In December 2001, I was 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 adventures/ stories that happened the three weeks I was in India, studying with HH the Dalai Lama.
It all started after 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 actually open that day and he 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 defended 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 it brought me some comfort. My student returned from New York with an ankle bracelet on and took another class with me at Grossmont College. 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, and my former student was finally acquitted.
Getting back to 2011, I found out that a group from Los Angeles was planning a three week trip to India to study with HH 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 where the Tibetan refugee camps were. 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 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/American and from Singapore. We were about 50 people with maybe 10 Americans, many Chinese, and a group of Costa Ricans. Part of the group was going to stay at the temple with the monks and “rough” it. 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 nice 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 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 had been 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 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, he 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 come out. 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 with 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 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 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 $500 and asked me to deliver it to her family who lived in Camp Three. 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.
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. 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 vet. 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 put in charge of the foundation and she was paid a stipend. The sister was also studying to be a nurse.
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 do the same.
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.