Quarantine reading: Two timid Tibetan monks go West (Part 1)


Two timid monks – prentice lamas, legs crossed in facing caves – were in the second year of their 3 year, 3 month, 3 day retreat when they were startled out of their deep meditation by the rumble of a retreating army on the barren plain far below. Then, met halfway down by another, they learned that the posse on Nangchen Shetlands, armed with rusty Enfields were protecting the Dalai Lama as he fled from the invading Chinese. Though eager to join, they were ordered to finish their retreat and wait for instructions from the astral realm.

That they did. At first, it was as though the cavalcade had been a temptation by the lingering devils of  Bön. As their immersion in all-knowing intensified, however, they were shown visions of their future path and descending at last, all that was foretold proved true: the barbarians had destroyed their shrines, murdered their teachers and seized their scrolls, relics and statuary.

The few survivors nevertheless whispered that the Dalai Lama had established a government in exile on the foothills of the Himalayas in India, a place they’d never heard of which lay far to the south through a pitiless wasteland. So, with absolute faith, they trekked through ice fields littered with scree and moraine where the winds were a dagger, bitter herbs their nourishment and their only encounters were with Chinese soldiers who would have roughed them up if they hadn’t looked so childish (and smelled so bad).

When they reached the tree-line, the climate became milder and the scattered habitations gave way to a village, where, inquiring in the pidgin English that was a legacy of the Raj on both sides of the border, they were told that they were indeed in India, and, the train that ran down through their valley would surely link up with another that would take them to Dharamsala (where the Dalai Lama and his followers had settled). The villagers pointed to a rickety platform above two iron tracks and assuming they knew it was Monday, said the next one would be on Wednesday.

Too timid to ask what a train was and with nary of notion of Western time, the two innocents waited, scorched by day and shivering by night, yet patient, only to panic at the sight of a deafening monster belching fire and smoke. The villagers, who had laughed, now felt sorry for them but their offer of food and lodgings until the next train arrived was met with indifference, because the two didn’t know what “Sunday” was either.

When they eventually reached a small city, they were groggy with hunger, but their faith was rewarded by a man in a dirty dhoti with apron on top who ushered them into what resembled the dining hall of the Potala, spacious, with long refectory tables. But instead of the moldy tsampa and rancid yak butter tea they’d fed on since boys, they were served delicacies beyond their imaginings: Dahi chicken, Urlai roast and others that were forbidden but impossible to resist.

Sated, they thanked their host but he grabbed their arms when they started to leave, demanded “money” (as foreign to them as a “restaurant”) and they wound up in what they didn’t know was a jail, believing instead that some good Samaritan was providing them with free room and board while he enquired into the next stage of their itinerary, which proved a reasonable assumption when, after several timeless weeks, they were released by an emissary of the Dalai Lama: His Holiness was sending them to the West, which was hungering for enlightenment and would help Tibet to conserve its culture and religion.

When, in his company, they reached Delhi after another, days’-long, journey by train – interminable to everyone but the two – they were so dazed by the sight of motorcars, skyscrapers, supermarkets and other novelties, the plane he bundled them onto was yet another phantom of a dream, but due to its hard landing, they were wide awake when they took in the terminal at Logan which, like any other, was a sleek, curved, modernist affair of steel, glass, marbled floors and illuminated signs, crowded with what they thought were houris in mini-skirts, criminals called bankers with nooses round their necks, pistol-packing dacoits in uniforms and many rarities more. Gibbering with fright, they were sure it was the Buddhist Hell Realm, since it was exactly as pictured in innumerable tankas and lamasery murals: a place where everything was hard, shiny, reflective and lifeless and thus an apt punishment for those who had dwelt in illusion.

The retreat center in New Hampshire was soon a restorative. The mountains (especially in winter) were a scaled-down version of their own. They had the company of compatriots. The daily round of meditation, work and services was much like that at home. The shrine room was practically a replica of the original.

The only inconvenience of importance were the American students of the Dharma, who were earnest yet neither reverential nor consistent. They demanded explanations for the teachings when the authority of the lamas should have been enough, and were simultaneously awed and challenged by their exotic manner: tongue-tied one day, and over-familiar or morbidly curious the next.

The women were the most embarrassing for two ascetics who hadn’t spoken to a female since their mother and sisters deposited them in the monastery at the age of five: their swagger, their frankness, the way they dressed and both mothered and flirted. The head lama confused them even more. A legend by then, he was young, charismatic and controversial and while he’d gone through the same rigors as themselves in Tibet, he’d also excelled as a scholar and was thus authorized to found his own center in New England, which was guided by his conviction that the traditional Buddhism of Tibet would have to adapt to the modern world or die, but without any sacrifice of discipline: in fact, he became the master sergeant of a boot camp of meditation plus manual labor till you dropped and were then kicked awake by, among other things, his crazy wisdom practice of smoking, drinking and sex with his lady disciples.

Yet wise he was: a comet who brightened the heavens, fell at an early age and, as his books attest, renovated and enriched what might otherwise have been a moribund tradition. So he was delicate with the two innocents. They were to remain as they were –celibate, austere, devotional – without jeopardizing their mission to spread the doctrine and still distant but, please, a little more cordial with his followers.

As it happened, the perfect opportunity arose, While the Dalai Lama was the de facto political leader of the Tibetans in exile, technically he was the head of only one of the four schools or lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. The two monks belonged to another, whose leader, the Karpama, was also a reincarnated Buddha, similarly chosen at an early age by high lamas who mysteriously perceived the boy’s affinity with his predecessors in his toys, manners, birthmarks or instant recognition of their rosaries or prayer books. In the olden days, those lamas had wandered all over Tibet to find him. Now, the one who passed the same tests was the American-born son of an exiled Tibetan couple.

And as the protocol still in force required, a magnificent temple was to be built for his coronation. Thus, the two monks, who were not only shy but not very bright, were relieved of their classes and assigned to the construction gang, which would be more congenial than teaching the doctrine and keep them in the company of males only.

Except that in this case their wise and very worldly superior proved to be more naïve than they. The liberated American woman of today is no longer content with Kinder, Küche und Kirche and some of them are better carpenters or plumbers than their men.

(to be continued)


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