It is April 2005 when I hand back the keys to the landlord. The nest my wife and I had made was hard to leave. We have a last hug and I say goodbye to this woman who doesn’t want to be my wife any more. Most of my stuff is sold or given away and the tech job is over. I get in the car that my mate is going to drive to the airport. As we pull away and the landlord and ex recede behind us I realise that the last time I had no keys of any kind was when I was five years old. As I decide that my new ‘home’ is going to be the practice of ‘looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now’ (a quote from the ‘Bhaddekaratta Sutta’) I have a tremendous sense of the release of tension and excitement at my upcoming adventure. It is the first time any light has fallen into the darkness of my broken heart in a long time.
With the collapse of the marriage I felt that if I trudged on by myself in that wee flat and the IT job I had chiselled my way into, I would just not make it. Way too sad and lonely to survive for long. So it was an opportunity to do THE PILGRIMAGE! The plan was to go to the big four sites of Buddhism – where the Buddha was born, where he got enlightened, where he started teaching and where he died. But first, Ladakh! John Crook, had spent a lot of time up there in the high Himalayan desert kingdom. He wrote a fabulous book called “The Yogins of Ladakh” all about it and I wanted to visit as many of the people and places in that book as I could. We had decided that it would be best to go there first since it was springtime. Doing the big four sites of the main pilgrimage straight away would mean landing myself in the ferocious heat of the North Eastern Indian summer.
The plane lands in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and taxis along the runway. A big dog lopes along and merely glances over its shoulder at the plane bearing down upon it, unconcerned. I am impressed with its style! The pressure doors open and the cold mountain air lets us know straight away that we are really high above sea level, some 3500 metres. By the time we have walked over to the terminal the effects of that altitude start to take effect. My legs feel very heavy but my head is helium light. I am met by my host Ngawang who looks after me and advises that one should do very little while one is acclimatising to the altitude. Between naps I meditate.
half a day in the air
the world wildly different
behind the noise
the same silence
Within a few days I start getting diarrhoea which doesn’t ease up. Ngawang advises that I go to consult with a doctor who takes a few minutes to decide that I should be admitted to the hospital and be put on a drip since I’m so dehydrated. They take me to a room with two beds. An Indian lady is lying on one with an oxygen mask on. They hook me up to a saline drip whose stand has a missing wheel. Around 9pm the lights go out and the lady’s oxygen machine turns off. I wrestle the drip stand into the blackness of the toilet where there is no paper and no flush. This happens some dozen or so times over night. In the pre-dawn darkness I can see a little from a street light that there is something wrong with the drip. I take it over to the window to get a better look and see that my blood has backed up into the tube, it is no longer delivering the hydration. No one answers when I press the ‘nurse’ button – ah, the electric is out. I stumble along a dark corridor trying to find someone. The dizziness and weakness make me stumble and lurch. There is a light and some voices. I call out but can hardly produce any sound. The corridor seems to get longer the more I struggle up it. I dig in deep and concentrate on not fainting before making it to the light. It all seems very epic and life-and-death right then. At last I get to the voices. One says “you shouldn’t be out of bed!”, the other says “your drip is blocked!” in an annoyed sort of a way. They sort me out. When it gets light the electric comes back on but there is some problem with the Indian lady’s oxygen pump machine where its electric socket has stopped working. There is one above my bed on the other side of the room from her. They stretch the wire to it, going right over me. It strains on its feeble little pins. I keep saying “why don’t you swap us over?” but no one listens. Eventually one of the nurses says “why don’t we swap them over?” and so they do. As the gaggle of doctors and nurses start to leave I see that they haven’t changed over our notes hanging on the end of our beds. I have to whistle to get their attention to tell them about it. They swap them over and leave. By the time I am discharged later that morning they have put three litres of saline into me and I’m as weak as a kitten.
The next suggestion was to go to Rizong Gompa and find Geshi Wangdus. The kitchen is ancient and the monks are really funny. One day at meal time during the chanting, one monk, Tsultim Gyatso, flicks a bit of greenery off his finger that lands on his friend. He looks shocked and stops chanting for a moment. Everyone giggles but carries on chanting. The guy picks the leaf off his robe and continues the chant with everyone looking to see what he’ll do. Eventually he flicks it back and everyone falls about laughing, their feet in the air and hooting. Wonderful!
Tsultim Gyatso always had that amused look and a powerful presence that went with it. It was a joy just to hang around with him, not that we could communicate much, but just being there was a tonic.
The life of the monks there seemed incredibly austere. The full training involves the “preliminaries”, four sets of one hundred thousand prostrations, Vajrasattva sadhanas, mandala offerings and guru sadhanas. Eventually they get to the “Yogas of Naropa”. These had been kept secret for hundreds of years and were the source of the amazing tales of supernatural abilities that came to Europe in the 19th century. Possibly the most famous of these is the practice of sitting out in the snow, overnight, wearing only a wet sheet. This would be a good way to kill someone quick as the temperatures we are talking about will go to minus 60 degrees and beyond on a regular basis. In addition to these rigours they are also kind of expected to do a solitary retreat at some point. Traditionally they are for three years, three months, three weeks and three days. Sometimes this is done in complete darkness! In addition to all this there are also the even more secret practices of the Vajrayana, matters involving Tantra and so forth about which they will not speak if you are not properly initiated. Hanging out with these guys, the Yogins, was an incredible thing for me and I found some of them to have an amazing quality about them. They were all at once both hugely “weighty”, carrying a really impressive gravitas, and at the same time light-hearted, whispy, ineffable. I was invited to tea in one monk’s room. He sat on a mat around three feet square, just big enough to sit in a meditation posture on. He had a few plants and tea making things, some thangka paintings and lots of religious paraphernalia. I asked him where he slept and he said “right here!”. I ask him if he lies down there and he says “no!”. There was a thick, felt blanket over an empty window space. There was no glass in it! Some of the coldest temperatures planet earth gets happen throughout the winter in Ladakh. What was this monk made of?
I had a few magic tricks to show them. “Pen behind the ear”, “elastic bands”, a “paddle” type trick with a lighter and so forth. One day I was showing the kids there and an older monk came over to see what was going on. As soon as he saw the first trick he turned quickly away and walked off. Most strange I thought. This was the first time I had seen this reaction and I didn’t know what to make of it. It was explained to me a few weeks later (see below). The meditation lessons from Geshi Wangdus didn’t go so well after I lent him John’s book. He had it returned but didn’t come himself. He basically stopped having anything to do with me. Someone suggested that it might be because he was a different sect from the one investigated in the book. Who knows..
John’s friend Ngawang had been our host in the village of Sabu, just outside of Leh. Also staying there was Dave who was doing research for a PHD on “Indigenous Knowledge Practices”. We had become close during long conversations about “life, the universe and everything”. We talked about the Dharma most of the time. It was a real tonic for me to have a chum to talk to. I kept returning after each of my little trips and we could convene and talk them over. Ngawang one day invites us to watch a DVD he has. It is about “Ayu Lhamo” and is called something like “Demons and Sorcerers”. In the video there are a few really scary scenes. Live footage of a meeting with the great woman who is supposed to be visited by the “Lha” or spirits of place. She shrieks, jumping up and brandishing a sword, running towards the cameraman who flees. She is famously fierce. She lives in a village near Leh called “Ayu”. A plan is hatched to visit her the next day. Our chum Gyatso (“ocean”) wants to help with the translation. It is a long walk over scrubby desert and when we locate the little house it appears to be all locked up. We walk around it until we find another door which opens to our knocking. There are loads of people inside an ancient kitchen. The ceiling is very low. There are too many people to really see what is going on. I hand some money over to buy a “khatag” scarf, the lovely white silk scarves that are presented as formal presents. There is a group of Russians who all seem to be wearing white. One of them is in front of Ayu Lamo asking her “how many grandchildren will I have?” She gets really cross and raises her voice. She is apparently speaking in Tibetan rather than Ladakhi. The translator reports that she has said “it is impossible to say”. With an imperious wave of her hand she dismisses him, looking daggers at him. He retreats looking pale and the whole group of them are bustled out by Ayu Lhamo’s helpers. The atmosphere is highly charged. Someone pokes me on the knee and I look up noticing that she is looking right at me and beckoning. I go up and offer the khatag and bow. She is wearing a kind of cloth crown and a scarf over the bottom half of her face. She is very thin, very old and has the presence of an actual deity! I’m awestruck. She glances at me in the eye for the briefest of moments and then talks in Tibetan for quite a while. This is translated into Ladakhi by her guy. Gyatso translates the Ladakhi into English for me. “You meditate a lot. You should keep your mind still and not dwell on problems. You should find a Rimpoche who can help you find your way.” She asks me what my trouble is and I tell her a bit about a serious fall I had, the sickness and weakness that has followed it, my wife having an affair and leaving me and the terrible loneliness that has come with it. She asks where I am going next and I tell her of my plan to visit Gotsang, a famous meditator stayed there in the distant past, it appears in John’s book. She says I should ask for a “khuntup” when I get there. I have no idea what that means. She dismisses me and I go back to my place feeling all emotional. No releases or resolutions. After seeing what seems like hundreds of various types of health care professionals I was kind of hoping for some shamanic magic of the real kind. I had worked for a circus years before, and had suffered a fall when a stunt went wrong during a rehearsal. There had been a very intense near death, out-of-body experience which had eventually led to a diagnosis of chronic, acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The consultant who diagnosed me had been Terry Waite’s doctor. After the shaman talked to a few more people I was surprised to be beckoned up for a second time. She wanted me to describe the fall experience to her. After I finished telling the tale she takes her sword out of a brazier of burning coals, sticks her tongue out, leaning over towards me, eyes blazing. She puts the flat of the sword on her tongue. There are sizzles and steamings. She blows on my face. I’m sent away again. Sitting back in my place once again I feel even more emotional, bits of confused, traumatised memories start to emerge and I’m not sure where I am. A third time I’m called forward after she’s seen more of the villagers. This is where my memory is a bit mixed up. She pulled the glowing coals over and suddenly pushed my face into the smoke, throwing juniper on to make clouds of fragrance. Holding my neck very firmly she wouldn’t allow me to escape the choking fumes. It was hot too. She takes a hand bell in one hand and a “phurba” or “ghost dagger” in the other – both formal Tibetan Buddhist sacred items. Ringing the bell close to my ear, frequently clonking me on the side of the head, she chants and jabs me everywhere with the three sided phurba. It’s painful and very, very weird. As this is going on, and it goes on for what seems like ages, I start to have vivid memories of the accident. Trauma responses take over and I don’t really know where I am. Images of fire, dragons, immensities of darkness pulling me into the endless abyss. Eventually she lets my face up away from the smoke, she ties special threads around my fingers, gives me a specially knotted khatag scarf, gives me sacred rice and sacred Tibetan medicines. She asks me to sit beside her and after I move she sees to more villagers. I don’t take it in as it takes ages to normalise from the intensity. When she has seen everyone including my chums, she leans forward, right down to the ground and makes a lot of weird noises and clicks and then BAM! suddenly the “lha” have left and she is once again a ninety year old Ladakhi grandma. Her relatives and helpers make tea and invite us to stay. I start to ask some questions but she says that she can never remember anything that happens when she is in the “trance” or whatever the hell has just happened! Eventually we leave, stumbling out into the fierce Himalayan afternoon, all jazzed up. Dave tells me that when I was in my own kind of trance I was crying really hard. He said that he looked around and saw that everyone in the room, including himself, was crying too, everyone except Ayu Lhamo! I felt like I had truly been met by “the deity”, that the enormity of the trauma had been taken really seriously by someone qualified enough to have a meaningful response. For the fourteen years since the accident I had felt a powerful need to try and tell the story, always hoping that it would somehow help me leave it behind. After meeting the shaman, that need lessened a good deal.
I had been asking around for news of Taklung Rinpoche. He was one of the highest lamas of the dzogchen tradition. He was highly praised in The Yogins of Ladakh book, his name being spelled ‘Staglung’. A tulku, ie. he consciously reincarnated himself, he always returned with a withered right arm. Various rumours had circled around about his whereabouts and ill health. Someone said they might have news of him at a monastery near Leh, a place called Karnarlung Gompa in Choglamsar. When I arrive they tell me that he is actually there that day! Great good fortune. He is indeed ill and was resting. We had to wait for an interpreter anyway and so another long wait ensued. There then followed two or three hours of loitering on a terrace being sort of grilled about who I was, why I was there, what did I want with Rimpoche, what was my practice and so on. At last everything is ready and we go in to a dark shrine room. Rimpoche is sitting on a raised dais, there is incense and thangkas hanging. It is all very impressive. He asks me a few questions, more grilling, and I produce John’s book. There is a section in it on him, a picture too, but he didn’t react at all when he leafed through it. My credentials established we got into a proper Dharma conversation. I was looking for the right way to practice given my own ill health and issues. The trauma from the accident had turned me into a very pale shadow of my former self. He wanted to know all about the accident and gave me some pretty general advice. He asked for my mala beads and did something with them, I couldn’t see what, for around five minutes or so. He eventually looked up with the most enormous grin I think I’ve ever seen! It was as though the sun had suddenly come out in that darkened room. He was very happy and told me that everything was going to be alright, that I was already going in the right direction and that all I had to do was keep going. He asked me “what will you do back in your country? I replied “I hope to find a way to help the Dharma”. He says “I hope so too!” That was clearly the end of the session and so making the ritual prostrations, we left. On the way out the interpreter, Paljor, said “do you know what Rimpoche has done for you?” I said “not really, what?”. He told me that the business with the mala was a super-special-secret divination thing. He said that he had “looked into my mind-stream and had seen my future”. The fact that he was so happy about it was very good indeed! Apparently a very rare and special privilege had been granted me and I felt awestruck because of it. The take away advice he gave was that one’s practice should be continuous and you should not force it.
Ayu Lhamo had asked me to get a “khuntup” whatever that was. I decided to ask for one when visiting Gotsang which had been one of the places in John’s book. The bus from Leh left me at the side of the road where I could see away in the distance Hemis Gompa. This is one of the main tourist attractions and an important monastery. Up behind it, somewhere in the mountains was Gotsang where a famous monk from the middle-ages, Gotsangpa, had practiced. Some passing locals had told me that there was a bus coming that would go to Hemis so I loitered around. When I got on an important looking monk invited me to sit next to him on the crowded bus, hudging over to make room. He didn’t have much English and I could only say a few words in Ladakhi so the conversation was a bit sparse. He noticed I was wearing mala beads and asked if I was a meditator. I put my hands in the zazen posture and mimed not doing anything – the easiest mime that there is! He said that I should stay in the monastery with them rather than find a guest house. When the bus arrived he sprang up and produced a big bunch of keys and started throwing out instructions to lots of younger monks who beatled off to do his bidding. Two of them picked up my bag and asked me to follow them. We got to a room that looked like someone was staying there already. I had become very tired on the journey and wasn’t really thinking straight. If I had’ve been I would have worked out that this was the senior monk’s own room! The penny dropped the next morning. I felt pretty embarrassed! Next day I set out for Gotsang. It was madness really since the ME symptoms were pretty bad and digestive rioting had eroded my sleep. I would climb the steep trail and rest by turns. It became a bit of an epic and after several hours I was resting more than I was walking. At last I made it to the little white gompa in the Himalayas. Producing John’s book to show them had an amazing effect. They saw a picture of Shakyashri on the cover and went bananas, taking turns to hold the book on their heads and pogo up and down! I couldn’t believe my eyes. When they calmed down they ushered me inside to where an English speaking monk was working at printing sacred texts. Tea was brought and people crowded around. After a wee magic show people left us to talk. While I explained about John, the book and everything he calmly kept printing from a woodcut. There was a smudge so he couldn’t use that piece and had to throw it away. He gave it to me to look at. By this time I had learned some of the Tibetan alphabet and tried to sound out a few words. Even if I got it right I didn’t understand what they meant! After I got through a few words he joined in and whizzed through a few lines in that deep-voiced Tibetan chant that they do. I realised that he wasn’t looking at the text and when he finished I asked him if he had memorised it. “Of course, we all have” he said gesturing not at the scrap of paper I was holding but at the entire wall of the room which held a bookcase containing what looked like thousands of wood-block printed books. They get together periodically to chant the whole thing. It is just expected that as part of their training they memorise the whole of the Tangyur and Kangyur. Deeply impressed we went on to talk about the khuntup that Ayo Lhamo had mentioned. He said “follow me” and took me on a tour of the place. There was one room in which I felt an enormously powerful atmosphere. There was a mat with some clothes propped up in a little pyramid. He explained that it was where a recently deceased lama had spent twelve years in meditation! There were goosebumps and tingles as my mind played tricks on me, perhaps I hadn’t yet recovered from the walk up to the place, but oh my Lord it was a funny feeling. Down and down windy stairs we went until he started burrowing in an ancient alter. I think we must have been way underground by that point. He produced a little square of folded paper with inked designs, stitching and wax on it. He told me that it was a “khuntup”, that it would bring me good luck and protection. I should wrap it in blue cloth, keep it with me and not let it get wet. It is in my wallet still!
On the road to Zanskar we stopped off here. Our wonderful chum Dave was going trekking and I tagged along as far as Lamayuru. I had another dose of diarrhoea and was very weak. I decided to stay and rest there and waved goodbye as they went off on their trek. There was a monk there, Punchok Namgyal, who said that he was the only monk left in Ladakh still teaching the traditional way of carving mani stones. He said “this year I have no students” so I said “I’ll be your student!”. He got very serious and said that if I filled up my exercise book with good calligraphy of the mantra then he maybe might teach me. Each morning I would show him my previous day’s work until at last he announced that I was to find a stone to work on. In between naps I would chip away with the tiny chisel and hammer, bits of stone pinging painfully off my forehead every now and then. At last it was finished and he seemed really pleased.
Hughie & Phunchok Namgyal, Lamayuru, 2005.
After a few more goes I eventually came up with this one – my favourite. This one was made a bit later, back in Leh. I had borrowed a moped and had gone out to the desert South of Choglamsar. Some locals had told me it was a good place to find good raw material for mani stones. When I picked this one up and was turning it over assessing it, there was a piercing cry above me. Looking up, a golden eagle soared just over head, amazingly close. It must have been checking me out. I was filled with a feeling hard to describe. Suddenly everything was so stupendously clear, bright and joyous.
the eagle wheeled
the furnace desert
the rock in my hands
At Fiang GompaMonks don’t get that much entertainment it turns out. During my six week stay at Lamayuru I was doing lots of little magic tricks for them and they couldn’t get enough of it. One day the abbot asked me to do some tricks for an old guy coming our way. He said, “he’s been on retreat and hasn’t seen any of your tricks yet”. When he gets over to us, all curious, I show him a trick and he takes a step back, puts up one hand and starts chanting. Everyone goes very quiet, I had no idea what was going on. Because I was a bit thrown by his chanting I didn’t really know what to do next except do another trick, so I get something else out of my pocket and show him a second trick. He suddenly stops chanting and the abbot makes some joke in Ladakhi. They all fall about laughing, hanging on to each other’s robes and actual monkly tears are falling in the dust. The abbot eventually tells me what’s going on. He says “he thought you were a sorcerer and so he did the quelling magic mantra. You did another trick so I said ‘his magic is stronger than your mantra’”.
Later on the abbot says “people like your magic, it makes them happy, come to my room after lights out and teach me your tricks”. I say “I’ll tell you my secrets if you tell me yours”. Again, roars of laughter. So, I go up the hill to his quarters where he makes me soup. We get into the tricks and I show him everything I have. At one point we are both rolling on our backs with our feet in the air hooting with helpless laughter. I really love those guys :)
The one who did the mantra, Kunchok Tsering, is on the left holding the small mani wheel. His picture is in John Crook’s book The Yogins of Ladakh which is in the hands of the guy next to him. The monk second from the right is Kunchok Namdrol (see below). The Ladakhis don’t seem to have their own word for “magic” and borrow a Hindi word “jadu”. The getsul would call out “jadu, jadu” when I passed to get me to do some more tricks for them. After a while it became a sort of nickname. I quite liked being called “Jadu”.
A few minutes before the picture above was taken Namdrol had spontaneously given me a Dharma name! Each morning there was a few hours of chanting and ritual in their Dharma hall. It was the time of renewal. The sutras get chanted in unison, a sand mandala is made and they bring out all the instruments. There are symbols and massive horns, human thigh-bone trumpets, all sorts of amazing things. Since I couldn’t join in I just sat in meditation. Little boy monks, “getsul”, ran amongst the rows of monks pouring the hideous yak butter salty tea. It is an acquired taste! I would take periodic breaks from zazen, sitting meditation, to have some tea and each time I opened my eyes Kunchok Namdrol was always taking me in with those brown eyes of his. I was just in his field of vision rather than him observing me, it didn’t feel like I was being studied or anything. These sessions went on every morning for about two weeks. Just after one of them we were all milling around, looking out over the mountains and having a stretch from being sat still so long. He turns to me and announces that I am “Wangchuk”. I ask him if he’s just named me and he beams a grin at me and proudly says that he has. Now, my Ladakhi was only at the most basic level so we couldn’t discuss it very much. I asked him what it meant but he didn’t know the English. It was a while before I could find someone to tell me. They said it means “mighty”! This could have been a bit of a joke since the ME symptoms I had been plagued with for ages were really raging back then and I was obviously very weak, if not simply from so many gut infections. The next day we went through the same thing and once again hanging out after the session, looking out over the Zanskar mountain range I asked him how he knew my name was “Wangchuk”? He looked out with a thousand-mile-gaze for a long time and eventually replied “Sonam Wangchuk”. I asked if he had just named me again to which he again proudly replied that he had! “Sonam” means “merit” so that’s my Dharma name - “Sonam Wangchuk - Mighty Merit”!
Kunchok Namdrol and me – Lamayuru 2005.
Dupon Samten Rinpoche – Lamayuru 2005
One day I was down at the tap doing some laundry and heard a yelp. Looking between trees I saw a group of getsul, the little boy monklets, all sitting as if ready for a class. A big bruiser of a monk, supposedly their “teacher”, striding amongst them looking really cross. He dug his elbow into the back of one kid who let out a similar yelp. They were all clearly frightened of him. My blood boiled, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here was an ordained Buddhist monk terrorising children with physical violence. Not knowing what to do I ruminated on it and decided that I should talk to the Abbot, Dupon Samten Rimpoche, he of the good English and the midnight magic lesson. Before I had a chance to talk to him there was another incident. The super-cute monastery dog, Tommy, was always coming in to the refectory to get titbits from my mani stone teacher. For some reason, I think because he might have been told to not allow the dog in, when the dog came in he got up and ran up to the dog and kicked it. Like a penalty kick he really gave it a massive wallop. It spun around in mid air and sped away, yelping pitifully. It was a hard enough kick to kill the poor thing. I sprang up and went over to him, shoving him in the shoulder to get his attention. When he turned around we locked eyes. After a struggle with myself I managed to not hit him but it was obvious that I was about to. Instead I decided to go and talk to the Abbot right there and then. Up the hill and up to his little house, banging on the door. One doesn’t normally bang angrily on a Rimpoche’s door like that. He invited me in and said “what’s up?”. I ranted on about the “teacher” bullying the getsul and about Tommy being kicked really hard. “They would be arrested in my country!” I told him. His response was very interesting. As he poured me some tea he said “You are right, they are wrong, I completely agree and I will talk to them both. Being ordained does not make someone a true practitioner, they are untrained persons. You, however, are a true practitioner and it is your job to set up the mind state you want and defend it!” The wind went right out of my sails! It made me see how I had let their mind states infect mine. We talked it over and what emerged was that one can recognise another person’s actions of body, speech and mind as belonging to them. One is not obliged to react to them. If appropriate one can choose to respond, but they remain responsible. This point of view stood me in good stead for the rest of the trip, especially in India proper, South of the Himalaya. There I found folks were continually hassling me to buy something, or they were trying to cheat me in some way. Their actions belong to them, I don’t have to let their mind state become mine!
A group of German Buddhists had come for teaching from their guru, Lama Jorphel. I had been wondering about whether to join the Vajrayana formally and accept a guru myself. We had met on a few occasions and I had found him very dismissive, abrupt almost, clearly not thinking much of me. Anyway, they all thought he was marvellous. There had been several wonderful evenings with the Germans and I found Mareike particularly engaging. She laughed so prettily at my jokes and she kind of set my heart all a pitter-patter! As our relationship got more intense there were rumours going around the monastery about us, but we didn’t care. We had a wonderful fortnight together. For some reason I was ejected from the room in the big hotel I had been given and was “invited” to move rooms at about twice the rent. I moved in with her after she very generously invited me. A few days in to this new scenario their guru came by. He had a little entourage with him and he was apparently “doing the rounds” but I suspect that he was coming to see if the rumours were true. He asked me right out “where are you staying?” to which I replied “with Mareike”. He said something like “she is my student” with what I felt to be an implication of there being something wrong with what we were up to. Looking him in the eye with a bit of a “fuck you” about me I said “yes and she has been very generous and kind to me when they tried to double my rent”. He suddenly changed completely, going all soft and kind. He tapped me on the chest and said “good, good, you can be my student too if you want to”. That really took me by surprise. I was being tested I think. I mulled it over for a few days and decided that his harsh attitude when we first met had already poisoned the relationship. Way too much the authoritarian for my ex-catholic, bohemian sensibilities. After the evening meal one of the monks, a twenty something “Jack the Lad” type got pretty aggressive. He must have heard that the rumours about me and Mareike were true. As we came out of the refectory he barged me with his shoulder in a way that made everyone notice. The little getsul monks formed a circle around us in a flash. He wiped his mouth with a serviette, screwed in to a ball and with as much disrespect as he could muster, threw it at me. It bounced off my chest harmlessly, but everyone looked at me to see what I would do. It was the most direct invitation to a fight that I had had for a very long time. I had been meditating a great deal and had been solidifying this “set up the mind state you want and defend it” thing. One often sees Buddha rupas (statues) with one hand held up with the palm outwards. It is the “Abaya mudra” and represents fearlessness. This had come to symbolise for me the state where one’s mind is reflecting everything without reacting, just like a mirror. It occurred to me just then, looking at the mean, narrowed eyes of my would-be jealous assailant to hold up my hand in the mudra. As I did so I was thinking “your move” and all eyes turned away from me and back to him. He acted like a deflating football, visibly shrinking and turning bright red with embarrassment and running off. Good job because he would’ve been able to take me apart! I made a present for her, a little mani stone that would not be too heavy to take back with her. Our time came to an all-too-soon end. It had been a very healing time for me, feeling that life wasn’t yet over. My ex-wife’s affair had left a big, ragged, bleeding scar and her affection had brought some sunshine back to a very hurt and darkened heart. We waved goodbye and watched as the jeep threw up dust as it left. A wrench. I wiped away a tear and the monk next to me, Tsondup, asked why I was sad. I said “we were not together for long but it was long enough to fall just a little bit in love”. Without a trace of irony he said “I’ve heard about this love you Westerners speak of. What is it?” I said that surely they had it here in Ladakh when people got together and he said that it was all about arrangement over land and children and so forth, the concept of romantic love was alien to him! Not to me though – even as the jeep pulled away I could feel that terrible lurch inside as the loss of sweet Mareike hit home.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
There is a summer palace near Leh where the Dalai Lama visits most years. He has ten days in retreat and everyone waits for him to come out and do three days of teaching. Monks and nuns from all over Ladakh along with pretty much everyone else comes to see him. The non-Ladakhis are kept in a separate enclosure for some reason. There is a sign on the way into the roped off area saying “Tourist”.
The sun is super hot and there is no shade. My chum Nichole and I entertain each other with foolishness and flippant remarks for what seems like hours when at last there is a beating of drums and a playing of pipes. Everyone stands and there in the distance we see a yellow umbrella in the centre of a press of people approaching. When they get close enough and I get a line of sight through the crowd, I clap eyes on him and suddenly find myself really moved. There then follows three days of really intense, technical teachings and empowerments and so forth. Amongst the teachings that I found useful where when he said that “looking for a single cause for suffering multiplies it, studying the dependent origination of that suffering will lessen it.” He said that strong emotions, both positive and negative, help increase the sense that things are ‘real’ in a separate, self-existing way, what is known as ‘reification’. Human intelligence is flawed and distorted by the belief in a self-existing subject. Understanding of ‘selflessness’ or ‘anatta’ together with a great compassion for all sentient beings form the basis of developing ‘Bodhicitta’, the wish for enlightenment or the ‘awakening mind’.
Towards the front of the crowd is another enclosure full of seated monks who are there to do the chanting. I notice Dupon Samten Rimpoche and some other of the Lamayuru monks amongst them. I get out my little camera to take a shot of him. Much to my surprise, just as I take the shot, he turns round and looks right at me. It felt really spooky for a second that he seemed to know what was happening.
There was a security guy keeping watch over everything. A young Tibetan in a suit and tie, earpiece and sharp hair cut. He stayed standing throughout while we sat and suffered under the sun. He never wavered for a moment, not that I saw. I was astonished at his endurance and undistracted attention maintained for hours and hours. At the end of the three days I sat under a tree on the way out and had a little picnic as the crowds, some three thousand people, streamed out. A tiny, ancient nun came and sat with me, Nawang Jongdon from Lingshed monastery. I give her food. A local comes over to see what is going on, suspicious. He is concerned for her safety and thinks we might be teasing her or something. A crowd forms. We establish that we mean her no harm. She seems quite disorientated but grins a lot. I ask her where she is going and she replies “shekitpo rak” - “I am happy”. She takes a shine to me and beams all the time. She replies to the local’s questions with “I am going to America with him, he is happy and beautiful!” We finish eating and being grinned at and then she’s off. She had to be around ninety years old, something like four foot high, and had a strong sense of Yoda about her!
We get to a bus in a throng of people. A farmer lady uses her elbows and feet to force her way through the crowd towards the door. She hits Nichole with her prayer wheel to get her out of the way and dives in between us. She happens to be immediately behind me as I go up the stairs. A guy in front of me is wearing a bulky rucksack and when he gets to the top of the stairs he suddenly turns in such a way to knock me backwards. The lady is right behind me and prevents me from stepping back so I have to make a grab for the vertical hand rails as I fall. I manage to hang on and as I dangle at about forty five degrees above her she starts to jab her mani wheel into my behind to get me to move as though I’m a goat or something. I can’t move up or down and nor can I let go to stop her cattle prodding me. This goes on for a while until the guy in front moves enough for me to pull myself up and away from the ‘assault with a Dharma weapon’. With a bruised bum I stand all the way back to Leh.
The season was nearly over and everyone visiting Ladakh was leaving before the snows blocked the roads. I got a ticket for the second to last bus to Manali. The road goes some three hundred miles to Manali, over the Himalayas and crosses the Rhotang Pass. It is one of the highest and most dangerous roads in the world! The travellers gathered in the early hours of the morning but the bus driver did not appear. We listened to a very sleepy muezzin give the call to prayer really badly, which made everyone laugh. After discussions someone claimed to know where the driver lived and they went off to see what was happening. At long last they returned, the driver had simply been asleep, and off we went. At one toilet stop I did some magic for the locals and got an odd reaction. The Indian family’s eyes went like saucers and they looked really frightened. I realised that they might be thinking the effects were actually supernatural. For a delicious few minutes I toyed with the idea of building on the incredible status they had assumed for me but quickly decided that it was the road to darkness. I let them in on a few secrets to diffuse their tension and eventually got them laughing and messing about. Again, it was shocking to meet this belief in things supernatural in such a direct and personal way.
We reach the Rhotang pass without too much trouble. The road is pretty terrible in parts. Looking out of the window I see what looks like straight down, hundreds of metres. We see the remains of trucks and buses smashed to smithereens below us. Everyone tightens up. Folks at the back of the bus, behind the rear axle, are being thrown around. One guy gets a bad hit to the head from the roof! A vast plain opens out before us with a little smudge of dust being raised. As we cover the miles the smudge gradually grows and after a while I see it is actually a single person walking with hundreds of goats. When I realise what I’m looking at my mind suddenly has a point of reference and reels at taking in the scale of the place. It is awe-inspiring. We bounce over the Himilayas all that day and then are left at a little group of houses. The bus driver lets us in to a cafe sort of a place but there is no-one there and nothing to eat. It is really late and dark and everyone is tired and feeling beaten up by the journey. There’s nothing for it but to try and get some rest. Everyone makes a nest as best they can and we all fall a sleep in basically a big heap of strangers. At first light we are roused and are hustled back on to the bus. It goes only a short way and leaves us on the side of a gorge where the road bridge has fallen down. It takes a while to realise what is happening which is that there are wires strung over the chasm. A furious torrent explodes out of the high mountains and thunders away to our right. A new bridge is partly constructed and its girders sit on wooden blocks. It is maybe ten metres above the waters. To my horror I spot people crossing it, one carrying a sheep on his back! They climb on the wet girders high above the rushing waters. It makes me feel queezy. We join a queue. At first I’m not sure what it is for but there’s nothing else to do apart from attempt to climb it like those nutters up there. Wires have been strung across the river and a group of three guys on either end are pulling a metal cage across. A person and their bags is loaded in and then hauled over. When it is my turn I have a feeling of deep surrender as the anxiety reaches its peak mid-stream. It seems that there has been some release of the past as I symbolically “cross the Rubicon”. When we have all got across we then wonder how our journey is going to continue. We ask around and various negotiations take place which eventually results in a few big taxi vans being hired. Later that day when we approach Manali we pass a sign that says “Inconvenience regretted”. Our van load became hysterical with laughter at that one.
A foot note to that journey was that we met up with the folks who had come on the last bus, the one after us. The driver had apparently kept falling asleep at the wheel with the huge drops next to the collapsing road. The passengers mutineed because the driver would not stop or let anyone else drive. They counted to three and grabbed him out of the driver’s seat while someone pulled the handbrake. An Australian volunteered to give it a go and managed to get everyone to the downed bridge safely!
I really hope to return to Ladakh one day.