I went to India this past March, for the first time in 12 years. India has been my spiritual home, the place where I found meditation practice, my innermost values, and my authentic life. My friend Amy teases me that when I talk about India in the old days (I first went in 1970) I sound like something along the lines of, “When I was young I had to walk a mile in the snow to go to school. You young people don’t know what it was like” Well, “When I was young, there was no email, no faxes, and little long distance service in India. You had to book a trunk call 10 hours ahead, in very select places, and then shout gamely into the phone to be heard.”
I found India the same in many ways, and also different in many ways. In the midst of poverty, there is a thriving middle class, and also a lot of wealth. I hadn’t been out of the US for 4 years, and it was fascinating to watch global CNN (the very existence of which was fascinating.) I’d watch programs about how, despite some difficulties of procuring visas, going to the US as a tourist was enticing because “it is so very cheap!!!” I felt as if the economic world had turned upside down. I saw old friends, made new friends. I was struck by the vitality and the sheer, pulverizing energy of the culture. And India still felt very much like home.
I’d gone for teachings the Dalai Lama was conducting…the first three days primarily for Indians, the next five primarily for Westerners (this latter group included many of the early translators from Tibetan into other languages.) As it turned out, I arrived in India about 10 days after protests and demonstrations broke out in Tibet, which, as the Dalai Lama put it, “are the outburst of long pent-up physical and mental anguish of the Tibetans and the feeling of deep resentment against the suppression of the rights of Tibetan people.” It is a tragic situation, with many deaths, imprisonments, and injuries. I heard traumatic stories of relatives suddenly behind bars -- perhaps never to be heard from again, of mothers looking for their children, of violence and murders. They were stories hard to even hear, let alone, as I can only imagine, live.
We were all wondering what in the world the Dalai Lama, who must hear these stories over and over again, all the time, day after day, would say. His comment at the beginning of each of these 2 teaching sessions was, amazingly, “My mind is filled with disturbing thoughts, but my heart is very steady.”
How could he accomplish that, someone asked. After a while the Dalai Lama talked about his practice, especially tonglen, which is a method, as Ani Pema Chödrön describes it, “for connecting with suffering - ours and that which is all around us - everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us…. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”
It was tremendously inspiring to see the Dalai Lama, in the midst of the awful situation faced by Tibetans and the sorrow and sense of helplessness felt by all of us, delineate such a clear path: the possibility of strength of action born from compassion, rather than hatred. It is one thing to say that and mean it from the comfort of one’s climate controlled, very nice hotel room in New Delhi, having faced some minor challenges in the day, and it is quite another to say it and mean it when the people you are leading are in devastating pain, and you may never get home again.