1. Tap / 1.
I live downstairs behind the green metal door with the painted number 5. I live beside the oasis, the outdoor faucet. At 4:30 the monks come: the young monks scrub their armpits, the old monks hack up phlegm. As the sun rises, the manager brushes his buck teeth, the cook washes his hands. The Nepali man with the tea stand down the hill comes with two big plastic jugs to fill. The foreigners scrub their faces, apply creams. The nakpa’s teenage son arranges his bushy hair. His mother washes the dishes first and laundry when there’s time.
Interspersed with these are the dogs, who lap the puddle underneath, and the cats, who lick drops directly from the tap. When the monkeys see me looking they act entirely offended and bare their teeth.
When there is plenty of water – what harmony! But for the last week there has been barely a trickle and it is a constant hassle. The manager quarrels with the chaiwallah when he comes to fill his jugs. (Turned away, he sneaks back ten minutes later when the manager isn’t looking.) The monks are grubby. The French lady is astonished when ordered not to do her laundry. She points to the sky. “But the sun is perfect!”
At breakfast the manager asks my help. “The water man does not listen to Tibetans. 500 rupees we pay him. Every day he says the water is coming. Maybe he will listen to an American.” The water man isn’t answering his phone, so we go into town looking for him. He’s not in his usual spot, on the bench by the bus stand and he’s not in his favorite chai shop either. We find him in a back alley, trying to wedge a rock under the wheel of his bike so it won’t roll away.
He won’t look at us. He is an old man almost, a bully caught off his guard. His tilak is so smudged it may be last week’s blessing he hasn’t washed off. Maybe his house doesn’t have water either.
What a pleasure it is to be invited to be a loud and boorish American. How naturally it comes to me! I am the product of a long line of bullies.
In truth I permit myself only just a tincture of my father. I rely mostly on my aggrieved professor voice.
They are trying to run a business, sir! They are losing money! Guests leave because they cannot shower! They paid you the money, now you fix the water!
He only looks at me when I say the word money, as though that were his name.
How easily, how naturally I bully him. Imagine being frightened by me – a gremlin so obviously contrived!
Thirty minutes later he is at the guesthouse fixing the pipes. I do not know whether to feel proud or ashamed. I have to admit it was fun.
A few days later, however, there is no water at all.
3. Uprising Day.
The last time I was in Dharamsala for Uprising Day, I was eighteen years old. The Dalai Lama stood in front of his temple and called for full independence. Now it is a far more dignified and official event -- and the Dalai Lama asks for far less.
The performance of the Tibetan National Band and Color Guard is impeccable, as are their traditional costumes. The bagpipes do not sound a false note. His Holiness sits surrounded by dignitaries: the members of the Tibetan parliament, several U.S. senators, and a goodwill delegation composed of Chinese people residing in a number of countries, not including China.
The members of the Tibetan parliament, in preparation for the day when they must lead the country alone, give long and emphatic speeches. To no effect: it is as if they are transparent. His Holiness holds a transcript of each speech and, as each official speaks, he reads silently along. The audience watches him read.
After the official speeches, I stand on the roof of the temple in the brilliant sun, looking at the jagged edges of the Dhauladars. Down below a crowd fills the street, waving flags and crying out for the freedom of Tibet. Headbands, handmade signs and Indian policemen. Here are the young people. Someone is shouting into a megaphone. “Free Tibet” someone screams, but it is nothing like the phrase found so often in the gift shop, it is a horrible piercing shriek, as a mother would wail for her stolen child.
The official request – painted on banners at the entrance of the temple – is for ‘genuine autonomy within China’. This crowd however is perfectly aware: they will be receiving nothing.
5. Exile World.
The TCV School in Gobalpur has created a six page newspaper, Exile World, and they’re passing it out to people as they leave the temple. The lead article is absolutely standard praise for the Dalai Lama – except for the last sentence which comes out of nowhere, like a man with a gun from around a dark corner: “For all the global compassion and sympathy the Dalai Lama has won, his lasting legacy may be one of sad, crestfallen failure.”
6. Insomnia / 1.
Every third or fourth night, I cannot sleep. A wrathful insomnia: as if my bed and body seethed with biting ants. All day I spend walking the kora, taking notes, chatting companionably with backpackers and tea men, closing my eyes with a smile and a prayer.
Only to wake up thirty minutes later saturated with lust or rage or terror. A middle-aged man who has burnt his bridges, living out of a bag in a two dollar room, with more paperbacks than articles of clothing, with little stacks of index cards lined up like soldiers.
7. Notes for Maitreya Buddha / 1.
I am not a Buddha but I will be someday. Probably around the time the Sun is swallowing the Earth. (By which point I also hope to have paid off my student loans.) Even though my buddhahood is not necessarily imminent, I nonetheless have some ideas about what the Buddha would do if he or she showed up today.
DAY ONE: Flowers raining from heaven, celestial musicians, free food, etc. DAY TWO: The Buddha never makes rules arbitrarily but only because a problem has arisen. Two days would be plenty to show the need for a new set of rules to facilitate mindfulness while using electronic devices, cell phones and the Internet.
Since the monks didn’t spend all night texting each other and downloading porn, they are well-rested on DAY THREE during which the Buddha attempts to take a shower and is informed of the water shortage. Also, the power has gone off a few times. He notes the absence of animals, the effects of erosion. Remembers how, back in the day, he sometimes wished for a shawl this time of year – whereas now he needs anti-perspirant.
The Buddha hears the hum of suffering from the Earth. And on DAY FOUR the Buddha sets resolutely to work.
8. Monks to Watch Out For.
Raw and broken after a sleepless night, I sit hopeless by the window until I see Vanessa marching up the hill with an absolutely gorgeous monk she’s picked up somewhere. Before I know it, I’m standing outside and grinning back at them. When I tell the monk how much I love Dharamsala, he makes a pronouncement which lunges at me through the air and covers me all at once and all over, like a luminous web.
The monk pronounces his words loudly and exactly, as if I am a lost and befuddled traveler who must be told things very clearly, who must have it all spelled out for him.
The monk announces:
“This is the God-King Place!
This is the Automatic Miracle Area!”
Against my will, I am lit up. This is one vastly charismatic monk, I think. And also appalling gorgeous. Somebody really ought to put up a sign at the Post Office: Monks To Watch Out For.
While the Dalai Lama speaks, a little girl plays with a diaphanous blue shawl and gives a fashion show to those in the audience who have tired of the talk on selflessness.
As a suicide bomber believes the dynamite strapped to his chest will transport him to heaven, so I believe that everything in my life would be really all right, if I only I were better-looking.
How unnerving, therefore, to feel the muscle melting off me, the end of the official One Thing I Have Got Going For Me. A stay in rural India, away from a gym, involves a voluntary renunciation of sexual currency. A quite terrifying prospect for the variety of fool that I am.
11. Monks to Watch Out For / 2
As I lock my door, Vanessa and her monk walk past. We walk to town together as though by previous arrangement. I am a little jealous of Vanessa. Just as an apple-picker knows in a glance that the fruit is still too green, or else too spotted and misshapen to be worth bothering with, spiritual people nearly always stare right through me.
How pleased I am therefore, when the monk at once begins seriously to address me, to speak about necessity of dharma and the real chance of enlightenment. He stands very close: tenderness blasts from of his eyes. He’s a nonstop talker and several times I nearly step off the edge of the crumbling cliffside road. More dangerous, I catch myself paying more attention to his mouth, adorned with an adorable goatee, than to what he is actually saying. This monk has the full lips of an incorrigible seducer.
He begins to speak about the problem of love affairs between monks and foreign women. It’s natural, of course, for differences to attract each other. The foreign women are sometimes very beautiful. And monks – monks are simply more attractive than other men. It’s a side-effect of spiritual practice, a problem and a fact.
As the monk speaks about clinging to the dharma, I find myself veering from the path – both physically and otherwise. If possible I ought to excuse myself briefly, step aside, and slap myself firmly upside the head.
I have forgotten the exact penalty for having sex with a monk. I remember, however, that it involves fire and molten lead and lasts for hundreds of thousands of years.
13. Loneliness Departing.
Exhilarating, yes – but also dangerous. I understand terribly well.
You are both lucky and endangered, when you have been alone in a windowless room for a very long time and suddenly there is a knock at the door and you open it to find a stranger with a smile you think you couldn’t possibly deserve but which begins nonetheless begins at once to warm and cheer you.
A vulnerable place. The mother of true love and a thousand catastrophic bad decisions.
14. Gelek / 1.
Nearly twenty years ago, a monk named Gelek lived in a crumbling meditation house beside the stupa of Trijiang Rinpoche. It was a much more basic place than it is now. A simple stupa crumbling in the rain; very basic huts constructed from mud and a few sheets of plastic or corrugated tin.
The monk Gelek was a particularly bad carpenter, it seemed, because nearly every time I walked past his house he was repairing a wall or section of roof that had collapsed. It wasn’t his fault really. The monsoon was well-underway and his mud house was just that – mud.
Just the same, Gelek always greeted me tenderly and often brought me inside for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Gelek, it seemed to me then, had a special power. As soon as he appeared, I felt myself warm and comfortable – even if we were both standing soaked in the pouring rain.
Drinking tea in his dripping house, my troubles vanished. Not in some vague way, but utterly and at once, as if he had lifted them off me, as though my troubles were suitcases, as though they could simply be taken from me.
Gelek had this effect on nearly everyone and was adored by many people at the nearby retreat center. The foreign nuns especially adored him. They suspected he might be a great saint in disguise.
Gelek was, I realize now, perilously close to being a “pet monk”, a situation I’m sure the Buddha warns about, somewhere in the sutras.
By the third day of the Dalai Lama’s teaching, I’m pretty sure the security guard and I have each other figured out. Because we always grin at each other and he always checks twice for any weapons I may have, concealed against my skin inside my belt.
Wouldn’t he get a black eye if he patted another guy’s junk so thoroughly and repeatedly?
As for me, I am always careful to stand in his line. As I wait, I suck a mint. I’ve even started to think of him as “my guard”.
16. Eagle Scouts
Sometimes it all seems very spiritual, this Tibetan stuff. Other times, it seems like the Eagle Scout School of Buddhism, at least the way the foreigners practice it. Like if you collect all your badges you will receive enlightenment or, at very least, a lucrative gig on the Buddhist circuit.
All day I hear: I have done this many prostrations, this many mandalas, this many offering bowls. I did Vajrasattva. I did Vajrasattva twice. I have received teachings from So-and-so Rinpoche. I had a private audience. I think it’s fair for me to call him a friend. He came to my house. My geomancy is totally perfect; I don’t need to have a puja or anything.
Doubtless it would be easier to like these people if they didn’t always talk about how utterly they have been transformed. My life has turned 360 degrees! They’re spinning in circles, these people.
And the initiations! Even a person who seems entirely decent may abruptly lean across the lunch table and announce, “You couldn’t possibly think of a deity whose initiation I have not received!”
Because I am a wimp and a fraud, I nod right along, very impressed, wishing that I, too, was so spiritual that a rinpoche would come and eat pizza at my house.
Meanwhile an evil voice whispers: Does this man with all his prostrations and initiations seem one bit nicer than a guy who has completed 37 screens of Tetris?
17. Gelek / 2.
I was gone for a few months and when I came back the foreign nuns whispered about Gelek, “He disrobed.” They said this with infinite disapproval, as if he had been waggling his private parts in front of schoolchildren.
A German woman had fallen in love with him apparently. She threatened to kill herself if he didn’t marry her.
The nuns talked about what a waste it was. Such an auspicious rebirth! Such a golden opportunity to practice dharma! And he’d thrown it all away for some woman.
I saw Gelek once after that and he did seem much sadder, as if his light had been somehow taken from him. The foreign nuns thought it was just a tragedy.
At no point did anyone suggest that we had all played a part in the loss of his vocation, by making a pet monk of him.
18. Old Cow.
The old white cow with the green tarp on its back stands by the side of the street and thinks, “Maybe if I stand very still and concentrate, this will all go away.”
19. Second Chances.
The terrifyingly handsome monk, his full lips framed by his goatee, would like to know why I spent so much time in Dharamsala, years ago. When I admit I wanted to be a monk, he is very pleased.
“You can still be monk! It is not too late!”
“It is definitely too late.”
“Do you have a family?”
I don’t know the answer to that question, so I just let it hang there.
He says it’s good to have monks with experience of the world. They speak in ways that people understand. He looks ready to throw his maroon shawl around me and give me vows on the spot.
I hurriedly change the subject. This is ridiculous. If we keep talking like this I am going to start crying and not be able to stop.
20. Insomnia / 2
In the night when I cannot sleep my lovers return to me in a cloud stinking of the baths: sweat, steam, spunk, bleach, amyl. They return not tenderly but in a sort of stampede. I desire them as much as ever but they remain out of reach.
One night in three or four the habit of voracity bears down on me. The men I loved are there, as well as plenty of others I hardly noticed at the time: the shoe salesman, the policeman, the gym attendant in Bangalore. The automatic Turk, the Italian boy with 144 entirely different faces, the Czech who, when he was not receiving enough attention, would thump his cock against the wall. (A strategy that was invariably successful.)
A rancorous hankering United Nations of lust. The bitter habit of hunger. Lovers return to me.
Sleep is out of the question.
21. Notes for Maitreya Buddha / 2.
The monks may feel somewhat put out when the Buddha cancels the mandala workshop, as well as the ongoing showdown between the philosophical schools of Cittamatra and Madhyamika. The tantric initiations, as well, are indefinitely postponed.
One brave monk questions the Buddha. Why these disruptions of tradition? And the Buddha says, “Even tantra is not fast enough if you have no water.”
Seeking always to remedy suffering and its causes, the Buddha focuses his attention on the devastated Earth. The miniscule likelihood of success does not dismay him. This is the Buddha after all, who teach the dharma to courtesans and mass murderers. It might even be said that the Buddha has a certain fondness for what are generally seen as hopeless causes.
Morality and immorality are now imbued with an awareness of atmospheric carbon levels. “The abhorrence of the body is no longer suitable to this day and age,” says the Buddha. “Abhor plastic, which looks good but is actually filthy, which is impermanent, but not nearly impermanent enough.”
Just as a doctor focuses first on the most urgent problem, the Buddha focuses his attention first upon the devastated earth. The forest dwelling monks defend their forest. The Buddha proclaims that there is no dharma separate from the dharma of the earth.
22. Tap / 2.
It had been a day which could not possibly go well. After all, in Tokyo a day which began horrendously was dependably horrendous throughout.
All night the dogs had barked, dogs inside and out. At dawn I crawled from bed feeling like a crumpled scrap geriatric venom. Imagine Madame Minh, age 106.
Yet, as I watched the sunset, I found myself full of happiness, astonished by a day which, entirely against my will, had turned out to be full of joy and wonder.
How was it possible? Perhaps the gorgeous monk was right and there were special properties to this, the God-King place, the automatic miracle area.
I tried to think of when things had begun to change. I remembered: the young blonde man with the enormous beard was brushing his teeth. He tried to turn on the outdoor tap. An entirely superstitious act, it seemed to me. Since we had been dry for days.
But this time water came out.