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Chasing Karma/Teaching Tibetans

July 20th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Travel Memoir

In the year 2000, novelist Jacob Sackin taught English in Dharamsala, a village in the Himalayan foothills where the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, and many refugees from Tibet have settled. In these excerpts, parts of a longer essay, Sackin chronicles vivid and bittersweet moments as exiles and a new generation of young Tibetans confront both their roots and their expectations from the West.

Dharamsala, India – Today is the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment and good deeds are worth 10,000 times more good karma, so everyone in town is giving lots of money to the dozens of Indian beggars who have come up from the surrounding towns. The banks ran out of one and two rupee coins because the Tibetans wanted to give to as many beggars as possible.

An Israeli woman at the bar was trying to rescue the insects with cupped hands as they crawled up the candle toward the flame. I think I also have been chasing karma lately. I notice myself searching for good deeds, carrying wood for an old monk or letting a short Tibetan woman stand in front of me during the Dalai Lama’s teaching, but then not moving for a western woman the next day. I bought a bag of rice for an Indian boy I always see begging on my street and now every time he sees me he tugs on my shirt and asks for money. Some of the Westerners give the beggars money, but others yell at them to get out of the way.

* * *

Last night I heard an old monk talk at the community center who was in prison for twenty-seven years in Tibet. He said that he chewed bones just to exercise his teeth and ate insects like chocolate. He was forced to stay awake for sixteen days straight, and if he fell asleep, the soldiers would beat him. Toads were bound under his armpits, and they ate into his body. The Chinese made him and the other Tibetan monks clean out toilets with Thankga paintings and other ancient scriptures. He said that when the Chinese came into Lhasa, he and a few other monks disrobed and took up guns to fight. He said he had thought it was useless because they were outnumbered, but his friend had said: “No, it’s okay. Soon the Americans will come. They will save us.”

One of my students just found out that his mother died back in Tibet. He doesn’t come to class anymore because he has promised to do 9,999 prostrations for her spirit at the temple. When I told this to an Italian tourist at the community center, he said it sounded like a waste of time, but I’m not sure. The Tibetans believe that even negative thoughts that you send out into the world can influence your karma.

I often see Tibetans making prostrations on the two mile road that goes around the Dalai Lama’s temple. They lie down with their arms outstretched and then stand up in the spot where their hands touched and do it again. The monsoon has been in full swing for a month now, so they are always covered with mud.

The Dalai Lama has said that it is important for Tibetans to learn English. In class we corrected the grammar of a Bob Marley song that I had written out and then learned some new vocabulary words. The Tibetans are hungry for English. I started tutoring a Tibetan monk named Atse in the community center. I looked in Atse’s notebook the other day and saw that he had written the word “rescue,” which we had learned in class, one hundred times.

* * *

A student, Lobsang, told me that he had a crush on a Tibetan girl. When I told him to ask her out, he said: “If I marry a girl it will be difficult for me. My family lives in Tibet and I have no relatives here to help with the marriage. How can I support a family? I can not take care of her when she is sick and make her food. But if I am alone my whole life, there won’t be anyone to make food for me and take care of me when I am old. I can’t understand myself. Now I don’t have happiness in my life.”

Last week Tsultrum slept with a woman from Spain and another from New Zealand. He also said that a woman from Israel tourist raped him. “I am serious,” he said as he pulled on his cigarette. “No fooling.”

Tsultrum is not the only Tibetan guy hooking up with Western tourists. One of my students married a woman from Switzerland last week. He told me that he didn’t love her, but it was the only way he could get out of India.

* * *

When I met the Dalai Lama, I got searched twice. They even wrote with my pen to make sure it was real. I am not surprised about the security, considering that a man who fixes shoes in town just got arrested for being a Chinese spy. He had blueprints of the Dalai Lama’s temple and was supposedly plotting to blow it up.

The other day, before the Dalai Lama’s teaching started, three Indian soldiers came out from behind the stage with machine guns. The Dalai Lama followed behind, waving and stopping to talk to people in the crowd. He said that although it showed great merit that his western friends were searching for another religion and not just taking the one they were born with, one should not talk badly about one’s past religion in order justify a newfound faith. He also said that Tibetans, who say mantras and spin prayer wheels, should look to us as an example, and realize that it is the intent, not simply the act, that is important in religion. He also said that the West should not try to keep modern technology from Tibetans just because we think it is bad. It is their right also to have cameras and TV.

* * *

This past month I have been writing out the story line for the Star Wars Trilogy and having my students read it aloud in class. We work on vocabulary, sentence structure, do some comprehension questions and then watch the movies at the community center. They are not as numb to violence as I am, which is strange, since a lot of them have been tortured. Every time a storm trooper got shot, they would cover their faces and cry out. They were amazed that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, and some refused to believe it.

Last week we watched Return of the Jedi. There has been a rumor floating around town that the Ewoks speak Tibetan. When they came on the screen, my students started giggling, and it was true! Tsultrum translated some of their chirps for me. They said: “Hurry!  Good!” and “Come On!”

It was a great ending to the trilogy but also anti-climatic. “So, the Ewoks speak Tibetan,” said Tsultrum. “How glorious! And now it is time to return to the sad life of a refugee!”

© July, 2004 by Jacob Sackin. Used with permission. Sackin is the author of the young adult novels Iglu (2011) and Islands.  He lives in Northern California. Sackin’s full essay is posted on Google Docs.

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