Every few weeks I’m saddened by hearing or reading news reports of yet another Tibetan monk burning himself to death. The self-immolations are a desperate form of plea to the world for the preservation of the ancient culture and the survival of the Tibetan peoples.
Upon finding out about each suicide, I automatically visualize the Gelugpa monks I know as personal friends. I met them at Sera Je Monastery when I had visited South India. I remember a crowd of them watching my party arrive at the university grounds. The monks seem to exist in large groups much of the time. My travel companion and I were given traditional katas (white scarves) as a formal greeting.
Later, the first day, Jigdal invited me on a personal tour of the university grounds and one of the temples. We were barely out of the building when he reached for my hand. He insisted that I needed to hold his hand so I wouldn’t get lost in the confusing meandering of paths and walkways of the monastery property. He also said that good friends traditionally walk hand in hand in Tibet.
Jigdal’s joy and enthusiasm flowed to me unselfishly and generously. I felt shocked at the level of innocence and trust that was shared by Jigdal and most of the other monks in his circle of compatriots. My friend and I bonded that afternoon among the monks and ethnic Tibetans living in the refugee town.
In the evening, we enjoyed a specially prepared meal of Tibetan dishes. Even though Tibetans aren’t strictly vegetarian, the monks prepared dishes selected for vegetarian requirements. The savory food was at once unfamiliar yet delightful and satisfying. Thankfully, they didn’t serve us butter tea, instead we drank instant Nescafe’ coffee.
After the empty plates were cleared, we engaged in conversation about Buddhist precepts and the Tibetan approaches in their scope and meaning.
During other days of the visit with the monks, we also travelled to some tourist sites and a few Hindu temples. The monks expressed as much delight and curiosity as I did.
Even in February, the heat in that part of the world is intense. During one break, my English friend, a few of the monks and I sat under a large tree near a temple to Vishnu. As we enjoyed afternoon tea, I imagined an ancient gathering of students during the time of the Lord Buddha’s life. It was just a simple gathering of friends engaged in spiritual conversation. The backdrop of a hot Indian afternoon acted as a mental time machine. I still treasure the memory.
Departure from the monastery came too soon. We were given more katas. Jigdal and another monk rode with us in the auto-rickshaw to the bus depot. I found a seat on the bus, then reached my hand out the window to bid farewell to my friend. Jigdal held onto my hand tightly. The bus began to move. Jigdal only let go of my hand when he could no longer run fast enough. My English friend and I couldn’t help but weep openly on the bus.
I still maintain communication with two monks. I help to sponsor their education and travels. In return, I get hand written letters via regular air mail. Each letter is a special token of friendship that I keep within a special place in my heart.
I harbor a glimmer of hope that the genocide taking place in modern Tibet will abate and that the Tibetan people will once again thrive in their native country. Independent and not just autonomous. The chance of this happening anytime soon is less than slim. But strange, wonderful things sometimes happen and surprise the world.