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By Namit Arora | Jan 2007 | Comments

TsuglagkhangcomplexThe seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile is in McLeod Ganj (upper Dharamsala), a picturesque town overlooking the Kangra valley, below the snowy peaks of the Dhaula Dhar range in the Indian Himalayas. At one end of the ridge in McLeod Ganj is the locus of the Tibetan community, the Tsuglagkhang complex, their Potala Palace-in-exile, though this is a rather modest affair by comparison. It contains the Dalai Lama's residence, a monastery, temples, and stupas. For visitors there's also a café, bookshop, and the Tibet museum.

Monk16Visitors are free to roam except to the monks' residential quarters.  The ambiance is warm and collegial.  Wistful sketches of the Potala Palace hang beside paintings that depict scriptural stories and fierce Tibetan deities. Most monks are refugees from Tibet (rather than born in India) and speak only a smattering of Hindi or English; their monastic education is entirely in Tibetan. Each day they study philosophy, tantra, history, geography, Tibetan, etc. (but not Hindi or English, forcing an additional state of exile on the monks, some mere kids drafted into the order). Few among the Indian-born Tibetans — or Tibetan-Indians, depending on how they see themselves — choose to become monks.

Student monks gather each day in the courtyard and, in small groups, debate nuances of Buddhist thought, even as other monks and pilgrims in the complex indulge in the un-Buddha-like practice of mechanically turning prayer wheels. The monks also perform Buddhist rituals and learn the art of making tormas (butter sculptures) and sand mandalas. As they approach adulthood, monks are free to quit the order and join the laity, as many do; a few proceed to get the monastic equivalent of Ph.Ds; fewer still become rinpoches, or precious teachers. The monks don't study science - surprising, given the Dalai Lama's own interest in and openness to science, and the lack of an inherent conflict between science and Buddhism - but then Buddhist philosophy too is preoccupied with using a (different) set of disciplined, rational techniques to understand the nature of reality (I've discussed this topic further in section 3 of this essay).

While in McLeod Ganj, I also saw the annual Buddha Purnima festival around the Tsuglagkhang complex. It marks the day of the Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India.  Since the Buddha is also a member of the Hindu pantheon—a slick retrofitting job by the Brahmins made him the 9th avatar of Vishnu—thousands of pilgrims, ascetics, and other poor Hindus descend from surrounding areas to pay homage or to collect alms. A few even arrive after multiple days of travel. I saw many severely disabled people here, including lepers with festering sores (some had also been cured of this easily curable disease; though leprosy rates have declined in India because of govt. programs, talking to the patients reveals the social stigma that still surrounds leprosy and the sad persistence of misinformation about it). Buddhist monks start their celebrations at midnight with chants and prayers and donate generously with open arms. This vast, deeply affecting, and uniquely Indian drama that unfolds is over by the evening with the visitors returning home.

Monk05When not traveling, the Dalai Lama gives occasional public audiences. Over 140,000 Tibetans (including those born after 1959, the start of the exile) live in India as refugees, 80% of whom have not applied for Indian citizenship, hoping one day to return to Tibet and regain their theocratic state. Oddly enough, their largest strength outside the Himalayan belt is in Karnataka. Each year, about 3,000 refugees still make perilous journeys across the Himalayas to come to Dharamsala (a good recent documentary is Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion). Given the Dalai Lama's emphasis on nonviolence, compassion for the adversary, and peaceful negotiations, their hopes for Tibet rest entirely on a more enlightened Chinese government coming to power in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, smart money is not betting on this outcome.

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