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Published: July 13th 2013
Leaving Ungel to take his leave of his family in the privacy of their home, Hamish and Frank sat outside on a low boundary wall and waited for Anpoorba to join them. Time passed and Ungel remained in the house. They heard raised voices, and wondered what was going on. The dispute that had begun the previous night had been resumed. Frank poked his head in and asked Ungel if everything was all right.
“My parents want me stay and marry girl,” he said. His mother and father and sister observed me silently.
“Is this what you want?” He hung his head saying nothing. “Well, Ungel, you agreed to porter for us, so I think you should finish your work for us and then return to your parents.” Ungel put this to his parents, and there was an extended exchange of bad-tempered words between him and his parents. His elder sister joined in on the parents’ side, but adopted a gentler approach, addressing him by his diminutive name of 'Ungeli'.
Frank left them to it and they waited outside for the outcome. Anpoorba had already left, but they would catch up with him later in the day. Eventually, Ungel emerged from the darkness of the house, lifted his load onto his back, and set off without a word, leaving Frank and Hamish to follow him without having an opportunity to thank his parents for their hospitality.
The party followed the same winding contour of mountainside that the village stood on, so that after an hour they were able to look back and view it from an unchanged altitude. It was now reduced in size to a few tiny white dots scattered on an enormous sweep of mountainside, like flies on sticky paper. How helpless those little houses looked, and yet people lived there busily eking out an existence from the rock. And how precarious their existence was. Their few strips of stony soil yielded only maize and potatoes, and these two crops sustained the village throughout the year. From maize they made chang, tsampa, roti
and water baked like a pancake), pop corn, and a thick gruel made from maize that had first been used to make chang
. The potatoes were boiled or baked and eaten alone, or, on the odd occasion, mixed with some hardy greens grown in tiny plots next to the houses. Eggs and milk were usually reserved for guests. Meat, as they had discovered, was hardly ever eaten. Hamish and Frank had used their relative wealth to gain access to a forbidden luxury, and had selfishly set Ungel's family back on their journey towards a more virtuous, or at least, more privileged life.
They had not left the family in a happy state of mind, and wondered whether they should tell Ungel to return home to do what was required of him. But when they put this to Ungel he said: “No! I don’t want marry.” There was a lingering anger in his voice. And so they went on their way together, in reflective silence at first, but as the mood lifted, they began to chat and joke, leaving Ungel to plod on wrapped up in his anger, no doubt thinking of all the things he could have and should have said to his parents.
Frank was thinking, as they walked along a level path, the kind of path that did not require all one's mental faculties to negotiate, about Hakki making the world, and found himself smiling. “What d'you think of the Sherpa creation myth?” he asked Hamish, knowing full well what the response would be.
“Well, it made us laugh, didn't it?” he said. “That's about it. Laughable.”
“I wouldn't laugh at it. I feel better for having heard it. It was imaginative and reassuringly domestic.”
“Well, maybe, but it's not the truth, is it? There's no way of testing creation myths. Can you think of any method that you could use to test the proposition that the world was made by the wind churning the ocean? Or that God made the world in six days for that matter? Of course you can't. In which case, how can you decide between one myth and another?”
“Anpoorba didn't seem too bothered about which myth, yours or his, was the truth. In fact, he seemed prepared to accept that his story might be wrong. Presumably he'd choose his story over yours not because he thinks it's more scientifically accurate, but because it's a Sherpa story, and belief in it binds him to his community. Or maybe it's better at illustrating some moral truth that matters to him as a Buddhist.”
“Well, so long as he doesn't go around claiming that it represents a scientific truth, like a lot of Christians do with the Genesis myth.”
They eventually caught up with Anpoorba, who was sitting on a rock listening to his radio. He had found some decent reception. They sat with him for a while and Frank passed biscuits around. Their legs were weary and Hamish was developing blisters, so they decided to take it easy. Anpoorba's monastery, or gompa
as he called it, lay a short way up a valley, and he invited them to follow him and stay the night there. It involved a short diversion from their trail, but it was closer than the next settlement and they gave in. The gompa
and its outbuildings stood precariously and alone on the side of a steep side of the valley, like an eagle’s nest. They followed Anpoorba up the interminable steps carved out of the rock leading up to the gompa and the simple stone dwellings of the monks.
“We’d’ve done better going on to the next village,” muttered Hamish under his breath. “It may have been a longer walk, but it would’ve been a lot easier.” They had to stop for frequent rests, and were panting for breath by the time they reached the top. Anpoorba led them to one of the outhouses, and invited them to off-load their rucksacks there. This was to be their room for the night. They moved on to the kitchens where they encountered two young lamas, one who was evidently the cook, and another who was eating. Both welcomed Anpoorba enthusiastically and treated him with great deference, before turning their attentions to his guests. The cook offered them a cup of butter tea, which was rancid but warming. Frank had got used to the taste, and appreciated its nourishing warmth. Hamish sipped his politely but cautiously. Anpoorba asked the young lama who was eating his meal to open the doors of the gompa for them when he had finished. They went on ahead of him and, taking off their shoes, they walked up the steps onto the decorated loggia. The walls were covered with paintings representing the life of the Buddha, and his disciples, and other images of tantric Buddhism, and Anpoorba did his best to explain some of the symbolism.
The young lama joined them and picking out one of the huge keys among the heavy bunch he had fished from inside his robes, opened the heavy wooden door that opened on the soot-darkened colours, predominantly red, of the room. A warm aroma of musty incense enveloped them. On an altar, facing them at the other end of the room, sat a massive statue of the Buddha, many times life-size, with his long earlobes, signifying wisdom, and his soporifically wavy, all-seeing eyes. His great hands were held in symbolic gestures. His right hand touched the ground while in his left hand, which rested palm upwards on his lap, sat a bowl. Anpoorba explained that the right hand was invoking the earth as witness to the truth of his words. The bowl in the left hand was a begging bowl.
Laid out on a table in front of the statue were offerings of money and rice and flickering butter lamps and white scarves piled up by visitors in honour of Lord Buddha. Rich coloured fabrics hung all around them. Pigeon-holes containing unbound prayer sheets sandwiched and tied up in their hard covers, lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Frank pointed to lesser statues, in glass cabinets on either side of the Buddha, each gesturing in ways peculiar to them, and asked Anpoorba what they represented.
“Bodhisattvas!” he said.
“What are Bodhisattvas?” he asked. He’d heard the word before, as in ‘Bodhisattva Manjushri’ who, according to legend, had sliced through the mountains surrounding the Kathmandu valley, liberating the waters of the lake that were once contained there.
“Bodhisattva is name of holy man, like the Buddha, who is ready for nirvana
, but stays in samsara
(English people says 'Wheel've Life'😉, to teach them path to enlightenment,” he explained. He introduced them to each of the Bodhisattvas displayed in their cabinets, but neither foreigner was paying much attention. They were spell bound by the artistic wizardry. The figures were shifting it seemed in the flickering light of the oil lamps.
“Tell me more about the Wheel of Life,” Frank said. Anpoorba took them to a large thanka
, a religious painting, framed in a wide, ornately embroidered fabric that could be rolled up and conveyed to another location. “Here is Wheel've Life',” he said. The Wheel resembled a very intricate darts board, consisting of a series of circles within circles, divided into six segments with spokes running from the hub or 'bulls eye' to the outer circle. Clutching the Wheel to his chest with vicious looking talons, was a ferocious looking demon with fierce yellow eyes, and a head-dress made of skulls.
“His name is Yama
, God of death. Also mean Time. He is holding Wheel've Life.”
“I don’t like the look of him!” Hamish said, looking at the fearsome fangs that gripped the top of the Wheel.
“What’re these?” Frank was pointing to the hub of the Wheel, or ‘bull’s eye’, where a pig, a snake and a cockerel seemed to be chasing each other round and round.
“These are three big sins: Pig mean ignorance. Snake mean anger. Cock mean greediness. They keep you prisoner in samsara
, this world of borning and dying.”
“Which animal do you identify with, Hamish?” Frank whispered.
“None. I'm not a sinner,” he whispered back. Anpoorba went on with his lesson:
“Six worlds are there. Three top ones are good, and three bottom ones are bad,” he said, tracing his finger around the six segments of the Wheel. He pointed to the topmost one, “Gods live here.” He moved his finger to the segment to the left of the world of gods. “In this world you can see men half human and half god. You see this tree? Roots are in their world, but fruit is in the world of gods. That is why they envy gods, and fight them.” Then he shifted his finger to the segment lying to the right of the gods. “This one here: our world.” This segment was full of miniature human figures going about their daily lives, being born, working, and dying.
“Here are bad worlds. This is animal world,” he said, pointing to the segment that was full of familiar animals below the world of the demi-gods. He moved his finger to the other side of the Wheel, to the segment below their world. “This is world of hungry ghosts.” The inhabitants of this world had big bellies and small necks. “They always hungry. Their necks too small for their big bellies,” explained their teacher. “The last one is hell.” Here, in the bottom-most segment, the inhabitants were being tortured in various horrible ways, the punishment fitting the crime as in European medieval iconography.
“The gods seem to be enjoying themselves,” Frank said turning his eyes to the top segment.
“Yes, but our world is best one. We can learn Lord Buddha’s teachings and escape samsara. Gods too much happy. They don't think. After long time, their merit from previous lives gets empty, and then they fall down to lower world.” He pointed to the right half of the narrow circle surrounding the ‘bull's eye’ where some unhappy looking people, chained together, were tumbling down in darkness. Frank pointed to the left half of the same circle. Clothed, Buddha-like figures on a white background seemed to be rising upwards. “What's happening to these people?” he asked, although he could guess the answer.
“They going to higher worlds,” he explained.
“So how d’you escape the Wheel of Life?” Frank asked.
“Follow Lord Buddha’s teachings. Don't commit three sins,” Anpoorba said pointing at the pig, the snake and the cock, “No more samsara
! No more death. No more sick. No more suffer. Nirvana
.” He uttered the last word with significant emphasis, and grinned.
like?” Frank asked. He twisted his mouth as he thought.
“What a potato like?”
“A potato’s like…a potato!” Frank said feebly.
“So: nirvana like nirvana
!” said Anpoorba with an all-knowing grin.
“I see,” Frank said, but in fact not seeing at all clearly. Well, he got the basic idea. You can't describe nirvana
in words. There are things you intuit that you can't describe.
They went to the kitchen for lunch, and then Anpoorba excused himself, saying he had some tasks to perform. He invited them to sit in the monastery grounds and sun themselves.
“What do you make of all that?” Frank asked Hamish.
“It was like entering an antique junk shop that no-one's bothered to spring clean. I wonder what Buddha would think if he walked into one?”
“The room certainly looked as if it needed a clear out. I suspect it's not just the junk that needs clearing out, but a lot of the concepts too. They look as if they need a Reformation. But I like the concept of the Wheel of Life, minus some of the more lurid details. It seems to encapsulate the whole Buddhist thing in a nutshell. I suppose it serves the same pedagogic purpose as those stained glass windows in our cathedrals.”
The sun disappeared behind a nearby hill, and the warmth they had been enjoying was suddenly replaced by a chill. They did not want to go inside so early in the day, so fished out their anoraks and woolly hats from their rucksacks and wandered around the monastery complex for a while, marvelling at the scenery, and wondering how the monastery could have been constructed in such an inaccessible spot with nothing but old-fashioned hand-tools and equipment. As the colour slowly drained from the sky and the neighbouring hills, the snow peaks in the distance glowed with an intense luminosity and the moon above caught this strange light and preserved it for a few minutes after the mountains had grown cold and died. The cold eventually drove them to their room where they laid their sleeping bags out on raised platforms, a rare luxury. Ungel found somewhere else in the monastery to spend the night, probably the floor of the kitchen.
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