The Language of the Soul

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  10.12.2014

As we sat eating delicious Greek food on that Saturday afternoon, I sensed my friend Shannon was going to share something big – some piece of news with me – yet I really didn’t have any idea what it would be. And Shannon being Shannon, I knew she would tell me when it felt right for her and I waited patiently. It was right about the time the dish of Baba Ganoush arrived when she said, “Haven, I’m moving to India.” And me being me, my immediate reply was, “That’s fantastic, if you want, I’ll come visit you.” We talked excitedly about her plans, her fears, her courage and my willingness to visit her on the other side of the world.

And so it was I ended up in a beautiful setting in northern India, a town called Dharamsala located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, the home of the Dalai Lama, the home to Hindu and Buddhist communities living in peaceful cohesion (with a good helping of India-chaos thrown in for flavor). There were wild monkeys and sacred cows, packs of wild dogs and feral cats, people walking with large urns of water on their heads, cars with no apparent regard for traffic laws, buses so crowded that people and animals traveled on top and motorbikes buzzing through it all carrying families of three and four, with groceries and live chickens defying gravity by somehow staying upright.

During the extensive travel from the States to India and the three-day delay waiting for the one plane to finally fly from Delhi to Dharamsala my patience was tested: “I’m sorry Ma’am, the flight is not going today please try again tomorrow”. (Try packing your things every day, checking out of your hotel, riding through the heat and chaos of Delhi, India only to hear that comment three days in a row without losing your patience.)

Once the pilot decided to make the trip I arrived at the tiny airport to find my friend Shannon waiting to greet me. She had a new name (Llhamo), a new hairstyle (shorn head) and wore the maroon robes of a recently ordained Buddhist Nun. Because she had become a Nun just a few days prior to my arrival, Llhamo was required to participate in many activities and had very little (almost no) time to spend with me. None of this was in her control and India being India you adapt or you go home. I decided to adapt.

Lhamo had arranged a room for me at the Nunnery she now called home and I embraced her culture and my new surroundings, rising before dawn for prayers, listening to the sounds of the morning bells rung by Buddhist temples throughout the hillside, walking by temples and hearing the foreign, yet reassuring sounds of Monks chanting prayers in Tibetan.

I quickly adapted to the routine of living amongst the Nuns and was welcomed by them, most who spoke English and all who were warm, kind and shared well-developed senses of humor. They ate two meals a day and I joined them for both and wondered how they did it as I walked away hungry each time. I have met many people, been exposed to many cultures and have yet to meet a culture that embodies humor like that of Buddhist communities. They laugh often and easily. The temperatures in the foothills of the Himalaya dropped so low at night (no heat) I wore a hat and gloves while sleeping only to rise to the high 80’s during the day (no air-conditioning). If you wanted water you carried it, if you used a restroom and had the luxury of toilet paper you had to carry it out with you since the pipes were not meant for paper. It is not an easy place to live; the climate is harsh, convenience is not considered to be a part of the lifestyle, electricity is considered to be a luxury and everything had to be washed (sterilized) in a vile-smelling disinfectant (rather than lemon-smelling detergents and liquids).

                            Along with the consistent hardship was the consistent laughter:
a deep, resounding joyous laughter both abundant and contagious.

And so it was I learned the story of Harry. Harry is probably not his actual name but it’s the name everyone called him because I suspect it’s the name everyone could pronounce; technically they pronounced it, “Horry”. Harry is a taxi driver in Dharamsala and was the driver the Nuns used more than anyone. When they needed to go into town, Harry would arrive in his bright blue taxi, with shag carpet stapled to the ceiling and small statues and figurines of Ganesha, the Hindu God, glued all across his dashboard resembling a bizarre board game. Being inside his taxi was like sitting in a themed room at an oddly smelly, mobile restaurant; a restaurant without air-conditioning and very uncomfortable seats that careened up and down the steep foothills of the Himalaya at break-neck speeds for no apparent reason. Harry drove with an urgency that was as comical as it was maniacal, as if the Nuns were on their way to deliver a baby or put out a fire at the destination and then patiently wait an hour or more only to return them to the Nunnery as if it were on fire. Harry’s car seemed to have two speeds: (1) Stopped and (2) Get the hell out of my way. There was no hint of a seat belt and the exterior of Harry’s car bore battle scars of dents, scrapes and scratches of driving in a society with reasonably paved roads but no enforcement of traffic laws or rules. My guess is any traffic laws were merely suggestions rather than actual laws.

Harry, like everyone there, revered and respected the Nuns – they were like royalty and the Nuns loved Harry and loved to tell his story. In the seven days I spent with them, it was told to me multiple times and I never grew tired of hearing his fable-like story.

Harry is a Hindu man. When I was there he was past the age of marriage in his culture which is arranged by parents of the potential bride and groom. It wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of his parents that Harry had not married. They had decided on the woman who they believed would be best for Harry and vice versa…her parents sought out Harry’s parents and all agreed that their children would wed. According to the Nuns, Harry was excited to meet his potential bride and a fancy family dinner was arranged for the two to meet. Harry dressed in formal attire and his potential bride wore dozens of bangle bracelets with some light Henna tattoos on her hands for the initial meeting. Food was plentiful and there was music, candles and incense. Despite everyone’s efforts, the meeting did not go well. Harry did not approve of his potential bride because she was, according to Harry, “too fat”. He balked and refused and at great embarrassment to both sets of parents, the pending wedding was cancelled; the bride was upset. For months following the meeting, negotiations and communications bounced back and forth between both sets of parents. During this time the Nuns were well aware of the situation and would talk to Harry about accepting his potential bride which carries deep significance in his culture. Over and over they explained to see beyond the surface and to understand that he is marrying the person, not the body.

Finally, Harry acquiesced and agreed to marry the woman his parents had selected for him. At about this point each time a Nun told me the story she would giggle and laugh to the point of tears in her eyes, sometimes one Nun would have to finish the story. It turns out that once Harry agreed and his parents conveyed his acceptance to his future bride there was an extended period of silence. Eventually word came back to Harry that the bride decided she would not marry Harry because he was “too short”.

Is there a moral to this story? Probably; you can take whatever lesson from it that you want. For me, it is one small memory of an incredibly special time spent with an amazing group of people living in very difficult circumstances. It is a place of deep contradictions and living life on the extremes. The memory of careening through traffic to wait patiently, the crowded buses and calm people, the plentiful food stalls and starving children, the Nuns and Monks, the cold nights and hot days, the silent solemn prayers and beautiful sounds of bells echoing throughout the foothills, the hardships and the laughter.

And mostly the laughter…the Nuns…Harry…their resilient laughter, the language of the soul.

Thanks for reading (and laughing),
~ Haven

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