Standing on the tarmac of the Tawang heliport I was still a little shell shocked from seventeen hours in the air, Calgary – Heathrow – Delhi, then the noise and energy of Guwahati, a rapidly growing northeast Indian city, and finally the one hour ten minute helicopter ride to land in this remote Himalayan town.
But waiting there was a smiling Jhamtse Gatsal representative with a Khata, the Tibetan ceremonial scarf, to put around my neck.
An hour and a half drive later amidst the gorgeous backdrop of high mountain ridges and deep gorges, I arrive at the sprawling campus of the Jhamtse Gatsal community.
Like all visitors, John’s arrival is a cause for celebration and show of respect at Jhamtse Gatsal
Stepping out of the car, Dorjee the 15 year old sweet girl we help sponsor, drapes another ceremonial scarf around my neck. The entire school is lined up to welcome me personally. I was deeply touched but this welcome was a mere forerunner of how warmly I was accepted here during my two and half weeks.
I found the community of Jhamtse Gatsal had a rhythm of a slower, gentler life that I happily blended into.
There were healthy delicious meals of mainly rice and vegetables. I frequently ate with the kids rather than the separate sitting for the staff. Before each meal kids all chant a prayer of gratitude. I could feel their sincerity. Days there consisted of hanging out with the kids, and daily long walks, often to a Buddhist worship site with the prayer wheels a half hour down the road. Behind that place, off road, is a 15 minute hike to a high point with the two ancient cairns standing as sentinels.
I began to sleep better.
One day Dorjee and her friend Tenzin acted as guides to take me up to a nearby 11,000 foot summit to see the 80 foot white Tara Buddhist statue and temple. Entering the temple the girls demonstrate the proper form of prayer as we face the Buddha, on my knees three times with forehead to the floor.
I volunteered to help a crew of 10 who were in the community building a cob house.
A cob house is one built entirely of natural building materials and Conrad had already built another one here a couple of years ago.
Before the work started, Conrad took us to a viewpoint nearby and there read an essay, Charles Eisenstein’s ‘The Cynic and Boatbuilder’ on the power of craftsmanship, the importance of work which does not as its goal seek high social status, or wealth.
Conrad then took his thus inspired crew, to the cob house, to assign tasks for the day.
Touching a loft support beam Conrad told us ‘this beam has known the violence of a mill saw. I want someone to show it love back by sanding its edges.
When younger, I had been on a few construction sites, and if it wasn’t obvious before, it certainly was then, that this was going to be a job site with a difference.
I was assigned to the patio building crew of Marla from France, Nikita from India and Kelly from the US.
Conrad told me Gen Lobsong Phuntsok the founder and guiding spirit of Jhamtse Gatsal thought when finished, the house at least initially, might be a place for meditation. I cut a finger hauling a rock for that patio so my blood as well as my sweat are now part of that house. I need to come back and stand in it when it’s completed.
I was asked by one of the teachers to help teach a class on how to debate and on the art of advocacy. On a sunny afternoon in an outdoor setting, the class desks all arranged in a circle, with attentive looking students, I tried to do that.
The class was then divided into two teams and each side was to prepare arguments to debate each side of the question, ‘Was China’s invasion of Tibet justified? the following afternoon before me as Judge. I had brought with me to Jhamtse Gatsal part of my barrister’s work clothes so I wore that for more credibility as a Judge. The kids came prepared so there was some good back and forth volleys.
Thinking of my first time at Jhamtse Gatsal I will remember dozens of memorable little vignettes of interactions with the children there and I was able to spend time with our sponsored child Dorjee.
During my time there she offered to hand wash my laundry. I sensed this came from a deep place, that is, the joy that comes from acts of generosity, that is one of the tenets of Buddhism. I told her ‘let’s do it together’ but she was the pro and I was just in the way. She was both joyful and ten times faster than a washing machine.
She said in her farewell letter to me how much she enjoyed our discussions on life. In truth, this wonderful, mature child had as much to teach me, as I her.