A trip long in the making

Dalai LamaMy fascination with the Dalai Lama started more than fifty years ago. It was 1959 and I was a moody and irritable eleven year old. We lived in a place called Mussorie, way up in the Himalayas. It was cold outside and my mom wanted me to go with her and the rest of her biddy friends to see some holy man. I was not impressed. Holy-men were a dime a dozen as far as I was concerned, and even back then I was not particularly religious. But she insisted, and so I tagged along with all the world-weary resentment that only a pre-teen can muster.

I was surprised when we headed out to the Birla House, a rather palatial home that had been built for the Birla family during the waning days of the British Raj. (The Birlas were the Indian equivalent of American Rockefellers). Fancy digs for a holy man, I sneered.

As it turned out, the house was packed with strange looking monks in deep saffron red / orange robes. Chaos reigned supreme. After waiting for what seemed a long time to me, we were finally ushered into a small sitting room. There was a young man there, also clad in the same saffron / orange robes as everyone else. But it was obvious he was the one we came to see. There was something arresting about him, something special in how everything seemed to revolve around him, how everyone looked at him.

I hung back as my Mom and her friends exchanged pleasantries with him, through an interpreter. I watched his face, his calm smile and the gentle courtesy with which he paid attention to everyone around him. We were there for just under 30 minutes. But it was enough time for an impressionable young girl to develop a serious crush on this tall and golden young man with laughing eyes.

Over the years, I learnt a lot more about him. How he had fled with his devoted followers across the frozen and desolate mountain tops of the Himalayas to escape Chinese invasion of Tibet; how he was the spiritual and temporal head of the Tibetan people; that he was considered the 14th incarnation of a long string of Dalai Lamas before him; how the hopes and aspirations of a whole people and their unique culture rested with him.

All that I learnt later, and the teenage crush turned into respect. But faint memories of that first impression I had of the young man stayed with me all these decades. A few weeks ago, I was finally able to visit Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh, India), where he and his followers were able to settle and establish “Tibet in Exile“.

It was an interesting visit. Disappointing in some ways, enchanting and gratifying in ways I did not expect. I even caught a glimpse of His Holiness as he arrived to give teaching to a lot of oversees visitors from Korea and Japan. I thought you may be interested in my personal impressions of the place and people, not just the usual touristy stuff you can read anytime on the internet.  I realize this article breaks many of the ground rules of this website: it is off topic, nothing to do with CLL, skates close to forbidden areas of religion and spirituality.  I hope you will forgive me this one and only transgression, in view of my prior good behavior.

Getting there is half the fun

I took the morning flight from New Delhi to Kangra, the closest airport to Dharamsala. This is still pretty remote area.  There is just one flight (the one I took) to and from Kangra, and that too only on four days of the week. The hotel had sent a car for me – a huge and very rugged looking vehicle, Indian version of a Humvee. I was a little taken aback, such a huge car for just one passenger!

My destination was Upper Dharamsala (also called McLeod Ganj, named after David McLeod who was the British Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab back during the days of the ‘Raj’). I was soon grateful for both the power and the ruggedness of the car. The road from Kangra to McLeod Ganj is the most treacherous, most hair-raising, most mind bending road I have ever traveled. If you are thrill seeker and you like being flooded with adrenaline while hanging on for dear life, this road is for you!

My driver was obviously very familiar with the road and he drove with an insouciance that I found hard to accept. This was supposed to be a “pukka” road ( i.e., finished black top) but to me it looked a whole lot more like a “kacha” (unpaved) road with most of the black top washed away, along with any softening mud and loose gravel, leaving behind angular rocks and stones sticking out in all directions. Most of the time there was barely enough room for just one car. Drivers took turns, pulling out to the side to let the car coming down from the other direction before proceeding up the mountains.

At one particularly narrow and tortuously curvy stretch of the road, the blaring of the horns failed to achieve the objective: there we were, face to face with another jeep coming down the mountain. No place to pass, no way for either vehicle to go into reverse safely. No problem. My driver calmly swerved to go up a couple of steps of a tea stall clinging to the side of the mountain. The patrons quickly picked up their tea-cups and the plastic chairs and moved back, to allow our car to come right into the stall. As soon as the other vehicle inched past us, my driver gave a laconic wave to the tea stall owner, climbed down the steps to the road and we were on our way. I wondered, should I have left a tip with the tea stall guy, since we did visit his establishment?

Finally we reached McLeod Ganj. The car went up a particularly steep and narrow stretch of road and stopped dead for no apparent reason, it seemed. The driver got out. Did we have a breakdown? But then he started yanking out my single suitcase. What was going on? Where is the hotel?

I had booked to stay at the Chonor House. It was supposed to be the most unique hotel to stay in Upper Dharamsala, run by a non-profit group called the Norbulingka Institute. The room tariffs are astronomical by Indian standards – but justified on the grounds that all the profits go to support Tibetan refugee operations, local schools for Tibetan kids, promotion of Tibetan art and culture. What can I say, I am a sucker for such causes.

But where was the hotel? I clambered out of the car with stiff and bruised body and looked around. There was no building that I could see. Did the driver make a mistake? But when asked, he grinned and pointed straight up the steep mountain side. Sure enough, 40 or so steep steps artistically hand carved into the rock of the mountain side lead to a barely seen building. We had arrived. This was my hotel, and there was no other way to get to it except by climbing the steps. My poor knee!

Chonor House

This has to be one of the most unusual hotels I ever stayed in. I was warmly greeted at the desk and assigned a room. I am used to being told “take the elevator round the corner, room number 405” or something to that effect. It was a little different at Chonor House. Take the Karma stairway to “Mythical Creatures”.

Hunh? Rooms at the Chonor House do not have numbers, they have names depending on the décor of the room inside. My room was called Mythical Creatures, because every square inch of available wall and furniture surface was painted with elaborate motifs out of Tibetan mythology. Each room at the hotel is entirely unique, the wall paintings done by expert artists who obviously enjoyed their work. My room walls were covered with prancing snow lions, celestial dragons, all kinds of fanciful animals in dream-like surroundings. I dumped my suitcase on the bed and spent the first half hour just going from wall to wall, looking at the paintings. The snapshots below do very little justice to the vibrant colors or exquisite details of the paintings.

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Outside my room was a lovely balcony sheltered from mid-day sun or short burst of rain showers by tall cedars. But I forgot the advice of the young man at the desk and left the door to the balcony open while I went down to lunch. I came back to find a small brown monkey trying to figure out how to open the zippers on my suitcase. Perhaps he was just trying to help me unpack. He gave me a nice grin and sauntered out onto the balcony. He seemed to be the “valet” assigned to my particular room: I saw the same little guy many times while I sat on the balcony reading.

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Nothing about Chonor House is like every other hotel. The restaurant served rather mediocre food. But it had to be the most beautifully decorated dining room I have ever visited, with original artwork on every wall. Here is a nostalgic painting of how life used to be back home, prior to their exile – at least in their memories.

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The staff was exceptionally friendly. After the first day, one particular young Tibetan waiter decided I was his special guest. He would get me my morning cappuccino, beaming with pleasure because of the extra effort he made.

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He would then sit down with me to chat while I had my meal. I found all the young Tibetans I met were intensely curious about the outside world. And all of them wanted to practice / improve their English. As you can see, some improvement was needed in the spelling department.  And it would have been very churlish of me to notice the milk slopped over into the saucer.

There was not much to choose in the menu. One of the items was a Tibetan dish called “momu”, a kind of a dumpling that can be had either steamed or deep fried. The fillings inside can vary, from vegetarian to all sorts of meat fillings. I was debating whether I should get the fried version (it would be crispier and hopefully tastier) when my waiter firmly shook his head and said no, it would only make me fatter than I already was. I tried explaining to him that western women do not take kindly to such comments, but I do not think he quite got it. He was quite sincere in his advice, based on my obvious obesity, and that should be all that mattered, right? He trudged off to get me the momu, steamed version of course.

People watching

The weather was nice – brief periods of rain that quickly cleared. It was blissfully cool, with swirls of fog and clouds to make it interesting. When the sun came out, it was golden sunshine, not the sickly version seen through many layers of pollution down in the plains of India. Perfect weather for people watching and I did a lot of it during my visit.

SamosaThe second day of my stay I was sipping a cup of “chai” (strong tea that is doused with a lot of milk and lots of sugar) seated at a tiny table at a local tea-stall, watching the world go by. Nearby was a “samosa” vendor, selling his tasty wares. A Buddhist monk ambled by, bought one of the samosas and began to eat it while chatting with the vendor. A street dog dozing in the sun got up, stretched and came over to investigate.

India is full of street dogs. All the cities have them, whole packs of feral creatures roaming the streets and trying desperately to stay alive for another day. They are very different from the much beloved pets we have in our homes in the West. These emaciated street dogs are terrified of human beings (rightly so), and they will either run away or snarl and bite if approached. The dogs in Dharamsala were different. They seemed rather well fed, for starters. And amazingly, they were not afraid of people or vice versa.

I watched as the dog came up to the monk and sniffed at his hand and his robe. The monk patted it on the head absent mindedly, as he continued eating his samosa and talking with the vendor. But just before he ate the last bit of the samosa, he glanced down and looked at the dog. He made a little sound, then bent down and fed the last bit to the dog, letting it lick his hand after it ate the morsel. As he turned to walk away, he saw me watching him and smiled. Acting on impulse, I asked him if he would let me buy him a cup of tea. He accepted my invitation graciously and came over to sit with me.

He was middle aged, tall and by no means slender. We talked for a while – he wanted to know everything about me, where I lived, why I came to Dharamsala, why I was wearing a brace on my knee, was I married, did I have children, was I happy. How many conversations have you had recently with a complete stranger who asked you with perfect sincerity whether you were happy, and waited with interest to hear an actual answer to his question? And there was no way of taking offence at the very personal nature of his questions – they were far too innocent and well meant.

I asked him about the dog and the samosa. Aha, he said. Did you see I gave the dog only a small piece of the samosa? I said I did. He went on to explain, it was because he was a lot hungrier than the dog. What would he have done if the dog had been just as hungry, I asked. He thought for a moment. Then, with his comfortable belly shaking with laughter, he replied. “I would wheedle my friend the vendor to give me an extra samosa free of charge for the dog. Everyone wins that way. The dog gets more food, I get to eat my samosa, and the vendor gets good karma for showing “karuna” to a living creature”. His pleasure at the perfect answer he came up with was infectious.  “Dana paramita — the perfection of giving”.  We chuckled together in companionship, as we sat there in the warm morning sun.

We talked about “karuna”, that most beautiful of all Buddhist virtues. The word comes from Sanskrit. Roughly translated, it means compassion. Not pity, not charity, but compassion based on true empathy and respect for another living thing, with no strings attached. I told my new friend about Jasper, my Aussie dog back in the US, how much she meant to me and my family.  See, he said, you are already half-Buddhist. You already understand karuna; that it is important to take care of another living thing beside yourself. I thought he was setting the bar a little low, to be kind to me.   Karuna in practice.

He told me he was not a senior monk, just a run-of-the-mill monk. He was born after the migration to India, and he had lived all his life in and around Dharamsala, among various monasteries, among other Tibetans. But because of his gregarious nature, he learned Hindi and a reasonable amount of English, as well as his native Tibetan. His biggest challenge? He liked samosas far too much!

He may have had a good handle on the important stuff like karuna. But he had his share of superstitious nonsense. I asked him why many of the local homes were built of stone, were they not afraid of earthquakes in this geologically unstable area? His answer was that yes, the area used to have small earthquakes before, and they would do quite a bit of damage. But ever since His Holiness chose to make this place his home, he wove strong magic over all the local mountains so that there will be no more quakes, so that everyone is safe. Maybe we need to get the Dalai Lama to take a look at the U.S.  West Coast situation, before we get the big one.  You think?

We watched people going by spin the dozen or so prayer wheels (more like drums, actually) lined up conveniently along the wall. I asked him about it. It seems the drums contained scraps of paper, with prayers written on them. Spinning them gives a person good karma associated with the prayers. The more good karma you can bank in your account “upstairs”, the better for you. Does the “upstairs” bank give out loans, or generate interest on extra large accounts of karma? I did not ask.

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My new friend took leave of me, and to thank me for the cup of chai, he let me into a little secret. He told me that the marketplace prayer wheels only had 1,000 prayers in each drum. But the ones in the main temple had many more, as many as 5,000 prayers in each drum. So, I should not waste my time spinning these paltry ones in the marketplace. I should use my energy only on the lineup in the temple since it would get me a lot more good karma for the same effort. More bang for the buck, as it were. He was quite serious about his advice. He was surprisingly shy and did not want me to photograph his face, but I glimpsed him walking by later in the same day and I don’t think he would mind this back shot of him that I took. You can tell he was a friendly guy and liked talking with people.

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Sightseeing

It is obligatory to see the sights of the place when traveling. I hired the car from the hotel and the driver that drove me from the airport for a couple of days and went around various places. One of the first places we visited was the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. This modest building is their parliament and all other official buildings rolled into one.

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There was an official meeting of the various ministers and senators while I was there. Most of them arrived by foot or on motor scooters. Various dogs sleeping in the sun barely looked up and yawned as the dignitaries trooped by them, including the newly elected Prime minister (below). I was allowed into the visitors’ gallery inside to watch the proceedings. The new Prime Minister was speaking, but since everyone spoke in Tibetan, I did not understand a single thing.

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Lobsang Sangay is the first Tibetan to attend Harvard Law School. He is the son of parents who fled Tibet and came to India in 1959, along with the Dalai Lama. He has never been to Tibet himself. He obtained his masters of law degree at Harvard, writing his thesis on Buddhism and Human Rights. The title of his doctoral dissertation “Democracy in Distress: Is Exile Polity a Remedy? A Case Study of Tibet’s Government in Exile.” Lobsang Sangay has been sworn in as the Prime Minister earlier this year. He now heads all political aspects of Tibetan government-in-exile, while the Dalai Lama continues to be the spiritual head of the Tibetan people. This is the first time in recent Tibetan history where the two roles of political power and spiritual power have been separated – a wise decision taken by His Holiness.

Next stop was more cultural stuff. The library of Tibetan archives was much more elaborately decorated, as was the center of medical “technology”. I browsed the shelves of the gift shop that sold teas and potions that cured almost every ailment known to man. I specially looked for anything that promised to cure CLL – or cured wishful thinking – but I did not find anything suitable. Sorry, you guys. I did try.

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We ended our jaunt with a trip to the local tea factory. Not really a factory, since there were practically no machines to speak of. Everything seemed to be done by hand. The cool weather and mountainous terrain is ideal for the cultivation of tea, similar to the Darjeeling variety that we are more familiar with in the USA. The tea plantations themselves were beautifully verdant and tranquil.

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When my driver discovered I was going to write about my trip, he wanted me to take a picture of him so that all of you can see how he looked. His name is “Dilharan” – which loosely translates to “stealer of hearts”. He did not quite steal my heart, but he was certainly a bubbly personality that made my trip a lot more fun. He told me he was a very good cook as well as being one of the best drivers in the area, so if I ever came back to live in Dharamsala, he would come and work for me and take very good care of me. I agree; if I ever did go back, I could do a lot worse than have Dilharan work for me.

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Tibetan children

They say you can judge a culture by how they care for their young. By that yardstick, Tibetan culture gets a pretty good grade. The next day I went to visit the local Tibetan school. Some of the children were orphans; some were children of local Tibetan families. All looked healthy and well looked after. I guess they are behind the times, no one objected when I hung around the playground and took a few photographs of the children.

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There were various semi-religious teachings painted on the walls of the playground. These two caught my eye: “Others before self”. “Subdue one’s mind thoroughly”. Not quite the precepts we would have on the walls of an American school.

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A little vignette I witnessed impressed me a lot more than the official precepts painted on the walls. One of the kids had a bag of Lay’s potato chips. (I swear there are more outlets for American fast food in India than there are in the US). As he opened the bag, three of his buddies sidled up. With no hesitation or rancor, the chips were equally divided between all four children, no more than a small handful for each child. The chips were soon eaten, before one of the ubiquitous dogs in the playground came over to investigate. No chips left, nothing to give the dog. Each child in turn held out his hands so that the dog could lick the salt off of them. A little gentle petting and soon enough the four kids and dog ran off to join the rest of the children.

I don’t know how many of these children will grow up to take religious vows and become monks. (Actually, they seem to start monk-in-training business rather early, see below). And I do not know if they will subdue their minds thoroughly, as Buddha seemed to have taught (?). But they surely seemed to know how to share, how to be kind, and how to be happy while doing that. Karuna in real life situations – beats bullying in the schoolyard any day of the week.

I visited one of the monastic schools later in the day, and these two kids (monks?) were playing basketball. It is kind of hard playing basketball in full monk regalia. Reminded of the time I used to play the game myself, dressed in a sari and flip-flop sandals. They posed for me, and were solemnly pleased with their photograph.  They did not want me to take a picture of them with the basketball – it would not be ‘proper’.

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Religion everywhere

Buddhism is a part of almost every aspect of life in Dharamsala. No such thing as separation of church and state in Tibetan history, until just recently when the Dalai Lama gave up his role as the political head of the Tibetan people. Religious icons are to be found at every step of the way, tucked into odd corners or massively displayed in ornate splendor. My guide was very proud of how much pure gold leaf was used to gild this immense statue of Buddha in the main temple at Norbulingka Institute. To get a sense of the size of the statue, look at the rather blurry women at the foot of the statue, a little to the left of center.

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You might say the painting below is the official portrait of His Holiness. A little different from the photographs we see of the Dalai Lama in the western press, but you can still recognize him. This portrait in the main temple at Norblingka is the last one in a row of all the incarnations of Dalai Lama – our present day Dalai Lama is considered the 14th reincarnation of an unbroken line. He promised he would give proper guidance on how to find the small child who would be his next incarnation, the 15th Dalai Lama, when he himself is a lot older. After all, he is only 76 years old now.

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Tibetan Buddhism as it is practiced on the ground in Dharamsala is far more colorful and exuberant than the versions of Buddhism I read about in philosophy books. You like bodhisattvas flying around on lotus leaves? How about a few thousand bodhisattvas, painted with great care and reverence on the walls of the temples, doing miraculous deeds and keeping the world safe from evil? There are colorful demons, hordes of them, and armies of bodhisattvas necessary to combat them. My driver insisted on taking this snapshot of me kneeling next to the seat where HH Dalai Lama sits while presiding over religious ceremonies. Notice the many armed demon and the massed ranks of bodhisattvas to control the demon.

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I spent quite a bit of time at the Norblingka Institute, where they teach and preserve traditional Tibetan art forms – painting, sculpture, wood work, formal embroidery etc. Apprentices can spend many decades practicing and copying classic paintings.   The young man (below) had been working on this particular painting for the past few months.  He would copy the same painting many more times, before he can expect to get  it just right.  Frankly, it would drive me bonkers to do this apprenticeship for just a couple of days, let alone a life time.
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Norblingka Institute is beautifully laid out. The main temple is at one end and steps lead up to it with Japanese style water-gardens on either side. There are different buildings for the different arts and crafts being taught. And of course, a gift shop where you can exercise your credit card effectively, buying souvenirs for friends back home. Don’t look at the price tag. The profits are meant for the Tibetan orphans, preserving Tibetan culture etc. etc.
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Not as close encounter, of a different kind

I was just a few feet away the first time I had seen the Dalai Lama. I got to see him again, more than five decades later, during my visit to Dharamsala. This time around, I just got a glimpse of him as he and his entourage walked past the waiting audience. He gave three days of religious teachings to a large group of visitors from Korea and Japan. I attended, on one of the days. The audience numbered more than a couple of thousand people, I think. Everyone sat on the floor, on mats or thin quilts. Here is how it looked, the evening before when I went to check out things. I got talking to this Tibetan couple who had just adopted their puppy, from among the litter of one of the stray dogs hanging around the temple. All they had was a bit of plastic string for a leash. Looking at the affection on their faces, this is one lucky puppy.

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His Holiness spoke in the Tibetan language. We all got these little gadgets with ear pieces. You plug it into your ear pretty much like an Ipod, and you hear the voice of the translator – in the language of your choice.

I have seen many of his speeches in the US and elsewhere, broadcast over TV. I suppose in those he was talking to a western audience, a non-Buddhist audience – a secular audience, if you will. His talk in Dharamsala was very different. It was clearly an authoritative speech of the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. It was a lot more dogmatic. None of the finely nuanced philosophical points he loves to discuss and debate while traveling abroad. These were believers he addressed, and they needed to hear him reaffirming their faith, give them reassurance and comfort. This was not the right occasion to address the needs of a secular scientist or amateur philosopher grappling with the meaning of life. I left after a short while – sitting on the floor was killing my knee in any case.

Epilogue

I hope you enjoyed reading about Dharamsala – more importantly, the Tibetan people who have made a life in exile for themselves in this mountainous part of India. I went because I was curious, because I wanted to see a part of India I have never seen before. But I must confess a (very) small part of me hoped to find my personal Shangri-La. Not a place of eternal life and youth, but a place where I hoped I might find answers to the questions that have tormented me ever since my husband died.

In the past few years I have been reading a lot of books on contemplative philosophy. Existentialism and early teachings of the Buddha seemed to make the most sense to me. They still do. But there is very little of fine tuned philosophy about life in Dharamsala. This town is robust with religious dogma, exuberant gods and icons everywhere, reincarnations, superstitions, over-the-top demons – and the bustle of people going about their normal lives.  How many bodhisatvas can fly on a single lotus leaf?

And yet, there was something special, something enchanting about Dharamsala and the Tibetan people I met there. Who am I to judge what constitutes “proper” Buddhism? Maybe the simple acts of karuna in being kind to animals, not cutting down old growth trees, taking the time to be gracious to visitors to their town, raising their kids to be kind and gentle people – may be these are the practical aspects of what the Buddha taught.

In any case, it was clear I am not cut out for the monastic life. Saffron / orange robes are not for me. I have been a scientist all of my life and I cannot now buy into all the hocus pocus of religious dogma. I can “think of others before self”, to some extent, depending on the mood of the day. But I surely cannot “subdue my mind thoroughly”.  As my samosa eating monk friend pointed out, karuna starts at home. I will take care of my old dog, my old mom, my family, my community – to the best of my ability.  Whether or not that makes me ineligible to be a good Buddhist, I am content if I can follow this path even just a little way. I might even have company in my heresy:

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple, the philosophy is kindness.”

“We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”

“Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.”

-Dalai Lama

Jasper would never forgive me if I talked about all these foreign dogs, without including a photograph of her as well. After all, she is still the best dog in the whole wide world.

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Books I have been reading..

The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized

Owen Flanagan

“Imagine Buddhism without rebirth and without a karmic system that guarantees justice ultimately will be served, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without any deities, without heaven and hell realms, without oracles, and without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? My answer is that what would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is, an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know what we can know, and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live. This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytical philosophers and scientific naturalists because it is deep.”

Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist

Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening

Stephen Batchelor

“Meditation exposes a contradiction between the sort of person we wish to be and the kind of person we are. Restlessness and lethargy are ways of evading the discomfort of this contradiction.”

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Sogyal Rinpoche

“To follow the path of wisdom has never been more urgent or more difficult. Our society is dedicated almost entirely to the celebration of ego, with all its sad fantasies about success and power, and it celebrates those very forces of greed and ignorance that are destroying the planet. It has never been more difficult to hear the unflattering voice of the truth, and never more difficult, once having heard it, to follow it: because there is nothing in the world around us that supports our choice, and the entire society in which we live seems to negate every idea of sacredness or eternal meaning. So at the time of our most acute danger, when our very future is in doubt, we as human beings find ourselves at our most bewildered, and trapped in a nightmare of our own creation.”