How I Spent Xmas in Dharamsala

The day is focused on showing up at Kashmir Cottage, 6 pm, for a dinner w/ Norman and two others. I’m looking forward to the food, to the visit, to the possibilities that come when you meet someone the first time.

To get there, I walk the 4.5 km. to McLG from Naddi. The trail was discovered a couple days before on the first walk after the snow. Prayer-flags caught my eye above Dal Lake. It was a hard scramble up the hillside on goat trails, but eventually I caught the main route and wow, is was such a pleasure! No rocks for long stretches, just a well-maintained route that must have been the main trading road for centuries. At one high point, I look down on the Tibetan Children’s Village and wonder if I can find a way to be useful to some worthy cause while I’m in McLG.


At mid-route, I go up the hill to a sun-dappled spot to sit and breathe before entering the noise and hubbub of McLG.


Beautiful trail through deodar cedars,
warm four p.m. sun filters through,
no cell-phone, GPS, or map,
I follow the compass of my senses.

Lemur monkey in a tree w/ tattered prayer flags
Mountaineering Centre for Dharamsala has a quality sign w/ a mountain goat that makes me think of my Portland-mountain-climbing comrade, Howard. Uh, not the goat exactly but the institution that H. would resonate with, given his impressive back-country skills.


A brilliantly lit encounter on the trail happens with a monkey headed to some important rendezvous. He reads my mind that I’d love a photo and so pauses, highly statuesque, from about 30 feet away. We pass each other with only a meter between, just a couple primates en route.



Soon after, I’m descending too quickly into holiday traffic (yes, Christmas is a vacation in India) and people clogging the central square of McLG. I hustle though, get what I need, and continue on Temple Road. A new cafe provides a welcome rest, tasty coffee not from a plastic package, and I confess to an order of carrot cake as a special treat for having walked this far. It is so good, I take some to Norman, and head down the wicked back trail to Kashmir Cottage & upper Dharamsala. Once again, thankfully, there are no bandits in the bushes.


More on this central temple later…


At the last view of the valley horizon–a murky sea of grey haze–the sun appears as a gigantic red disk on the horizon. I make it to Norman’s when I said I would…and feel amazingly good after all that distance.

Three other people are present: a sensitive-looking woman in wire-rimmed spectacles, a female Tibetan official I saw on the flight from Delhi, and a fast-talking man who has pioneered medical cannabis in Denver, written software for an organization that sells adult sex toys, and started a homestead on 80 acres in the Amazon rainforest, where he also was part of ayuscyua tourism with a “powerful shaman” (who, he admits after a bit of wine, was actually a psychopath).

Dinner is a grand affair, courtesy of Dolma, a middle aged Ladakhi woman I hope to talk to at some length the next time I stay at Kashmir Cottage at the end of my Dharamsala stay.

The person who intrigues me the most is the official from the Tibetan Government in Exile. For security reasons, I won’t mention a name but can say that part of this person’s work is to explain to the world Tibetan culture, priorities, plans, and petitions—but also to comment on political issues, including Chinese provocations and human rights abuses, and of course the self-immolations.

My notebook has this flow of notations:

• siddham script / calligraphy in Tendai & Shingon fascinates (the term is bonji in Japanese)
• see Thurman’s book and website, Why the Dalai Lama Matters
as possible model for Exp. Budd.
• thinking about outreach to Chinese students–ask them about
Tiananmen Square as a starting point to deconstruct the
government’s narrative about most topics
• approach Tibet via human rights (and consumer products?)
• What are basic and generally accepted outreach strategies?
• Book by Eric Schmidt, The New Digital Age
• Marshall Sahlins article & critique on Confucian Institutes
• How to make a Facebook feed?
• / Buddhism > I.M.A.
• a “meme” is a sound byte on the internet
• Dr. Larry Brilliant on Wavy Gravy bus to India; Tibet?
• Mickey Lemly > documentary filmmaker
• Always a struggle to “control the narrative” on self-immolations
• Karmapa has made a public statement; HHDL is in tough spot and tries to stay neutral so Chinese can’t capitalize on “extremism”
• HHDL personality is v. strong & direct in Tibetan; doesn’t come
across in English
• Ai Weiwei did cover page for Woeser website article on
• Find out about California high school world history curriculum; is Tibet mentioned at all?
• outcome vs. output > long debates over meaning
• stories of hacking all over McLG, discovered by
renowned security expert and former hacker who visited
McLG and gave a talk
• Can Tibet’s future change if a certain skill set in handling social media reaches Chinese masses via
non-official venues (as in hacking)?

The evening ends too soon when a taxi comes 30 min. early. Three of us get in and I’m the one who ends up in the most exotic place: the high Naddi ridge with the mountains just emerging from clouds.



imageA pretty serious storm rolled through last night, preceded by a day full of lowering, heavy clouds. My heart went out to a group of valley women dressed in colorful sari-tops and flowered bloomers I passed mid-morning, headed on the trail to Guna temple where “we’ll have a picnic!” says an Irish woman. Brrr, I think, but say nothing except “have fun.” By 5 p.m. it is raining, then sleeting, the clouds descending to take control. Electricity goes off and on, the tv conks out entirely, and upon getting my feet warmed up I head to bed at 8:30, listening to a blustery wind that kicks up and blows over anything not secured (picnic tables, plastic chairs, trash bins go flying).


But at 6:30 a.m., the world is quiet and veiled in white. At least five inches of heavy wet snow blanket everything, with hardly any wind. The upper peaks stand clear and concisely detailed, their rock faces now snowfields that accentuate the upper sky. I can’t take my eyes away from them, and so a cloud bank gives me a break and lets me meditate, get breakfast, and then have a chat with Miko via Skype, who gets jazzed about the view from the terrace-lobby windows.

And then the power goes off, so I return to my cottage, run hot water while its still hot, and warm up icy feet before a slushy morning walk. I first visit Victoriyan Palace and tell them I am coming tomorrow, then trek through the concrete skeleton of an abandoned luxury hotel. So rough and jagged to the eye from the road, once up the steps and into its rooms, it becomes a playground and obstacle course. The darkness of rooms leads to verandas or picture windows, that huge view always beckoning. Obscene to have permitted such an enormous building in this limited space; maybe an earthquake will set things right?

I see rain or sleet approaching, and so hustle up to the top of the heap, jump a wall, and head across some terraced fields to the high trail through Naddi village. I’m getting pelted with sleet, and duck into a Shiva temple with a substantial roof. Its altar shocks me, however, because on the white tile above the statues of Shiva and wife Parvati are two bloody palm-prints. I imagine a goat slaughtered as an offering to the deities, the person’s bloody hands pressed against the altar wall as a transfer of merit and the life of the goat.. I’ll leave it to Stephen King to come up with another

(Actually, this is a wedding custom where the bride and groom dip their hands in a red powder mix and make an imprint on the wall of their local temple or, more commonly, their home.  It’s called Thapa lagana.)


imageI meet a 32-year old man experiencing snow for the first time. “I grew up in the desert in south India, and heard about snow from my sister who moved to Canada.” He’s now working in Dubai and wearing expensive leather boots that are soaked. “It took me a long time to see snow…and wow, it is cold!” They are nervous about being snowed in and then missing a flight, and are considering leaving today since the clouds are heavy. I encourage them to wait till later afternoon when the ridge might make a reappearance, and show photos from my walk to Guna temple as proof. “I had no idea there were more mountains behind these!” they guy says.


I come back to Udechee Huts with wet, freezing cold feet, and a better sense of the village itself. Some of those dwellings remind me of Nepal and the 18th century. Cows and goats on the ground floor, humans up above, the courtyards face south to catch the winter sun–just as they have for centuries.

That I can return to a room w/ an electric heater is enough bliss for one day. A nap ensues, then presto! at 3 p.m., the upper ridge makes its appearance and I’m in the terrace-lobby before the plate glass window to soak it all in.

Naddi Village to Guna Temple • Winter Solstice

Dec. 20

I peak out the window at 3:30 a.m. this morning and see the Dhauladars glowing in moonlight. The clouds and haze of yesterday has dropped back into the valley below, leaving this impressive range of snow dusted rockfaces. When I finally get out of my warm bed at 7 a.m., they are just catching the first sunrays. The next few hours are a marvel of changing colors and shadows. The sky turns cobalt blue and the river valley’s villages start to warm up, sun streaming on the hillsides.


I see where I’d like to go–a clear field atop one of the closer mountains–and start asking about logistics. From that upper field it looks like the snowy ridge will be within arms reach. And so, between a streamlined English and halting responses that seem to be half Hindi, I get advice from Aswany and Birbal that I would be crazy to try such a thing. Much better to stay on a fairly level trail that skirts the valley walls, and end up at a small temple dedicated to a female deity. In the process, I also get to cross the river and walk a trail across a rockfall I can see over a kilometer away.


The transition from my comfortable accommodation, to the dirt road leading past a monstrous, failed hotel skeleton, to the caterpillar tracks left by a rag-tag looking road crew, to the end of road construction and beginning of a very old trail. In a few spots, one could almost imagine the trails and trees on Mt. Tam (north of San Francisco), or in the lower Sierras. Once I’m across the river and have crested a ridge, the temple path is marked by a blue tile gate, and the vistas open up considerably. I can even see back to Naddi village and my little yurt-like cottage.

The trail leads only to the temple–not a single dwelling along the way–and yet parts are so well constructed that a truck could drive over those big flat chunks of slate. The Guna temple, in contrast, sits at the edge of a mass of concrete layers, some badly decomposing.


It is perched dramatically on the side of the mountain, situated so that the biggest peaks of the upper ridge look down on its deity, Durga, a female with comic-book eyes riding a tiger and armed w/ various blades and spears. Stand back if you aren’t ready for her powers!




I can’t figure out the place around the temple. There are probably eight separate chambers that could have been rooms in a guest house at one time. Behind this ugliness, however, are large boulders beside a spring, with fields sloping up the side of the mountain. I’m very tempted to explore but remember I have a 90 minute walk on the trail back.




Once I return to the blue ceramic gateway, I follow the ridge trail to the village I watched this morning catch first rays across the river valley. I head up to the highest spot and find it is unsullied by trash, poop, or over use…what a miracle! There is even a sunny flat spot with dried grass, and in five minutes I am sleeping solidly.


Clouds move in during this time and so I need to hustle when I wake up and keep moving to fend off the cold and shadows. I enjoy greatly an encounter with two women and their goats, cows, and bundles of branches: their yips and yelps to keep critters under control strike me as a lexicon of herding sounds.


By the time I stroll into the hotel, I’m on wobbly legs and ready for coffee. The sense of gratitude I feel for my knees and body–hurt/twisted/sick/feeble/etc.–as they enable access to these backcountry cultures is very profound.

And so, to honor the winter solstice, I light one-half of a stick of incense and put it in a flower tray on the hotel’s open-air terrace. The other half I light and dedicate to my knees and legs, again with profound gratitude. This body has cooperated with all my imaginings surprisingly well thus far.  Long may mind-body harmony, collaboration, and integration continue!  Om shanti for winter solstice teachings, provided by the trail to Guna temple.


Naddi Village, upper McLeod Ganj

Dec. 19

So now I’m at Naddi village, about 6 km. up the hill from Kashmir Cottage. The road goes from McLG to Dal Lake and then over the ridge a bit further, ending about 100 m. from my accommodation. I’m here to get closer to the Dhauladar mountain range, and perhaps even get up on top of a ridge for a big view if the weather permits. When I scoped out this place last Monday, it was gloriously clear and the mountains (ranging from 11 to 15,000 ft.) were just stunning. Today, the veils and curtains were drawn, although I could see to the other side of this huge river valley, and got a glimpse of fresh snow on high peaks around sunset. Rain and snow is forecast, so I’ll take each day as it comes.

Being here in Hindu India once again makes me realize just how circumscribed the Tibetan settlement in McLG really is. Restricted to a single ridge top and lone mountain for the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple, McLeod Ganj is a tiny island in the vast sea of India. There are other islands as well in the lowlands, most significantly the Norbulinga Institute that preserves Tibetan graphic arts and the Dolma Ling nunnery that Rinchen (one of my two hosts at Kashmir Cottage) helped to establish. But that’s about it. I’d imagined the scale of the Tibetan government in exile to be larger as well but it too was in a very compact area and looked rather run-down and decrepit. The large central courtyard remains unpaved and littered although it should be some kind of showcase cultural center where Tibetans and visitors are welcomed.

On my first walk from Naddi village and my accommodation at Udeche Huts, I ran into a kundalini yoga ashram run by some overweight woman. Beyond that was a locked gate that stopped further progress. An international school is also in the vicinity, as is a waterfall, but I couldn’t find either on this trail. This afternoon, I revisited kind of consciousness last tasted in September and felt a surge of relief as only natural sounds greeted my ears: wind, riversong, bird calls, and that was it. Namaste! I had the feeling that every step on the trail was new and fresh, taking me further, deeper into the reality itself, now manifest after months of imagination and expectation.

And so how will the Dhauladar mountains reveal themselves? or will they?

Fog and clouds veiled them on arrival and through most of the afternoon, although just before dusk I did see upper ridges with new snow. I’m grateful for enough light in the river valley, enough to see homes perched on terraced slopes, rockslides, pine groves, a little Vishnu temple way up on a ridge–and above that, at the very top of this mountain that is only a foothill in the “outer Himalayas,” the stone ruins of an old fort or lookout post, surely 8,000 ft.

Where in the World is Himachal Pradesh?

Glad you asked.  I learned a thing or two in downloading these screen shots from Google maps.

The flight from Delhi took a little over an hour, so the region called Himachal Pradesh is very much part of greater India and not at all isolated.  A person can get here via overnight bus, train, private car, or plane.  LOTS of Indians come here as tourists during the high season of March to June, when the monsoons (usually) begin.  It seems this is the region where Alexander the Great ran out of steam in his effort to conquer India back in the 2nd century BCE.


Looking a little closer, this area is also called the “Outer Himalayas.”  The range of mountains closest to McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala are between 3500 and 5500 meters (or 11,400 to 18,000 ft.) and are called the Dhauladars.


Finally, the immediate area is notable for its steep hillsides (many badly eroded because of monsoon rains), deodar/pine forests, and abundance of birds of all kinds.  Wild pheasants are a common sight, as are monkeys.

McLeod Ganj area

Visiting the Dalai Lama’s Temple

McLeod Ganj, Dec. 17

On my third full day in the McLeod Ganj area (I’m staying between lower Dharamsala and the upper ridge of McLG), I finally made it to the Dalai Lama’s temple and Namyang monastery. I tried to enter on Sunday but there were big crowds of tourists and being around rowdy kids was not the way I wanted to experience the temple for the first time.

Coming up the hill on Sunday and Monday, the rough and rocky trail linking Kashmir Cottage to McLG connects with the “mani path,” (as in om mani padme hum, a mantra fundamental to Tibetan Buddhism) a route of circumambulation that rings the mountain where the Dalai Lama’s residence is located. Yesterday in particular, my timing was right so as to emerge from the north-side shadows into a colorful cascade of prayer flags streaming down a hillside. I scrambled upwards towards a tree that served to anchor numerous strands–the golds, reds, and blues especially radiant in the mid-afternoon light.




When I crested the hill, I saw the spire of a small stupa dedicated to the 10 qualities of bodhisattva wisdom. That side of the mountain faced east, which apparently is the direction for the Green Tara since so many prayer flags on this side were a faded green. Amidst the overlapping flags were solitary monks with books and texts laid out on the grass. As they chanted or studied, they rocked back and forth rhythmically in time with the pacing of the sutra. I also wanted to sit on the grass and just chill beneath the flags, and will return later to do exactly that once I make McLG my base at the end of the month.


Also on this side of the mountain, under a large roof and occupying a wall perhaps 20 ft. high and 30 ft. long is a gallery of mostly young Tibetans who have self-immolated over the past several years in their occupied country. I wasn’t ready for the searing emotional impact of those photographs–some of handsome men and lovely women, some of monks and nuns with large smiles, some of solemn people holding cell phones or posing in front of a Potala palace background (the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet) and some with silhouettes and names only. There were also gruesome photos of charred corpses, with their names and ages underneath. Even before I saw the latter, I was in tears at the tragic loss of life and the courageous desperation that leads a person to make a political statement against the Chinese with their body and their life.

Upon entering “the Temple” (Tsuglagkhang) as all the signs indicate, one first sees a large granite memorial stone to the Martyrs of Tibet. This title evokes the lives lost in the initial Chinese invasion of 1949, subsequent resistance, the escape of the Dalai Lama in 1959, and the uprisings of 1989 and more recently 2008 (during the Olympics in China).

After passing through security–no cameras or cell phones are now allowed inside–and heading up a flight of steps, the first thing I noticed was a sign demanding “Free the Panchen Lama!” Explanations in Hindi and English were beneath, outlining the story known to all Tibetans: after the elder Panchen Lama died (he is the moon to the Dalai Lama’s sun), his reincarnation was identified in Tibet by the Dalai Lama’s emissaries. However, at age six, he and his family were “disappeared” by the Chinese authorities in 1995 and placed in “protective custody.” Not a single photograph, message, or sighting has occurred since then. Incredibly, the Chinese formed their own delegation (with Tibetan lamas serving as advisors) and identified the “real” Panchen Lama, a young man now in his early twenties who serves in ritual and political capacities that serve Chinese interests. The situation at the time of his disappearance made the young Panchen Lama the youngest political prisoner in the world.

Needless to say, the situation is heartbreaking, and has robbed Tibetan Buddhism of one of their most exalted religious leaders. When the next Dalai Lama is to be chosen after the passing of the current Tenzin Gyatso, it was always the Panchen Lama’s responsibility to be actively involved and confer legitimacy and authenticity on the individual selected. The Chinese did not want to leave this major religious transition in the hands of Tibetans, and so they subverted the process by disappearing and then replacing the Panchen Lama. (For a highly watchable documentary film on the issue, see “Tibet’s Stolen Child” via YouTube).

That’s quite a lot of politics to digest en route to the main temple! It’s doubtful many visitors take the time to reflect, focusing instead on the more appealing rows of prayer wheels that surround the temple. The building is not elaborate in any way, as one might assume since it is the principal temple on the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s compound. According to Jeremy Russell’s account in the book Dharamsala,

“…mindful of the refugee community’s limited budget, the Dalai Lama made it clear that the need was not to build a lavish temple as they would have done in Tibet. What was required was a simple, functional building which would allow people to gather to observe their religious ceremonies and practices” (p. 27, with thanks to Norman Steinberg for loaning me this book from his library at Kashmir Cottage).

On the east side of this “plain and square concrete structure” is a large open area, covered by a tent-like canopy, where a couple thousand people could be accommodated for a major ritual or teaching. There’s also a section where people perform full body prostrations. I saw only women doing this practice atop wooden foundations rubbed smooth and glistening by literally millions of bows. Although some teachers outside Asia have tailored the tradition to modern sensibilities by allowing 10,000 bows, the standard number is 100,000…with dedicated nuns and monks going up to and over one million prostrations. (Try doing seven sometime on a carpeted or hardwood floor and you’ll quickly realize the stamina and determination required.)


(photo credit pending)

And to what deity or principle are they prostrating themselves? We’d have to ask to make sure, but it’s likely they dedicate the merit they are creating to the Dalai Lama, manifestation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara (India) > Chenresig (Tibet) > Guanyin (China) > Kannon (Japan). By giving their hard-earned merit to him, they can in turn expect benevolence and blessings.

On the main altar of the temple is a large statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, with his right hand touching the earth in the bhumisparsa mudra, calling the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment. (For anyone who has read this blog and recalls my account of Borobodur in Central Java, all the Buddha statutes on the east side of the monument exhibit this mudra). His left hand cradles the alms bowl of a monk.


To the Buddha’s right is a chamber where two statues reside. One is Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava in Sanskrit), the Indian monk called upon by the Tibetan king who subdued wrathful nature spirits in Tibet so that Buddhism could be established in the early 8th century CE. The second statue is a thousand-armed Avalokitesvara, with an eye in the palm of each hand so as to witness continually human cries for assistance and release from suffering.


After making the rounds, spinning prayer wheels (one seems to move somewhat mysteriously of its own accord), watching people enter the main temple, and thinking about the history of the place/tradition/and Dalai Lama institution, I followed the sound of the huge trumpet-horns to a corner of the temple complex. The monastery associated with the Dalai Lama’s gelugpa denomination was reestablished on this site and it is from these buildings the deep and somewhat chaotic sounds rise up the hill. As I stand there listening, a security person wanders over and I comment with eyebrows raised, “beautiful music?” He smiles and says, “Not so beautiful. They are only young monks practicing.”

This brief exchange leads to a chat of some fifteen minutes. I find he is well informed about the Tibetans who arrived in Canada recently from Eastern Bengal province in India, the result of an appeal by the Dalai Lama to the Canadian government to help remedy this dire situation. “They are the lucky ones. There are still around two thousand desperate to get out.” He says he would also like to emigrate to North America but with a wife and two children, one six years old and the other 9 months, he knows he will have to wait. A car is leaving the inner compound and so as the huge gates begin to open, we shake hands and he returns to his duties. (Once I return to McLG after my time in the upper foothills, I’ll no doubt see him again and hopefully we can continue the conversation, perhaps over lunch.)

I’m not sure whether it is the political messages on the grounds of the temple complex, the weight of the Tibetan people’s history in the tumultuous 20th century that landed them here on this high ridge of a former British hill town garrison, or the atmosphere of dogged determination to survive in the face of cultural and human diasporas, but I’m left with a feeling of sadness tinged with disgust, incomprehension, and even, I’m surprised to recognize, a bit of anger directed at the Chinese. Not a very bodhisattva-esque mindset.

History has plenty of examples where groups that were persecuted politically and yet survived to gain the upper hand–think of early 16th century protestants in Catholic Germany, Puritans in North America, Jews in Palestine, or communists in China (to name a very few)–turn out to be harshly ideological in pursuit of their goals. For the Chinese in particular, human rights mean nothing if accommodating these principles would be seen as threatening their hegemony of power and control over all ethnic groups within what they conceive of as the “Middle Kingdom.”

The Chinese continue to treat the Tibetan people in Tibet as nuisances interfering with the nation’s need for natural resources and more living space. It seems to matter little who is running the communist party because harsh policies limiting the rights, opportunities, education, and cultural legacies of Tibetans continue unabated…even when self-immolations call the world’s attention to the suffering and indignities Tibetans must endure.

It’s been said that Tibetans are to China what Native Americans were/are to the United States: a proud and resilient culture that persists in spite of state-sponsored efforts to silence, displace, destroy, and diminish their existence. For my part, I will continue to call attention to this situation within the context of teaching Tibetan Buddhism in my “Religion and Globalization” class. I will also continue working with the Tibetan communities of San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. With all the Chinese students now attending USF, the opportunity exists to educate them away from the propaganda they’ve been subjected to since elementary school.

In any event, my first visit to the head temple has shaken me up emotionally and renewed my commitment to educate about and if necessary, agitate for the rights of Tibetans.