Sentient Beings are Numberless

I am sitting outside at a table of the “One-Two Café,” just across from the gate to the Dalai Lama’s temple.

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Jennifer suggested that I treat myself to a cappuccino after my morning walk—my climb up the mountain trail, circumambulation of the temple, and 108 prostrations before visiting the inner temple. The inner temple is really two temple halls under one roof.  Until this week, only one has been open.   Now the other, the Kalachakra Temple, is open, perhaps in commemoration of His Holiness’s presence.   He has been here for a week. There will be a public audience with him for on May 28th.   Jennifer and I, the boys, and Jennifer’s parents, who are here for a visit, will be going to see him. For the past week, I have felt his presence very strongly. His face fills my meditations.

The Kalachakra Temple is astonishing to see.   (No photos allowed inside.)   I’ll describe it more fully in an upcoming post.   The walls are painted with giant mandalas and images of bodhisattvas, gods and goddesses.   Here are some webshots:

kalachakra temple kalachakra temple

The Tibetan tradition is a tantric tradition, in which many activities seen as afflictions in other traditions become spiritualized in certain tantric rituals.   On the walls of the Kalachakra Temple there are many, many images of a god or bodhisattva and his consort embracing in sexual union. The woman astride his lap, her legs flung wide.   Here is an image from the web.


One encounters the image of sexual union as a spiritual symbol in many mystical traditions—Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Christian mystical—to represent the ultimate union of the individual soul with the Divine, and often to represent the union of the created universe with the Infinite, Un-manifest Absolute—call it Emptiness, God, Satchidananda, the Tao. This union is the goal of all contemplative, mystical paths.

Here again is “St. Teresa of Avila in Ecstasy.”







The café is a convenient spot, across from the temple, just at the entrance to the town.   It’s a joy to sit here as the town is just waking up.

A group of monks in maroon robes and some lay men sit the next table. I am amazed at the smiles the monks give me, when I greet them, so bright and clear, open and fresh, full of light.   I feel blessed to be here.  I love the Tibetan people.   They are unique among all the people I have ever met.   I have so much to learn about them, about the Tibetan Buddhist path, about their history.   But they seem like a whole people, a whole culture, dedicated to the spiritual, mystical, contemplative way of life. And it shows in these faces.

The young sadhu with the fire-scarred body walks down the road below me. Perhaps one day I will ask him what happened to him.

At our cottage, we have no water. The day before that we had no electricity.   We were able to survive just fine without electricity. It’s not too hot or too cold here, so no need for heat or fans, really.  Our stove is propane.   We used candles for light at night. Of course, everything in the refrigerator was slowing going sour. But I survived three weeks in Pune with a barely running refrigerator.   The only real problem was that all our electronic devices were running out of juice.

Of course, in a kind of perfect storm, Jennifer’s parents were on their way here.   If all our devices ran out of power, we’d have no way to be in touch with them. We had learned that their flight to Dharamsala from Delhi had been canceled.  Canceled with no explanation.   Only in India.   They said the Indian passengers were “apoplectic.” After a night in a random hotel, they were being flown to another city and would be taking a four-hour van ride to Dharamsala.   We would need to be in touch with them as they got here, as our place is not easy to find.

Luckily, by last night, when they were due to arrive, our electricity had come back on.   My cheap little Indian phone was still working.  We had a Marx-brothers, carnivalesque time finding them.  We waited in the dark on the side of the road above our cottage for a long time for them until they called. After trying to communicate to their driver, who wasn’t local and spoke little English, where we were, we decided to take our own taxi up to McLeod Ganj Chouk—chouk means “square.”   It was Saturday night.

IMG_2126 IMG_2127 IMG_2124 IMG_2125As we got close to, it turned out that the roads were blocked with traffic.  Our driver just turned off his car. We finally got out and  walked. I paid the driver the full price. Jennifer thought we should have paid him less, as he didn’t take us all the way. I felt I should pay him more since we left him stuck in an unmoving line of taxis, trucks, motorcycles, for who knew how long.


We walked up to the loud, colorful, crazy carnival of Saturday night at the center of McLeod Ganj.   All the shops open, colored lights illuminating stores and rooftops, people shopping, hawking, eating, talking.

How would we find Jennifer’s parents in this crowd?   How would their taxi ever even get to the square from wherever they were? But then, out of the blue, someone in a white kurta bent down and surprised Aidan. It was Morris, Jennifer’s father!   And there was Cynde!  In the chaos, I never learned how they got there!  What a miracle.   We walked part way home, down the one open street. It seemed everyone was going to town, and no one but us leaving.   We found a tiny taxi, into which we squeezed six people, suitcases, and backpacks.   Aidan in my lap in the front seat, without a seatbelt, barreling down the dark, steep, winding road, where other cars squeezed by a great velocities.

Of course, we had wanted to make everything perfect for Jennifer’s parents’ arrival. Their cottage is beautiful. But we had no water.   I had talked to our caretaker, Sonam, and she told me all about how at this season, water can be difficult.   It’s weird. We’ve had a lot of rain.   Our gardeners seem to have plenty for the plants. But our own tank had run out.  Sonam said she thought a nearby hotel was paying off the water man and taking the water.   Typical.

So, after a difficult time cooking a meal for Jennifer’s parents and doing dishes with water from a bucket carted up several terraces of steps from their cottage (which still had water), and no shower, and unable to wash clothes, I was feeling pretty despondent the next morning.

I feel a great responsibility to make out trip a good one for Jennifer and the boys. I want them to like India, to have a rewarding experience. It’s my fellowship, my idea to come to India. India is not an easy country to visit on a physical, practical level. I do everything I can to make things good for them.  Hence, our two-month stay in the cool Himalayas, our expensive cottage, our Delhi stay in a five-star hotel with a pool.   I live in fear that something will go wrong, serious or seriously troublesome, and mar our trip.

But it was wearing on us: Not being able to take a shower or wash dishes properly, to drink only bottled water carted down the mountain, not being able to wash our clothes (we wash clothes every day by hand and lay them out on our balcony to dry—a surprisingly satisfying activity, the way doing simple chores when you’re backpacking takes on new and meaningful significance).

So, when I left the cottage this morning I was feeling pretty depressed about the situation.   But after my walking meditation around the temple and my prostrations, I felt refreshed, renewed, and the world seemed beautiful again, in spite of our troubles.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’m taking a class at the Temple, at the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics, a segment of a class that has been going on for six years, presently focused on the “Buddha Nature.”   One of the things the teacher said, was that as you move along the Buddhist path, as Great Compassion begins to open in your heart, you move from being “self cherishing” to being “others cherishing.”   I’d been thinking about this during my hike and prostrations.

I thought about those around us who have no running water, at all, ever.

On the hike we often take down to the Bhagsu River, we pass a family house that has a pipe inserted into the side of the mountain, among the flowering trees and bushes with honey bees.  Water runs out of the pipe. The beautiful women with their children sit or squat in their saris washing clothes or doing their dishes.   They smile at us as we pass in our strange shorts and caps and hiking gear.

IMG_1817At least they have a source close by their homes.   Many have less.


So, without a lot of self-judgment or hand-wringing, I just notice how my despondency and concern about water is about water for myself and for my own family. If there were some kind of God in Heaven fairly distributing water among his children, would I have more of a right to daily, indoor, running water, hot and cold, than the families around us?

In airplane emergency instructions, we are told put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we try to help others put on theirs.   That’s a good metaphor.  Our first responsibility is to care for ourselves.  If we don’t care for ourselves, we cannot be of any use to others.

I am one of the sentient beings I am here to care for.

Then, as parents, we have responsibilities toward our family.

But it is interesting to see how our attitudes and feelings, how our life and our choices change as we move from “self-cherishing” to more and more being “others-cherishing.”

Perhaps we will change our lives.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the goal is not merely enlightenment, but instead becoming a Bodhisattva–one dedicated to working for the liberation of all sentient beings, foregoing one’s own enlightenment as long as there remain others how have not yet reached it.   Even if this takes millions of lifetimes and we have to endure immense suffering.

One takes the Bodhisattva vow:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.

Afflictions and Delusions are endless; I vow to transcend them all.

The Gates of the Dharma are numberless; I vow to enter them all.

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to walk its way.






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