“There is a Ladakhi saying, ‘The greatest courage is the courage to be happy.’ It takes great courage when you are suffering to see beyond your suffering to the clear relations between things, to the laws that cause and govern your suffering; it takes great courage to be ruthless with one’s griefs.” – Andrew Harvey, “A Journey in Ladakh” pg. 104

 

Six years ago, when I was living in Brazil I saw the Pan Nalin film “Samsara” (http://samsara.indiatimes.com/reviews.html) which was filmed in Ladakh. I was enthralled by the scenery and could not believe that such a beautiful place existed! Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would end up spending an extended period of time in Ladakh. I tried to learn as much as I could during my time here and hopefully this email will be useful to those of you that have yet to visit this very, very, very special place. Not only has my time here been just so wonderful but it has also strengthened my understanding of nonduality and the interdependent nature of reality.

 

The Chinese Philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” I came across this quote a few hours before I boarded my plane for Ladakh. It was quite appropriate since this was the first time I had ever booked a one way ticket anywhere and the least amount of planning I had ever done for any trip. I felt comfortable doing this because in my heart I just knew I had to be in Ladakh. So, armed with my backpack, a few books and a sense of adventure I arrived in Ladakh with no clue and what transpired in the past weeks was more than I could have ever imagined or planned. It’s funny, I thought I would spend most of my time here cycling and trekking but instead I ended up visiting schools and NGOs, teaching and living in one of Ladakh’s oldest Buddhist Nunneries, jamming with a Japanese Buddhist monk that claims to be an incarnation of Hendrix and connecting with some of the most amazing and inspirational people I’ve ever met. I still can’t believe all that has happened in the past three weeks, it feels like a dream and I am so very happy and grateful! I’m just now reminded of one of the first things someone (actually it was Bandana) told me when I moved to Delhi, it was the famous saying, “How do you make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.”

 

Ladakh is the highest region in India (the capital, Leh is at an altitude of about 11,000 feet). It is bordered by Tibet and China on one side and Pakistan on the other and due to its strategic location the military presence is strong. Ladakh comes from “La-Tags” which in Tibetan means “land of high mountain passes.” It was opened up to tourists in the mid 1970s and in July and August there are actually more tourists here than Ladakhis! Ladakh accounts for more than 70% of Jammu and Kashmir’s land mass but makes up about 150,000 of the state’s approximately 8.5 million population. The flight into Leh from Delhi is remarkable and when I got off the plane and looked at the mountains I was in complete awe with the breathtakingly beautiful landscape and the bright blue sky. Words cannot articulate the sense of amazement, wonder and bliss I felt just being in these glorious mountains. The climate can be described as a “mountain desert” and in the summer (when it is not covered in snow) the scenery consists of lush green valleys amidst mountains of brown, beige and what looks to me like gold in the sunlight. A favorite past time of mine while here is to notice how the shadows of clouds change the colors of the mountains ever so slightly.

 

Apparently the Buddhism of Ladakh is identical with that of Tibet and the monasteries or Gompas only differ in size. There are more than 250 Gompas belonging to the various sects of Tibetan Buddhism (Kagyupa, Gelugpa, Nyingmapa and Sakyapa) in Ladakh and they were built in remote locations so monks could isolate themselves to engage further in the meditative process. I visited some of the more famous Gompas including Likir, Alchi, Lamayuru, Sankar and Rizong. My favorite Gompa though is in Temisgam and few tourists make it out there. I was lucky enough to spend time with the Gompa care taker when I was there. He had actually spent some time in Washington DC at the Smithsonian on a fellowship in the early 80s! I also rented a mountain bike and spent one day cycling to the Shey, Thikse and Spituk Gompas from Leh which was lots of fun but I did this on my third day in Ladakh and towards the end of the 70 km ride the altitude kicked in and it was pretty scary—all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe! I had to get off my bicycle and walk my bike back to Leh for the last few kilometers. I also wasn’t smart about re-hydrating and when you are that high up with such strong sun you HAVE to drink lots of water! Cycling on the Manali-Leh highway is not as glorious as I imagined. In fact, there is heavy traffic and lots of pollution and spending an extended amount of time on that highway on a bicycle or any moving vehicle is not something I would want to do!

 

While in Leh I stayed in upper Changspa, which is a peaceful area not too far from the Main Market (at times the traffic and pollution in the Main Market is intense and the increasing car pollution in Leh really concerns me). There are many affordable guest houses here and I liked being close to the Shanti Stupa, which is my favorite place in Ladakh. I spent my mornings doing my practices in the peaceful temple near the Stupa, which was built by a Japanese monk, Ven. Gyomyo Nakamura (www.indiamart.com/worldbuddhistcentre), and inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1985. One morning as I was doing my prostrations a monk tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to join him for tea when I finished my practice. Well the monk happened to be Ven. Gyomyo Nakamura himself! We engaged in a little small talk and then out of nowhere he brings a CD player with rock music playing, a book of songs and laughingly tells me he plays guitar better than Eric Clapton and is the incarnation of Hendrix! After finishing tea he took me to his room which doubles as a make shift recording studio on the side of the temple! I couldn’t believe it! We spent most of the day jamming and I was having so much fun! Well actually he was jamming and I was enjoying making a fool of myself. Ven. Gyomyo Nakamura was a pretty serious rock star in Japan in the 70s and came to India in 1976 on a spiritual quest and met one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers in Dharamsala in ’76 became a monk, came to Ladakh and built the Shanti Stupa. He stopped playing music when he became a monk but when the Tsunami struck Asia a few years back he traveled to Tamil Nadu to do relief work and he was having difficulty connecting with those there so he started playing music again and realized that music has a way of opening our hearts and bringing people together in indescribable ways. I’d have to agree. Even though I lack serious musical talent (which many of you know that came to my recital last November) I am just so happy when I am singing and some of my most powerful spiritual experiences involve music. Well, Gyomyo writes songs infused with Buddhist philosophy but his songs are set to Blues, American Rock, Latin Jazz and even Reggae. He has this one song “Salvation” and as he played his electric guitar I accompanied him on keyboard (I had to do very little and was working with only a few notes) and we sang our hearts out! I just couldn’t believe I was getting down to Reggae music with a Japanese monk that speaks fluent Hindi in a temple in Ladakh by a beautiful Stupa! We also sang some Beatles tunes and tons of his own compositions and took breaks to have South Indian coffee which he made just for me (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that even though I’m South Indian I’m not too big on coffee). Well, the lyrics of his music are just so wonderful and about peace, love, compassion, non-attachment, and reality etc. but he has this thick Japanese accent so when he sings it is just too cute! I had to really concentrate when he spoke too. For five minutes I was totally confused when he was talking because I thought he meant “nachos” (I guess I am really craving Mexican food) when really he meant “Nazis” and another time he was talking about “maps” and I thought he meant “mops!” He has a temple in Delhi and I’m headed there for lunch with him and some Indologists right when I return in East of Kailash! In fact, he is releasing a CD in July and I am going to try and arrange for him to perform at the American Embassy School and do whatever I can to promote his music. I think my students will get a kick out of seeing this monk get down with his electric guitar. He had some of the most amazing stories about India too and told me about when he met J. Krishnamurti and Osho in the late 70s and traveling by train to Tamil Nadu from Delhi for 40 hours! We also had a great discussion about “Sunyata” (often translated as “emptiness” but really means that everything arises contingently and we are only “empty” of independent existence), which ended up being the reoccurring theme of my time in Ladakh. Well, he said that most Indian people don’t have difficulty understanding “Sunyata” because “suni” means zero but zero really isn’t nothing, rather zero represents potentiality, it has the potential of many. If you add a one it becomes 10 and an 8 it becomes 108 etc. I’ve attached a photo of him after we jammed to this email.

 

Well, culturally, Ladakh is essentially Tibetan. In fact, a friend that has spent a lot of time in Tibet told me before I left that Ladakh was “Tibet without the Chinese.” While Ladakh does feel very Tibetan there is a definite Muslim population and in 1989 Leh experienced serious communal tensions and most Ladakhis I spoke to said that even though things have gotten better relations are still strained. Still, the time I spent in Ladakh has provided me with a living example of a society that really, truly understands interdependence and nonduality. In fact, I’m told that the Ladakhi language places a great emphasis on relativity. Unfortunately, even though development has brought some good advances to Ladakh it has also contributed to a breakdown of culture. I had many conversations with Ladakhis that expressed concern about how the younger generation is losing the value of living in an ethical, ecological, spiritual manner.  Sometimes I feel like India is adopting all of the wrong things from the West and forgetting what makes her so special.

 

I connected with another very special monk while here. Chogyal is Ladakhi but he spent time studying in Dharamsala in the Dalai Lama’s monastery, has traveled extensively throughout the world, comes from a family of Amchis (Tibetan Medicine Doctors) and ran away to the monastery when he was 7! He started the Ladakh Heart Foundation to educate Ladakhis about cardiovascular disease and prevention (www.ladakhheart.com) and it is just so amazing what he has done. His Holiness helped provide a lot of support and funding for the foundation too. We met quite by chance and I knew we would become good friends when one of the first things he mentioned was “Ethics for The New Millennium” which is a lovely book written by the Dalai Lama. If you haven’t read it yet you MUST! (In the document I have attached to this email, “Ladakh Reading” I have included the most important passages from this book and all of the reading I did while here so if you don’t have time to read the book you can just go through the passages here and get the gist of it.) It was so wonderful for me to be able to talk seriously to someone about sunyata, “nature of mind,” tonglen, dependent origination, the integrative power of prostration practice, universal responsibility and humanism! I also wanted to spend time with Ladakhis as much as possible and not hang out with other travelers because then I may not learn as much while I am here. When I asked Chogyal what all those years in the monastery have taught him he said “It is really quite simple…when I go to bed at night I ask myself ‘How have I helped other people today?’ This is what it all comes down to.” I feel very blessed to have met Chogyal and he went out of his way to help me get my Tara, Manjusri, Padmasambhava, and Avalokiteswara blessed by monks (we had special sutras placed in each one). He also helped me pick out a beautiful Chorten, which I had been wanting to get for awhile for my meditation room. The Chorten is special to me because it symbolizes the five elements and we also had that blessed by monks as well. When he comes to Delhi I am going to try and have him visit with our Tuesday Sangha and speak to my students as a model of activism! He is just so selfless and giving and meeting him showed me just how far I have to go. He even lent me his laptop while I was in Leh (I didn’t even ask) so I could get work done on some of my ongoing projects. I feel lucky to have met yet another brother in dharma to inspire me and keep me going!

 

During my first two days in Ladakh I just took it easy to make sure I adjusted to the altitude and I was able to finish reading Andrew Harvey’s “A Journey in Ladakh” and Helena Norberg-Hodge’s “Ancient Futures, Learning From Ladakh.” I would highly recommend reading both books if you plan on traveling to Ladakh. Harvey’s book did come across as a little self-serving at times but there were some excellent passages. In fact, I have attached a document to this email, which includes interesting excerpts from all of the books I’ve read during my time in Ladakh. “A Journey in Ladakh” is divided into three sections: “The Beginning” which provides some background about Harvey and his interest in Ladakh, “An Exploration” which details his travels throughout the region and the various experiences he has and “To the Rinpoche” which discusses his study with Thuksey Rinpoche and what he learns about Buddhism. “To the Rinpoche” was my favorite part of the book. In fact, when I visited the Shey Gompa (which used to be the capital of Ladakh before Leh) I did a puja there and asked the monk about Thuksey Rinpoche but in my inadequate Hindi all I could understand was that he had passed away many years ago, which makes sense since Harvey’s book was published in 1983.

 

“Ancient Futures, Learning From Ladakh” is a must read for anyone that would like to engage in mindful, meaningful travel in the region. I am so lucky that my dear dharma friend Dhyan lent me the book right before I came here. A linguist by training, Helena Norberg-Hodge was the first Westerner to really master the Ladakhi language. This book is also broken up into three parts. The first, “Tradition” gives historical background to the region and describes in depth traditional Ladakhi culture, values and beliefs. Part Two, “Change,” describes how Ladakh changed when it was opened up to tourists and how “development” has affected the region. One of the most interesting chapters was entitled, “From Lama to Engineer” and Chogyal and I discussed a lot about how nowadays the engineer is more valued than the monk. The third section, “Looking Ahead” discusses the complexities surrounding development and I found one chapter, “Counter-Development” most interesting because she advocates a more humane definition of progress which is very much in line with the ideas of EF Schumacher (Buddhist Economics), Satish Kumar and all supporters of the GNH (Gross National Happiness) movement. A documentary based on the book was made which I both watched and purchased. I plan on making a lesson for my Indian Studies course based on the book and documentary and would be more than happy to lend the documentary to any of you. I purchased a few extra copies of the book as well that I would be happy to lend. I have a student that is obsessed with Ladakh and I picked up a copy for him as well.  According to Norberg-Hodge what we can learn from Ladakh is the importance of being in relation with our environment and the importance of understanding both impermanence and lack of attachment. She directs the Ladakh Project and the International Society for Ecology and Agriculture (ISEC, http://www.isec.org.uk/), which has its headquarters in Totnes, United Kingdom that is where I will be in a few weeks! What a coincidence!  ISEC also set up the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, which I visited quite a few times during my stay in Leh. They show the documentary, “Ancient Futures” at 3pm on Tuesdays and Fridays. The purpose of the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh is to raise the status of rural women and also strengthen local culture and agriculture. There is a program called the “Ladakh Farm Project” where you can spend a few months living with a Ladakhi family and working on their farm. The Director of the Women’s Alliance was also kind enough to arrange a special showing of an excellent documentary called “The Corporation” (://www.thecorporation.com/) for me. I saw “The Corporation” 5 years ago at the Film Forum when I was living in New York City and have been trying to track it down ever since. The film was the first time I was introduced to Vandana Siva and I can’t believe that of all places I saw the film again in Ladakh! Now I just need to track down a copy for myself!

 

There are many, many NGOs doing exciting and innovative things in Ladakh. (http://reachladakh.com/Non_Governmental_Organisations.htm is an excellent resource that I only discovered a few days ago.) On my second day in Leh I went on a heritage walk through the old town and learned about a German NGO the Tibet Heritage Fund (http://www.tibetheritagefund.org/). The Tibet Heritage Fund works with Ladakhis to conserve and upgrade old Leh to make it livable again. My guide told me that if it wasn’t for the West and tourism then none of these beautiful ancient structures would be preserved. Polythene is banned in Ladakh (yay!) and there is a cool store called Dzomsa (there are three in Leh) where you can fill up your water bottles with drinking water for only 7 INR and buy eco-friendly, locally made products. There is also a store called the “Ecological Shop” near the Dzomsa close to the main market.

 

On my third night in Leh by complete chance I met Cynthia Hunt who started Health Inc (www.health-inc.org). Once of my amazing students, Andrew, told me about Cynthia and her organization before I left for Ladakh. Andrew’s mother is involved in a lot of charity work in Delhi and his father is the Deputy High Commissioner at the Canadian High Commission. Andrew’s family spent a lot of time with Cynthia during their visit to Ladakh in June of 2007 and the Canadian Government also provides some funding for Health Inc. Cynthia has been living in Ladakh for more than 20 years and I would describe her as “hard core.” We had a good discussion about education and she told me about some interesting cross cultural lessons and projects she has done with fourth graders in Canada about the sacredness of food and reducing consumption. She is currently running a project that builds a more inclusive playground for children with disabilities. I found this very interesting because the project I was working on when I was at UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education last summer in Geneva was dedicated to “inclusive education” but I only focused on aspects of inclusive education in the classroom and making sure playground facilities were also accessible and inclusive was something I didn’t even think about! We are going to try and set something up where she can bring some young Ladakhis to my Indian Studies class to talk about “development” in Ladakh. I also connected with one of the Director’s of the dZi Foundation (http://www.dzifoundation.org/) and they do a lot of great development work in the Himalayan Region.

 

I also managed to visit SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, (http://www.secmol.org/) which was founded in 1988 with the goal of promoting educational reform in Ladakh. The campus is outside of Leh in Phey, which is about a 15 minute ride by car/bus. The campus is as ecologically sustainable as possible. They use solar energy in many different ways; compositing toilets and they of course separate their garbage. While in Ladakh I am also trying to scout out a trip for my students during our “Classroom Without Walls” for October of 2009 and with the help of SECMOL, which already hosts and organizes a few student groups from the United States hopefully we can make it happen. The founder, Sonam Wangchuk is one of Ladakh’s most prominent education reformers (http://www.theearthheroes.com/sonamWangchuk.html) and is married to a lovely American woman that has been in Ladakh for about sixteen years. Recently he has come under fire regarding his controversial views on Ladakhi language and identity and he is now actually working in Nepal.

 

During one of my first few days in Leh I met a young Ladakhi social worker who told me about one of Ladakh’s oldest Buddhist Nunneries in Rizong about 75 km from Leh. I had never visited a nunnery before and being a woman and a dharma practitioner I thought it would be interesting to check it out. When I arrived at the Chulichan Nunnery I met with the Head Nun and discovered that the girls were without an English teacher. In my broken Hindi I managed to communicate that I was a teacher traveling through Ladakh with no fixed plans and before I knew it I had volunteered to return to Chulichan to teach the girls. An excellent resource I only discovered yesterday for those of you interested in teaching English to Buddhist monks and nuns in Ladakh is http://www.beautifulworld.org.uk/. Check it out and pass the website along!

On the way back to Leh I stopped at the Lotsava Model School in Temisgam where I met with the Principal and actually taught a yoga class. Communication for me was tough since I don’t know any Ladakhi aside from “Jullay” (a universal greeting which seems to mean, “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye”) and my Hindi is atrocious. I really, really, really need to focus and learn Hindi, it is pathetic! I am pathetic! I don’t know how much the students really understood of what I taught them but they seemed more relaxed and if anything were excited to get out of the classroom!

 

When I was back in Leh Chogyal was nice enough to take me to a stationary store so I could purchase notebooks and pencils for the girls at the nunnery. I also wanted to buy the girls some English story books but was having no luck finding any and what I really needed were bilingual Ladakhi and English books. All of a sudden in walks one of Chogyal’s good friends and one of Ladakh’s leading Educationists, Chetan Angchok (he is also a very talented artist). Chetan is a government school teacher at the primary level but he spent five years teaching at SECMOL and he and Chogyal are trying to get an FM radio station to Leh to talk about activism and social service in Ladakh. I mentioned that I am a teacher and I was leaving to teach English at a nunnery in Rizong the next day and I needed to buy some good story books for the girls. Talk about everything working out like magic and the power of grace—Chetan has a ton of bilingual Ladakhi-English story books that were created by Cynthia Hunt’s NGO Health Inc. that he had been meaning to donate to either a nunnery or monastery. He also needed to get to Likir which is on the way to the nunnery in Rizong so we planned that I would pick him up the next day, he would bring the bilingual books and we would chat about education in Ladakh and visit schools on the way to Likir and after dropping him off I would then proceed to Rizong.

 

The next morning just as I was ready to leave my guest house for the nunnery the craziest thing happened. I ran into my college roommate that I had not seen or spoken to since we graduated almost exactly 6 years ago right before I left for Brazil which is actually where her family is from. She was in Leh with her younger sister to attend a wedding and they had just arrived from Delhi and were staying in the same guest house. If I left 10 minutes earlier we would have completely missed each other. When I was in Tiruvanammalai with my dear friends Barbara and Bandana I asked them to tell me what some of the most important things they have learned in life were…here were two very special, amazing, older women that I admired and naturally I wanted life advice! Well, one of the things Barbara told me was that she felt it was important to always end things well (whenever possible).  Probably the only person in the world where I hadn’t ended things well with was my college roommate and it was as if the universe was calling out to me saying, “Here is your chance!” We were both stunned and in shock. I told my ride to wait and have chai and we both sat down and talked and even though we had both changed so much in the past six years it felt great to clear the air and apologize for how things ended between us, gave each other a huge hug and I got into the car and left. I couldn’t believe it, the only person I had unfinished business with in my entire life and we see each other in Ladakh! The universe definitely does work in mysterious ways—talk about grace!

 

On the way to Likir Chetan expressed his frustrations with the Ladakhi educational system. They have a really stupid policy that requires teachers to transfer to a new school every three years. Apparently this policy only exists in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. He also told me that for the most part in all Ladakhi classrooms there are no activities, no interaction and everything is rote. There is also a big gap between policy makers and implementation and no clear vision for Ladakhi education. We stopped at a government school in Sneymo which is where Chetan is from. I visited classes and when I tried to ask high school students how they know when they learn something they had no answer for me. Chetan even translated to make sure they understood the question but they had no idea!

 

Chogyal told me that I am lucky to have been born and raised in the West because I am able to take the best of both the East and West and I do feel incredibly lucky to have had a bicultural experience. Last year I read an irritating article by Jumpa Lahiri and she said that a bicultural upbringing is ultimately flawed but I couldn’t disagree more! I have been living in India for more than two years now and I feel very grateful for being both Indian and American. What I value most is the Western education I received which enabled me at a young age to not only be able to answer the question of “How do you know when you have learned something?” but to also question the status quo (not that Indian schools don’t do that—obviously Tagore, Gandhiji, Krishnamurti and Aurobindo did not advocate rote learning but it seems to me like the majority of students in India are masters at memorizing and most of the Indian schools I visited have exhibited that to me).  I feel like my Western upbringing has also has given me a lot of freedom and fearlessness as a woman that I may not have received in India. At the same time I also value and am proud of my connection to India, the home of some of the richest cultural and spiritual traditions. I really do believe that incorporating “I am Thou” into all aspects of our lives can change the world for the better but in order for that to happen our thinking has to evolve to a place of nondual thought and that starts with teaching young people about interdependence.

 

The time I spent at the nunnery was probably the most powerful experience of my life thus far. I came to teach these young Buddhist nuns but they taught me more than I could ever teach them. When I arrived with the bilingual books, notebooks and pencils the girls were so excited! It was like I was Santa Claus bringing the girls Christmas presents! A few came to my room right away and started reading the books and asking me questions. They were so eager to learn and loved story books. Since I was only going to be there for a week I thought it would be an interesting and empowering learning activity if I worked with the girls to help them write their own stories/biographies. I am now working on putting their stories along with their pictures into a book where I have also included history about the nunnery. At the moment the nunnery has no publication and is in dire need of funds so it is my hope that this book can help them with fundraising and also give some background for the many well intentioned tourists that visit the nunnery over the summer. I have attached a text version of the book and a photo of the girls to this email. Once I return to Delhi I will use Microsoft Publisher to create the book and I am hoping that a friend that is taking a group of American students to Ladakh at the end of June can take the books to the nunnery for me. If not, if any of you plan on visiting Ladakh soon let me know so I can send the books with you. The girls wrote such beautiful things and if you have a chance do read what they wrote. I know it sounds ridiculous but what surprised me most was that even though these girls were nuns they were just like regular girls. Most of the girls think John Abraham (Bollywood Actor) is hot (who doesn’t?) and they love Hindi pop music and just being silly! Sometimes I felt like I was back in Middle School at a slumber party when I was at the nunnery! They would often ask me what Bollywood stars I liked and what Hindi songs I knew. I was there for a huge celebration for their Rinpoche’s birthday and on our way back from the celebration which was held at a nearby monastery we sang Bollywood songs and giggled profusely. Chogyal told me that life in the monastery is a lot like the movie “The Cup” which is a film about young Buddhist monks that are obsessed with soccer and the World Cup (for more information about the film check out http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0201840/). It is a really cute film and I have a copy that I would be happy to lend any of you. He also told me that just like in “The Cup” the young monks would often sneak around pictures of girls etc. Still, even though these young nuns are like regular girls for most of them their goal is to help other people and just be happy. They seem to have got it all figured out at such a young age! I was certainly not thinking about those things when I was their age.

 

All of the girls at the Chulichan Nunnery (Chuli means apricot in Ladakhi and the nunnery has many apricot trees) are very poor and quite a few are orphans or have one parent. Some of the older girls came to the nunnery by choice but some of the younger girls were taken to the nunnery because their families had no other option so in a way the nunnery also serves as a social service institution. All of the girls except for two read below a fourth grade level and some are in their twenties! There is a great disparity between Buddhist Monasteries and Nunneries and these girls actually pray to be reborn as monks!  Their Rinpoche is Jangtse Choeje (http://www.beautifulworld.org.uk/rinpocheint.htm) who is quite strict and very well known in the Western World. The most disturbing thing is that during my time at the nunnery I discovered that one of the monks in charge of looking after the nunnery is actually stealing from the nuns! Even though the girls have next to nothing and sleep four to a tiny room with ants they are all generally very, very happy. They were so kind, warm and caring and being around them showed me just how far I have to go.  

 

Some of the younger girls were very fascinated with my long hair. When the girls join the nunnery their heads are shaved. I tried my best to always keep my hair tied up when I was there and when the girls would tell me how beautiful my hair was I would tell them what a pain it is to have long hair. Every time I would finish my bath and come out of the bath house with my long wet hair the youngest nun, Tenzin Dachen, who is seven, absolutely adorable and incredibly naughty would run up to me and plead to play with my long hair and the older nuns would yell at her in Ladakhi. Even when I would work with Tenzin Dachen one on one with her reading she would sneakily snuggle up to me and try to take my hair down! This cutie pie was really something!

 

In the evening I would go on walks with the “little nuns” and we would often sing mantras to Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) who I feel a strong connection to. I also taught them “You are my Sunshine…” but changed the words to “You are my Buddha” and as we would climb up the mountains and sing I felt so happy and close to the girls like they really were my dharma sisters. But the life of a nun is very, very hard and it is something I could never, ever, ever do and even though I shared in their discipline, devotion and desire for Truth I realized for the first time that I am also very attached to many, many, many “worldly things.” I don’t necessarily feel bad about my attachments but have just acknowledged them—I like wearing bright colors, funky jewelry and my long hair and while I’m sure I could do without these things and manage to be happy I like having them. 

 

I spent a lot of time with one of the older nuns named Tuni. I asked Tuni why she wanted to be a nun and she said that the “life of a nun is very simple.” She told me that when she was 15 (she is now 19) she told her mom she wanted to become a nun and her mother told her not to go but Tuni wouldn’t stop crying and so eventually her mother gave in. A few of the other older nuns had similar stories to tell me. The younger nuns seem to have just accepted that they are at Chulichan and they make the most of it. For the most part everyone is always smiling and there is a lot of laughter. In the afternoons we would all roll around in the grass and play in the gardens (the girls play kabbadi!) and the nunnery is a family and the girls all lookout for and care for each other. The nunnery is basically self sufficient and the girls grow all of the vegetables for both the nunnery and the Rizong monastery.

 

For me, the morning and evening pujas were my favorite. We would all gather in the prayer room and I had to fight back tears as the girls sang prayers in Tibetan, their eyes closed filled with unflinching devotion. It was just so very beautiful. At night after dinner as I walked to my room I would look up at the star filled sky and just felt so grateful to be at the nunnery and spend time with these very special girls. I couldn’t believe it, here I was at one of the oldest nunneries in Ladakh, definitely not something I expected to happen.

 

Unfortunately I got sick while I was at the nunnery. I was boiling water that came down from the mountains but it was very, very hot, the Ladakhi sun is brutal and I didn’t enjoy drinking warm, boiled water all the time. So on my fourth day I drank what I was told to be spring water but apparently it wasn’t. The nunnery is very simple and the only toilets are compost toilets which were far from my room and this made getting sick even more challenging. There was also a really bad ant and flea problem which made sleeping challenging because the ants (there were really, really huge ones) would always crawl all over me but I just tried to concentrate on my breath and managed to sleep each night. I would wake up every morning with more ant/flea bites but I would get bit again and again by ants and fleas if it meant experiencing puja with the “little nuns.” By the fifth day though I was in pretty bad shape and was seriously dehydrated. I forgot to take electrolytes and my pack of emergency travel medicine which I had left in a bag at my guest house in Leh. I figured it had been two years and I was fully acclimated to India and wouldn’t need to take these things with me but no matter what I have an American stomach and my body just can’t handle certain things. The sun was also incredibly intense. It was clear that I had to get back to Leh and luckily managed to get a ride back and after re-hydrating and taking some medicine I was fine. The entire nunnery came to send me off, presented me with another katak (white scarf) to add to my collection and as each girl gave me a hug we shouted, “H-U-G, hug!” Little Tenzin Dachen carried my back pack all the way down to the road and some of the girls yelled in Ladakhi accented English, “Don’t forget us Didi (older sister)!” and tried to give me a pack of chapatis/rotis to take with me. How could I ever forget them? These girls are so innocent, so warm, so kind, so special, so genuine, so spiritual. I can only dream of being half the woman these girls will grow to be. My eyes filled up with tears as I left the nunnery. I didn’t want to leave but my body couldn’t handle it and I knew I had to get back to Leh and rest. The time I spent there opened up my heart and mind in ways I just could never imagine and I feel so blessed to have spent time at the nunnery.

 

Probably the best advice I have ever been given is to “think with the end in mind.” We are all going to die. This is fact. I think it is important to think about death. Not in a morbid, frightening way but in a liberating, practical way that can actually be very empowering! It surprises me that we don’t think about death more given the fact that we are all going to die. I began reading the spiritual classic by Sogyal Rinpoche “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” six months ago but saved most of it to finish during my time in Ladakh. The book is filled with so much you need to read every page very closely and literally meditate on every line. Without a doubt this is the most important book I’ve ever read and regardless of your religious/spiritual beliefs I think anyone will gain something from this book (important passages attached to this email as well). In the fall of 2005 I was lucky enough to attend a two day teaching on death and dying with a Tantric teacher which pretty much described everything Sogyal Rinpoche writes about but it was great to read this book now because in the past 3 years I had lost touch with some of the teachings, ideas and practices. I teach a class on death and dying in my Psychology course and we watch excerpts from the beautiful documentary the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” which is narrated by Leonard Cohen and filmed in Ladakh! My land lady is borrowing it at the moment but I would be happy to lend it to any of you when I return to Delhi. (I made my poor parents watch the documentary before I left for India. They are such good sports and I am very lucky to have parents that support me in every crazy thing I’ve done!) Anywayz, the point Sogyal Rinpoche is trying to make is that only when you really understand the impermanence of things do you begin to truly live. Imagine how differently you would go about living your life if you knew this was your last day? Sogyal Rinpoche writes: “Taking life seriously does not mean spending our whole lives meditating in a cave but we should get out of 9 to 5 tangled existence where we live without any view of the deeper meaning of life…Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our “biography,” our partners, our family, home, job, friends, credit cards…It is their fragile and transient support that we rely on for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?” In Appendix Three of the Book there are two stories about individuals and how they approached death and dying. These stories were very powerful and moving, brought tears to my eyes and definitely worth reading.

 

I also read Joanna Macy’s “Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory” which was first introduced to me by a Swiss Psychedelic Warrior turned Dharma Practitioner that I met in Dharamsala in the Spring of 2007. He also introduced me to the “deep ecology” movement. I had been saving this book since it is incredibly dense. Even though it is super academic it helped me really make sense of “no-self” and I think I’ve finally come to my own strong understanding of anatman vs. atman which is something I’ve peen pondering for the past 6 years.   Essentially Macy draws parallels between the Buddhist teaching of Dependent Co-Arising (“the existence of both self and world are seen in terms of mutually conditioning psycho-physical events, which arise and pass away, interdependently” p. 26) and Systems Theory (which grew “out of the effort to understand phenomena displaying a multiplicity of variables—and to understand them not by analyzing the variables as separate entities but by attending to the interaction of these variables” p. 91). Basically it all boils down to interdependence and important passages from the book are attached to this email as well.

 

I am using the Dalai Lama’s “Ethics for The New Millennium” in the Positive Psychology unit of my Psychology course next year so my students can take part in “Project Happiness.” I re-read the book while in Ladakh and began thinking about lesson plans based on the book. I think His Holiness puts forth a practical guide for how we should conduct our lives in an ethical fashion regardless of religious/spiritual tradition. To me, the Dalai Lama is basically advocating for us to adopt an “I am Thou” mentality to ensure our happiness and the happiness of all sentient beings. The most important passages from his book are attached to this email.

 

While the Ladakhi people do seem to have a special sense of joy and this joy is infectious (I think I might have started getting wrinkles from smiling and laughing so much!) Ladakh is not without its problems and Choygal told me that recently there have been suicides which is almost unheard of in Ladakh. He feels that this has to do with the break down of the traditional family structure that has come with modernization and a loss of values. The family structure and understanding of impermanence in many ways has given Ladakhis their security and stability and this is also tied to their connection with the land which is increasingly being lost. Most Ladakhis depend on tourism for survival in the new economy and this brings with it a whole set of problems that Norberg-Hodge tackles in “Ancient Futures.”

 

Another very interesting aspect of Ladakhi society is that women hold a very high position and in the past the practice of polyandry was very common and brothers often shared one wife which I found fascinating! Many Ladakhis I spoke with still mentioned the high position women hold and how they make most decisions and I noticed that all of the older Ladakhi women I met were very confident.

 

Whether you call it Sunyata, Dependent Co-Arising, or Dependent Origination my time here has reaffirmed the importance of nondual philosophy and “I am Thou.”  Most Ladakhis I met seem to have a clear understanding of this. Unlike Delhi where the first thing someone asks me is “where do you live” so they can “place” me, the Ladakhis seem to act out of genuine concern and affection and I believe this is because they understand that “Our own pulse beats in every strangers’ throat” (Barbara Deming). When we are firmly anchored in this understanding then it is difficult for circumstances to shake us and it makes it easy to have the courage to always be happy. When we understand self as process and the interdependent, interconnected nature of all things then in the ultimate scheme of things there is no reason to have fear or worry about anything. It has only taken me six years of meditating and studying Indian Philosophy (actually probably thousands of life times) to really understand that but now it is just a matter of really, truly living it…Challenging (will probably take a few more thousand lifetimes) but something for us all to strive for!

 

In “Ancient Futures, Learning From Ladakh” it says: “When you think of a tree, you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it—all form part of the tree. Ultimately, if you think about it, everything in the universe helps make the tree what it is. It cannot be isolated; its nature changes from moment to moment—it is never the same. This is what we mean when we say that things are ‘empty,’ that they have no independent existence.” (p. 73)

 

Many of the Ladakhis I met seemed to have innate knowledge of this idea of interdependence and I feel like the whole world would be a better place if we all adopted this attitude. We wouldn’t harm others or our environment and it is this understanding of interdependence that forms the foundation for a secular, ethical discipline based on love and compassion that can change our world. Unless our thinking evolves to a state where we are deeply in touch with these human elements I don’t know how much “real progress” our society can make.

 

Last night was the full moon (which was amazingly beautiful under the Ladakhi sky) and I gathered with the eclectic group of friends I’ve made in the past weeks for dinner in Leh. We shared in laughter and great discussion and I just felt so very grateful for my time here.  Oh, I gave Chang a second chance while in Leh and it is still as nasty as I remembered—how can people drink that stuff? It tastes like spoiled milk! I also drank my fill of butter tea at the nunnery but never really took to it but yak cheese is something I really enjoyed 🙂

 

I head off on retreat for a few days before returning to my life in Delhi. I will be in Delhi for a little more than a week working on revamping some of my courses and trying to create “Peace and Activism” curriculum.  Thanks to a very dear dharma friend www.iamthou.com will soon be a reality. This dear friend created the domain for me by surprise and basically set it up because he thought I would need it in the future. Some people are just so amazing and supportive and inspire me to continue to work hard. Right now it is up and running and there is a really cool piece of my friend’s art work that reminds me of yogic anatomy. My hope is to begin uploading lesson plans (which all use the Understanding by Design Framework) on the site and eventually it can serve as a tool/resource for educators and dharma practitioners and perhaps eventually grow into something more. I’m still working on trying to translate “nondual philosophy” into an educational philosophy (if any of you attended the Lam Rim teaching last Spring in Delhi please let me know…some of my Ladakhi friends told me that this teaching may be helpful with formulating a nondual educational philosophy) which has to be done if this school that teaches young people to live in an ethical, ecological, spiritual (human) manner ever becomes a reality. Hopefully I will have that worked out in the next year but the more I learn and discover the more I feel like there is to learn! It is challenging to work on this project while still trying to juggle all the other things going on in my life but it makes everything very exciting and I know one day it will all come together. Oh well, you just never know what the future holds so perhaps it is best not to plan too much 🙂 I received an email a few days ago from some of my amazing students about their plans to promote “Peace and Activism” at AES and they have started making a film with hopes of it creating a ripple effect among high school students around the world! These kids are just awesome.

 

After my week or so in Delhi I am then off to Istanbul to meet my family for vacation (if any of you have any Istanbul travel tips please pass them along), followed by a few days in Greece and then I head to England for the last two weeks of my summer break and hopefully I will be able to connect with all of my London friends but the schedule is very, very tight 😦 Two days before I left for Ladakh I found out that I got the scholarship I applied for to study at Schumacher College this summer. Satish Kumar will be at Schumacher when I am there and I am really looking forward to seeing him and all that I will learn. Satishji really embodies everything I believe in and it will be so wonderful to be in his space. When I first found out about this course on “Ecology and Activism” I was so excited I started jumping up and down in my apartment and I am so happy it all worked out because I feel like there is something really important for me to learn there and pass on to my students, friends and family.

 

Even though I know none of you have made it to the end of this incredibly copious email if I don’t write these ridiculous things then I will never record anything down and many of you have told me (including our dear Ramuji) I have to because so much is always happening in my life but I have never been good journaling so these crazy emails will have to suffice. Well, enjoy the rest of your summer! I feel blessed to know all of you and if any of you plan on heading to Ladakh soon let me know and I will help you out in any way I can. My time here has been so very special and I’m frustrated with my inability to articulate just how important this trip has been there is so much more I learned about Ladakh and from Ladakh but if I don’t stop writing now I may never will!

 

Jullay!

 

With Lots of Love and Deep Gratitude,

 

Meena

 

“It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act. There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefiting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama (from the main page of Chogyal’s website for the Ladakh Heart Foundation)

 

 

Advertisements