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Chasing Karma

By Jacob Sackin


                Today is the anniversary of the Buddha's enlightenment and good deeds are worth 10,000 times more good karma, so everyone in town is giving lots of money to the dozens of Indian beggars who have come up from the surrounding towns.  The banks ran out of one and two rupee coins because the Tibetans wanted to give to as many beggars as possible.

                I started tutoring a Tibetan monk named Atse in the community center.  Tsultrum says that he hates monks in exile because they're not real monks.  He said that in Tibet one would move aside for a monk in the market and bow.  Here monks play video games and work registers at restaurants.

                Last night I heard an old monk talk at the community center who was in prison for twenty-seven years in Tibet.  He said that he chewed bones just to exercise his teeth and ate insects like chocolate.  He was forced to stay awake for sixteen days straight and if he fell asleep the soldiers would beat him.  Toads were bound under his armpits and they ate into his body.  The Chinese made him and the other Tibetan monks clean out toilets with Thankga paintings and other ancient scriptures.  He said that when the Chinese came into Lhasa, he and a few other monks disrobed and took up guns to fight.  He said he had thought it was useless because they were outnumbered, but his friend had said: “No, it's okay.  Soon the Americans will come.  They will save us.”

                During the talk some Indian men stuck their heads in the window to take a picture of all the Westerns and Tibetans, sitting on the floor.  A man from England yelled: “What the hell do you want?  What are you doing?” as if they were spies or they were intruding.  Hours earlier I saw the same man clicking photos of Tibetan nuns chanting in the temple.  Sometimes people here seem to forget that we are in India after all.

                After the talk I went to a bar with an Irish guy named Andy who is working at the meditation center above town.  We met up with a bunch of his friends and the conversation soon turned to how our home countries have exploited the world and destroyed indigenous cultures.  I realized as each of us was telling our story that we’re all just trying to separate ourselves from each other and get as close as we can to Buddhism and the Tibetans.  As if just talking about what our countries have done distances us from the mindless hordes who think these things are okay.  We are in India and so the exploitation is not our fault, but we are all tourists, no matter what we are doing in India and how long each of us has been here.

                This Israeli girl at the bar was trying to rescue the insects with cupped hands as they crawled up the candle toward the flame.  I think I also have been chasing karma lately.  I notice myself searching for good deeds, carrying wood for an old monk or letting a short Tibetan woman stand in front of me during the Dalai Lama’s teaching, but then not moving for a western woman the next day.  I bought a bag of rice for an Indian boy I always see begging on my street and now every time he sees me he tugs on my shirt and asks for money.

                I have gotten use to the beggars in town now.  When one asks me for money I usually mumble or just shrug my shoulders and keep walking.  Some of the Westerners give the beggars money but others yell at them to get out of the way.

                I'm listening now to Tsultrum and a French girl named Colette argue about Buddhism on the front porch.  I was talking with them for a while but got frustrated and came inside.  I have found that it is easy for me and her to say that all religions are the same and metaphorical because we don't really believe in the details and dogma of our religions.  For Tsultrum, who really believes in reincarnation, the whole deal about Jesus and heaven can’t be true.  Either you are reincarnated or you go to heaven or hell, you can't do both.

                Colette has been living with us for two days now.  Last week Tsultrum slept with a girl from Spain and another from New Zealand.  He also said that a girl from Israel raped him.  “I am serious,” he said as he pulled on his cigarette.  “No fooling.”

                Tsultrum is not the only Tibetan guy hooking up with Western tourists.  One of my students married a girl from Switzerland last week.  He told me that he didn’t love her, but it was the only way he could get out of India.  Tsultrum is now laughing at what he says is Colette’s ignorance of Buddhism.  It is good to see him happy.  He has been really depressed this week, just walking around town smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey.  Westerners sponsoring Tibetan refugees is a good thing because they are giving money to poor Tibetans so they have time to study English and Buddhism or Tibetan language and history, but what are the Tibetans supposed to do after they learn all these things?  There are not many opportunities here in McLeod Ganj.  Many Tibetans dream of going to America or Europe one day and washing dishes.

                Another student, Lobsang, told me that he had a crush on a Tibetan girl.  When I told him to ask her out, he said: “If I marry a girl it will be difficult for me.  My family lives in Tibet and I have no relatives here to help with the marriage.  How can I support a family?  I can not take care of her when she is sick and make her food.  But if I am alone my whole life, there won't be anyone to make food for me and take care of me when I am old.  I can't understand myself.  Now I don't have happiness in my life.”

                Today in class we corrected the grammar of a Bob Marley song that I had written out and then learned some new vocabulary words.  The Tibetans are hungry for English.  I looked in Atse's notebook the other day and saw that he had written the word ‘rescue’, which we had learned in class, one hundred times.  The Dalai Lama has said that it is important for Tibetans to learn English, but I think it mainly just gives them something to hold onto to.

                Most of my students came over the Himalayas from Tibet in tennis shoes with 40 pounds of barley flour on their backs to eat on the way.  Many have been in prison and tortured, and I can tell they are still a little shaky.  Some have Refugee Cards but none are officially citizens of India.  There is a bit of tension between Tibetans coming over from Tibet each day, and the ones who were born here, many of whom have government jobs, as their parents helped to set up the government.  But for the refugees there are no jobs.

                On Friday I met the Dalai Lama.  I got searched twice.  They even wrote with my pen to make sure it was real.  I am not surprised about the security considering that the man who fixes shoes in town just got arrested for being a Chinese spy.  He had blueprints of the Dalai Lama's temple and was supposedly plotting to blow it up.

                I waited in a long line for hours until finally walking by and shaking the Dalai Lama’s hand.  Afterward, I passed some people talking about how amazing they felt, as if their whole mind was clear and cleansed just from the experience, but I felt nothing.  He didn't even make eye contact with me, and he whispered something to a man beside him as we shook.

                Then the next day I had a religious experience at a church built by the British in the late 1800s.  Growing up Jewish, I have always had a negative relationship with Jesus, so I apologized to him and said a little prayer.  It felt really good.  I’m not Buddhist and I go to the Buddhist temple, spin prayer wheels and do prostrations to the multicolored deities and Buddhas on the wall, so why should it be any different in a Catholic church?

                What I have realized about religion is that it’s not a question of whether the Dalai Lama or Jesus is magical or real or not.  I am able to create spiritual feelings inside myself because of my belief, which means the magic, the powerful religious feeling I am having, is in fact real.  I want to believe and create that feeling inside myself but it’s hard.  I go to the Dali Lama’s temple and try to pray but I don’t believe as much as my students do.

                One of my students just found out that his mother died back in Tibet.  He doesn’t come to class anymore because he has promised to do 9,999 prostrations for her spirit at the temple.  When I told this to an Italian tourist at the community center, he said it sounded like a waste of time but I’m not sure.  The Tibetans believe that even negative thoughts that you send out into the world can influence your karma.

                I often see Tibetans making prostrations on the two mile road that goes around the Dalai Lama's temple.  They lie down with their arms outstretched and then stand up in the spot where their hands touched and do it again. The monsoon has been in full swing for a month now so they are always covered with mud.

                Last weekend I went hiking and camping up in the mountains with Tsering and Lhaksam.  The soles of Lhaksam's tennis shoes were duct-taped to the rest of the shoe and both he and Tsering carried blankets in their arms.  I felt rather silly with my huge camping backpack and hiking boots, especially when they both kept offering to carry my pack.  Halfway there, when they found out I had brought along a tent, they were surprised, and told me that they were going to sleep out under the stars because it reminded them of when they were nomads, herding yaks in Tibet.

                Tsultrum and Lobsang were happy to see me when I returned and we made flat bread as we always would.  Lobsang lost his Western sponsor and has no money so he is now staying with us.  It is a bit crowded with three in the bed but it is only for another month.  When I went to get out the butter, jam, peanut butter and sugar for tea, I couldn’t find them, and asked where they were.  Tsultrum and Lobsang apologized and said that there was none.  I realized right then that for the past five months all of the condiments were just for me; that when I wasn’t here, Tsultrum and Lobsang did not waste money on such luxuries.

                While we ate we watched two chickens feeding on the lawn.

                “While you were gone Lobsang and I named the rooster and hen,” said Tsultrum.

                “What?” I asked.

                “Tsetem Tsomo and Joseph.  See, Joseph is a good husband.  He always lets her eat first.  Animals have good marriage, not always fighting, No jealous.  They have sex without attachment.  It is like the Tibetan proverb: Thirty people have thirty thoughts and thirty yaks have sixty horns.  Your thoughts are a bigger threat than your enemies.”

                I have learned that instead of trying to bury negative thoughts, you are supposed to focus on them, so that the next time one pops in your head, you will be quicker to recognize it, and stop the internal dialogue.

                Tomorrow is the last day of the Dalai Lama's teaching called Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun.  This morning before the teaching had started a Canadian woman gave me a bad look when I yelled hello to a friend across the crowd and disturbed her meditating.  Another woman was talking about a commercial that shows a picture of the Dalai Lama.  She wondered if he knew his picture was being used to make money.  She said: “My husband is qualified Buddhist and he was appalled.”  Contrasting this were the young monks who were throwing breadcrumbs down the backs of each others’ robes and laughing.

                When the teaching started, three Indian soldiers came out from behind the stage with machine guns and the Dalai Lama followed behind waving and stopping to talk to people in the crowd.  He said that although it showed great merit that his western friends were searching for another religion and not just taking the one they were born with, one should not talk badly about one's past religion in order justify their newfound faith.  He also said that Tibetans, who say mantras and spin prayer wheels, should look to us as an example, and realize that it is the intent, not simply the act, that is important in religion.  He also said that the west should not try to keep modern technology from Tibetans just because we think it is bad.  It is their right also to have cameras and TV.

                This past month I have been writing out the story line for the Star Wars Trilogy and having my students read it aloud in class. We work on vocabulary, sentence structure, do some comprehension questions and then watch the movies at the community center.  They are not as numb to violence as I am, which is strange since a lot of them have been tortured.  Every time a storm trooper got shot they would cover their faces and cry out.  They were amazed that Darth Vader was Luke's father, and some refused to believe it.  Last week we watched Return of the Jedi.  There has been a rumor floating around town that the Ewoks speak Tibetan.  When they came on the screen, my students started giggling, and it was true!  Tsultrum translated some of their chirps for me.  They said: “Hurry!  Good!” and “Come On!”

                It was a great ending to the trilogy but also anti-climatic.  “So, the Ewoks speak Tibetan,” said Tsultrum.  “How glorious!  And now it is time to return to the sad life of a refugee!”

                On the walk home, Tsultrum told me that he thinks “Free Tibet” and everything is just a fad.  “You know, people buy bumper stickers and hang the Lung-Ta in their house.  It is impossible!  The Wind Horse can not go inside.  They are for the spirits in the wind!”

                I didn't tell Tsultrum that I had Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the ceiling of my bedroom in college.  I also didn't tell him that he's right, that Tibetans have just become another small part of American pop culture: the voice of a character in a movie.  Star Wars was really just an escape, a distraction, which is the best thing I think I can really provide for my students.  It feels good to get them excited about the rebel alliance blowing up the Death Star, as each day their own cause becomes more and more helpless.

                It makes me wonder sometimes if I am doing more damage here than good.  There is something so damn appealing about pink plastic bags, Winnie the Pooh, Coca-Cola and Led Zeppelin and it is simply the presence of Westerners and everything that goes along with us that erodes Tibetan culture in exile.  But Indian culture is doing the same thing.  Many Tibetan children speak Hindi better than Tibetan, listen to Hindi music and watch all the latest films from Bollywood in Bombay.  Atse told me today that Tibet is between living and dying and its culture will soon vanish.  “The youth here in exile grow up knowing Indian movie heroes rather than Tibetan scholars.  Many cannot read a Tibetan newspaper.  Maybe some monk will soon say that America is Nirvana.”

                After the teaching today I went out to lunch with some students and I asked them what they thought about the slogan ‘Free Tibet.’  One student asked me to explain the word ‘free.’  I was amazed how many of them didn't even know what ‘Free Tibet’ meant.  I asked them how occupied Tibet is different from McLeod Ganj and they said that in Tibet there is different weather, smells, food and yaks, which they then talked about enthusiastically for the next ten minutes: yak meat, yak cheese, yak butter, yak milk tea.  But there is no freedom in Tibet, someone said.  You cannot carry a picture of the Dalai Lama, learn Tibetan or practice Buddhism.  We talked about how the Tibetans in Tibet need what the refugees have in India, freedom, and that my students in exile need what the people in Tibet have, their home.  There were a few moments of silence and some students began to cry.  I did too.  There was nothing more to say.