Tree of Life Review



AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Questioning The Maitreya Project by Jessica Falcone

COLUMN: Storiedmusic — The Night I Walked Out by DJ T’challah

NOVEL EXCERPT: In a State of Partition by Aneesha Capur

UP THE CREEK: Editor’s Notes — Art, Yoga, and Abu Ghraib

Bodhi Blues — A Year in India


Five years ago, I lived in guest rooms at the Tibetan nunnery in Dharamsala. I had no intention of taking vows of celibacy, nor was it the best value — the beds were uncomfortable and the communal bathrooms were too busy — but I stayed there for several weeks for one important reason: the daily rhythmic chanting of the nuns was like a deep massage to the soul.

I’m back in India now for another yearlong stint of anthropological research, also perhaps for a dose of the intense self-awareness that seems be the natural side effect of any extended adventure abroad. For the time being, I’m living in a Tibetan monastery in Kushinagar. There are only two monks here. They tell me that they chant in their small chapel once a day, but I’ve never heard them.

Kushinagar is the ugly duckling of the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit in South Asia. It is the place where the Buddha died over 2500 thousand years ago. Pilgrims come because it is where the story ended, but they never linger; in fact, they usually get the hell out of dodge as fast as they can.

There is a stupa marking the spot where Shakyamuni passed away with a final word of advice for his devotees, “Vayadhamma sankhara appamadena sampadetha,” which can be loosely translated, “Everything is impermanent. Work out your own liberation with diligence.”

In front of the stupa is a shrine with an impressive, red sandstone statue carved in the fifth century CE of the Shakyamuni Buddha, reclining on his deathbed. This shrine is the center of the swirl of pilgrims who descend on the small Indian town every day, pray briefly, and then file back onto their air-conditioned tourist buses towards more “inspiring” sites.

Appropriately enough perhaps, Kushinagar is the dead pilgrimage site, in contrast to the bustling site of Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, or the similarly active Buddhist community in Sarnath where the Buddha gave his first teaching. The government Buddha museum is dark and empty. One new luxury hotel stands completely and consistently empty, waiting for someone to come and breathe some life into the premises.

Ramabhar, the spot where the Buddha was cremated in Kushinagar, is, also, usually quiet and desolate, despite its claim to fame: it is site of origin for all of the Buddha’s relics. It is a huge, lonely monument, surrounded by the ruins of ancient monasteries, a reminder that the site was enthusiastically venerated once upon a time. One can imagine what it was like then, over a thousand years ago, when monks diligently made offerings and prayed daily in shadow of the great stupa.

In the midst of this graveyard of sacred sites there is a row of monasteries and temples built by devotees from around the world — Sri Lanka, Japan, Burma, Thailand, China, Korea, Tibet. Akin to an embassy row in the capital city of some irrelevant state, the monasteries are almost all shabby and half-empty: mere symbolic gestures of devotion that remain largely ignored by most pilgrims. The only real exception is the Wat Thai monastery, which enjoys the patronage of the Thai royal family. It is an enormous monastery with well-manicured gardens, separated from the fields of sugarcane surrounding it by high walls topped with barbed wire, and patrolled by armed guards.

There are very definite walls between the international Buddhists and the local Hindu and Muslim community of Kushinagar. Even where the physical walls are less imposing and concrete than those, which hug the Thai monastery, there is a very palpable ambivalence between these communities. One might expect to find a strong symbiotic relationship between the guests and their hosts, and there is certainly some flow from the pockets of the Buddhists into the local economy. The socioeconomic dynamics seem to be much more complex and fraught, however. While some monasteries sponsor small clinics or schools, many locals say that the monasteries do little more than apply band-aids to those wracked with the calamities of poverty. The local people also complain that most of the donations simply end up in the hands of the monasteries, which all too eagerly, and sometimes forcibly, buy large swathes of land, in the process driving up land prices and slowly displacing the poorest farmers. This is a familiar story. I have heard the same complaints in Sarnath, and Bodh Gaya. Although it is still too soon to be making conclusive conclusions, it would appear that the Buddhist community is not as wholly compassionate in their dealings with locals as they could be.

In the midst of this strangely rural cosmopolitanism, the Tibetan monastery where I live provides a momentary respite for busloads of Tibetan pilgrims on their way through the circuit. The main building serves as a home away from home for the few unlucky monks who have been sent there by the abbot of their home monastery in Dharamsala. The two monks in residence now maintain the two monastery chapels and supervise the cleaning of the string of two dozen or so Dharamshala guest rooms for pilgrims that ring the main building. These official activities take only a few hours a day, so the remainder of the long Kushinagar days is spent playing cricket with their teenaged Hindu servant, Chotu, or watching Hindi movies on television during the few short hours when there is electricity. The monks are young, and their life here is pretty carefree, but also, from their perspective, fairly dull.

The biggest challenge for our two monks, let’s call them, Tenzin and Dorje, is keeping their cook sober. The cook, Tashi, is a Tibetan in exile also, but he served for years with the Indian army. Now he is a layman in the service of the monastery. Tashi cooks passable daal and momos without passion, and sits long hours on the Dharamshala roof watching the slow meandering pace of the town ebb back and forth along the lane outside; mostly though he is plotting ways to get a hold of more money for cheap Indian alcohol. He is quiet when he is sober, but belligerent and cranky when drunk. The monks just shake their heads in dismay, plead with him to curb his habit, and whisper to the pilgrims to please stop giving him money.

Dorje is the king of the hill here at the monastery. Although serving in Kushinagar is akin to rude exile from the center of his world (in Dharamsala), he has a freedom here that would be the envy of the novices at his home monastery. Life is not dictated by a tight schedule. There is no discipline master here. In fact, the Tibetan monks don’t even wear robes here in Kushinagar; they wear stylish gear that would not be out of place on the streets of New York City.

I am the monastery mascot, I think, just by virtue of the fact that I am the only one who stays. As mascot I have certain privileges. I can eat with the monks in their inner sanctum. I get the “good” room, that is, the one most convenient to the hand-operated water pump and outhouse. Sometimes I’m even allowed to watch Hindi movies or cricket matches with the monks on TV. But there are crosses to bear as well. When I go out in the village during the day to do interviews, my Tibetan friends carp and fret until I come home. You see my Tibetan Buddhist monks and my local Hindu villagers don’t seem to get along very well. Once one of my Hindu collaborators from the village came by the monastery to show me off to his school friends, but my Tibetan comrades had their hackles raised, and hovered around disapprovingly. Tashi even yelled at them to get lost. I tried calming everyone down, but in the end I just pleaded a headache and retreated alone to my room.

But she’s our pet white girl, they all seemed to protest.

One of my Indian friends from Delhi teases me about this — about the fan clubs I tend to accidentally accumulate in my field sites. He says, “You complain, Jess, but you know you’ll miss it when you go home.” What an outrageous accusation! Utter and complete rubbish, I pout. And yet, also quite true. I remember the first time I came home from a long trip to India in 1997. It took me weeks to get used to the fact that people weren’t fascinated by my every move, and that strangers didn’t stare at me unabashedly for long moments without blinking. I suddenly wasn’t a rock star anymore. I guess at some level I was just flattered by the attention; the consummate bookworm in school, I had been catapulted to head cheerleader-like status. That was a long time ago though, and I have long since realized that any special attention I receive based on my race and nationality is not worthy fodder for an ego boost. If the ghost of colonialism and the quiet imps of globalization collude to make me princess for a day, how can I enjoy such a gift? What wouldn’t I give for all the anonymity and freedom of a fly on wall?

Who am I to these people? Mascot, rock star, researcher? And who are they to me? To them, I am an endless source of entertainment; my apparently adorable broken Hindi and broken Tibetan have earned me plenty of giggles and many new friends. I am also their connection to a glamorous world they’ve only seen in movies. I am their window onto a land where women show their long gams and sexy shoulders shamelessly to all the world, and the men drive their chicks around in flashy sports cars. No matter that I faithfully wear dowdy salwar kameez, pretend to be a teetotaler, and go to bed earlier than any self-respecting American seven year old. They all keep watching me, patiently waiting for my guard to drop, as if my nice girl facade will fade away.

And to me they are kind acquaintances — just that. They don’t understand me, and it’s not only a language barrier. All of them, the monks, the touts, the school teachers and farmers, they have all been hospitable and lovely, but I have to pack myself away in order to deal with them on their terms. Traveling in India always requires patience, but doing research here means complete and utter surrender to the flow.

I watch them; I watch them watch me; I watch them watching me watching them watch me. Just smile and nod. It’s all good, even when it’s not. And it is often lonely.

Of course I have had some genuinely fun and comfortable moments in Kushinagar too. There are many roses among the thorns. I have been trying to teach Chotu and Dorje how to play Frisbee. My efforts are much to Tashi’s dismay, since he spends the time dodging the out-of-control flying disc.

And then there are Dorje’s patient Tibetan lessons. I struggle with my textbooks, reading the Pu-ke to him painfully slowly, trying to digest the new grammar. Pu-ke is a beautiful language. I love hearing the rapid-fire colloquial Pu-ke bandied about by the always-smiling Tibetan grannies as they cook thukpa on the portable stoves outside their Dharamshala rooms.

There was one extended Tibetan family who stayed in Kushinagar for a few days, as they were traveling with a mobile Tibetan medicine clinic. The granddaughter of the Amchi, the Tibetan doctor, was a four-year-old spitfire, and she ran around like the queen of the monastery. I remember her resistance as her grandfather stripped her out of her clothes, and her wails as he tried to give her a bath. We all sat in a loose circle in the sunshine watching as she beat her grandfather with her little fists for trying to bathe her. The two monks laughed and helped by pumping more water and pouring it over her. She wailed the whole time, and we all tried not to laugh too much at how adorable she was even in her abject misery. One of the Tibetans smiled at me and said, “You see, we Tibetans hate baths. In Tibet it was so cold that we only used to take a bath twice in a year. This little phumo is a real Tibetan!” In the end the little girl was clean, but she didn’t waste time getting dirty again, I think just to defy us all.

And then there was the time at the village school when the villagers offered me fresh sugarcane. I had watched countless others tear the bark strip off with their teeth, and bite into the sweet center. I clumsily gnawed on the two-foot long cane, and finally managed to get several bark strips off. Proudly I began chewing the center, and was rewarded with oozing sugar juice. I chewed and chewed until the sweet taste was gone and then I swallowed the starchy center with a weak smile. “Bahut achchaa lagta hai,” I said, “I like it.” The crowd of villagers glanced at one another, and I could tell I had done something wrong. I got back to work, stripping and chewing diligently. Finally one old wizened woman started laughing, “She’s eating it!” A little boy took his own piece of sugarcane and showed me that you were supposed to chew and chew and then spit it out. “Ohhh,” I said, and then I drew more laughs for the dainty way I tried to spit out the spent cane.

At the same school, on another day I came to watch the Saraswati pooja, which is performed by Hindus every spring as a prayer for blessings from the goddess of education and knowledge. I was quickly ushered to the front, and seated next to the female principal. The priest draped a scarf over our shoulders and began instructing the two of us to perform the ritual. Somehow I spent the next hours standing, sitting, bowing, over and over as we lit incense and candle, tossed holy Ganga water this way and that, and offered flowers and many other auspicious things to the goddess. What fun!

This is my fourth trip to India, and I do love it here. As much as I learn about the complexity and diversity of cultural life here, there are no more important lessons than the ones I learn about myself. Sometimes you have to leave home far behind in order to really miss it. And sometimes you have to surrender yourself in order to know what it is you’ve lost.

Kushinagar is a little too close to the kidnapping capital of India for comfort. There are gangs of bandits that torment travelers on the roads and conduct well planned raids on businesses and homes, especially at night. I don’t leave the monastery after sunset.

I eat dinner with the monks, and after a little Tibetan chitchat I shut myself in my room. Usually the municipality shuts off the electricity by 7pm, so I write up my field-notes by candlelight until my eyes are tired. The nights are long. The thin, hard sleeping pads are uncomfortable, and my dreams are haunted by visions of extra thick mattresses laden with soft, sweet-smelling, clean pillows. Often the busload of Tibetan pilgrims who came that evening will leave the premises at an ungodly hour to get an early start on the next leg of their journey. Like clockwork at three or four am their shouts and the slamming of doors awake me. Sometimes someone pounds on my door, mistakenly assuming that one of his or her party must be sleeping inside. I visualize that a long line of squeezably soft pillows are bounding through space and attacking these loud pilgrims, whacking them across the head a few times and muffling their cries for help. The pilgrims noisily pack their bus, banging pots and pans as they go; they shout at Chotu to go and open the front gate. As I lay there, it is not sheep that I count, instead impossibly airy pillows bounce one by one over the fence into some paradise of softness in the darkness. I drift off into fitful sleep again as the bus rolls away.

Sometime after dawn I am either awakened by the banging of monkeys jumping from banyan trees onto the Dharamshala roof, or the sound of Chotu thumping hard on my door, as he brings chai and chapattis for my breakfast. I am happy for the return of light. I am all smiles as I eat my chapattis with jam. And before I wander out to start my day, I often pause to reflect on how extraordinarily lucky I am to be here. However, my enthusiasm is invariably slightly dampened somewhat by my morning visit to the outhouse, the sights and smells of which are beyond my ability to adequately describe.

I open my shutters to let the morning breeze air out my room, which is still stuffy from the burning of mosquito coils the night before. Then I scratch all of my newly acquired mosquito bites I wonder why I bother with the coils at all. I prepare for the day, packing my tape recorder, my notebook, pens, and digital camera. From inside the monastery, I can hear the ringing of small bells that accompanies the monks’ morning prayers, and I pause, straining my ears in vain for the deep rumble of melodious chanting.

Jessica Falcone

Jessica Falcone

Jessica Falcone is a Ph.D candidate in Anthropology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She has recently returned from a year and a half in India after conduct research for her dissertation on the worship of holy objects in Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. This is Jessica’s fourth trip to India.

AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Friends and Fiends
AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: From The Passenger’s Seat
AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Questioning The Maitreya Project
AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Kushinagar