The Dalai Lama’s teachings had ended, but I chose to stay in Dharamshala, recovering from my injury and learning about Buddhism. This was also the start of my friendship with Joe and Jenn, which would take us to some crazy places in India.
But before this happened, I went daily to the clinic and had my stitches cleaned. The nurse laughed at me continuously while discussing her dream to visit Thailand. Back at the hostel, a guy noticed the bandages on my head, “you gotta be careful with head wounds”, he told me. “Oh yeah?”, I replied. “Sure, last year in Syria I got hit by shrapnel fired from British artillery. I haven’t been the same since.” I simply stared at him. “It was friendly fire,” he quickly clarified.
The soldier wasn’t wrong though, and my head was sore for the next week. Luckily, Dharamshala was the perfect place to convalesce. The town lies halfway up a valley; the Himalayas sit behind it, while India’s parched plains stretch away below. Every morning the sun crests the razor sharp peaks, turning them into silhouettes while burning off the fog that hugs the mountainsides.
This was where the Dalai Lama had set up the Government of Tibet in exile, following his escape from Tibet in 1959. Today it’s home to a large Tibetan community, refugees who have set up schools, shops and restaurants.
Dharamshala therefore has a unique feel, and I could sit and eat naan while chatting to red robed monks. I spent my time learning more about Tibetan Buddhism, helped by my friend Tia. She recommended that I read The Way of the Bodhisattva, which I combined with listening to Marilyn Manson’s new album.
Tia also introduced me to a newly ordained nun. After her father, husband and sister had died, the nun had given away everything she owned, stopping drinking and partying. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been”, she told me. In her old life she would feel happy for a short time, before going back to neutral, or worse.
It was totally different now that she had devoted her life to working for the happiness of all sentient beings. This was despite wanting to cry whenever she thought about all the suffering happening in the world. The nun emphasised that you don’t need to be a monk or nun to make the world a better place. Anybody can do it. Even lawyers.
A few days later, I had the opportunity to hear from another nun, Tenzin Palmo. Leaving the UK when she was 20, Palmo had spent 12 years living in a cave in the Himalayas. Growing her own food, she never lay down, sleeping in a wooden box in a meditative pose for three hours a night.
Temperatures were −35°C and it snowed for six to eight months of the year. Palmo has since become a campaigner for equal rights for Buddhist nuns. It’s ironic that Buddhism, the religion of enlightenment, has been so misogynistic and discriminatory towards women. But then what’s new.
Speaking at the Tushita Monastery, Palmo discussed the Wheel of Life and how it applied in the modern world. She noted that society says it’s good to be ambitious, competitive, to beat your rivals. Think of politics, business, sport. But does this actually make you happy? We celebrate greed, pride and the ego, but these actually cause our unhappiness. We focus on getting money, a house, a career, while forgetting the power of love, family and friends.
Another problem is refusing to accept the changing nature of the world. Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent. But we cling to attachments, possessions and relationships, which causes us suffering.
Think about the pain caused by losing something small, like your phone. Then multiply that. Palmo stressed that it’s about inwardly letting go. She concluded with the point that we don’t learn through being endlessly happy — we need challenges to make us grow. And you don’t need to live in the Himalayas to practice this.
I wanted to stay in Dharamshala longer, and was thinking about doing a meditation course there. But India is massive, and there were so many other places that I needed to visit. So after watching a grey mountain transmuted into blazing orange one final time, I boarded a bus and headed to another spiritual place, the legendary Rishikesh.
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