The Bad Boys of Buddhism

Leave it to the boys and me to find the one Tibetan Buddhist Monastery that has been ostracized by His Holiness, The Dalai Lama.  It really is a compelling story for all you who think Buddhism is about chanting, meditating, and living a life of compassion.

When we arrived here at Shar Gaden, one of the first things Jampa, the charismatic secretary of the monastery said to me was, “We are having some issues with the Dalai Lama”.  I was taken back, as I was under the impression that His Holiness was the Kingpin of Buddhism.

Apparently a number of years ago, the Dalai Lama asked all of his monasteries to quit practicing a certain meditation called Dorje Shugden. My understanding is that the Dalai Lama’s oracle, or guidance counselor, suggested to the His Holiness that they stop doing this particular practice.  Because Dorje Shugden has been perceived by some as more of the “fire and brimstone” approach to Buddhism, His Holiness decided to give it the ax.  It probably doesn’t help matters that the deity they propitiate is a scary looking figure with three eyes, a human heart in his one hand, a sword in the other, and a wrathful look on his face.  Perhaps the Dalai Lama thought this menacing figure might scare some westerners away.  Therefore, he required all the monks of the Tibetan monasteries to sign a pledge that they would no longer participate in this very old Tibetan ritual. 

Here’s where the Bad Boys of Buddhism, my friends and monks of The Shar Gaden monastery, come in.   It seems that the senior monks of Shar Gaden felt like discontinuing this practice was not in the best interest of their lineage.

They refused to sign the agreement… and apparently all hell broke lose.  Many followers of the Dalai Lama became enraged with the Dorje Shugden followers. At one point when one of the Dalai Lama’s people was murdered, they blamed it on the group that chose not to sign the paper.  

Cut to years later…  In this isolated area of south-central India where an entire community of monks live, there is a great divide.  As I walk down the street with my friend, Losang Tenpa, or as the boys and I call him, Monk Duke, he is glared at and in certain shops, they even refuse to serve him.

Monk Duke is a character.  He’s from Minnesota and has been a practicing Buddhist for the last fifteen years.  He has recently committed his life to the “monkhood”.    He is the perfect poster child for the Bad Boys of Buddhism.  He’s a sort of James Dean of the Red Robes.  Rugged, with a past of drugs, alcohol and near death experiences… and I quote, “I have had a pretty crazy past.”   Now he is a full-fledged member of Shar Gaden and the face of Western Buddhism in a sea of Tibetan and Nepalese monks.  He holds his head high when he goes into town, even though he knows that many are scrutinizing him.   He chose to side with the Shar Gaden lineage because his teacher, Geshe Tsultrim Gyaltsen, was determined to keep the Dorje Shugen practice alive.   Monk Duke said that,  “I have chosen to follow the teacher I have worked with for years. I have taken vows and commitments with this teacher, and my alliance is with him.”

The whole thing is shocking to me… My idea of Buddhism was about losing the ego, getting centered and quiet, and finding enlightenment.  But it seems that things are a bit tense here in this area that was given to exiled Tibetan monks by the country of India.  Over the last few years, words have been spoken, rocks have been thrown and most disturbing, great walls built around each of the many monasteries in the area.  What’s wild is that, after the split, the properties here were allotted in a strange way so that some of Shar Gaden’s building are surrounding by building gained by the other monasteries that have issue with this group, making it an uncomfortable and tense living situation.

As an experiment the other day, Monk Duke and I visited a local store famous for not serving Shar Gaden monks.  I went in and smiled, bought some flip flops for Buck, and then Duke came in to buy some incense.  They wouldn’t even look up at him.   So I piped in, “Hey, how much for the incense?” … they replied, “Forty Rupies”, and then I said, “I’ll pay for it.”   They then smiled, took my money and when we went to leave, the man behind the counter and Monk Duke exchanged a smile.   I felt like it was one step closer to Nirvana and I had done my small part to bridge a chasm between the two factions.  Who knows… that simple meeting of the minds could have been the beginning of the reunification of the Tibetan Buddhist Federation.   Or maybe not… I think it’s going to take more than a westerner’s smile to sort things out here. I’m thinking of coming back next year and shooting a documentary on the subject.

None of the controversy seems to have affected Jackson or Buck’s experience of this place.  Buck instantly joined in on a game of Futbol with the younger monks. Kunga, one of the senior monks and a great character, took a liking to Buck and presented him with his own red robes.  Yes, Buck spent his entire time dressed as a monk and sitting in on the meditations.  He really took to it.  He learned how to fold and wear the robes and also how to recite some of the mantras.  Monk Duke even presented Buck with his own prayer beads, which he proudly wears to remind himself of his time at Shar Gaden.  What an amazing experience for an 8 year old boy, eh?

Jackson jumped right in helping out with Monk Duke’s English classes. They all laugh when they hear his name because of Michael Jackson.  These young monks can play a mean game of English language hang-man.  And here’s some refreshing news, when we were practicing conversational English with them, we discovered that none of them knew who Lady Gaga was.  How refreshing is that!  

Our experience here has been eye-opening and truly delightful.  We have made some great friends, had the opportunity to live with the monks and see their lives first hand, and have been able to discovery the beauty of monastic living.   If the Dalai Lama spent some time with Monk Duke, Jampa, and Kunga, I’m sure they all could resolve this issue with compassion and loving-kindness. 

If you are interested in knowing more about the Monks of Shar Gaden Monastery, check them out on FaceBook.  They are in need of dedicated Pen Pals for the younger monks to practice their English with, and also English language books.  Please let me know if you are interested in helping them. 







Posted by JD in India, 22 comments

Passage To India…..

I have difficulty beginning this blog because I’m not sure how to approach it.  I don’t want to appear melodramatic or better yet, over sensationalize my experience.   But the truth is, being in India has truly changed my boys and my life.  A bold statement…  Yes.  A truth, that is for certain.

We arrived at the foothills of the Himalayas in the small village of McLeod Ganj, known the world over as the exiled home of His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama.  Entering the town by dark was a frightful experience… just ask my sons.  We had booked a small room in a hotel high above the town with roads only big enough for the four wheels of the car that carried us up there.   I want to be very clear… the roads, cut into the side of the mountain, were barely big enough for the four wheels of the car that carried us… one wrong twist of the wheel and we would have fallen to a sure death down a jagged mountain cliff.

We arrived at 3am to what would be our new home for the next 10 days.  We unloaded our bags and then walked, yes, walked for ten minutes up a mountain cliff path to our hill top inn.   From the late-night fright of cliff hanging, and from the exhaustion of toting our bags through the mountains in the dark, we settled in and fell fast asleep in our small one room abode.

We awoke to sunshine through the window and a view that reminded us that this was no ordinary journey.  I can only explain it as “other worldly”, like we had experienced it before, or that we were in another time continuum.  The kids and I looked at each other in awe.  There was silence… emotion… history… color… magic.

We were served the local staple, porridge with bananas, and then headed down the hill to the village of McLeod to register to see the Dalai Lama speak.  The mountain path down was no “late night illusion”…. It was just as frightening in the daytime.   But with the sunlight came wild monkeys on the side of the road, the sacred cows of India, the colorful saris of the local woman, and as we approached the hustle and bustle of this small town, the red-robed Buddhist monks of Tibetan fame.  I felt like I was home.   Not that I am a Tibetan Buddhist, or have practiced Buddhism, but I felt safe and comfortable amongst, what I joked with Jack and Buck, “My People”.

That day was spent with great excitement.  Dodging Tuk Tuk’s, cows, monks and an international crowd of people there to see The Dalai Lama speak… all in a tiny village stuck in another time, hanging off the foothills of the Himalayas.

The following morning, after our porridge, we headed to the temple to see His Holiness.  Miraculously, though somehow I knew it would happen, we were saved seats 20 feet away from where the Dalai Lama would speak.  Excitement filled the air.  After what seems like a long anticipated wait, he appeared.   Wow!  His Holiness, The Dalai Lama’s smiling face right in front of me, as if in my own living room. There for my kids to experience, a living master, right there for Buck and Jackson to remember for a lifetime.

As he began to speak, something struck me.  He’s just a man… yes, most assuredly an enlightened one, but a man, nonetheless.   Having spent a career studying “celebrity” first hand, I had the epiphany that he was a sort of spiritual celebrity in a world of people who felt the need to worship him.   Don’t get me wrong, he’s teaching were certainly inspiring and profound, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by a sense of spirit.  Many others were.   And then this thought, “Maybe we’re all the gurus”.  Maybe, just maybe, we are all made in the likeness of God and that we are all the Dalai Lamas of our own experience…  That all we really have is our own spiritual take on things.  Everyone gets their choice of what they want to believe and whom they want to worship… at least in the free world.  And what resonates in our heart to be true spiritually is what we have to hold on to.

I feel like I had a spiritual awakening in McLeod Ganj.  But not one that was overpowering… a more subtle one.  I think it made me want to take more responsibility for my own spirituality and to honor it … and perhaps to live more consciously… not in the way His Holiness sees it, necessarily, though a lot of what he had to say rang true to me, but maybe delving more inside myself and finding how “my” God wants me to live…  being a more present parent, being less judgmental, more understanding and accepting, doing more for my fellow man.

Walking among the sacred cows, the poverty, the lepers, the poor, the monks, and the monkeys had a deep effect on me. And it did for my children as well.  We had the incredible opportunity of working with political prisoner that are now refugees exiled from Tibet in McLeod.  We taught English to these men and women who walked from Tibet to India to gain their freedom.  One cannot remain the same when in the company of such brave and heroic figures.  They shared with the kids and me their stories of being imprisoned just for carrying a Tibetan flag or showing up at a rally.  They were beaten and imprisons for years.   For westerns like the kids and me, it almost seemed unreal…  Like it was just a story…  But unfortunately, it’s a reality for many Tibetans.

One evening in McLeod, in honor of those we had been teaching, the boys and I got “buzz cuts” like the monks.   It was a Lewis Family moment… with laughter, trepidation, and “are we really doing this?”… But then again it’s only hair…

The boys most certainly are different people now.  For Jackson, 14, it has been the most noticeable.  He has committed to being a vegetarian, which I have to say, I respect.  He has become such a quiet force of compassion among the people we have met.  And with the animals, too.  We joke that he is Dr. Doolittle.  It’s amazing to watch him.

Buck, “Mister Charismatic”, has gone in to action full tilt boogie and has people grabbing him for pictures, hugging on him and practicing their English on him.   In McLeod, at a café we frequented, he got hired to be a waiter.  No lie.  He made cappachinos and served food and actually made tips.  It was a riot to watch.  He went back each day to work.   He had a gang of friends at Café Buda.   All of the customers were blown away.

Leaving McLeod was intense for all of us.  It was like leaving summer camp as a kid.   We had met so many awesome people and saying good-bye left a huge hole.   We ended up taking the train – un-air conditioned and 3rd class (yikes… talk about intense) to Agra where we feasted our eyes on the Taj Mahal.  I can’t put it in to words.  I just can’t.   Beyond extraordinary.  Again, seeing my kids inside the Taj.  Wow!  And we had no idea the story behind the Taj Mahal.  It was built as a monument of love for a wife who died while giving birth.

From there we went to Varanasi on the shores of the Ganges.  This is the place where all Hindis go to swim in the sacred waters of this famous river.   It is also were the Burning Gat is … this is where the Indians bring their dead to wash in the river, then burn the corpse on a fire by the shore, then spread their ashes in the river.  It’s their belief that it is the quickest way to heaven…. To be burned on the Ganges.  We took a boat (wood canoe) past the Burning Gat… and saw the bodies being wash and burned.  It was mind-blowing.   The boys and I discussed it later… it wasn’t morbid or scary… it was just very deep.

Which leads us to the poverty of Varanasi.  Unless you have walked the streets and seen it first hand, I don’t think you can fully grasp it.   Children naked and playing in the dirt, lepers laying in the street, families living in tiny tin or brick huts, cow dung everywhere, and the smell… quite often overwhelming.  But here’s the twist, they seem happy.   They really do.  The kids are laughing, the old people have great smiles, the woman are beautiful….  Yes, there is a lot of begging… a lot, but it’s understandable.  A foreigner walking down the street is just assumed to be rich…  Sometimes it felt intimidating and a bit dangerous, but in the end no one wished us harm.  They were just as curious about us, as we were with them.

Now we are headed to Mumbai where we will take a 12-hour bus ride to Hubli to work in a monastery.  More enlightenment to follow…

Posted by JD in India, 22 comments