The living Buddha

It was like the whole village was going for a picnic. Young men with beads and one sleeve, immaculately dressed weather-rouged old women, children with solar-panelled spinning hats, monks on motorbikes and monks by foot all crowded across the stone bridge and down to the ford. Here everyone took their shoes off and paddled through the icy mountain water, to where grass sloped upwards to the golden monastery.

The grass was a festival and everyone seemed to be wearing a white floppy-brimmed sunhat and carrying a delicately patterned umbrella. Kindof incongrous, as if a 19th century Victorian outing had been transplanted to a Tibetan mountain side, with blue and yellow and red flags and flasks of butter tea.

As we approached the monastery the crowds thickened and at the entrance was the most tremendous collection of animals and demons and beasts. A bluefaced monster jumped up and down, a horse neighed (pity the novice who had to be the arse, it must have been stifling in there) and behind them stood a row of top monks in deep crimson robes, with hats like the elongated plumed helmets of Roman centurions, holding horns to the bright blue sky. For while the eclipse brought cold and cloud, now the sun was back and had burnt through to a spectacularly clear day.

The path had been lined with wooden beaconbases piled high with what looked like pine needles, and now the boy monks who warded them lit them one by one. And from the distance there appeared a caravan of gleaming white cars, decorated, driving straight across the ford and approaching. Behind them galloped scores and scores of horses, tacked with streamers of gold and red, mounted by proud men like knights with matching hats and uniforms. As the cars wound their way up the hill, people thronged their way to the front, throwing white and orange scarves over them, which piled so high that monks had to run alongside to stop them getting trapped in the wheels. It was a cake of a car that arrived at the entrance and the throng so thick I only just glimpsed the VIPs being hurried into the monastery, followed by the beasts and top monks and other monks, then followed by everyone else. Grins and waving and tashedele. There seemed no reason not to follow.

Inside the monastery was a great grass courtyard where the masses settled down in the blazing sun. Ahead of us steps rose to the main hall but it seemed this was out of bounds to those not participating in the cermony. As we waited monks distributed paper cups and cooked rice, and everyone picnicked and we burned in the searing sun. Unbelievably, all the locals were wearing layer upon layer of thick tibetan clothes. I felt faint with the heat in my shorts and t-shirt. We must have sat there for over an hour when the ceremony began to spill outside, with waving flags and mesmorising chanting of which I understood not a word. I felt deliciously floating and at sea. Just sitting and listening and sitting and listening. Now people were flooding up to the main building and returning, leaving. Perhaps to get blessed by the living Buddha, to carry their children to him? to say some prayers? We felt it was not our place to intrude, and we waited in the grass until most people had been gone. Then we climbed the steps for a quick peak.

The entrance was crammed full of people. Some kind of jostle fight seemed to be taking place, between those desperate to get into the inner room and monks holding them back. But standing on tiptoes and glimpsing over their heads into the darkness within I caught just a glimpse of him. A soft-skinned, closed-eyed, red-robed, bald-haired gentleman cross-legged on a raised platform. Amidst the chaos and the heat and the cups of rice, he alone was completely silent, meditating. And it seemed that some peace from him was radiating beyond the temple. And it was something deep and complex which felt at once  familiar, and yet far beyond anything I could know or understand.

We left the monastery, and as we climbed down the road towards the village, the horseman were leaving, and galloping off across the river and scattering into the road and into the distance, and in the field behind a herd of glinting motorbikes grazed in modern contrast. Where is the wealth? In the new motorbikes or the old decorated horses, or in their presence side by side? We returned to the village for a hearty supper and a strained discussion about travel plans. And then I lay on my back and watched the brilliant stars in a sky that only mountains can bring, and night-time bronze-amber fireworks that showered from each of the monasteries in the distance. There was even a shooting star as well.

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