About Monks

I have met so many interesting people while being abroad– people sitting next to me on my flights, my yoga instructor, my fellow volunteers (never before have I compared my country to so many others; I feel like I have learned so much about British, Canadian, and Australian cultures– not just Indian and Tibetan!). But perhaps some of the most interesting, most kindhearted people I have met happen to be the monks in my classes.

Things I Didn’t Know About Monks:

1. You can become a monk at any age. Many times Tibetan parents will send one of their kids off to become a monk. My friend toyed with the idea of becoming a monk in her old age, that way she could try to find enlightenment before she dies. It’s a strangely tempting idea.

2. Monks can eat meat. Even the Dalai Lama eats meat because of health reasons.

3. Monks have Facebook.

4. Monks have better technology than I do, i.e. laptops, iPhones, and even stereo systems.

5. Monks get degrees. In the fields of Buddhism Philosophy, Buddhism Science, and one other I can’t remember. I don’t know what their curriculum is like, but i do know that they learn about so much more than I could have imagined. They are so, so bright.

6. Monks have an awesome sense of humor. They literally laugh at everything, and I think it’s because their so full of joy. I think the Dalai Lama once said that sometimes you have to greet/treat sorrow with laughter. For these Tibetan refugees, I think that nicely sums it up.

7. They are so kind. So so so kind. It’s not that I didn’t imagine them to be that way, but I don’t think I could have fathomed to what extent.

One day when I was sick, I was talking to one of the high ranking monks, Kunchok, who works closely with the volunteers. He said that I needed new shoes (I was wearing Chaco-like sandals) so that my feet would stop getting wet and I could stop getting sick. I laughed and said that my only other shoes (my darn
Sperrys) were still soaked from the rain, and I was waiting for them to dry. His response: “My shoes? I get you my shoes?” A monk was going to lend me his shoes, so that my feet wouldn’t be wet. This is the same monk who each time he says goodbye to me, adds in, “If you need anything, if you need help with anything, just tell me and I will help you.” He is so great.

They all really are. They invite you for tea or coffee, and they’re always so gracious and grateful when they’re your students, always saying, “Thank you, teacher, thank you!” Whenever I thank my monk, he says, “No, no. I am the one who’s supposed to say that.” My second class of students told me, “Good teacher,” the other day (my heart soared). This is the group of mostly late 20 to 30 year olds, half monks and half cooks at the monastery. They came to me 4 weeks ago only really knowing the alphabet. They have come so far already. I will be sad to leave them.

I want to be sure to add that all these things I’ve written about the monks, their meat-eating, facebook-using, and possession of high technology, I only write out of sheer curiosity and wonder– I mean nothing against them by it. They are still very high spiritual beings. But they are also very much human, and that’s one of the things that I love most about them. I can relate to them and talk to them comfortably and casually, but I can also learn so much from them. It’s an awesome exchange.

That’s the great thing about Buddhism. You don’t take what you’re told and hold it as truth. You investigate and see what is truth, and what truths work for you. So while there are over 200 vows that monks have to take, they are all unique and have different takes on different topics of Buddhism. My monk and I were once reading out of a Dalai Lama quote book, and after reading from a page, my monk said, “Hmm, I don’t know if I agree with that.” And that’s just part of the Buddhist philosophy– I love it.


Wherever you go, there you are.

I don’t feel different in McLeod Ganj. Not exponentially, anyway. It’s like layers. On the outer layer, I wash my hair less (and shower less), and really don’t care what I look like (I wear almost the same loose, black, comfy pants every day, and alternate between the few same shirts). I do yoga and haven’t eaten meat in weeks.

But inside, on the innermost layer, I have the same worries and anxieties, the same things that excite me and make me tick. I think what’s mostly changed is that I’ve learned so much while I’ve been here–from the friends I’ve made, from the students I teach, from talking to the monks, and from everything I’ve seen–and while I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s made me “different” (or “better,” or “worse” for that matter), I’ve soaked it all in and let it become a part of me–an addition, not a replacement–and I think that’s the best thing.

Updates on the past few weeks:

1. I’ve been teaching conversational English to a 32 year old monk named Tenzin Choepal in addition to teaching my morning and afternoon classes. It’s a great way to end the day, because really, it feels more like he’s teaching me. I have learned so much about the conflict in Tibet, Buddhism, and life things in general. His English is great, so we just practice pronunciation and try to expand his vocabulary. We drink tea in his room and read aloud from his books, and mostly just talk. It’s so nice.

Yesterday he showed me a transcript of a biography he’s writing about his brother– in English. We read through it together, and I helped him edit it as I learned more about the Chinese invasion in Tibet and his brother’s personal experiences with the conflict. Afterwards, we ate at a pure-vegetarian Indian restaurant (even though my monk eats meat). We talked more about Tibet, my monk finally saying, “I really wish that Tibet would get their independence soon.” I felt my heart strings buckle when he said that, thinking about how in a few days I get to return to my own home, because I can. It feels sad to be leaving my students so soon, especially Choepal.
2. I traveled with three friends to the Bhagsu waterfall–it’s just a 30 minute walk from our house. It was one of the prettiest days we’ve had so far–it was sunny all day, and didn’t rain once! Which is pretty crazy for monsoon season. On the walk up the mountain, with the Bhagsu river to our right, we were accompanied by many other travelers (mostly Indian) and MOUNTAIN GOATS! We even sat and took pictures with them– the mountain goats… not the Indians (although we were asked several times to have our pictures taken; westerners are sources of amusement and interest for the local Indian people. However, we kindly said “No.”). Right before we reached the waterfall, the paved path ended and we had to climb up a set of narrow, slippery rocks–I felt like an explorer! And just over the crest of rocks and boulders sat the waterfall, spewing and hissing a cool mist over the tourists and travelers. I sat at the edge of the rocks and dipped my feet in the icy, clean water. The walk down was so pleasant. From our high altitude we could see people down along the Bhagsu river– monks washing their clothes, others bathing in the pristine waters. The Bhagsu waterfall apparently only runs during monsoon season–I’m so glad I got to experience it.
3. We went back to Dharamkat a few weekends ago to have second breakfast at our favorite restaurant (Moonlight Cafe?) and stopped in Tushita to meditate beforehand. It was a guided meditation, where our teacher told us to imagine situations while we meditated–we were taken on a mental journey. It would have been far more enjoyable–and far easier to clear my mind–had I not been sick. Still, Tushita is a very beautiful, very peaceful place, and I would love to go back.
4. I saw an “interpretive dance” show. “Life-changing” only begins to sum it up. The man who puts on this show is The Lion Man, a Tibetan who fled to McLeod Ganj a few years ago. This is a man who walks around wearing red heart-shaped glasses, who jumped over the Dalai Lama when he was giving a talk the last time he was in McLeod Ganj. This guy is a character.
We had been warned by a couple of friends who had already seen the show that it was quite… eccentric. But also that it was not to be missed. The show took place in a children’s school. We all sat on burlap sacks arranged into rows on the floor. It had been a stormy day, so the power went out before the show even started. So instead of dancing to music in a well-lit room, The Lion Man danced to silence in the candlelight. At one point in his show, he tells the audience that the next segment is meant to “open our minds.” This part of the show entailed The Lion Man crawling around on the floor, putting his face inches from your face, looking into your eyes with his own beady pupils… and also peering into your soul, of course. It was comical, to say the least. We went back a few days later to see the show again, this time with the power on (for free), and each time his closing remarks were: “Dream about me.”


Dharma bum-ing

I am not a Dharma bum. I haven’t even finished reading the Dharma Bums (by Jack Kerouac). But two weekends ago we took a 25 minute walk up the mountain to Dharamkat, and I swear, it felt like a scene out of Dharma Bums (for those who haven’t read it, all you need to know is that three characters hike/camp up a mountain– and that’s the part I was on pre-walk!).
It’s all uphill to Dharamkat. But I wouldn’t call it mountain-climbing. We tromped up the path, empty but for the occasional passer-by and us three girls: me in my dirty sperry’s, my two friends in their flip-flops. It was raining, like it has been every day that we’ve been here (monsoon season). So we walked huddled under our raincoats through the wooded mountainside, the fog creating a mystic and enchanting feeling. I felt like I was in a dream.
Everything about the woods is beautiful: the rain speckling the foliage like liquid diamonds, sounding like quick chimes on our raincoats. There is something so soothing about the rain, and there is something so mystical about the forest. If my legs could manage the walk everyday, I would do it.
We passed through Tushita on the way, a little meditation center in the middle of the forest. Many people at Tushita practice silent meditation, so there are signs up reminding visitors to be quiet. The effect was so peaceful.
On the way up the mountain our legs were aching so much that we agreed to take a cab back to McLeod Ganj after lunch in Dharamkat. We came to a type of fork in the road: two paths to our left, parallel to one another, and a lone path straight ahead. With no signs to guide us, my guess was that Dharamkat was the higher left path, but we decided to ask a cab driver for directions; he pointed to the road straight ahead. So we continued our walk, humble beings beneath the mountain trees. After what felt like 10 minutes too long, I thought aloud, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were actually going in a huge circle back to McLeod Ganj?” We laughed and continued on our way, wondering how our other friends had made it to this Dharamkat place in only 20 minutes. Finally, we came into town. As we admired the buildings and Tibetan prater flags, we cumulatively wondered, “I wonder if this is the view we see from our windows.” We snacked at a surprisingly posh cafe, and then made our way through Dharamkat… before seeing a very familiar intersection. Dharamkat was not Dharamkat (but then again, what is anything anyway?) We were back in McLeod Ganj. We stood dumbfounded, mentally kicking ourselves for having taken the wrong turn. And then we had a good, much-needed laugh.
My friends and I took the “right” path to Dharamkat the next day and had lunch at a very cool restaurant. Still, I appreciated our “wrong” journey on that first attempt. It was peaceful, it was beautiful, and we were happy. Just three girls in nature. Nothing feels more right. It makes me think that the journey is just as important as the destination– if not more so.


The Sound of Rain in McLeod Ganj

“Life’s so good, why do you think so much?”

When it rains here, it pours. I am sitting in the Seed Cafe, a very hip hangout spot with amazing mountain views just down the street from our home-stay, eavesdropping on a group of four male Tibetans and Indians talking about life, McLeod Ganj, Buddhism, and the sort (they’re the sources of the quotes I’ve included). I feel like you could learn so much from people here– you just have to listen.

“Life is always change but we can still take it in.”

This week has been an adventure. I started teaching on Tuesday… without any prior teaching experience or tips from the organization on how to teach English as a second language. There’s no actual teacher at the monastery, and hardly any materials to work with. So you could say I was pretty lost… But somehow I managed to wing it! I ended up teaching the older group: 5 monks between the ages of 16 and 23. They have a basic grasp on English and are able to communicate with and understand me… for the most part. My lessons thus far have been based mostly on grammar and vocabulary-building (I bought a grammar practice book today– yay!).

That’s what I do in the morning from 10:30 to 12. Then after a quick lunch break/nap time I walk to the Dalai Lama temple to teach older monks from 1:30 to 2:30 (at least I think they’re monks… They wear western clothes, unlike most of the monks I see at the temple). The 4 that I’m working with hardly know English; one just knows his ABCs, and I think a couple of them don’t understand me at all (sadly, the few Hindi words I learned during orientation week are useless here; most people, including these men, only know Tibetan). But they are so so grateful to be learning, and are constantly saying, “Thank you, teacher! Thank you!” They are such wonderful human beings.

“Your mind is not permanent, it’s changing all the time.”

Highlights of the week:

1. Tuesday. First teaching day. Crazy. Everything about that day was so overwhelming. I was told by my coordinator to go to the Dalai Lama temple that afternoon to teach English there… when really that class didn’t start until Wednesday. So I sat in the temple for a while, feeling frustrated and stupid because I didn’t know where to go for class, or if I was even supposed to be there. Then I got lost walking back home… for a good thirty minutes. When I finally got to my room, I decided to wash my feet– I felt so dirty after all that walking. In our bathroom, there is a tall spout for showering and a shorter one underneath it for feet or laundry buckets. Still in my clothes (I just decided to hike up my pants), I reached for the faucet, accidentally turned on the shower head, and drenched my clothes. By that point in the day I just had to laugh. It’s like everything went wrong to show me how right everything is. Life is funny like that.

2. Yoga. I have gone to two yoga classes this week, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, and they were both amazing. They’re taught by a skinny old man– I don’t know what his ethnicity is, but he’s very tan and very fit. The classes he teaches are flow yoga– meaning we go straight for 2 hours without stopping. The meditation at the end is the best part; I could fall asleep to his chants. Each time I’ve felt as though I’m having an out of body experience, like I’m outside of myself, floating somewhere…

3. Cafes. McLeod Ganj is a cafe-lover’s haven– they’re everywhere. This morning I sat at Cafe Bodan, drinking Darjeeling tea whilst listening to my iPod and writing my lesson plans for the day. The way people live here– the way I’ve been living here –is so different from the way I live my life back home. Normally, I’m a wake-up-with-just-enough-time-to-get-to-class kinda gal– I’m in a constant state of movement. Rush rush rush. But here, I feel like I’ve finally taken the time to just sit down with my thoughts and just be. I want to always live like this. Who knows– maybe I’ll go home a tea-drinking, tofu-eating, yoga-practicing buddhist (I hope so!).

This weekend is full of potential: possible traveling to neighboring towns, reading time, and lesson planning! It will be a much, much needed break from the week. Teaching is so hard… But like my kundalini yoga DVD says, “If it’s hard for you, it’s what you need to do.”


The Long and Winding (and Narrow) Road… to Dharamsala

Referencing one of my favorite Beatles’ songs seems like a highly appropriate way to begin this post. Yesterday (Sunday), I took a 13 hour non-AC bus ride with another volunteer from Delhi to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj… for approximately $8. Was it worth it? In spite of the heat, a sore bum, and sporadic/unhealthy eating… I would say, definitely!

The first leg of the trip was brutal. We were dropped off at the bus stop a little after 5 AM, and tromped around trying to find the appropriate bus. After 30 minutes of unsuccessful wandering (me lugging around my inefficient rolling suitcase, which actually knocked over someone’s parked bike… embarrassing), we finally found the ticket counter with just enough time to spare before our 6:30 AM departure.

A non-AC bus in India heat isn’t so terrible… as long as the bus is moving. You get the cool breeze in your face, so that in those moments, the sweat actually does it’s job of cooling you down. But the roads here are pretty awful, so we hit a few traffic jams where the driver literally turned off the bus– that’s how much/how long we weren’t moving.

I remember closing my eyes around 1 PM, trying to get a nap in, when I awoke about an hour later to a chilly breeze and dark skies. And then it started pouring. It was the first time I saw real rain in India (the other day in Delhi it only sprinkled, and for all of 5 minutes). The rain was amazing to watch at first, coming down faster and faster, until we came upon a road that was flooded, with one lone car stuck in the muddy water. The bus breezed past it, but water started coming in so that the floor below us was slightly flooded… Still, the rain was much appreciated after the unbearable heat we had just driven through.

We noticed significant changes the closer we got to Dharamsala: cooler air, greener spaces, and crazier roads. Seriously, most of the roads we took to get here looked like they were made to be one-ways– they are so, SO narrow. So if you can imagine, picture a full-sized travel bus, driving up a mountain at full speed, turning corners of cliffs on these tiny roads so fast that we were literally bouncing around in our seats, holding on to the handles placed so conveniently and purposely in front of us; it was quite the adventure. And the views at this point were spectacular– the lush mountainside is such an improvement to the Delhi heat!

It’s easy to forget that you’re in India here. There is a huge Tibetan influence (McLeod Ganj is actually home to the Tibetan government in exile), and there are so many more foreigners (westerners) than in Delhi. And there are monks everywhere! You pass them by in the streets, sit next to them at cafes, and even stand beside them in line as you wait to buy a mobile phone (which I finally have!). I just want to go up and hug all of them– they seem like such nice souls.

We visited the Dalai Lama temple today, watching the monks and visitors pray and read and converse. You can just feel the energy here– it’s so moving. Later, a few of us volunteers plan on doing yoga (they offer $2 classes!), and at some point we want to visit one of the meditation centers. There is so much to do here! I think I just got really excited for the next 4 weeks… 🙂

Tomorrow we start our projects. In the morning I’ll be teaching English to children (under the age of 13), then I’ll go to the Dalai Lama temple to teach the monks! The monks are mostly taught conversationally, so basically I get to sit around with 4 or 5 monks for an hour and just talk to them in English… and I’m pretty excited about that. I’m also nervous, especially for teaching the children, because there doesn’t seem to be a set curriculum, and I’ve never taught English before… Luckily there are a few girls from the previous group who are still around, and they’ve been able to give us some advice. Wish me luck!

Until next time…


Saturday, 7/21

Today has been a day for reflection (5 blog posts later, that might be obvious…). It’s time to do the washing, money-exchanging, and packing that will get me ready for my journey to Dharamsala tomorrow. I can’t believe that I’ve already been here for over a week. As great of a time I’ve been having, I wouldn’t be sad if I went home tomorrow. I would miss the people I’ve met, but I wouldn’t miss the heat, or the showers, or the toilets, or the dress code. The next 4 weeks seem daunting. And long. I’m hoping that once I begin teaching, I’ll get into a groove and not want to leave. At this point, however, it feels like I’ll be here forever.

Learning Hindi has been difficult, mostly in the application department. It’s gotten me thinking that a trip to Latin America would have been so much easier. But ease isn’t what this is about… it’s about learning, and new experiences, and overcoming… right?

I do, however, have a few favorite Hindi words!

kaala– black

neela– blue

santara– orange

fika– light

sher– lion

I see some potential future baby/cat names…

The next time you hear from me, I’ll probably be in Dharamsala! Much much much love…


I want to be a Bollywood dancer.

We learned on our first orientation day that Bollywood makes more movies per year than Hollywood does–crazy!–and we were given money to watch a Bollywood movie as part of our orientation week. So yesterday we fit 15 of us into (and onto) a large tuk tuk– yes, there really are such things! –and rode to Crown Interior, the mall where the cinema is located. The mall was much less crowded than any of the street markets and bazaars we had been to– it was almost eery.

Upon reaching the cinema and buying our tickets, we went through probably the most thorough bag search I’ve had since arriving– and that’s because you get searched wherever you go. The security woman opened the small zippered pocket inside my bag to retrieve my camera, which, along with many of my friends’, was returned after the film. We watched Bol Bachchan, a very funny, very Bollywood movie. There was a lot of singing and dancing, and a few English lines that made almost no sense: “A brother in need is a sister indeed,” “Home is where the tuba is,” and silly things like that. But if you were to ask me what the movie was about, I couldn’t really tell you; the movie was in Hindi, with no English subtitles. Still, it was an enjoyable experience.

My favorite parts were of course the dance and music numbers– I love Indian dance moves! And the music in general. I think one of the greatest things was the women who were cast as dancers in the film. They weren’t the stick-thick, undernourished image of beauty that is propagated in American culture and cinema. The outfits they wore exposed full bellies that, I’m sure, when sitting down, bared the rolls and folds of skin that are so “unbeautiful” in America. And those women really were beautiful–big brown eyes, full lips, and long luscious hair. And they were real. I felt like I could run into these girls in the street. As an impressionable 20-year-old American girl, I really appreciated that.