The TEXT Program just returned from three weeks in India, living in the Tibetan refugee settlement at Majnu-KaTilla in Delhi as well as at Drepung Loseling Monastery in the south. We also spent time in Dharamsala, the home in exile to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
We got our interviews, we logged our miles, and we are just beginning to put together our thoughts on the journey. This was my fifth trip to India—my fourth with students—and while each trip has been a little different, this one has already given rise to several convictions that I wanted to share with my students and with anyone else who has an interest in the future of Tibet—whatever that future may be.
- The India that our students saw on the drive from Indira Gandhi International Airport to Majnu-Ka-Tilla is, at least, unsettling. Poverty, homelessness, pollution, over-crowding, traffic, the narrow alleyways . . . nothing can prepare them for the tactile experience of this part of India. And yet, what came of this experience, three weeks later, on the way home, was a sense of rare privilege: I believe that most of my students know deeply now how fortunate they are, and they are beginning to understand the responsibilities that come with those fortunes. Such understanding is the work of a lifetime, but the sooner this work begins in each of us, the sooner each of us will understand how very little we can do, but how important it is that each of us do that little bit. After India, apathy would seem impossible.
- Every piece of paper money in India features the same face, staring resolutely into the Indian future: Mahatma Gandhi. It is significant that these paper bills, and Gandhi's visage, move seamlessly from caste to caste in daily commercial transactions. Gandhi is the ghost of India, often ignored like an old, censorious grandfather, but still acknowledged and respected because he remains the country's most famous citizen and potent cultural export. Nonviolence. How long after you mention that word does it take for Gandhi, gaunt and grinning, to appear? India has its problems with violence, of course, but in any political discussion, whether at the village or national level, nonviolence has a place at the table. Our students have never entered an arena where this is the case. Nonviolence is part of India's cultural inheritance, and our students are left to wonder how this might play out in America. It's not an easy task. But I'm happy that it has now appeared on their radars.
- At the end of every interview we did with the Tibetans, we asked them to describe their hopes for the future of Tibet. Predictably, the Dalai Lama's return to his home country figured largely in their answers, as did a free and independent Tibet (with one exception). Autonomy or the Middle Way was rarely mentioned. I have nothing profound or insightful to say about this. And I hope my students understand why I don't. Human freedom—not to be confused with political freedom—is life itself, understood innately, naturally, and without circumspection. Whenever our sense of freedom must be justified publicly, artificially, and with paranoia, things have gone badly. And so things have gone badly for the Tibetan people, and my hope is not that our students see themselves as Tibet's saviours—the last thing Tibetans need, in my opinion—but that each of them begin to reconceptualize and exercise the freedoms that they do have now, at this moment, in this country. Perhaps exercising these freedoms will have an impact on their sense of community—we are free in America to define community however we wish—and perhaps this changing sense of community will have a lasting and expanding benefit for many people and for many communities. That, in my opinion, would be a very good thing. And I know my students are up to the task. And that is an even better thing.