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Place your Tibets

Born cynic, Jon Sufrin experiences a spiritual awakening on his trip to Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama and site of Tibetan exiles, in the Himalayan foothills.

Dharamshala, India

I knew I had entered a region of oddballs when dusk hit and I found myself in a café called Pink Floyd – that was the actual name – with two new companions I had just met on a monkey-riddled footpath nearby, and the conversation veered into ayahuasca ceremonies, trances, shikantaza meditation, reincarnation and being taken over by spirits. A region of oddballs indeed – which is probably why I was enjoying myself so much.

I came to Dharamshala, India, in part because it’s the home of the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile. This not-so-minor detail makes Dharamshala, which clings to the steep Himalayan foothills in a miraculous and beautiful fashion, potentially the best place in the world to experience Tibetan culture firsthand.

Dharamshala, India

That means, for one thing, Tibetan food, and lots of it: meaty bowls of thukpa noodle soup; steaming cups of yak butter tea (the O.G. of ketogenic beverages); marshmallowy momo dumplings. Then there’s my favourite discovery of all: lapig, a cool, refreshing, spicy mung bean noodle dish served, thankfully, on nearly every street corner in Dharamshala.

Like hordes of others, I also came for the meditation. I was a novice practitioner and wanted to do some deeper exploration, and, well, if India is a converging point for the spiritually minded – which it is – then Dharamshala is a mecca within the mecca for meditation practitioners. Certainly there is something ambient and enlightening about Dharamshala’s surroundings – 1,500 metres in elevation, trees extending to the edge of the horizon and, everywhere you look, monks swaddled in burgundy robes.

Dharamshala, India

Dharamshala is basically four towns all put together. The city proper is like most standard Indian cities, which means lots of traffic, crowds and noise. Move a little north and things start to become more serene at McLeod Ganj, where large numbers of Tibetans – including the Dalai Lama – have conglomerated as they flee persecution from the Chinese government.

Wander a bit further north still, past handicraft markets, tea stands, momo carts, guest houses and restaurants, and you’ll stumble across the villages of Dharamkot and Bhagsu, which kind of blend together into one very spiritual, very strange town. It’s where the cafés might be named after psychedelic rock bands and where hippies from around the world come in search of anything related to spirituality, including but not limited to: reiki healing, chakra realignment, zodiac predictions, past life regression, mystical energy or maybe just plain old enlightenment. Anyone wanting to learn about any of that stuff will find some sort of class specializing in it just around the next corner, whichever corner that happens to be.

Dharamshala, India

Many people who travel here have a grounding in reality that seems dubious, but the steady flow of curious, open minds gives Dharamkot and Bhagsu a unique, carefree, be-whoever-you-want-to-be feel. The food and lodgings are as cheap as they come here, and it’s impossible to predict what sort of quirky and unusual character you’ll meet from one hour to the next.

These two villages are also home to a few renowned meditation schools, including the very popular Tushita Meditation Centre, which offers a 10-day silent retreat as an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. “Silent retreat” means exactly that: You leave everyday life for awhile, live at the centre and take on a temporary vow of silence.

I dropped by Tushita for free meditation classes on most mornings during my stay, and I had good experiences there. But there’s something about the terms “too busy” and “meditation” that don’t seem to mix, and Tushita, as the go-to meditation spot for every tourist in Dharamshala, is a little too “too busy.” By the time I decided I wanted to do a full-fledged silent retreat, I ended up going to Thosamling, a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery located in a small village called Sidhpur, just outside Dharamshala. Yes, it is a nunnery, but anyone of any gender can go to take part in a short-term retreat.

with the himalayas majestic in the background, and the butterflies floating about, the serenity was oceanic

I knew I had made the right choice when my driver dropped me off at the edge of a quiet rice field and told me I’d need to walk roughly two kilometres to get to the nunnery. Isolation is, after all, a very rare commodity in India. With the Himalayas majestic in the background, the breeze gently tugging the rice stalks to and fro and with butterflies floating about, the serenity was oceanic. As I edged closer to the nunnery, I’d see a robed nun here and there nestled in some scenic pocket of nature, absorbed in meditation. It was all very Skyrim.

Upon arrival I was told to give up my cell phone without delay. I was happy to do it, since I was here to become more attuned to the moment anyway. I was surprised, though, to discover that students such as myself were also discouraged from reading books or writing in our journals. Of course, we were also told to not speak a word the entire time, barring questions to the instructor during class.

The retreat was led by Tenzin Sangmo, a Dutch nun who founded Thosamling in the early 2000s. Her teachings were very secular, free from the New Age mysticism that so easily accompanies spiritual practice. We were taught to sit with our backs straight, with good intentions, and to simply focus on the sensation of our breathing in a gentle manner. When our thoughts inevitably wandered, we were to easily return to focusing on the breath – if and when we remembered to do it.

Dharamshala, India

Our days were spent meditating, drinking tea, eating meals and meditating, with some extra meditating in between. We meditated on our breath, but also on the mountains outside, on the image of Buddha and on the sounds of the environment. The most difficult part for me, at first, was figuring out how to spend our two-hour lunch break, since eating only took around 15 minutes. My choices were limited, but I chose to spend this time simply sitting.

I’d pick a tree or some other cosy spot and just sit down. I decided I would not care about bugs crawling on me or other minor inconveniences. During these extended sits I had some insights about the nature of boredom. I realized that a lot of the time, when we think we’re bored, we’re really just in withdrawal from constant overstimulation. The modern world has desensitized us to an infinitude of tiny things that can bring joy.

I discovered that when I let go of all intentions and expectations, the act of just sitting became far more interesting than I expected. I was alive, enjoying the clean mountain air in a beautiful site dedicated to spreading peace. I sat and enjoyed the songs of birds, the sounds of a nearby brook and the pleasure of being a very lucky human being indeed.

While I don’t really believe in auras, the dalai lama has an aura. just being near him feels soothing

As the retreat progressed, news arrived that the Dalai Lama would be returning to Dharamshala from his world travels shortly. We would have the opportunity to see him, if we wanted, which naturally we did. So I ended up visiting the Dalai Lama at his temple in McLeod Ganj – and while I don’t really believe in auras, the Dalai Lama has an aura. Just being near him feels soothing.

I found him underwhelming as an orator; he mostly gave repetitive platitudes about living with compassion. Still, he had an aspect of jovial wisdom about him, and a surprising sense of humour, and I believe as a whole he has done an admirable job at promoting Tibetan culture and ensuring that it will exist despite the forces that threaten to annihilate it.

Dharamshala, India

It took me a while to realize this, but I left Dharamshala a changed person. It opened a door in my mind. I have a new mental place I can go when life gets a little screwy. It’s that place I went when I was just sitting at the Thosamling retreat, a place of no expectations. I’ve learned that doing nothing – which does not include the likes of sleeping, resting, reading or walking, since these all constitute doing something – is as important as being active. Yes, having returned from India, I now place high value in literally doing nothing at all, and I will continue doing so for the rest of my life, which probably confirms that I am indeed a bit of an oddball.

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