Monday, June 05, 2006

Research and Film Progress: Slowly But Surely...

May 30, 2006 - 23:59 IND

I was finishing up some laundry just now and thinking about Midnight's Children by Rushdie - a lot of kids in the BYU group are reading it. Not including me, though I have some idea of what it's about just from talking about it with folks. I guess it's an appropriate book to be thinking about at this time of night.

It's been a long and full day. We headed out together this morning and earlier than usual, foregoing our traditional practice of waking up, reading scriptures on the patio that overlooks the valley, taking breakfast on said patio, showering, and doing schoolwork until noon. Why skip such a lovely routine? Well, Elizabeth and Lily are really keen on the idea of requesting a private audience with the Dalai Lama, and we had agreed that since Lily would be going on an excursion to lower Dharamsala today for a few needed items (including, I believe a book she needs for one of her courses), we would try to sign up as early as possible. It didn't quite work out, as requesting a private audience means going down to his offices near his private residence - which we didn't know until we found the office we thought we were supposed to be at. Fortunately, we found a nice, cheap food stand with sort of European-style pancakes (I'm thinking of what I call 'German pancakes' - sorry if you're European and confused or offended) and some good French (again, I'm sorry) toast. (I've actually heard from a friend who served an LDS mission in France that French toast really is French. They call it 'pain perdu' - lost bread - and make it with bread that's gone stale.) Then I went continuing this hunt I had going for some political histories of Tibet in bookstores. The man there, who was helpful but a little shady in that he kept telling us that if we wanted a taxi or a guide or anything we should come talk to him, found some titles for me and was nice enough to reserve them for me until I came back from looking at the library for the same books.

After all that we did get to do our studying, in case you were in suspense.

At about 13:00 we headed out for the Tibetan library, located on the Government-in-Exile's complex. The walk down was pleasant and familiar to a certain point - that point being a row of prayer wheels Ben and I happened upon yesterday while looking for a hotel called Chonor House. I had wanted to find it so I could get the address of the Norbulingka Institute down in Dharamsala, an organization whose efforts center around Tibetan cultural preservation and where I might be able to make connections that could ultimately help me locate a translator. Anyway, we missed it by a long shot (take the little uphill path just a dozen or so meters outside of the Dialectics gate, if you're ever looking for Chonor House) and ended up at this row of prayer wheels at the opposite end of the temple complex. The hill above them was just covered with string after string of prayer flags, ordered as always blue-white-red-green-yellow, as well as shrines and stupas, and the mid-afternoon's yellow light made the whole place shine. Mostly elderly folks came by, circumambulating clockwise (as always) around the temple complex and spinning the wheels as they went.

That was all yesterday. Did you get confused? Anyway, so today we passed that and asked a man how to get to the library from there. He pointed us to the monastery on the other side of the road and told us to follow its stairs down between pale-yellow buildings and eventually to the shortcut path. So we did - the steps were like something out of a surrealist painting, just a maze really - until we reached at path that led us down through some rather thick woods. We kept looking backwards in the hopes that we would be able to remember the way back up to the monastery when we eventually left the library down below. The path wasn't very clear and branched of again and again into these sort of ambiguous semi-paths, and we just tried to manage the best we could as the ground started getting covered - blanketed, really - in long conifer needles that made the whole path slippery.

So there we were, not really sure where the library was, or whether this path would even take us to the library, or whether what we were on was even really a path, but looking back the whole time to be sure we could retrace our steps on the way back up. I didn't think of it till now, but the whole thing had sort of an absurd buzz about it, didn't it?

Well we finally found the library, but not before I had myself some deep fried momos (mamma mia) and a mango drink Coca-Cola puts out here (not carbonated!). At the library I signed up for a one-month membership that allows me to look at the books (which are not available for browsing but must be requested) but not take them home. That cost me 50 rupees, whereas a membership that would have allowed me to take the books with me would have cost 250, plus I would have had to leave my passport at the library to take the books. No thanks, I'll just read there and take notes. Eh, call me cheap. You're probably right.

Reading was probably the best part of the day. The book, Tibet: Past and Present, was written by a Brit who was serving as ambassador or some other kind of diplomat to South Asia. He spent a long time in Tibet and wrote this book (among others) about the country, which gave me some really significant info for my research. For instance, I was talking to a young guy in the street who said he had fled Tibet near Mt. Everest and made it into Nepal (get this) "by the grace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama". I wasn't expecting that phrase at all, or anything even resembling it. But there it was. So how did "the grace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama" fit into the cultural structure of Tibet? Well, Bell (the British diplomat who wrote the book) says that Tibetan myth describes the origins of the Tibetan people as the union of Avalokitesvara and a she-devil (I've seen it elsewhere that she was a rock demoness), who had six children - the predecessors of today's Tibetans. Well check this out: Avalokitesvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the very Bodhisattva who reincarnated is - guess who - the Dalai Lama. So you can see how such importance might be placed on him. I don't know if that made any sense or was in any way significant to you, but to me it was a revelation and really fascinating.

Other things came up, too, but it's really late and I should just go to bed.

I've finished my consent form, emailed it to a professor at BYU who's going to look it over, and sent my address to a company in India that can replace my windscreen. Research mode is coming along. Now I'll need to focus on finding a translator for both my form and interviews, and on just getting to know people. Lily, who's up here in the North group, is a lot better at that than I am. Or maybe I'm just hesitant to until I have a translator. Aw heck, what am I talking about? Why shouldn't I get to know people? That's crazy talk!

Oh yeah, did I mention I got a haircut? Yeah, it's true. I'm not sure it's really me - I really dig the long hair thing. I'll be sure to get a photo up sometime soon.

I've had some thoughts on representation and manipulation and skepticism that I'll need to write on soon, too, so expect that.

02 June, 2006 - 23:59 IND

Don't ask how I got started at 11:59 on two journal entries in a row - and I'll probably get to this one a little later because I need to get to bed, but I just needed to get this one started so I would have more of a reason to write about some of the things I need to think through in my journal.

I think that coming into McLeod Ganj, my biggest hesitation was that I would play the part of the stupid and naïf Westerner (sorry, I just can’t use 'naïve' here - that's the feminine form in French, and it just feels unnatural) who'll believe whatever he hears from anybody he talks to. That fear - no we'll keep using the word 'hesitation' - that hesitation should probably be important to anyone doing anthro research. At least, that's the impression I've gotten from the classes and readings and conversations I've had. But it becomes a probably even more pointed concern when you consider that Tibetans have lived for a long time with a political agenda and a popular Western attitude that backs it up. And while that attitude is probably justified - there are human rights abuses going on in Tibet, from everything I can see - Western support for the Free Tibet movement has probably washed back into Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj via the media (Brad Pitt and the Beastie Boys come to mind) and the endless stream of travelers and spiritual folks coming to look for answers. So who's to say that the research I'm doing won't be affected by that - by Tibetans in India telling me what they think I'll want to hear, telling me what they think America thinks? You can see the risks as I try to get to the 'reality' of the state of Tibetan culture here in exile.

...So that was a real guiding thought or feeling as I began performing my research, and it sounded healthy as far as science was concerned. But when I thought about it as a human being it just didn't settle right in my mind or my gut - and folks who know me also know that I tend to trust my gut over just about anything. So I was relieved to find that I might have a heart after all when I caught the tail end of a TIPA performance tonight. TIPA, the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts (I hope I have that right...) is up the mountain from McLeod Ganj, relatively easily accessible via (get this) TIPA Road, which I just happen to be living on now. The Institute is a small complex at the top of the road with a handful of largish buildings, a big courtyard with a stage at one corner, and a couple of basketball goals. (That's what I've come to call them - I hear from Sports Illustrated it's an Indiana thing. What would you call them? Hoops?) When we first visited the place with our friend Sanje (whose name I do not know how to spell), I listened to a constant cadence of drums and other percussion instruments - cymbals, I think, as well as a few kind of unique to Tibetan culture. I thought it might be a particularly nice place to ask about being able to film some preparations for the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration and maybe interview some folks; the stage, after all, has a big painting of him with the number 70 and a short dedication to him - apparently left over from last year's celebration of his 70th birthday. So when Lily and I heard that TIPA would be having a concert of music and dance, we decided to go. (Okay, that was kind of confusing. We're back to tonight now - are you caught up?) We caught the very end of the performance, which was held in a packed and very hot performance hall. It consisted of a number of men with long locks of hair or ropes attached to the tops of their heads who after their group performance each took a solo of what you might call (in Western shorthand) head-banging while all the other drummers on stage played, from what I could tell, according to the beat with which the soloist swung the rope from his head. I wish I could describe it better. It was really impressive and got a lot of enthusiastic applause from the crowd, which was made up of mostly Tibetans.

But after that was what really struck me. In Tibetan and then in English, an unseen announcer asked the whole crowd to stand for the singing of the Tibetan national anthem, and I watched from outside - physically and emotionally - while one of the performers came out in his Tibetan garb, bearing the Tibetan flag on a thick pole. He fixed his view at some point in space and led the hundreds of Tibetans present in a melody that was both haunting and beautiful, proud and sad. Everyone sang every word.

It's going to sound ridiculous, but I hadn't ever realized that Tibetans would have their national anthem. It just didn't occur to me that anyone - let alone everyone - would still know the words to the national anthem of a currently non-existent country. I didn't even realize it would ever exist. But now I'm forced to think of all this in a new way - to consider that despite all the factors that still could spell political bias in interviews and the need for caution on my part, there are real emotions involved in all this. Preservation is not just an issue for academic review but a human endeavor for what are, for these individuals, very real and very important reasons. Lily was talking last week to a woman who owns a bookstore with her husband and asked whether the woman was happy that everything's working out for Tibetans here in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj so well, happy that they were able to maintain some of their culture while they're here and at least have some peace. "No," said the woman, and Lily was taken aback. "I'm supposed to be in Tibet."

That wasn't the clearest story and I know I had paragraphing issues, but I hope it got the message across all right.

As far as the film goes, I'm between two ideas now. The culture-of-cultural-preservation as encapsulated in the Dalai Lama is still a good idea I think, but I've heard about a band around here that my friend Sonam calls 'the only good Tibetan rock band', and I think that's got some merit to it too. Plus rock and roll is a whole lot sexier to an audience than cultural preservation through dance and costume in preparation for the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration. But what if I took a look at both? I mean, I wonder if this band I've heard about (who also runs a café in town, which would be a nice dynamic for the piece) does its rock thing in the name of the Free Tibet movement. In that case wouldn't it be interesting to see the two ways groups are doing performing arts in the name of Tibet - 'traditional' vs. 'Western'? Frankly it sounds a lot more interesting to me because of the contrast visible between the two, and as I've said rock and roll will sure have a lot of sex appeal.

I just realized that that kind of thing might not be the best thing to put up on a blog, for the whole world to see. Fine, okay, just go ahead and steal my ideas, see if I care... Wait, I take it back.

I caught a pretty gross cold this past week, but I think it's about done for now. The first night, though, I practically didn't sleep and when I finally got up in the morning I had a terrible sinus headache so I just stayed in bed and drank hot stuff (like hot lemon-ginger with honey, mmm...) and tried to pamper my way to health. Now I'm doing fine, though, and I'm all kinds of ready to get back and do more work in town. That'll mean going out and doing more work like the other day when, after expressing concern and surprise to the rest of the group about my apparent inability to build any kind of relationships with folks I've met here, I ducked into a little restaurant/café and ended up at the only 'free' table with a guy in the common burgundy robes of Buddhist monks. I pulled out my notebook, where I'd written a couple of Tibetan phrases, and got about halfway through "What's your name?" (Kherang-gi tsen la ga rey yin - see, it's long!) when he finished the phrase for me, smiling. Turns out he spoke a good amount of broken English, so we spent some time talking about the Dalai Lama and monastic life versus laity. Turns out he's 'in the middle' - not a layman and not a monk - because he hasn't 'taken the vow' yet. Too many rules, he says. But he and I got along just great, and I'm going to try to play it really chill, just like that time, from now on.

Oh, by the way, turns out there's another Lama who's also an incarnation of Avalokitesvara, so I'm not sure what to make of this whole thing. Would both be seen as father figures for Tibetans? How can one Bodhisattva have multiple incarnations at one time? Also, where does the incarnation of a Bodhisattva end and the individual we see begin - the Dalai Lama talks about his imperfections but (from what friend and fellow BYU student Elizabeth tells me) teaches that the Boddhisattva doesn't have imperfections.

More later.

03 June, 2006 - 22:34 IND

Today was the Buddha's birthday, and we missed it. We were at the farmhouse that belongs to our guesthouse owner - she'd invited us a number of times, and something had always happened (most recently my cold), so when we figure out that today would really work we just went for it. She's been so kind to us that we felt that the continuing appearance of these complications was only beginning to strain our relationship, and we wanted to go and let her share some of her pride and joy with us. I guess I'll have to just plan on going to the Karmapa Lama's birthday celebration (it's about an hour away - I've forgotten the name of the town) on the 26th of this month. Oh wait, that's my birthday too! And up until now I didn't think any celebrities had been born on my birthday...

It's weird to me that a bunch of my friends are playing ultimate in Provo right now, as I get ready for bed. (For those of you who don't really know much about me but are reading anyway because you don't have anything better to do, Provo, Utah, is where I've been living for the past few years while I'm at school at Brigham Young University. 'Ultimate' means ultimate frisbee, and I've played every Saturday, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, for about two years - plus a few stretches where I'd play four or five times a week for a couple months.) So to those of you who are playing right now, know that in a way I'm jealous because (1) I don't get much exercise these days and (2) this trip is really expensive. Sometimes I get a little homesick when I think about everybody out there playing. So please, let's keep playing when I get back yeah? I'm kind of taking comfort in the fact that Tony, James, and I are all living like a block away from Kiwanis Park - and I know that's not Joaquin Elementary, but I figure they're probably going to start tearing the field up anyway, right? Or have they already? Wow, that was a weird realization - that a place that's been such a part of me for such a long time (four years!) is probably gone now. Stupid developers... Anyway, I can't wait to get back and experience Provo again with everybody. But for now, I have to figure out where in the world my research is going (will that process ever stop?) and how to finally put together this movie thing...

05 June, 2006 - 10:57 IND

Just a quick note before I shower, do some laundry, and run out to put this entry up on the blog. Really, thanks everybody for reading. Sometimes this switches between stuff that's really meant for you and stuff that's just reflection on my part, so if you're willing (or able, for that matter) to make your way through it thanks for sticking with me. I do want to hear how everybody out there's doing, so please send me an email or leave a comment here because they're sent to me through my GMail account anyway. And if I don't know you then by all means tell me who you are and what's your interest in the blog. Y'all are great. Thanks.

Photos coming soon.


Jooj said...

by the other incarnation of avalokiteshvara, do you mean the penchan lama? that's perhaps the most disturbing aspect of china's conquest of tibet - the true penchan lama chosen by the dalai lama mysteriously disappeared and china installed their own little boy in his place. so tragic! but most vajrayana followers believe that there are thousands of lamas - including steven segal, the hollywood actor who is a devout buddhist.

anyway, if you guys get a private audience with the dalai lama, i am going to be so jealous - that's quite possibly the coolest thing ever. like meeting gandhi or nelson mandela in person.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Namaste Nephi! So you made it! I departed India at almost the exact same time, and am now in Kathmandu. Maybe I can catch you while you're still in McLeod. Enjoying the blog.