Philosophy, action and reflection
Author: Haliehana Stepetin
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. Prayer flags at Buddha’s Stupa in Sarnath.
This trip has been one of transformation and extreme self-reflection and awareness. Everything in India seems to operate under extreme conditions. Extreme heat. Extreme food. Extreme noises. Extreme smells. Extreme pollution. Extreme clothing (bright colors, conservative style). Extreme transportation . . . extremely dangerous driving/walking on roads! The accumulation of these extremes has exposed my own personal norms and privileges I take for granted in my daily life.
As an Alaska Native woman living in Seattle, I already feel many oppressions and experience different tensions in every day life. I did not ever think these privileges I have realized, made my other oppressions less apparent. While I recognize certain privileges that I definitely experience including: Veteran status, socioeconomic privileges, a member of a federally recognized Indigenous tribe, appearance and body type, ability (cognitive and/or physical), gender identification, emotional intelligence, a big loving family, a place to call home, and cultural identity, I did not realize the many other subliminal privileges I take for granted until experiencing life in India. I take for granted things like being part of a federally recognized sovereign tribe, clean cold water from the tap, laundry accessibility, cleanliness, a relatively clean environment (or at least a worldview of respect for the environment), freedom to wear what I want as a woman and be independent, wifi everywhere, data on my phone, able to contact whoever I want whenever, and many more.
These privileges rose to my consciousness especially in contrast to the Tibetan situation. As an Indigenous person with a history of experiencing genocide, assimilation, and acculturation, I feel privileged to experience the freedoms we have as federally recognized Alaska Native tribes in comparison to the Tibetan situation. I had always thought that Indigenous rights are nowhere near sufficient enough to reconcile the violent genocides we have endured since Russian contact, through oppressive Christian conversions, Americanization, and English Only assimilative techniques (and still do not). I know we are not yet where we should be regarding autonomy and self-governance, but I am now extremely grateful for the small freedoms and sovereignty we do enjoy. Knowing that the Chinese government is still actively oppressing the Tibetan people to the point that refugees are fleeing to places in India such as the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS) in order to preserve Tibetan culture, language, and tradition, is a reality of how bad it could be for Indigenous North Americans today. It is also extremely inspiring to know that the Tibetan people are so dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of their culture, language, and traditions. I wonder what it would take to invoke the same sort of urgency the Tibetan people have, in Alaska Natives/American Indians? I wonder if Alaska Native populations could use the techniques of Buddhism to incorporate better coping methods from the oppressions we face today and the societal issues we are constantly battling due to our history of colonization, genocide, and destruction of our people? After visiting CUTS and learning about their valuable mission, I have been inspired to start a similar education center in Alaska focused on the preservation of Indigenous language, culture and tradition.
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. Pictured above is Dr. Jampa Samten, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist professor at CUTS who guided us through the sacred sites in Sarnath. Professor Samten inspired me in his life work of the preservation of Tibetan language, culture, and tradition.
Life has been seeming to settle at home for me. I have a partner I can trust who loves me and is a wonderful father to my son. Things are getting comfortable and I feel the anxiety that I too am getting to comfortable. Having been to India once and feeling a sense and urgency of asserting myself as an independent woman I booked my flight to Kolkata. As the day of departure approached I felt deep regret. I didn’t want to go but being enrolled in the Study Abroad program I knew it was inevitable. Also I had already paid for the flight.
When I arrived I prepaid for a taxi to the city center a popular mall. When I went outside I was immediately greeted by drivers. One took my receipt and insisted I ride. I jumped in and he began asking questions. Wanting to embrace this adventure I obliged in his conversation. I felt brave.. He told me where I wanted to go was closed and the hotel I had previously reserved was way to far from the airport and that he would bring me to a closer one. It was about ten minutes away and when I entered the price was affordable and I figured it was ok in this case to go with the flow it was cheap and close to the airport so the following day I would be able to meet my incoming friend easily. The driver insisted he would be there at ten to bring me to the city center. I was kind of iffy about the whole thing and went upstairs to my room and relaxed for a few hours. When I was hungry I made my way downstairs to go to the hotel breakfast. The driver was there and once again insisted I go with him to the city center. Once again I decided to go with the flow. I got in. He began to ask many more questions and insisted I come back to his home and began to ask if I drank alcohol. I told him no and began to avoid conversation. We arrived at the city center and he tried to insist on accompanying me through the city center I told him no. He then insisted he wait for me to which I also argued back and forth, no! After a lot of debate I told him to give me his number that if he wanted my business I could certainly call him for a ride if necessary.I stayed at the city center for about 45 minutes but the stares as well as the loneliness got to me quick. I went down to the street to attempt and find a ride back. None of the drivers knew the hotel I was staying at and I began to get very worried. I checked Uber and saw the prices were very reasonable about 110 rupees, but the app was not working. I didn’t want to call the driver but realized that may be the only way to get back. I called him and after about thirty minutes he picked me up. We got back to the hotel and he told me I needed to pay him 2700 rupees. At this I laughed, a trip that I had already prepaid that had been diverted as well as the comparable /uber price made me some what angry that he would attempt to in my eyes swindle me out of that much money. As a side note my debit card had been compromised upon my departure to India so I had 300 American dollars for the month and had already paid seventy for this, what I would come to find, cheap hotel. We argued for about five minutes when the hotel host noticed and ushered me inside. I went to the reception desk and requested an escort to my room. I gave the driver 500 rupees and the host brought me to the room I told him what happened. Once he left I locked all of the doors. There was elevator access to the floors and the driver had heard my room number from the receptionist. Ten minutes later someone began banging on my door and ringing the doorbell incessantly. I was terrified I couldn’t know who it was but I could guess. I was terrified. I called my partner talked and cried to him nearly all night.
This experience has significantly impacted the tone of my trip. It has also marked and exposed my own ignorance which is an important lesson to learn, hopefully in the safest way. I am a liberal white woman who’s identity has been shaped by feminist and global citizen ideas. This type of hipster, global citizen, independent woman, explorer attitude put me in the situation where I disregarded my instincts or fear of not living up to expectations I had made for myself. I think they are mistakes that many have made. Before going on this trip I watched a documentary that brushed across India’s history in particular with British colonization. I learned that white women then would go to India (usually accompanied by men/ family) for adventure. Similar to my own intrigue. The relationship of white women to India and to the constructed other of India in particular to religious/ spiritual exoticism goes way back. I am not arguing not to explore and to expose our ignorance but we must be aware of this relationship and if we visit India not let it be for a cliché self actualization or to construct a pretentious self righteous attitude, but use the experience to deconstruct our own learned bias and worldview. Also always trust your gut. Don’t get to caught up in proving things to yourself or others.
Written by: Rebecca Dimond
University of Washington Bothell
Masters of Arts in Cultural Studies
Rebecca Diamond at Assi Ghat (photo credit Haliehana Stepetin)
After spending some time on the campus and interacting with a class of students from the Central University of Tibetan Studies, I would like to focus on one, rather simple, concept that I’ve learned about: patience. Dr. Tsering, a professor here, kindly shared with us his most sacred beliefs surrounding Buddhist philosophy. ‘Do not commit any sin. Perform perfect virtue. Tame one’s mind.’ This was the stanza that, in his opinion, summarized the teachings of Lord Buddha. The majority of students attending this university are in exile from their native land of Tibet, which was overridden by the Chinese and viscously torn from their grasp. Thus they have sought refuge here in India with the help of the Indian government, and spend various numbers of years studying Tibetan Buddhist philosophy in an attempt to preserve their culture. All of the research departments on campus are doing work related to the restoration or translation of ancient scripts so that they can be circulated around the world and preserved for centuries to come. In order to do these translations, the students read through the old script, in Tibetan or Sanskrit, and translate it into an array of other languages to be viewed by the rest of the world. This requires excessive patience. Today we visited the library that holds these ancient scripts, most of which are printed on handmade paper, and stacked up before being tied like a parcel into colored cloth and labeled. One by one, the students approach these volumes, and page by page, they work away at their translations. Tashi, a CUTS student I had the honor of working with, told me that in pursuing his undergrad, he has six classes a day, six days a week, and spends all of his free time on Sundays working at his assignments. The patience and dedication that these students have to contribute to the preservation of the Tibetan culture and Buddhist texts is remarkable.
A second aspect of Buddhism in which I have seen the act of patience practiced is with karma. As Dr. Tsering defined, karma is all about action. It is the reason that things happen the way they do in this world and it describes why some people endure extreme suffering while others enjoy lives full of freedom and ease. When asked his opinion on the seize of Tibet and how such a terrible thing could happen to people who dedicate their lives to peace, Dr. Tsering attributed this occurrence to karma. With patience, Tibetans believe, they will receive good fortune in return for their suffering, and balance will once again return. To approach an event that was filled with such violence and can illicit incredible anger, the Buddhists calmly accept it as it is, and trust karma to take its turn again. This takes admirable amounts of patience.
Stereotypically, Americans practice the opposite of patience. We rush through our lives with venti to-go coffees in hand and do not hesitate to act out in anger when something unjust occurs. Coming from a culture that does not have practice in methodically seeking the source of anger and suffering, we do not at once have the skills in meditation and mindfulness to approach issues the way that Buddhists do. It has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to come here, to Sarnath India, to hear firsthand from monks who have dedicated their lives to their practice, the fundamentals of interdependence, emotional intelligence, and meditation. Interwoven in all of these Tibetan Buddhist concepts, is a strong will for patience.
Blogpost and photo by Victoria (Torie) Mount
UW Seattle Student
Studying Environmental Engineering
Non-profit school in Varanasi, India
Author and Photography by Niko Serpanos
NIRMAN, Vidyashram, or Southpoint School are all names used to describe this school of the arts and education. Director and Co-Founder Dr. Nita Kumar hosts UWB students at the school, as a part of a study abroad program. She walks with style and swagger through the city that demands a presence, and just by being around her I hoped I could absorb some of it! Dr. Kumar represents the kind of scholar and academic that I admire, she was a researcher in anthropology, but then one day got stuck and fell in love with education. She created a school that embodies her own progressive principles, while maintaining and preserving the local culture and art of Varanasi.
Dr. Kumar takes a second from showing UWB students around, to engage with the kids from a nearby monastery, that were keen to so what all us students were doing walking around.
We begin our days with lectures on various parts of India, then in depth on specifically Varanasi. Dr. Kumar started lecture with learning about Hinduism, the pantheon, and then we visited numerous shrines and temples.
Standing before one of the many tiny shrines of Hindu gods, Dr. Kumar explained that anyone can create a temple anywhere, which contributes to a problem of invasive space manipulated by locals. In an ancient city with a booming population space is ever decreasing, and because removing or destroying shines is seen as directly going against god, it is generally frowned upon. Kumar elaborated that her staff would likely do anything she asks, unless it was to remove a shrine! One interesting thing was how every temple or shrine we entered, we had to remove our shoes, guess you could say it was to make you more down to earth!
One of the Sahdus, invited us into his dwelling to take pictures with him doing yoga poses. He was friendly, and excited by the camera perhaps too well acquainted with tourists. Sahdus are Hindu monks that posses a certain ascetic in nature. Easily recognizable as spiritual people, the Sahdus walk the streets of Varanasi just like everyone else.
Contrasting Hinduism with Buddhism was a unique and vastly different. The buddhist philosophies seem strongly rooted in scripture, logic, and reasoning. Where as Hinduism reminds me of Greek mythology: a set of interesting stories, rituals, and art that characterizes the polytheistic religion and gods as humans. There seems to be less rationale, and more faith based following in Hinduism, which can be amazing, and yet extremely perplexing when leading into the essence of modernity and post colonialism.
Weekly Travel Blog #01