning huge prayers wheels circumbalating the Kora (HH’s residence and temple complex); attending ceremonies with nuns in the village; visiting hill top monasteries to consider 20 feet tall Buddhist statues; having a private consultation with a Tibetan Doctor and contemplating at the Dalai Lama’s ‘Summer Palace’ – a safe space for refugees and artisans to make a living by producing local goods.
Perhaps the most profound personal experience was penetrating the high peaks to meet with a hermit yogi who lived in a corrugated iron shack; a decade ago I’d have been amused at the concept of an old man blowing a bugle and battering a prayer drum with 5 westerners sat cross legged next to his bed; now it felt somehow fitting as a gesture of respect to a mystic who had earnestly devoted his life to mastering the higher rituals and yet chose to live in discomfort and poverty.
These are a people who have suffered tremendously, living in poverty since being dislocated from their homeland nearly 60 years ago; who lost it all, but maintain a positive ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’ attitude. A people with very little materially who willingly share their food and who help one another. A people who prize education and insist that children are in school from 08:00 to 17:00 on the basis that only an educated youth will succeed in a peaceful protest against their Chinese occupiers. There is much for the Western mind to learn from them.
Things I take away with me:
- We can die before death comes. Don’t.
- Courage ensures victory just as he small waves pound on the rocks gradually eroding. You have to be unrelenting in the pursuit of compassion and a full life. When we face a boulder in our life’s path, we need to dip into our limitless reserves of inner strength and apply every ounce of our being to overcome the problem. The small acts of daily living separate the strong from the weak.
- Everyone has a happiness set point. We win the lottery and our happiness increases: our wife dies and we fall into despair. Life is a journey with hills and crevices. Happiness is the strength to overcome those obstacles. Our general attitude creates our set point. Let our set point be low and appreciative of the small things.
- If you touch the sea, the water you touch would perhaps be the last of what has passed and the first of what is to come. So it is with life. It is the present moment that calls to be treasured, for soon it will slip away forever.
- We misunderstand karma in the West. The Buddhist view is that we must take personal responsibility now for bad that we have done and transform suffering into value-creating experiences. It is not fixed or fatalistic. Inherent in all negative experience is the potential to have a profound positive experience.
Our final night saw us take to the roof of our accommodation for a group photo; within minutes a rare double rainbow appeared. ‘A most auspicious ending’ to our experience.
My Buddhist Experience: After immersing myself in Tibetan culture and religion, I can confirm that I’m still not a Buddhist; but in understanding that the key to ‘finding oneself’ is to let go of any notion of how life should be, to live in the moment and to simply ‘be happy’ it may just be that I rediscovered what it’s all about.