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), 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. 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 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). 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. 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 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.
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. 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. 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 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. 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!). 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. 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” 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. 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”. 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. 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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. 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”. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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>.
 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>.
 David-Neel, Alexandra, and Lama Yongden. The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects. San Francisco: City Lights, 1967. Print. p. 13.
 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.
 “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.
 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.
 I have included a copy of this song in the email – compare it with the other recording of actual monastic music.
 Cf. Lopez, The Story of Buddhism, c. pp. 225-227
 “Beloved teacher”, a doctor of Buddhist philosophy. See Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, p. 234.
 Cf. Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, pp. 231-232
 Paraphrased from conversation with Geshe and Rinpoche, Karuna Home
 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>.
 Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge England: Cambridge UP, 1990. 203. Print. pp. 121-122
 Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices. Cambridge England: Cambridge UP, 1990. 203. Print.
 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.
 Harvey, Introduction, 175
 Ibid. 176