[Note: This was written after my third conversation class. Faces are now more familiar and have names — even if they are the incorrect ones — attached to them. But the sentiment still feels important.]
There is a moment when you start something new where you think there must be a way to do this; a code floating out there, used by people who have tried their hand at this time and time again. I felt like that at my first conversation class. Were my questions too hard, or were they too easy? Was I meant to be correcting grammar or was I just supposed to be allowing them to speak, to let their mouths curve around the alien sounds English makes? (And my, are those sounds alien. What a strange language we have mastered, with what made up rules).
There rarely, is, of course, a code. And the practice people usually follow are the rules they’ve made up themselves (little personal paths through the woods that can lead them there and back again safely), secure in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same.
Today then — secure in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same— I throw open the topic of beauty. (A change from the usual, So how long have you spent in Dharamsala? Do you like it here? What are your hobbies?). I have no idea how this will work. Abstract concepts are nice: they allow you to squabble over what you understand by them. But they are also difficult, demanding a vocabulary that you don’t tease from an English beginner. I expect silence, some awkward looks, and possibly me, struggling to reframe my questions (what do you find beautiful?), with examples that I find very hard to dredge up. Some creative writer I am.
I get a debate. An energetic monk beside me explains that there is external beauty and internal beauty. External beauty depends on how others see you, on what others think. But internal beauty — kindness, compassion, caring — is all yours, and depends entirely on you. The definitions intrigue me: can you see internal beauty unless you perform it on someone else? So if I say I am kind (internally beautiful), then surely the only way to test it is to see if I am kind to others? The question throws things into the air. All beauty, says a young Tibetan across me, depends on others: on how they see you, and what they think. Internal beauty is only beautiful if you show it to other people. All beauty, says the small Tibetan girl next to me (so soft-spoken, I have to lean forward until my face is nearly pressed to the ground) is in the eye of the person. What is beautiful to me — she points to the bag of the monk beside her, a cheeky and hilarious man who seems to lead the group even when he is not speaking. Later, I will know him as Darren’s monk — may not be beautiful to you.
No, no, no. Someone is shaking his head. There are things that are agreed upon as beautiful. Why do we say a rose is beautiful? Or that Tibet is beautiful? I have not thought of that. There is an accepted definition of beauty, it may not be solidified into its specific, but it is there. I think, says another monk beside me. His face is set and determined. That external beauty depends on your internal beauty. If you are an angry man, you will not see anything as beautiful. One day you are happy: you see a beautiful woman and think she is beautiful. But next day, you are angry and she is not beautiful anymore.
BUT — the young Tibetan is back in the fray — it does not mean that she stops being beautiful. To everyone else, she remains beautiful. Maybe he thinks she’s ugly because she rejected him.
They are interested now. Some one cracks a joke in Tibetan and they all laugh. On the side, a fraction breaks into a side debate of their own, each insisting on their idea of beauty. I lean forward as much as possible, scooting around this big group, trying to hear the more soft-spoken ones. Their English is not wonderful, but we’re all so focused on getting our thoughts out, that little of that matters (Oops.). Some one cracks open an iphone software that translates from Tibetan to English. I think, says Darren’s monk, that all beauty is unimportant. The monk beside me is sceptical. If all beauty doesn’t exist, he points out, then all ugliness doesn’t exist. Darren’s monk seems okay with this; the group laughs. Okay, then, I say, pointing, once again, to his bag. This bag, a pretty ordinary bag, has become our symbol of beauty. You chose this bag yes? He agrees. Now if I gave you a blue bag like this, or a white bag like this, or a purple bag like this, which one will you choose? To choose you must like one, yes? The question cracks the group up, including him, but his answer is smooth. The red one, always, teacher. It matches it my robes.
Maddi says that if you can get them to laugh, then the group is a success. To be able to laugh in another language shows real ease in it. I find myself agreeing. Dynamics change when people laugh — thoughts free and that little circle, that group, becomes a light and easy space to make mistakes, to play around, to re-find yourself. Expression opens, ideas flow.
Perhaps there is a deeper lesson in there for all spaces.