A Growing Sense of Exultation

Yesterday was my fifth day to visit the Dalai Lama’s complex, my third day of doing 108 prostrations before entering the inner temple.

Everyday, I am falling more and more in love with this place. Perhaps it is the birds. Every morning, more than twenty birds sing as the sun lightens the sky above the snowy Himalayas.   The cottage is surrounded by roses, calla lilies, and so many other flowers I have no names for—orange, white, purple, pink, scarlet, yellow. The cottage has a great balcony where we can go out under the mountains and look down over the valley.IMG_2048







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The boys seem very happy here.   Two days ago we took a walk on Jennifer’s running path, a beautiful unpaved road through the mountain woods. IMG_1513 IMG_1484 IMG_1485 IMG_1489 IMG_1492 IMG_1497 IMG_1507 IMG_1508 IMG_1512Aidan was wearing red, and the boys alternately taunted and turned and ran from the bulls and cows on the path.   At one point, about ten cows came running down the road, and we had to shoo them away to keep them from running over us!  We found a Shiva shrine. These are everywhere and the boys played like priests around it. We went back through a field with two horses with bells on their necks.   A little further on, we came upon a nineteenth century church, St. John’s, where inside one plaque was dedicated to a priest who was killed by a bear in 1857!   On the way back, the boys had a long discussion about the differences and proper uses of differing kinds of animal poop, based on a friend’s science experiment. Cow poop good, chicken poop bad.

After our hike, we went to a café and the boys got chocolate cake and Jennifer and I got cappuccino. A little later, they brought our plate of potato and cheese momos—Tibetan dumplings.   Yum!















Yesterday morning, on my way up the rocky trail from our cottage at about 6:30, a.m., I started to feel a growing sense elation.   It was a particularly beautiful day, the blue sky lightening.  I was seeing so many of the magnificent birds.   As for birds, I feel like I’ve come to another world.  There’s a yellow-beaked blue magpie that has a tail twice as long as the magpies in Logan.  A gray and black bulbul with a crest like a cardinal and a cardinal like song.   A magnificent vermillion sun bird, one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen, with a breast, neck, and head as red as a fire coal and a long thin curved black beak.

yd_06Here is a web shot of one.  We have what we are calling our “7:00 alarm bird,” one we have not yet seen but who this morning, according to Aidan’s and my count, sent out 94 very fast, high pitched chirreep- chirreep-chirreep-chirreeps!  

Above the trail now a jungle crow flaps among the deodar cedars and a Himalayan eagle wheels in the sky above the mountains and valleys.

As I hike, more and more I am feeling the powerful energy here.  I feel very strongly the presence of the Dalai Lama.  I can’t explain it, but I feel his presence inundating my consciousness, the way my guru Indira Devi’s usually does.  This happens to me in sacred places associated with a particular spiritual teacher.   Whatever the origin of the feeling, my consciousness is being flooded with bliss, a bright and abiding exultation. I feel deeply at home, here, and feel what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the sense of “inter-being” or oneness with everything around me.

I can tell that deep within I am being transformed here.

I am so moved, so awed, by the fact that all, or the great majority, of these Tibetans that I see and talk to and pass and smile at, both monks and lay people, have fled over the tallest mountains in the world at great risk from Chinese occupied Tibet.

The sweet woman caretaker of our cottage, Sonam, shared with me last night a little of her escape. She had come down to help me with a clogged drain.


Fourteen years ago, in 2000, when she was 13, she ran away with a group of fleeing Tibetans. The group escaped from the village at night and traveled for six weeks through the snow and ice of the peaks. I pointed up at the ones above us, and she said, “No, they were much higher.” She said the people always flee in December, when it’s too cold for Chinese soldiers to maintain guard houses in the mountains.  They travel only at night.  Her food ran out in ten days. They never asked anyone they met for food, as they could be Chinese spies. She said it was horrible. Many people die.

Her friend went with another group. During the escape, she was told, a six-year-old fell into a crevasse five or six stories deep. The leader’s rope could not reach down far enough to her.  For ten minutes, the child cried, “Save me! Save me!”   Then her cries stopped.  Her mother stepped forward over the edge and fell into the crevasse to die with her child.

Sonam said she has spoken with her own mother only once in the last fourteen years.

Yet, like all the Tibetans I meet and pass, she has the brightest smile, the most vibrant eyes and energy.   These people are heroes. All these old hunched and wrinkled women that I pass on this trail came over those mountains.

I feel powerfully drawn to the Dalai Lama, to this culture, to this way of life and spirituality.   I practiced as a Buddhist for some twenty years, but felt in Buddhism an absence of devotion, the love-centered romance with the Divine that I have found in the bhakti yoga path of Hinduism, in Sufism, and in Christian mysticism.

As I hiked, I was listening on my iphone over and over to a song I love.   I looked up at one of the eagles wheeling in the morning blue and tears were filling my eyes.

Behold, You have come,
over the hills,
up on the mountain.

To me You have run,
my Beloved,
you’ve captured my heart.  

Won’t you dance with me,
O, Lover of my soul,
To the Song of all Songs?

With you I will go,
You are my love,
You are my fair one.

The winter is past
and the spring time has come.

Won’t you dance with me,
O, Lover of my soul,
To the Song of all Songs?

Romance me,
O, Lover of my soul,
to the Song of all Songs.

This love affair with the Divine is not really found in Buddhism, or at least not in the Zen and Vipassana traditions in which I have practiced most often.   Perhaps it’s different in Tibetan Buddhism, where I know there is a profound guru-disciple relationship. “Lama” is the Tibetan word for guru.

I still have much to learn.

As I hike the trail, I give away all my money offering allotment to the beautiful sadhus and beggars on the trial. I spin the prayer wheels, and when I get to the plaza for the immolated youths, there is a ceremony taking place.   About fifty people are seated before the photos chanting. A group of about ten burgundy-robed monks sit on the cement chanting from books. I am deeply moved.   I walk toward an open place and a woman moves her bag for me, and a man picks up a piece of paper from the seat.   I sit down and listen and meditate.   At the end of the chanting everyone lines up to take with their right hand what looks like flour from a large iron bowl.  I wonder what we’re going to do with it.  When it’s my turn I dip my hand in and realize that, of course, it’s not flour but cool, gray ash.

We line up along the trail and chant another chant that I do not know, raising our hands full of ash three times as we sing, and then at the end we throw the ash into the air.   Everyone is smiling now. I don’t know what it was all about, but it seemed joyful at the end.

I head up to the gate, ready to do my 108 prostrations before the image of the Buddha.


3 thoughts on “A Growing Sense of Exultation

  1. Hi Michael. This post brings back many memories of Dharamsala. St. John’s is an Anglican church. On Christmas morning 2002 I moved down the hill in a crunch of celebrants heading to the only local Christian gathering. Flumes of yellow fire tended by red robed monks met us at the bottom, in front of the old stone church. Nippy outside, it was warm inside where mostly Western visitors filled the pews on the right and the Tibetan Buddhist monks on the left. Sprinkled in between and in the choir in front were local Indian Christians. After the Priest finished with the usual reading of texts, the congregation joined the choir in singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” None were louder than the joyful monks laughing as they stumbled through the English lyrics.

    That sense of joy among Tibetans is palpable, and inspiring, given their brutal history. Among Buddhists, devotion is practiced most by the Tibetans. Repetition of the Compassion (Om Mani Padme Hum) and Tara (Om Tara Tutare Ture So Ha) mantras seems to offer a release of deep layers of despair and inscribe of a lightness of being.

    As I descended from Dharamsala/McLoed Ganj after Christmas that year, the bliss and beauty that permeates the air there hung in sharp relief from the chaos and craziness of the rest of India. Its scenic majesty is, I believe, enhanced by the embodied spiritual culture of the Tibetans who dwell there. I am so glad you are able to experience it and be nourished by it.

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