„Today an airplane has crashed into a building in the USA and a school bus drove off a bridge in Uttar Pradesh. We shall pray for their souls in our evening Puja“ said his Holiness Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang, Lama of the Drikung Kyabgon-line. Our dinner party counted a number of tibetan monks, one nun of western decent and one US-american as we stood around the dinner table in the newly built annex to the monastery in Dhera Dun, India.
It was the 11th of September 2001.
Later that night text messages from my wife arrived on my cell phone telling me about countless casualties and after searching the better part of the monastery, I found a TV set which showed pictures of what had happened in New York that day. Staying at the foothills of the Himalayans, the news that happened at home could somehow reach me, but not get at me. Ironically, I was about the only person that came there without expecting any wonders to happen, as I was not there for religious purposes.
My client had sent me to review the Dalai Lama’s plans for building a tibetan national library in exile. He had chosen the Drikung-Kyabgon-line of tibetan buddhism to accomplish this and their residence was in Dhera Dun. It is a town well-kown in India for it’s boarding schools, beautifully set in the green Sahastradhara valley and with an equally striking backdrop in the mountains that begin to rise just behind the town. It is recognized in the west as the location of a detention camp for enemy nationals during the second world war, upon which Heinrich Harrer, the author of „Seven Years in Tibet“ was imprisoned and eventually managed to escape to nearby Nepal and then Tibet.
The view across the Sahastradhara River from the Terrace at the SE-Corner of the Library’s Campus.
After travelling from New Dehli in a bus together with eight tibetan monks who had picked me up at the airport with broad smiles while waving a handwritten sign with my name on it, I had arrived in Dhera Dun’s monastery a few nights before. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the manager, an american ex-school teacher named Michael, who was deeply devoted to his assigned project. He lead me to the Lama’s residence, where I was waiting in a large reception room sitting on the floor.
Eventually the Lama appeared in a simple orange tunic, wearing a pair of golden Ray Ban pilot glasses, a gold diamond-encrusted Rolex and a smile big enough to fill any size of a reception hall. He was accompanied by what I later learned to be his sister, dressed in western clothes, with a very stern expression, a very straight back and an air of aristocracy around her. Even though I had only very little knowledge of Buddhism, that first encounter was very different from what I had expected. Neither the material riches nor the presence of a female where among my preconceptions.
During the next few days, I learned about the buildings and the details of their construction, the IT-system they had in mind for an online catalogue, the collection of books and ancient scriptures that were already present. I also learned about the sources of the financial means necessary and what was required to ensure the operation of the library, the residential offering for scholars and the staffing of it all.
In between all that I had many opportunities to meet the very friendly inhabitants of the monastery. The lama and his sister took Michael and me for dinner into town and I went to the morning prayers with the monks. As I was the only westerner during the prayers, I added to the entertainment of young and old and particularly the little boys were having a ball making a faces at me, while the older monks chanted in their peculiar way. Never have I felt as welcome in the company of complete strangers performing their religious rituals.
After the first puja I attended, I watched the monks in the yard standing in twos. One was always sitting, while the other was invariably standing and making one big swinging movement clapping his hands in front of the sitting opponent’s face. During that movement the standing monk spoke out loud, while the other responded clearly but in a monotone voice after the clap. The standing monk then retreated only to perform another of those threatening movements. I asked an english speaking monk that I had met before what it was they were doing and he explained to me, that they were rehearsing the principles of buddhism through debate. Without understanding a word, the level of concentration and also the intellectual challenge were at once tangible.
The day after 9/11 I went to visit the house of the deceased predecessor of the current Lama. It was kept as a shrine to worship him after his death and was full of his belongings, from his child hood days to his collection of photo cameras. I had my battered old Nikon F3 with me, a camera that is known to be virtually indestructible and therefore a choice of many photographers working under the harshest conditions. I had taken many pictures during my stay and once in the house, I tried to take some more. Only the apparatus refused to work all of a sudden.
I tried replacing the battery, which it needed to function, but it still refused to work. I went outside for more light, trying it again and there it was: a perfectly functioning camera. Back inside it again refused to take a picture. I went in and out of the house a few more times, but I could not get the camera to take a picture inside no matter what. I told the Lama and Michael about it over dinner, but the Lama just laughed at me gleefully, as if he was amused that I could be surprised by something so obvious.
Over dinner he told us about the time when he had lived in New Jersey with his family and had worked at McDonald’s. When his time came to return to his monastery and take up his duty as one of the highest Lama’s in tibetan lamaism, he told the manager at McDonald’s about his decision to leave. To everyone’s entertainment he described the puzzled manager to us who offered him a raise, as he wanted to keep this friendly employee.
Not the news from New York, the text messages from my wife telling me about the horrific details or the images on TV that night could break the spell I was under. It was up to an indian cab driver taking me back to New Delhi instead. We left very early in the morning and on the unpaved road down from Dhera Dun to the flatlands he already fell asleep, very nearly crashing into an oncoming bus. My scream woke him up and both he and the bus driver swerved to avoid what would have surely been my untimely death. I did not dare to slumber all the way to Delhi Airport and gave him as many punishing stares, as he cared to look my way.
After checking in, I sat down in one of the ice-cold airport lounges, next to two young american women sitting on their gigantic cabin luggage. There were TV sets all around tuned to CNN with the images of the airplanes crashing into the twin towers and their eventual collapse on heavy rotation. Together with those two women I was struggling to get back into the context where our loved-ones had arrived while we were away. Only then it started to dawn on me that we would soon return into a world that had changed in a matter of days.
To this day 9/11 feels like something I wasn’t part of while everybody else was. Neither was I truly a part of the reality of Dhera Dun and thus I consider myself fortunate to have been a visitor in their reality and on some kind of leave from our collective western reality, in which the attack on New York is such a definitory moment. I have a comforting feeling the lama would smile with affection about my struggles to make some sense of this episode, when it is all so plain to him.