Could Be Anywhere

I stopped by the Mill Valley Market yesterday to post a flyer on their bulletin board about my upcoming tour to JAZZMANDU 2012 only to find a Russian man with a small soup cart giving out samples of his organic soups now being sold by the grocer. Tasting his fine food and asking pertinent questions about the ingredients was a smallish gentleman in his 70’s or so who obviously practiced the art of good health, literally I came to know. Myself, I was on a mission to post, promote and move on.

Well, I posted and just as I was ready to exit stage left I heard the man’s voice asking about the event I had just put up the flyer for. Beginning to explain about JAZZMANDU, my mission to educate through specialty themed tours in art, music and literature I could tell by his direct look at me when I spoke that he was a very aware person. I immediately liked him! After more conversation and learning about his work in psychiatry and an East meets West approach that he developed we exchanged cards. I would have liked him anywhere in the world I would have met him.


The bus dropped me off directly across from a small lorry stop on the road to Pathankot 2 hours north of Dharamsala. The cold store sold only chai, milk biscuits, cheap whiskey and sometimes fried meat and curried potatoes, the latter only if the owners wife was inclined to cook them. This “store” would be my landmark for shopping during my stay in Tilokpur unless making the time consuming journey back to Dharamsala which all in all would need to allow for 4 hours there and back.

I looked up at the 160 stairs which I began to climb, my stairway to nirvana, to the Tibetan nunnery which waited for me atop this steep cliff. No, I had not accepted ani vows, I had volunteered to work with the anis or Tibetan nuns, making sure they were getting to medical appointments from the Tibetan government in exile, obtaining full allowances for aid such as food and clothing through social programs or independent donors as they were also assisting newcomer Tibetan women in transitioning and teaching them English. The scenario was the usual one, western woman sets off to light the world on fire by what she has learned and winds up the student, lessons of life bulldozing her down in between.

Tilokpur is the oldest Kagyu nunnery oustide of Tibet, supporting 65 nuns from the Himalayan border regions of India and the Mustang region of Nepal. Tilokpur was founded in 1966 by Mrs. Freda Bedi, a British nun who was ordained by the previous Karmapa. Built near the cave of the great Tibetan yogi Tilopa, Tilokpur Nunnery overlooks a small town 40 kilometers from Dharamsala. In the past, the nuns had been hampered in their abilities to develop and sustain themselves by the general lack of education. I had been sent by Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, my teacher, to help them.

Ani Dechen, who greeted me, was as wide around as she was tall and spoke no English. I was learning to read and write Tibetan but could not understand a word in conversation yet. Luckily I had an endorsement letter from my teacher which told her exactly why I had come. Once she read it, she took me to the kitchen for tea and pakleb before escorting me uphill to a vacant two-story stone house with only holes where windows once were next to a banyan tree overlooking a stream about 10 minutes from the nunnery proper. This was to be my humble abode for the next 3 months and I was thrilled! Peace was everywhere.

The small town that Tilokpur overlooked was actually a village of no more than 50 people total. There was a tailor shop, which ended up being one of the best I found in all of my years living in India, and a Hindu shrine. The men living in the village commuted to either the Indian plains or to Punjab and were bankers. Their sons were expected to follow suit. In fact, one visitor I had during my stay was Sanjeev, a young, handsome Indian man learning finance at the local college. Sanjeev wore the traditional, white Ghandhi khadi cloth and a large rosewood bead mala around his neck.

One day he knocked on my “door” and introduced himself as “Sanjeev, I am a student of life.” He truly wished to understand more about a world which he may never see externally but would learn everything about from within. Sanjeev showed my all the sacred spots in the valley, where Durga rode her Tiger, where Parvati lived with Shiva and where Shiva meditated. Through him I understood the gods of the land. He introduced me to the villagers and I was simply called teacher.

Now Ravin, down the hill, was another story. His karma I will never understand. Here’s a devout man, whose wife is ready to give birth to their 7th child of which the previous 6 are daughters which spells “dowries”. He worked road construction and lived on the “other side” of the village in a more remote area. Ravin spoke perfect English somehow but the rest of his family spoke only Hindi. He was a kind man who seemed to know women’s mindset well and offered his assistance to me in any matter that I may have. I was also invited to dinner numerous times to which I would bring gifts for the family that I had purchased on supply trips to Dharamsala. I appreciated his family’s kindness.

Today was like no other—I finished my dinner with the nuns in the kitchen area, curried vegetables, rice and sweet tea, and made my way home at dusk. Once it became dark I could do nothing as there was no electricity in my place. I lit a candle and read a Buddhist sutra and went to bed. Being premonsoon the temperature was nearly 90 degrees with humidity. I remember feeling like I was feverish but knew better. Mid dream I felt a presence and awoke to a young naked Sikh man standing over me. “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH,” I screamed from here on the hill top throughout the valley. “Get out of here!” He was so scared he jumped 2 stories out of the open window, naked.

I thought I was dreaming but was so afraid I ran downhill to Ravin’s house. I told him what had happened and together we walked up to my house and there it was—the naked man’s clothes and his colorful Sikh head wrap lying in a heap on the floor next to my bed. “Sikh truck driver”, Ravin said. “You will come and stay with us tonight but tomorrow you must tell Ani Dechen. She will take of this properly for you!” So that is what I did.

Well, the next afternoon Ani Dechen visited the truck stop shop and apparently, she not only threw her weight around, but walked tall and carried a big stick because a few days later the naked, now clothed, Sikh truck driver paid us all a visit at the gonpa during morning puja. We were just beginning to chant the Heart Sutra when he walked down the center aisle and approached Buddha and bowed. He presented himself before Ani Dechen and bowed. When he got to me he fell to his knees and wept. Apology accepted, I consoled him, not knowing if he understood a word I said.

After I left Tilokpur, I stayed connected with Ravin through postcards and letters. I visited him both times when I came to say hello to the anis at Tilokpur while in Dharamsala for events. His wife gave birth to yet a 7th girl. Although I lost touch with him through the years the one thing I will always remember is how I will always consider him a friend. He would have been a friend anywhere in the world we may have met.