A Prayer for Andra Pradesh
Amaravathi, India: January 5-16, 2006
Text & Photos
keith harmon snow
All things pass… I left Amaravathi the way I arrived: on my bicycle. The Kalachakra Empowerment Ritual was over. My faithful bike has toured me all over the world, and with between 100,000 to 150,000 people exiting the Kalachakra at once, and with trains in all directions sold out through the end of the month, here was my liberation from suffering.
Bicycling out of Amaravathi was itself a deeply spiritual experience. The sunshine burns over the plains of Andra Pradesh to reach 35 degrees C before noon; by 2:00 PM it is over 40. Fields of withered plants were scorched brown and dry, mottled with white puffs of cotton waiting to be picked. Every inch of my skin needed covering. The first 50 kilometers it was me and the sky, a few birds, poor farmers with ox carts, some flooded rice paddies, but tranquil nature turned into an industrial war zone—a sad, beaten, exploited land, and a beautiful, smiling people, abandoned and desperate.
Like many Tibetans, my pilgrimage to Amaravathi began and ended at Majnu Ka Tilla, the New Tibetan Colony, in Delhi. “We Tibetans believe Kalachakra is a very special teaching,” a Monk named Jingme (31) told me. We shared the southbound AP Express, a 36-hour train packed with pilgrims. “It is very difficult for Tibetans to come to Kalachakra from Tibet. Until this year the Chinese only gave passports to very old Tibetans. This summer they let others leave—even young people—but they stopped again in December.”
Kalachakra is a meditation system from the highest level of Buddhist tantra, anuttarayoga. The word kalachakra means cycles of time, and the Kalachakra ritual offers a vehicle to a reliable spiritual path. Time, in Buddhism, is measured by change, and the Kalachakra deals with the cosmic, astronomical, astrological and historical cycles, the inner universe, and the outer.
The Kalachakra tantra is a long, ancient, mystical text. The Kalachakra deity represents a Buddha-figure that manifests to help people overcome their shortcomings and realize their potentials, and to handle all situations at any time: it has a rainbow of four faces and twenty-four arms, and the complexity of color and symbols reflects the struggle of achieving Buddhahood.
“Amaravathi is the place where the Buddha Shakyamuni turned the wheel of dharma when he gave the first Kalachakra teaching 2500 years ago,” Jingme said. “That makes this teaching more important. People also say it is the last Kalachakra in India—we are praying that the Kalachakra will take place in Tibet in the future.”
The old train was ker-chunking along through the hot plains of Andra Pradesh. Chai sellers plied the cars between stations carrying buckets of sugary milk tea and some small cups, hollering “ChaEye, ChaEye, ChaEye.” Jingme was playing cards in a 2nd Class AirCon cabin. “We believe some Holy things happen in other worlds,” he said, throwing down three Jacks. “Some of us hope that taking the Kalachakra can help people not to use horrible weapons against each other.”
“Take care of your Selves,” the Dalai Lama told the northerners who came from the Himalayan realms. “The climate is different, the food is different; prepare your selves.” It was the fifth of January, Day One, and the Dalai Lama’s welcome teaching. Over the next days pilgrims prepared for the preliminary teachings. Monks led long, protracted chants, Earth Ritual prayers and dances, under the BIG TOP.
The Dalai Lama often commented on the heat, and teachings under the BIG TOP were shifted to mornings to the ease the burdens on practitioners cloaked in snow mountain garb. Thousands of pilgrims rode in on the winds of hope, following their most Holy leader, and they rode out on the winds of exuberance, empowered by the auspicious words—to be shared with beings they would meet in this world or the next—I was there. Many saw H. H. only by closed circuit TV.
Many took the sacred Kalachakra vows, aiming to uphold them, to strive for enlightenment, here and now. It was, perhaps, the most significant gathering of Tibetans outside of Tibet, ever, and the closest thing these people have had—in their tenuous solidarity—to be as one people, united.
“More than 8600 Tibetans have come from Tibet,” the joyful Dalai Lama said, Day Four, “and with great enthusiasm. In the future, the Tibetan survival is dependent on the Tibetan people living in Tibet. But for most of you, it will be the first and last time to receive some teachings from me.”
The Dalai Lama talked about particle physics, and what the scientists have to learn, and how the mind can be physiologically altered, through meditation, transformed from a negative to a positive influence. I can verify, from experience that this is true. Meditation has literally changed my mind.
I was once a deeply suffering soul, raging wildly at the injustice and inhumanity of samsara as I knew it. With the help of my teachers—with meditation, therapy, yoga, movement, and a lot of hard work—I have transformed the constant negativity and destructive thinking, opened my Self to positivity, hope, and the mystery of this journey called life. Negativity is like a dark cloud: we harness our Beingness to it out of choice. But through effort we can learn to watch this cloud drift by—nothing but a thought, a thought is no thing—and bask in the sunshine of its passing.
The Dalai Lama entreated the unidentified many that will report back to the authorities of China do so without manipulation or deception, because he will speak openly and honestly, with equanimity, his teachings inclusive of the leaders and people of China. “My approach is a middle approach and I welcome you,” he said, speaking to China’s eyes and ears, “to help with the possibility of bringing resolution between China and Tibet.”
He joked about Tibetans looking silly wearing so much jewelry, and laughed about people who snore during his teachings. He told people to go home and tell Tibetans and others that he is ashamed and saddened that people are wearing animal skins and eating animals. He laughed at his watch, too: “It brings great disgrace upon me.” He spoke about Ignorance, Delusion of the Self, and Compassion for all Beings. He spoke often about Love.
There were devoted Monks, high Lamas, and lay pilgrims traveling the heartpath to the Kingdom of Shambhala. There were young Monks on a meal ticket, cast into a life they didn’t ask for, but one they don’t have the faith or luxury to abandon. People came from 75 countries, and translations of the teachings were simulcast on FM radio frequencies, in English, Russian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese and Turgul (the local dialect). There were hundreds of westerners: some came steeped in their attachment to the cult of the exotic, with their delusions enshrouded in fantasies about Tibet—I arrived as one of these—their minds enraptured by ancient gongs and mystical rituals like the Kalachakra. There were many serious practitioners. I am also one of these.
Hundreds of Indians and Tibetans flocked to the Kalachakra purely for profit: to sell trinkets, Tibetan antiques, lovely Ladakhi clothing; to peddle chai or fried noodles or the iconography of western materialism and decadence—plastic noisemakers; cheap repro jewelry; fluffy pink teddy-bears and laconic, white-skinned Barbie dolls and, saddest of all, plastic handguns that went POP! for a while, and then broke.
There was junk from China, America, Singapore, India. Plastered and strung up everywhere were seductive advertisements sending the opposite message of the Dalai Lama. Sex. Fashion. Coke. War. Sex. More Coke. More War. And the pilgrims, even the monks, were buying. Trash was shipped out of town: out of sight, out of mind. And I began to see the piles dumped along the river, along the roads, in the gullies and ravines and, well, anywhere.
There were too many journalists, and photographers, and most seemed to get nothing out of it, except their pictures, which they fought for, and when they camera-snappers and microphone-pushers surged forward in their private press session with the Dalai Lama, Day Fifteen, there was an instant where the man looked truly frightened. He maintained his poise throughout, and refused to speak of politics.
It was rumored that the Beggars were bussed in. They plied the streets, and some died in them, sporting the most ghastly human afflictions I have ever seen. It was a freak show of unprecedented horror, and while it pressed the limits of my compassion, it exceeded my thresholds of fear. The heartfelt smiles from Himalayan pilgrims, and the prayerful piety under the BIG TOP, rescued me.
By Day Fifteen you could even buy a video CD of the Dalai Lama teaching the Kalachakra. The CDs quickly made their way to Delhi, and the secretive Kalachakra teachings are now available everywhere for 150 rupees—about three bucks. (It won’t be long before it makes its way, with English subtitles, to Walmart.)
“Buddhism is very much in fashion,” Jingme told me. He’s right.
“When I see the people here I feel very happy that people have this kind of empowerment,” one happy Tibetan Monk, Yeshi, told me over Tibetan Tingmo (noodles). “But the cars and traffic and frustration—sometimes you get a little angry. There are too many people. And so many loudspeakers make me feel uneasy.” This monk laughed out loud at his self. “We have to compromise. The Kalachakra is the shortest way to enlightenment for sentient beings. All life is contradiction.”
Many Buddhist mantras echo variations on this theme. For the Preliminary Teachings (January 8-10), His Holiness explored Chapters 18, 24 and 26 of The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, a centuries old text by the sage Buddhist teacher Arya Nagarjuna.
Everything is real and is not real.
Both real and not real.
Neither real nor not real.
This the Buddha taught accordingly. (Nagarjuna: 18:8)
The not realness of the affair was very real.
The loudspeakers went all night long, with multiple messages on adjacent systems, in close proximity, all running at the same time, in competing languages, almost 24-7. Indian men assigned to rescue failing water systems dug out trenches in the middle of the night, while Indian women, paid a pittance, swept up and carted off the garbage. The noise never stopped. The horn-honkers and loud-speakers cast one’s being into the hell-realms, and I was not the only pilgrim wearing earplugs to and from the BIG TOP.
Poisonous chlorine powder was spread everywhere: into the trenches around the drinking water faucets, lining the roads white, blanketing the earth around latrines, and into the deep, stagnant, polluted sewers that swelled—hidden by the pop-up tents and instant restaurants and plastic facades—as the population exceeded the carrying capacity of the town. Latrines were pumped daily, the huge sanitation trucks driving a mile out of town and dumping the raw, empowered sewage on poor, irate, disempowered tenant farmers.
Men with ingenious machines slung over their shoulders or mounted on trucks nightly roared up and down streets, in and out of health clinics and teaching areas and the tent cities where tens of thousands of pilgrims were living, and they sprayed everything—even the drinking water systems—with DDT and other poisons. The bugs fell out of thin air. This, I suppose, is dependent arising: western medicine cut research into the cure for malaria. What goes around comes around.
There were protests, in some quarters, where foreigners rose to challenge the foolishness, but most attempts to educate, to be helpful, to usher in positive change, were laughed at, dismissed, ignored, even by the organizers from the Norbilinka Institute. Many agreed that the pitch was too high, and they left before the teachings were taught. It was insane.
It was as tragic, and as beautiful, as the story of Tibet. Monks and nuns—and ordinary beings—seeking salvation, filled the huge 440,000 square foot teaching area with hopes and prayers and love for the Dalai Lama. Pilgrims lined up to see the sacred mandala—constructed of colored sand—but they fought to ascend the queue, and Tibetan guards with sticks beat some. And when, in the end, the monks distributed the accumulated foodstuffs, there was a riot. These were no ordinary snacks—they were BLESSed bananas and BLESSed biscuits. Pilgrims laughed at the aggression that rose from within them—they saw it reflected in the faces of others.
Whoever sees dependent arising
Also sees suffering
And its origin
And its cessation and the path. (Nagarjuna: 24:40)
“Please write this very clear,” Yeshi told me solemnly. “In Tibetan society, Monks are beaten like animals. If you are against any rules, if you even talk in assembly, you will be beaten. We are teaching about compassion, and the Monks themselves are beating people like animals. Especially this year (2005). They beat young monks, also elders. They beat people with leather straps, and with belts. This system is happening in India and Nepal, even in Tibet. We are not talking about a few friendly taps, a slap or token whipping out of joyful compassion. They are vicious beatings, by Monks who are extremely angry.”
Yeshi is a Tibetan born in India who has never seen his homeland. He has lived in numerous monasteries, but he quit them all after being beaten. He showed me the welts on his arm. By speaking up against the practice of beatings and other contradictions he has seen, he says, further wrath was heaped upon him. I have changed his name, because he is afraid that he will be singled out and further punished for speaking against the system. Many monks would like to speak up, he said, but they won’t: some have no other means to keep themselves alive; some want the Tibetan Buddhist life, and there is no where else for them to get the education of it; many believe that such discipline is as necessary as the austerity and renunciation also demanded of them.
“Sera Monastery (India) is one of the worst where intensive beating is going on. Every day. Every assembly. If people have done something they think is offensive—talking, playing cricket, watching cricket on a television, viewing a film—they will beat you like animals. At Karma Kaghu Monastery it is also bad, but at this monastery they are not beating little monks. Sometimes you can pay some rupees and they will beat you less.”
Yeshi described the discipline system in detail: one primary “discipline master” with two assistants. HE even named the discipline masters. He also described one case where Tibetan Monks called in four Indian toughs to beat one unruly monk because he wanted to leave the monastery for good; it was the fall of 2005.
Here is an unruly, difficult monk I thought, a dissident from within the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism. No, he is a Chinese spy some westerners adamantly decided. Neither turned out to be true. But for three days I walked around looking for the telltale scars on the arms and shoulders of monks. I questioned any monks of this category I found, but I got nowhere. Yeshi found me again later, very concerned about his personal safety.
“So you have learned that monks can lie?!” Yeshi said, laughing. “Ask other monks at Sera Monastery. Some will tell you the truth, but most will lie. The Dalai Lama knows about this beating too. He spoke about it, only once, and only mildly, not strongly, at Gume Monastery (Karnataka) about a year ago. Monks want to study in the Monastery. They will not talk about these things even if they don’t like them because there will be too much pressure on them if they speak out. But this practice should not be happening in our society. Some monks are suffering too much.”
Tshering is a 20 year-old monk who lived at Sera monastery for four years, from 2001 to 2005. “beating is very common in Tibetan Monasteries,” he confirmed. “I was beaten at Sera. Some beating, a little beating for discipline is good, I think, to keep monks virtuous. But there is too much beating now. I have seen other monks beaten often.”
“One monk was sitting in a row at lunchtime, and he was beaten because he didn’t stand up and queue quickly enough. The assistant beat him bloody with a leather whip on his back. He was sharing a room near me, and he was in pain for three days. A lot of monks come from Tibet to study at Sera and many are very undisciplined so for that reason they started beating.”
On Day Four I wept. I was taking the preliminary vows, and the words of the Dalai Lama sunk deep into me. The presence of all those teachers, all those witnesses, was empowering, and deeply moving. To abstain from stealing, killing, telling lies, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants—these are the preliminary vows, and H.H. was guiding us through it.
“In order to overcome samsara, one must overcome delusions, and delusions are rooted in ignorance.” The Dalai Lama repeated this mantra too. “To overcome delusions, abstain from negative physical and verbal actions. We are in the midst of intense suffering, and we need something very powerful to overcome that. We must overcome the self-grasping mind, the self-cherishing mind. Imagine the Buddhas and Bodhisattva’s gazing on you at all times. This is the path to attain liberation, oh yes indeed!”
I felt that deep connection I often feel—so easily numbed—to all other living things. I prostrated, prayed, recitated. Tears ran out of my eyes and compassion welled up in my heart. Following the Dalai Lama’s lead, I imagined BEING the enlightened Buddha, here and now, my Self possessed with an increased capacity to free others from the cycle of samsara.
I love that man, Lhamo Dhondup. My Buddha nature accepts him as my teacher, with his own human frailties. I give my Self over to him, as I give my Self over to my other teachers, but it is always a tenuous abandonment of the Self.
I find Tibetan Buddhism patriarchal, and I have heard that Nuns at monasteries must serve the Monks, that they are cloistered at Monasteries under austere, barren conditions much worst than Monks. I was able to confirm that Monks—of all ages—are routinely beaten in Monasteries, and that it is justified as “virtuous” necessity. The deep, permanent scars on the bodies of some monks bespeak only of delusion. Hearing His Holiness say that “the desire for liberation from suffering cannot be reached for in such dull beings as animals” does not work for me either. And I struggle with the knowledge, rekindled at Amaravathi, that the Dalai Lama formed a military alliance with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
At least 2000 Tibetans gathered in the field near my tent city to watch the nightly documentaries about Tibet. One film talked about the CIA arming the Tibetan struggle, sending cold-warriors into occupied Tibet—a thorn in the side of communist China, never enough to matter—and how even this little support was withdrawn with the winds of expedience. Whose bad karma is that?
Sadly, the US government never cared about the people of Tibet. I think WE THE PEOPLE need to search our hearts and reflect: did the US do more damage to Tibet than the Chinese? It is a simple example of cause and effect. Dependent arising.
Who shall cast the first stone…
Were China to withdraw from Tibet, the US Military would certainly rush in—and it would be as unaccountable and ruthless as everywhere. Torture would be commonplace, and the US occupation would profit US corporations, and the Tibetan plateau would shudder as our machines ripped up the blessed land, and the National Geographic—replete with all the pretty pictures—would celebrate the renaissance of Tibet, liberated.
When you foist on us
All of your errors,
You are like a man who has mounted his horse,
And has forgotten that very horse. (Nagarjuna: 24:15)
I do love that man. I take from him that which serves me, and leave that which does not. It was the same at the Kalachakra, as in all life: take that which serves you, reject that which does not.
I left Amaravathi on the day after the Long Life Prayer, symbolized by the goddess White Tara. The High Lamas and Ringpoches on this day led prayers for the Dalai Lama’s prosperity, so that he can be there for his people, to help them find their way. To help us all find our way.
In the end, six people expired amidst the teachings, but they were blessed by the cosmic consciousness, and the Highest Lamas in the Land, and if you are a devout Tibetan Buddhist, you could not choose a better presence to die in, to pass on, to evacuate the tired shell of your earthly life and go wherever it is that your soul is destined to go.
“Go, go, go beyond, go absolutely beyond, to the ultimate state of enlightenment,” the Dalai Lama told us. “All thoughts, all mindsets, and all actions that I will be having,” we recited, after him, in the final Kalachakra Empowerments, “will be for the welfare of all sentient beings. I must cultivate Boddhichitta. I must cultivate a sense of concern for others.”
After seventeen days at Amaravathi—meditating, negotiating, observing, battling the wrathful deities of my personal karma, praying, trying to sleep, laughing, shutting things out, crying, inviting things in, being the Buddha I am, and seeing the Buddha I am not—my bicycle was my salvation. My bodhicycle.
The streets of Amaravathi were packed with Tibetans, on foot, in rickshaws, in fancy SUV’s with designer luggage spilling off roof racks, in luxury buses that blasted their way through the crowds in the wake of the deafening Indian pneumatic air horns, and—like some great metaphor about the road not taken—everyone was vying for a piece of the narrow, crowded way.
You are careful not to fall into deep ravines, not to drown in the perilous sea or be run over by a horse, reads an old Tibetan proverb, so why do you not take refuge in the Dharma and renounce all earthly desires while there is still time?
But the dilapidated town of Amaravati was beginning to emerge from the neon lights and the shiny, colorful, plasticated booths and transient stalls that gave the entire event the feel of a festival. The capitalism was peeled away, along with the Buddhist iconography, and the 15,000 residents of Amaravati were left to sort out the good from the bad and the ugly. Many were asking where all the money—received by local officials before the event—actually went.
And then began my hearts’ long, sad lament for Andra Pradesh. There are romantic snapshots, sure, the exclusive images captured in a travel photographer’s lens: simple farmers on rustic ox-carts; goatherds tending their golden goats; birds no longer seen in the west; and beautiful women, in beautiful saris, wading knee-deep in the sparkling-waters sunnygreen rice paddies, and there’s a permanent stream of wide-eyed, smiling, truth-hungry children. The simple people, living simple lives, are lovely.
But the land is awash in ignorance and callousness. Ugly chemical plants rise out of the long, flat thorn bush landscape like the Walled City of Jaisalmer rises out of the Thar desert, only they are no lasting miracles of human engineering, centuries old, but the lasting tragedies of human indifference, as gruesome and depressing as the remains of dead animals smeared into the road. But they are industrious, these toxic waste producers, industrious and profitable, oh yes indeed!
“The nature of this world can take care of everybody’s need,” the Dalai Lama had said, “but not their greed. Cultivate Boddhichita. Cultivate a sense of concern for others.”
The industrial nightmare looms over the cotton fields and rice-paddies, and the big lie of prosperity is hidden in the fresh, clear waters—soaked with dissolved chemicals—that flood the fields and shimmer under the sunbeams and soak into the earth, and everything else. Egrets and cranes and herons stand around like people who don’t know how to behave, until they suddenly stab and swallow their toxic frogs and fish. Whole forests of trees along the road are white with chemical dust, as forests after a fresh snow, and every fruit and vegetable is laced with chemical pesticides sold by western multinationals like Union Carbide, and Dow Chemical, or their Indian subsidiaries, all of whom—quite literally—are getting away with murder here, as everywhere.
The noise was unbearable too. Soft wax plugs protected my ears and cerebral cortex from the horn-honking habit of every bus and lorry that hurtled past—the lorries being as much like locomotives in sheer metal bulk as in the sound of their horns. My mercuric rage at the constant attempts to blow me off the road evaporated each time I saw the smiles on the faces of drivers who were only showing their solidarity in celebration of my two-wheeled transport.
Putting 250 kilometers between me and Amaravati, in three days, a kind of spiritual cleanse through an environmental hell—literally burning toxins out of my body by peddling all day long through the intense heat—I caught the first train out of Hyderabad, back to Majnu Ka Tilla, the New Tibetan Colony in Delhi—and today I will not hesitate to tell you that Andra Pradesh is one of the ugliest places in the world. It is a place I will never forget, and one I will never return to.
Never, that is, until they organize a march to stop the factories, to still the machines, to destroy the corporations for the crimes against humanity that they are. For that you will find me at the front of the pack. This is my prayer for the people of Andra Pradesh. Most are too poor to ever get anywhere. My heart goes out to them.
As the dharma turns, so did my wheels, leaving Andra Pradesh behind me forever. With me went the highest blessings conferred by the Dalai Lama, and the prayerful hopes of more than a hundred thousand human hearts beating as one. But peddling through the desert landscape of Andra Pradesh was a deep meditation on samsara—because it is one, long, sad, lament of suffering nature and human heartbreak.
“The very purpose of my being is to work for the welfare and happiness of all sentient beings,” I thought, remembering the Dalai Lama’s words and my vows to my Self. This journey is not geographical, but it is the true meaning of life, and the beingness I seek to always BE.
keith’s abridged version of the pilgrimage to the Kalachakra 2006 Empowerment Ritual – KALACHAKRA 2006: Beingness, Seeking to Be-- was published in June 2006 by Kyoto Journal: Perspectives on Asia.