I awoke hours later that day to the sound of hushed voices whispering prayers. As I gradually opened my eyes and adjusted to the dimly lit room around me, I could see a group of monks sitting on the floor, about eight of them, just sitting there staring at me while they did their prayers. I was covered with about three of four thick blankets and quilts on top of that, very comfortable despite an open window nearby. Through it, a bright shaft of cool air pierced into the room, the light cutting like a laser into the darkness but penetrating no further than its vivid, blue-white beam. Perhaps it was because of the quality of the air high on that Himalayan wilderness, but light had taken on an otherworldly quality.
Gesar was seated on a makeshift throne/bed, above my head and to the left, wrapped in a collection of clothes and thick blankets. I was still just completely disoriented, he just smiled and told me that I had slept for about 5 hours, utterly dead to the world. I sat up, and immediately a wooden cup of warm yak’s milk was thrust under my nose by a smiling but very dirty face. I sipped at it gingerly, feeling the hot vapour caress my nostrils and its nourishment gratefully welcomed by my fragile intestines, which at that point could handle nothing heavier.
The headache that had struck me almost blind when we had arrived was gone, and I was able to look around with more than detached interest at my surroundings. They had given Gesar and I a complete floor of the half-completed main shrine hall, which had been destroyed during the cultural revolution, about two floors up, dark except for the tiny tibetan style window that let in the piercing light. Gesar had slept too eventually- I presume they realised just how tired we must have been by my collapse, and let us both be in peace for a while. Monks and other guests I could hear outside still milling about, in fact as I craned my neck to look out the window I observed a large crowd was gradually forming outside the temple, as more and more people heard the news and the local communities came to pay their respect.
The monks had set up small tables in front of our beds, where a small plate, knife and a pile of rib bones of some ancient animal lay in front of me ( which in these parts, meant an animal that had died of old age), the hair and blood not removed during the butchering process and still plainly visible. I tried not to baulk as I looked at G- by his returned glance I could tell he felt the same way, a much larger pile in front of him. We knew it was the best they had to offer us, and we were grateful; but for the time being I decided that I would just forget about food and concentrate on fluid. I drank gallons of the warm sweetened yaks milk that was constantly replenished by an ever waiting monk.
I leaned back against the wall and Gesar and I chatted for about an hour, gradually giving all of the monks nicknames due to the fact that my brain could barely function and I could not for the life of me remember each and everybody’s name. For the first time in many days we felt truly safe.
Living in Shangri-La. I must take a moment to describe the energy of this place called Sechen monastery- it was calm, calm and clear like a hidden fog shrouded lake stumbled upon accidentally when hiking in the mountains, quiet despite the muffled noises of the tibetans outside going through their daily activities. The monastery was located on the side of a wide valley, cut in half by a crystal clear stream that babbled softly below. With the mountain behind it serving as a safe backdrop, it would be sheltered from the worst of the weather that must beat down on a place as high as this.
The valley was green, lush with grass and framed with tall cedars clinging to the sides of mountains and ridges. Yaks wandered aimlessly about, feeding on the grass and basically unaffected by the human settlement nearby.
When the Chinese had come and disturbed this idyllic community, they had done everything within their power to disrupt, humiliate and destroy the will of these simple living people. Monks had been forced to copulate with nuns at gunpoint, lamas pushed off roofs to verify whether they could fly or not, scriptures used as toilet paper and shrine rooms destroyed, at times with the Chinese coming back and doing several times over ( hence the ruins of the main temple at the time).
All of these things must have been severe challenges for the little community. But if the Chinese had thought that it would stop these people in any way from leading their deeply spiritual lifestyles, they were mistaken. Monks and nuns had handed back their robes (and vows) and gone off to live with each other, raising children and often the next generation of monks and nuns. Their houses stood quite close by to the main temple, of which we visited many over the next few days, always forcing down momo after momo and cup after cup of thick salt tea.
Each morning the men would go off, back to their temple, resuming their usual prayer schedule, which the ex-nuns did too, collecting together elsewhere. For members of “the ancient ones” , the Nyingma lineage, marriage, or no marriage, the motivation to practice was the same. Freedom for them always burned in their hearts, adn teh whole community functioned as it had for many years before. Only the ancient Shedrak still lay abandoned and unused, a place we would visit a few days later.
Some days we stood on the temple roof, and looked out over this wondrous community. Gesar and I shared the same feeling- we wanted to just burn our passports and stay there, disappearing into another world and life.
The dead end kids-And now back to our attendants- a more loveable and rascally lot you could not meet. One monk just looked completely like Eddie Murphy when he did his Buckwheat skit ala Saturday Night Live, curly hair, big lips and a beautiful broad toothy smile. This had G and I in hysterics when I saw the similarity and mentioned it in passing. I could see the mischievousness in some of the young faces too, they jostled and bullied each other to serve Gesar and me and satisfy our every need, returning cheeky smiles at times. Yet, they were totally devoted, many of them fiercely innocent, and actively fought to serve us, regardless of how servile and menial the task. Their devotion knew no bounds, and when compared them to the often off and on attempts of us westerners to be devoted to a cause or person… well, I am sure you get the picture. There was no politics here, just pure unadulterated service to another human being. Who was I? Yet I was feted like a king.
The Abbot-The young khenpo that we had met on arrival came upstairs again and formally prostrated to Gesar, presenting a scarf and asking for a blessing, which in the tibetan custom entails the laying of hands of the teacher on the head of the supplicant. I could tell by the look in his eye that he was already totally in love with Gesar, and knelt on the ground next to G’s makeshift bed, holding his hand for the next few hours, just wanting to be with his teacher. I don’t remember how many times I cried over the next few days, I just know that it was often the smallest, most subtle things that made my heart burst open; a feeble voice, a loving gaze, a silent gesture, things that I would barely take note of usually but here, in this far off land in the middle of high nowhere, these small gestures meant the world.
Touch- The sense of touch was definitely highlighted for me there in Tibet, something I noticed again later when I did my stint as a monk in northern India seven years later. People wanted to touch Gesar’s hand, or be touched by him. It was so expressive; whenever he moved there was a mad scramble to be one of the people who would hold his arm or elbow, to grab a piece of his coat, to guide him wherever.
Everything he touched became valuable, and an object of worship to these uncomplicated, fiercely devout people. A tissue used to free blocked nasal passages, when placed down as rubbish, was fervently picked up, (sometimes briefly squabbled over) and wrapped in a silk scarf, finally touched to a forehead and kept as some sacred object of worship. Grains of rice left in the bottom of a bowl were picked apart one by one, taken out to the waiting crowd below and distributed to the eager hands scrabbling for a single grain, those lucky enough greeting success with a prayer and a bow to the room above.
I learned something about devotion while there those brief few days. Love for us is often so conditional- it is something that I remind myself often of even to this day. What more can a human do than give completely from their heart? What a precious gift.
It was a surreal experience, and those first few hours of the fading day passed so quietly, punctuated only by a very bold few who managed to make their way upstairs and through the horde that waited. At dusk, we managed to force down some rice and meat cooked together, and settled down in the rapidly cooling evening air. The plan for the next day was to inspect the whole monastic and lay people community, the destroyed house of the previous Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche high on the mountain above, and the still ruined library (shedrak) on the other side of the valley, a little way off. The day after that was to be an enthronement ceremony, thrown together rapidly due to shortness of time. Gradually, the noise outside thinned as light faded and then was lost in the clear clean sound of night, broken only by the ferocious bark of some Tibetan mastiff as people returned to tents and houses, patient to wait one more day to meet their long lost son …
To pee, or not to pee.
At night, the cold outside was fearsome, to the extent that we dared venture outside. There was another reason though also : the monastery was in possession of a pack of barely trained Tibetan mastiffs, which patrolled freely outside and basically acted as guards against thieves or unwanted visitors in the middle of the night, alerting all to any movement by loud barks and growls. They were massive, fierce beasts, more bear than dog, that both Gesar and I feared confronting in the middle of the night should we venture out to attempt to relieve ourselves. Thankfully, the monks had left us a rather large pot for this very purpose, and Gesar and I took turns throughout the night relieving ourselves of the copious amounts of fluid that we had consumed during the day.
As I grew drowsy in the dim lit room around me, G and I chatted until welcome sleep claimed us both.