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Experiencing the Tibetan Community near Mundgod, India

Experiencing the Tibetan Community near Mundgod, India

August 7-13, 2018

I have been an admirer of Tibetan culture since the mid-1970s when I read books written by and about Tibetans. Being an isolated country for centuries and dealing with a harsh climate and the brutal invasion and ongoing oppression by China makes Tibet exotic to Westerners. At its heart is a culture built around the Buddhist religion that systematically develops spiritual enlightenment. But the aspect that has maintained my respect and fascination across the decades is the explicit effort to use their spiritual skills to improve the condition of the whole world. The Tibetan culture’s uniquely positive nature makes it especially tragic that the culture is under prolonged attack.

Despite my fascination with Tibet I have had few opportunities for direct experience of the culture. I attended a traditional dance performance in San Diego in the 1980s. I went to a concert of a young Tibetan woman singer (Yungchen Lhamo) who blended traditional and modern styles while in Brisbane, Australia in 1995. Soon after September 11, 2001 I witnessed Tibetan monks making a spectacular sand mandala at the Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art in Washington, DC with the explicit purpose of helping heal American pain. Not much more than that, other than giving to charities supporting Tibetan dissidents and exiles.

The first Tibetan person I met was a UCSD undergraduate student who worked as an intern with our research group in 2016. I talked with Lobsang Lama about my admiration for her culture, and I provided mentoring about achieving her career goal of working to improve the health of Tibetan exiles. She graduated from UCSD in 2017, and it was fortuitous that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was the commencement speaker. His plainspoken message of kindness and compassion was easy to grasp but hard to put into practice in the modern world. It is apparent that he is living his convictions by his patient and positive approach to working with the Chinese government to improve living conditions for Tibetans living in Tibet. As described in my blog about my highlights of 2017, I was selected to be among about 100 faculty members to have a brief audience with His Holiness and shake his hand. That was one of my most thrilling moments.

Lobsang’s parents attended her graduation during their first visit to US from their home in Nepal. They honored me by having lunch at my home. After graduation, Lobsang moved to the Bay Area, and I had little contact with her. That changed in mid-2018 when I received an email informing me that her brother was graduating from advanced studies at a monastery in South India. I knew that he was identified as the reincarnation of a prominent lama when her brother was a young child. He entered the monastery at age 6 years. Lobsang’s email also invited me to attend the graduation ceremony at the monastery, which would be August 5. It so happened that I was making plans to be in Australia from mid-July to the first week of August. Because I had already agreed to speak at two conferences the first week of August, I would not be able to make it to India in time for the ceremony. This was a big disappointment. But Lobsang said she and her family would remain there for some time after the ceremony, and I could still visit the monastery and surrounding community. Her brother would be happy to show me around the community and discuss his life as a lama.

I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Tibetan culture in a meaningful way. Thus, I told Lobsang I would accept the invitation and extend my trip for another week. The time for the trip eventually came, and I spent two productive weeks in Melbourne working at the Australian Catholic University, made two presentations in the City of Gold Coast, and participated in two cardiology-related conferences in Brisbane. From there I flew to Chennai, India to begin an extraordinary week.

What follows is a diary relating my observations from my few days in India and the Tibetan settlement. I drafted most of the text while I was in Mundgod so my memories and feelings would be fresh. I apologize for the level of detail; it is probably more for my benefit than for others’. Don’t feel obligated to read everything, unless you are curious about Tibetan culture and Buddhist practices. But this is not a deep analysis of Buddhist philosophy. My impressions are more like a travelogue. I expect most readers will be more interested in the photos. There is also a labeled section about health issues related to obesity in the monastery, based on the lama’s research and my observations.

There are many photos following. Please click on them to enlarge.

August 6, 2018 My first stop in India was to visit colleagues at Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialties Centre. A team there led by Dr. Anjana are collaborators in the IPEN Adolescent study, so I spent a day with them discussing publications based on their Indian data. I was treated to dinner at Dr. Mohan’s home with Anjana and her family, along with research team key members Pradeepa and Ranjani. After a delicious Indian meal, Dr. Mohan gave me a book he had written. It described his extensive and extraordinary experiences with the Indian spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba. I was unfamiliar with Sai Baba, so Dr. Mohan told about how he first encountered this guru to millions early in life, but did not become a follower until much later. The book recounts many miracles directly experienced by Dr. Mohan, his family, and his colleagues. Eventually Dr. Mohan and his whole family became serious devotees of Sai Baba. Sai Baba is no longer living, but Dr. Mohan is a Trustee of Sai Baba’s foundation that operates clinics, hospitals, schools, and other charity programs whose services are free. All this information about such a Godly person was impressive and fascinating, and I felt that it was a well-timed nudge for me to focus on spiritual matters as I prepared to travel to a community devoted to the philosophy and practices developed over centuries of Tibetan Buddhist culture.

August 7, 2018 In the afternoon I flew from Chennai to Hubli (Hubbali), which from the air was bigger than I had anticipated. I was met at the airport by Lobsang, her father, and sister Pema, along with the driver of the van. As we were passing through the outskirts of Hubli, we came upon an elaborate gate across the road. I was surprised when Lobsang said it looked like a statue of Sai Baba on the gate. I had only heard of Sai Baba the night before, and already I encountered him again.

On the one hour drive to the Tibetan settlement near Mundgod, Lobsang delivered the good news (for me) that her brother’s graduation ceremony had been postponed to the next day. This was the event that triggered the invitation, so I was thrilled I would be able to witness it. This area in the South Indian state of Karnataka was lush and green, and we were in the rainy season. The driver let us know when we passed into the Tibetan settlement. It was mostly farm land, and a few Tibetan flags started to appear. Some of the fences were draped with colorful fabrics, and I was told the purpose was to discourage wild boars from getting into the fields. We passed through a few of the nine “camps”, or villages, that make up the settlement before arriving at a separate community of monasteries. Four monasteries are clustered together, plus related schools, foundations, cultural organizations, and a new research center built in conjunction with Emory University.

Upon arrival I was taken to my room in a guest house that was next door to two monasteries. A great location. We then walked across the street to the residence hall (Kangtsen) led by Lobsang’s brother. He is affiliated with Gaden Shartse Monastery and Monastic University. I was reunited with Lobsang’s mother and father. For the first time I met her brother Yulting Rinpoche (whom I called by his title Rinpoche, which refers to an advanced lama), sister Pemzon who lives in Italy, and four aunts from Nepal, along with one of their sons. They greeted me warmly and made me feel at home. Before dinner I had an initial meeting with Rinpoche. He invited me to ask questions about Buddhism, and he requested that we talk about a study he had done in collaboration with fellow monks and researchers from Emory. He hoped I would find the food at the monastery to my liking, but he expressed concern that the typical monastery diet was high in carbohydrates. The first of many family-prepared meals was a real pleasure, with several vegetarian curries—comfort food for me. Most of the meals we had were cooked by a combination of family members and monks in the Kangtsen kitchen. We ate outdoors on the top floor of the building that had a roof but no walls—a common design in the tropics.

August 8, 2018 I did not have a good idea of what would happen at the graduation ceremony, but I was told to be ready before 6am. I met the family at the entrance to the main Gaden Shartse Prayer Hall that was next door to my guest room. The graduation ceremony (Geshe Tonko) had already started, and it was integrated into a version of morning prayers (Daja). Instead of going into the main hall we went upstairs to a room overlooking the Prayer Hall below. It was a wonderful vantage point for photos. The room was set up for our group to have breakfast. In addition to the family, there were monks ranging in age from 5 years to middle age. We had the same breakfast the monks were having below while the ceremony was ongoing. There was a thick flatbread call pah-lay that was served with butter and jam. Everyone got a boiled egg and black tea with milk and butter. “Butter tea” is the national drink of Tibet.

Then we went downstairs, took off our shoes, and entered the Prayer Hall. Everyone did three prostrations at the door to honor Buddha. Experiencing a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony has been a goal of mine for decades. I knew the prayers were chanted or sung, and the singing sounds strange to Western ears. Much of the singing is guttural low tones sometimes called throat-singing, the music is often arrhythmic (no discernable beats), and sometimes all the monks join in the chanting. From the breakfast area above I was able to see some of the monks sitting in lines as well as some of the elaborate and colorful decorations in the assembly room. Finally, I was in the midst of the full spectacle of the ancient rituals.

In the Prayer Hall hundreds of adult monks were sitting on rows of cushions. They wore red robes and saffron yellow draping. The decorations featured massive colorful hangings of embroidered cloth, large paintings of the Buddha and other figures, and many gold-covered statues at the front of the room. There is a large seat/throne at the front reserved for the Dalai Lama who makes annual visits to all the monasteries here. The constant music and chanting, along with the visual splendor and incense make the ceremony a treat for the senses. Of course, entertainment is not the purpose. The rituals have been designed over centuries to elevate the spirit, inspire devotion to Buddha, and achieve a variety of goals.

Rinpoche was graduating from 18 years of study at the Gaden Shartse Monastic University, but he plans to continue his studies another 7 or 8 years to obtain the equivalent of a PhD. The Geshe Tonko had nothing in common with university commencements I have witnessed. The graduation was conducted as part of a prayer ceremony, or puja. Praying, singing, and chanting were continuous throughout the three-hour ceremony. Surprisingly to me, Rinpoche was the only graduate being celebrated. His family sponsored the ceremony and played active roles. I was expecting to sit in the back of the room, observe everything, and try to stay out of the way. As another surprise, I was constantly invited to take part in all the activities along with the family. Though this made the event even more special than I could have imagined, I had to pay attention to those in front of me to know what to do, and I was worried I would make a big mistake.

Here are some of the activities the family did during the ceremony. They offered white scarves and envelopes with money to the senior lamas, and laid scarves and money in front of several of the statues and the Dalai Lama’s seat. We visited a small room near the statues at the front of the hall that was the Room of the Protectors. While offering scarves and money we asked for protection from harm for Rinpoche, the monks, and the whole world. After that we went to main floor, and the family gave small gifts of money to each of the hundreds of monks. Then we went to nearby buildings where younger monks were in school. Family members went into all the classrooms to give the children and instructors some money. We gave money to everyone working in the kitchen. Giving is considered a highly virtuous act, and because monks are not paid, gifts are their only source of income.

I was awestruck during the whole ceremony by the generosity of the family to the monastery community—and to me. I was welcomed to participate fully, which made the entire event a vivid lifelong memory. I am deeply grateful for the Lama family’s incredible welcoming spirit.