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January 29, 2001

Our passage through India

Gary Hauk is University secretary

We make an odd little band riding the night train from Jammu, India, to Delhi. But here we are, sharing a sleeping compartment—a Jewish woman who teaches Hinduism; a Jewish man who teaches Islam; a Tibetan Buddhist monk with an Emory Ph.D. in Western philosophy of mind; and me, a Christian ethicist.

Some 12 hours ago, after an early breakfast, we left Dhara-msala, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and drove for five hours on a road that varied from (occasionally) two smooth lanes to (more generally) one-and-a-half lanes of continuous potholes, ditches and rumble strips. On the drive, we passed, in white-knuckle abandon, buses, trucks, motorcycles, horse-carts, a camel, rickshaws, bicycles, donkeys, cattle and an endless flow of pedestrians moving in every direction, whether in city, town or countryside.

Arriving at last at the Jammu airport, we found that our flight to Delhi had been canceled because of fog in the capital city. So, bundling back into our cars, we made our way to the train station, there to be assaulted by a chaos of colors, smells, noises and people of every description. (Not to mention animals: as we stood on the train platform, I felt something brush my shoulder and turned to see a cow plodding through the crowd, in the general direction of a tea stall).

Now, some three hours into our 13-hour train ride to Delhi, we have eaten a small meal of lentils, rice and dal and are settling in for the evening. “We” are Laurie Patton, chair of religion, who occupies the bunk under mine; Shalom Goldman, associate professor of Middle Eastern studies, who occupies the bunk across a narrow space from Laurie’s; Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, director of the Loseling Institute in Atlanta and lecturer in Tibetan Buddhist studies at Emory, in the bunk above Shalom’s; and myself.

Looking across to Lobsang as our sleeping car sways and rattles down to the Indian plains, I see he has assumed the familiar cross-legged position for meditating and is sitting perfectly still, eyes closed. I wonder where his meditation is taking him. Just as I wondered, on New Year’s Day—the first morning of a new millennium—what the monks were chanting at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics.

That was just two days ago. My colleagues and I had gone to mark the beginning of a study-abroad program and to sign an official agreement between Emory and this distinguished institution of Tibetan Buddhist learning. When we arrived, the temple was already filled with 200 students and faculty members, all seated cross-legged on cushions on the floor. They watched with interest as we were ushered out of the rain-soaked morning to the front of the assembly and places of honor. The ceremony began with students and teachers alike chanting tones that stirred my own spirit by their musicality, though I had no idea what the words said. As the chants filled the air, and the rain fell outside the temple’s open doors, I found myself humming along with the tunes. And then, out of my own tradition, using the monks’ melodies, I began blending my own prayers in chant with those around me:

Our Father, who art in heaven. . .
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. . .
We praise you, O Lord, we acknowledge you to be our God.
Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy great glory.

In a land where religion is as diverse and omnipresent as in India, these two experiences—sharing that “interfaith berth” and blending my Christian prayers with Buddhists’—represented for me the glory and the challenge of India. Predominan-tly Hindu (some 82 percent of its 1 billion people), it also has a population of some 100 million Muslims, making it the largest Muslim nation in the world.

The nation’s other religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and others—together claim some 80 million adherents. With all of this diversity on such a grand scale, and with the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi to guide it, the Indian subcontinent would seem, on the surface, to offer a model of religious tolerance.

But such is not the case. Gandhi himself was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist disgruntled at Gandhi’s willingness to accommodate Muslims in a Hindu state. Since long before that tragedy, India has been rent by religious antagonism and outright strife.

One of the more egregious instances of this hostility in recent years was the destruction of the great, triple-domed mosque in the city of Ayodhya. Dating from the early 16th century, the mosque had been built by a Moghul emperor on a site holy to Hindus as the birthplace of the god Rama. It stood as a kind of Indian counterpart to the Temple Mount—a place in Jerusalem holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians—and resonant with tensions of ownership, priority and sacred jealousy.

In December 1992, incited by representatives of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which now controls India’s parliament, Hindus took crowbars, pickaxes and bare hands to the Ayodhya mosque, leveling it and its three domes to rubble. By the time rioting in Ayodhya, Bombay and other cities and towns had ceased, more than a thousand people had died. The road to reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus in this ancient land will be long and difficult, especially with the BJP officially looking with (misguided and delusional) hope toward the day when India will be home to Hindus only.

In contrast to the platform of the BJP, the position of the Dalai Lama toward China would appear to be chimerical. India’s most famous permanent visitor, His Holiness has made his residence in Dharamsala since fleeing Tibet in front of invading Chinese armies in 1959. In the intervening 42 years, thousands of monasteries and convents in Tibet have been destroyed, scores of thousands of Tibetans have been killed and more than 100,000 Tibetans have become refugees.

Despite the hardships that his fellow Tibetans—and he personally—have endured, the Dalai Lama apparently does not harbor a wish for vengeance. More than anything else, he seems to seek understanding. In a half-hour audience with him on the penultimate day of the old year, Laurie, Shalom, Lobsang and I found a man, now in his 60s, whose mind is remarkably active, curious, probing and hungry for awareness and the peace that comes with truth. In his writings and his teachings, His Holiness speaks frequently of his attitude toward China.

Characteristically, it is one of striving for understanding. For him, his enemies are spiritual teachers: it is through them that he has opportunity to grow in the exercise of wisdom and compassion.

The story is told of Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, for many years the personal physician to the Dalai Lama.

Choedrak spent 17 years as a political prisoner in Tibet before being released to exile in India, where he is now an old and revered man. When asked what the most difficult part of his imprisonment had been, he replied that it was his fear that he would learn to hate his captors.

This comment reminds me of an ancient Tibetan prayer:
When others, out of envy, treat me with abuse,
Insult me or the like,
I shall accept defeat,
And offer the victory to others.
When someone I have benefited
And in whom I have great hopes
Gives me terrible harm,
I shall regard him as my holy spiritual friend

To my Western ears—trained to listen for “the right”—this prayer sounds more like capitulation than reconciliation. I wonder, though, whether something like it is the necessary ground for reconciliation. It echoes the words of my own tradition, spoken by Jesus—Turn the other cheek ... Pray for those who revile you ... Love your enemies.

But also (I want to add), Don’t fear to hold them accountable. Even a loving Jesus grew angry at the abusers of the poor and helpless. Even the Dalai Lama continues to strive to create justice for his people. Even those of us who have been betrayed by lovers, abandoned by friends, insulted by colleagues, wounded in the countless ways people have of wounding each other, even we must find ways to say “enough!” to the abuse without destroying the fabric of our oppressor’s spirit—and thereby our own. For we are intractably woven into each other’s lives, oppressor and oppressed, victim and violator.

This is a difficult lesson that I have yet to learn how to live out. As the train from Jammu to Delhi clatters and rumbles along, I ponder my own Chinas—the people in my life who in various ways seem to undermine my happiness. I consider my own Ayodhya temples—the sacred places in my life that have been desecrated by insensitivity, callousness, or outright enmity. And I cling to the image of myself sheltering here with my three companions, sharing a berth on our long journey through the night toward a common destiny.

Maybe that common destiny is the one greatest teacher—the darkness that will claim us all
at the end and thereby make us all the same: what T. S. Eliot called “the darkness of God,” the final mystery that waits to embrace us.


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