22.10.2014 Buddhism

Journey into Loving-Kindness

Jeremy Ball shares his very recent experience of seva, or selfless sevice, in Ladakh

In 1998, I was a selfish young man more concerned in checking off the boxes of personal success than helping those in need. It was then that I was woken from my tawdry self-involved slumber to awareness of a world beyond my personal suffering. This led me to travel to Kathmandu in Nepal where the nectar of loving-kindness is embodied by Tibetan Buddhism and most of the Tibetan people were ready to soften and begin to heal my many wounds. Three years later, at Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained his liberation from suffering, on witnessing part of the nature of my mind, I spontaneously pledged to help my Tibetan brothers and sisters in some significant way. My intent was to support them and repay some of the blessings I had received through the tradition they have guarded so well.

Seva is a Sanskrit word meaning selfless service to others. It is a spiritual path, as most traditions extol the virtues and merits of giving to other beings to help remove their suffering, allowing them to undertake spiritual practice.

A few days ago, I returned to Australia from the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. While it is ethnically and culturally very similar to old Tibet, due to its proximity to India and being politically part of India, Ladakh was not invaded by the Chinese. Thus it has been spared the anguish and destruction of China's genocidal wrath in Tibet.

I had visited most regions of the Himalayas and Ladakh had been on my radar for a number of years. I arranged this pilgrimage to take author and mystic Andrew Harvey back to the land of his great spiritual openings when he met the High Lama Thuksey Rinpoche there, more than 30 years ago. That journey kickstarted Andrew's spiritual path and writing career. He wrote Journey in Ladakh on his return to Oxford University and has written a spiritual book a year since then, including the very well known Tibetan Book of Living and Dying with Sogyal Rinpoche. For many Westerners, this iconic book has been their introduction to the landscape of Tibetan Buddhism.

Andrew's return to Ladakh was poignant in many ways, returning to the root of his spiritual tree, not least because he was able to meet the new Thuksey Rinpoche, the reincarnation of the old man whom he had met in the 1980s. This High Lama had shown him the possibility of spiritual kingship developed through concerted practice and introduced him to the ideals of the bodhisattva, the central goal of Tibetan Buddhism. The bodhisattva is one who offers him/herself in entirety for the benefit of all sentient beings, to return life after life to serve until all sentient beings are relieved from suffering on all levels.

To see Andrew with the reincarnation of his beloved teacher, now in a young man's body, yet equally powerful and majestic, was both touching and the proof of the spiritual depth of Tibetan Buddhism. Without fanfare, Thuksey Rinpoche greeted Andrew with the words, "We meet again" and told him that he had been his father figure in his previous life. Now it was Andrew's turn to guide him as a father would for the remainder of this incarnation.

The trip was significant for me for many reasons, not least as it was the culmination of my prayer, back in 2001. At first, when I made the prayer - to do something significant to assist the Tibetan community - I neither had the spiritual nor emotional fortitude to help anyone outside myself. In the next few years, I also had a large family to raise, but as I grew through life I kept coming back to my desire to give back.

For this pilgrimage I arranged an 'add on' tour, a Seva Tour to volunteer in Choglamsar, the Tibetan refugee community on the outskirts of Ladakh's capital, Leh. Several members of the group were to stay on and help build a pump house around a village water pump, to protect the pump and users from the harsh summer sun and extreme winter conditions (as low as minus 30 degrees centigrade!). We easily raised the $AUD1500 required for the materials and so asked to help with other projects.

When the group visited the community in Choglamsar, we were met with a very warm welcome and people dug deep allowing us to pay for three further pumps. One was erected at the local school and another near an old people's home. We were also able to build a new wall around the local refuge dump to prevent the litter blowing through the community and to enable a recycling centre to be established.

I was feeling proud of the group for their generosity and happy that I had kept my word with the Divine, but our next stop at the remote village of Namra and a nunnery would take the journey into Seva much deeper. Nunneries often play a very poor second fiddle to the monasteries, receiving much less financial support and none of the prestige of their spiritual brothers. In Ladakh, it is considered an honour for a boy to become a monk, whereas when a woman becomes a nun, the common prejudice in the community is that she is too ugly to marry. Where nunneries do exist they are often an adjunct to a monastery with the nuns acting as servants, keeping it clean and serving the monks.

We had received many welcomes throughout our journey, but nothing could have prepared us for the generosity of the greeting the nuns at Namra gave us. Their nunnery was a simple building, on a spare acre of land in a flood and landslide-prone area beneath the local monastery. Despite their meagre surroundings, it was the cosiest of places, with undoubtedly the female touch, in contrast to the barren, stark and austere surroundings of the monasteries. The courtyard had a lush garden with flowers and fruiting trees of many varieties and the simple gompa (temple) was clean and tidy and very intimate. And the morning tea spread was made as if prepared for the homecoming of a dearly loved and long awaited family member. So much love and heart had gone into preparing the teas and snacks and home made biscuits. Snow White was certainly present in this home!

As we sat and sipped our tea, the 34 nuns, ranging in age from primary school girls to elderly women, gently chanted their heartfelt prayers to Tara, the goddess of compassion and melted the hearts of many in the group. Afterwards, we toured their kitchen where our feast had been prepared; it was like stepping back into the hovels of Dickensian London! The bedrooms were neat but very humble with nothing more than a simple duvet-like pad to sleep on on the concrete floor, three nuns to each two metre square room. This was passable in the current climatic conditions but with winter soon approaching, bringing with it nighttime temperatures as low as minus 30C, it gave us shivers to think of our new found friends lying on the cold hard floor.

Later, I sat down with a local hotel owner who is a patron of the nunnery and we calculated it would cost $USD6500 to provide a simple wooden bed, mattress and bedding for each of the nuns and also to refurbish the kitchen. The generosity of the group found fever pitch and within 48 hours, the money was raised. I am pleased to say that as I write this account the supplies are being purchased so that by mid October the nuns will be sleeping on raised beds and preparing their food in a safe and sanitary environment.

Photo Credit: Rod-Annear

Jeremy Ball

At 26, following a “shamanic intervention”, Jeremy closed his business and left London to visit sacred sites and elders, later creating Transformational Tours and SacredFire.

When not roaming mother earth, you will find Jeremy at home in Byron Bay's hinterland, playing with his children and planning the next adventure. jeremy@transformationaltours.com.au