By Mary Litrell
Gold Solas Award Winner in the Elder Travel category
A crowd of more than a thousand folds me in as we climb a hill toward the plaza outside the Dalai Lama’s temple high in the Indian Himalayas. Today, March 10, 2019, marks the 60th Anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising—the day His Holiness fled Tibet. Three stoic-faced elders motion me to join them on a low wooden bench.
I sit among hundreds dressed in faded Tibetan attire—well-worn leather boots, dark holey sweaters, and knitted caps pulled down over the ears. Wool aprons of washed-out pastel stripes cover the women’s laps From leathered bronze faces, narrow eyes squint over high cheekbones. Elders sit, threading prayer beads through their gnarled arthritic fingers.
As one, we rise as the Tibetan National Anthem bellows from overhead loudspeakers. A period of silence follows in honor of the patriots who had lost their lives for the cause of Tibet’s freedom. My tears mirror those streaming down the faces of the refugees around me. Are these elderly Tibetans recalling family compounds in Lhasa? Land they once farmed? Faces of friends left behind?
Returning to the bottom of the hill, I face packs of shaved-headed teenage nuns and monks dressed in maroon robes. They lunge toward me shrieking, “Free Tibet! Free Tibet!” Their cheeks are striped in red, blue, and yellow paint—the colors of the Tibetan flag. The youth swing flags from poles held high over their shoulders. Their voices of resistance boom fierce and shrill.
I am rattled. I walk back to the hotel, with shoulders slumped and eyes staring at the ground. For the elders on the hill, Tibet remains a home with memories. However, given China’s political take-over of their homeland, it’s unlikely these young nuns and monks will ever set foot in Tibet. As refugees, what is the future in India for these young Buddhists? Where is their Tibet?
Like others in my small travel group, a previous glimpse of Buddhist life back home spurred me to northwest India. In the Colorado Rockies, I’d made several afternoon outings to the Great Stupa of Dharamakaya, nestled in a meadow of tall grasses at an altitude of 7,000 feet near where I live. This Buddhist retreat offered time for silent contemplation and wandering strolls. I relaxed and felt a tranquility that contrasted with my intense days of university teaching, meetings, and administration. I left for India eager to learn more about the Buddhist life I’d sampled in Colorado.
Our small group’s travel itinerary for March 10 did not list Uprising Day in the community of McLeod Ganj. I arrived unprepared for such a sobering introduction this first day of my visit.
The next morning, I share my question about the future for Buddhist youth with Philippa, our guide. As a practicing Buddhist, she has spent over thirty years in McLeod Ganj with her British husband, who works in His Holiness’s press office. She smiles in acknowledging my questions but does not respond. I ponder why?
Instead, we walk down a rutted dirt path for a morning at Norbulingka. The center is dedicated to reviving Buddhist arts that had been set aside or lost during the early days of Tibetan refugee life in India. Entering through a massive wood door the color of a fall pumpkin, I encounter a haven of trickling waterfalls. Bridges cross small ponds and lead to two-story wooden buildings, painted in vivid reds, blues, and yellows. Trees stretching up to the sky surround each workshop dedicated to a specific craft—Thanka painting, wood carving, metal work, embroidery, and weaving. In the doorways, pots of white tuberoses release sweet-smelling perfumes in the early morning air.
Walking toward their studios, artists recite mantras while pausing along the way to turn a row of three-foot tall brass prayer wheels. Some artists halt in front of Buddhist statues housed at eye level in cave-like stone enclosures. Philippa explains, “In meditation, first you look at the image. Next, you visualize its qualities. Finally, you internalize those qualities, reaching a sense of compassion.”
We follow a dozen men in their twenties into the Thanka painting workshop. They motion us to sit on a bench near their canvas-covered painting frames. Commencing their workday, artists chant to the muffled beat of a drum, like a soothing lullaby. A teacher explains, “Thanka painting isn’t just a craft. It’s religious art that must be painted in a spiritual frame of mind.”
When the chanting ends, artists walk to their painting frames and settle for the day on padded floor cushions. For the first few months of their six-year mentorships, artists focus exclusively on learning to draw prescribed images of the Buddha’s head. Only after achieving a high level of proficiency, they are allowed to replicate the forms and proportions of other deities. The young artists’ individual creativity is limited exclusively to painting the surrounding backgrounds in a kaleidoscope of pastels.
I watch as an apprentice applies paint using a single-haired brush to the extremities of a many-armed Buddha. He selects mineral pigments in mustard, coral, and turquoise from copper bowls at his feet. Hundreds of strokes are required to cover a square inch. The scene in front of me takes me back as a five-year-old sitting on a tiny stool snuggled next to an elderly neighbor lady, a skilled embroiderer whom I adored. For hours I watched as she threaded single silk threads through the eye in a slender needle. Slowly her tiny stitches transformed into floral embroideries. Serenity filled her sewing room, as in this studio where Buddhist artists sit on the floor, painting in silence.
As we walk to another studio, a manager explains Norbulingka’s self-sustaining model for the 300 artists in residence. The income from lodging, restaurants, and a retail shop provides a small stipend and covers housing for the master artists and interns. The manager says, “With this backing, they can concentrate on bringing their Tibetan artistic practice to a high level, rather than churning out mass quantities.”
Returning to the street at the end of the day, roaring motorcycle engines and calls from vendors flood my ears; elbowing shoppers push against my body. My calmness from the workshop dissipates as I shoulder my ways through the crowd back to the hotel.
On the third day of our visit, we step into a bubbling cauldron of activity among 200 nuns at the Dolma Ling Nunnery. Amid smiles and chatter, maroon-robed nuns in their teens to early thirties devour a midday meal of flat bread and steamed vegetable buns. Lunch finished, some nuns leave for their classes in the 17-year teacher training program that mixes ancient Tibetan philosophy with a core of courses in languages, math, and computers.
Other nuns scurry off to a barn for the twice-daily milking of the nunnery’s cows. In the cavernous kitchen, under a ceiling collection of hanging copper pots, six nuns stir large vats of chai for afternoon tea break. Cinnamon and cardamon fragrances waft through the room. Other nuns weld foot-long knives, chopping spinach and mustard greens for the evening meal. The nuns mop their shaved heads with towels—a constant motion in the steaming kitchen.
Several nuns invite us to visit their tailoring workroom. One diminutive nun, barely a teenager, looks up with a grin and places her soft hand in mine as we walk together. A group of ten nuns, wearing maroon fleece jackets zipped up to their ears, greet us with giggles. They peer from behind treadle sewing machines, relics from my grandmother’s past. Each nun seems eager to display her string of five prayer flags sewn together in the set order of yellow, green, red, white, and blue two-inch squares. One enterprising nun hands me a flag, “Take this with you. They’re for sale in our salesroom.”
This workshop of friendly nuns seems like a receptive audience for a question I’m eager to ask. “Why do you shave your heads?” One nun explains that the Buddha set down shaving as a visible renunciation of ordinary life. Another quips with a grin, “It’s so we don’t compare our looks with each other.”
As we depart the workroom bustle, I hear a soft murmur. Outside, students pace under the tree-shaded grounds. Each holds an open text as she softly recites mantras of the Buddha’s teachings—the dharma—from her morning classes. Several nuns swirl small hand-held prayer wheels in meditative accompaniment.
From a nearby courtyard, shouting assaults my ears. Up close, I observe at least fifty pairs of nuns. One sits cross-legged on the ground, and the other hovers over her. The standing nun raises her arm above and flings it down, while shouting a question in the seated nun’s face. The sitting nun looks up and responds, in some cases with eyes of anguish. When the nun fails to offer a quick response, the standing nun raises her hands overhead, one over the other, and smacks them down together in front of the nun’s face, like a crocodile closing its jaws. My eyes widen. My throat constricts. What is happening here?
Called debates, these hour-long homework routines are a daily constant in Buddhist study. A teacher explains that each pair, one a senior student and the other a junior, are reciting sections of the Buddhist texts memorized from their morning classes. She says, “It’s how they gain understanding and self-confidence for integrating Buddha’s teachings and philosophy in their lives.”
As an educator, I’m aghast at what seems a harsh in-the-face approach to learning. Yet, in my own classrooms, I’ve often assigned students to small study groups for exploring a topic from my lecture. It’s not uncommon for their discussions to turn into boisterous arguments. Is our teaching so different? Perhaps in our methods, but in both India and Colorado our students are engrossed in their learning.
During my last evening in Tibetan India, I reflect over my three days in India’s Himalayan north. At the outset of the visit on Uprising Day, I experienced a troubling gulf between the lives of the contemplative elders who fled Tibet and the fervent young nuns and monks who would never return. I went to bed that first night bewildered.
Again, I ask myself why Philippa declined to answer my questions at the outset of our visit. I wonder if she, as a practicing Buddhist, wanted me to discover answers on my own through the practice of listening and observing. I’m grateful now for her not intervening, thus allowing me to contemplate my observations.
Resolving my initial query of “Where is their Tibet?” seems to be an answer in-progress for the young Buddhists I met. Rather than attached to a concrete place far away, the answer is evolving from their daily lives in India. For student artists, their eventual paintings, needlework, and sculptures, once placed in Dharamshala’s Tibetan temples, will impart Buddhist philosophy to their fellow followers for years to come. For the student nuns, their expertise in the dharma will be shared as they assume teaching roles in village schools. I depart from my short three-day visit heartened that together these young Buddhist artists and teachers journey on a path toward creating their new Tibet in northwest India.
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Mary Littrell, a retired university professor, is a Solas Award–winning travel writer. Her coauthored book with Rangina Hamidi, Embroidering Within Boundaries: Afghan Women Creating a Future, won a Benjamin Franklin Silver Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association.