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

Monastic seclusion

Well appointed though my quarters were in other respects my housemate and I wanted to cook very different food in the same small kitchen; besides which he accidentally locked me out of the house twice running. So I petitioned Rinpoche to be moved elsewhere, as a result of which I have been evacuated to the Guesthouse. Being built for visitors, this was beyond my wildest ideas of luxury. Besides four twin bedrooms, it has a sitting room, sofas, carpets, a sitting toilet, high beds, tables, a glorious kind of sun porch at the front - really a fifth bedroom, slightly odd in that it is divided by a small uncurtained window from the sitting room, but infinitely more satisfactory as a sun room, from which I can sit and read or type while looking out at the clouds coming down into the valley to rest for the night. The guesthouse has no kitchen itself, but there is a large cookhouse next door (used for cooking for guests) of which I have the run for my own use.


A puja at the top of the mountain meant, for me, a very difficult hike. We went up the road to the shedra (institute), from where my guide set off up a mountain path that in my out-ofpractice state was quite hard. Just as it levelled off a little and I thought perhaps this would be all right, he struck off up a smaller path twice as steep, which he says leads to 'Zambala'. (As I am later to discover, this is a small temple above the main complex named for the God of Wealth - a peculiar notion to one whose ideas of Buddhism have not yet adjusted to the Tibetan version.) After a steep, steep climb, we come to a little temple or something behind some barbed wire. 'Zambala', he says, leading me to hope we are at our journey's end. Instead he carries merrily on up an even steeper seeming path. After a time the bushy vegetation becomes more scrubby and we come out of the shade into sun, and unless my mind is playing tricks on me by this point the path becomes steeper again, parts being more scrambling than walking.

The next section was the worst half hour or so of my life. I was convinced I would never make it up, and that if I did I won't make it down again. Finally we come out at a sloping meadow, and there follows what would, if one were in any condition to appreciate it, be a stunningly beautiful mile and a half on the flat along a ridge path, first through a sun-dappled forest and then across sloping moorland with an amazing array of wildflowers and ground bushes, including one which has the misfortune to have a distinctive scent when burnt, with the result that huge piles of it are cut and thrown on bonfires as incense.

We arrive at 8 (having left at 6) where a camp has been set up the previous night, and after an hour and a half or so I can just about face following someone up the last short but steep section. After 5 minutes I make an expert judgement that we are half-way up it, and conclude this section is not going to be so bad. We reach the peak a gruelling 45 minutes later. The elevation is around 5000m - significantly higher than the 3600m where we started, as I find out the next day when I am mildly sunburnt. A half dozen monks or so are conducting the puja under a neat yellow shelter erected for the purpose, with the usual combination of chanting and drumming and sounding of horns. A large collection of monks and lay people are meantime erecting a large and complicated star of prayer flags, while picking up the grubby remains of old prayer flags and burning them on the fires with the incense-shrub. After the puja, a number of the lay people present gather in a circle and do some sort of gentle country dance while singing traditional songs. Then we swarm back down to the camp, where lunch has been prepared, and back to the monastery. (In the state I am in when I get back I am not delighted to find that this is one of the occasions mentioned above when I am locked out of my house.)


Having been hanging around for weeks twiddling my thumbs I suddenly find myself teaching three classes a day, so I am not now short of things to do. I have put my foot down about teaching on Saturday, 15 class hours a week seeming quite enough to me.


In a class, trying to elicit the word 'hill' because it has lots of nice vertical letters, I draw a hill-shaped squiggle. 'Mountain', says one child intelligently. 'Yes,' I agree, 'and what about a little mountain?' (with hand gestures). It turns out that living much higher than most of the Alps, though they knew about mountains, they had not heard of anything so pedestrian as a hill.


Debating practice at the shedra: a peculiar and enjoyable Tibetan custom which I've seen before at the monastery in Tibet that is famous for it whose name I forget. Two monks debate at a time, one sitting on the floor while the other stands and poses questions, holding a rosary. After each question the rosary is pulled up the left arm and the questioner stamps on the left foot, clapping with the right hand down onto the left. Officially this is just the sign of asking a question, but the message of the gesture couldn't be clearer: 'Hah! I've got you there, haven't I! Look at you grovelling on the floor there. What have you got to say to that?' I always thought it a curious thing, considering the fundamental Buddhist teaching that there is no self, that there should be this pitting of personalities against each other. One of my students mentioned the debating monks the other day, and then, seeming to read my mind, said 'Very important lama said, no-one is defeated in debate.' I felt duly chastened, presuming that the lama meant it was misleading to see the debates in such adversarial terms. But when I ask for clarification, he said 'No no - when monks come from other monasteries, the shedra students are never defeated. They are so good in debate.'


'What do you call that (imitating my whistling)?'

And a few minutes later in the shedra kitchen, when I happen to be applying balm to my chapped lips:

'This (whistle) is whistling?'
'And that is Vaseline?'
'The same?'
No. No, the words do not sound the same. At all.


'Where do people cook in England?'
'In the kitchen.'
'But how do they cook?'
'They have a hob, like that' (pointing to a portable pair of rings attached to a gas cylinder) 'and an oven, for baking.'
'No bukhari?'
'No, no bukhari.'
'No wood?'
That is correct. The centre of a UK kitchen is generally not occupied by a big cast-iron wood burning stove to complement the gas hob.


A visiting American scholar studying the interaction of Nyingmapa teachings and the environment. He wants to interview people and has brought a local assistant borrowed from some government department. He has been here before but I am able to bring him up to date on people he might interview and what is going on - a strange and enjoyable reversal to be the local expert rather than the clueless newcomer. Enjoyable too to be able to use my kitchen and sitting room to entertain, when the pair of them come to dinner. He is an eccentric and vigorous character, though I have a slight suspicion an account of our meeting from his point of view would be the more entertaining to read.
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