They call it Little Tibet, and it makes me sad. Not only because it is the home of the Dalai Lama in exile, or that it's full of Tibetan refugees and moral outrage. It makes me sad because the fifty-year-old story of Chinese aggression against Tibet and the refugees fleeing to preserve their religion and culture has morphed into a materialistic goulash. Monks in saffron robes stroll along in Nikes, talking on cell phones. Pilgrims from the U.S., Europe, and Australia walk past trembling beggars without a second glance and Israeli teenagers in dreadlocks look perpetually stoned. On the streets there is a carnival atmosphere, but not the authentic type found in Indian bazaars, not the day-to-day shops that locals need — fruits and vegetables, and tin pots — but tourist traps, selling prayer bowls and turquoise necklaces and wooden jewelry boxes. It's supposed to be okay because displaced Tibetans run many of the stalls, and some of them will donate to the cause. But it doesn't feel okay; it feels crass.
There are a lot of western tourists in Dharamsala — a lot — and some of them come for months at a time. They come to study Buddhism, but the Buddha said very clearly that you don't need any special apparatus, or place, or person to meditate your way to enlightenment. It's an inside job. Why have these people left their lives and sometimes families who need them to practice Buddhism by doing exactly what the Buddha said they shouldn't?
After having seen about a billion Hindu temples in the past few weeks, I wanted to see the Buddhist temple where Dalai Lama prays when he is in residence. After walking through a street lined with tourist stalls and smelling of urine, I climbed several flights of broken stairs, following signs — in English — only to encounter a security point where it was necessary to walk through a metal detector, get frisked, and have my purse searched. I know it's a sign of the times, but it was the most unspiritual welcome mat imaginable, and it was the only place of worship in India where I encountered that.
The temple was large and empty, a few monks padding around on bare feet, and many, many tourists rubbernecking. It did not feel spiritual, it felt like a tourist destination, which it is. Leaving the temple, I was confronted by a huge sign with a picture of a little boy and this headline: "The Youngest Political Prisoner in The World."
The Chinese abducted the Panchen Lama when he was five years old, which throws a serious kink into the problem of succession for the Dalai Lama. Of course it's awful that a little boy was kidnapped. Of course it's a diabolical way to undermine an old and great religion. But the self-righteous anger that permeates Dharamsala saps my sympathy. Perhaps the occasional presence of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, purges and sanctifies this Himalayan Disneyland but without him I found it depressing and disappointing.
The steep, pitted, dirt road running adjacent to our hotel has no street name, which not unusual in India, but strung across the top of the street a cloth sign was hung like laundry with huge hand-lettered words: A Chinese name and then KILLER, and another Chinese name followed by LIAR. Killer/Liar Street is directly below the temple/residence of the Dalai Lama and it runs down to lower Dharamsala where Indians have become second-class citizens in their own land. Tibetans, who seem quite gentle and likeable, frequently make disparaging remarks about the people who have so generously opened their homeland to the Tibetan refugees. I found myself wondering what happened to the much-lauded Buddhist concepts of acceptance and detachment.
Dharamsala is a curious amalgam of tourism, religion, and politics. It's not quite India (my Indian driver looked decidedly uncomfortable and even got sick on the food) and it's not Tibet. It's a place that was founded on misfortune, and is powered by anger. Ironically, Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama in exile, felt like the least spiritual place I encountered in India.