By the time I reached McLeod Ganj, the tiny hill station that is the center of the Tibetan community in exile and home to the Dalai Lama, I had been traveling for a year and was feeling, in general, unaffiliated. Life on the road - my disconnected life - had become so familiar that everything that came before took on an alien characteristic. My past was distant, like an old friend I had grown apart from. I could not find the words to explain my indifference.
I had once held the romantic notion that the Tibetans possessed a secret wisdom that allowed them to tap into an infinite well of happiness and serenity. Their reputation as a cheerful people preceded them. And while I was now convinced that we were all in this life together and, for the most part, were reduced to groping for answers, I was curious as to what the Buddhists knew that I didn't. Maybe a new perspective would tell me something about my old friend, that earlier life receding further into my memory.
I found a piece of my old friend among the pines a short walk out of town. St. John in the Wilderness, a Catholic church of hand-hewn stone, surrounded by a cemetery of mildewed cement monuments and grave markers, sat quietly in the shade of the forest. The earliest date I could find was 1860 and, as with many, meningitis was the culprit. More recently a woman had died at the age of thirty-six. The Twentieth Century was coming to a close and India was still claiming young men and women.
This only fueled my cynicism; it was becoming easier to be cynical. It was easy to believe India was a dour country and, hence, become dour within it. I knew much of that to be the nature of the travel experience. One was always the impotent witness, looking in on problems one could do little to alleviate. India had convinced me that only a native could understand the scope of a country's problems and the range of the solutions. As an outsider, the best I could do was to listen. And listening was becoming more difficult. One could only hear so much before the patterns began to blend and the shades of gray disappeared.
But at the Church of St. John I also began to see different solutions. The few residents I encountered greeted me warmly. The priest was eager to meet the foreigners and circulated his guest book unabashedly among those in conversation and meditation alike. I sat in on the Mass for a while before returning to the cemetery with its faded inscriptions. The voices, prayer, recitations, and choir competed quietly with the singing of birds and the soothing breeze stirring fallen leaves and sweeping gently through the pines. Even though the meaning of the ceremony had diminished along with my belief in religion, I found solace in the people, the lives immortalized on the headstones, and the common ground that worship embodied. Much of it was a testimony to the power of small acts of participation and how they tore at the fear in our lives.
I was refreshed by this and, before returning for breakfast, walked on to Dal Lake. Along a quiet dirt road I ran into Bob, an American I recognized from the hotel. Bob had come to McLeod Ganj for a respite from his post-doctorate work in Sanskrit.
Sanskrit, he told me, was the base language for many of the Indian languages, just as Anglo Saxon was for English and the other Germanic languages. He was translating one of the fourteen subtexts that comprised the Sutra - one of three ancient texts that outlined Sanskrit and its usage. The linguists of India compiled these texts in the fifth century BC, two hundred and fifty years after much of it had been written. The Sutra described each aspect of Sanskrit, almost like a computer program, Bob said. The individual subtext, or sutra, he was concentrating on was called "Participant In An Action." The poetic form in which Sanskrit was written required that he consult a librarian for an explanation of each verse, explanations that consumed pages.
This inherently time-consuming process was made more tedious by the customs of India. Bob would schedule appointments only to wait hours for the librarian to appear. Appointments, he discovered, were scheduled by the day, not the hour. Over tea he and the librarian would discuss the project, Bob's life in America, and, of course, India. It wasn't until the third or fourth meeting that they got to the specifics of Bob's research. And, even then, there was always tomorrow.
To only know the librarian superficially and in terms of his job would have been demeaning to both the librarian and Bob. The demarcation between one's personal and work lives was a delicate one.
"You can't take yourself or your work too seriously," he said. "It's not like America where your rights are spelled out. Here, it's all about establishing relationships. The librarian likes me, so I get what I want. Thank God I'm not trying to translate the entire Sutra. That would take a lifetime."
And while subjectivity was not isolated to the scholars of Sanskrit, nowhere was it more acknowledged. Even the ancients conceded that the sutras and other verses were moot, that language didn't count. By nature, people and their cultures were inherently biased and language, as a human invention, could not avoid reflecting a peoples beliefs and philosophies. At best, Bob made language seem a meager medium for communicating our complex thoughts and emotions.
"Religion and language are really inseparable. A good example is the concept of time," he said. "Christian cultures perceive time as past - present - future. To the Native American, it's more akin to modern physics. In Sanskrit the descriptions of time, space, action, and so on, are said to be Buddhist in nature, yet, in fact, Sanskrit predates Buddhism. It's more likely Sanskrit influenced Buddhism.
"If you think about it, it's amazing that a divisive conglomerate of ancient religions and traditions like India gets anything done," Bob said. "The British got around the differences in perception by establishing incorruptible institutions. They created a country that would have never existed on its own; they united what could not otherwise be united. Without the British those same institutions have become paralyzed.
"Language really is the window into a culture. Learn another language, and you're introduced to new ways of thinking and seeing the world. You break the chains."
I wondered aloud if Bob felt out of step with his peers or left behind by those who had gone on to more conventional jobs. I had considered returning to school myself but had reservations about spending more years in the theoretical and experimental world of academics. I was anxious for hands-on experience. Watching my friends establish themselves made me feel caught in limbo.
"It's really a matter of what you want to spend your time meditating on," Bob said. "I decided long ago to direct my life toward intellectual pursuits. I never wanted a home in the suburbs or a BMW in the driveway. A lot of people fall into the consumer trap. Enough is never enough. India taught me to live without and liberated me to pursue knowledge - something that has really enriched my life."
I had also learned to live without. My life at home, the consumerism that governed it, and the "imperatives" that clung to it, were very far away, as was America and its obsession with possessions, entertainment, and the illusive myths of comfort and stability. Over the course of a year I had given away so much gear and clothing that my pack had begun to resemble an anxious hand-me-down. My life on the road and the yearning for adventure that had led to it was turning me into an acetic. Somehow, at home, when I made my choices, I thought I was disconnected from the people and lives in these far away places, but now I considered myself part of a continuum - every encounter, no matter how profound or insignificant, was part of a progression, a piece of the puzzle.
After his first trip to India, Bob returned home with a deep feeling of detachment. A year in America had elapsed without him. In conversation, people referenced notable events of which Bob had no knowledge. Awkward silences would follow. His year away had left a gap in the common ground of shared experiences. They would never understand his time away nor he, theirs at home.
From letters, phone calls and news clipping from home I understood what he was talking about. The nation was churning on doing its thing while I sailed solo on a different tack. We existed in parallel universes. The lives of those at home were relatively constant and routine. Mine was one of continual flux. I could not imagine two worlds more polar. What's more, Bob had made me realize that the longer I was away and the more distant my travel life became from my home life, the more difficult it would be for the two worlds to reconnect. Without the daily contact and a sense of how events developed, I found no personal relevance in the news from home. It was news that could have come from anywhere. That, to me, was the curse and blessing of the long-term traveler; one was always the outsider, just outside of engagement. We saw an objective truth impossible for others to see. But often the greater truth lay mired in the emotional attachment. We came and went as we pleased. But never were we integral to any community we encountered. And if we remained on the outside long enough, we would remain there permanently, no longer able to fully integrate with even our homeland. I could not imagine a greater freedom, yet I understood why all men did not yearn to be free.
"One of the motivations of my youth," I said, "was a desire to never look back with regret. Life wasn't going to pass me by. But there's always a compromise, isn't there? You take and you have something taken. There's no say in the matter; it is simply gone."
By this time we had returned to town and before going on his way, Bob mentioned that the Dalai Lama would be making a public appearance. I told him that I had heard rumors to that affect but doubted I would be attending. I envisioned a brief ceremonious event highlighted by a prayer or speech on Tibetan sovereignty. Political agendas often had a way of consuming those in power and distancing them from the experiences that made up the common man's life. As Buddhism's most prominent figure since birth, his life was hardly common and I could not imagine how his agenda could coincide with mine.
In an effort to persuade me to put aside my cynicism, Bob reminded me of the fascinating story of the Dalai Lama's discovery. Several years after the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, elder lamas, under the guidance of an oracle, set out from Lhasa to locate Buddha's next incarnation. In the village of Amdo, near a monastery recognized from a meditation by the party's head lama, they were directed to the home of a toddler born about the time of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's death. So as not to arouse suspicion or excite the boy's parents, the party pretended to be pilgrims seeking shelter. The elder lama dressed as a servant but wore around his neck a rosary from the Dalai Lama. His attendant, acting as the party's leader, dressed more elaborately. No sooner had the abbot taken a seat than the toddler sat on his lap and told him he wanted the rosary. Asked if he knew who they were, the small boy identified both the elder lama and his attendant. During a later visit the lamas presented the boy with a number of items belonging to the Dalai Lama, each matched with an item of great similarly. In every instance the boy preferred those items belonging to the Dalai Lama. The most difficult choice was between two canes. At first he chose incorrectly, only to change his mind. Both canes had belonged to the Dalai Lama; the first he had given away. Later this boy would be given more intensive tests and identified as the next Dalai Lama.
Later I would bump into Daniel again and if it were not for our shared cynicism I would not mention him here. (This was our fifth chance meeting on the continent, and while I knew he would be in Dharmsala, my plans preceded that knowledge.) Hearing Daniel express a perspective very similar to mine was the luxury of hearing my thoughts read aloud. I felt as if I had been doused with ice water.
This cemented my decision to go see the Dalai Lama. I knew him also to be an outsider - the consummate outsider. As a boy he fled his country when the Chinese pillaged the culture and murdered the people he was chosen to lead. Sinking down stakes in a foreign land, he set aside his vengeance and waged a nonviolent campaign to win over his persecutors. Governments across the globe paid the man and his cause lip service, but found it a thorny issue best ignored when it came to wooing the consumer markets of China. A perusal of the tiny hill station of McLeod Ganj and the nondescript facilities that acted as the Tibetan University and the pilgrims' home base made it clear that the spokesman for Tibet and Buddhism was only renting space in India. The culture and country he championed existed in people's hearts and minds. Literally, they knew no boundaries.
Just before noon I followed a crowd of people down the hill to the Dalai Lama's residence. We gathered in the courtyard and waited close to a half-hour before several monks appeared. The Dalai Lama followed behind. It was not a grand entrance and there would be no speeches. Plainly put, it was a group of men greeting a crowd of people. A senior lama directed us to form a line and told us that the Dalai Lama would greet us all but, due to the large crowd, discussion would not be allowed. The Dalai Lama stood on the lowest step, slouching in a humble and reverent way, and greeted us one by one as we filed by. At my turn he firmly clasped my hand in both of his and, with patient, warm, smiling eyes, waited for me to introduce myself. His immediacy caught me off guard. I was expecting the limp handshake and impatient eyes of a politician. I stammered briefly on my name and at that moment, under his soft but intent gaze, felt the totality of his attention. My anxiety lifted, we exchanged greetings, and I moved on, overwhelmed. His gestures were so simple and genuine and the circumstances so ordinary, that it was, well, extraordinary.
As I walked back up the hill, I was mesmerized by the experience, overwhelmed by the simplicity of the circumstances and his gestures. Within the ordinary lay, I saw, the extraordinary. Bob described him as a smiling rock, but rocks didn't exude a calming, reassuring warmth that buoyed one all day. For a short while my mind was empty of all else, caught up in that moment. Something gentle had dazed me; any notion that I was an outsider was dispelled. I thought of the man's situation and found it happily ironic. The world had chosen to exclude a man whose life centered on embracing people. When they were ready, he would welcome them. Until then he would keep shaking hands.
After that I began to notice that McLeod Ganj had the charm of a community driven by a sense of purpose. Few of its residents seemed consumed by life's daily burdens. One morning I met a beggar who had had a leg amputated. He was a clean and neatly dressed man and attached to his stump was a wooden crutch.
"Hello," he said cheerfully, as he solicited a small donation.
There was no mournful look or pained expression. He hadn't dressed down or degraded his handicap to evoke sympathy; he was simply a man missing a leg. Such a handicap did not make one employable in this country of scarce jobs and few safety nets. The honesty of his greeting was refreshing and inspiring.
I peeled a few notes from my money clip and in doing so, felt a quiet sense of liberation.