Monks | India | Living in Mexico


McCleod Ganj (Upper Dharamsala) serves not only as the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and as a center for the preservation of Tibetan culture, It is also the center of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama (left) has his monastery here, and serves as the spiritual leader as well as the political leader of his people. Many other monasteries and convents are situated in Dharamsala as well, so thousands of monks and nuns live here.

In Christian denominations, monks are usually cloistered. A monastery near San Miguel de Allende houses perhaps a hundred monks who maintain vows of silence and live spartan lives. I never see their robed figures in town; only when I visit the monastery, and even then I cannot talk with them, except under limited circumstances.

For this reason, I was surprised to run into so many monks out on the streets of McCleod Ganj.


They're out running all kinds of errands, just like lay people do. Here, a nun buys momos: steamed dumplings filled with potato. (Momos are excellent walking-around food. I bought some from the same vendor and developed an instant liking for them.)


An elderly monk and his friend spin mani wheels (prayer wheels) at the Dalai Lama's monastery, so sending prayers and wishes for compassion throughout the world.


Monks wear red robes, usually with yellow scarves. The rest of their dress is highly individual. The old monk above is wearing Teva sandals; below, loafers and Crocs are the choices. They wear digital watches and talk on cell phones. They write their friends in cybercafes. They ride scooters. They shop for boxer shots and batteries. They play basketball. They're just like us, except they have taken vows of celibacy and live in dormitories.


They do their own laundry, here in a mountain stream. You can make out a group on the right playing cards while their clothes dry.


Monks are accessible and friendly. I met this ancient figure while hiking a steep mountain path. He invited me to rest with him and agreed to have his picture taken with me. His three words of English were hello, goodbye, and cold, but his demeanor and smile spoke volumes.


The Indian Government provides security at sites where high Tibetan figures live. I found it unsettling to watched monks engaged in friendly conversation with soldiers carrying assault rifles. This guard is one of the detachment protecting the monastery of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, an important spiritual leader who some think may ultimately succeed the current Dalai Lama.


The soldiers shield a way of life as well as the lives of certain individuals. They protect an old monk feeding bananas to a mule with deformed legs. Both live peacefully in the confines of a monastery.


Tibetan Buddhist monks live lives with an overriding goal: to end suffering of all beings. Unlike many Christian monastics, they live in intimate contact with the outside world. In fact, for them, there is no outside world. They believe all beings are connected, all beings are one. They sit in contemplation on bus stop benches as readily as if they were in a temple.


Side note: In Lhasa, the capitol of Chinese-occupied Tibet, when important western officials visit, cadres (local Chinese political officials) dress up in red robes in order to give the impression of religious freedom. Real monks avoid wearing robes since by doing so they risk arrest and torture.