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

The pennis of the master

A mushroom festival in a local village. The village itself, which I had vaguely pegged as a great local metropolis (it is accorded some importance in the majestic History of Himalistan which I have got a small part of the way through), is a large but empty temple and a few houses along an unmade road. The festival is of mushrooms generally and the 'Buddha mushroom' in particular, which the Japanese call matsutake and go potty about. It is supposedly a gourmet mushroom which cannot be cultivated and so must be gathered wild, and it grows in only a couple of places in Himalistan of which this village is one. Though it is in the middle of nowhere it is a lively event and there are a good number of Japanese in attendance. I am interviewed on Japanese TV while enjoying a plate of matsutake. The National Mushroom Centre is present with a display of local mushrooms: a green, concave mushroom; a silver grey mushroom; a beautiful red cap with yellow veining, which when you break it is yellow but quickly turns blue on exposure to air.

Under instructions from the monks I buy a kilo of Buddha mushrooms. The woman selling them quotes me 500 rupees (£5). When I register shock and incredulity, she drops her price to 400. We agree and she weighs them out, all the while grumbling about how she has been keeping these for a week for the festival, and they have dried slightly, so this kilo is really more than a kilo's worth of mushrooms. Eventually she gives me an armful of mushrooms - she does not seem to have any bags - and I give her my last 500 rupee note. She gasps in horror, like the heroine in some vintage melodrama. 'Don't you have a new one?' The note is not particularly crumpled or dirty but is not brand new. 'The bank will not accept!' She looks as if she is about to take my mushrooms back. Eventually, as a great favour, she lets me keep them but explains that because of the risk she is taking in accepting my perfectly good banknote, she cannot give me change.

Back at the monastery Tsering fries them up expertly with some ginger and garlic. They have a very distinctive nose and flavour. It is good, but not, I think, as good as the curry a couple of days later to which he adds the few leftover mushrooms. The aroma they add to the dish makes it quite special.

He also makes some of the ubiquitous dish consisting almost entirely of chilli, which comes out surprisingly mild. I ask him about this later. Did he use special chillies? 'No, the same chillies. It is because I did not have any ...' he pauses while fiddling with his smartphone. Perhaps he is looking up a word on its Dzongka-English dictionary. I wait patiently wondering what ingredient could, by its absence, possibly make such a difference to the pungency, besides chilli. 'I did not have any anger,' he says at length. 'When people have anger, they make chilli cheese is very spicy.'


A conversation with one of the workmen on the new temple, who told me he came from Mongar. 'Mongar is not like this', he said, waving expansively at the steep and mountainous tree-covered slopes, so I imagined Mongar as a flat kind of place. 'Not plain like this,' he added, and I realised he was pointing at the small plain at the bottom of the valley occupied by the village and a few fields.


One of the temples near the town is one of the 108 supposedly built in a day by a Tibetan king in the C7 to subdue a huge demoness; only two of them are in Himalistan. Beautiful and antique-looking wall painting which a guide confidently asserts is from the C7, which I doubt. Various old and inviting rooms inside besides the main section of the temple, including one small cell guarded by a wall of weapons (ancient leather shields, an old rifle or two) which only men may enter and where it is appropriate - apparently - to pray for victory in wars and such like.

A path leads to another local monastery supposedly connected with Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet and Himalistan. The approach is over a stream and there it is, across a meadow, vast, white, airy. In one of its temples monks are sitting silently on the floor and at the front a senior monk in orange robes is reading his way in a rapid undertone through a series of the long thin yellowish pages that constitute the prayer books. Tsering later tells me this is a 'lung' or oral transmission, but not much is being transmitted, since the monks, besides the one helping him with the pages, sit showing no interest, chatting in whispers, sleeping against a pillar, etc. One at the back is leaning forward and appears to be designing himself a tattoo on his forearm.

A little way up a path outside the monastery sits a spring dispensing 'the holiest water in Himalistan', from which a handful of locals are filling huge jerry cans.


One day when only 5 students turn up I repeat the trick of taking them for a walk round the grounds. A couple of very-latecomers join us. 'What's that?' I ask, pointing at a fortress down in the valley, mostly empty but used as a royal residence when the king is in the vicinity. After they tell me about it, they draw attention to the triangular area of plain between it and the tree-covered mountain slopes behind. 'Look, that side ...' ('behind', I suggest) 'is big virgina.' Though this is an English lesson for some reason I can't quite bring myself to correct their pronunciation. 'Over here there is big pennis', gesturing vaguely back in the direction of the monastery. 'You have seen? You want to see?'

Naturally my curiosity gets the better of me and we wheel about and go down a steep slope and along a path overgrown with thorn bushes and passing along a barbed wire fence. We presently come to what one might call a huge and graphic concrete pennis sticking out of the side of the mountain, through the barbed wire, and pointing directly at the suggestive triangle behind the royal fortress. Some numbers inscribed in the concrete announce that it was constructed in 2001, but the students assure me that an earlier smaller one is encased inside and that, indeed, it has some intimate connectionto the famous C15 Buddhist master famous for subverting the usual rules of practice, decorum etc. Then of course they want a group photo. Six of us stand ranged along the ancient master's outsized member while the seventh member of the party records the moment for posterity on his mobile phone.

One of my students in the shedra later tells me that he was one of its creators. (He must have been 15 or so at the time.) As I gather, there was at the time an epidemic of monks leaving the monastery to get married. The feminine triangle down in the valley was diagnosed as the cause of this disaster, and the enormous concrete phallus, aimed squarely at the source of the difficulty, was constructed by some enterprising monks to nullify its baneful effect. The idea that there is any connection with the master of antiquity, or with anything before 2001, is completely new to him, though it is an established fact among the novitiate down in the monastery, a particularly striking example of myth-making at work.


As I am leaving soon, I thought it suitable that the students should add 'Auld lang syne' to their repertoire of British folk songs. To explain that it is a Scottish song I sketch, as on previous occasions, a quick map of the UK and tell them its various parts, while a thought in the back of my head wonders if all this is no longer true - I have seen little or no news since May - before I remember that the Scottish referendum is in September and it is still just about August.


Pema, the shopkeeper, has better English than most of the monks. His grasp of geography is much like theirs, however. 'Australia is near UK?' he asks me in passing.


A talk about my lettercutting days to the masonry students at the technical institute in the village nearest the monastery. The principal has a meeting but he leaves me in the care of a woman who is the 'machinery teacher', presumably, I think, because she is the only member of staff on hand on Saturday afternoon. The village itself is small and I am surprised by the spacious grounds of the institute, and even more so to discover a room of about 60 masonry students in formal dress, who all stand dutifully on my arrival. Talk goes off well enough so far as I can tell, though I don't really how much the students understand of my English. Afterwards I ask the teacher again what she teaches. 'Machinery', she says again. 'What kind of machinery?' She vaguely mentions building walls. 'What kind of machines do you use for that?' 'No, not machines,' she says, enunciating carefully. 'Masonry.'
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