By Matthew Bemis
This summer I studied abroad in India, with a program through Loyola University in New Orleans. I took two courses there, one with Green Mountain College Professor Mary Pernal; the other with Loyola University Professor Timothy Cahill. We went to several different places, but for the most part stayed in Tibetan settlements such as Mcleod Ganj, Tso Pema, and Bir.
The first couple of weeks we spent in Mcleod Ganj, which is located in the Himalayas. It is a suburb of Dharamsala and it’s also where the Dalai Lama lives and where his temple is located. At first I believed the view from where our group was staying in Mcleod Ganj was the most beautiful view I had ever seen in my life. I woke up in the morning to the sun rise over mountains that were 9,000 feet or higher.
I didn’t think it could possibly get better, until I got a chance to hike one of the very same mountains I was constantly looking at. That mountain is called Triund and it was the highest mountain I have ever hiked. On top, I was able to see the Dalai Lama’s temple, as well as all the places I had been in the village down below. I recognized many places from up there, and on the second day I realized that we were actually above the clouds.
On top of the mountain there were three or four tea shops, one of which served food. Just like everywhere else I had been in India, there were several stray dogs on top of the mountain. All the goods have to be carried up to this summit, and I was amazed that I was able to order a butter honey pancake and even a Twix bar this far away from where we were staying.
The tea shops were by far my favorite shops I’ve ever been in. The seats were crates that were usually covered in a blanket and one of them could only fit about six or seven people. Even though it was mid-July, it was very cold on top of the mountain, and the hot chai in between my hands warmed up my entire body.
During the trip I got to meet two of the authors of the books we read in Buddhist Literature. The meetings both took place on the same day, and I was fortunate enough to ask them each one question and to have my books autographed. One of these authors was His Holiness the Karmapa. At every monastery we visited there was a picture of the Dalai Lama as well as the Karmapa. Meeting the Karmapa was not even on the itinerary and having the opportunity to meet him is one I will never forget.
The other author we met was Ama Adhe. Ama Adhe is an eighty one year old Tibetan woman who spent twenty seven years in prison for assisting Tibetan men that were resisting Communist China. Even under the worst possible conditions, Ama Adhe put others before herself, and despite the fact that it was illegal to practice Buddhism or even to speak Tibetan, she never lost her faith. Eventually Ama Adhe made it into exile where she met the Dalai Lama and was able to reconnect with her daughter.
She insisted that we ask her anything we wanted and said that she was officially appointed by the Dalai Lama to tell her story to anyone that wished to hear it. I asked her how, when she was nearly dying of starvation, she was able to give others her food instead of eating it herself. She then told us a story of how she once ate Tsampa, a flour made from barley, and all the prisoners could smell it on her.
She said that it saddened her so much to see her fellow people suffering and that from this point on she always shared her food, which wasn’t much. She then took personal photos with all of us and asked us to write in a small black book that she kept. In this book I told her of the effect her story had on me as I was reading it, and that I would always keep her in my thoughts and never forget her inspiring story of survival. I signed my name and it was time to go.
Although the entire trip was unforgettable one of my favorite parts was meeting with my Tibetan mutual learning partner Dawa. He is a twenty-seven year old monk who lives in Mcleod Ganj and he has been studying English for a couple of years now. The program couldn’t have done a better job setting the two of us up as learning partners, Dawa talked nearly as much as I did.
The first day we met he told me the story of how he escaped from the Chinese into exile and then he gave me a tour of the Dalai Lama’s main temple. Circumambulating the temple he told me all about the prayer wheels and how by spinning them clockwise brings good karma. He also told me about the offerings that people left in various places for the hungry ghosts.
When we met, we often worked on improving his English, but it felt more like meeting a new friend than a lesson. Every time we met, I learned something new about Tibetans and I feel confident that I taught him at least a few new things about English. I’ll never forget the time we had Tibetan butter tea and how terrible I found the taste.
I was saddened at the end of the trip because during our farewell dinner, Dawa was unable to be there because he was studying with his master in Bhutan. However, five minutes before the dinner, I got a knock on my door from Dawa’s friend who handed me a bag that he said was from Dawa. Inside was a banner that read “Friendship” followed by a quote from the Dalai Lama about what it means to have genuine friendship. Today, this same banner is hanging in my bedroom.
By Matthew Bemis