The next day the only thing I did was go to volunteer at Gu Chu Sum. Where to start with this? Tibet has been in my heart since I visited in 2004. Dharamsala has since then held some mythical place in my heart, knowing that it was the home of the Dalai Lama. The real blanket overview story is that Tibet was atrociously invaded by the Chinese government in 1959 and since then, at least 100,000 (a huge proportion considering the entire population is roughly 6 million) Tibetans have been killed, and hundreds of thousands more tortured as the Chinese forcefully take control of the country, in what can only be interpreted as greed, wanting control of precious natural resources, including rivers, minerals, and strategic location. Many thousands of Tibetans have come to Dharamsala, fleeing Tibet, and they have unthinkable stories of walking from Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, all the way to Nepal (from personal accounts I’ve heard the average journey time is 25-30 days of walking through the Himalayas, often times at night, sleeping during the day so as not to be seen), and then they still have to make it to India. This situation grows more complicated as Maoist troops are put in Nepal to prevent them from coming across.
So – Gu Chu Sum. The organization has a program which I helped out with, which takes former political prisoners and puts them through a one-year program in which they are given housing in the center, have intensive studies of English language/grammar, Tibetan language/grammar, computers, Tibetan history, and philosophy. I helped out with the English language portion of the program for the remaining days I was in Dharamsala, and I fell in love instantly and repeatedly with the participants.
My heart connection was with Zonkyi, a nun from Lhasa. I arrived with Sara, a Mexican girl I had met in Amritsar, and she beckoned us over, putting down two cushions for her. She launched shyly, yet eagerly, into her introduction talk, saying how she was involved in the one-year program, and that English was very difficult for her, especially grammar. More students arrived so Sara paired off with another one, but I stayed with Donkyi. She wound so skillfully between all her life stories, telling me of her fateful day at the Jokhang when she was involved in a 15 minute protest in 2001 which was cut short by Chinese troops who beat the nuns (and many civilians) in the street, and resulted in 3 years of imprisonment in Lhasa. The violence, suffering and injustice was interjected with stories of how she has little or no desire to ever again climb another mountain, of how the duties at the nunnery involved carrying things back and forth when their nunnery was being rebuilt, and it was so important to be first because then you could carry something big but light, and if you were late you would be stuck carrying the heavy things. And climbing up ladders with these heavy things, her facial expressions of sheer terror but always with a spark of humor and joyful playfulness.
She spoke of her fellow inmates in prison, in particular a Chinese woman who was falsely framed for stealing from the electronics company that she worked for. When the Chinese lady first arrived, the other inmates, all Tibetan nuns, thought that the Chinese lady turning away from them, refusing to acknowledge their presence, was due to her disgust and hatred for Tibetans. But then the next day they were able to start communicating with her and mutually comforting each other, and then a beautiful friendship formed. When the Chinese lady was released, she came regularly to the prison with her father, bringing food and visiting her Tibetan cellmates, now friends.
And then of course the journey from Lhasa to Nepal. It is something that breaks my heart to know that way too many people in the world know the feeling of not knowing whether you will make it to the other side, to leave everything behind in the sliver of a hope for something better, but no guarantee to survive the perilous path to get there. To be able to tell stories like this with humor, to inspire compassion and laughter simultaneously, is something that I find Tibetans do with great skill. Her walk took 27 days, there were 24 in her party, and 3 did not make it. There were two children, orphans, whom she still keeps in contact with. They are in school in Dehra Dun. She spoke of how heavy her bag was, because it was filled with food and books, and how as the journey went on, from exhaustion she was forced to abandon her precious Buddhist literature, and the food supplies dwindled.
If two people can connect in just two hours – if they are both willing and open-minded and hearted to allow it to happen – if we all did this every day, what would the world be like? This is precisely what the Dalai Lama teaches. Can we practice this? I struggle like hell, despite having experienced countless cases where it does happen for me...day by day, little bit at a time...