Thursday, January 3, 2013

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum, the Buddhist mantra of compassion. It's one I've been familiar with and chanted for a long time, but it's taking on a new meaning since I've been in Dharamsala. This region, specifically the town of McLeodganj, is the center of Tibetan Buddhism and culture since this incredible nation was systematically eliminated from it's physical home by China decades ago. 

Most of us are well acquainted with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's dynamic, enlightened, humble, genius of a leader. He has become the ultimate symbol of compassion, preaching and practicing it constantly in the face of being exiled from his home, watching his people suffer atrocities that most of us could barely begin to conceive of and working tirelessly to ensure that Tibetan culture and religion are preserved against the odds. He is simply a delight to just look upon, so often smiling and gesturing animatedly. Many of us, Western or Eastern, religious or not, consciously spiritual or not, have been influenced by this incredible man.

But what being here has made me realize is the Dalai Lama is not the only Tibetan to be such a vivid, living simple of compassion and kindness. The energy of Dharamsala is so different from what I've felt in the other parts of India I've visited thus far, and it can't be coincidence that the Tibetan element is the biggest variable here. Where Indians largely tend to ignore me or gawk at me, aside from my gracious guides and the few hotel or restaurant hosts I've interacted closely with, Tibetans smile warmly and are comfortable with eye contact. Several elder, wrinkled faces I've been admiring while walking around the temple complex have stopped me to take my hand or say "Hello" and "How are you?" in deliciously accented English. They all exude so much warmth. It's obvious just how tightly woven compassion is into the fiber of their beings and their culture.

So as I've walked along, spinning prayer wheel after prayer wheel, watching red, yellow, white, blue and green prayer flags flapping in the wind, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, compassion has been the subject of my thoughts and consciously integrated into my actions, especially when confronted with situations that have required me to really offer it up. 

There was my first encounter with a hostile native- a monkey- eating a chappati on the stairs down to my room, who made to attack me. I quickly stepped back in fear. Unsure of the correct way to proceed and mostly concerned for my safety, I figured I had two choices: growl, stomp and try to scare him away or show some patience and compassion while he finished his meal. He is a sentient being after all, and the Dalai Lama teaches compassion for all. So I waited, and tried to radiate compassion instead of fear, which I knew he sensed. A few moments later, he walked away and I walked after him without any trouble. There was a young bull in the midst of a crowded, narrow street who shuddered visibly when a car honked right alongside of him. I reached my hand out to touch him between his scared, innocent eyes and he shirked away at first, gradually sensing my compassion as I stroked his brow. My guide laughed. Cows may be sacred here, but I guess showing them tenderness isn't necessarily the norm.

But compassion towards animals tends to come a lot easier for many than it does toward people. I know that can be true for me. So it's been challenging to balance showing compassion while part of me is wondering if I'm not being played or ripped off. That makes me sad and causes a lot of internal conflict because I want to be of service, especially to people less fortunate than I am. So I've been placing food in hungry hands, rupees in begging bowls of disabled, displaced souls, offerings at altars and donation boxes to support the monks who are spiritually supporting us all. This morning I allowed a small, put-upon woman holding a baby to lead me to a store so I could buy a bag of powdered milk for her child. All of this has come naturally and felt good. I guess for me compassion is as easily given to those in need as to animals. 

The conflict has arisen in situations like the one that unfolded for me earlier, on the prayer path around the Tibetan temple no less. A boy of about 18 was walking close to me. He started down the path just behind me, which I know because I passed him standing around as I entered. As I stopped to take a photo he overtook me and kept walking. So it surprised me when he doubled back to sit alongside me on a bench looking over the mountains. Once again, I thought I'd be doing a bit of meditation, but the Universe had something else in store for me. In pretty good English he began to relay his story. He was far from home, here to take a test required for admittance to the Indian Naval Academy, lost his wallet and needed money to take the bus home to Delhi. He said the Hindus refused to help him, as did the Tibetans and the police. Clearly he felt a white Western woman would be more likely to buy into his sob story and cough up the needed funds. And just as I've felt almost very time I've gone to buy something here, a piece of me sensed I was being taken advantage of. It isn't a good feeling. 

So I debated as we alternated between conversation and silence, he with his head in his hands, me looking out over the mountains for an answer to magically appear in the sky. Finally I decided to give him a 500 rupee note, a bit less than $10 US, and not quite the full amount of a ticket, but a pretty decent start. I reasoned I've certainly spent more than that on plenty of unnecessary and unworthy things, so even if I was getting royally played, that's his karma, not mine. I chose compassion and helped someone in need. And just as I've been blessed by wonderful travel karma, meeting teachers and helpers and dear friends along my journeys, I considered this a chance to pay that back in some small way. I'm choosing compassion toward my inner skeptic that says I just got taken for a fool, compassion for this boy who may or may not have been telling me the truth, compassion for all of us souls who are traveling around trying to find our way down our respective paths.

Just as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has taught, just as I've seen and felt here in Dharamsala, compassion and love are the way forward. And the best way to spread that message is to lead by example, as he does. So I've consciously started that here, toward myself and others, and hope that you will be inspired to do the same.

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