Mr A. Writinghawk (writinghawk) wrote,
Mr A. Writinghawk

Monastery life

I have not died but have no internet of any kind in the monastery. I've escaped to town for a night so here is a brief catch up of the past couple of weeks since arriving in Himalistan, which I shall follow up in a separate post with a vignette from yesterday.

I stayed a week in the capital, finding my way around, meeting various contacts people had given me, acquiring the Himalistani national dress, and so forth. A friend of Rinpoche's was making the long drive to the monastery so was detailed to give me a lift. He turns out to be a famous film star in the country. He has a kind of pick-up truck of which the back is full to bursting of boxes of crisps and sweets and other junk food which, as I will discover, is distributed at pujas, having been donated by the faithful, and the back seat of various sisters and nephews and neices. Himalistan runs east-west, but consists of an endless series of ridges and deep valleys running north-south, an unhappy combination; there is only one road and it is not always wide enough for two vehicles to pass. It runs endlessly up and down the steep thickly-forested and sparsely inhabited hillsides. Towards evening it is raining and mist wafts past us like the breath of some malignant manifestation of winter. It is billed as a 7-hour journey but we take more than 12, leaving at noon and arriving - after stopping for 'lunch' at 5 and 'dinner' at 9 at the houses of various relations on the way - at his sister's house, from which the Rinpoche, a jolly chap of 30 or so, picks me up in the morning. He is a trulku, a peculiarity of Tibetan Buddhism of which the Dalai Lama is the most visible example but of which there are many, namely a reincarnation of a previous Rinpoche who has elected to postpone Nirvana and be born again out of infinite compassion for all living beings and a desire to help them on the path. 'What kind of music do you like?' he asks, fiddling with the car sound system. I say I would like to learn a Dzongka folk song or nursery rhyme. 'But the music I listen to is mostly English', he says, pressing some buttons, and a song starts playing whose words are something like 'I'm gonna have sex, something something, I wanna stick my penis somewhere or other', not what I would have guessed Rinpoches listen to in their spare time.

The road to the monastery from the main road is 12km long. Just below it are a few houses which, so far as I can understand, are inhabited by a few particularly devout people who like to pop into the monastery to turn the prayer wheels, attend pujas and so forth, and who perhaps particularly venerate this Rinpoche as their 'root master' - presumably if so, considering their relative ages, from one of his previous incarnations. The monastery when it finally arrives is a great many buildings, temples and little huts scattered about the hillside, not too far apart. Some way further up the hill is the 'shedra' or monastic college, whose exact relation to the monastery I have yet to understand. The Rinpoche's house has a very plush sitting room, which sadly does not reflect the level of luxury in the monastery as a whole. I live, along with a monk who speaks not a word of English, in a wooden chalet with bare floors and walls, the furnishings in my room being a mattress and some blankets. The 'bathroom' is a wet-room with a concrete floor, a cold water tap, a squat toilet and an assortement of buckets and jugs; the laundry facilities consist of scrubbing clothes with a bar of soap on the said concrete floor. To be fair there is also a water heater, consisting of an incredible death-dealing contraption with a plug, two wires and a board covered with heating elements, which you can plug in and put gingerly into a bucket of water.

The valley is said to be in the 'high temperate' zone, and the monastery is significantly higher. The climate at present is like April or May in Cambridge, apart from the low cloud, which during the day sometimes hangs at eye level on the other side of the valley, and sometimes envelops us entirely in mist, but from late evening to early morning goes to bed like the rest of us and slumbers in huge soft white folds right down on the valley floor, like a big fleecy blanket keeping the village warm. In the winter, apparently, it gets very cold indeed here. The monks remove in late autumn to a different monastery, down in the subtropical south. But unfortunately, an important puja requires them to return in February, when the winter is still at its coldest.

It happens that I have arrived just before a 7-day puja, the major annual event of the monastery year. 'Puja' in this context means monks sitting in rows in the floor doing all kinds of complicated things though the principal ones are chanting, banging drums and blowing horns, and wearing extraordinary hats. Subsidiary events are of various kinds and many involve an elaborate distribution mechanism, usually involving the younger monks (many monks enter the monasteries at a very young age) bringing to everyone in the room regular doses of salt or sweet tea, bags of junk food, palmfuls of sweet wine or disinfectant to drink, handfuls of rice to throw, etc. Virtuoso masked dances by monks, representing it is not entirely clear what, also feature. My hips cannot stand sitting cross-legged for more than about half an hour or an hour at the outside, so while all this is going on from early morning to late at night with the odd meal break, I only dip into it a couple of times a day. Meantime I have discovered friends, besides the monks, in assorted ancillary persons, such as a few who are painting huge thankas for a new temple in the grounds, and a crowd who were here cooking for a party of Chinese tourists here for the ceremony. Alas both tourists and cooks have now gone their various ways.

The Himalistani staple national dish consists of strips of chilli, cooked as a vegetable, in a little cheese sauce and served with rice. Other dishes consist of strips of other vegetables cooked with copious quantities of chilli - the only flavouring used - and served with rice. (There is not much meat, fortunately, since all the meat dishes I've tasted have been singularly unpleasant.) My present jaunt into town is principally to see what I can find by way of slightly different food to cook. Naturally the major puja meant that even having arrived I didn't have any classes to teach, but I am supposed to be finally getting down to that tomorrow.
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