In my three visits to India, this is the first time that I’ve stayed in a place— Dharamsala—frequented by a lot of tourists and Westerners. Because of that, it’s the first time I’ve encountered a lot of people begging. I had heard about how difficult it can be. And compared to other places I’ve heard about, there’s not even a lot of begging here.
During our first days, when we walked up to the pilgrim trail that circles the Dalai Lama’s temple, we met three sadhus sitting in their orange and saffron robes, their silver begging pots in front of them. They wore turbans and long beards—holy men right out of story books and spiritual biographies of sacred India.
To look into their eyes is to look into an ancient past, as well as to look, in many instances, into eyes lit by enlightenment.
I always gave them some rupees. In return, they recited Sanskrit mantras to bless us. Another day, Jennifer called me to the front door of our cottage because an old sadhu was standing in front of our house chanting. This was unusual, because we are about a five-minute walk down the side of the mountain from the road and no one comes down here who doesn’t live here. I went and got some rupees and gave them to him. He blessed us.
Some visitors to India may be inclined to think that these people are leaching off of society, able-bodied men not working, begging rupees to get by. But it’s an ancient and revered cultural tradition. The life of the wandering, mendicant sadhu goes back to the days before the Buddha. Buddha, himself, became one of them, and his system of monks and nuns depended on it. These “renouncers” are mentioned in the Vedas, the original scriptures of Hinduism. It’s a way of life open to anyone. All you have to do is give up parents, children, family, home, possessions, sex, career, security, health insurance, ambitions to “be somebody,” and adopt a life on penury, insecurity, and homelessness. But this is the way to God in India. In fact, even householders, after their children are raised are supposed to eventually adopt this way of life.
The three sadhus on the trail have now vanished. It’s also an essential part of the life not to get settled into a comfortable place, where you can depend on a few people for support. They have to get up and move, seeing more of Mother India, meeting and blessing more people. Wandering is an essential part of it. Here’s a poem by Tukaram about this life:
Trees, creepers and the creatures of the forest
Are my kith and kin.
And birds that sweetly sing.
This is bliss! How I love being alone!
Here I am beyond good and evil;
Commit no sin.
The sky is my canopy, the earth my throne.
My mind is free to dwell wherever it will.
A piece of cloth, one all-purpose bowl
Take care of all my bodily needs.
The wind tells me the time.
I feast on the cuisine of Hari’s lore,
A delighted connoisseur.
Says Tuka: I talk to myself
For argument’s sake.
One of my favorite saints of India, Papa Ram Das, spent most of his life as a penniless begging monk–and writing two wonderful books about his travels. Everywhere he went, he just repeated the name, “Ram, Ram, Ram,” one of the names of God in India, and depended upon Ram to take care of him. He became one of the most beloved saints and gurus of the twentieth century. His book, In Quest of God, is a wonderful adventure and uplifting read.
Along the pilgrim trail these past weeks, a few other sadhus would come and stay for a while and then disappear. But one old man is there everyday. He is probably in his sixties and sits with a wooden prosthetic leg beside him. He is a very sweet man with a very dark face and a close-shaved gray beard. I try to spread out my allotment of alms , usually about 200 rupees a day, or about $ 3.40 at current exchange rates. So, I don’t give him something everyday, but we have developed a nice friendship, and I salute him with “Namaste” on the days I don’t give him anything.
Everything is more nuanced than you might at first think in India. For example, one morning, one of the maroon-robed Dalai Lama monks leaned over to give him some rupees as I was approaching. I watched, and the one-legged, begging sadhu pulled out a bundle of bills and made change for the monk!
There are a few regular beggars in town, as well. If you’ve read my wife Jennifer’s blog, you know about Gurdu, the man with legs that don’t work, that are like limp appendages that he drags along upon and down the steep streets as he crutches along on his bare hands. Jennifer sees him every day walking back down through town from her morning run. She doesn’t’ carry money on her run. She often carries his backpack down the hill to town for him. The other day, he gave her a prayer-bead bracelet as a gift. He is such a sweet man. I give him rupees whenever I pass him. He has the sweetest smile and he puts his palms together at his forehead to say, “Namaste.” One day he got to see all of us together and the boys got to meet him. I think it is so beautiful of Jennifer to have established this friendship with him.
Farther up the street two old women sit folded in doorways about a block apart holding silver cans with bandaged hands that have no fingers. I imagine they suffer from leprosy. I always give them something. Often, there are young women of very dark skin and beautiful features in traditional in saris carrying little children or infants who come up begging as well. They seem much like the gypsies of Europe. I usually give them something.
So, this had been the general pattern, until one day last week. I don’t know if the day was a holiday or rumors were circulating that the Dalai Lama was coming to town, but on this morning the pilgrim trail was lined with beggars. Men and women of all ages, sadhus, families with little children, some naked, some in dirty rags, many crying. Old people, disabled people. Some deformed from leprosy. They lined the mile-long trail. I only had only ten rupees with me that morning. Who was I to give them to?
And I felt, as I often do: “Here I am, a rich American, with nothing to put in these outstretched hands.” If I had had had ten rupees for every one of those hands, I would have put ten rupees in each one. And yet, how much good would even that have done? This is the dilemma of westerners traveling in developing countries. What can you do? What should you do? Do you have a right to be here? Is your purpose here frivolous, trivial, when seen in the face of so much suffering?
Mother Teresa saw this as a young nun and chose to stay, to remain in Calcutta and serve the poorest of the poor and the dying. The lepers, the disabled, she said, have lived on the streets like animals, but we will let them die clean and fed and clothed in our arms, like angels.
I am a poet, writer and teacher. I am here seeking something like spiritual enlightenment. What does my work mean, how much does it matter, before these faces, these dark-lit eyes and children’s cries, in the presence of this endless, unfathomable human want and need.
I am also a father and husband, with duties to my own family. When I was nineteen, I wanted to serve these people the way Mother Teresa did, to become a monk and dedicate my life to serving. I didn’t follow that path for complicated reasons, but a part of me is stilled pulled towards it. As I noted, Lon Young, my friend and former grad student, a former Mormon bishop who has become a Buddhist, is taking his family of six to Chennai next year to live and work for a year with lepers there.
But this morning, I walk with the other pilgrims past these families, past the plaza of photos of immolated youth. Many of the monks and Tibetan people bend down and give something. I wish had gotten more change the day before.
The monks and Tibetan people here for the most part seem well-fed and healthy. Most of the monks walk through town carrying cell phones, talking on them in cafes and restaurants.
I wonder: what is the moral duty of the well-fed toward the homeless and hungry? Some take the attitude that life is “every man for himself” and feel lucky you were born in America, pretend that what you have is the result of your “merit.” But isn’t that a defensive stance, with fear beneath it?
Later that day, Jennifer tells me that she saw many of the poor people along the way eating chapatis, Indian flat bread. So it seems that the monastery may give out food to them, the way most monasteries have done from time immemorial, in the European middle ages, as well as throughout Asia.
Later, we go to town to do some grocery shopping. I always feel glad that as we hike back down the mountain, I have most of the groceries in my backpack, so it’s not so obvious how much food we are bringing home. As we leave town, we come to the last stretch of road before our turn off for our trail, and encounter twenty of so families lining the road, with lots of children. Many are sitting on paper advertising banners spread out as blankets.
I have a bunch of ten-rupee notes, maybe seven. Each ten-rupee note is worth about 17 cents. I decide to give them to as many of the mothers as I can. I give one to a young woman holding a baby who comes up to me. Then to another. Then suddenly I am surrounded. More and more dark young women in saris holding out one of their hands, clutching to their body a dirty baby with the other. Touching their hand to their mouths to show they needed food. I give away all I have. But still there are more faces, more babies, more hands. More words I can not understand. I am surrounded, they are all reaching toward me, pawing at me. I feel a moment of panic. Then, I know I have to catch up with my family, who have stepped off the road and have stopped, looking up at me. I wave the women away, patting my pockets, trying to show that that is all the money I had. I get to my family and the crowd of women recedes like a wave of color behind me. I feel relief to be with Jennifer, Aidan and Kellen, off the road, on our trail.
But of course, that wasn’t all the rupees I had. Just all the “17-cent notes” I had. I had bigger notes. I had several 1,000-rupee notes, each worth about 17 dollars. But I needed them for the next day’s groceries—for my own family.
What is the moral duty of the well-fed to the hungry? I frequently give away 100-rupee notes, 50-rupee notes. Ten percent of our daily allowance. Still.
Eckhart Tolle says that true compassion must always have two aspects. First, we recognize the suffering of another person feeling with them our own common bond of suffering, which all human beings experience, poor or privileged. No one escapes suffering. The loss of loved ones, disappointment, injury, pain, sickness, old age, death. We feel compassion because of our common bond of suffering.
But Tolle says, we must also recognize in the other person, something else. That there is a part of them, of us, call it our Buddha nature, our soul, our higher self, our enlightened being, which remains untouched by physical suffering. John O’Donohue, the late, Irish poet, theologian and former priest, said it this way: there is a part of us that has never been wounded.
When I give Gurdu, Jennifer’s friend, 50 or 100 rupees, and he thanks me with “Namaste,” I see something in his face, in his smile, a deep brightness, and sweetness in his smile. A smile I do not see in America.
But after the encounter with all the families along the pilgrim trail and the women on the road, I didn’t want to venture back out of our cottage. It felt too upsetting. But, I had made a commitment to visit the Dalai Lama’s temple and do my 108 prostrations every day, so I headed out anyway. When I got there, I discovered that all the families were gone.
Sometimes it feels like a heavy weight to encounter the beggars again and again and not be able to do much for them. To have to say, “no,” or walk by ignoring them. Don’t we feel this because what we really want is to be able to take care of them? Isn’t this the core feeling? What I really want is to take each of them in my arms and tell them that they are my people, my family. Come home with me. Everything will be all right. I’ll take care of you and your family.
This morning, I woke after not sleeping well. I didn’t want to climb to the temple. I didn’t want to do my prostrations. I didn’t want to see the sadhus and beggars along the trail, even if it wasn’t the multitudes of last week. I didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted to be alone. In India, it’s hard to be alone, at least in cities of any size. You can get out in the country, but even there, people are everywhere.
Jennifer encouraged me to go ahead and do my hike and visit the temple, as always. So, I decided to go, but I put in my iPhone ear buds, turned on my spiritual music, and resolved I would not look at anyone, the sadhus or beggars. I’d look at the trail in front of me, do a walking meditation, stay in an inner world of solitude and peace. I did a pretty good job of it.
But a little before the temple gate, I saw a young sadhu I knew. The one whose torso is scarred as if from fire. I saluted him with “Namaste.” I’d given him money before. I didn’t have to give him money every day.
I entered the temple and did my prostrations and went into the inner temple and bowed before the Buddha and Padmasambhava and Avalokiteshvara and the Dalai Lama’s dais. On my way out, I decided that I’d give him a 50-rupee note that I had in my pocket.
But when I got to the gate, there was a boy standing outside, leaning against the gate, crying. He was probably around the age of Kellen. Just standing there crying. I didn’t know what was happening, why he was crying. I saw his mother sitting before the gate holding an infant, who was also crying. I gave her the 50-rupee note. From under her veil, her shadowed face looked up at me, and the sweetest smile opened and her eyes shined with such light. I smiled back and said, “Namaste.” I knew it was a face and a moment I would never forget. It’s not that me or my money did anything important. There is just a mutual recognition of our common humanity, a small moment of connection, a sharing a smiles, across a great cultural, class, and geographical divide.
I remember when I was in law school in Seattle I was reading in the paper one morning a letter to the editor about environmental protestors being arrested. The woman writing the letter mentioned that as she was being arrested and handcuffed the officer looked at her and smiled. She said it was a revelation, a moment of epiphany for her. It was as though the officer was saying, “Well, here we are. Two human beings playing different roles, ending up here together in this particular moment.” Namaste.
It’s easy to think, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to see these poor people.” To go home into the gated community of America and not think about it. But, these people will still be here, whether I can see them or not.
I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps, I should take my family and join Lon Young to work for a year with the lepers of Chennai. Perhaps I should work to be a better poet or teacher. Write better poems. Start an NGO. Give to an NGO. Volunteer at the Tibetan orphanage of Dharamsala. Give more rupees away.
But one thing I know, one thing that Jennifer and I have both experienced, she with Gurdu and me with these others, is that in the few, fleeting connections we have had with these poorest of the poor, they have given us more than we have ever given to them.