MUNDGOD MONK POWER
By Terry Reis Kennedy
Little lama Lobsang lives at Gajang Tsawa Monastery in Mundgod,(sometimes called Mungod) Karnataka, South India. He was born in Mon Tawang, India in the Himalayan region neat Bhutan. He looks about five years old. But no one can say for certain. He is an orphan.
Now, little lama Lobsang is a full-time student of Tibetan Buddhism. He was brought to one of Gaden Monastery's many shelter homes by elder monks for his protection. He, like hundreds of other impoverished refugee children have survived by the loving action of senior monks. Orphans or those whose families simply cannot afford to feed them are given to monks to take care of. Initially, the children were given over to monasteries in northern India, regions with climates similar to Tibet. However, these monasteries too are suffering financially strapped conditions and are jam-packed already. So, shifting the boy monks to Mundgod is the present option. (Little Anis, girls nuns, are also received by convent communities.)
Lobsang may not understand why he now lives in a flat land of many farms, dry winds, intense heat and a few distant hills. Whether he remembers the alluvial plains beneath the snow-capped peaks of his homeland and the crisp, fresh air is irrelevant, perhaps. For little he may not ever be going home to Montwang or to his culture homeland, Tibet again. Communist Chinese continue to rule with a heavy hand and regard His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the god-king and spiritual leader of Tibetans as a "demon".
GajangTsawa Kangtsen is one of many Tibetan houses associated with monasteries in Mundgod--a Tibetan refugee settlement about an hour’s drive from Hubli and a six-hour bus trip from one of India’s zaniest seaside tourist attractions--Goa.
Once ruled and, some say, savaged by the Portuguese, Goa with its western-style homesteads, churches and cathedrals, appeals to foreign tourists. But the talcum-powder-like sands and warm-water swimming make the beaches of Goa even more appealing.
Over the years, Goa has gained a reputation--warranted or not--as a place where «anything goes.» The anything allegedly includes nude bathing, lots of wild parties, plenty of drugs, brothels and no police hassles.
Juxtapose this scene against the prayer-filled atmosphere of Mundgod where about 4,500 Tibetan monks live in exile, detached from wine, women and weed, but with plenty of police surveillance, and you get an idea of the duel images of India that befuddle foreign visitors.
We can party hearty anytime at Goa, » said James from U.K. « And we never have to show our papers to the police. But we’re deterred from visiting the sacred gompas and monasteries of Mundgod honoring Lord Buddha. Why? The government of India has declared Mundgod a restricted area. It’s schizophrenic! » James complained.
Meanwhile, Lobsang is oblivious to police, tourists, and the problems the monastery officials are facing trying to keep up with the influx of new refugee arrivals and the alarming financial strain this is causing.
His days are full of new learning experiences: Washing dishes, washing his clothes, doing his school work, arriving on time for 6 a.m. daily group prayers, and keeping his tiny shoes properly tied.
The tasks may be endless, but it becomes obvious as you watch him from a distance that he is very pleased with his surroundings. He laughs frequently and smiles at you engagingly--in a way that tugs at your heart strings.
A fair child, with darting, warm brown eyes that look up at you framed by long, soft lashes, he stands out as special. Perhaps he is the reincarnation of a tulku (Divine Being) whose true identity will be revealed later--in the Tibetan Buddhist way. Or maybe he’s just a kid, happy to have a roof over his head and food in his tummy. At any rate, you could say he’s an angel.
At Gajang Tsawa, Lama Camp Number One, P.O. Tibetan Colony , Mundgod, North Karnataka, 581441, South India, there are no TVs, no bicycles, and no cricket fields. Yet approximately 350 monks, ranging in age from five to 75, make this their home. Conditions are over-crowded with up to seven monks sharing a single room. There are no servants, no washing machines, no hot-water heaters and sometimes no water at all. The electricity is off most of the day. And yet, though their lives are devoid of every material luxury--not to mention necessity--these monks radiate an ineffable strength, a sort of collective monk power that causes joy to erupt inside you when you are around them.
As busy as they are: Prayer work, school work, scripture studies, household chores, evening debates on philosophical issues of Tibetan Buddhism, chanting, meditating, performing special religious ceremonies such as prayers for the dead, and teaching, the monks at Gaden Jangtse Tsawa Monastery still find time to take long walks in the green meadows and pastures behind their home. At sunset you can see them walking, their maroon capes fluttering like flags on the wind.
Likewise, Lobsang finds time for quiet contemplation. At intervals throughout the day you can find him standing on the veranda of the second floor of the monastery outside the room he shares with four other boy monks and their teacher.
He contemplates the horizon, staring out across the yard where cows are pulling up clumps of grass, staring out across the eucalyptus trees to the faraway hills that can sometimes be seen when the wind blows just right and the branches bend just enough.
In this moment, the hilltops meet the skies and the racing white clouds wrap themselves around the peaks like katas--the white scarves of Tibetan Buddhism used for honoring the deities and for gifting devotees.
It’s a lovely sight to behold, And little lama concentrates on this vision. Perhaps he is ruminating on the long-ago, snow-capped Himalayas of his former life.
Relatively speaking, however, the intervals of reverie are short, for Lobsang--in addition to his chores and studies— must also learn to read and write his native language. Like scores of others, he meets the challenge with enthusiasm.
This phenomenon--displaced or orphaned Buddhist children being brought to Tibetan monasteries as a sort of life-support system--has put a strain on the various khangtsens ( monastic homes) in Mundgod. At Gajang Tsawa Khangsten, the situation is critical.
According to Geshe Dorjee Riochen, Geshe Thupten Wangyal, and the Venerable Dawa Gelek, in charge of the khangtsen, about 70% of the new arrivals face problems of health.
« Since they have come mostly from poor families, these youngsters are often not in good physical condition when they arrive. It is even difficult, sometimes, to provide tooth brushes, paste and soap, » one monastery letter of appeal stated.
Meantime, there are bigger problems to overcome. According to the monks in charge, bore wells need to be dug to increase the water supply. A solar system would alleviate some of the strain, they say. And a couple of generators would keep the electricity flowing. But the fact that the monastery has no medical facility, dispensary, or even a medical person on duty makes the administrators uncomfortable, they agree.
The nearest hospital is about 10 kilometers away, and there is no special vehicle to bring sick or injured monks there. With more than half of the population of the house comprised of children, it’s a risky situation, the administrators said.
During the day Jeeps can be hired for transport and the walk to the Jeep stop is only about a quarter of a mile. However, the Jeeps meant to seat five or six comfortably, often carry up to 12 or 14 passengers. And late at night there is no way to get to the hospital without calling someone for help.
Tibetans, having been given asylum in India is something His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama always gives thanks for in his public discourses. Without this boon, who knows what could have happened? More than one and a half million Tibetans, nearly one third of their people, were entirely destroyed as the result of Mao Zedong's and continuing Chinese occupation of their country. Tibetans still in Tibet are continuing to be killed, maimed, tortured and imprisoned on a daily basis.
It was when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959 that they nearly destroyed the Buddhist University, Gaden, which was founded by Je Tsonkapa Lobsang Dakpa in 1409, and from which the present Mundgod Gaden Monastery originates.
At the time of the invasion, there were approximately 800 monks living, studying, and practicing their religion at Gaden Monastery in Tibet. Of those 800 monks, approximately 200 had already mastered the Five Great Texts of Tibetan Buddhism which, according to tradition, is the goal of all monks. It takes up to 30 years of study to become a master of these texts and to gain the revered title of « Geshe » which translates as something close to, but not exactly, a double doctorate in Philosophy.
Unfortunately, during the Chinese invasion, only 10 of the Gaden Geshes managed to flee to India. The remaining Geshes and the thousands of other monks continued to suffer torture and affliction. Some were imprisoned. Some died. Some are still missing and unaccounted for.
Once the 10 Geshes arrived in India, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama re-established monasteries for them. It is due to their efforts that Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, dialectic, and the methods of debating used by the monks has been preserved at Gaden Monastery in Mundgod.
Lobsang will eventually learn about the Chinese invasion and takeover of Tibet. He will eventually come to understand how the tradition of his monastery was upheld. For now, he can study simpler things.
At night, for example, he sometimes sits on the dilapidated wooden chair with the sawed off legs on the veranda near his room. With the moon as his lamp, he holds his prayer book in his two hands and recites the words in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist method of chanting. Out of his approximately three foot, two inch body boom melodious prayers thousands of years old. In time he will be able to chant this book and many others from memory. Such is the power of the monks of Mundgod.
Terry Kennedy is a poet and journalist . She can be reached at email@example.com Her book of poems, I AM TIBETAN, is available by writing to her