Dharamsala and the surrounding hill stations are home to many Tibetan monks and nuns, some whom are reincarnated exiled lamas who made the difficult crossing from Tibet to India. We were fortunate to meet a few of them.
After a day in McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala, we set out into the countryside to meet Dru-gu Choegyal Rinpoche and he warmly welcomed us to his monastery. Choegyal Rinpoche belongs to the Drukpa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. There are four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism—the Gelug (whose leader is the Dalai Lama), Nyigma, Kagyu, and Drukpa.
Choegyal Rinpoche was recognized by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa—the spiritual head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism—as the 8th incarnation of Dru-gu Choegyal Gyamtso and was raised under the guidance of H.H. 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche.
In 1958 Rinpoche fled to India and has since lived as a refugee near Tashi Jong, India, a small community of Tibetans about 3 hours away from Dharamsala. He has many official positions, including the spiritual head of the Dru-gu region of Tibet and the Dru-gu Monastic Institute, Tibet. He is Vajracarya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Kampagar monastery in Tashi Jong and is considered the president and vice-president of the Tashi Jong Tibetan Community.
Like most Buddhist communities in the Himalayan foothills, the residences are situated along a hillside with stunning views of meticulously-painted stupas, wind-torn prayer flags and snow-capped mountains. The sense of peace is palpable and it’s hard to stay focused on “work” when meditation seems to be calling from every direction.
In person Choegyal Rinpoche is a peaceful man, full of compassion, wisdom and a great sense of humor, clearly the result of a lifetime of spiritual practice and experience. Despite his unworldliness, Rinpoche spoke about the division between business and spirituality in the modern world, and the problems we see as a result. We in the West know this to be the valued tenet of separation of church and state, but Rinpoche argues this very principle has resulted in a dualistic experience, and therefore suffering. Rinpoche further pointed to the need for a more harmonious relationship between the two if we want peace and unity in the future.
After the interview, Choegyal Rinpoche spent some time showing us his paintings and talking about the importance of diversity in unity, illustrating it with comments such as, “If you only eat bananas, your stomach won’t like.” To our surprise, he also received several cell phone calls!
Back in Dharamsala we met with Tenzin Lhadron, a lighthearted nun who shared her candid thoughts about life in exile in Dharamsala, what it’s like to be a woman on the Buddhist path, and her long journeys through the Himalayan passes to visit family. Mostly, however, she laughed. She laughed at our serious questions, she laughed at our attempts to capture a perfect moment on film, and she laughed at our Western curiosity around the Tibetans.
The next day we interviewed venerable Geshe Kalsang Damdul, the assistant director of the Institute of the Buddhist Dialectics, under the administration of the Dalai Lama. After escaping Tibet, he devoted himself to Buddhist studies, making sure the teachings of his homeland would not be lost. Like Choegyal Rinpoche, Geshe Kalsang Damdul la also spoke about the importance of diversity in unity, and further elaborated on the importance of preserving individual cultures in the age of globalization. He explained that each culture has a unique note to play and that this note is the contribution that can be made in the world today. He further articulated how current political and economic models have the potential to be impacted by those who see life as an interconnected whole, and at the same time recognize our individual roles.
Overall, we have been impacted by the experience of a people with no real home, deeply rooted in a spiritual tradition that seems much like a secret society, its true essence only revealed to initiates. It feels like we only scratched the surface of an ancient tradition and it is incredibly tempting to go deeper into the Himalayas in search of its origin, and the hidden mystery.