The culture of spirituality

by Hugh & Colleen Gantzer, Deccan herald, Sept 9, 2007

"Dharamsala Diaries" is a personal account of a pilgrims physical and spiritual journey in the little town of Dharamsala.

New Delhi, India -- Tibetan Buddhism seems to be the religious flavour of the age. Many of the western glitterati, including Richard Gere, appear to be drawn to the psycho-spiritual disciplines of this way of life also known as Vajrayana; the Way of the Thunderbolt.

If ‘religion’, to most people means the worship of an all-powerful divine being through his intermediary priests and priestesses, then Vajrayana is not a religion. Its nuns and monks are not hierophants who stand between the worshipper and the worshiped. They are dedicated seekers of their own salvations and so are the many benign and fearsome beings depicted in the iconography of Vajrayana.

The Buddha, himself, was such a seeker who asked his followers to take nothing for granted, not even His own insights. Every Buddhist seer, including the Bodhisattvas, whose images are often mistakenly called ‘Buddhas’, are really teachers and guides, like the Jain Tirthankars. They are enlightened souls who have deliberately deprived themselves of the ecstasy of nirvana, or dissolution into the Infinite, in order to help suffering humanity.
The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Mercy: Avalokitesvara. His presence in the Himachal’s Dharamsala has converted this, still rather grimy, hill station into an international pilgrimage centre.

Swati Chopra’s Dharamsala Diaries is a very personal account of one pilgrim’s physical and spiritual journey to this little town, her encounters with its people and the beautiful imagery that her mind distills from the varying moods of the great mountains. Some of her visual insights have the gentle, but lasting, impact of a haiku. Here’s one—

Among the silent deodar and pine
crickets chirp constantly.
Do they know
that winter’s almost upon us?

Most importantly, Swati Chopra highlights the fact that Dharamsala has now become an accessible treasure trove of mental and spiritual practices that had been carefully hidden from the world for centuries.

Spiritual science!

Occidental scientific lore began in the monasteries of Europe, and then reached out to the world. The first hospitals were religious establishments. Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a monk who experimented in his monastery garden. 

Tibetan metaphysical and parapsychological lore was also developed in remote monasteries but it was jealously sequestered from the outside world. The present Dalai Lama was the first to open this esoteric heritage to modern scientific investigation in the international ‘Mind and Life’ conferences in Dharamsala.

Swati Chopra’s easy, friendly, style describes her ‘wandering the streets, picking up conversations with fellow travellers, rushing into a Buddhist philosophy class every morning, breathless from climbing steep inclines that, “my ‘city-girl legs’ and lungs were unused to”. Her fellow, “seekers-in residence have turned Dharamsala into a cosmopolitan hub where crazy-exciting ideas and conversations zing about street corners and cafes, and swapping molten nirvana thoughts keeps you warm in the worst snowstorms.”

To call Swati Chopra a ‘spiritual writer’ would be to confine her, undeservedly, in a box. Her writing is refreshingly devoid of the multisyllabic mumbo-jumbo that often characterises such ‘travelogues of the spirit’.
This is a delightfully gentle, thoughtful, book full of gems of wisdom in the most unexpected places. If you are one of those who look beyond the hit-and-run encounters of a ‘Lonely Planet’, you’ll savour this journey into the mind and heart of an unpretentious traveller.

Title: Dharamsala Diaries
Author: Swati Chopra.
Penguin, 277 pages, Rs 295 (US$ 7.25)

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