Friday, February 26, 2010

The Tibetan Dharma Experience

I was watching something I DVRed on 12-30-09. It was a PBS TV presentation called "10 questions for the Dalai Lama.

Something said really touched me when the narrator said something about the reality of Tibetan Buddhists living in Tibet as being so different from our thinking in the U.S. that it might as well be another planet. For this is my experience in Going to India and Nepal and up into the Himalayas and staying with Sherpa Families who practice in their daily lives Tibetan Buddhism.

Now remember this is early 1986 and my family had spent 2 months in India going to Bodhgaya and receiving the Kalachakra Initiaion along with 500,000 others there in India. Then we went to Dharmsala where the Dalai Lama Lives in Himchal Pradesh State and stayed there about one month. We traveled there by train and bus and visited Varanasi and the Burning Ghat and the ruins of Nalanda University and Sarnath and the Taj Mahal and New Delhi and then traveled through the Punjab on the way to Dharmsala and then to Rewalsar near Mendi to a Padmasambhava holy place there that the Tibetans call Tsopema.

All along the way we felt most of the time like we were not on any earth we knew but on another planet so different were the people and the culture from anything we knew or had ever experienced first hand. Many New Age people on the West Coast of America imagine what people actually think and believe and how they perceive themselves and others, but it really doesn't match up at all to what westerners actually think. It is something completely different.

However, now east and west are slowly getting closer much more than in the 1960s through the 1980s. The 1960s through the 1980s were a time of mutual awakening and from 1980 to the present this awakening both ways has blossomed both in Asia and in the western world. So much has changed in both places since then.

However, to best demonstrate the differences I would have to illustrate from Tibetans I knew in the 1980s and to some degree into the 1990s and 2000s.

Originally we met Geshe Lobsang Gyatso which literally means "Kind spiritual friend of the ocean of wisdom". Geshe is a title like Doctor of Divinity and takes until one is in their mid 40s or beyond to accomplish. But instead of Doctor of Divinity the Title "Geshe" means "Spiritual Friend" and it is understood "To all living beings".

Geshela told us that he was recognized as a "specially gifted being" at age 6 and sent away from his parents to Lhasa. If you look on a map his parents lived in Kham Province, a very long way from Lhasa. And what I found very interesting is that he was born only a couple of years after the Dalai Lama. So the Dalai Lama was a peer in this sense when Geshela lived from age 6(I think he was born in 1934 or 35 until 1959. So Geshela left Lhasa and Tibet along with many many Lamas, Monks and other Tibetans. He said as they all tried to escape the Chinese that Planes Straffed the people and many died. Many more died on the way to India from dysentary and from freezing to death and starvation. Then when they all went to India many more Tibetans died there from homesickness, living in a more tropical climate(more diseases in more tropical climates than in mountains) etc.

Geshela spoke of his parents owning many yaks and packing salt to China and trading for other things from Kham where he was born and lived until age 6. The Khampa fighters on horseback gave the Chinese the most trouble for a longer time than any others when the Chinese first came into Tibet. Geshela said he only had dress shoes and had to walk over a 20,000+ foot high pass without oxygen and many died from this too to get to India from Lhasa. Lhasa is about 12,000 feet high or around 1000 feet higher that Lima, Peru. One of the higher cities in the U.S. is Santa Fe, New Mexico at 7500 feet in elevation and Denver and Albuquerque are around 5000 feet high each just to give you something to compare Lhasa to. So a 20,000 foot high pass to get into Nepal and India is 6000 feet higher than Mt. Shasta and Mt. Whitney in California.

When I was in Nepal and considered taking my family by bus into Lhasa and Tibet I gave up the idea because my friend from Alaska who was traveling with us said when he went into Tibet there was a whole busload of dead people at the top of that pass. They died when the bus stopped running because they couldn't breathe or walk and just all froze in the bus. After that story I just gave up on the idea because I was traveling with my wife and 3 young teenagers at the time.
Another lady from our church in California flew to Lhasa because it was her life long dream, only she was 70 years old and died from not enough oxygen just getting off the plane there at 12,000 feet in altitude. So the Himalayas are very harsh places and if you aren't used to high altitudes or young and in excellent health it is not a good idea to go there without some preparation. At the very least spend some time living at high altitude for a few days like in Santa Fe or somewhere else high before you go there to see how your lungs and body respond to altitude before risking it all. However, if you are under 30 and fairly active and healthy you should be good to go.

I had a lot of very interesting conversations with Geshela because we sponsored him to come back to the U.S. after our 4 month trip to Asia. One of the interesting things philosophically is that to a Tibetan there is no wall between dreams and physical reality like we have in western thought. I'm not entirely sure why this is it just is that way. So a Tibetan Buddhist sees dreams and physical reality being equally real. Now they must have some way to make this all work for them. The way they use most effectively is that they laugh a lot.

For example, one day I woke up and someone had cut off my head in a dream and I was upset about that and told Geshela about it because he was staying with us on the California coast then. He said, "Oh. This is a very good dream. This means you are moving forward at a very quick rate."

Now, if you are a westerner and a New Ager. What would you think of that?

But to Geshela this was just wonderful. Another interesting thing was there is a thing called "Mo". It is a divining process. So he would throw one or two dice and the number he would get would mean something specific. For example, I was trying to find out if I was an oracle. So he threw the dice several times and said, "Someone as spiritual as you likely wouldn't be an Oracle. Most oracles are very mundane people. If they were sensitive they could be harmed when they are possessed by the dieties."

So, at every point reality is perceived completely different than in the western world. However, I could ask Geshela to pray for something and it would happen always unfailingly. Their system is extremely powerful in ways most westerners haven't even begun to consider in reality. But the perception of what reality is might not be what most people expect in the western world.

If I were to describe my experiences with Tibetans in general it would be that they are the most happy, well adjusted, simple but hardworking and pragmatic people I have ever met. Just to survive as a culture and a people between the altitudes of 8000 to over 20,000 feet in altitude makes people unbelievably pragmatic and strong in every way you can imagine. For example, one day it was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside and a mother was bathing her son in ice cold water outside in the open and the kid didn't even cry or make a sound. He only looked at me walking by because he was about 4 years old and naked in an aluminum wash tub next to the sidewalk and I was a stranger with white skin and he was Tibetan. When I saw that I felt like an infant in comparison to the toughness of these people every day.

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