After almost a week in Delhi we made the journey north to Dharamsala, also known as “Little Lhasa” because it is home to the Tibetan government in exile. We traveled over ten hours through the Indian plains on a two-lane road where street signs appear merely a suggestion, and beasts of burden journey beside rainbow-colored trucks, modern cars, and motorcycles. We climbed up into the Kangra Valley and hundreds of monkeys lining the road like a hired committee welcomed us into the Dhauladhar mountains; behind them a majestic view of the snowcapped Himalaya added grandeur to their greeting.
At first appearance Dharamsala is both a reminder of a lost Tibetan home as well as a pillar of hope, keeping ancient arts and knowledge alive until home becomes available again, safeguarding a way of life and a knowledge as if the current experience was just an insignificant moment in time and one could return unchanged. Clearly, however, home and hope have been affected by globalization and the result is a new strain of modern monastic living.
Robed monks on motorcycles holding cell phones pass by bald-headed nuns seated in cybercafés writing emails to family and drinking salted butter tea. Buddhist devotional symbols painted on slabs of rock for sale in the marketplace promise good fortune, while traditional Tibetan medicinal clinics offer healing and mystique to fascinated backpackers as well as familiar services to the locals living in exile.
A combination of a small North Indian village, a Tibetan refugee camp, and a Western resort town, Dharamsala is truly a unique community but it is predominantly Buddhist in character. Although modernized, the streets are awash with people clothed in monastic hues of deep reds and dark maroons and hints of ochre. Prayer flags fly in the wind above, while Tibetan prayer wheels spin beside the walkways. With conch shell calls and morning prostrations marking the day and mala beads in almost every hand, this is a town visibly in constant prayer.
And what are they praying for? One day while eating hot momos in the cool mountain air, I notice “Free Tibet” signs across the street —the same signs that are posted in my hometown in Northern California—and I wonder if Tibetan life could really ever return to the remote and protected ways of the past?
The West is visibly fascinated with Buddhism and Buddhism appears to have adapted well to the West as represented by the many books, lectures, arts and meditation centers now widely available around the world; and by all the pilgrims, journalists and celebrities in Dharamsala in search of spiritual sustenance. Aside from being exotic, Buddhism offers the world an alternative to the modern materialistic ideals that have left so many unsatisfied. And, perhaps more interestingly and less spoken about, it poses a possible meeting ground for politics, science and spiritual ideals to come together in service to one another, rather than in conflict.
Before finishing my momo and moving on, I remember the prophecy of the 8th century Indian saint Padmasambhava, credited for introducing Buddhism to Tibet:
When the iron eagle flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered over the earth and the Dhamma will go to the land of the red man (the West).