Modern Monks

Outside Central Prayer Hall
September 29, 2008

What a superficial impression I must have of so many places.

Like anybody who travels, I would like to believe that when I'm out on the road I explore: connecting with local people, visiting interesting places, having experiences that are unique. After spending a few great days around the Tibetan monastery here, I question how full my explorations typically are.

While on the road, what I see is so open to chance. Sometimes the only connection I make to a special place is no more than buying an admission ticket, seeing whatever areas I'm allowed into and taking in whatever happens to be on offer that particular day. My time at the monastery here--especially this morning--has reminded me that I should make extra effort. I should wake up early. I should poke around behind the scenes. I should initiate more conversations. I shouldn't just settle for whatever is trotted out on display.

Meenday and I have spent our last several days staying inside the Kumbum monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery second only to one in Lhasa. I--I'm a tourist. I'm stopping off for a few days to see what's here and casually get to know a little more about Tibetan Buddhism. Meenday--she's a pilgrim. The Mongols follow the Tibetan order of Buddhism. She's been to Kumbum before, her previous visit several years ago was along with her mother. (To be honest, I had no idea until recently that Buddhism--let alone the branch answering to the same lamas as Lhasa--was the religion of the Mongols. I became aware only when I got to know Meenday.)

She's been spending her time here observing the rituals: praying, consulting with lamas, walking circuits around holy areas.

Meenday and Losang
Jamo Play with Dog
We went out together this morning at a time when I normally would have several hours yet to sleep. Getting up early and being led to just the right place--the experience was so different from what I'd seen before--even over my first days around the monastery.

Both still groggy, Meenday brought me through a doorway bearing a sign in both English and Chinese: "No Entry". Stepping through hundreds of pairs of boots left outside the doorway we entered the central prayer hall.

For several hours, starting before dawn, the monks chant. Of about twenty long, parallel platforms, at least a dozen were full. Each held about 35 crimson-robed monks seated cross-legged side-by-side. Most clutched woodblock prints of Tibetan scriptures in their lap. Sometimes the chanting reached a unison roar, other moments it tapered off... only to be picked up again with a new theme.

I could understand none of the language.

Around the periphery of the rows of seated monks were shrines depicting Buddhas. Lots of candles were lit, giving off the scent of evaporating yak-butter.

Meenday walked clockwise around the monks, skirting the interior of the prayer hall. At certain points she prostrated. At other points she would press her forehead to the wall.

I had been to temples, palaces and shrines in Lhasa before. There--as here around the Kumbum monastery--I saw so many Tibetan pilgrims wrapped in heavy cloaks with colorful, intricate patterns stitched along the hem. Fine, long braids. Then, as now, I saw worshipers making repeated prostrations: laying their body completely flat out along the ground. Some repeated the process in one place, others worked a slow circuit around the site: three steps, then a flat-out sprawl along the ground again.

I'd seen these demonstrations of devotion before but had never witnessed the monks chanting their morning prayers. The previous times I'd been through Tibet I never felt a connection to what actions I saw. This time, visiting with a believer who was involved in the rituals I didn't feel awkward being around throughout sacred moments.

Spending time around the Kumbum monastery has been interactive. Meenday is friends with a couple lamas, both of whom we've taken meals with and spent casual hours together. Reflecting the makeup of the population of monks, one of her lama friends is Tibetan, one Mongol. We've spent more time with the latter--whose monastic name is Losang Jomo.

Meenday refers to Losang Jomo as her "family lama"--I'm not sure the relationship but there is some kind of weak link through blood. He too is from Xinjiang, from the same Mongol area--Hejin--as Meenday's family.

Lama Losang Jomo is a nice guy. Hanging out together in his quarters and over meals taken along with others has found us talking about two worlds. (We use Chinese as a lingua franca.) Our conversation has rolled between topics spiritual--which I can't follow--and topics mundane--which I'm surprised to see a Tibetan Buddhist monk expressing interest in.

Some things about Losang which I don't associate with Buddhist monks:

After stretches of conversation comparing mobile phone brands or extolling one action star over another, our talk would suddenly turn cosmic.

"You will be rich," Losang told me at one such point, staring into my eyes.

"How do you know?", I asked.

"I can just see it," he said.

"You were born in the year of the dog, but your character is much more like the horse. Horses are big, strong, and patient. They don't get bothered by petty things which would leave a dog racing around, yapping about."

Losang's conversation continued along the spiritual:

"You have something small you're holding onto in your heart. You have to let it go. There have been two opportunities which passed in your life. But there is another opportunity coming."

Losang then asked me whether I believe in ghosts.

"No. I don't," was my answer.

"Well you should. They're everywhere. They're all around us." He went on to cite the existence of an old spirit that had haunted his living quarters--making noises at night--before Losang moved in. Losang carried out the proper rituals and the spirit moved on.

"Still don't believe in ghosts?", Losang continued. "How about if you meet me at the courtyard here at midnight. I'll show you how to view what's going on in your hometown of Seattle--from here in Kumbum. What would you say to that? Would you believe in spirits, then?"

"Well, sure. I guess..."

Losang broke into laughter. "Oh, come on now! I'm just playing with you! I don't have any sort of magic portal to view other places."

I wasn't sure what all to believe.