Greetings from Galen, Program Director
Galen and Ngakpa friend in Amdo, Tibet
Namaste, Jullay, and Tashi Delek-
That’s ‘Hello’ in just three of the languages (Hindi, Ladakhi, and Tibetan) which we will soon to be using on a daily basis (though maybe not all at once) upon our arrival in India. What they also mean is ‘welcome,’ and that’s what I’d like to extend to each one of you as we prepare for Fort Lewis College and Global LAB’s ‘Write Abroad’ summer program in the subcontinent.
I imagine how eager you must be to set off on a journey of discovery to this ancient and diverse land, and I anticipate great things for us. And while I don’t yet know you, I am excited to join everyone for our exploration of the sacred (and secular) Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh traditions of northern India. Moreover, I can only begin to suggest how positively this experience will affect each one of you, and how inspiring it will be for your poetry and prose.
India is a land of extremes, and by experiencing what is present at those different ends we will come to understand how to exist somewhere in the middle. We will be traveling in one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, which is also one of the hottest places on earth, but will spend time both with the people of, and actually physically in, one of the least populated and coldest regions in the world. That is, after a great (but quick) tour of Delhi, we’ll venture north to Ladakh, an ancient Buddhist kingdom on the edge of the arid Tibetan plateau which today remains a surviving segment of ‘old Tibet.’ From this area of the trans-Himalaya, we’ll then venture to Dharamsala, an old British hill station which over the past five decades has transformed into the center of the Tibetan world in exile. In between we’ll visit the Punjabi homeland of Amritsar, and at the end make a trip to the illustrious Taj Mahal in Agra. Literally going from the old to the new and back, again and again, we will experience both the complicated dynamic of the Tibetan diaspora as well as the many stark contrasts and transitions that the nation which is India makes all of the time. And we’ll witness first-hand how India cannot be defined in less than a thousand words.
As you venture into this personal unknown, you will have the opportunity to visit monasteries and talk with monks aged eight to eighty, as well as engage local families and learn the simplicity of rural life. We will be the subject of intense interest and relentless attention, and I can assure you that the people we meet will be equally (if not somehow more) curious of us than we are of them. While laughing with toothless grandmothers on long train-rides and drinking scalding, sweet chai in cramped quarters with little children stealing stares at us, we’ll discover how quickly we are received not as strangers but as friends.
Our pilgrimage will begin as soon as we leave home, and by traveling through India we’ll come to understand how the religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Sikhism are not weekend faiths, but living phenomena. Visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s resting place at Raj Ghat, circumambulating ancient Ladakhi monasteries, strolling under the minarets of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and circumambulating with humility Amritsar’s Golden Temple will unite us with other pilgrims and make us participants in their liturgy. We will learn what it means to live in Dharamsala, and why Tibetans have fled Tibet and established a nation in exile near His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And though our time may be brief, I assure you that the experiences we have will be more than enough to last a lifetime.
We will also experience the wonder and joy of simple living. By streamlining our material needs, we’ll carry virtually all of our possessions in a backpack (personally, my favorite way to live). We will come to know this beauty of simplicity, realizing it ourselves and seeing it everywhere around us, as we live amongst people whose spiritual richness is often in inverse relation to their worldly goods. It sometimes requires being removed from home to actually gain a perspective on how much we have, and how much of it we really don’t need, and how less truly can be more.
As international students, you have the unique opportunity not only to learn yourself, but to educate the many people with whom we interact, many who have very little honest understanding of our country. The experiential education of this journey will open our eyes to new lifestyles and traditions, and will reciprocally provide the wonderful people we meet a perspective into who we are as Americans, and what that means (which I personally believe is quite different from the popular media images that people see around the world).
As students we are drawn to this region of Asia for many reasons. I first learned of (and immediately wanted to visit) the Himalaya while in high school, having seen a family friend’s slide show of a climb he had guided in Nepal. As I read some books on the philosophical and religious traditions of India, Tibet, and China, my interest grew exponentially. At Middlebury College I further explored the traditions of eastern thought and read a little more about the esoteric dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism. Finally, it was during my junior year of college that I was able to go and study in Kathmandu, Nepal with the University of Wisconsin, focusing my attention on the places and practice of pilgrimage in the Tibetan tradition. And I have continued my pilgrimage just about every year since then, to walk, to sit, to learn, to teach, to work, to play, and to explore. Each time I return to the Himalaya I learn about a new valley, a distant mountain, an ancient monastery that calls for a visit, and so the cycle goes. You will soon walk into this world, and I believe that it will be but an initial step along a lifelong journey of inquiry and discovery.
More recently over the past couple of years, I have been leading Global LAB’s ‘From Brahma to Buddha’ fall semester program. Spending time in Delhi, Dharamsala, and Ladakh has allowed me not only to explore new places and learn deeper things, but more importantly to make connections which will be wonderful to return to this May. Whether the director of a sustainable building school in Ladakh or a former Tibetan political prisoner living in exile in Dharamsala, everyone is always eager to meet the various students with whom I return. A Sufi poet awaits foreign ears, students at SECMOL want to talk with Americans their own age, and the voices for a FREE TIBET ever want to share the story of their struggle with new faces. We will be the ones to meet these fascinating individuals, and to share what we know with one another is sure to be an incredible and mutual opportunity.
I’m sure you have many questions about our trip; I know I do. And it can be intimidating trying to prepare for such an undertaking. I don’t know how much you’ve read about this part of the world, but we’ve created a reading list to provide some background on Indian traditions and Buddhist thought and what pilgrimage means and Hinduism seems. I’m sure that you have ongoing programs at Fort Lewis to prepare for our trip, but if time allows please take a look at some of these excellent books before we depart, and bring one along so that we can share them on the road. I know there’s a lot there, so please don’t hesitate to ask me anything, anytime. Be it a question about gear (pack super light) or a ‘hello, how’s it going,’ you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to hearing from you and meeting in person soon.