A Crash Course in Tibetan Buddhism, Culture, and Political Activism

Dharamsala Campsite

A Crash Course in Tibetan Buddhism, Culture, and Political Activism

Written by our 2014 India Gender and Religion team.

Arriving in the darkness, the rolling foothills of the Himalayas in Dharamsala were lit up by tiny lights – a magical sight. The next morning we were awoken by another beautiful sight: the sun peaking over Triund, the mountain we were going to climb later that day, and camp out on that night. We took our time on what James, our Program Leader, told us would be a ‘level 3 hike’. Turns out ‘level 3’ is subjective! In fairness, the hike was gorgeous and not so hard when accompanied by group singing, laughs, and story telling.

The hard work paid off when we finally arrived at the top. The summit was beautiful. We caught glimpses of the mountain peaks in the distance through the mist while sipping on chai and catching our breath. We hiked to a nearby waterfall and to our surprise were joined by more goats than we were able to count! Our night was spent under the stars in tents, freezing our butts off, and eventually being awoken by horses kicking our tent. We ventured back down the jungle covered mountain later that morning, and prepared for a week full of learning and time shared with our partner in Dharamsala, the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA).

Dharamsala
The TWA met with us for the next five days, teaching us about Tibetan culture and exposing us to the the current issues faced by Tibetans as a result of the Chinese occupation. We kicked off with an amazing poetry and dance performance that included poetry written and recited by Tibetan youth, traditional dance performances, and our own funky dance party in a studio shared by local artists.

We then had the immense honour of attending a private meeting with His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kyagu, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. While the Karmapa is a very powerful religious figure, we were struck by how subdued and inspiring we all found him to be. He offered insights on his childhood, his philosophy, and offered each of us a personalized gift and a copy of his book to share. He has some very interesting insights on gender, and was happy to know that our group was in India probing these very concerns.

2014 Gender and Religion team
We mostly found Dharamshala to be a very peaceful place, and yet behind that peace we were struck by the knowledge that it is a deep and ongoing violence that brings Tibetan people here to this beautiful mountain town. It was clear that this passionate community has their hearts and their minds set on working hard to achieve the hope that one day they will all be able to unite together again in their home, Tibet.

The Tibetan Women’s Association provided us with an unbelievably informative week, and we were exposed to so many courageous individuals working hard to advocate for a free Tibet. From working with Students For a Free Tibet, to visiting the Norblinka Institute where students train in traditional Tibetan art, to presentations on the state of democracy and acts of self immolation in Tibet, to visits to the Tibetan Nun’s project, our week in Dharamsala was a crash course in Tibetan Buddhism, culture, and political activism. Our group learned why Tibet is such a special place, and why it is worth fighting for.

Tibetan Library
We had the privilege of working alongside some very powerful Tibetan women and learned that while Tibetan Buddhism appears more gender equitable on the surface, it too has its struggles — just like the other areas we have visited, and just like the places we call home as well. One thing we have all learned from India is that nothing is as it seems, and the best thing we can do as students and as guests is to leave our preconceptions at the door, and to approach all our relationships with open minds, open hearts, and with humility.

The week we spent at Heena Cafe made Daramsala another home for us all. The beautiful staff quickly became our mountain family, sharing smiles and positivity day in and day out. Not to mention the watermelon curry- to die for! They provided not only a friendly atmosphere to come home to each day, but also a great insight into the wildlife around Himichal Pradesh and the more intimate insights into Indian family life. It was very hard to leave Dharamsala, which is why so many of us decided to stay during our own Independent Travel Time!

2014 India Gender and Religion