This morning, a Buddhist nun, originally from Germany, led me down a shortcut to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
I met her behind a car that was stuck in the rubble of the cracking road; we had both offered to push. Must have been startling for the two Indian men – suddenly finding themselves next to a young woman from the United States and a previously-German Buddhist nun in her saffron robes attempting to fight gravity and pebbles sliding underfoot.
She took off down the mountain at a quick pace, perhaps some combination of German upbringing and Buddhist purpose. I caught up with her, asking if she was going to the dharma class at the Library. It had already been quite a hike down the steep road from the main part of McLeodganj; I knew it was halfway down the mountain, but I had not fully realized how far. Students in this class walk it every day.
We set out down a stone steps laid into the side of the mountain, an apparently faster route. Concerned about tripping over my feet and knocking a Buddhist nun down three flights of stairs, my focus narrowed to the width of a single stepping stone. The stairs led us to a complex of houses, the nun briskly moving up and down more wet concrete staircases, around corners, my eyes still focused on her swishing red hem and sneakers. As we popped out onto a slippery stone courtyard, she said “That was easy!” as I staggered up behind her.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is exactly what you want it to be: simple but gorgeous stone, brightly painted wooden eaves and an elaborately detailed entrance-way not overpowering its elegance. Rather than walking directly to the classroom, we turned left, moving clockwise around the building holding sacred texts – this, as I understand it, is called korma, and when done mindfully has as much merit as if you read all of the texts inside. Same reason that people spin prayer wheels.
A mix of Westerners and Tibetans were milling around outside and in the classroom. I joined the nun after removing my shoes, followed her advice on etiquette, and summarily botched the genuflections made when the teacher entered the room. Wise elders are revered more than any statue or image as the embodiment of Buddha. I chanted as best as I could, tried not to wiggle too much on my little mat (even though I was lucky enough to get one against the wall), and listened to the lecture.
Afterwards, alone, climbing the winding road back up the mountain in the reasonably-light rain (for the monsoon), every empty taxi honked and waved at me – why on earth would someone get soaked walking up that awful road if they could afford a lift?
But philosophy cannot remain trapped in a classroom, it must breathe throughout the mountain and in life.
Delhi is hot, with crowded streets, sellers hawking clothes, jewelry, fruit, anything, shouting after you wherever you go. Half-starved dogs flop beneath cars, twitching at flies. Tiny rooms stuffed with wares open onto the street, and sizzling pots turn out piles of fried mystery. Tiny rusted cars honk their way through bicycles and rickshaws, all careening around people and street carts with no logical sense. People squeeze through tiny spaces to escape being crushed. Trash gathers in heaps everywhere, there are no garbage cans. All painted surfaces are peeling, buildings patched together somewhere short of completion. There are few foreigners, and women are always a minority.
Everything in India seems broken. When I was in Agra with new friends, to see the Taj Mahal, I had to go to six ATMs to find one that was working. A bicycle rickshaw driver took me to one after the other through the rain, finding one where the electricity was off, another that was closed yet labeled as 24 hours. We covered six kilometers with stories about his family and Agra; at every stop I handed him my umbrella for him to use while I was inside, useless in the face of his already-soaked clothes. Six.
Gritty and dirty, the cities can drain your energy. I have learned to double the time I think I need to do anything. Trains come in late, this or that line might take forever, or you might need to go to four more places to find what you need.
Now, in Shimla, a town perched in the Himalayan mountains, 7000 feet above sea level, the frenetic pace has eased. Pine-covered mountains and cool, misty air indicate a space of peace. I now know what it is like to be inside a cloud that is raining on you, and see blue sky above it. This is still India: cars zip around corners, crowds mill around favorite shops, and men still dominate every space. But there is space to breathe.