Escape to Tibet, Part 9: Descent from Heaven

Early one morning a few days later, the Chinese policeman with the young Khenpo in tow approached Gesar and I, and by a quick appraisal of his facial expression, I immediately grasped what his request was going to be. Our time in the forbidden kingdom was coming to an end, he needed to reappear back at his regular work within a few days, and that meant that we would be leaving as well. The local chinese police had already heard reports of a couple of foreigners in the area, and it was only a matter of time before they sent someone to investigate. If we were still here at that time, it would start a chain of investigations, leading backwards through our connections that had gotten us here. Feeble attempts by us at suggesting that the two of us stay on were quickly rejected; the officer was responsible for us, and it was obviously his neck on the line if the details of our non-permit holding religious activities were found out.

Alas, the world would not wait for us.

Sadly, the rest of that day was spent packing up all the accumulated gifts that had been given to Gesar, and which was indeed no small sum: he had received full sized religious tomes, statues, clothes, broad swatches of silk, other fabric, animal pelts of snow lion and fox, and our luggage had swelled to well over triple our incoming amount. Much was given back immediately to the monastery, and considerable effort was given to cramming as much as we could into Gesar’s sturdy aluminium travel box. By the end, it would take two of us to carry…

The air was thick with thoughts and emotions; ours, of not really wanting to leave just yet, having overcome substantial obstacles to get here, and those of the Tibetans around us, who didn’t want us to leave either, or at least, not quite yet. By the time we had finally blown out our lamps at the end of the day, sadness hung like a heavy cloud over the monastery and invaded everyone’s thoughts.

As I lay still awake, letting my consciousness gradually fade to nothingness, still in this dark void of a half-built temple, punctuated only by the steady breath of Gesar sleeping nearby. I was struck by the echoing bark of a dog some distance away, disturbed by some distant shadow or noise, whose excited cries seemed to amplify the emptiness I felt around me. I realized that this part of the adventure was drawing to a rapid close, and now the hard work would begin once again.

The next morning was busy with last minute packing and a constant stream of guests seeking last minute blessings or bearing gifts. We were given so many supplies that in the end that it made the packing attempts of the day before seem totally meaningless. Huge packets of tea, bolts of cloth, texts, things that we just couldn’t possibly move without an army of attendants helping us. And here we were wanting to travel incognito…. Most of it was left behind. Gravity would have its say.

Leaving
I cannot describe clearly what happened when we finally got up to leave. It was a moment of emotional chaos that forever left a mark on my heart. I do remember that it was absolutely, overwhelmingly emotional, with people weeping openly and many who tried to physically block the path of our leaving, be it doorway or path. The two khenpos would smile and chide people in quiet but firm voices, explaining that we had to leave and that Gesar would come back to them, some other year and time. I could barely look at anyone’s faces or eyes as the air was heavy with love and sadness. It was another tidal wave of emotion after this constant dramatic storm.

We finally managed to get down the stairs and into the waiting embrace of a large and unruly crowd. Old people lay prostrate in the earth, coming forwards to grab Gesar by the ankles and pleading with him not to leave. It was utterly heart wrenching for all. Everyone was crying, khenpos, monks, the young, the old, G and I. Gesar just let the tears roll down his cheeks with this big gentle smile, and we inched towards the car. Our driver was totally embarrassed, knowing that in the eyes of many he was the one forcing departure.

I looked around at this beautiful, impossibly high valley that had been our home for the last few days and tried to capture it indelibly in my heart. All reference of emotion was lost, it was just too overwhelming. I remember the sky, vast, blue all encompassing; sharp mountain peaks and lone stands of pines and firs, the endless circling of a bird of prey, yaks looking on nonchalantly, the gapped out expressions of all who eventually found the emotions way too much.

We got into the Jeep and managed to get the doors closed. As the engine started, the wails grew more and more intense, the pleading coming to crescendo. Gently, the car pulled away from the monastery, surrounded by wailing, crying hordes of devotees and sometimes snotty faces bawling openly that didnt want to let me and Gesar leave, blocking our path. Hands tore at Gesar as we left, through the open window they struggled to get one last chance to touch him, or feel his cloth beneath their fingertips. Our driver had made it clear; there was just no way that we could stay on, no way that we could just disappear into the landscape without him getting into a shitload of trouble and everyone else around us. The reality hung heavily in my mind like the sword of damocles. I just wanted to stay, grab my passport and rip it asunder, climb a nearby mountain peak, find a cave and just exist, leave everything that I had once known far behind. Yet, it was pulling me back like a vortex.
The crowd walked with the car as we drove, some running, some riding horseback shouting out, some stopping, bawling, only to be embraced by some other human closeby.
As we started to lose the crowd behind us, G could keep control no longer, and the days of pressure finally caught up with him. Suddenly the dam broke, and he bawled his eyes out, huge sobbing cries that shook us other travellers with him to the core. Dumbstruck, we just sat there and listened as the car gently coasted down the grassy valley and back out to the road. Tears rolled down my cheeks ceaselessly.

There was nothing that could be said to fix things. I was utterly spent. Getting here had taken everything I had , and I had had to shut out both my own fears and those of Gesar in our pursuit of our goal. We had done it, but there were signs on both of our faces that this had taken its toll on both of us.

We all sat quietly, lost in our own thoughts, as the jeep rolled across the grassy valley.

 


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Escape to Tibet, Part Seven: Devotion.

Two mornings later, G and I awoke to the freezing chill of a Tibetan early spring morning with the sun having not yet risen in the sky, with the soft thrumming of voices that could be heard wafting through the unglazed window. I struggled to escape the layers of blankets that had kept me warm throughout the night, even though fully clothed, and peered with curiosity down to the courtyard below. My eyes were greeted with the sight of hundreds of Tibetans, some sporting huge chunks of turquoise bound tightly in their long hair, patiently waiting for their Rinpoche to appear. It was barely sunrise, yet there they were, quietly praying or nattering excitedly to a neighbor, some prostrating on the bare earth, caking their bodies in dust and sweat, pointed in devotion towards our place of rest.

Since it was still early, I got back into bed and put in about another hour or so of sleep while G did the same.

All is nectar..or not.
There is a concept of pure vision in Tibet whereby a devotee can show devotion to their teacher by drinking a small amount of their urine, since, it is believed, everything that these reincarnate lamas touch or emanate, is pure. Its a very old custom and one that at that time defied my understanding, yet it is probably still practiced today by some as a very direct link to the past.

I woke up the for the second time that day to the sound of liquid pouring from one container to another. At first thought, I imagined that tea was being prepared and breakfast well underway. On rolling over to the other side where I could see the inside of the room, I gazed upon, with half asleep disbelief, a monk draining off the contents of our night pot and portioning it out into smaller containers, some of which were being eagerly quaffed by smiling monks, one after another, who were filing quietly up the narrow stairs. At first, I thought to shout out warning that the contents were not as they expected- that the pee of another not quite as holy as their returned master ( ie , me) was mixed in with the contents. I turned to look at G, who also having just woke up, was watching with mouth wide open. It ended as abruptly as it had started, and the monks were gone…

Hot buckets of water were brought up to the room for Gesar and I to bathe with, and the monks besotted with interest wanting to stand and stare at everything that Gesar did. I kicked them all out, and G and I enjoyed a few brief moments of privacy in what was to be a very long day. We cleaned up as best we could, and stuffed down the bowls of rice and sweet milk that were sitting waiting for us. The pure, pure air of that early Spring morning danced with the dust that was caught in the sharp light streaming in from the window, and for a few brief moments I let my mind dance too as I watched the minute particles swirl in the gentle breeze.

The monks appeared again, this time led by the smiling young Khenpo, bearing ceremonial robes that were to be Gesar’s for this ceremonial occasion. These clothes consisted of yellow flowing shirts and under robes, and an elaborate brocade jacket that would be the finishing touch to the multi-layered outfit. The monks handled each piece of clothing reverently, covering their escaping breath with a piece of paper held in their mouths, gently easing each garment one layer at a time onto Gesar’s imposing frame. I dressed as best I could, the monks giving me a clean white undershirt for my black tibetan Chuba.
At one point before the official ceremony began I went alone down the steep stairs that led outside of our lodgings, only to be confronted with an absolute sea of faces and people, who, taking one look at me, bowed their heads in reverence, and parted in much the same way that the Red Sea must have parted for Moses did to let me through.
At that point, I felt more like Darth Vader than Moses- my long hair, greasy and tied at the back of my head samurai style, a week old Fu Manchu beard and moustache, and my long black tibetan dress. I must have looked terrifying to the little children who visibly shook at the sight of me. It was a stunning experience for all involved; I smiled and tried to be as inconspicuous and friendly as possible, but as I could see by the looks on some of the people and little children’s faces that this was, for many, their first contact with a foreigner. How strange and exotic I must have seemed to them, a stranger in their Himalayan land!

One of the monks showed me where we would walk into the temple and start the ceremony, and pointed to where Gesar would be seated and I would stand in attendance behind him. The temple, little more than just bare earth days before, had been tricked out in their fines brocades and cloths and tankhas (religious paintings), with monks already seated in long rows, chanting their opening prayers, some of them looking up at me and smiling broadly as their elders tried to keep them focused on the task at hand. Somehow, with my horrific tibetan, I was able to understand what the order of the day would be, and I left to go back up to the room with G.
We were excited to say the least- this was the reason why we had come, to see Gesar enthroned at his own monastery, and with His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche having died earlier in the year it left a huge vacuum in the organisation of the local Tibetan buddhist community. Having Gesar establish links with his own heritage and legacy would give solace and comfort to many of those missing the loss of their great Guru and dharmic grandfather.
The music below us in the main temple started to play, with the deep booming drone of the long horns signalling us.

The ceremony. With a surge of about eight overly willing monks, Gesar stood up from his bed and proceeded to make his way towards the overly steep stairs and down outside to waiting crowds. I got in front of him, and tried to fit in between the monk musicians, armed with long tibetan trumpets, giving that all familiar call of an event about to happen. You have to imagine this tiny little stairwell with suicide-like tibetan stairs gradient, about twelve monks, the young abbot, me, and Gesar wearing these voluminous religious garments, all trying to get down the stairs at the same time and be of assistance to their long lost son. It was hilarious, with Gesar and I visibly laughing at the danger and frantic scrabbling hands of monks trying not to tumble down the stairs on top of one another, yet often doing so. I did my best to keep those near me upright, suddenly I was at the bottom of the stairs and the crowd below started to surge forwards towards the doorway-so much for Moses!

It was absolute mayhem; masses of hands, many grubby with dirt, thrusting forwards with babies, silk welcoming scarves, tongues stuck out of mouths in signs of respect, constantly chanted prayers, scrabbling feet, falling bodies, some trying to prostate, laughing, jostling for position, and monks and priests trying to keep order. Somehow the crowd pushed us away from the door and literally crowd surfed us towards the temple door, where we escaped inside, the monks keeping the many tibetans outside for the time being and at bay. Everyone was laughing, and G and I made our way to the throne that had been set up for him as the monks inside kept up the steady rhythmic chant of their opening prayers. His throne was covered in holy objects- texts, bells, books, a damaru (ritual drum) and other symbols necessary for the enthronement.

Finally the ceremony began- the numbers of people outside being too many to fit into the still under construction main shrine hall, they peered in through the open doorway and waited for the general blessing that would follow the ceremony. The crowd chanted patiently, prayer wheels whirring, malas clacking between hands, young and old staring inward trying to follow the procedures inside. There was an overwhelming energy that pervaded the temple that day, with smiles everywhere as the obviously proud young monks, older nuns and priests sat and prayed their welcome and recognition of Gesar.G sat through it all, beaming at everybody, graciously accepting the lead from monks that showed him through the ceremony, instructing him when to make certain movements, and being the most patient I have ever seen him be.

A parade of faces -The crowd was eventually let inside, and the general blessing began- this entailed the entire crowd being led through the shrine room to the front of Gesar’s throne, where they would receive a blessing on the head by Gesar placing his hand or sacred objects on them, and the tibetan khatag scarves that they held reverently being placed back around their necks. Many of them bore gifts- statues, animal pelts, books, malas, bells and religious practice objects, some very old and obviously treasures. I cannot explain or attempt to describe the emotions that flowed in that half-constructed temple those next few hours- crying, weeping, wailing, laughing, the sheer awe in the face of many of the children, the whispered prayers, or the breakdown of some of the older folk who had seen one of their great aspirations come true- a high lama’s return.

Through it all Gesar just smiled and smiled, the love between the crowd and him palpable and cogent. For those of us near him, for me and the other monks that were attending him that day, it ultimately grew to become too much, and we all ended up weeping as well, laughing at times when we saw some overly devout person cut back into the line to try and get another blessing, only to be intercepted by one of the wily older monks who would shoo them away. We watched this comic dance time and time again, sometimes allowing it to happen, and then seeing and older monk lose his temper and try to keep the crowd constantly moving ahead.
I still marvel today at the clarity of devotion in those simple khampa folk- as we all know, the eyes do not lie, and theirs shone with a brightness that I will never forget. Like diamonds.

It took the best part of the morning to finish this seemingly endless processing as prayers and horns and rituals were performed until late in the day. By the end of it Gesar and I were exhausted in the thin air as the energy and emotions overwhelmed us. With another fanfare, we struggled back out the front of the temple and towards our refuge above, to be met with the same enormous crowd and the same mad scramble to get near their returned teacher. This time dozens of hands stretched forwards to help Gesar walk, the smiling faces and laughing eyes giddy with joy as we were pushed back up the stairs to our lodgings and quiet.


Escape to Tibet, Part Six- Living in Dreamland

 

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.

More on this later…

As I grew drowsy in the dim lit room around me, G and I chatted until welcome sleep claimed us both.

Escape to Tibet, Part Five: Shechen.

Shechen_tibet_1   The Beijing jeep’s engine whirred gently as we rolled over the road next to a the flat, grassy plateau landscape, with G and myself feeling blissed out having gotten this far and the intestinal cramps we had suffered for best part of the last 24 hours starting to recede. As we continued down the gently undulating road through Kham closer and closer to Shechen, Gesar and I were struck by the sheer amount of destroyed monasteries that we could see littering the hillsides. On our own experience through only this one part of the country, hundreds. Their remains were everywhere. Some of the ruins were massive, spanning most of a hillside, and what once must have been vibrant city/communities was now reduced to mere dust, rocks and echoes.
Such is impermanence, I thought quietly to myself, and so potent must have been the fear of the communist Chinese that when they first looked upon these enormous colleges, they planned their complete and utter destruction. We were told that some 10,000 monasteries or communities had been destroyed after the Chinese takeover. The stories we heard from survivors were vivid enough though, and still held real terror for many of the victims and survivors.
But more of them later….for now we just gazed at the ruins and wondered at the waste. Other than that, was saw evidence of a huge army camp, its enclosing fence following the path of the road for some time before we veered off towards another range of mountains. The driver told us through our interpreter and easily understood body language that we would be wise to keep clear of this area as the Chinese army often held maneuvers near there as a way to keep the rowdy and fiercely independent Khampas in line. Gesar and I silently nodded in agreement, and tucked ourselves down into the jeep as small as possible. We were nearly there…
More than four days into the journey with the driver and interpreter, we had had plenty opportunity to study them both in detail, sometimes acting out elaborate pantomimes, connecting our own experiences to theirs through laughter, facial expressions and listening. Gesar has an incredible personality, similar to a bright glorious sun on a beautiful spring day that radiates warmth and friendliness. A consummate actor and entertainer, he had our two companions in hysterics on many occasion.
The policeman, chain smoking yet relaxed individual, seemed little fazed by what we saw as signs of ever present stress, and was able to take enormous physical punishment each day, rebounding each morning after few hours sleep, without barely a sign to show for it. The interpreter, an ex-monk who as the multi lingual member of the party, was the oil that made the whole thing possible, chatted away with the driver for many long hours while G and I struggled with the discomforts of the road and sitting on flattened asses for more than 17 hours a day.
We came to a small town called M&’&%$#, and pulled into a small house and compound on the outskirts of town. The old dilapidated chortens nearby were a welcome sign that we were indeed on sacred ground, and the Tibetan family that welcomed us gave us welcome hot tea and a meal. Food sealed the transaction, and with eyes barely able to stay open, G and I fell immediately asleep.
The next morning, when I awoke I realized that we were in fact on some kind of farm, with an assortment of animal sounds permeating the silence around us. And speaking of the pigs, they lived in a little sty directly above the farms toilet, and made their presence felt whenever a guest above decided to make a contribution by applauding with their snorts of happiness below. Needless to say that I forwent the urge to use the premises in the way that they were designed…
Words are not enough– As usual, we were off and running early in the morning, with a beautiful clear sky above and a brilliant green landscape surrounding us. At some point, I asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road so that I could enjoy my first natural movement since the egg eating disaster. As I walked gingerly off to squat behind this small bush a distance off, I was struck by just how incredibly beautiful the surroundings were: the sky so blue, the grass so green, water in a nearby babbling brook translucent in quality. We were somewhere around 4000 meters up, high in the heart of Kham. The sound was crisp and I felt the air move around me and within me with a presence that I had not been aware of before.
It is therefore possible, quite quite possible, that within that mundane activity that we partake in each and every day and that we so often take for granted, in that high alpine valley far far away, with my pants around my ankles, that I may have experienced some small amount of enlightenment.
About lunchtime, we came to a fork in the dirt road. Our translator told us that 30km straight ahead lead to Dzogchen Monastery, another famous Nyingma buddhist center, while the turn up the hill and down into a roadless grassy valley to the right would take us to Shechen. The car rolled off the main dirt road to what was then something akin to a goat track. We were not far now, and the anticipation, despite our still very weak physical condition, was causing my pulse to race. The jeep rolled effortlessly down a verdant green valley, the road disappearing into pure lush grass, the surrounding hills crested with tall pines. I will never forget the sky; brilliant, azure, highlighted in parts by a brief white cloud or two. It was beautiful, soft and welcoming to us. We had entered a magical kingdom.
We drove closer and closer, and suddenly, far off into the distance…there it was, a group of buildings clustered on the western slope of the valley, with a small meandering stream on the valley floor. Gesar asked for the car to stop- we would walk in from here; it seemed the most appropriate way to announce our arrival. We got out, and the Tibetan translator and I helped G put on his chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress. I cannot imagine nor capture how Gesar must have felt at that time, and what thoughts might have been racing around his mind, but we just smiled at each other and laughed, two filthy dirty, gaunt faced  westerners in this glorious blue day with air that was so clean it was like liquid as it absorbed into our eager lungs.
We stumbled slowly towards the group of buildings, perhaps two or three kilometers off, our feet feeling like lead as we tried to adjust to the extremely high altitude, our breath coming in hard fought gulps and wheezes. The walk was really just a stagger. The sudden shock of the altitude hit us. It was the first time we had done any serious exercise in days, compounded by the fact we were utterly physically and psychologically  exhausted, having hardly slept or eaten in four days.
Those few kilometers long walk took forever- we literally crawled towards the temple at a snail’s pace on this spongy soft grass that carpeted the valley floor. Yaks wandered everywhere, gazing placidly at our progress, ultimately ignoring our presence.
About halfway to the complex, a khampa on his horse approached us, curious as to who the hell this was walking down this valley. The Tibetan translator said a few brief words which had him off his horse and asking for a blessing in a second, arms in prayer position, tongue out and head down, body bowed in supplication, eyes shining like fire. We were all just smiling and smiling and smiling- it felt truly like a dream. He was back on his little pony in a second, and went racing back down the valley towards the monastery at top speed shouting at the top of his lungs his news , singing and laughing, whooping and hollering.
As we started the last gradual climb up the hillside a group of monks approached us, as we could see that the monastery once far off and distance  had burst into a hive of activity up close. Many buildings at that time were destroyed, many in the process of being rebuilt, uch as the main temple, which had a makeshift scaffolding around it.
People were emerging, like ants,  from buildings, other monks stared at us from the roof of the half rebuilt main building. Most held back as a smaller party approached us. The resident tulku and khenpo (abbot) made their way forwards solemnly, greeting us, recognizing Gesar’s face and bulk, but still not sure of who they had with them. Gesar produced his letter of introduction from Dzongsar Rimpoche which they read fervently, examined the seal, and looked us up and down, then back to the letter. The young abbot and tulku, with sudden realization that the man they had been expecting for the last few weeks was right before them, suddenly smiled and wished us welcome.  The chinese driver and interpreter looked on with bemused faces. As they bent to receive blessings and offer the first of what were to be many prostrations, the near vicinity burst into pandemonium, as the entire monastic body and every farmer and khampa present in the complex rushed forwards in one body to greet us and receive a blessing. Some stopped themselves and ran back to collect khata, Tibetan welcoming scarves, obviously caught in mid-thought and dilemma.
Release-It was absolute chaos- people were running everywhere, old, young, the crippled limping forwards as best they could, (we hadn’t even made it to sit down yet) running towards us, throwing themselves on the ground in prostration, crying, laughing, babbling, praying, shouting, screaming. Suddenly we were the center of a massive dharmic rugby scrum. It was a total free for all, and suddenly the Khenpo and tulku were like our bodyguards trying to stem the rushing horde. Gesar was just smiling and smiling, so patient, so loving, and I felt my own tears suddenly flowing like rivers from the final release from stress and the combined effect of so much obvious love and devotion. We had done it. We had done it. I had done it- and that moment was way too much for me. Like a bolt of lightening, I felt a massive migraine hit me like a sledgehammer from all the endorphins being released.
Devotion- Guiding and loving hands came from everywhere: it was as if Gesar was a thousand year old man, fragile as if made of glass, a precious jewel or revered long lost emperor, and all reached out and  searched for ways to help him stumble to the main building. Some even reached out to support me- the first time I had felt the friendly touch of another human in weeks. I was no-one, but to them I was a precious jewel. Gesar’s eyes filled with tears and huge rivers coursed down his cheeks, matched only by those of the crowd around him.
An old crying man limped towards us doing prostrations at each step, shouting out that this was his teacher and his teacher had come back for him, and told us the story of how he had suffered all these years and been beaten by the chinese time and time again; how he had lost his wife and was all alone, but so happy that his teacher had come back for him. He fell to the ground, latching on to Gesar’s feet and cried his eyes out, howling, snot and tears going all over G’s shoes. Many were crying uncontrollably with him, the thin Tibetan alpine air perhaps goading everyone’s long lost emotions as we all gasped for breath. Smiles and tears, prayers and scarves, we were gradually jostled towards the half complete main temple, being reconstructed yet again after been demolished by the Chinese.
Gesar and I finally made it inside to a seat and safety from the over eager crowd, and as I looked back briefly to the crowd outside, I could see riders galloping in every direction up and down the valley, shouting their message. The stern voice of the khenpo dispelled the crowd, telling them to leave us for now, posting two monks as guards on the door. We went up a steep steep flight of impossible Tibetan steps to the half completed shrine room above the main shrine hall, where monks raced about setting up a place for me and Gesar to rest.
It was about that time, with Gesar firmly in the grasp of loving hands, that I literally passed out, struck by a blinding migraine headache that rendered me utterly incapacitated. The focus was all on Gesar now anyway- and I could relax for the first time in weeks. I can’t even start to describe how I felt- all I could think about was closing my eyes and sleep. It was all too much. Despite seemingly impossible odds, we had done it.

I had done it.


My mind went blank.

Escape to Tibet, Part 3. Xian to Chengdu and beyond

Back in Xian two days later and once again smack dab in the center of the country (doh!), Gesar and I arranged another train ride; this time in a south-westerly direction, with another 1000 km plus journey and a seventeen hour train ride to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, the home of all that really spicy Chinese food you eat at your local Chinese restaurant.
This reminds me of a quick aside, the whole time Gesar and I were in China, we were struck by the poor quality and taste of the food, regardless of how expensive the restaurant was. I remember eating Bao in Xian, a kind of bread dumpling usually filled with meat or a vegetable, and the look on Gesar’s face after he bit into it, and immediately spat out half. A quick look at the contents showed us the bun was stuffed with green tea leaves. Ugh! My stomach still twinges from the memory. Why such poor food you ask? Well, you have to thank the late great Helmsman* for that. One of his most brilliant strategic long-term decisions during the Cultural Revolution was in getting rid of any kind of family lineage of skilled workers or tradespeople/ craftsmen due to their inherent bourgeois status, so that meant doctors, teachers, successful businessmen and your average skilled Chinese cook. Obviously they were still in short supply in 1991….
Anyway, back to the story. A different hotel, another travel agent, and tickets were purchased for the train. We had already lost about ten days with our aborted entry from the north, and didn’t want to sit around some dank proletarian hotel any longer than we needed to.

Plan Two: Ah, got to love Rinpoche..the man must have realized that Gesar and I would attract difficulties like flies to a carcass, and was probably sitting safely back in India laughing at all the potential strife we would get into….
Plan two was to meet an old Tibetan Lama called P&’%$ Tulku, a survivor of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and of incarceration in a Chinese prison, who would somehow help us achieve what felt like was becoming an impossible dream- to get Gesar safely into Tibet and enthroned in his monastery.

Let’s go! This time, there were limited train seats, so we were going the lowest class available. A brief description is necessary. Trains in India may have a bad reputation, but this train in China certainly could challenge that theory. The seating was arranged in benches to fit three, facing each other. To say ‘seating’ is a complement and mere flattery; these seats  were more like church pews similar to the ones I experienced as a boy during my (obviously) failed Catholic Christian upbringing. No padding, bare wood, seventeen hours, you get the picture.
The train was packed to the gills. Stuff was everywhere, people getting on and off, similar to any train journey in India. Most of our neighbors had the prerequisite glass jars full of tea, with hot water readily available on the platform.

Public brawling, Chinese style-Now before I tell this next event, I want you to understand that in the People’s Republic at that time, trains attempted to leave on time, without fail, barring major catastrophe like the world ending or something similar. As we were sitting there waiting for takeoff, a couple of rowdy types in front of us started to argue. Again, any kind of argument in China at that time was considered entertainment, so everyone in the carriage craned their heads to watch. The volume of exchange between the two became increasingly agitated. Suddenly, right before our very eyes, one guy grabs this big empty glass tea jar (about a liter capacity) and rams it into the face of the other, and fists, blood, glass fragments, people and belongings started flying everywhere. G and I looked on in disbelief with mouths agape. The fellow on the receiving end of the glass jar was up in no time and staggering down the aisle screaming, trying to get off the train, blood spurting profusely like a fountain, all over the other passengers as the other fellow chased him, ultimately restrained by some other men.

Now, as all this is going on, the train is pulling out of the station, and already off the platform. The injured man and his accompanying party screamed for a train guard, pulling frantically on the emergency stop handle, which produced no result whatsoever. The guard came eventually after a few minutes, and they pleaded with him to stop the train and let the man off. The victim was obviously in need of urgent medical attention, now seated at the end of the carriage in an open standing area, and blood was still flowing from him copiously, the flow now dampened by some strategically placed towels on his face rapidly turning pink. There pleading was in vain: the guardsman just stood there and repeated, ‘mao, mao’ or ‘no, no.’ The train just kept going until the first stop 45 minutes later. Trains in China just don’t stop. The next forty-five minutes until the first scheduled stop saw all passengers on our carriage lost in their own quiet thoughts,humbled by the sudden outburst,  the only sound to break the silence the occasional whimpering of the fellow at the end of the carriage.

Chengdu and P Tulku
Well, what do I remember of the journey on the train after that? Not much I can tell you! Oh, cans of the same soft drink taste differently depending on which part of China you are in; I distinctly remember extra fizz in the can when we pulled into one station near yet another nuclear power plant…….
Early the next day we arrived, covered in a thin layer of soot,  in the famous city of Chengdu and set about finding our contact there- P Tulku. After a little searching around this Chinese and soon obviously Tibetan populated neighborhood, we were led by a man that was clearly an ex-monk to a nondescript street of apartment buildings. As we approached, a kindly old man dressed as a lama, hair pulled up on top of his head like a yogi, wearing worn, disheveled and dirty yogi robes came limping towards us with a huge smile and pools of tears in his eyes.
The feeling I had right then was like a child watching an old Lassie movie- my heart wanted to explode at the sight of his instant and utter devotion to a boy he had never met before.
Gesar’s previous incarnation had been P Tulku’s teacher, and the look in this old man’s eyes was enough to fuel at least 100,000 prostrations of the most stubborn western buddhist. He was so happy; he giggled and laughed at us and fired away in rapid Tibetan. Gesar blessed him, not wanting to, but forced to by the old man placing Gesar’s hands on his head. Here we were, standing in the middle of the street, people starting to watch from windows and unfinished laundry now flapping like prayer flags above us as this partially crippled old man tried to do prostrations on the road in front of him, displaying his unswerving belief that Gesar was without a doubt his teacher, reborn.
Drinking copious amounts of sweet milk tea and eating Tibetan pastries moments later  in his little apartment several floors up, Gesar recounted the story of our adventure in Xining, occasionally acting out the part of various characters in the police station. Pewa tulku just giggled, laughed and smiled and smiled and smiled. Remember no-one spoke English, so we had to make do in broken Tibetan. P tulku recommended a hotel for us to stay in while he sorted out how we were going to get into Tibet, and set off with us to the hotel. Walking to a taxi, it was clear to me from the derogatory looks that the nearby Chinese people gave us that Pewa tulku was often derided by his Chinese neighbors. We couldn’t have been more proud to be with him that day. For the first time in many days, we felt safe.

Around Chengdu and the story of the born-again Chinese travel guide.
P Tulku took us to a hotel in the middle of town found on the bank of a rather large river, the Jinjiang, I think a tributary of the Yangste River. I just remembered the name- Traffic Hotel! ( for the morbidly curious: http://www.traffichotelchengdu.cn/)I can remember quite vividly the amount of garbage that I saw floating past in the river out front of our hoetl during our brief sojourn there, including the carcass of a rather bloated, recently deceased pig that eased effortlessly with the slowly moving current. How romantic. The hotel was nice enough, and the views (aside from the parade of trash floating by)  quite spectacular. We were also next to a primary school, which announced its presence several times a day by loudspeaker fanfare and the noise of children marching around the playground listening to patriotic music and words of patriotic encouragement from their teacher. In fact, to us they seemed to do about as much marching about as they did study!
Directly in front of the hotel was a Chinese-only night club, big sign on the door, and a small pleasant little outdoor café, right next to the river bank and some weeping willows. Across the river was a public park, filled in the early morning with tai chi practitioners whirling swords and doing other group oriented exercises.
That little cafe was the scene in Chengdu if you were a westerner and tourist.You could always find some other westerners about, lolling around the café, eating the food ( which was quite good) and sharing their experiences. Some were teachers living in the town, some tourists/backpackers, and obviously the cafe was everyone’s  quiet respite from the toils of their work, where pancakes, coffee and locally made snacks could be had pretty much all day and well into the evening.
P Tulku has settled us in, and hobbled off back to his house as we stood there, gratefully watching him go. It was plain to us that he had a great deal of difficulty in getting around, with one ankle turned painfully on its side as he walked, but he took off undaunted. I remember hearing something about him being severely beaten by the Chinese when imprisoned at some point. Most, if not all of the lamas we met on our trip had spent long years in jail, and P Tulku was no exception. With a smile, he told us he would send for us in a few days, and soon disappeared into the thick foot traffic that coated the busy street.

I remember people in Chengdu- people, lots of them, everywhere. The streets were packed with little stalls doing business, and men and women wearing their nondescript blues and greys, in typical Chairman Mao fashion. The café was located right next to both the river and a busy little lane, and since we suddenly had no schedule to commit to, we decided to sit there, eat, and watch the world go by.

Finding an empty table we nodded a brief greeting to another westerner and Englishman, instant friends by exchanged glances and a smile. We had barely sat down when the owner of the café approached us, not to take our order but to introduce himself with a booming english voice and start pitching his various business interests. His name was Mister Chin, and not only did he run the café he also has a small tourism company on the side. What I had first thought to be a menu tucked under his arm was in fact a menu of all the different tours he had to offer, after all, business first right? Within a minute and one seemingly long sentence, he had introduced himself as a proud and official born-again communist catholic christian, and proceeded to confirm the fact that he had indeed gone to church that very morning and was feeling really, and I mean really, really good. Gesar and I sat there politely while he went through his business menu and the englishman at the next table just grimaced; a trip to the Chinese opera, the Buddhist statues nearby, and various places of interest.

Due to our own superlative business skills, recently honed in India with many a taxi driver, we let him ramble on for a minute or two, then rebuffed his overtures and settled with some pancakes and coffee. Yet, I could tell by his face that he was the type that didn’t give up easily, and would be back later for round two, either to clinch some kind of tour deal with us, or convert us both to Christianity by his shining example.

Our English friend told us that Mr. Chin was that heavy-handed with everybody, and advised us to blow him off more quickly next time. We got the update from him on the town, and proceeded to spend a lazy afternoon in idle chit-chat with the ever wandering in and out customers. Hey, we also had hot running water in the hotel, so showers were taken all ‘round, and we returned in turn to sit and watch the slowly meandering river and constant flow of people cluttering the nearby bridge to the other side.

The afternoon was punctured by two incidents, the first, the arrival of a meter and a half long rainbow snake that shot at high-speed under the outdoor café tables, eagerly chased by a rapidly gathering crowd and a cook from the local snake restaurant, just down the lane, hatchet in hand. The second was the fruition of the  constant interruptions by Mr. Chin, who regaled us at any given moment with his christian exploits and the obvious pride in being a member of the ‘Official Communist Party Christian Catholic Church’. Our English friend, who had gone off and returned later in the day interjected one of his spiels to ask him a question.
‘Mr. Chin, I notice that out front of your glorious church there is a rather large cross.’
‘Yes, we are very proud of that cross. It represents Jesus,’ says our resident Mr. Knowledgeable.
Leaning in to deliver the killer blow, our Englishman fired point-blank at Mr Chin.
‘Well then my good friend, perhaps you can explain to us, what’s that bloody great big red star doing smack in the middle of it?’
At this point, G and I couldn’t keep a straight face, and burst out laughing. We sat there, basically falling off our chairs with hysterics, while Mr Chin, having surrendered to a facial shade of communist pink, wandered away, muttering to himself.

That got rid of Mr. Chin for a couple of hours, and the rest of that day and evening was spent meeting various other western wanderers and tourists, sharing their adventures, and of those who had attempted, of their ill-fated attempts to get into Eastern Tibet from Chengdu. These stories were varied and fantastic.

  • one had attempted to bike (!?%) around Tibet- attempt failed, bike confiscated and had been escorted by Chinese police back to central China
  • one had wanted to boat down rapids out of Tibet and back into China- attempt failed upon capture
  • one had hitched a ride in the back of a chinese army truck all the way into Lhasa- success

Chinese black-market, and Tibetan invasion plan #2.
Early in the morning of the third day, a Tibetan man came knocking on our hotel door to take us to see P tulku. We were led to one of the houses of his students, a lovely Chinese family that gave us an enormous feeding and made us feel incredibly welcome in their private, walled in compound. After the meal was over, Pewa tulku told us our marching orders.

He had arranged, by his connections with the local Chinese black-market, these things

  1. A Chinese police jeep to drive us into Tibet
  2. A Chinese police officer to drive us
  3. A young Tibetan monk, since neither G or I spoke a word of Chinese (who spoke no English) who spoke 5 dialects of Tibetan and was going to escort us and act as translator between us and the driver.

We were ecstatic at the simplicity and audacity of what he told us, but then I asked curiously how much funds this was going to require.

P Tulku said it was going to cost a cool $5000 US, payable that very day. Well, needless to say that we didn’t have that kind of cash on us, especially if I was to have emergency funds in case something went wrong (as I had feeling it would). A look of concern crossed P tulku’s face briefly, then he said that never mind, we could pay him them what we could, and for the remainder he would find the money and we could pay him back later. His earnest look said it all: we must get to Tibet.!

We were smart enough to realize that P tulku would have to put himself us as guarantor with his Chinese black-market reps, and we also knew what would happen were we to default.

Gesar and I weren’t sure if we wanted to get there that badly, considering the effort we had gone through to raise money from the American sangha for Gesar to come and study with Rinpoche in the first place. But the suddenly wrathful look on the tulku’s face convinced  us that we better just agree with what he said. We nodded our assent. Suddenly the smiles were back again all round.

We would worry about paying him back the extra  money when we were back in India. After all, Rinpoche had said that all things could be taken care of if necessary.  So off we went to a local market to prepare necessary items for trip- Gesar and I both acquired Chubas  and other necessities for the very cold and hard journey ahead of us. Chubas are the traditional Tibetan dress, long and generally thick, rough material to keep you warm in the high altitude, worn off one shoulder during the heat of the day, and a welcome extra layer at night. We had our requisite Chairman Mao hats to cover our heads if need be, and a few extra socks and sweaters.
We were told to be ready early the next morning as we had nothing to lose. The journey would take about three/ four days of hard-driving and we were instructed to sleep well that night.
Of course, we hardly slept- it was going to happen! It was a combined feeling of intense anticipation and absolute fear that wracked my discursive thoughts that night.

On our way.
The next morning we were ready at five o’clock as we had been instructed. We left a lot of belongings at the hotel; only take what is absolutely necessary. Our Tibetan friend drove us over to the Chinese people’s house, where sure enough sat a waiting Beijing Chinese police jeep, a Chinese policeman and a little Tibetan monk. Introductions were done, a wave good-bye to our new chinese friends and the aspiration of good luck from P tulku and we were on our way. I sat in the back, trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible in the early morning traffic as we navigated our way out of the still sleepy, misty town, as the driver pointed the jeep west, towards Tibet and our destiny.


* The late great Chairman Mao

The pilgrim

It was midnight, and the only sounds around me in the Burmese Temple as I awoke were the rhythmic sounds of breath and snoring of various backpackers, tourists and typical collection of characters that the path of dharma generates. Being December and Winter in Bihar, the midnight air had a coolish tinge to it that required you to bundle up temporarily until your body became accustomed to the ambient temperature, but such garments would be totally unnecessary once the golden sun arose six hours later. I dressed quickly, putting on my monk robes as quietly as I could (I had taken monk vows with the Hinayana tradition, now long since given back), and made my way out of the Burmese temple and into the walled garden, where due to the locked gates for security I made a quick hitch over the fence and into the silent, dimly lit street, starting the hour-long walk from the Burmese temple into Bodghaya.
The year was 1997 and Monlam prayer festival, and the days around the great stupa were active and  full of throngs of people participating in the buddhist prayers for world peace, with all hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama. Many Tibetans were there on pilgrimage, their prayer beads and prayer wheels whirring continuously as they circumnambulated the wondrous site. I was there to do prostrations, 30,000 of them in fact, over a month-long period, and as any experienced prostrator would tell you, that is not something one wants to do in the heat of the Indian sun. So what I did was to come firstly in Winter, get up in the middle of the night, and make my way down to the deserted stupa and do my 1000 prostrations per day when the sun’s effect was stymied.
As I walked along the deserted streets, I kept myself in the best lit part of the road, where I could spot any potential obstacle, be it human, car, dog or snake, giving myself enough time to hopefully remove myself as a target. Dogs pretty much kept to themselves, too busy with sleep or the realities of a very harsh lifestyle and the hunt for food. Of cars, there were few, and I kept up a steady beat of mantra as I walked silently along the road, beads clacking between my fingers, eating up the several miles in what seemed as nothing more than pregnant moments. Every human I chanced to see was busily engaged in sleep, sprawled in various positions over road side shop counters, chairs, and hard wooden platforms that doubled as beds. The world, brightly lit in parts by an overhead light, faded back into darkness around me as I walked along.
Getting closer into town each early morning, more and more signs of life would begin to appear. A rickshaw driver, if chanced upon the city’s outskirts. was usually sprawled across the back seat of his vehicle and easily woken for a few rupees and a drive back into town. As incredibly busy and noisy as India is, in the still of the night not a sound can be heard, barring the howl of some distant dog or hoot from some  far off bird. Most nights I just walked the entire distance, surrounded by profound and absolute silence, the steady beat of flip-flops and the mala racing between my fingers my only companions as I chanted my mantras.
India at night is magical when it finally stops; and is merely a snapshot of where it left off, with many participants immediately resuming pre- sleep tasks on waking. As I walked along I was reminded so many times of the story of the Buddha and the night prince Siddhartha left his own palace confines for good, the dancers and attendees sprawled akimbo as he silently made his escape. The chaos, the beautiful chaos that is India is one of its chief attractions (at least to me), and I often found myself mesmerized by where the life clock had suddenly stopped for a few brief hours before recommencing later at its usual hurdy gurdy speed.
By the time I reached the MahaBodhi Temple grounds and the site of the great stupa each night, the surroundings were as yet silent and unmoving, with only the occasional cough of a guard to be heard as he stared out into the night sky. The holy grounds had suffered much from pilfering over the years, and now lay locked up during the early morning hours to ward off looters, a sad testament in itself. I stood at the gate for  a few minutes, hoping to attract the attention of a guard inside who might graciously let me in, with me mime-ing the prostration movement, and then ending with my hands in supplication. Sometimes succeeded, sometimes I was ignored, sometimes no guard would appear from the darkened grounds within the gates, probably fast asleep somewhere out of sight. In those cases, I would walk around the perimeter fence to a suitably quiet and low spot, then after a quick glance around, would hurl myself over the wall and into the silent darkness of the hallowed stupa grounds within. For the sake of dharma practice, I admit to committing such an offense.
Quietly, and mindful of my feet and movements, I would make my way to one of the hundreds of prostration boards that littered the temple grounds that I had picked out to perform my prostrations on, under the sweeping and generous limbs of another not so famous bodhi tree on the grounds, about 50 metres away from the great stupa which towered above. There, after making my opening supplications to gurus current and long since gone, I would soon be steadily slapping the board with my full length body, as small insects whispered quietly nearby.
The stupa in front of me, like some alien monolith towering into the darkness above, and the absolute, profound silence surrounding me the only witness, the minutes turned to hours each night as I waged a constant battle with myself. Sweat would soon start to flow, running in rivers down my body, and my mind (of course) to wander, each time drawn back (at times belatedly) by me, as I remembered my vows and motivation. I was soon soaked, and the chill air surrounding me no longer an obstacle but a welcome relief.
I brought no food, only water, which I would drink in copious amounts, at times aware of the bats that whirred around above me in the night sky in impossible balletic display.
Occasionally a once sleeping guard would discover me on his rounds, but each was utterly respectful and would leave me to my practice, perhaps inspired by my doggedness of pursuit.  Another crazy foreigner..
As the sky above started to lighten towards dawn, the gates would be drawn open for another day, and slowly, in ones and twos others would appear, to take up a prayer position or join me in the steady slap slap of prostrations offered on behalf of all sentient beings. Many Tibetans would arrive to light lamps around the stupa, and their endless circumnambulations would begin, The number would swell over time, until it was in the thousands and was as if a constant roar engulfed the divine structure, brightly lit by thousands of lamps and churning with life at its base.
As the day grew stronger, more and more pilgrims joined me in devotional activities, some joining me on vacant boards and soon ofering their bodies in supplication, others sitting and chanting out prayers and mantras. By 900 am the grounds would be failry packed and the days prayer activities well underway.
It was a social occasion. People swapped stories, old friends reunited after years of being apart, monks and nuns and priests and believers of all races and kinds, joining together as equals in the prayers for peace.
By the time the morning prayer sessions were scheduled to be underway and the sun was again high in the sky, I would be wrapping up my daily session and  ravenous for food, sated each morning with banana pancakes at a nearby hippy cafe, a welcome oasis and respite from the soon thronging crowds outside as the day began.
Sometimes I would sit under my tree, for an hour or two before I headed back to the temple and sleep, and await a falling leaf from the sacred bodhi tree, cherished by all and exceedingly rare.
Each day I repeated the same, inspired by the sheer devotion of thousands who braved the still strong sun each day and joined the prayers for world peace.
It was an experience I shall never forget.