Karma In Dharamsala

December 3, 2002

Mary Ann Travis

If anyone deserves good karma, it's social workers who do good deeds to better society. This September, Ron Marks, interim dean of the School of Social Work, took eight social work graduate students along on a karmic journey to India.

The three-week trip's objective: to make connections with the Tibetan refugee community in Dharamsala. Traveling in India presents many difficulties, says Marks. Top among the hazards is sensory overload.

"Every sense is stimulated to a maximum degree. Everything from the street life to the affection of the people, the wonderful spices that fill the air, the cow manure everywhere, the beggars on the street, the horns honking. It was fascinating to see the circumstances under which the people in India live. It's a complicated choreography of chaos."

Dharamsala, a former British outpost in the Himalayan mountains, is the place of exile for the Dalai Lama, head of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the occupation of his country by the Chinese.

Since then, India has provided sanctuary for the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans who continue to flee, often on foot in treks of 700 miles, in determined efforts to avoid Chinese persecution. Neil Guidry, a 1990 graduate of the School of Social Work and New Orleans resident, has been going to Dharamsala for a few months every year for the last seven years.

He's worked with programs in the region that provide prostheses for people who have lost limbs because of leprosy and with other programs that supply home-heating fuel to elderly people. Guidry's access to people in Dharamsala paved the way for Marks and the students to observe the needs of the Tibetan refugees and discover opportunities for creating social services to meet those needs.

Because English is the language used for most Indian schooling and commerce and a key ingredient for economic independence, some students taught English to the refugees. In other projects, a pair of students conducted the first-ever survey of Tibetan women refugees' health care. Another student helped out at a children's village that serves 3,000 children. Many Tibetans fleeing Chinese rule are Buddhist monks, and they usually arrive in Dharamsala with virtually nothing.

Their needs are minimal, but it does take $60 a year for a monk to live acceptably, says Marks. One student worked with a rinpoche to prepare materials that he can use to secure sponsors for the approximately 100 monks for whom he is responsible. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a rinpoche is a recognized lama who began his career as a lowly monk and has attained high status as a master teacher because of his spiritual and debating prowess.

Far up in the mountains, a six-hour drive from Dharamsala by jeep, Lotus Lake beckons pilgrims from many religious traditions--Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist. Guided by a rinpoche, Marks and his students traveled another hour beyond Lotus Lake, higher into the Himalayas. The purpose of this excursion: the delivery of small sleeping rugs to members of a community of 75 monks and nuns devoted to the Indian saint Padmasambava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the eighth century.

These followers live in spare caves, devoting their lives to prayer and meditation, reciting mantras and spinning mani or prayer wheels, which they believe gather positive karma. Most of the monks and nuns own only a butter lamp for light, a small wooden platform for sleeping, some sacred texts and their robes, says Marks, who witnessed the distribution of the handmade carpets and small amounts of money in a central building near the caves.

"It was like Christmas in the caves," says Marks. The monks and nuns some of whom have lived in the caves for 30 years walked out into the daylight, with their new rugs, grinning from ear-to-ear. Marks, moved by how happy people could be with so little, says that for many years he's believed that people do not become happier by accumulating wealth but by nurturing relationships. But it was dramatic for him to see in such a simple act of giving, the "true love and acceptance" of the Tibetan Buddhists.

Compassion is the fundamental tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, says Marks. And in many ways, the Tibetan Buddhist principle of ethics in action fits with social work principles of working for the betterment of communities. The social work students who took the trip are "better" people, transformed by the Indian experience, observes Marks.

They are more tolerant, more understanding of differences and more aware of the values and priorities that make for being good citizens of the world. In short, more compassionate. "I watched the transformations occur in all of us."

Mary Ann Travis may be reached at

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