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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jackson Pollock, Art Blakey, and Me: IHUM 202 Paper 6

Six, with inspiration from “Free for All,” from the album Free for All (RVG Edition), Art Blakey

This is a Paper about Painting

            I’ve always dug jazz. I can’t remember a time, from the time I first heard a tune to now, when jazz wasn’t a part of my life. It’s not just an aural thing, man, it’s an everything. It’s a visual culture, a vocabulary, a smell and a taste and a way of walking down the street with a glide in yo’ stride and a dip in yo’ hip. It’s Monk singing along out of tune while he flatfingered the keyboard. It’s Blakey telling to Morgan to “get mad” before Morgan squeals his horn to high heaven. It’s Ella forgetting the lyrics to “Mack the Knife” and scatting her way into the best rendition anybody ever did. It’s Satchmo doing whatever he wanted, growling with his trumpet the same way he did with his voice, slurring words and mixing up lyrics into a cocktail of blue midnight. It’s even Ol’ Blue Eyes stealing “Luck Be a Lady” and crooning the version everybody knows, just to spite the casting director who gave the role he wanted to Brando. Jazz is a vision, an attitude, a crazy sublime profane mix-up of black and white and smooth and rough and earth and heaven. Turns out it also happens to be a way of painting.
            If I’m going to do Pollock, I’m going to do it the way Pollock did it. With Be-Bop. I put “Free for All,” on repeat, rolled up some old pants, threw on an old shirt, found some sticks in the yard, laid down some newspaper, found the only sizable canvas we had (the back of a cheap wall-hanging a friend gave my wife to use as a canvas [she actually paints]), and got to dripping. I’m a jazz drummer, so my first instinct was to air-drum with the sticks. That, thankfully, gave way to an ecstatic experience, a release from the pressure of finals and essays and nucleophilic aromatic substitution and verb forms and the chapter twelve quiz. Squatting on the balls of my feet, I played – really played – for a solid half hour. The paint began to fill the canvas of its own accord. Every half minute or so I discovered a new technique, some new way to whip the paint or drip it at just the right angle out of the bottle, and sometimes I stopped just to dig the colors mixing on their own. I learned how to get big splotches of paint with a combination of angle and speed, and it felt good to have one of those hit the canvas when the music climaxed. Doing what felt good, not what seemed good, became my guiding element. Smooth sections of music felt better with swirls, and black felt better with swirls. Red needed to hit just at the right time, with the drums, and splatter up and off the canvas. White is piano – constant, everywhere, behind and under and over everything. Sometimes these roles switched as I felt they needed to switch, but halfway through they felt too good to change much. It looks like jazz. Everybody improvises together, and the sound builds on top of the sound and red and white can become pink and black and white can become grey but black mostly stays black and red mostly stays red and white mostly stays white – e pluribus unum, yeah?
Sometimes the thing that gets me when experiencing art is the transportational effect of imagining myself behind the artist’s eyes, inside the drummer’s ears, hiding out in some sulcus behind the frontal cortex or floating in some wisp of the Atman while they do what they do. Good art takes you somewhere else. The stuff they call “modern” is blatant about this objective – it happens while you watch it. Jazz is recorded, etched into the vinyl, permanently, like these abstract expressions we can check out at the MoMA and Guggenheim, but with every listen it’s brand new, alive, happening again for the first time. It’s evergreen, forever Eden, older than that old devil moon, blank canvas and full soundscape all at once. You see it drip onto the canvas, twirl in the mad dance while the record grooves wear down atom-by-atom. It’s indistinguishable from the sounds that rosined the canvas and waxed the artist, eversame, less splittable than the quarks buzzing, twitching, harmonizing in the snailshell canals that lead down the rabbit hole into the galaxy of sound. Stand in front of a Pollock, and you stand in front of a blank screen. Call it a sound mirror. Or maybe don’t – call it abstract expression, call it jazz, call it whatever. Does it call back? It’s a confusion that makes sense, a tap-step and love-dance choreographed by weighted dice. It’s improvisation, perfection in performance forever recorded in all of its imperfection. It has the grammar and spelling-check turned off so that whatever comes out the first time has to be the perfect thing. It’s Kerouac’s typewriter, Coltrane’s saxophone. In it’s highest form it can only be executed by someone disciplined and practiced enough to handle the anarchy. It’s what high school jazz band kids don’t understand about free jazz, they think they can just blow their horns and squeak and burp and they’ll sound like Bitches’ Brew but they don’t – they sound like squeaks and burps. It’s why my painting is not a Pollock, and why it will only be hung maybe on the wall of my living room – the colors, after all, match my couch as well as they do the trumpet solo.
When I finished the painting and cleaned the paint off the walls, I stared at it for a while. I kept the music on, but I’m not so sure I needed to. I don’t think anybody else would hear Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers on first sight of what I did, but the two are nearly one and the same in my mind now. I didn’t feel any sense of unity or composition when I was flinging paint at the board, but out of the depths of the morass of black and red and white comes a story without words, plot, or hero. It’s probably an inkblot test par excellence, but like inkblot tests it represents always and forever some meeting point near the viewer’s subconscious but pulled out of center by the gravity of the creator. It’s a mix, impure and yet unstained. It’s crazy here because I was the creator, but the creator who was me is now an old me, and the viewer is the me now, ten minutes in the future. The immediacy of this improvisation now looms monolithically over me, more true to life than a picture – that was the creative and free me, unthinking but hyperconscious, and this is the analytical me, but the analytical me that is pulled slightly out of center by the gravity of the creativity I see before me. Ninety-seven percent analytical, three percent gravity-induced creative. Maybe this is part of why this kind of art is unsettling for some people – it induces creativity, and creativity can be uncomfortable. Stand in front of a Pollock, and before you know it you are dancing around and flinging paint and listening to jazz, though nobody else can see it. For people who don’t like dancing or jazz, this would be uncomfortable. For those of us who dig on both, it’s home.
Jazz exploded for me when I learned how to make mistakes. Before it was just a thing I did, a white kid with a bunch of other white kids making black music. When I learned how to make mistakes, it transcended “white” “black” “kid” and “music” and became an indescribable something, a heaven of some sort. When mistakes are cherished, they are no longer mistakes. Eventually even the mistakes are made on purpose. I think Pollock probably discovered this. You want to know the secret to making mistakes? Make them twice. Improvising and squeak out a sour note? Play that sour note again. The first sour note is transformed from a mistake into a motif. Explore that sour note, get inside it and love it and make it the best sour note anyone ever played twice. That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s how Ella and Coltrane and Pollock did it. They made perfect mistakes. Drip some paint on the floor? By Jove, drip some more. Before you know it you will revolutionize art. No one can ever go back and claim your first drip was a mistake – only you’ll know. And, chances are, the truth is that the first drip wasn’t a mistake at all, but a cry from the person you forgot about that lives inside you and has one hell of an artistic side. Yessirree, one hell of an artistic side.

(See what I did there?)

The Snow Lion Roars in the Palm Trees: Tibetan Refugee Music in India

The Snow Lion Roars in the Palm Trees:
Tibetan Refugee Music in India

In south India along the side of a highway six hours west of Bangalore a bustling Tibetan refugee community goes about its business, quite unnoticed by the world. Bylakuppe is home to the largest community of Tibetans outside of Tibet, with a population estimated at twenty thousand souls. An onerous application process keeps any overnight visitors out, and has had the effect of maintaining Bylakuppe as a pure bastion of Tibetan culture, prayer flags flapping serenely in the palm trees. No less than five monasteries dot the agrarian landscape. Half the population at any time is made up of monks and nuns. Tibetan schools and town halls, homes, farms, restaurants, and businesses fill the rest.
            I went there with a singular purpose – to learn Tibetan folk music from a qualified teacher, and to see what I could learn about Tibetan culture through that music. What I found was a rich and vibrant culture, continually evolving as it holds on to its roots, trying to maintain a balance between full modernity and cultural preservation. Folk music is a driving force in the lives of the refugees. It is social cement, bringing together families and communities around a shared sound and heritage. It is a tool for creative expression, for singing of loves lost and gained, of devotion to principles and people, of frustrations and ecstasies. It is sacred rebel music, a key instrument for protest against the ravages of their homeland and people. In short, it is an art form central to so much of modern Tibetan life, and, sadly, in acute danger of being lost in the winds of political uncertainty and cultural diffusion.
            In 1959 the Chinese occupied Tibet. India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s most sacred and respected political and spiritual leader, and thousands of refugees. India’s kind solution was to provide substantial plots of land for the Tibetans’ use as refugee camps for as long as needed. The Dalai Lama moved to Dharamsala, a small village above an old English hill outpost called McLeod Ganj, and began the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Among the first actions of the new government was to set up a school for the preservation of Tibetan art forms, and so before the first monastery or temple was built, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts was erected and staffed. The Tibetans began to spread throughout India, the majority congregating in the jungle in Karnataka State that was to become the collection of camps at Bylakuppe. After years of labor and many deaths from new diseases and new snakes, a plot of jungle was cleared and the agrarian lifestyle of the refugees could commence.
            Fast-forward fifty years. Monks wearing mirror-shades and Nike rip-offs zip along well-paved roads on sleek motorcycles. Thousands of students learn Tibetan, English, and the sciences in two major schools, staffed mostly by Tibetans. The fields are orderly and verdant; farmers chat on cell phones while they direct cattle pulling plows. Tibetan food – delicious pot-stickers called momos and an infinite variety of noodle soups called thukpa – is still the main fare, but many families cook south Indian cuisine just as well. The third generation of Bylakuppe refugees is rising, with new citizens fresh from the Himalaya arriving every month. The only foreigners are a few students from the United States and one or two brave souls who are hiding out without a Protected Area Permit. Bylakuppe is modern, it is most certainly in south India, and it yet remains wholly Tibetan. This phenomenon of Tibetans adroitly mixing with other strong cultures while remaining themselves is, however, not a new occurrence.

The Metropolitan Shangri-La

In the mind’s eye, physical Tibet is a final frontier, an unexplored and vast frigid landscape of unspeakable beauty and impossible mysticism. Its inhabitants are shepherds and wizards, warlords and bejeweled aristocrats. Above all things, Tibet is remote and isolated, cut off from the world by cloud-capped mountains on one side and infinite barren expanses on the other. Tibet’s pristine isolation, however, is more invention than reality. There could hardly have been a more metropolitan society, by ancient standards. Muslims and Mongols shared Lhasa, the illustrious capital city, with the high Lamas. The Chinese royal court made frequent appearances, and the reverse was also true – Tibet’s most visible citizens spent months and years living abroad, taking part in all the intrigues and scandals of the court. Tibetan medical doctors, philosophers, and traders traversed the globe – China, India, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Greece – bringing home ideas and artifacts while spreading Tibetan notions of Buddhism, medicine, and commerce.
            Notable evidences of this trade and interplay appear even in Tibet’s most prized and lauded instrument, the lute-like Dramyen. The music teachers and friends I made in the community readily admitted the bulk of Tibetan instruments to be Chinese in origin, simply modified to Tibetan tastes and circumstances. For example, the Tibetan violin called Pi-wang is simply a larger version of the Chinese Erhu, providing increased volume appropriate for dance music in wide-open spaces. The Dramyen, however, is claimed to be a Tibetan original, a sacred and august instrument, and as such is the only Tibetan melodic instrument to play a crossover role as a device of religious implement and secular entertainment. Gods and goddesses adorning the local temples are as frequently seen with Dramyen as are kids in shades and designer jeans. The Dramyen, as uniquely Tibetan as it is, shows strong evidences of influence from Mongolian and Chinese sources. The Dramyen I bought is typical of one of three main styles of tuning box decoration. Mine has a geometric head, simple and unadorned, with graceful lines. The other two head styles are sumptuous and intricate – one is styled after a horse’s head, powerful and aggressive, and the other is a multihued dragonhead, usually over-the-top in complexity and detail. The horsehead motif came from Mongolia, where the “horsehead fiddle” is ubiquitous. The dragonhead is of Chinese descent, where it graces Erhu and other stringed instruments. From this simple example, it is easy to see the complex and interwoven nature of Tibetan culture, and to extricate oneself from a too-simple view of the isolated residents of Shangri-La.

            Milarepa and the Rebel Lama

            Recognizing Tibet’s cosmopolitan flavor does not prevent recognition of some of its most singular and, from a music culture point of view, most contributory citizens. The whole of Tibetan life is tied up in its distinctive form of Buddhism, and it follows suit that two of the heroes of Tibetan music were important Buddhist leaders.
            The first was Milarepa. In any Tibetan thangka painting, he is easily recognized by his emaciated figure and green skin, both gained while subsisting solely on nettles as he meditated for years in solitude in a snowy mountain cave. A joyful ascetic, he embodied spontaneity, living in the moment, and love of the spiritual aspects of the natural world. He was known to break into song at any given moment, and often with little discernable impetus, extolling spiritual truths, asceticism, and exalting the features of the landscape around him in parable. He set a precedent for and lent credence to songs describing mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and all of the animal denizens. These profound songs are common in the Tibetan folk vernacular.
            The second, more scandalous and human hero of Tibetan folk music was none other than the VI Dalai Lama, a rebel youth who shed the trappings of his high calling and spent much of his time drinking, carousing, chasing women, and writing songs. He was universally loved by the people, and universally worrisome to the clergy. His songs are full of longing, of love, of angst, and occasionally the candid yet transcendent spirituality expected of the highest lama.  
Even if meditated upon
The face of my lama comes not to me,
But again and again comes to me
The smiling face of my beloved.
The honest candor of this song is easy to relate to for most of the people I met in Bylakuppe, including (perhaps especially!) the monks. The next song showcases the strong visual nature of many traditional lyrics.
It snowed at dusk
When I searched for my sweetheart.
Now the secret cannot be kept;
In the snow my footprints remain.
The simple image of footprints in the snow at dusk, an austere sight filled with the warmth of emotion of the young lover, remains with the hearer and forever changes the common sight of a lone set of tracks in the virgin snow. Descriptions like this, sparse yet powerful, are common in Tibetan folk music.
The garrulous parrot
Please stay with your mouth shut.
The thrush in the willow grove
Has promised to sing a song for me.
Wit and straightforwardness are also common markers of folk tunes, and this one in particular shows the face of wit and even irritation in the face of the “garrulous parrot,” or the clergymen that disapproved of the Lama’s liaisons with the “thrush in the willow grove.”
White crane!
Lend me your wings.
I shall not fly far;
From Lithang, I shall return.
(All songs and song numbers taken from The Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama by K. Dhondup)
Part of the special station of the Dalai Lama is an ability to choose the location of his next rebirth, and the last of these songs was recognized after his death/murder/disappearance (depending on the version of history) as a hint to help his followers find the VII Dalai Lama. The VII Dalai Lama was indeed found in Lithang, having passed all the tests associated with becoming a recognized reincarnation. Thus this VI Dalai Lama was seen not only as a folk hero, the voice of the common people in a society ruled by the clergy, but also as a true embodiment of the purest type of holiness, boldly refusing the fetters of outward accessories while yet displaying the spiritual power of a god.
            Though the Tibetan folk music tradition is criminally understudied by scholars, Tibetologists, and ethnomusicologists, it nevertheless holds a vital place in Tibetan culture in modern times. The examples set by Milarepa and the VI Dalai Lama have been followed without interruption, and the songs of Tibetans in exile echo love for their lost landscape, Buddhist philosophy, and the angst of young love and unfulfilled longing for lover or home. Added to these are the powerful messages of protest songs. Some of these songs are completely new, rock songs with power chords and drum sets. Kiela Diehl, in one of the only works on modern Tibetan refugee music, follows the Yak Band in their quest to unite the diaspora through rock protest ballads. Particularly interesting to me are the old songs, once innocuous praises of Tibetan culture and the Dalai Lama, now transformed into protest by politics as the process of cross-acculturation continues in the new refugee venue.

Soong Dhang Laymo

            The first song I learned to sing and play on Dramyen was Soong Dhang Laymo, an old song that falls into this second category of protest. On the surface, none of the lyrics are incendiary or revolutionary: “What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The Chosha Yishi (one of the Dalai Lama’s titles, also approximately translating to “precious jewel”) is the jewel. What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The young men of Tibet are the jewels. What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The women of Tibet, with their jewelry of turquoise and coral, are the precious jewels. What is the precious jewel of the Norbulingka? The children of Tibet are the precious jewels.” This song, written in some time in the lost annals of history, was originally a song of praise to the Dalai Lama and of love for the Tibetan people. However, in the refugee context, the lyrics cry defiantly that the people are not broken simply because they are not “home.” This song with its original lyrics and meaning would draw severe punishment if performed in Tibet, where every image of the Dalai Lama, aural or visual, is outlawed. These refugee Tibetans are not in their motherland, but they brought their most prized treasures with them in the person of the Dalai Lama and the strength of the rising generation. Burn the Norbulingka, kill, rape, and plunder, and the Tibetans will yet not be dead. Tibet will yet not be dead. Precious jewels are indestructible.
            I was asked to perform this song at the year’s most auspicious celebration, the Dalai Lama’s seventy-seventh birthday, on July 6th. To fully understand the weight of this celebration, it must be considered that the Dalai Lama is, quite literally, the living deity of the people. In the refugee context, he is the symbol of hope and the strong leader that has kept the diaspora unified. Every year he lives is another year of hope, especially as many begin to doubt that another charismatic and able leader will rise to take his place and fill his shoes. The death of the Dalai Lama is seen by some as the death of the struggle to save Tibet. There is no person or concept more beloved of the Tibetans.
I asked my teacher, Dawa-la, why he wanted me to perform this song at the celebration. He told me that many Tibetan children and teenagers do not fully appreciate or understand the culture they come from, having never set foot in Tibet. A reminder that the Tibetan musical tradition draws people from all over the world would also be a reminder to the children of the power and value of their culture. An “Inji-Mi,” a Western man, playing this song on that stage seven thousand miles from his home would be a powerful image for the youngsters, one that will never leave. A tall, white, blond-haired blue-eyed Christian came and sang – not one of his songs, but one of ours – for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This image represents the worth of the music, the support of people in the West, and the compassion taught by the Buddha in accepting all beings as relatives, regardless of race or creed.
Never once did I feel the cold shoulder I might have expected. I was one of eleven performances, the only solo, and the only foreigner. My participation in the sacred event of another culture might have been met with opposition or discomfort, were it anywhere else. The eagerness of my teachers and friends to share their traditions with me is a sign of the robust and lively nature of Tibet in exile. There was no defensiveness, neither was there hurt or disgruntlement where the failure of my country to reprimand China and restore Tibet was concerned. From what I felt talking to friends before the performance, and from the response of the crowd after the performance, everybody was interested in moving forward, in holding on to peace and accepting any offerings of love regardless of their source.
The stage was a concrete platform beneath a colorful array of canopies covering the capacious lawn in front of the Dalai Lama’s palace in Bylakuppe. When I arrived, I was surprised to find that the “palace” was a rather humble house set in the middle of a field of grass dotted by towering trees. It turns out the only good translation for the Tibetan word for the places the Dalai Lama stays when he travels to the various settlements is “palace.” The crowd gathered around three sides of the stage, and the fourth side met with the covered porch of the palace where the dignitaries were seated, where the Dalai Lama would sit were he not attending a similar performance in his home base in Dharamsala in North India. The performers, myself included, performed not facing the crowd, but the dignitaries and the absent-in-body high Lama. The party, after all, was for him.
The opera singers, lion dancers, children’s groups, and school troupes took their turns on stage, exuding national pride and devotion to the Dalai Lama. The crowd responded enthusiastically, laughing and cheering at the right moments. When my time came, I stepped on stage as Palden, another of my teachers, adjusted the microphones. I started to play the instrumental introduction, and as soon as the melody was recognized, the crowd erupted. Being surrounded on three sides by thousands of people in close proximity heightened the effect on me, and I watched as the dignitaries smiled and serenely nodded in the same recognition the crowd had just had. As I plunked my way through the song, an amateur at best, the crowd alternately went silent to hear the lyrics, and then clapped and cheered uproariously during the instrumental sections. It was a heady experience, overwhelming – I even forgot to play the instrument for most of a chorus and got caught up in singing with the crowd. For the last verse, a repeat of the most known lyrics, the crowd drowned me out. In all the performances I have been a part of over the years, none has paralleled this experience for sheer crowd participation and excitement. It still humbles me to think about it. Maybe sixty people in the crowd knew me. Yet the response to my performance was by far the most extreme of the day. Why were they so enthusiastic?
I will not pretend to understand all of the reasons for the incredible reception the performance received, but I will relate the responses I obtained from people I talked to after the performance. Several people told me how much they loved that song, and how much that song meant to them. A woman from Third Camp, the same camp we lived in, had graduated from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and immigrated to Canada where she continued to sing. Her YouTube version of Soong Dhang Laymo, a reinterpretation with drum machines and synth pads (a prime example of the natural evolution and cross-acculturation of Tibetan refugee music), had recently gone viral in the community. There was local pride in her accomplishments, and my act of bringing the song “back home” completed the circle. Others, the elderly in particular, were happy that I sang in their language and that the words could be clearly heard. Kiela Diehl describes Tibetan refugee response to well-enunciated Tibetan-language poetry in song as a central part of the enjoyment of their music. I was dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing, at the behest of Palden, and this compounded the positive response of the elderly and traditionalists to my singing in Tibetan.  This combination also, incidentally, gave me a happy source of trouble the rest of my stay as everybody then assumed I spoke Tibetan (whereas everybody before assumed I spoke none and therefore communicated in English). Many people I met were simply proud of their culture and music, and related to me how happy they were that I enjoy it too, as a Westerner. The longest lasting response I could observe was the revival of the YouTube version of Soong Dhang Laymo – I heard it blare from community loudspeakers and cafes several times a day in the month after the performance. As I would pass people in the street, they would start to sing or whistle the melody, usually followed by a fit of laughter and a hearty “Hello! Tashi Delek!” when I made eye contact. Everybody knew the song before – it is one most learned on their mothers’ knees – but it became ubiquitous after. The song generated so much excitement that, despite my weak and halting performance, I became a celebrity for the last month I was in Bylakuppe.
Reflections After the Performance

I have thought for months about this experience and what it meant, and what it means for the Tibetans and the rest of the world. I am yet unable to look at the experience with the cool eye of a researcher, so powerfully has it touched me. It changed who I am. Maybe a few years’ time will enable me to make a more detailed analysis of what happened, the implications for future researchers, etc. For now, let a few thoughts and feelings suffice. As I said before, the performance was simultaneously botched and the absolute most successful performance I have ever given. The reaction the crowd gave was not in response to my technical ability, which most performers hope to wow the audience with (and, truthfully, spend too much time on), but rather in response to the love with which I performed and, above even that, the song itself. I have never felt such emotion from a group in response to a song in any venue. I had also never lived among a group of refugees. These people are united in pain and passion and cultural heritage. The refugee spirit, though at times depressed and downtrodden, is formidable, potent, and nigh indestructible. It springs back, and any sign of life and happiness is celebrated, be it the smallest iota. It is inspiring to watch. It imparts hope, not just for the Tibetan diaspora, but for all of humankind. If a song can elicit such a response, then not only is music an important part of Tibetan expression and heritage, it is an important part of human expression and heritage. It changed the way I look at music and how essential it is to the make up of my being. It changed the way I viewed my research and vastly increased the amount of importance I place on the preservation and promulgation of folk musics. This stuff is not just for guys from the Smithsonian with fancy microphones – it is for everybody. And, in the Tibetan case, I became convinced that the work of preservation and promulgation needs to start now.

Current Dangers and Next Steps

In Bylakuppe and elsewhere in the Tibetan diaspora, the folk music canon is still largely held in the minds of the musicians. Though there is wide oral dissemination of this music, proper archival work of diasporic music as it stands will serve in preserving and disseminating the art form to a world audience, and will guard against loss due to any future upheavals in Tibetan life. The Dalai Lama’s death, change of policy by the Chinese or Tibetan governments, etc., could all cause a great loss of memory as the Tibetan community either regroups or further splits. Though Tibetan culture is robust, the political situation is undeniably precarious, and action must be taken to improve the musical database available to refugees and any other interested persons. Moreover, the special expression of musical values in the current community is unlikely to be remembered in the wake of either happy or sad endings for the diaspora. The universal human value inherent in the honest and difficult struggles of refugee expression will be lost if not immediately recorded.
In addition to the problem of the impending loss of current refugee expression, the fact of the wide variety of musics from within Tibet that are housed in the minds of musicians has gone overlooked by researchers and, frankly, by Tibetans. The song I sang was from Lhasa, which is recognized as the center of Tibetan culture and therefore houses the normative art forms. However, I could have performed songs from any number of provinces and villages, each with their own unique style. Dawa and Palden, my teachers, each had mastery of various styles from various places, and none of this is adequately recorded in any easily accessible format. The few regional songs that make it on to YouTube represent only a tiny fraction of the variety of Tibetan musical expression, and a thorough cataloging of the repertoires of musicians such as Palden and Dawa would greatly expand understanding and advocacy of what might be fading, non-central, non-normative styles. The alternative is to risk a repainting and homogenization of the rich variety found outside of Lhasa.
The suggestion and call is for researchers to a) create the first generation of English-language treatises on the variety of Tibetan musics, with recorded examples, and/or b) seek out Tibetan-language treatises on the same subject, if any exist, and translate them. The diaspora in India is a prime source for both projects, as it is concerned with preservation, willing to contribute, and much more accessible than Tibet itself. For those not involved in research, the call is to seek to understand and appreciate this folk music, to see the ways it impacts the diaspora in Bylakuppe and to allow some measure of its hope, happiness, and emotion to rub off. The story is a Tibetan story, a refugee story, and most of all it is a human story that impacts every one of us. To lose it would be to lose the thoughts and dreams of generations; to preserve it would be to preserve one of the greatest sources of life and expression in the entire human family and enable it to inspire generations on into eternity.

Monday, September 17, 2012

PHIL 501R paper

The Snow Lion in the Palm Trees

A Survey of Everyday Buddhism in the World’s Largest Tibetan Refugee Community

Introduction – What in the World is a “Bylakuppe?”

In the summer of 2012, my wife and I fit all of our supplies into a carry-on suitcase and two backpacks and set out for Bylakuppe, India. What followed the next four months was a heady mixture of South Indian jungle living tied up with traditional and forward-moving Tibetan culture. Established in 1961, Bylakuppe has a population of about twenty thousand refugees, including the first-, second-, and now third-generation, with new first-generation refugees arriving regularly to replenish the ranks. The physical space of Bylakuppe is split into dozens of “camps,” though not a tent pole is to be seen. Cement houses in Tibetan style dot the agrarian landscape, prayer flags strewn across the terraces. Five monasteries rise above the landscape, commanding respect and devotion from the locals, driving home deeply the truth that, though this is India, almost nothing about this place is Indian.
Due to restrictions imposed by the Indian government, who mistrusted the CIA’s involvement with Tibetan guerilla troops during the 1960s when the refugees came en masse to India and the lands for camps were granted, only Tibetans are permitted to live within the camps. Though the CIA’s involvement with the guerilla units was short-lived, the Protected Area Permit has survived, having the effect of isolating the village from the country around it and foreigners. Outsiders must undergo a lengthy application process for a Protected Area Permit in order to avoid hefty fines and five years’ jail time for illegally living in the camps. Indians who come to work in the camps in the day must return home to the nearby Indian villages at night, and the local Indian police watch foreigners closely. Heavy enforcement keeps Bylakuppe and other Tibetan refugee communities at a very high level of racial and cultural homogeneity. For this reason, combined with a system of aggressive re-education and cultural and religious suppression in the China-occupied Tibetan motherland, the refugee Tibetans feel that the true Tibet is preserved in the dozens of refugee camps scattered around India. Though the likelihood of there being a “true” Tibet anywhere is dubious, due to changes in Tibet itself since the Chinese occupation and continual adaptation by Tibetans in exile, the strength of the effects of population concentration and calculated institutional cultural preservation cannot be overstated.
Buddhism in Bylakuppe is Bylakuppe. With few exceptions (the Kache Muslims being the notable example[1]), to be Tibetan is to be Buddhist. The social and religious structure, though now segregating somewhat due to the Dalai Lama’s recent release of his role as secular leader, has been tied together since the rise of the lamas in the 13th century[2]. Monastic life and lay life are intertwined and interdependent. The monasteries never shut their doors, and each layperson’s home has at least one bed, though usually a whole room, set aside for the monks’ use. Green Tara, goddess of good fortune, watches over the shopkeeper’s cash drawer, and His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama, and often His Holiness the Karmapa, maintain a similar vigilance in every home, restaurant, and establishment. Offerings of packaged foods piled up in front of images of the Dalai Lama, another high lama, or any of the Buddhas are a common sight. A lecture given by a lama passing through warrants time off work and school, and Tibetan Buddhism’s sacred days are enjoyed by the whole community at events taking place at any of the monasteries or public meeting places. Due to this deep interweaving of Buddhism with mundane life, Bylakuppe is a fascinating microcosm, unique in its position as perhaps the most pure Tibetan Buddhist community with a sizeable population on the planet.
A survey of practical Buddhism in this concentrated and modern refugee context, drawn from personal experience, informal interviews, and textual study, seeks to understand the ways modern Tibetans in exile interpret their philosophy and put it to active use. Three broad areas will be considered: monastic life, non-monastic institutions, and lay life. Through the course of this survey the robust nature of Tibetan Buddhist culture will be shown, and a plea will be given for further investigation into this community conducted by better-qualified scholars.

Monastic Life – Robes and Beads, Sneakers and Shades
            Approximately half the population of Bylakuppe is monastic, residing in the large dormitories that make up the bulk of the monastery and nunnery compounds. Whether one is out to eat at one of the hip cafes in First Camp or shopping for a new pair of Nikes, chances are the tables and shops are filled with maroon robes. The concentration of monks, nuns, and monastic institutions in such a close, closed agribase society necessarily throws into sharp focus the juxtapositions and disconnects inevitable when a millennia-old tradition is dropped into a modern context. Tradition and innovation, as well as the harmony and dissonance of these, form the most useful basis for the present survey.
            Due to the concentration of so many monasteries[3] in such a small community, monastic life is exceedingly vital and visible. All of the senses are involved in this constant exposure to the sacred goings-on – incense hangs in the air, chants and monastic music emanates from the early morning until the evening (and, in the case of certain holidays, in the midnight hour as well), offering food is shared, and prayer wheels of all sizes are hefted and spun at the entrances. During a stroll in the fields, one may come across monks engaged in debate. One may also spot a group of worker monks, robes soiled, driving tractors and trucks to and from the monasteries, fields, and shops. Monks paint the thangka, or religious paintings of one of the Buddhas, lamas, or diagrams, in shops along the main stretch. Homes are opened to monks for blessings and rituals. Village life swirls around monastery life, and the state of the monastery is indicative of the state of the community. A few areas of monastic life are particularly telling of the adherence to tradition amongst the monastics, and deserve deeper treatment.
            Alexandra David-Neel notes, in her seminal Secret Oral Teaching in Tibetan Buddhist Sects, written with Lama Yongden, that “the traditional Oral Teachings… do not consist, as so many imagine, in teaching certain things to the pupil, in revealing to him certain secrets, but rather in showing him the means to learn them and discover them for himself” (13, emphasis in original).[4] Throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the main ways for monastic students to teach themselves the secrets is by engaging in scholastic debate.[5] In Bylakuppe this tradition is vibrant. Most days see five rounds of debate, broken up only by lecture classes and meals. Attending a debate session is a spectacle, as hundreds of monks gather in the main squares in the monasteries, laughing and joking, and separate into pairs. A doctrine or teaching is chosen, and one of the students is tasked with defending while the other is put on the offensive. The attacking students attempt from every angle to destroy the doctrine, to disprove it in some way, and they are instructed to use every artifice at their command in this endeavor. Whole books of scripture are memorized and quoted at will. At times these debates escalate from good-natured contests into near-fist fights, with reflection afterwards on anger and frustration being used as a tool to show the emptiness of even this central practice. A Rinpoche[6] we lived with for about a month walked me through the process of debate one day, using a piece of bread as an example. “You might say, ‘bread is round.’ Then the other student would have to debate that issue.” He went on to describe how the student would start by inquiring into the thusness of bread, the core reality that breaks down bread into its smallest constituent parts that might still carry the label of “bread.” This is done by breaking down one’s experience with bread by using the senses one at a time and in combination. Say you are blind, and have no way of ascertaining the veracity of the bread’s round shape. Is the bread’s roundness then an essential part of the bread’s identity? Is the bread still bread? Can you confirm this? Or is the roundness of bread simply a characteristic of bread that might be abandoned without changing the identity of the bread as bread? Rinpoche argued that the first point that might be arrived at in this debate is that the first statement is faulty – bread is not round, but the eye-consciousness aroused by the sight of bread interprets it to be round. A more accurate statement, then, is that eye-consciousness perceives bread as round. From this amended statement, which can be at least provincially accepted as truth, the process starts over and goes deeper. Peculiar to Buddhist pedagogy is the openness with which teachers make their students privy to the fact that every tool they use is but a tool and a tool only; it is simply a “finger pointing to the moon,” a guide to lead the student to the ultimate reality. “The traveller who finds his road blocked by a river will use a raft to reach the opposite shore, but, this shore once reached, he will not carry the raft on his shoulders while continuing his journey. He will abandon it as something which has become useless” (David-Neel and Yongden, 85). No practice is an end in itself. Through the tool of debate, the mind becomes sharpened and quick to perceive false assumptions. The ultimate goal is abandonment of affected mind, and restoration of the inner purity of tathagatagarbha, often translated as the Buddha essence.[7]
            Of particular interest to the other prong of my research (the use of music to create identity) was monastic music and the way it relates to current philosophy and religious feeling. A popular chant amongst tourists to the famous Tibetan settlement in North India, Dharamsala, is the universal “om ma ni pa dme hum,” sung in melodious voice and set to beautiful, esoteric, and atmospheric background music.[8] Though relaxing to the soul and true in its devotion, it could not be farther aurally from the reality of monastic music. Real monastic music, by and far, has no modicum of relaxation, nary a shred of musical harmony. Fifteen-foot horns blad out chest-rumbling bass tones as high-pitched horns (traditionally made from the thighbones of priests or persons who were killed violently) wind their way up and down octaves. The rest of the monks in the assembly ring their vajra bells in no particular rhythm as they chant the scripture for the occasion. The effect is engrossing. Another monk we lived with, a forty-something graduate of a monastery of another Tibetan settlement, described from personal experience the physical demands placed on the players of the long horns. In order to prevent sicknesses of the lungs, the players have to either eat a large meal beforehand or tightly tie a sash around their midsection so that their diaphragms are supported from the bottom. The process of blowing into the large mouthpieces, coupled with harsh acoustic feedback, inevitably results in bleeding lips that simply have to be ignored for the rest of the typically three to four hour ceremonies. What is the philosophical benefit of music that is so harsh on the listeners and the players? From experience in the field and conversations with monks, the core aim of Tibetan ritual music is to provide an entire soundscape and experience conducive to generating the experience of emptiness. Tantrayana, which is nearly synonymous with Vajrayana in the Tibetan context, often uses external forms as foci for meditations upon emptiness. Thus we see mandala, thangka, offerings, and music as tools frequently used by the Tibetan monastic tradition.[9] In the assault on the senses and complexity of the ritual, a pinprick of pure light is generated and, for the attuned seeker, becomes an enveloping thusness, a perfect purity that cuts through the din. Though, as will be seen, certain concessions have been made in modernizing aspects of monastic life, ritual music remains wholly traditional and focused on its purpose.
            Another area of interest reflecting traditional Tibetan values and the ancient efficiency of the monastic machine is the partitioning of monks with different aptitudes into different disciplines. To one inexperienced with all but the romantic view of monastic life, it seems that all monks would spend the majority of the day in scripture study, debate, and meditation, with time taken out for chores as needed and assigned. In reality, the practice common in Tibetan Buddhism for hundreds of years has been a more general assigning process. For the functioning of a large organization there must be a group of laborers, and “not all monks are suited to philosophy,” as one Geshe-la[10] told me when I asked. “Most monks,” said he, “begin when they are little boys. No one knows what these boys will be like in ten or fifteen years, so all are given a common foundation and allowed room to grow. Therefore we have all types of interests and avocations in the monastery, and no one is forced into a place where they will not succeed.” For some monks, the intricacies of philosophy and esoteric doctrines are rather unappealing, but the opportunity to serve the Sangha with the strength of their backs is desirable and fulfilling.[11] The reality also includes those who have no real interest in serving the Sangha or in studying philosophy, but who are also not sure what to do with themselves outside the monastic life. For these the Dalai Lama has suggested introspection and a path correction either into more vigorous study and service, or into lay life (the Dalai Lama, noting the declining population of Tibetans due to the high percentage of celibates, with his characteristic self-deprecating but sincere chuckle encourages monks who would rather not be in the monastery to disrobe and go out there, get married, and make more Tibetans![12]). The monastery’s practical way of dealing with differences among the monks signifies wisdom gained from hundreds of years of dealing with a large volume of young celibates, and the Dalai Lama’s modern suggestion betrays a trust in the continuance of the sacred tradition. It is a sign of idealism mixed with real life, of devotion mixed with brass pragmatic philosophy, and it bodes well for the monasteries’ survival.

Innovation and Modernization
            Another sign of the vitality of the monastic tradition and the philosophy it operates by is the degree to which the monasteries have embraced the present. However, the present also presents its own share of difficulties and distractions. First we will examine the difficulties of Tibetan monasticism in the present age.
            In the traditional agrarian surrounding of monasteries in Tibet, distractions were minimal and limited to those that are universal and immemorial – sex, drink, and idleness. At first, the situation in the camps was not much different. As new refugees, the jungle setting and primitive concrete dwellings provided a degree of isolation from the outside world almost as, if not more, extreme than the setting in Tibet. The last twenty years or so have seen the advent of the information age, and have put cell phones, laptops, movies, mp3s, chat, and every other cyber-distraction straight into the hands of the monastic community. Interestingly, the monks tend to be the most up-to-date on new technologies of anyone in the camps – brand new iPhone 4S and powerful quad-core laptops are often seen in the hands of maroon and saffron-clad monks sitting in fields laughing at YouTube videos. When I enquired as to how this happens, how the monks afford the pricy objects, I was surprised by the obvious answer. When offerings are made at the monastery, a certain portion is allotted to the monks for spending money. This money is meant to be spent on food outside the monastery, toiletries, travel costs, etc., but more enterprising monks live scantily and save up their rupees for a toy they have had their eyes on. Being that basic food and lodging in the monastery are provided free of charge, a monk only has to go without small luxuries for a few months before the fanciest gaming computer is within reach, with the consequence of study and schedule being neglected.
Shortly before we left Bylakuppe, a monk friend gave me about five hundred gigabytes worth of music and movies – my interest was chiefly in the Tibetan documentaries he had gathered, but he also had a wealth of pirated American movies shared with him by friends in the monastery. Upon perusing the selection, I found many harmless selections – Disney and Pixar movies were a special favorite. One of the last ones I found shocked me and initiated an uncontrollable fit of juvenile laughter. The title? “Nude Nuns with Big Guns.” I looked it up on a prominent movie reviews website, and the advisory warning explained that the title was literal and understated.[13] Though I doubt my monk friend had seen the movie, as his disposition was contrary to the idea and he admitted to only having seen a small percentage of his collection, I have no doubt that even the lowest examples of American grindhouse cinema find viewers in the monasteries and severely distract from the sensitive issues of higher philosophy.
“Nude Nuns with Big Guns” would be universally disdained by officials, but opinions as to what other forms of media are acceptable vary widely. For example, the Karmapa, noted for enjoying first-person shooter video games and rap music, said in an interview, “video games are just a skillful method[14]” to be used in the venting of negative emotions. The idea of skillful methods, also known as skillful means, propagated especially by Vajrayana Buddhists, has a long and varied history but includes seemingly reprehensible actions and sometimes extreme cruelty used by skillful teachers as methods for awakening some reality in the student or for removing some karmic obstacle.[15] As one of the highest leaders in Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa’s example and reasoning must not be taken lightly, though he is met with criticism from without and within the monastic organization. It is a prime example of how traditional tools of Buddhist philosophy may be and have been applied, successfully or not, to current situations, as well as an example of inevitable cognitive dissonance arising from the contact of ancient philosophy with modern entertainments.
            One old problem that has gained a new face is materialism. Young men with leisure time (should they want it) and spending money (should they save it) are wont to buy the newest fashions and coolest clothes. In ancient times gaudy gold jewelries filled this crave; now it’s Nikes and knock-off Gucci. India is a hub for high-quality knock-offs and name brand surplus, as many of the factories for the high-end clothing companies are located in India and sell their slightly imperfect or one-season-too-old stock internally. Entrepreneurial lay Tibetans have stores offering the latest fashions at deeply discounted prices in First Camp and in Fourth Camp across from the Namdroling Monastery. Some of their most faithful customers are monks looking to add some pizazz to their wardrobe. Though many monks wear simple shoes and inexpensive rubber flip-flops, many other monks proudly wear pristine white tennis shoes or up-to-date leather dress shoes. A refreshing twist on this is that the lay community, with some few exceptions, generally does not fault the monks for their interest in fashion – monks are people too. The outcry is heard most vehemently within the monastic community itself, with leaders pleading for the young monks to be examples to the lay people of non-attachment and piety. In tradition, “Tibetan monks wear high boots with features resembling a rooster, a snake, and a pig, the standard symbols of desire, hatred, and ignorance, which the monk tramples with every step” (Lopez 133). I did not see this at all. Part of the reason for the absence is likely an adaptation to the weather, but it is sure that some more conservative leaders would rather see the monks with sweaty feet then with pampered ones.
            Modernization, with all of its woes, has also provided a freshness to the monastic tradition, and has solved many age-old problems. A monk we lived with solicited my help in selecting a new laptop for use in monastery business and archival work. Prayer flags are printed on modern printers, so monks with computer skills are in high demand. Influential teachings and landmark debates are being recorded and digitized. Old photographs and videos are being preserved. Though the transitory nature of things is a core doctrine of Buddhism, preserving the teachings for future generations is a core action. Website creation assists with leading latent renunciates to the monasteries and provides a new avenue for fundraising. Digital translation dictionaries are being prepared. Education resources and Internet research are revolutionizing teaching and learning in the monasteries. Ease of transportation has enabled the Dalai Lama and other prominent religious and social leaders to maintain a regular touring schedule, providing most Tibetans in exile with frequent contact. Orders and regulations from government and central heads of the various sects are disseminated more quickly. Skype and other methods of Internet communication keep the too-often split families in touch, including the monks’ relations. It is not, however, only technology that has benefited the monasteries in the way of modernization.
            An oft-overlooked branch of modernization is the green, holistic movement – rampant materialism naturally breeds its opposite: without the real or perceived threat of self-destruction it is unlikely that so much research and awareness would exist in the realm of sustainable and low-impact living. This particular movement accords with Tibetan Buddhist philosophy most readily. The first precept, a prohibition against killing, naturally forms the basis for the Buddhist approval of sustainable living, and has precedence for mandating ecological reform: “Emperor Asoka made laws against killing animals on observance days, the castrating or branding of cattle, and indiscriminate burning of forests”[16]. The extreme example in Bylakuppe is currently taking place in the restructuring of the Kagyu Monastery. In a conversation with the head Rinpoche of Kagyu Monastery, I found a vision for the future of Buddhism combined with a sound plan and means for implementation.
Kagyu Monastery is a shining monolith of white and gold, representing purity and enlightenment, rising up from the landscape on top of a hill to overlook the whole of Bylakuppe. The land around it is clear for some acres, further emphasizing its size and grandeur. Upon taking pilgrimage to the site one Sunday afternoon, I chanced upon the Karma Rinpoche (as he is known) sitting on the steps discussing the future of the monastery with one of his most prized teachers. He called me over and introduced himself. He noted the barren land around the monastery, and went on to explain the outline of the plan for the complete reinterpretation of monastic life, based on a fresh reading of the scriptures and ample conference with scientists, doctors, and community planning specialists. The normal trappings of monastic life will remain firmly in place – celibacy, debate, robes, study, etc. – and the monastery will definitely be Buddhist, but all other non-core practices have been examined and weighed and new ideas for integrating practical living skills with transcendent spiritual knowledge are being put into operation. For example, in a revolutionary and controversial move, women are on the teaching and administrative staff, and even play with the young monks during free time. When I arrived I noticed a lady playing Frisbee with a group of the seven- or eight-year-old monks – she is one of the new female staff. The reasons for traditional gender separation are being questioned, and are as of now found wanting. Play is being reinstated as an important component of healthy living. The monastery recently purchased bicycles for the monks to learn on, which explained the twosomes of monks careening down the dirt road in front of the monastery. Soccer, which was categorically forbidden so famously as to make it the subject of one of the more popular Tibetan films, “Phorba,” or “The Cup,” is actively taught to the monks.[17] Rinpoche explained that the purpose of all of this is to reassess what is really important and realign the monastery’s actions with the “formless attainments,” one of which is happiness in which “the mind has a radiant purity, due to its ‘brightly shining’ depths having been uncovered and made manifest at the surface level” (Harvey 251). Continually Rinpoche talked of pointing the monastery and wider community toward “the light,” toward “happiness,” a word he relished and repeated at every chance. Regardless of what had been done in the past in monasteries, the Kagyupa are, according to Karma Rinpoche, seeking to understand the original teachings, systematically deconstruct them, and find out their hidden truth. “Based on the advice given by the Buddha to His disciples, the primary recommendation that the Masters give to neophytes is: ‘Doubt!’” (David-Neel and Yongden, 15). Though David-Neel’s assertion is certainly true in theory, in practice it becomes difficult to question practices that have hundreds of years of cultural entrenchment, even when the stated purpose of the questioning is to come closer to a pure manner of living. The efforts of the Kagyu become more astounding in the light of such a well-established and engrained monastic culture, especially as they are sure to include committee members from each of the four main sects and seek consensus before moving forward with any part of the new educational plan.
In addition to changing policy of monastic education, curriculum, and social norms, the Kagyu are also seeking to incorporate a completely new set of practices based on revived ancient methods for living at peace with the environment. The barren landscape in front of the monastery is simply in preparation for a vast planting project. The land was cleared in order to dig a system of bunds, a technique for preserving rainwater on a hill, and to clean up and reroute the river that flows through the property. The Karnataka state government has approved and paid for the bulk of the transplantation of over four hundred different types of indigenous fruit and flower trees, and a walking path of several kilometers is planned amongst the foliage. It is hoped that pilgrims will use this path in their circumambulations of the monastery, combining religious devotion and communion with nature into a syncretistic and holistic experience, reshaping devotees’ conception of both worship and the natural world. A sprinkler system and underground irrigation will keep things going in the dry months. It is hoped that the profusion of varied foliage will attract the birds and other indigenous animals driven away when people first settled the area. The monastery is in the process of procuring horses and constructing horse carts to be used by the monks on short trips into town, replacing trucks and motorcycles. Herds of other useful animals are being maintained, especially milk cows to be used for dairy and plowing. The manure from the animals will be processed into compost and the methane released will be captured and used for biofuel. An organic vegetable garden is underway. A local and respected Ayurvedic doctor and herbal specialist was called in to ascertain the presence of medicinal plants already present on monastery grounds and to suggest plants for inclusion into the planned medicinal garden. When all the systems are in place, it is expected that about eighty percent of overall maintenance will be naturally occurring, with only twenty percent of the project requiring regular human interference. The aim is to be a completely self-sustaining community, and to provide opportunities for the monks to venture out of the grounds about four times per month to take part in service and training projects serving the wider Tibetan community. Adding to this open and interdependent attitude is the lack of a surrounding wall on the monastery grounds, representing an invitation for all to come in and see what is going on. This contrasts directly with the four other monasteries in Bylakuppe – though their doors are always open, the presence of tall and strong walls around the perimeter definitively marks off monastic area from lay area. In short, the Kagyupa are seeking to integrate all aspects of life into one harmonious whole, starting with the monks and moving on to the rest of the community. The philosophy is clear and based in the most basic tenets of the faith. As is often the case with such ambitious planned communities, there is a large risk of failure, but the point of the movement is to try something new, based on something old, and see if it is not better than the current way.[18]
Though the Kagyu Monastery is only one example, it is indicative of a wider attitude of innovation in the practical philosophy of the Tibetan community, and of adapting to modernity and the present context in a fresh and Tibetan way. The Tibetan hope and dream is to one day take their place back in the Himalaya, but the realities of the current situation must be taken seriously. It is therefore incumbent upon Tibetans and those sympathetic to their cause to plan and build as if India is the new permanent home. The source, however, of Tibetan-ness – a unique form of philosophy in a unique form of Buddhism and a lay culture rich in depth and meaning – must be simultaneously preserved, documented, and ultimately used as the authentic platform from which to innovate. It is a fascinating time for Bylakuppe, one that warrants more research and understanding than can be obtained in a scant four-month stay.
The dichotomy of tradition and innovation in the current monastic state is difficult to reconcile. The most effective reconciliations, those I have seen to be most satisfying to all parties, are those that are based in new interpretations of trusted philosophy and doctrine. The Buddhist community in Bylakuppe is going through a period of new growing pains, but is doing so in a vibrant and confident way that will see it into the future.
Non-Monastic Institutions
            Even as the monasteries house and regulate half of Bylakuppe’s population, the other half is organized and mobilized according to its own systems and in accordance with its own interpretations of Buddhist philosophy. I became familiar with three major institutions during our stay in Bylakuppe, namely, the Tibetan Children’s Village school, the Organic Research and Training Centre farm, and the Karuna Home for children with disabilities. Each of these is a prime example of Buddhist philosophy applied in a modern context.

The Tibetan Children’s Village
The Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) is a hostel school with branches in several of the Tibetan refugee settlements throughout India. The biggest TCVs are in Dharamsala and Bylakuppe. The Bylakuppe TCV houses, feeds, and instructs approximately two thousand students, along with providing housing and employment for teachers and other staff. The TCV is specifically for first-generation refugees and the young children of first-generation refugees. Most of the other children in Bylakuppe are second- or third-generation, and as such have never seen Tibet, but the TCV children tend to have bright memories of life in the Himalaya. The school functions similarly to private Christian schools in combining secular learning with spiritual training. Additionally, one of the main focuses is providing Tibet-specific history and arts classes in an effort of cultural preservation and appreciation.
            Emblazoned across the TCV’s school emblem is the phrase, in English, “Others Before Self.” Small hand-painted signs all around the school compound include pithy teachings from the Dalai Lama encouraging compassion. Typical of private schools, especially in an Indian or Asian context, academics are central and taken very seriously. The children are up at five in the morning and, after prayers, attend school until about four in the afternoon. The night hours are spent in study and extracurricular activities. Through all of this the children are encouraged to take care of each other in whatever ways possible. For example, students who are stronger in mathematics help those who are struggling while also seeking help for themselves in, say, the Tibetan language class. While this is a common phenomenon to some degree in every school on the planet, the degree to which it is institutionally encouraged and followed at the TCV is indicative of a firm commitment to Buddhist values, particularly the ideas of active compassion and interdependence.
            Included in the school’s extracurricular activities is a typical club with a Buddhist twist. The debate club, instead of any Western methods common to debate clubs, uses the monastic model, often including the signals used in monastic debate (hand clapping when making a point, crowing when the defendant is straying off topic, etc.). A student related his reasons for being in the debate club, explaining concepts very similar to those espoused at the monastic colleges. Debate is primarily for sharpening the mind, not for learning how to argue effectively or win. When the mind is sharp and clear all the other areas of life become sharper and clearer. Problems are easier to navigate, relationships are more effectively maintained (as long as compassion is also present), and reality itself is more readily accessible. The topics debated are generally more philosophical in nature, and use devices similar to the monastic tools – memorization of relevant texts, analysis of the senses, etc. The student also affirmed the long-term benefits of debate, especially referring to increased longevity of wit and sanity amongst those who regularly engage in such vigorous mental exercise. It is easily seen that this particular aspect of practical Buddhist philosophy has seen broad trickle-down and is widely used by the community.
The Organic Research and Training Centre
The Organic Research and Training Centre (ORTC) farm is a Central Tibetan Administration effort. Eighty acres of prime Bylakuppe farmland are used by the ORTC for experimentation and training, as well as more commercial efforts designed to defray running costs. The ORTC, similarly to the Kagyu Monastery, focuses on harmony with the planet and outreach to the community.
The Dalai Lama’s objectives for the ORTC are indicative of the overall vision:
·      To protect, preserve and rejuvenate the environment and biodiversity,
·      To offer assistance and support to the international movement against consumerism. More specifically by persistently opposing the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, hybrid and genetically engineered seeds, etc.
·      To make future Tibet is a storehouse of organic grains to the rest of the world.
·      To achieve sustainable livelihood in the Tibetan settlements in India by turning the present agriculture land holding into a source of sustainable income generation.
·      To achieve in making organic farming, animal husbandry and other allied activities as remunerative opportunities. Thereby we can encourage the educated Tibetan youth to live in settlements (original language preserved).[19]
As can be seen, the Dalai Lama’s goals align closely with the Buddhist message of self-reliance, compassion, and harmony.
According to the popular doctrine, all sentient beings are to be cherished and valued as if they were our mothers – for, indeed, if reincarnation be the universal truth, than chance dictates it is more than likely that every sentient being has borne every relation to us possible. The practices of the ORTC reflect this belief, combined with the pragmatic philosophy of the necessity of certain types of accidental violence and the negligible or nonexistent karmic retributions for such violence. No chemical pesticides or herbicides are used, and every effort is made to simply remove or repel unwanted guests. Natural pesticides are made every few weeks from local plants and animal waste, with a function of making the environment on the leaves of the plants unsavory for insects while also increasing the nutrient content in the plant. Herbicides are foregone in favor of manual weeding, which has the lowest impact on the soil and its citizens.
Damdul, the appointed head of the ORTC, is a scientist and a farmer who has spent the last thirty years researching ways to provide a high yield while maintaining soil health and having the smallest negative impact possible on the earth. An experience my wife had while working at the farm is, in light of the scientific sophistication of Damdul, fascinating. The monsoons were late this year, and were giving grief and worry to all the farmers in the area. One day Damdul packed up the workers, all wearing their nicest clothes, and drove to the monastery to worship in hope of rain. Lori was asked to attend, and of course went. As they arrived at the monastery, the first rain for weeks began, and the workers completed their prostrations and offerings out of gratitude and happiness. It appears from this case that, for some, high levels of education may still accord with high levels of religious devotion. Damdul had not abandoned his practical philosophy in favor of practical science, but combined them freely. As an institution, the ORTC reflects the same attitude, and this attitude continues up the chain to all the branches of Tibetan government that deal with secular issues.

Karuna Home
The Karuna Home has already been mentioned. We lived there for about a month while we were waiting for our Protected Area Permits to arrive. It is a product of the lifelong work of two friends, one Lama Khube Rinpoche and one Ven. Geshe Jampa Gyatso. Khube Rinpoche became particularly sensitive to the plight of disabled individuals, children especially, while yet a student at the monastery. As he learned more about the state of disabled children in India he was appalled – he saw children chained to trees and given meager food to subsist on because their families had no alternative and no spare hands while they worked the fields all day, and many families crippled by the cost of having to care for a child that would never be able to care for itself. Through his travels and teachings in Europe, particularly Italy, he found many who were sympathetic to the problem and willing to donate to help. Eventually an investor from Singapore decided to donate funds for the construction of a campus, and the Karuna Home was born. There are between thirty and forty children at any given time living in the housing. Karuna Home’s first objective is to immediately raise the quality of life for the children – they are provided comfortable beds, three nutritious meals a day, and proper sanitation, as well as compassionate caretakers. The children’s families are also alleviated from the burden of caring for a disabled child in a developing country, while encouraged to remain in close contact and maintain family bonds. Their second goal is to enable the children by teaching them basic skills for living so they might become more independent. The third and final goal is to provide education and vocational training to enable the children to become contributing members of their communities when they return home. Currently there is no age limit or cap on the amount of time the children can stay – everything is considered on a case-by-case basis.
“Karuna” means “compassion” in Sanskrit. In societies where karmic consequences are believed to govern one’s state and status in this rebirth, disabled individuals are often neglected and scorned, or allowed to simply die so as to burn off their karma and start over. The Karuna Home is a unique institution in that it has pledged to care for these individuals while not denying the karmic reasons for the children’s disabilities. As Khube Rinpoche relates, no one is able to say for certain the reasons for the difficulties in a current rebirth, so no judgment can be passed. In any case, those who are born needing help provide opportunities for the rest to practice compassion and learn how to love unconditionally.

            Each of these organizations takes a uniquely Buddhist approach to some universal problem – education, agriculture, and disability – and aligns its actions with relevant philosophy as closely as possible. Surrounded by ideas and solutions to these issues, the Tibetans have had to decide how to go about creating institutions that are true to themselves while also being effective and viable in a modern context. Far from being crippled or relying too extensively on foreign help due to their refugee status, Tibetans in Bylakuppe have vigorously asserted their right to self-governance and instituted programs based on their deepest values.

Lay Life
            The variegated manners in which lay members of the Bylakuppe population utilize Buddhist philosophy are too many to adequately cover or discuss. There are as many interpretations of philosophy as there are people, and even more examples of how this philosophy is put into action. Therefore, a few activities have been selected and are presented as vignettes.
Prayer Beads
            A ubiquitous example of the way life is tied up into philosophy and religion is the universal use of prayer beads. Small children, wizened elders, and everyone in between may be seen with prayer beads on their wrists or around their necks, walking down the street counting the prayers they utter beneath their breaths. In “early Buddhism, when Indian society made little use of writing… a learned person was ‘much-heard’ rather than ‘well-read,’” and this is still true today even in the relative modernization of a community like Bylakuppe.[20] The old Ama we lived with, in her mid seventies, knew how to neither read nor write, but she had a corpus of chants stored in her head rivaling the learned monks. Nary a half hour went by that she was without her prayer beads, spryly counting off the one-hundred-and-eight beads with a melodious mutter. She would say the prayers while inhaling and exhaling, during conversations when she was not talking, while watching television, while sitting on the porch when the weather was nice, during her daily circumambulations, at dinner – in short, whenever she was not sleeping. According to ancient belief, chanting of these sacred words “generates a mixture of uplifting joy, often felt as a glow of warmth in the chest, and contemplative calm. Such states tend to arise even in those listening to a chant, if they do so with a relaxed but attentive mind”.[21] After living in her house for the better part of three months, I am certain that at least part of the reason she maintained such a rigorous chanting schedule was to calm down the testosterone levels in the house and pacify her sons and grandson.
Daily circumambulations
            Early in the morning many of the citizens of Bylakuppe rise, bathe, put on fresh clothes, and walk to their monastery or stupa of choice. In an act combining exercise and devotion, a clockwise circuit of at least three rounds is taken (though one sect circumambulates counter-clockwise, so they may meet the Buddha face-to-face on his clockwise rounds). The symbolism of circles and cycles is familiar to the laity and cherished – the cyclic nature of life and samsara and the turning of the wheel of the Dharma are contemplated in the cool air, calming the mind and preparing it for the day’s trials and work.
Prayer wheels
            Connected with the morning circumambulation is often a visit to one of many large installations of prayer wheels, though many prayer wheels are portable and used at home. The prayer wheel is a prime example of religious ingenuity, of a sacred machine. In the smallest script possible, thousands of prayers are printed on long shafts of paper that are wound tightly and inserted into the prayer wheels. Every spin of the wheel has the merit-generating effect of saying each one of the printed prayers individually, so that each spin of one of the huge monastery prayer wheels provides the same efficacy as hundreds of thousand of recitations. On the smaller scale, hand spun prayer wheels are used at home, often while watching television or reading. The prayer wheel also has made its way into the electronic age – many cars have prayer wheels with solar panels attached to their dashboards, so that on a sunny day Helios himself provides the power for constant automatic recitation.
Prayer Flags
            Related closely to prayer wheels are prayer flags, which are probably the most salient visible feature of Tibetan communities. Every gust of wind that ruffles the flag recites the prayer printed thereon, acting as another sacred machine and reminding all in sight of the Three Refuges. Centers for printing prayer flags abound in the lay community and the monastic community, and as a result Bylakuppe is bedecked with prayer flags. The erection of a new dwelling or any other new venture warrants the purchase and installation of a new set of prayer flags, and whole copses of trees are spider-webbed with faded and vibrant sets.
            Upon greeting and farewell of beloved and respected individuals, as well as on special occasions, lengths of silk (typically white, but also yellow, red, or green) printed with the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism are draped around the individual’s neck. On certain occasions, such as weddings, each guest at the wedding gives a kata to each member of the wedding party, as well as to the shrine of the Dalai Lama – by the end of a well-attended wedding, the stack of katas extends well above the bride and grooms heads. Giving a kata is a physical symbol of bestowing blessings upon the receiver. Katas given at special occasions are cherished by the receiver forever after.
Catfish pond
            On the main road that connects most of the camps and monasteries in Bylakuppe, there is a large pond maintained by the laity and the monasteries. The pond is a fisherman’s dream, as it is stocked with huge catfish. The dream, however, would soon become a nightmare as the fisherman realizes that attempting in any way to catch one of these fish and eat it would be visited with stern disapprobation and ridicule. Laypeople come to the catfish pond to sit on the edge and meditate, to spend time with family, and maybe even have a picnic, but the most frequent use of the pond is as a sanctuary for creating merit. Near the pond monks sell sugar cookies for ten for six cents (three rupees), which are then taken to the pond’s edge and shared with the fish. Lining the walking path that circles the pond are signs in Tibetan and English pleading for greater understanding of the aquatic sentient beings and urging peace in human conduct toward them, and the locals take this charge seriously. On Sunday afternoons family and friends sit around the lake, chatting and enjoying themselves while eating a bit here, throwing a bite in there. Swarms of catfish eagerly await the next morsel, jumping over each other when the next cookie piece hits the surface.

Though Buddhist philosophy is suited to silent meditation and needs no physical trappings, Buddhist activity among the Tibetans in Bylakuppe has an incredible physicality. The Tibetans tend to be action oriented people, and highly practical in their views and actions. This is reflected in the practical spiritual actions of the faithful. If the monasteries were to burn down and the institutions fold, Buddhism would still function in the hearts of its adherents. For the people in Bylakuppe, Buddhism represents not only a philosophy and way of looking at life, but a way of living life, of relating to each other, and being happy in a difficult world.

         Over the past few months, as I have contemplated writing this paper, I thought to myself over and over again – why? Why attempt to write anything new on Buddhist philosophy, when much more intelligent and educated people than I have already penned billions of words? Why try and generalize the learnings of only four months into something that is supposed to be viable and groundbreaking? I decided that there was no good answer to either of these why’s, and so I abandoned the idea of writing some deep exegesis and instead thought about what has been important to me about the experience I had, how it affected my own philosophy, and what I want to share with the world about it. The practical philosophy exhibited daily in every aspect of life in Bylakuppe was what touched me most and left me with something real to take home. Pardon the decidedly un-academic stance, but one of the effects Bylakuppe had on me was to kill the academic. Though philosophic permutations and combinations are endlessly fascinating, they are pointless if they never lead anywhere. The finger that points to the moon is a guide, a valuable one; it is a raft, but one that will be abandoned. So I decided to simply point to something greater than myself, and to plead for scholars and other interested souls to find something interesting in what I have written and go do something bigger with it than what I have done.
            For those who are concerned with the plight of the Tibetans in exile, a reform in what the concerns are is necessary – Tibetan culture is being preserved fiercely, and therefore in no real danger of disappearing, but assistance is needed in forming the archives that will provide young Tibetan scholars of tomorrow with the tools they need for studying their own history and achievements.
            For those who are looking for places to give service and engage in self-discovery, Bylakuppe is a wonderful option. Due to this magnanimous Buddhist philosophy that has been continually referred to, most if not all of the organizations in Bylakuppe welcome outsiders (and they will probably feed you too).
            For the professors that will read this (there are more than one of you), if an opportunity arises for a sabbatical or extended field study, the Tibetan Buddhist communities in India are friendly, open, and full of English speakers. The concentration of Tibetan culture makes them fascinating for study, and the new happenings are exciting and full of life, contradictions, and opportunities for interesting journal articles.

[1] Radhu, Abdul Wahid., Marco Pallis, Jose Cabezon, and William Stoddart. Islam in Tibet and the Illustrated Narrative 'Tibetan Caravans' Ed. Gray Henry. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1997.  Print. Also see French, Patrick. Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land. pp. 161-163. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.
[2] Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sodnam. "The Sakya Tradition: Drogon Chogyal Phagpa." The Sakya Tradition: Drogon Chogyal Phagpa. Trans. Venerable Lama Kalsang Gyaltsen and Victoria Huckenpahler. Office of His Holiness the Sakya Trizin, 2012. Web. 15 Sept. 2012. <http://www.hhthesakyatrizin.org/tradition_founder5.html>.
[3] As per local vernacular, the plural term including both “monastery” and “nunnery” will be combined into the masculine form, “monasteries.” Nunneries play a significantly smaller but nonetheless vital role in Bylakuppe, especially considering certain events in the furthering/restoring of women’s roles in Tibetan Buddhism. For most recent developments in Tibetan Buddhist nun’s issues, see Mackenzie, Vicki. Cave in the Snow: Tenzim Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment. New York: Bloomsbury Pub., 1998. Print. ; Lopez, Donald S. "4: Monastic Life." The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. p. 164. Print. ; H.H. Gyalwang Drukpa. "H.H. Gyalwang Drukpa's Explanation of 'Jetsunma'" Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery. Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, 13 May 2008. Web. 15 Sept. 2012. <http://tenzinpalmo.com/index.php?option=com_content>.
[4] David-Neel, Alexandra, and Lama Yongden. The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects. San Francisco: City Lights, 1967. Print. p. 13.
[5] Lopez, Donald S. "4: Monastic Life." The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. p. 164. Print. Pp. 155-156.
[6] “Rinpoche” means, roughly, “precious one,” denoting a recognized reincarnation of a sacred being. This Rinpoche, known as Khube Rinpoche, ran a care center for disabled children called the Karuna Home. His previous reincarnation was similarly engaged in work to care for the disabled, a supreme work of compassion in a society that typically sees disability as the result of karmic forces and therefore generally neglects the disabled. After more than thirty years as a monk and teacher, he disrobed to experience firsthand the joys and trials of raising a family, reasoning that it would make him more effective in his chosen line of work. The Dalai Lama blessed this decision and approved of the Karuna Home in a visit in 2004 for the official inauguration.
[7] See any of the fine translations of The Lotus Sutra, The Lankavatara Sutra, and the Tathagatagarbha Sutra for insight into the most popular source texts for the doctrine of tathagatagarbha. Red Pine’s work is especially accessible.
[8] I have included a copy of this song in the email – compare it with the other recording of actual monastic music.
[9] Cf. Lopez, The Story of Buddhism, c. pp. 225-227
[10] “Beloved teacher”, a doctor of Buddhist philosophy. See Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, p. 234.
[11] Cf. Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, pp. 231-232
[12] Paraphrased from conversation with Geshe and Rinpoche, Karuna Home
[13] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1352388/parentalguide
[14] Lall, Rashmee Roshan. "'Video War Games Satiate My Feelings of Aggression'" The Times Of India. Times of India, 20 Sept. 2009. Web. 15 Sept. 2012. <http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2009-09-20/all-that-matters/28091259_1_chinese-incursions-chinese-government-neighbourly-relationship>.
[15] Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge England: Cambridge UP, 1990. 203. Print. pp. 121-122
[16] Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge England: Cambridge UP, 1990. 203. Print.
[17] While watching the Euro Cup one night at the community hall, the monks (who generally made up about half the audience) suddenly vacated. We found out that the abbot and some teachers from Sera Monastery came to check if any monks were breaking their curfew and engaging in distracting activity. The lay people did a remarkable job of hiding the monks in the back and feigning innocence! This experience also shows the radical nature of the Kagyupa stance in comparison to other Buddhist sects. By the way, no one was caught, and France beat Ukraine 2 – 0.
[18] See http://www.kagyunalanda.org/, the alpha web site, for further developments as they unfold over the next few years
[19] Federation of Tibetan Co-Operatives Ltd. Tibetan Organic. 2009. <http://www.ftci.co.in/F41923/tibetan_organic.html>. Accessed 20 February 2012.
[20] Harvey, Introduction, 175
[21] Ibid. 176