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Published: July 17th 2013
The following morning, after breakfast in the monastery's kitchen, they said their ‘goodbyes’ and ‘thank yous’ to Anpoorba. They would miss him, but promised to call in on their way back. He placed traditional white ceremonial scarves over their shoulders to mark their departure.
“Hope you find truth,” he said to Frank with a grin. Was he teasing him? He turned to Hamish: “And you also!” he said with an even wider grin.
“I don’t think so,” Hamish said with a laugh.
They descended the steep steps down from Anpoorba’s monastery in a fraction of the time it had taken them to ascend them, and they were soon back onto the beaten path which took them along a wind-exposed ridge. The crook-backed trees gripped the rocks for dear life, and yet their gnarled fingers were scrabbling at the air as though desperate to break free from their bonds. Holy swastikas and prayers in Tibetan characters had been carved on rocks by the wayside for the protection of the passers-by – good deeds that would add to each benefactor’s store of merit.
Walking through this desolate landscape in the early afternoon, our travellers turned a corner and spied Gyangto and its famous monastery on a mountainside huddled against the biting wind that is incessantly hurled down from the white peaks. The low grey houses looked like rocks scattered across the mountainside. As they came closer, they could see an old stupa looking at them from below the village, and the prayer flags fluttering from tall poles between the houses. The mountain the village clung to had been levelled into terraces, and loose stone walls shored up the rocky soil to prevent it from sliding down the slope.
They headed for the large gompa above the village. Scattered higgledy-piggledy around the gompa, which stood on the highest point of a rise, were the tiny white huts of the monks. A young monk escorted them to one of them where a foreigner was sitting cross-legged on his bed in front of a table with all the usual religious regalia: a stylised thunderbolt known as a dorji, a bell and a statue of Buddha. He was introduced to them as an American lama called Denis. With his plump, white American face, and shaven head, and maroon robes, he looked out of place: an over-sized Californian water melon lying incongruously in a scrawny Sherpa potato field.
“How did you end up here?” Frank asked.
“I just turned up and thought it was groovy,” he said. “I mean, I admired the simplicity and goodness of the monks' lives. I decided to spend some time here to learn from them.”
“Can you communicate with the other monks?”
“Some speak a little English,” he said. “I get by.”
“Aren't you lonely, sitting here in the dark for days on end without anyone else to talk to?” asked Hamish.
“You're joking. I'm living the dream, man. I get a natural high from meditation.”
“Don't you find the complexities of Tibetan cosmology get in the way of your spiritual development. Don’t they become an end in themselves? I mean, there’s so much dogma and arcane symbolism,” Frank said.
“Wrong, man!” he said with feeling. “Believe me, the complexity gives us an insight into a complex truth.”
“Surely you'd be better off working within your own Christian tradition,” Frank said. He was indulging in a little bear-baiting. “There's so much culture-specific stuff in this kind of Buddhism that you will never be able to get to grips with it. Why not join a Christian monastery?”
“Christianity doesn't grab me,” he said with a shrug. “I can't accept it on an intellectual level. The dogma turns me off. Buddhism's just more cool.”
“The Christian mystics didn't let the dogma get in their way,” Frank said. Denis looked dubious.
“Can you read Tibetan?” Hamish asked.
“No,” said Denis uncomfortably. “It's not a problem.” All the prayers at the monastery would be conducted in Tibetan, so he could never be more than an observer until he learnt the language. He got up. “I'm going over to the gompa to attend a prayer service. Why not join me?”
They walked up to the gompa, took off their shoes, and entered. The monks were already taking their places on the long red carpets laid out for them, and Denis joined them, prostrating himself three times in front of the giant statue of Buddha that dominated the room. The head lama was seated on his high seat looking down the aisle separating the two rows of monks. In front of them were low tables on which the long, unbound prayer sheets had been placed. Three of the monks assigned to blow the horns were seated on high chairs, to accommodate the length of their instruments, and two percussionist monks were in the process of seating themselves, one in front of an enormous drum, and the other by his cymbals. Denis squeezed himself among the monks, untied his prayer tablet and removed the hard protective covers, while Hamish and Frank sat behind the monks, making themselves as comfortable as the cross-legged posture permitted. They breathed in the scent of oil lamps and incense.
The head lama began the ceremony with the deepest of rumbles, a primordial bass note like the rumble of an elephant, and now, taken up by the other monks, the sound seemed to reverberate through their bodies. Very gradually the tempo increased, until the chant developed into a rhythmic chatter, the pace maintained by a steady beat of the drum, with individual voices leaping up from time to time before falling back into line. Every now and then the monks turned their pages, and Denis followed suit. Then suddenly, and shockingly, the horns and cymbals blasted the monks' chanting away in a series of ear-shattering crescendos, until the rims of the cymbals suddenly shut it all down with a shimmer of metallic sound, and the deep elephantine rumble of the monks began again.
During breaks in the service, a young monk served his elders nimki chiya
, pouring the tea into little bowls.
Frank sat with closed eyes letting the rhythm of the chant resonate through him, and for a while lost himself. When he opened them again, he saw that Hamish had disappeared. Assuming that he had left of his own volition, and not been transported to another realm, Frank decided to join him. His legs, crossed for so long, protested and he had to limp out painfully. Hamish was sitting on a step drawing on a cigarette, and they both sat there in silence letting their unpractised legs recover.
“Well, what do you think of that?” Frank asked.
“Impressive. Uplifting even. But having to sit cross-legged got in the way of my enlightenment,” he replied.
After the monks had finished, Denis invited them back to his room, and Frank decided to see whether he could tell them more about Buddhist truth.
“OK. Get this. We think the mental world we've created is the real McCoy. But that's an illusion. Reality's not the artificial construction of our unenlightened thinking. I mean, by dividing reality into chunks we create boundaries, and boundaries create false dualities, such as good and bad, right and wrong, cause and effect, knower and known, subject and object and so on. You with me?”
“But you couldn't make sense of the world if you didn't categorise it into separate events and facts and things. Without doing that you couldn't function, and there could certainly be no science,” interjected Hamish.
“I mean, I agree our artificial concepts are necessary ways of making sense of this world, but truth about this world is only the beginning of the trip. When we accept the truth that Lord Buddha taught us, that the world is in, like, constant flux and that clinging to it causes frustration and suffering, we’ll be ready to follow Buddha's teachings to escape from it. Right?” Frank nodded. Hamish wobbled his head to flag his scepticism.
“Man, even as I try to explain, I’m using conventional language and ideas - the tools of my entrapment in illusion, you know? They're as useless as a net for catching water. They can only help us at the very beginning to point us in the right direction. We have to try to dismantle these man-made shackles, with the help of the Lord Buddha's teachings.” He paused, and took a deep breath. “Now this is going to blow your minds.” He looked at them and commanded their attention with a raised index finger. “The world of illusion becomes the real world at the moment it’s no longer grasped; when you, like, no longer resist the flow.” He was nodding meaningfully as if to say: this is it, the nub. They were both displaying furrowed brows as they tried to get to grips with this metaphysical insight.
“Then what?” Frank asked, hoping that the next revelation would be easier to understand and shed some light onto what he'd just said.
“Then man,” he said, looking at them with a broad smile, “you're liberated from the cycle of birth and death, and achieve Nirvana. The knower becomes the known. This is what Buddha calls Awakening.”
“What do I have to do to achieve Nirvana?” Frank asked.
“Well, the first thing is not to chase after it!” He looked at them with a beatific smile, as if to say the paradox contained a beautiful truth. “If you desire Nirvana you'll end up, like, chasing your tail. It will run away from you. Nirvana comes naturally when you've liberated yourself from illusion, just as air fills a vacuum. The path that Lord Buddha taught begins with awareness that desire causes suffering. Like, once we've started our trip, we gotta remove the obstacles on our path by controlling our speech and actions. We call this creating good karma
“So it's all about behaving well to create good karma
,” Frank concluded.
“Not exactly, man. We gotta choose behaviour that reduces our grip on the world of illusion. Good karma is less grasping than bad karma, and most of us get no further than that: trying to be good, and trying not to be bad. But in the end we gotta try and avoid all karma.” He paused. “This is heavy duty stuff, I know. You following me?” They nodded uncertainly. “Cool,” he continued. “At the end of our trip we free ourselves from those dualities of 'good' and 'bad'.”
“You said that words can't help us,” Frank said. “How do we manage without language?”
“Silent meditation, man. When we Buddhists meditate we try to observe our sensations, feelings and thoughts.”
“So you mean we must control or suppress our thoughts and feelings?” Frank said.
“No, no, no! On the contrary. We gotta try and turn our mind into a mirror, which reflects exactly what there is. We learn not to clutch at these things. We let thoughts flow like a river without interruption. Thought cannot review thought, so we gotta dismantle the boundary between thinker and thought. No more dualities!”
“It's difficult to understand how you can have thought without a thinker,” said Hamish.
“That's because our language forces us to think of subject and object or predicate as separate entities. When we talk about 'thinking', we gotta have a thinker and a thought. But that’s just a convention of our thinking. It may be helpful to think of it this way: when we say 'a light flashed', in fact the flashing is the light. Or when we say 'it's raining', we mean the rain is raining. Subject and predicate are the same. Follow my drift?”
“How do you relate all the theory to what went on the service we've just observed?” asked Hamish.
“Well, man, at the stage I'm at, and I guess the stage the other monks are at, anything that can help to focus the mind is worth utilising. I really dig the chanting and the noise of the horns and cymbals. I mean, combine it with all the other stuff: thankas
, golden statues, and the groovy scent of the joss-sticks and candles, man, and, well, I'm outta my mind.” He paused, and then added: “Of course, you gotta be careful not to get hooked on these props. They could get in the way.”
“What about hash?” Frank recounted his experience at Jenny's, and the insight it had given him.
“Yeah.'Turn on, tune in, drop out' and all that jazz. Heard of Tim O'Leary?” Frank and Hamish nodded. He was an American academic of the '60's who advocated the use of marijuana as a way of getting fast-tracked to enlightenment. “Maybe he's right. I guess any way of by-passing the usual mental ruts can, like, be helpful. Looks like you got to the truth about suffering in one move. Congratulations!” He delivered this with the kind of exaggerated smile and body language you would get from a TV game show host if you ended up as the winner. Then he reflected seriously for a moment. “The trouble with hash is that it's hard to let go. Once it's got you, it's got you, man.” He fished out a chillum from a bag kept under his bed. He looked at it lovingly. “I use it from time to time, when I need to escape a bit, but I have problems finding stuff to eat here when I get the ‘munchies’. Generally I'd say 'keep off the grass', man!”
“So how far have you got?” asked Hamish.
“Not far at all, I guess,” he said. “Stopping the mind from jumping around like a grass-hopper is a real challenge. Talking the talk's the easy bit. Walking the walk's another ball game.”
“I suppose that in the end you've got to stop talking about religion and just do it, otherwise you'll never be able to test its claims,” Frank said.
“It's my legs that would stop me from seeing the light,” said Hamish. “How do stay cross-legged for so long?”
“Practice, man. But you can sit if you prefer,” he said. They went out to enjoy the end of the day. Some of the young monks, just boys, joined them, and they played football for a while. The young one who had been serving the nimki
chiya during the service, called them back into his bedroom to show off his monkish skills. He sat on his bed, with one of those long prayer books in front of him, and recited a mantra in the basso profondo way of his elders. It was clear he couldn't read it, but he had memorised the mantra so well that he knew when the page had to be turned. He did rather well, but sometimes burst into self-conscious laughter. He could console himself with the thought that the really big lamas have the books memorised and can dispense with them.
The next morning they drank tea, and some vegetable soup from a packet, paid their money for the food they’d bought and prepared to leave. There were several dips and rises around the monastery which provided heart-thrilling views of the gompa, or the entire monastery complex, set against the jagged peaks to the west and north-west. The moon had travelled across the sky and was about to sink below one of these peaks. Gradually all the mountain peaks around the monastery were being gilded gently by the pure light of the awakening sun.
They were just packing up their packs, when a halo appeared around one of the peaks. Then suddenly the sun jumped out and the monastery exploded into light and the golden metal of the gompa caught fire, burning against the still black hulks of the nearest mountains and the blue sky.
They eventually set off down the hill, but were stopped by Denis, robes flying behind him, who wanted him to take a picture of him with all his monk friends. Embarrassingly, his 'friends' were not keen to join in, so he enlisted the services of the head cook. Frank took their picture on the steps of the gompa. “Can you do me a favour, man?” he asked. “Like, when you get back to Kathmandu, can you get someone coming out in this direction to bring me some sea-salt, and a bottle of iodine.”
“What's that for?” Frank asked.
“There's no iodine in the water, man, and I don't want a goitre,” he explained. “Oh, and can you ask them to bring him some ceremonial scarves. I'm running out.”
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