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

Beware of bears and falling masonry

Today is the festival supposedly commemorating the anniversary of the Buddha's first teaching, and there were celebrations up at the 'shukti' or 'throne' of the important local fourteenth-century philosopher, high up above the monastery. I met a group of school students who had walked up the extraordinarily long and steep forest path from town on a kind of pilgrimage for the day, and asked if I could accompany them when they walked back, having been trying for some time to get someone to show me the path into town. (I will get a taxi back.)

Pema, the shopkeeper, had warned me that the path was dangerous in summer because of bears and tigers. They laugh uproariously when I mention tigers, but agree there are bears. They instruct me on how to deal with one: lie down and pretend to be dead. This uncertain-sounding technique is the only one with any likelihood of success, as it is not advisable to try to fight or outrun a bear. They are most likely to be around when the strawberries are out, though they are also partial to bees. (There are wild strawberries absolutely everywhere around the monastery, though I cannot see any in the forest.) None of my new friends has ever actually seen a bear, and nor we do this time on the very strenuous three-hour walk. The first half-hour is strenuously uphill, the rest downhill - it must be a great deal worse the other way.


K, the novice monk who looks after the 'guesthouse' in which I am staying, having come round to clear up after some temporary visitors, fiddles with his phone. 'Do you know what this is?' he says suddenly, and shows me - a trifle surprisingly - a photo of three horseradishes so arranged as to crudely suggest an act of anal sex. 'This is a radish,' I say carefully, 'and I think this is another radish. And this is a radish too, isn't it? Or perhaps two radishes.'

'Radish' is what they call horseradish here and I seem to have fallen into the habit, though being here as an English teacher I should probably be stamping the practice out rather than encouraging it.

K also mentions the need, as one of the novice monks, to get permission from the 'councillor' if you are going to miss a class or puja or what have you. If you don't get permission in advance, 'he will punish'. What kind of punishment? 'Punishment is very strict. He will beat' (demonstrating beating motions).


On the downside, buying any food apart from crisps and biscuits (available in the monastery shop) requires endless enquiries about when people are driving to town, and cadging a lift on the hour-plus trip there, and even then the range of things available is strictly limited; all the bread and milk powder is stuffed with sugar; and fresh milk is not too easy to come by. On the upside, when you discover that the shopkeeper can order you some milk, and when he rings to say it is in, and you think 'I'll go and get it straight away so I can have some for breakfast', it is still warm from the cow. That is a service Waitrose on Fitzroy Street cannot offer.

A corollary is that I can now make a cup of what is recognisably and delicious English tea. The guesthouse at my monastery must be the only place in the whole of Himalistan where this is now on offer.


Evening walk with the American visitor to the small and pretty monastery above ours. It has only one resident, Rinzig, one of the students in my beginners' class at the shedra, who has lived there as its caretaker for the past year. He offers us tea using the formula he has learnt from me ('Would you like some tea?'), naturally one of the first things it is necessary to learn in English.

Visit the American and his host, Tsering, for the evening, and on the way home, two monks are standing outside the lhakang playing the long horns. Where in the puja this felt like just noise, here in the dark and mysterious night it is beautiful and stirring. There is no complex musical line but the two horns, slightly mournful, continually sound as if they are starting some long undertaking, and one seeming to lead slightly ahead of the other, rise and fall in counterpoint to each other. I sit on a ledge shared with one of the wild dogs that roam the place and listen until they finish.


Summoned to dinner, along with our American friend, by Rinpoche, who is going away tomorrow. At first he is in a mood to complain about things as usual, but he mellows later - perhaps he was hungry - and almost admits there may be some good points in my teaching.


There are a profusion of wild dogs that one passes as one walks around the hillside. Sometimes they look at you the way dogs look, but some of them often they have startlingly human expressions, so that it is almost hard not to bid them a polite good morning. They look at you as if waiting for a reply, or pregnant with some piece of news, or impatient for you to pass, or conscious of their superior social standing and waiting for an acknowledgement.

Some of them have other peculiarities. One small and dapper member of the clan I have never seen without its tail wagging at an absolutely furious rate, while another will start away in terror if you offer it even the most tentative hand to sniff or show any other sign of interest.


Some of my lessons are in the shedra, or monastic institute, a short if energetic hike above the monastery. This is a little cluster of pretty buildings, two of them built precariously on the mountainside - one, the monks' hostel, somewhat too precariously, since the downhill wall has completely collapsed. If such a thing happened on one's own watch, one would no doubt call in a structural engineer and a geologist, and in the interim seal off the entire area with tapes marked DANGER OF DEATH and DO NOT CROSS. The approach here is to call in what appears to be the usual bunch of bodgers to pile up more bricks and mud and thus rebuild the missing wall. For the past week the room (misleadingly called a 'guesthouse') where I usually teach has been unavailable due to some work or other - polishing the wood, I think - and our lessons have instead been on the covered gallery of the hostel. When I tentatively asked, 'Isn't it dangerous here?' the response was, 'Oh no! That side of the building is dangerous - this side isn't.' Indeed there are monks still living in the rooms on the supposedly non-dangerous side of the hostel.

I tried suggesting that it seemed likely the problem was movement in the mountainside, and any rebuilt wall was likely to collapse again. 'No no,' I was told, 'the mountainside isn't moving. It is the wall which fell down.'
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