Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meeting the Monk

The Dalai Lama left yesterday. The night before, one of my students learned that His Holiness would join in a parade down the Temple Road at 8am, so I launched myself (screaming hamstrings and all, courtesy of Vijay the Merciless Yogi) out of bed just before seven in order to grab breakfast and score a good spot to watch the procession before yoga at nine. When I slipped into a café to bolt down some muesli and curd, the guy at the counter informed me that the Dalai Lama was, in fact, leaving, but not until after nine, and would only be exiting the gates in an SUV and heading straight down to Dharamsala.

At a bit of a loss, and wishing myself back in bed for another hour of logistics-free oblivion, I decided to head down to the temple gates anyway. In stark contrast to the surging throngs of the past three days while the teachings were going on, the entrance to the temple was populated by only a few street vendors and idly strolling tourists. I could hear the monks chanting in the inner sanctum of the monastery a few floors up. The low monotonous rumble seemed to vibrate right into my eye sockets, and I followed it like a cat with the scent of sushi in its nose.

One might remark that my next couple of strategic moves to gain access to the inner sanctum may seem ironical, mercenary even, given both my devotional surroundings and the fact that it was all to the purpose of joining in morning prayers. One might also cut a sleep-deprived girl with a serious case of Dalai Lama love a little slack, but let your conscience be your guide. When I hit the first security gate, a burly Tibetan asked me if I had any cell phones or cameras in my bag. I did, in fact, have my Nokia cell (that necessary albatross of my “leader” incarnation) in my possession. Does the fact that I shook my head “No” rather than actually uttering the word make it less likely that I will go to hell for lying in a monastery? I’ll be honest, this question only occurred to me after the fact. Way after.

My flare of triumph at evading detection was quickly doused when I hit the pat-down point, and a soft-spoken female guard found my cell phone amongst the pens and probiotics at the bottom of my bag. No amount of wide-eyed innocence could compel her to let me leave it there and retrieve it when I left. So I faked a retreat back through the first check point, dove into a bathroom, and hid the phone behind a plastic waste bin, under a pile of urine-scented straw hand brooms. The eventual repugnant retrieval was well worth it.

I sailed back through security, and found myself in the inner sanctum with a large contingent of monks, nuns, Tibetan lay people, a smattering of Westerners, and the Dalai Lama himself. I was able to walk up to within twenty yards of where he sat in prayer, and sank down to the floor transfixed by his earnest, peaceful profile. By the stern look of the older man who asked me to move a bit further off, that was rather like a Martian toddler strolling into the Vatican, plopping down at the Pope’s feet, and demanding a bedtime story. I offered him an apologetic look that I hoped conveyed mental incapacity and endearing cultural ignorance, and retreated to a raised dias towards the back of the room where women of all ages cuddled and swatted their fidgety children.

The Tibetan horns sounded by the high lamas sounded like trestle tables being dragged across a cafeteria floor, and this, punctuated by clanging bells, created what I can only describe as a uniquely symphonic cacophony that felt somber and celebratory at the same time. I meditated for a bit, then joined a slowly moving river of devotees in a couple of perambulations around the central altar for a few more glimpses of His Holiness before trekking back to the dank bathroom, where I excavated my now bacteria-infested contraband. As I strolled back up the Temple Road towards another interminable yoga marathon, I reflected on the fact that, though I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the Dalai Lama’s teachings a few days prior, this experience of participating with him in his daily devotions felt much more powerful somehow. I have heard His Holiness say in many interviews that he is only a simple monk at heart, but I could never quite reconcile his profound presence with this image until I heard his voice joined in the same words of prayer as the modest sea of Buddhists around him, all facing the same altar, asking for the same peace, compassion, and patience.

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