A Small Adventure
Travel Bangkok was seamless. Before I left India through Delhi, I stopped with a group of friends in Agra and saw the Taj Mahal. That building is outstanding. The pictures of it do not show the massive walled complex surrounding it and the twin red mosques, each almost as large as the Taj, sitting to either side.
Bangkok is a very different place than any Indian city. The first two things I noticed were the heat and the legs! Men wear shorts and women wear skirts. People in India do not do this.
Bangkok is beautiful. Alex, a friend from Antioch, and I have gone to the royal palace and a handful of Thai Buddhist Temples, called wats. It is interesting to see the difference between Thai Buddhism in practice and other forms in Bodhgaya and the Himalayas.
Included pictures are muaythai Thai kickboxing, Wat Arun the Temple of Dawn, and The Reclining Buddha at Wat Po.
Pemayangste Monastery is outside Pelling in West Sikkim. It has a school for hundreds of kids. Pelling had one of the original capitals of the Sikkimese monarchy before the Bhutanese destroyed it. Now it is a strip of hotels for tourists. The pictures are taken from the top of a water tower.
My adventure has now taken me to the north Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim, formerly an independent Buddhist monarchy until 1975. It is almost entirely mountainous, and completely beautiful. I came here to study the effects of the 6.8 earthquake that happened here on September 18. It killed hundreds of people and damaged buildings and monasteries. So far I have stayed in the capital city of Gangtok, a city build on the edges of a valley, perpetually misty and cold and wet in a way that reminds me of Seattle. I am staying with an awesome man named Yeshe, who's family left from Tibet three generations ago. His has a very religious family; his father was a famous lama and his brother is a lama too. He lives in an amazing house that overlooks a lot of the city. He gives me the feeling that is is some kind of former Tibetan royalty.
Sikkim is a totally different kind of Indian state than Bihar, where Bodhgaya is located. There are stringent littering and pollution laws, everything is clean, people are friendly and are not just out to steal your money. There are a bunch of different ethnic groups in the state: the Lepchas are the original inhabitants, then came the Tibetan Bhutias, then Nepalese seeking jobs, and now workers from other parts of India, mainly laborers and rich business men.
I have since left Gangtok and I am now staying in a hotel town called Pelling, 6 hours away, but only 140km. For the past few days I have been helping repair a monastery that was damaged in the quake. The temple, Pemayangste, was once the royal monastery of the Chogyal, or king, but has since taken a backseat in terms of political influence. Only men who are direct descendants of the original families moving to Tibet are allowed to ordain there. It mainly serves as an elementary school at this point; when students are old enough, they go to university in the larger cities. The temple itself is three levels of beautiful artwork, statues and paintings.
Overall, Sikkim is one of the most inspiring places I have ever been. Also, seven inch spiders live here. One almost touched my hand when it was riding on a bag I was loading off a Jeep.
A Tibetan novice from the Tergar Monastery and a Theravadin monk chanting under the Bodhi tree.
This has been a busy week. Besides Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche coming this week, the Karmapa, a teacher on the same level of importance as the Dalai Lama but from a different school, was also in town. I had the opportunity to have small group meetings as well as large group teachings with both of these men. Rinpoche has a quality of compassion that is very outward and goofy. He gave some brilliant talks on finding wisdom and compassion in your life. He hugged people and made playful of people in a way that seemed like he was very much in touch with what individuals and groups needed to hear to make progression. The fundamental tenants of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism are the doctrine that the nature of reality is empty, there is no self in the way people generally consider self, and compassion and the personal path towards enlightenment go hand in hand.
The Karmapa was a younger man at 26. He was chosen at the age of two to be the new leader of his school. He has a dreamy quality to him, a less focused personality, but with a depth that is hard to describe. Guru worship is an important part of Tibetan Buddhism too, as well as humbleness which works to destroy the conception of the ego. Both of these men had many students that followed them to Bodhgaya.
October 27 was also the Hindu festival of Diwali, the festival of lights and one of the two largest festivals. The town in covered with Christmas lights and people have been lighting fireworks for days. The night of the festival was like a war zone. Drunken and sober men and boys roamed the streets lighting fireworks and bombs and dancing. Like other Indian festivals, gender distinctions were apparent: no women were out for the celebration in the streets.
During a small group meeting, the Rinpoche asked me what I studied and why. I told him anthropology because it can most clearly, specifically and generally, what it means to be a human being. He thought this was very funny and began calling me a chimpanzee. I merrily defended myself by saying that chimpanzees and humans share fundamentally similar social organization systems, as outlined for popular culture by the primatologist DeWaal. I continued to make fun of me as a chimp. My friend Caroline did some research and it turns out that a chimp was the mythological father of all Tibetans, an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, and an eloquent speaker of nonsense. Well played Rinpoche, but I still think you look just like Yoda.
There was also a refuge vow ceremony at the main temple complex performed by the Rinpoche. I took the refuge vows, which is an acknowledgment of the power that Buddhism has on people's lives, not because I believe that Buddhism contains an ultimate truth, but because Buddhist philosophies helped me in a mundane and practical way deal with my mom's death.
Below are picture of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche at his brother's temple, the Tergar Monastery.