The road from Leh to Choglamsar, which is twelve kilometers south from here, winds along the Indus river from which the name of the subcontinent derives. The river valley was formed by a giant glacier stretching out from the Khardung La at 5602 meters down to the Zanskar mountain range of the Himalaya. The Indians are proud of the road across the Khardung La which is the highest in the world. The traces of the glacier can easily be identified at the slopes by the riverside. They witness the continuous change of nature. The dry and hot summer air does not hint at the fact that in winter, temperature can drop to 40 degrees Celsius below zero. Many visitors are attracted by the magic of the bare and treeless landscape of Ladakh. An ancient culture rooted in Buddhism could survive until the eighties of the past century in this remote place, maybe like in no other part of India. The ancient kingdom Ladakh is India’s northernmost province and belongs to Jannu and Kashmir. It resembles a peninsula surrounded by Chinese, Nepalese, and Pakistani areas. It was not before the 1990ies that the Indian government cleared the region had been a military zone until then for tourism. Today it has become clear that this step did not remain without consequences.
My journey on the asphaltic road takes me past the Moravian Mission School which is connected with the German Herrnhuter Brüdergemeinde, numerous Buddhist monasteries, so-called Gompas, the Dalai Lama’s summer residence, and snow white stupas or chorten, pagodas that contain the remains of illuminated monks. Close to the Tibetan village Choglamsar, there is the International Mahabodhi Medidation Centre. I have been working here as a yoga and meditation teacher during the summer months for three years now. Both yoga and meditation are very popular in the backpacker scene besides mountain treks. The main centre of Mahabodhi is surrounded by nothing but stone desert. Twenty years ago, a Buddhist monk founded it here to implement his vision of a global family. Today, the area covers 200 hectares and hosts a school, a hospital, pupils’ accommodation, a home for the elderly and visually challenged, monasteries for monks and nuns, and a guest house for visitors. More than 3000 trees have been planted. Ground water is brought to the surface by a solar pump, and the sun also provides electricity and hot water to the inhabitants.
From far you can hear the mantra of sympathy, “om mani padme hum”. For Buddhists, it expresses their basic attitude toward charity as well as their innermost wish for all living creatures to be freed from the circle of birth and death. Like every Sunday, the inhabitants of Mahabodhi, which follow Theravada Buddhism, have gathered for the common Sangha, a religious service. The Yellow Hats, as followers of this stream of Buddhism are called, can usually be found in Sri Lanka and large parts of Southeast Asia. The high plain of Ladakh and Tibet is traditionally land of the Red Hats which follow Mahayana Buddhism or The Great Vehicle.
The spacious meditation hall is overfull. The young monks and novices with shaved hats and red cloaks sit closely together with pupils, employees, and guests. A smell of human feet fills the air. 55 year-old Bhikku Sanghasena kneels respectfully on a small pedestral in front of the golden Buddha statue and prepares the meditation. “A funny fellow”, a friend calls the monk who always tries to create a cheerful mood.
“Be happy”, he repeats like a mantra. For the present Western tourists, this sounds like a slogan from an advertisement. Finding happiness in life is at the core of their spiritual practice for many Buddhists. In the hall, there is no religious reservation or silence of a monastery. Modern entertainment is used to bridge the gaps between strict traditional rites and changing realities and ways of thinking of the young adults of today. At the end of the puja, religious mantras are sung accompanied by rock guitar sounds. “Buddhism has to accept that the world is subject to continuous change. We have to face big challenges”, says Sanghasena. He has a rather pragmatic view on the shortage of monks in the monasteries of Ladakh nowadays. In the past, there were more children. Monastery schools were the only places to provide nutrition both for the body and the mind. In modern times, young people move to the big cities, they want to discover the world, says he. This necessitates a complete reform of schools. His pupils are supposed to be educated in a way that makes them physically strong, mentally brilliant, culturally rich, spiritually illuminated, ecologically alert, socially harmonic, and open-minded. This is laid down in the Mahabodhi programmes. In Buddhist manner, with a smile on his lips and the raised index, he warns all those who want to turn backwards or stop the wheel of time. His biggest success, he says, is his own way of living. He joined the Indian Army at the age of 17, wishing to serve his country. He has never attended school. He was taught meditation in his Buddhist home but he did not know much about the actual sense of life at that time. He learned how to kill as a soldier, learned how to fight and show aggression. “We have to open our eyes and use all our senses to perceive what the human society really needs. Wars cannot be ended through wars.” At the age of 21, he joined the order of Mahabodhi in the south Indian city of Bangalore and followed his teacher Acharya Mahathera. It was this man who showed him what charity and sympathy mean. Sanghasena wants to convey these messages to many people from all over the world during the short high season.
When the tourists leave Ladakh by mid-September, the region goes back to its 8-months winter sleep like every year. The Indus will still be flowing down the Himalaya in one hundred years. The future of mankind, however, depends on our children which are inspired and led by us.