Dharamshala, in Northern India, is a lot like Bushwick. During the day, see people working on crafts, wood carving or knitting; water coloring; playing guitar; smoking hash; drawing in coloring books. Almost everyone smokes cigarettes. There are communities of Israelis, Russians, Australians, Japanese, Americans, Tibetans, Indians. Some are traveling like me, but only in India, two months, three months, four months. Some are volunteering with the Tibetan community, teaching English. This is the home of the Dalai Lama, the center of Tibetans in exile, and so it attracts a lot of Buddhist aspirants.I often feel like an outsider because I don’t have dreds, my pants aren’t billowy enough, or it’s not otherwise clear that I belong to analternativelifestyle.
It seems there is an American community in Lhasso’s Croissant shop. There I met some very kind people who invited me to a momo (a Tibetan dumpling)-making party in the nearby neighborhood of Amdo village. Amdo is a region of Tibet, which provides Dharamshala with many refugees. There were mostly Americans there, Emory students on exchange working as activists, and while that’s all well and good, I didn’t travel 10,000 miles to talk to Americans. It’s kind of silly to see groups of Israelis, for example, traveling together to India, to do the things they want to do, when they could just as easily hike into a remote area of the Negev and do the same things. So I spent most of my time talking to the Tibetans. They were way cool, and they all spoke pretty good English, much better than most of the Indians I’ve met on the subcontinent.
I said I wanted to help make the momos, but Lin Me was elbow-deep in momo-mix, and he said he didn’t need help. So I finally got to talking to him and he told me that he’s lived many different lives.
Lin Me was born in Tibet. When I was a boy, he started, I was a nomad, roaming the mountains with yak and sheep. Then when I was eight years old I began the monastic life. Every day I’d pray that I would be reborn out of hell. I had to be celibate. I’d listen to my colleagues talking about enlightenment, about who’s closer, and I realized if you have to talk about being enlightened, you’re not. I left the monastery after twelve years.
We smoked cigarettes on the patio, drinking whiskey, looking out over the valley, at the bright stars above, and the sparkling houselights to the left and right. “They’re full of shit,” he went on. “The Dalai Lama apologized recently for what the 13th Dalai Lama (the last one) did.
“What did he do?”
“The Tibetan government went to outlying reaches of Tibet, killing or converting native peoples to build the Tibetan Buddhist nation. Because Tibet is a religious state. You can’t be Tibetan and not be a Buddhist. Of course you don’t hear about that because of all the political refugee news.” I laughed and thought about all the Free Tibet signs, how there’s always two sides to the same coin and I said they’re all the same, everyone’s the damn same, from Stalin to the Dalai Lama. How many are true and good? I asked rhetorically. And he said, “That’s why I left.”
“There are so many good things worth living for. Work, love.” With his accent I couldn’t be sure what he had said, so I repeated, “Love?”
“Love.” And I remembered falling asleep next to Her without meaning to and waking up at three in the morning, realizing we’d slept away our Friday night in each other’s arms, and brushing our teeth together and going back to bed to wake up early to have a full day of companionship and togetherness.
I can’t quite be sure why I’d been thinking about asceticism for so long; I guess the spiritual nature of India combined with reading the Bhagavad Gita is part of it. But even the Gita says asceticism isn’t the answer. As Lin Me said, he’s lived many lives. That’s a life of moderation, when you don’t find yourself stuck in one routine, when you can look back on life and divide it into stints, those years I spent in Paris, when I was working on the railroad, or when I had that office job in Manhattan, all before I settled down and got married… There’s no either/or– when you’re really living your one path becomes everything, until you decide to switch. The life of extremes eventually becomes the life of moderation.
Lin Me reminded me that most people are impostors because they don’t know who they are. At least he had the balls to stand up for what he believed in, to choose a different life that may not have been acceptable according to his family or his culture, but which affords him the pleasure and satisfaction, the dharma, he needs. Because that’s who he is. He knows himself and is able to work with it in accordance to his own standards. And for that he’s a helluva lot closer to enlightenment than most of the people in Bushwick, Dharamshala, or anywhere else in the world.