I am seeing ghosts. They could be ghosts. My mind is playing tricks on me. I don’t know what would make me happier, the hazy drifting shapes around me to be from another world or for them to materialise into my fellow dharma students finding their way to the meditation halls. It’s moments before sunrise. Dark blue clouds travel across the grounds of the monastery, bringing the world to me a glimpse at a time. Suddenly revealing what is up close and personal and cloaking the rest in mystery. It’s cold this high up on the mountain, unlike the smouldering heat in the valley below. It’s quiet, as these heartbeats before dawn are for silent contemplation.
For a long time I ached for this experience. Being part of life in a monastery, letting the Buddha’s teachings wash over me, adding to my journey of awakening, deepening my practice to still my mind. Hundreds of fellow humans share my longing and have found their way to this sanctuary. They are dressed in colourful wraps, knits and harem pants bought in the tourists markets of Kathmandu, hair tied up in bandana’s and feet sporting sand dusted sandals. Rainbow hippies and soulful yogis. They walk around with subdued, knowing smiles, nodding to each other in recognition, easily bonding. I don’t seem to have gotten the memo on attire and am strutting my stuff in comfy grey sweats and glitter havaianas. Among the devotees I am the only (chocolate coloured) Asian, floating in a sea of western tinted humans. An odd sight as I am currently in the heart of Asia. The monk sitting on the raised platform speaking the dharma this week, is or used to be American. The Tibetan monks keeping to themselves, because of language barrier or other reasons, I do not know. As I go about my day I see flashes of their life. Washed red robes neatly pinned to lines, floating in the breeze, framed the dreamy blues and greens of the mountains surrounding us. Teenage monks, tying up their long robes around their waist so they can run on a basketball court, hollering at each other while playing the game. A small room overflowing with even younger holy ones, climbing over each other to see the tiny television, giggling in joy. The teeniest ones darting between the sunbathing soul searchers occupying the grounds. Chasing each other and kicking around a ball, until a solemn older monk walks over, glances at them and they run off to continue their antics where western eyes can’t follow. A few times during the day a prayer bell rings and all the monks journey to the big hall at the heart of the monastery. Even the ones with barely four trips around the sun, race up and morph into serious students of the dharma when they pass the threshold, leaving their vivaciousness in the open air. They’ll ninja kick their way out and breathe it back in, when the doors open again. Because the doors close. The most sacred teachings only for those that pledge their life to being here.
I look for Guy, who has spend the night in the mens dormitories. We find a spot together in the halls and lower ourselves on cushions, settling for the morning meditation. I was certain it would be soul shaking, life changing to be here. But it feels all wrong. Instead of a sense of collective belonging, a merging of awarenesses lifting me up and dissolving my sense of self, I feel crowded and cramped. A whisper when I passed the gates to the compound, by now a full blown scream in my core, telling me to get out now. I ignore it though, because this bucket list experience is supposed to be meaningful. As the hours pass my wild heart walls herself up, protecting me from my determination to adore retreats and comes back with new friends and all zen and transformed, brimming with newfound wisdom. Pretty high expectations from someone who ran away terrified after a few days of yoga, massages and juice fasting at a jungle retreat in the middle of Bali. A terribly uplifting tale I’ll tell you another day.
Soon meditation will end, breakfast will be served and Guy and I will eat in silence on a balcony overlooking the valley. When the sun rises above the ridge of the mountains, a blazing light will sets fire to life in the valley. A new dawn, a new day. It will be brilliant and beautiful and it will leave me no choice. There will be nothing graceful about our escape. We’ll run to our dorms, pack our backpacks, run to the admissions office, sign out and jump into a cab before our dharma teacher or fellow students spot us. The disappointment I’ll feel at how this experience turned out, will soon fade away as my wild rejoices in my choice and I’ll feel giddy with freedom.
Guy and I will travel further into Nepal and later on to Tibet. In my backpack I’ll carry the gift of a little book wrapped in silk, written by the monastery’s resident Lama. I’ll start reading it when I run out of books and will be surprised to find that every single word opens my mind and expands my consciousness. It will hold all the answers to all the questions I came across since the beginning of my journey of stilling my mind and following my wild. And I’ll know that I was in the right place after all. I’ll know I was never meant to stay, but needed to be there to be able to receive these sacred words. While I read the book, we’ll move across the plains of Tibet, exploring this hidden, ancient place. We’ll hardly see other travellers, the ones that have made it out there on their own path of discovery. We’ll slowly adjust to the highest of altitude and even then we’ll stay breathless. Tibetans young and old easily outrunning us in the streets and up the mountains. We’ll drive for days watching desolate, rugged vista’s roll on by, clouds hiding mountains, mountains hiding clouds. Glaciers and blizzards, a sense of snow and ice in the air even in the midst of summer. A blazing sun that burns everything, but barely manages to warm us. We’ll visit more monasteries and holy sites than I can count. The thick mystic smell of burning yak candles forever part of these days. We’ll join hundreds upon thousands of pilgrims preforming the kora, chanting and spinning prayer wheels and learn how their journey toward enlightenment is part of their tradition, religion, culture and daily life. While we marvel at the numerous towering ghost towns the Chinese have built on these spiritual lands, our sweet guide will teach us about humble Tibetan life. We’ll eat all the momo’s and love none of the buttermilk. The first sighting of majestic mount Everest will simply take the little oxygen that is floating in my lungs away. And every minute of every day we spend on top of our earth, the highest peaks of the Himalayas will emanate a sacred vibration, calling to that magical part within. My wild will be still in this place and a deeper awareness of past, present and future will emerge. I’ll know the true meaning of silence. A silence so full of everything, everywhere, it shatters me and leaves me with my.. your.. our buddha nature as the Buddhist call this truest, purest state of being.
I’m everything in everywhere. Can you see me in your own reflection? I’m deep within the molecules of the air that you breathe. And all the subatomic supersonic spaces in between. I’m everywhere. I’m reaching out in every direction. I believe I’m in your water too cause you act just like you need me…. – Jason Mraz
And weeks after that when I am home, I’ll go back to my solitary practise of zazen and hold space for my thoughts while happily sitting on the floor in the comfort of my own living room. I’ll watch the wheels of my mind turn and try to become still enough to hear the sounds of infinite silence that transcends my body, my self and even my soul. Buddha nature. Tao. God. Allah. JHWH. Higher Self. Cosmic spirit. So many words in so many cultures, religions and schools of thought. Different routes, taken by choice or chance, all expressing the same sense of something… more.
All of this will come to pass. But not yet. For now I am sitting on a red cushion in a meditation hall, surrounded by hundreds of humans, wondering why the hell I didn’t read the pamphlet….