Rather than zigzagging up the coniferous foothills of the Himalayas, we took an ill-advised direct ascent up the Dhauladhar range to reach our destination. Though fatigued, I felt the allure of the Dharamsala municipality, which is home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the dislocated Tibetan government.
As we entered the village of McLeod Ganj, my companions and I were greeted by a street vendor selling Momos, a steamed Tibetan dumpling. She was standing in front of a large sign that read, “Tibet: One People, One Nation. Fifty Years of Resistance 1959-2009.” Her two missing front teeth peeked through her smile as we asked her for directions to the village square. We politely bought several Momos to show our appreciation and set off to plan the next several days of trekking, self-development and acculturation to the Tibetan lifestyle.
After World War II, the Chinese government pronounced the unification of all Chinese descendants under one empire. It used this to collude and forcefully take ownership of Tibetan lands and perform a cultural genocide. As Chinese hostility peaked in 1959, the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for Dharamsala, India.
As we acclimated to the elevation, we spent time learning about Buddhism. Our first stop was Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple. The monks showed us ancient Buddhist scripts that were carried from Tibet during China’s invasion as we picked their brains about living in the Himalayas. We also meditated for a mere twenty minutes inside the temple — a task that was extremely challenging considering how modern society breeds us to develop some level of A.D.D.
I was surprised to learn Buddhism is a philosophy that coexists with science and rationalism. It does not assert or depend on the existence of a god and it agrees with the scientific view of an ordered universe ruled by law (Dharma) — a system that works itself out inexorably over vast periods of time without divine intervention (karma). It seemed like Buddhism has the ability to bring a compromise to the centuries old dilemma of science or religion.
We hiked up to Triund, a plateau and popular camping ground. At this elevation, the main villages looked like colorful treehouses nestled in the mountains. At every breathtaking view, we stopped and enjoyed Afghani hash, a popular substance in the area supplied and distributed by a large Israeli population living in Dharamsala.
Trekking near this Buddhist mecca in the humbling presence of the Himalayas deserves a brief illustration. While stepping through the rocky path, you are two paces away from a two-hundred foot drop: your senses are sharpened, your footwork is precise and your mind is clear. At every turn, you see several five-colored prayer flags hanging across trees. Every time they blow in the wind, they are meant to carry the blessings written on them to bring benefit all.
On our way down, we befriended two Gaddi Kuttas, a breed of mountain dog. They guided us, and in return, we fed them. It was an unspoken deal. Ultimately, they ended up leading us the wrong way and we were forced to improvise. Eventually, we snuck around a female mountain goat and her calves through a small pass in order to jump onto the roof of a remote house and find a path back to the nearest village. As we dismounted the roof and made our way to the front of the house, we found a young lady sitting on her porch.
She was a 24-year-old American Buddhist who decided to spend two years of her life in Dharamsala. She offered us tea. She explained how she felt liberated and content living such a simple and sustainable lifestyle, much different than what she experienced stateside.
If one can eliminate desire, she explained, one can eliminate suffering and eventually attain nirvana, a perfect peace of mind. We listened intently, thanked her for the tea, and parted ways still in deep thought.
Since my trip, I have been challenging my familiar western ideology, preaching lofty ideals and requirements for a content life. Having spent seven days in Dharamsala, where locals believe you can live an equally satisfying life by focusing on simplicity and developing good karma, I now see an alternative path towards my notion of “self-development.”
To my surprise, the more I’ve reflected on this philosophy, the more inspired I have become to return and spend an entire year in Dharamsala.