Tuesday, June 13, 2006

This is a long one! With a photo!

June 8, 2006 - 21:07 IND

I don't know how to think anymore. And maybe that's a good thing.

My roommate, Ben, has come to me with all kinds of new additions or modifications to his theoretical approach to his research. Problematizations of the words 'identity' and 'memory', and of the distinctions and similarities between each and of the manipulation of one to create another and of the imposing of one on the other and all kinds of things. And some good sentences come out of it - for instance, "They have not lost their religion, so it has become less of a focus within the cause or their struggle for memory. They fear losing Tibet, not Buddhism.... Their culture is one of looking forward, toward gaining a Tibet they have not known, while those who knew Tibet are looking back to a Tibet they have lost." But the theory, or analysis, or whatever happens in the background of that writing, has held him in our room (spacious and bright and beautiful as it is - thank you, Kailwood Guesthouse) and in the Tibetan Library for the past couple of days and held us in a couple of conversations revolving around abstractions and nuances, and I'm just tired of it.

Don't get me wrong, I don't villify Ben for any of this stuff. I'm not put off by his doing it either. Heavens no! I like this guy as much as just about any of the friends I've ever had. After all, how would you go about disliking somebody who spends every moment thinking about things he can do for other people? No, it's more that I just don't know how any more thinking is going to do me any good. During the past semester, in a course we had together, we spent four months working on our research proposals, and for a long time (until just the week before finals) I thought I knew what I was doing. Then, at professors' recommendations, I had to revamp the thing. Twice. And quite frankly, by the end of that whirlwind I just didn't know which way was up anymore, and now that I'm here I see that things are even less clear than I thought they would be, and I think it's going to take me a lot longer than the time we have here to straighten my thoughts out.

It's also that all told, we've only got seven weeks to finish our projects, and we're already two weeks in. And I've just today started getting footage of folks learning traditional dance, and I've only done the one interview with the producer from Channel V so far. (Oh, I just realized I haven't told that story yet. I'll get to it below. Sorry.) At the pace I'm currently going I'm wondering how much footage I'm going to end up with, and the limited amount of footage I may end up with would of course limit the numbers of connections I can make between clips while editing - which could make for a really schizophrenic piece when it's all over. So I really need to start talking with more performing-arts folks like those up at TIPA and the band I mentioned earlier, as opposed to sitting and agonizing about what kind of approach I'm going to take. I guess that's sort of in motion, though: our friend Sonam talked to Chigme, who's in the band, and Roommate Ben talked with the monk he does conversation classes with about finding a way for me to go to TIPA and start research up there. All I need to do, I guess, is take the next step with Chigme and wait for the word from Ben's influential monk friend after the weekend, and then I can start with those two veins of my videoing. (By the way, I think a lot of the decision-making process as far as My Approach goes happens in the editing room, once all the footage is gathered. Maybe that's why I feel like I should jump in a bit more readily than the other kids. Or at least more readily than I was originally doing.)

Another frustration is that with every step Ben takes in his thinking, I'm finding it more difficult to differentiate his research from my own - or maybe his theoretical perspective, rather. And to hear somebody else say what you wanted to say all along, and to know that both your projects are going to be based on these underlying ideas - that's a really frustrating thing. It's like I don't have any motivation to think any more - like I don't need to have any motivation for thinking. Why would I, after all, if Ben's doing all the hard stuff for me?

So I'm just letting myself take steps towards videoing. Or rather, I'm videoing. I've already mentioned some of the footage I've captured so far, and that the next steps are interviews and actual rehearsals for the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration. Today was especially important because I found a guy ('Chophel'), a young guy who just received his masters in economics from a university down by Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and speaks English really well, who might agree to doing some translation work. I don't know - maybe I overstayed my welcome today at his office, asking him to back-translate my consent form, which someone else had already translated from English to Tibetan. In any case, the next couple times I see him I'd just like to take it easy and treat him to some food or something. He's an awfully nice guy; it's too bad that the first day I met him was also a day I needed to find somebody who could do the back-translation. It would have been nice to just hang out for a while before I suddenly 'used' him.

What I'm thinking is that a couple weeks of listening for what people here say is going to lead me better in my research than looking for what academics have said about the people in this community. It's that kind of thing that usually sparks video ideas in me, too. So this is probably a good idea, just jumping in instead of thinking how warm or cold the water's going to be. Thinking is nice in the classroom, but out here, I just don't know how much good it's doing me.

June 10, 2006 - 23:47 IND

The World Cup is upon us, and while that Trinidad & Tobago - Sweden match I just finished watching was quite a thrill, it's not what I'm wanting to talk about tonight. When I came back up the hill from the guesthouse that neighbors ours below, Ben was in our room talking with Surindr, one of the guys who takes care of the whole place. I did my spiel about Trinidad & Tobago's brilliant keeper, etc., and then they continued their conversation. It was centered on Surindr's education and work situations and quickly moved to his family back home. The guy hasn't saved any of his money because he sends it back to his family - especially his younger brother who is in the 11th grade, the second-to-last grade before finishing school here (from what I can gather) and the very grade Surindr himself was in when he left school. "He can finish school," says Surindr, "go to university, do any job he wants." Our friend here at the guesthouse takes it upon himself to take care of his little brother. "That's his luck, we say."

Ben went for a bit deeper of an understanding. "Is that his karma? Would you say that?"

"Yes!" replied Surindr. "You know the karma?" I felt a connection form between Ben and Surindr then. And it occurred to me, as it had before, that karma is for well over a billion people a completely sensible and effective way of understanding and making peace with their current situations in life. I think that's one of the basic needs - spiritual, psychological, or otherwise - that we all have in our lives, to find a way of looking at our current situations in a way that allows us to be happy. For me, I'm of the school that says that God, a loving Father, has put us in the place and time where and when we will be able to make the greatest possible progress for our real, long-term happiness, even if that means postponing temporary pleasure or even comfort. For who-knows-how-many people, the explanation is karma, and for others it's the idea of Camus's absurde and, beyond that, existentialism. Across the world different ideas and systems have developed in order to make peace to some degree possible.

To a large extent I'm convinced by the idea of karma, too, and I think many of my friends will be surprised at how easily they would agree with it as well. I'll quote below a little bit from Huston Smith's The World's Religions (copyright 1991 by the author, Huston Smith), but first you should know that Smith's translation of the word karma is essentially 'work'. Thus one of the ways Hindus can see themselves coming to God is through 'work':

"[A]ccording to Hindu doctrine every action performed on the external world reacts on the doer. If I chop down a tree that blocks my view, each stroke of the ax unsettles the tree; but it leaves its mark on me as well, driving deeper into my being my determination to have my way in the world. Everything I do for my private wellbeing adds another layer to my ego, and in the thickening it insulates me more from God. Conversely, every act done without thought for myself diminishes my self-centeredness until finally no barrier remains to separate me from the Divine." (38)

Many thanks to Mr. Smith for such a beautiful passage. This is an image that's stuck with me very strongly since I read these words for the first time about a month ago, and I've thought a lot about the analogy and what it means for us to overcome our lower, natural selves and be higher, more refined beings. You might say more human, in the very best sense of the word. (To Mr. Smith and HarperCollins: Please don't sue me for using a section of your book. I'm simply reading it for a course and especially enjoyed this example, both in content and in form. I really have read the copyright in the book and am trying to keep with the spirit of what you've laid out there.)

Of course, Hindus (among others) will apply this to reincarnation - an idea which in fact makes plenty of sense (ask me sometime how I sort of invented it for myself when I was 10 years old or so and contemplating The Mysteries of Eternity) but to which I don't adhere. And this is where Surindr has found his explanation for why he's perfectly content giving his earnings to his family so his brother can continue attending school and one day graduate from a university: his karma and his brother's karma have placed them in a place that's just for them, based on how they have acted in the past, as they continue on in their quest for detachment from this world. Now they have their roles to play, and each will play his own to the best of his ability.

The point here is not whether reincarnation is what really happens in life; I've already told you I don't think it is, but I'm still bringing it up because it brings us to the greater purpose in this discussion. Surindr has, like many others, found a way to see his world in a way that helps him to make sense of it, to come to terms with it, and to feel peace in the midst (and perhaps in spite of) it.

I think if we realize that that's something we really do need in our lives, and recognize how beautifully our belief systems help us do that, we can learn to appreciate our own beliefs even more. And what's more - and maybe more important - we can find incongruencies and address them honestly and earnestly so that our worldview and our resulting actions really can bring us true happiness. For me, the center of that worldview is Christ, but I've found that several of my ways of thinking about Jesus and His role in my life haven't fulfilled their purpose in making me happy. As I've addressed them very honestly, with my faith and my mind and heart together, I've actually found better answers that make my way of thinking and living more complete. It hasn't been an easy process, and I admit it's a bit scary walking into the dark like that. But it's shown me a better way each time, and I really have become happier.

On the lighter side, our otherwise very sober friend Benjamin Brady on the topic of big slugs: "Put it on the blog, man! The turd was walking!"

12 June, 2006 - 16:57 IND

I just realized I still haven't written out what happened the other night. It was a nice experience and one worth sharing, though maybe not the most profound. It all started at Nick's Italian, a favorite resaurant and hangout for foreigners here in McLeod Ganj. (We usually go to less expensive - and less touristy - places for our meals, but we had a craving for this thing called Banaffi pie, you see...) We were there shocked at a couple of Tibetan girls at the table next to ours who let their plates be taken away half full of pasta and American-style French fries, when I heard some drums next door.

Now I may have mentioned that there's a Tibetan rock band here that's caught my attention as a potential documentary subject, in juxtaposition with those doing traditional Tibetan dance and music. Aaaand it turns out the restaurant we were at was right next door to a café they and their mother run. So when I heard the drums I thought there might be a rehearsal going on next door, and I ran out of the restaurant to find out.

I pulled back the curtain across the front door and stepped into the café, a red-lit room measuring maybe 15-by-20 feet, and found myself in maybe the only open spot on the crowded wooden floor. Cigarette smoke curled through the air towards the ceiling, and a million different languages came at me from the café tables that had packed a capacity crowd of Western backpackers into the room. The Doors were playing above me. A slender woman with a dark, wrinkled face stood behind the small counter wearing a chupa, an elegantly simple traditional Tibetan dress I'd seen on the streets and in the temple.

I assumed this was the mother of the band's members - who are all brothers - and decided to ask her where the rehearsal was going on and whether I could visit. "No, not tonight," she said, "but come tomorrow. Tonight there is the television here, you see. You come tomorrow." And as she explained I saw four or five people pour out of the kitchen into the already crowded dining room, two of them armed with video cameras and bright lights and one following close behind carrying a boom mike. They moved like a curious machine, zooming up to the nearest table and stopping like they'd been programmed for unison, hunching over it with their cameras like scientists over their microscopes. If I wanted to film, I'd come too late.

Back outside, I sat myself down on the café's front step next to a heavy Indian man looking at a small camcorder that he held in his hands. He seemed out of place after the scene I'd just come from inside, and yet he looked like he was supposed to somehow belong to all of that. He affirmed that yes, he was part of that crew, that he'd come with them from Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and that they were all working for Channel V, a worldwide youth and music station, and furthermore that they were doing a piece on the same band I wanted to. (Not that this last bit was any news to me...) When I told him what I did he asked to see my camera. I think he was surprised when I took mine out - surprised that a kid would have something like that. I figured he'd been around cameras quite a bit. And then I had an idea. Maybe, instead of feeling like I'd missed out on an opportunity to talk to the band, I'd actually come up on a rare or even unique chance to talk to someone who'd talked to the band. I could get a popular, media perspective on this band and its significance and find out where other folks figured this group into the music scene. I proposed as much to the guy next to me, and he admitted that he couldn't make any decision like that, that I'd have to talk to the producer. Fair enough, I would wait for them to come out.

Turns out that didn't take long. They soon came bursting through the café's front curtain, lights and mike and all, and sat down their female talent along with some American or German or English or French girl who could answer some questions about her interest in the band and the café. So, rather than thinking too much about the band, I turned my camera on and got a shot of their cameras. A crowd was gathering and noise started to build, so they ended their interview pretty soon, and I found out that my camera had attracted the attention of their crew. They gathered around me, and the producer came up and introduced herself and heard my case. She was actually friendlier and more inviting than I ever could have hoped, and pretty soon we were sitting down to do a short interview right there in the café. But it turned out the low light just wasn't going to work out for us there so I started putting my things away. "It's too bad," I said, "but that's all right, you know? I'll still get the band." "Well," she answered, "why don't I give you my cell number, and you come up to our hotel and do the interview there, man? We don't get to bed until midnight or one anyway, so you'd have plenty of time." I told her I thought it was a great idea, and we sat down and chatted for a while - quite a conversation about how she ended up getting into a producing job like this one - and then the VJ/talent (I'm afraid to use names here - could I get sued?) came and sat down and started telling me her story too. Both of them were just great, really friendly and fun to talk to. And soon I was all packed up and on my way home for a spell.

I ended up trying to call maybe half an hour later, after taking a quick banana curd and the monk-operated Shangri-la restaurant on Jogibara Road, but I got the producer's voice mail (some Dylan song, actually... maybe "Like a Rolling Stone"??) and just figured I would try to find the hotel the whole crew was staying at. (I had gotten directions from her before leaving the café.) It didn't take me long - there are only four main roads here in McLeod, and only one goes to the Dalai Lama's temple - so I actually ended up beating the producer and the VJ back. The whole rest of the crew was already there though, just a bunch of guys hanging out after a long day of work, so we just took a load off and talked video for a while on the balcony in front of their rooms. They were every bit as interested in my equipment as I was in theirs; we spent a good half hour comparing cameras and booms and things, and one of the guys brought up a really impressive rig that allowed you, at the simple flick of a rest essentially, to set up a camera on any flat, sturdy object and then set it at any imaginable angle. Really ingenious stuff, I thought. I'm pretty sure it was the same guy I had sat with in front of the café before, and I was really glad we had met. The other guys were awfully nice, too, showing me their cameras and offering me food and talking boom and sound. Anyway, I felt like maybe I could find my place among folks like these;.by the time the producer and VJ came up the stairs we were practically old friends. (Except I couldn't remember their names. Indian names are always hard for me.)

When the other two members of the crew got there we set up for an interview, which was a fun experience in its own right. It was really nice both having my own crew to work with - and that's really how they were acting, it was great - and learning from them as we went. I picked up some good tips from the guys, and soon we were ready for the shoot. The producer, I thought, was having a good time finally being in front of the camera instead of looking through a viewfinder, and despite some repetitions we needed to do (especially thanks to some Indian folks being loud down on the street below us), it all came off really well. I mean, she had some great stuff to say, stuff I'll really be able to use!

We were finished then and exchanged email addresses and business cards and such, and I was glad that I had finally done my first interview for this project - unorthodox and surprising as it had been.

20:41 IND

I felt today like I hadn't felt in a while. (And I can talk about this some now, by the way, because the venue where we were watching the US-Croatia World Cup match had some bizarre electrical problem tonight, and we lost power in the 38th minute. It was 2-0 Croatia, and I wasn't feeling very peaceful about the whole thing at all (to say the least - I really howled at that first goal by Koller), so maybe it's better that the power be out down there so I can just come up and relax my nerves.) I've had kind of a breakthrough in my research, and that's felt really good, like I'm moving beyond my old, stale ideas to look more deeply into the problem and find out more about what's going on in this community (and all this even though it's come from some interpretation of field notes as I've gathered them, which Bernard tells us is pretty much a big no-no). But it's been something else, too.

I was discussing ideas again, in an exciting way like I hadn't since some of my most recent classroom experiences at BYU. I'm talking theoretical stuff here, like a couple questions brought up by a Korean guy in broken English: "Does civilization cause culture or does culture cause civilization?" "Is culture more mental or physical? What about civilization?" I mean, it was fun to have to think off the top of my head and feel like I was doing an okay job at it - I wonder how I'd lived for a month and a half without that kind of interaction!

But then again, I dunno... this whole classroom thing and these unanswerable questions - are they doing us any good? I guess maybe individually, as we attack real-world problems. What I mean is that I should probably figure out which answers work best for the world I see around me and give those answers credence in my worldview and models. Isn't that what academic-types do anyway? And then can't they use those worldviews when new problems surface? And once that happens, it seems like their answers take greater force as they explain and defend them to the folks who do stuff about the problems, like create policy and such. So maybe there is value here.

Or maybe I'm just thinking about this all wrong. I'm gonna go to bed.


Okay now it's later and here are just a couple more things. First, a sample of my field notes - just so you guys know what I'm doing here. Here's the sample.

~0026 Dalai Lama's Temple MCLD 050606 REL MTHD MAR GNDR:

On a whim I decided to spend some time this afternoon at the temple. Sitting in the small park between the temple and the Dalai Lama's residence, I heard one man chanting loudly upstairs in the main temple. It sounded like his voice was being amplified by his being in one of the large temple rooms. I decided to go up and see what was happening, and when I reached the top of the stairs I found myself looking at hundreds of Tibetans around three sides of the temple (the three sides with windows and doors), most chanting in unison. Around the actual central temple structure there were monks and nuns in their burgundy robes, seated on cushions, pillows, and blankets. Then there was a pathway between one and two feet lower than the area where the monks and nuns were seated; I was familiar with this pathway, as I had done circumambulations on it before with Elizabeth. (Prayer wheels were located in three sections along the parts of the main temple structure's walls that were not already made up of windows or doors.) On the other side of the pathway, the rest of the floor was again elevated to the same height as directly around the main temple structure, and lay people sat near the pathway - probably over a hundred of them - on all three sides of the structure. There were also pockets of lay people just behind the monks and nuns, on the main elevated floor closer to the temple. All these individuals, however, were along the edges of the platform and in almost no case sat in front of anyone dressed in burgundy robes. A few lay people also did circumambluations in the lowered pathway around the two temple structures. Moreover, just as I was getting there (at around 3:30 pm) a group of monks were ending some kind of ritual session in the other temple structure, a ritual that involved percussion and 'brass' (because from my observations they use only lips directly applied to a mouthpiece) instruments.

Though all monks and nuns have shaven heads, I started to pick up on an overall tendency in the crowd of burgundy-robed people: those on the right side (while facing into the main temple structure towards the Buddha at the hall's far end) all displayed more masculine characteristics in their faces and far more bore broader shoulders and more musular arms. In general, those on the left side (a space created an aisle between the two, at least outside of the temple structure's walls) bore more 'feminine' features. The monks were separated from the nuns. However, I noted that there seemed to be a dozen or so exceptions - of men on the women's side, but not vice versa. What's more, all the lay people on the right side, from my observations, were men. A couple of lay men were on the nuns' side, also. But the lay individuals on the other side of the pathway seemed to have no order to it as far as gender separation went. I sat next to an elderly woman of perhaps 70 or 80, and she sat next to a man on the other side of her, who in turn was seated next to yet another woman. A group of woman sat together on cushions to my left, leaning on the railing that lined a stairwell down to the park and HHDL's residence. From my vantagepoint I observed that every visible person seated on the inner raised floor had removed his or her shoes, and many of these shoes were lying on the lower pathway.

One couple I noticed in the nuns' section shared a blanket and seemed to interact with each other. I assumed they were married, but that could of course prove to be wrong.

Most of the crowd chanted in unison with the man's voice on the loudspeakers, though as I sat with the lay section of the crowd I heard the people around me chanting something that sounded like a repetition of something and not at all in unison - neither with the man on the loudspeaker nor or with each other. Most of the individuals chanting in unison, actually, were in burgundy robes and held thinnish orange paperback books in their hands. They consulted them almost constantly, and at one point I noticed one nun look to another, only to have the second point to a spot in her own book. The first quickly turned to a page in her book and began chanting. Some people chanted with eyes closed, some with eyes open fixed on a certain point, and still others shifted their gaze from one place or person to another. Most sat supporting their own weight - some rather straight up but most individuals hunched over a bit as they chanted. A good number - 25 or so, I think - sat leaned back against railings (like the women I mentioned above), walls, or the large yellow pillars around the temple. This group was made up largely of lay individuals, but I noticed three or four people in burgundy robes doing the same as they were able according to their position around the temple. One robed young man in particular was apparently supporting as little of his own weight as he could and to my eyes was sending all kinds of signals that he wasn't very interested at all: his eyes travelled all over, he consulted his book far less frequently than his neighbors did theirs, and his posture leaned one shouler against a rear pillar and turned his body so it wasn't centered on the temple like everyone else's but rather toward the back end of the crowd, parallel to the lower pathway that ran behind the monks and nuns.

At one point in the ceremony I was surprised to find a number of men walking through the temple - Tibetan men, I take it, and most of them wearing matching light-blue button-down shirts - handing something to each person gathered there. There were at least four of these men. I was even more surprised to see that they were all wearing shoes there in the temple. More surprising yet was what they were passing out - notes of 500 rupees to every person dressed in burgundy robes, each holding a pile of the notes in one hand and distributing one note to each monk and nun. (It's possible there were individuals not actually belonging to the sungha - community of monks or nuns - but also not lay people, as I found out from talking to Dorgye in the café a few days ago. In any case, I didn't see any of the many lay people there receive money from these men.) (Also, I don't know where this money comes from or where it might go - food? housing? clothing? charity projects? Does it need to be accounted for? Are expenses recorded? Actually, come to think of it, I'm not that interested in many of these latter questions anyway.)

Periodically I heard cymbals or a gong sound loudly on the microphone, at which point the man leading the chants would stop and there would be a lull in the chanting as well. This would only last a few seconds, however, and the microphone would come back on and the man would then start his chanting again, followed within the first few words by the rest of the people gathered. (Whenever the cymbals sounded they were even harshly loud, leading me to believe they were likely very close to the microphone. When the man came back in on the microphone I could hear, quite loudly, the lingering ring of the cymbals, reaffirming that thought. I was not in a position to find out if their proximity to each other was as close as I thought it might be.) I noticed after around an hour that one man in robes would hold his orange book to his head each time the cymbals sounded. These breaks in the chanting, accompanied or initiated by the cymbals' sounding, grew in frequency until it was happening two or three times a minute - the man touching his book to his head each time - until a number of the people closed their books and procdeded until the end of the ceremony without referring to it again.

A quick note on these books - they were uniform, orange and thin, paperbacks. On each page I saw 25 or so lines of Tibetan and a page number. As I don't know Tibetan, I don't know what was printed on the pages; I couldn't understand what was being said over the loudspeaker, and even if I'd been close enough to the books I couldn't have been able to read anything.

I sat there with these people for well over an hour - how long I don't know as I didn't have a watch or any kind of timepiece, but it was significant. After the point in the ceremony when people were closing their books, the same men who had been handing out money came around and picked up these books. I noted that the couple I mentioned above had a book, which the man started to give back only to hesitate, bring the book to his forehead much as the monk I mentioned above had done when the cymbals sounded, and then finally yield the book to its collector. Many more people closed their eyes and chanted at this point in the ceremony.

Then, quite suddenly, the chanting stopped and people were gathering their blankets and cushions and things, putting on their shoes, and leaving down the two sets of stairs that lead to the ground level, park, some shrines, and the Dalai Lama's residence. The area around the temple cleared within five minutes, leaving only a large collection of cushions where the members of the sungha had been sitting in and around the structure. A number of people joined those that had been circumambulating during the whole end of the ceremony.

I must say that if this was participant observation, the only participating I did consisted of some frustrating efforts to get the attention of the frequent Indian (I mean mostly Punjabi) tourists who came up the stairs not knowing there was a culturally inappropriate direction to walk around the temple - circumambulating clockwise (relative to a vantagepoint above the temple) is the only proper, auspicious way to do it. See note 29 to see how that may have helped my relationship to the community (albeit in a very small way) and open up a door to relationship with an individual from within that community.


And, finally, a photo.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make a convincing italian. Though maybe not as convincing as brian does a mushroom.