The Holy Man and a Lesson in Flying

When the Holy man reached his throne on the 3rd day of his teachings, he stood and saluted the giant golden statue of the Buddha. A hush fell around the 2nd floor of the temple and spilled down the stairs to the first.
Silence; besides the gentle whirring of prayer wheels.
Silence; besides the ancient humming of Om beneath devotional breath.
After the 83 year old had been helped into seated position, he leaned forward and beamed down at us all from behind his black rimmed spectacles, high rosy cheek bones glowing. A hush filled every corner of the place that day.

That day was October 5th, the 3rd day of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama’s 4 day teaching on Chandrakirtis’ Entering into the Middle Way. On the early morning of the 1st day I overheard two nuns talking about the complexity of this text. I heard them joke that they themselves most likely wouldn’t understand much of the teachings, but even still it was important to be there so that the teachings may leave an imprint to be understood later on, perhaps in another life. On the morning of the 1st day the air was biting and harsh. Steaming porridge was served to those who woke up before 6; I was not one of them. The taxis had been arranged the night before and at 6:15 sharp we all piled in; the nun’s in their ruby red robes, overlapping each other, and me, along with the other five volunteers, wearing the cleanest, crispest clothing we could find at the bottom of our backpacks. On that 1st day, Shannon and I found a seat on the brick floor outside the temple. There was not much need to get closer as two theater sized screens were positioned outside the temple walls in front of us, live streaming a better view of the Lama than if we’d been in the room with him. The volunteer coordinator had handed out radios upon leaving the monastery. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the teachings would be in any language besides English, and as I was handed my radio I tried to suppress the dumb look of surprise on my face while feeling like the biggest American idiot. The Dalai Lama, naturally, gave his teaching in Tibetan, his native tongue as was the tongue of most monks and nuns in attendance. There were many language channels you could tune to as well, in an effort to make the teachings as inclusive and available as possible. There was Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, German, English, and probably one or two more I’m forgetting. The translation from Tibetan to English on that 1st day was, to put it gently, kind of like the little brother nagging around his older brother and his friends, always getting left behind and having to sprint to catch up. And so I hope that no one will be offended when I admit that on that first day, in the late morning, I drifted in and out of consciousness in a rare subtle spot beneath a sleepy blanket of sun. The second day I woke up feeling ill and chose to stay in bed. And on the third day, well, let’s just say I stayed awake long enough to have something to write about.

This time I wiggled my way into the most devoted of crowds. I stood in the second row by the stairs, waiting for the Lama and his royal succession to parade by with the hope that he might glance at me, or that I may have a good glance at him. I wanted so badly to know what all this ruckus was about. Why, glancing around, did I notice some people with tears in their eyes? Why is he pretty agreeably the most popular and likeable of all the world leaders? And what’s all this talk about his smile? I stood there feeling like a corn stalk in a row of coriander. Or, more accurately, a tall blonde American in a row of shorter-than-me Asians. I wondered if it was taboo of me to be there, but I relaxed when I saw some other westerners in the row in front of me. (Not that this should validate my being there, but group mentality what can I say). When the Dalai Lama entered the room, I did feel a shift in energy, and I did feel a river of peace flood my whole body. Looking into his face, and a face might I add that is hard to believe belongs to an 83 year old man, I couldn’t help but smile and feel tears well up of my own. The Dalai Lama is to the Tibetans what Jesus Christ is to Christians; what Muhammad is to Muslims, what Moses is to Jews and so on you get the point. Imagine what it might be like if your savior was reincarnated over and over to be here with you, leading you in flesh and blood (although it’s rumored that the Dalai Lama may not be reincarnated again). Perhaps this, along with other notable and admirable attributes of their faith, is how the Tibetans have been able to endure, since the Chinese invasion of 1959, unspeakable violence and torture and yet continue to hold fiercely to their traditions and religious beliefs.

The Dalai Lama did look at me, by the way; with those narrow, liquid eyes, and when they fell on mine I did nothing short of melt. I got it. I hate putting people on pedestals, and I actively try not to worship certain human beings over others. This aligns even with Tibetan Buddhism, which is largely based on the concept of selflessness; the idea that we are not separate entities with separate selves, and in fact the term “self” is just this big illusion that leads us down the path of suffering. The sooner we recognize this, the closer we are to becoming enlightened. Therefore, worshiping one person over another, in theory, is really no different than worshiping yourself projected in a different form. However, in my personal experience, being in the presence of the legend that is His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, was not quite the same as being in the presence of the white picket fence-suburban-Pabst Blue Ribbon bellied-White Soxs fan-dad from Illinois (if this is you my bad). This is a man who has devoted his entire life since the age of two when he was recognized as the Dalai Lama, to becoming a powerful force of peace in order to serve, touch, and lead, not only Tibet, but a great portion of the world outside. This is a world leader who believes consistently in non-violence despite Tibet’s ongoing struggle towards liberation, and despite the magnitude of brutality Tibet has endured under Chinese regime in attempted genocide that is comparable to the Holocaust. For this, and for his undying optimism that peaceful days lie ahead, The Dalai Lama gained world recognition and popularity when he accepted on behalf of the Tibetan people, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. But enough about the Dalai Lama already, as I’m sure you’re just dying to know more about little old me. 🙂

My days at Thosamling Nunnery have been quiet and introspective. I have a room to myself that I keep tidy, and I leave my shoes in a neat row beside my door. It is so silent here that the loudest sound is the non-stop trill of the crickets, and I often find myself hushing my own thoughts out of fear that even they will disturb the peace of the residents. At 8:30pm I burn a stick of Tibetan herbal incense and then climb into my twin bed with a metal cup of tulsi ginger turmeric tea and my westerner’s guide to Buddhism book or sometimes short stories from Kathmandu by the genius Samra Upadhyay (highly recommend). I wake up at 5:45 to a gong that alerts the nuns that it is time for their morning meditation. Breakfast is served promptly at 7:00, lunch at 11:30, and supper at 5:00. In-between meals, unless I am the one cooking them, I spend my volunteer hours cleaning and changing rooms, bathrooms, and gazing in romantic disbelief at the Himalayas while pinning wet sheets to dry on the roof. Spending this much time alone, yet surrounded by others who have quite mastered their own peace of mind, has allowed me the space to reflect deeply on myself and my thought processes. There was a moment there when I found myself daydreaming about becoming a nun; shaving my hair, giving away my clothes, giving up long Epsom salt and essential oil baths and a comfortable degree of vanity, giving up whiskey gingers over ice and Netflix and chill…and then I quickly shook myself out of it. I do have a huge amount of respect for those people who choose to live the life of a nun. Monks as well, but I recently learned about how the inequality between sexes prevail in Monasteries and Nunneries and I’m trying not to feel let down. For instance, Monks get 7 chances to come back to their monastery if they decide to leave, while Nun’s only have 1. (Perhaps this will be a future blog topic when I’ve done more research).
Everyday I catch golden hour on the rooftop of the nun’s building, lay out an old yoga mat I found in the linen closet, and attempt to whip my body and mind into enough shape to not get completely slaughtered during next month’s yoga teacher training. In front of me loom the mammoth Himalayan mountains wrapped tightly in stratus clouds, and to them I wholeheartedly devote my practice. Watching this whole scene the other day it occurred to me that I am the mountains, and the clouds are my thoughts. In the moment I felt really proud of myself for making that connection but writing it down now it’s dawning on me how cliche that sounds. But if that gives you any idea of the la-la land state of my mind lately. I think after a chaotic almost 2 weeks of traveling and having to be mentally prepared for anything to go wrong at any moment, hitting the pause button for these last 2 weeks has felt necessary. Also, I brushed up a little more closely than I would have liked with human impermanence when I witnessed a new friend plummet off a Himalayan cliff in a paraglide that didn’t catch the air. Before you spit your coffee out at your computer screen, both her and her tandem guide are alive and well if not a little traumatized and scratched up. I won’t get much further into this story as it’s not mine to tell, but I will say that it has nudged me into more of a hermity state than I otherwise would have been, and also that I listened a little more closely and intently when the Lama started giving his lesson on impermanence. The few times that I’ve since poked my head out of my hermit shell, I’ve ended up getting wrapped up in innocent, but slightly draining and unnecessary mini adventures. For example, the other day I casually walked into a jewelry shop and before I knew it I found myself on the back of a motorbike to see the upscale jewelry factory all the way across town. If I made that sound sketchy just relax and trust me when I say it wasn’t. I got a thorough 2 hour long tour of the entire place while trying to act like I was interested in buying something and also trying not to cringe every time prices were mentioned. Fascinating place as it was, for my last 2 days off the furthest I’ve ventured from my room has been the rooftop of my building. Despite the exclusively solitary picture I’ve been painting of this place, I have in fact made friends with the few other volunteers here. My social purge of the day has often been our after dinner ritual of sitting around the table playing poker with dried beans. I love that. Now I can say that I learned how to play poker at a Buddhist nunnery.

It is 8:00pm here now and I am exhausted and ready to pass out. (Go ahead call me a baby). I sincerely hope that all of you readers are safe from all the hurricanes, and not too downtrodden by the daily blasts of disheartening news. It is difficult for me, as far away from the political world as I thought I could get, to allow myself this time for self-growth and healing without feeling guilty that I’m not doing more to show up and speak out. Although I do wonder if that sometimes being away from it all (and I acknowledge that this is a privilege of mine), to mature mentally and foster peace within myself, is for now at least the most beneficial work that I can and should be doing for the political world. Curious to hear thoughts if you have any. But more importantly, thank you for getting this far, thank you for being interested in my journey, and thank you for supporting me. Until next time, and next time I plan to dedicate a portion of my blog to describing how exactly this place pulls off being completely zero-waste, so if you care about the earth you will stay tuned. (Not to use the manipulation of our guilty human consciences regarding our poor dying planet as a tactic to gain a loyal audience or anything).
Okay, ta ta for now. Lots of love no matter who you are cause that’s just where I’m at right now (but don’t get used to it).
P.S. If you’re wondering what happened to my travel companion, Shannon, she has left to work on Vandana Shiva’s farm in Dehradun for a couple of months. If you’re interested in finding out more about who this bad-ass Indian woman is who started a solar-powered, eco-friendly, feminist-af farm in India I highly recommend looking her up. Also I’m sure Shannon would be happy to tell you all about it.
P.P.S. An excerpt from the 3rd day of HH Dalai Lama’s teaching on “Entering into the Middle Way”:
Like animals we human beings have sensory consciousnesses, but we also have a marvellous intelligence on the basis of which we can achieve happiness. Most people, however, underestimate their mental potential and instead seek pleasure in sensory gratification. When the mind is disturbed, sensory pleasures will not set it at ease, but if you have peace of mind, whatever goes on outside you will be much less upsetting. We have to use our intelligence to the full.
P.P.P.S. If anyone was paying close attention and is wondering what happened on the 4th day of the Lama’s teaching, I slept in that day.


4 thoughts on “The Holy Man and a Lesson in Flying”

  1. Love your writing style 🙂 glad you are having these experiences that you’ll never forget! What’s the best thing you’ve eaten so far?


  2. DEar Gressa, I have so enjoyed reading this blog. I love your response to being in the presence of His Holiness. What a wonderful adventure you are having. I’m happy you are writing about it so we might share. Sending love, Janey


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