A Jewish Buddhist [JuBu] in India

Republished from San Diego Jewish World Por:
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In December 2001, my roommate and I were semi-kidnapped by a taxi driver in the state of Karnataka, a remote area in Southeast India.   Although scary at the time, it ended being one of many life experiences and adventures that happened the three weeks I was in India, studying with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It all started after September 11, 2001, or 9/11.  One of my students at Grossmont College had been arrested by the FBI and taken to New York where he was beaten by prison guards.  Although a devote and at times, militant Muslim, he had nothing to do with 9/11, except that he had met the two pilots that flew into the Pentagon when they were here in San Diego.

Grossmont College was one of the few schools that did not cancel classes that day, so we were in class that morning. My student kept on telling the class that this was not the way of Islam. Like all of us, he was very upset. He was arrested the next day. In my class, he had been a good student and was always willing to help others, and believe it or not, he actually had a good sense of humor and got all my jokes.  Because I ended up defending him and was in the minority, life was not easy.

I had started studying Buddhism in 2000, but after this, I really turned to its teachings as I found they brought me some comfort during these difficult times. Although I was and am proud to be Jewish, for my family, it was more cultural than religious, and I found Buddhist teachings impacted me profoundly.

My student returned from New York with an ankle bracelet on and took another class with me at Grossmont College the following semester.  Later, he ended up graduating from SDSU with honors and in 2006, one of his professors and I went to New York City to testify on his behalf [his lawyer was Sarah Kunstler, William Kunstler’s daughter].  We won the case, the government did not appeal, and my former student was finally acquitted. He went on to become an American citizen, get married, and settle down in his life.

However, getting back to 2001, it was a very difficult time.  I found out that a Buddhist group from Los Angeles was planning a three-week trip to India to study with HH The Dalai Lama in December. I thought it would be good to escape, do some intense studying, and there were several connections.

This trip was planned because a Tibetan monk, who was an old friend of HH, was being promoted and would head a new monastery/temple that had been built near Mundgod, India in the state of Karnataka where the Tibetan refugee camps had been set up years before when HH escaped from Tibet. Although HH was in Dharmsala, the camps were not.

My first connection was that this same monk had been my student for one summer in the 1980’s in an ESL class that I taught in Pacific Beach. He came with his translator as his English was minimal.  He had been invited to head a Buddhist group here in San Diego.   He later moved to El Cajon and we stayed in touch.  A year or two later, HH appointed him to lead this large group in West Covina, near Los Angeles, and that is where he stayed for 10+ years. I would drive up to study there and thus the relationship continued.

It was this group that I traveled with to India in 2001 as he was to be promoted again. An interesting note is that many in the group were Taiwanese, Taiwanese/American, and from Singapore.  We were about 60 people with maybe 10 Americans, the Chinese mentioned above, a group of Costa Ricans, and the Tibetans. Part of the group- mostly the younger ones- was going to stay at the temple with the monks and “rough” it. They had to take cold showers and there were no toilets, only holes in the ground with buckets.

My part of the group stayed at a nice hotel in Hubli, a nearby town.  We would rough it during the day, but have a Western style bathroom with a shower to come home to at night.

This is where the second connection comes in.  The leader of our group at the hotel was this Cuban American professor who had been a Buddhist for many years and knew HH personally.  As it turned out, she was from Miami and had grown up with my sister Iris’s partner and her brother who was the mayor of Miami in the 1980’s. The professor was there with her wife, a lovely American woman, and we all bonded.  Because of my fluency in Spanish, I was assigned a Costa Rican professor as my roommate as we all had double rooms. She was a science professor and I translated for her into English.

We all flew from Los Angeles to Tokyo and then spent the night in Singapore.  Then, we flew to Bangalore, India and boarded a bus for the 12 hour ride to Hubli. They told us to set our alarms early for the next day as our tour bus was going to take us to the temple to begin our studies with HH.  Well, my roommate and I overslept, and we missed the bus.

We were desperate in a very foreign place. Finally, the hotel clerk got us a taxi, a local man who did not speak English or Hindi for that matter.  Our clerk explained to him where we wanted to go.  We got in the back of the car and off we went.   However, rather than take us to the temple, he took us to his small village to meet his mother and his family!  We thought we were being kidnapped when I switched into ESL teacher mode and I realized that they wanted us to stay and have tea and “biscuits” with them.  The area we were in was so remote that white foreigners were very unusual.  The whole village came to see us.  After an hour of miming with them, the taxi driver finally took us to the temple.

We arrived so late that we could not find our group.  We pushed our way through, and I don’t know how we did it, but we ended up backstage where HH was waiting to go out on stage. We did not see him, but we met his head of security, a very nice man who spoke English and was able to get us back to our group.

There were about 5,000 monks there from all over India and when they chanted together, it would transport you.  We were in a large room, but it was filled to capacity, and we all squeezed in like sardines, on the floor.  The windows were open to provide a breeze and sometimes I felt like I was in a trance. We studied every morning with HH for three hours which included teachings, chanting, and meditation.

Later the group from LA was granted a private audience with HH where we all sat in front of him and he spoke to us in Tibetan mixed with English. There were English and Chinese translators. Seeing him up close, I was in awe of the energy and warmth he exuded, and also noticed that he had very big ears!  It was an honor and a special moment.

Finally, the third connection came in. Before I left on the trip, one of my students in San Diego- a Tibetan woman- had given me $800 and asked me to deliver it to her family who lived in Camp Three of the refugee camps. These camps were interesting because they were the place that so many Tibetans had fled to in 1959. Their children were born there and grew up with one foot in Tibetan culture and one foot in Indian culture, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes not. Anyway, my student had her sister meet me at the temple and then she took me home to meet her mother and the youngest sister. They treated me like family and took me around, so I got to meet other Tibetans in the camps. Her sister would hold my hand wherever we walked as was their custom.

As it turns out, both my student’s sister and the Cuban/American leader of our group were dog /animal lovers.  As you can imagine, there were many stray dogs all around the camps. To make a long story short, I introduced the sister to the leader and they devised a plan together.  The sister had a friend who was a veterinarian. Since the leader had a personal relationship with HH, she went to him for help, and a foundation was set up to capture the dogs, neuter/spay them, and then either find them a home or release them again.

When we left, the sister was put in charge of the foundation, and she was paid a stipend.  The sister was also studying to be a nurse. Sadly, the week after her graduation, she was riding home on the back of a motorcycle [a very common form of transportation] when the motorcycle was hit by a truck, and she did not survive. I will always have such fond memories of the time I spent with her.

It truly was the trip of a lifetime and the lessons I learned there continue with me today.  Although I am no longer an active Buddhist, I still try to live my life by many of the spiritual principles I learned. I consider myself a Jewish student of Tibetan Buddhism.

An amusing aside is I found out that like Jewish people, Tibetans add “la” to the end of a name to show affection. My mom used to call me Mimi-la when I was young, and my Tibetan friends did the same.

Republished from San Diego Jewish World

Acerca de Mimi Pollack

Miriam [Mimi] Pollack was born in Chicago, but moved to Mexico City when she was five years old. She lived and worked in Mexico for over 20 years. She currently resides in San Diego and worked as an ESL instructor at Grossmont College and San Diego Community College Continuing Education until June 2018. She writes for various local publications.

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