#5 — 3.21.11 — Deer Park Institute/Bir to Delhi
Back in Delhi for an unscheduled day at a comfortable guesthouse, Lutyens Bungalows, before flying home tomorrow. We arrived at Old Delhi station at 5:30 this morning after rocking and rocketing all night on the Jammu Mail Express from Pathankot. Jon Watts and I are sharing a room and company. So both of us are not going cold turkey from two weeks of Think Sangha comradery to solitary travel.
For the last week we have been at Deer Park in the small North Indian town of Bir. Bir is in Himachal Pradesh, Kangra district, about two hours south and east of Dharamsala, right up against the first towering wall of the Himalayas. Northeast of Bir is an unbroken ridge of snow-topped peaks that stretches beyond one’s view. Beyond them lie successive lines of mountains, increasingly high. I’ve not seen the Himalayas before, and really this is just a glimpse. But every morning it was thrilling to walk outside my room at Deer Park and there they were, gleaming in the almost ceaseless sunlight.
There is a Tibetan colony in the town, one of the largest in north India. Monasteries are visible near and far, brilliantly painted gold or red, adorned with rainbow ornamentation. In late afternoon, monks of all ages fill the streets and shops. The merchants are mostly Tibetan — small groceries, western clothing, tea shops, and so on. The local Indian population seems to occupy more rundown businesses at the ends of Bir’s main street. One wonders about tensions between the Indian community and the enterprising Tibetan settlers.
Bir has become a world famous spot for paragliding. This probably has to do with the dramatic landscape and prevailing winds. Huge nylon contraptions — hybrid of kite and parachute — prowl the skies each afternoon. The takeoff is from a tall hill above Deer Park. From there the gliders catch updrafts that carry them in and around the tallest hills and low mountains. Most afternoons you can see five or six at any one time. Some westerners come to solo here. Other tourists, including Indians, sign up for tandem trips, teamed with a skilled local youth who will take them up for an hour or so at the cost of about $50. This has created a new economy in Bir, without seeming to make too much damage. Some of us were tempted, but in the end no one took the jump (literally). In late afternoons we joined townspeople walking down to the landing place to watch the gliders slide in on a grassy, terraced meadow.
Deer Park Institute was begun in the mid 2000s by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the multi-talented teacher, writer, and filmmaker (director of The Cup, which was filmed nearby). It is a self-described center for the study of India’s wisdom traditions. Deer Park’s orientation is inclusive and eclectic, representing Dzongsar’s wide mind and interests. There are programs on meditation, photography, writing, textual study, the environment, and (ours) engaged Buddhism.
The facility, a former monastery has been fitted with comfortable double rooms and dorms with bathrooms and solar-heated showers. The vegetarian food is good and plentiful. People pay a modest fee to stay for programs or for personal retreats.
Our INEB friend Prashant Varma is director. He is a student of Dzongsar and a man of great energy and capacity. At Deer Park while we were there, Prashant seemed to be everywhere at once as host, administrator, internet fixer, and travel agent. Prashant is 33, from a well-to-do Bombay family. His English is better than mine. He is married to Jennifer Yo from Taiwan, one of those fortunate relationships that flowered at an INEB conference.
We stayed at Deer Park for nearly a week, which included three days of program with fifteen or twenty people from various Indian Buddhist communities. Our dual task was to learn about their practice and situation, and to share our understanding of socially engaged Buddhism, considering its actual and potential place in modern India. This all went very well, and strong links were forged, particularly with young Indians. We strongly encouraged people to join us at this October’s INEB conference in Bodhgaya.
We also had a chance to visit nearby Tibetan monasteries. The sprawling monastery in Chauntra, a few miles from Bir, was completed in 2004, replacing an older monastery which then became Deer Park. More than 400 monks here study and debate Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. We went to Dongyu Gatsal Ling, an inspiring nunnery run by the charismatic Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Originally from Great Britain, Tenzin spent thirteen years living and practicing alone in a mountain cave, summer and winter, emerging to become a powerful teacher and a voice for Himalayan women and nuns.
On the way from Bir to Dharamsala we stopped for lunch and conversation with Lama Karma Dechen at Jangchub Samten Ling, a small training center for nuns in the Kagyu tradition. Her monastery is now in its seventh cycle of traditional three-year retreats. Karma Dechen and I met at a 1999 INEB meeting in Sri Lanka. I clearly recall her physical presence, her joy and blunt speaking. Twelve years later, she is much the same… and more.
We had a night and a day in Dharmasala en route to Pathankot to catch the Jammu Mail to Delhi. This short stop in Dharamsala was as much as I needed, or as much as I could handle on this trip. It is a fascinating place. Narrow streets are lined with shops selling all manner of Tibetan goods. Monks and nuns are everywhere. The whole town has a makeshift and temporary feeling, appropriate to the Tibetans’ guest status in India. Western trekkers and dharma bums are much in evidence — some Americans, but mostly Europeans. Cars and taxis choke the streets, forming one endless traffic jam, horns blaring, exhaust spewing. I bought a few small gifts and enjoyed this last day with eight friends. Our food, steady drivers came back all the way from Bir; Jon and I left with them for Pathankot about three pm to meet our train.
In the course of investigating Indian Buddhism we find there are really many Indian Buddhisms: various Dalit/Ambedkarite Buddhists (which includes our TBMSG friends in Maharastra), exiled Tibetans in the north and south, other Himalayan groups practicing in the Tibetan tradition, Goenka-based vipassana practitioners, the Young Buddhist Society in Uttar Pradesh, the Mahabodhi Society, middle class Buddhists in Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai, and on and on. Such diversity, which is the nature of Indian society, is invigorating. But the challenge is that the Buddhist revival in the land of Buddha’s birth is factionalized and often suspicious of each other. Of course factionalism is not endemic to India. Still, given the minimal and marginal status of Buddhists here, cooperation could serve people better.
Difference here is not so much in the practice itself but in beliefs and social factors: caste, gender, culture, poverty and wealth (hence access to resources), lay/monastic, etc. In each place, one or more of these factors is foremost. Different groups have opinions about each other. Tibetan practitioners question the authenticity of Ambedkarite Buddhists, based on doctrinal issues around karma and rebirth. Ambedkarites are understandably wary of conscious or unconscious caste prejudice in other practice communities. Lay groups question the relevance of monasticism in this modern age. Monastics question the commitment of lay Buddhists to the path of enlightenment. Wealthy Indians form their own circles; poor and rural Indians do not feel at ease in a setting of urban wealth and privilege. And so it goes.
This is not what the Buddha had in mind. His early sangha was open and egalitarian. But there is an unfortunate human proclivity to form circles and institutions which inevitably have an inside and an outside. This proclivity is not carved in stone; we can always recognize common practice and common humanness. But India’s ancient profusion of cultures and its jarring disparities of rich and poor are hard to bridge.
I offer the barest sketch of these issues, which were raised in discussion from the very first day. Of course we were also inspired by each encounter along the way. And I know that what I see are still first impressions. I will never be able to get our mind around “India” in this lifetime. It feels more like India is wrapping itself around my mind. So I and my comrades have no answers. We do, however, wish to be allies to our Indian friends. To listen to them, advocate for them, find practice resources they can make use of, and skillfully offer what we understand from our own lives and practice.
But there was more to each day of this journey than just talk. We had time to take walks, drink milk tea, hang out, laugh, and simply be friends — letting new friendships take roots and old ones ripen. This is the basis of Think Sangha — kalyanamitta. Real friendship grounded in shared dharma, unhindered by nationality, Buddhist tradition, or chronological age. Although I am not always at ease with circumstances or with myself, these two weeks of travel together have been remarkably harmonious. No visible squabbles among our group, even in the turmoil of Old Delhi station, or the dry dust of a four-hour drive on winding mountain roads. Practice is revealed in how each of us takes responsibility for our own irritability and pain. If there is a way one of us can help, help is offered. If someone needs to step back for space and recollection, we all understand that. Each of us has moments like this.
In such practice joy arises naturally. This is an aspiration of mine, refreshed this week by seeing videos of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Suzuki Roshi (We watched Ed Herzog’s rough cut of the Berkeley Zen Center film). The aspiration is fine and proper, but the accomplishment of joy is beyond effort. It seems to come with letting go of ones ideas of how things should be, accepting what is uncomfortable, and recognizing that each person wrestles with these matters in our own place, time, and fashion. If I can see this connection and get out of my own way, then joy is the fruit.
See you back home in a few days.
— Alan Senauke