Tuesday, April 17, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman V

May 17, 2003

The weird bug in the bathroom and I have an understanding.  He can have one bath towel and I get the other.  In front of the hotel, a single cow was walking up the road, mooing occasionally and setting off a chain reaction at various farms throughout the valley. 

 Our first stop was Burning Lake.  A ancient woman on the trail had skin like leather, nails like claws.  Over the ravine were many prayer flags and a small group of deities.  We crossed the ravine and looking down from a large rock, we were supposed to have a vision.  To me, the river looked blood red (an omen?) with blues crests.  I could make out a patch of white, but its ever-changing shape made it impossible to make out.  Just beyond this small gorge, the river opened to a wide area with eddies, the swirling water like gelatin.  Our group did a wonderful chant, absolutely beautiful and song-like. We then, like most people here, gave offerings.  Everything, paper, leaves, money, when tossed in the lake, was sucked under, to rise again later. It was eerie the way things would pop out of the gloom.  A few people floated butter lamps, two of which swirled in an eddy, danced together, got pulled under and extinguished, yet one came lit again.  Clarke threw in two balloons tied to a kata.  The blue burst immediately, and the yellow got hung up on a branch.  It somehow freed itself, then floated downstream into a series of rapids and disappeared.  I sat on the edge of a big rock and played my shakuhachi, trying to harmonize with the rapids beyond.  Flies buzzed my head.  A young guy now living in India greeted me and told me the story of how when the king visited here, he dropped a medallion into the water, and then went in after it.  As I was playing, a piece of sod flew over me, thrown by a lama who asked me if I knew Susan. 

We gathered under a low overhang for meditation and another singing of that beautiful chant  Om Ah Hung Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hung.  As we sat, a monk meditated below us, with a halo of flies which looked like the model of an atom.  Also, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a yellow streak of a prayer flag being thrown across the ravine. 

We carried on up the road to the trail head for Kungzandra Monastery.  There was a road crew here, including a boy of two or three.  Just a little way up the trail stood the foundation of a house.  A lone gate stood on the hill above.  we walked past a small temple and farm, then into the forest.  There was a crow making strange noises up in a tree, the other trees surrounding it swaying and dancing against the blue sky.

We came upon a ridge with four new prayer flags, a post-hole, and a few de-branched trees laying  nearby showed the intention to raise more. In the lower part of the valley were a dozen fields which looked like a golf course, the wind whipping the wheat into waves.  High above were a few snow-capped Himalayan peaks.  I thought I saw a farmer in a field below but it turned out to be a scarecrow, and a damn fine one at that. 

 We stopped for lunch at the top of a difficult washed out section, beneath prayer flags.  Our intention had been to eat up at the top, but Susan and one of our guides were having trouble breathing and had turned back.  So we ate chicken, spinach, mushrooms and rice.  I passed on the ema datshi this time.   Eating lunch turned out to be a bad idea, as the next part of the trail was a hard slog after a long rest and on a full stomach.

We arrived at a clearing level with the temple.  Huge stones lay strewn about, sacred portals to a mystical area.  One stone looked like a giant seated Buddha, and high up the mountain was a stone pillar looking like a standing Buddha in the style of ancient India.  I looked back down on a scene Pema Lingpa must have seen, of farmhouses unchanged for centuries.  A long thin cloud came over the pass, like a whispy kata passed over from Tibet. 

At the temple, we met two women who carried up tea and cookies for us.  They had no shoes on and one had on a robe with Chinese patterns.  The tea was most welcome after climbing the final steep stone step ascent to the temple.  In the entrance hung a fire extinguisher which looked as old as the temple itself. Tall pine trees with fuzzy fungus stood in front, the branches on the temple side cut away for firewood.  Someone had thrown a cassette through the trees, and it rippled in the breeze like a prayer flag.  Clarke lit a fire as an offering, making the nose of a black dog lying in the dust begin to twitch.  When Clarke chanted in Tibetan, the old women giggled. 

Inside the main temple building we had tea, cookies, and rice.  The women had expected nine of us instead of five (the other four had suddenly pulled out of the tour, as that spring of 2003 was the time of both SARS and the opening of the US attack on Iraq) , so we were force fed.  I sat on the throne of a lower monk, afraid to lean against the wall since only a thin piece of plywood separated me from a horrible fall.  The main image was Kannon, with an amazing amount of arms.  To the left sat Pema Lingpa, his eyes looking on, lifelike as you stood in front of him.  

We walked back down the front of this temple, then up another series of steep shale steps to a tall tower built right into the mountain.  Outside the Buddha room was a small group of stones for a firepit, a hole cut in the roof above. The building was built even higher up, a deadly fall onto trees below.  This small room contained a stone with the footprint of Pema Lingpa.  As we left, Teri and I pondered why we would consider this site to be medieval, a word that seems to define aesthetics rather than age.   

From here , we went to a building built further along the cliff face.  This was Pema Lingpa's cave, with entrance for males only.  When the three of us men were in there, our woman guide stood outside and chanted.  The room was small, about 4 1/2 tatami mat size, with a small pillow for a throne and no deities or thankas.  A perfect hermitage.

We made our descent, me pulling way ahead of the group.  Going down was incredibly easy after the hard climb.  I went along happily, watching the cows climb and graze, their large piles of fly-swarmed shit mining the trail.  Suddenly at one point, I felt uneasy, as if I half expected to see a yeti come out of the trees above.  (I could see how they could hide themselves in the lush forest and in the near unbroken darkness of night.)  What did appear was an angry black dog, his barking in harmony with a few others I could hear just below me on the ridge.  They all entered the trail just to my right, snarling and bearing teeth.  I walked on, not breaking my pace, not looking at them, trying not to show the fear that was most certainly in me.  Luckily, a farmer came out of the woods yelling at them, just as I was picking up a stick.  For ten minutes I went on, relieved, but suddenly three dogs were charging down a slope at me.  I picked up a long branch and thrust it toward them, yelling in my best kiai, like I was wielding a naginata. This stopped them for a second, then they charged again.  We repeated this scene a few times, until a woman came out of a farmhouse across the hill.  The dogs held their ground, snarling and barking, but at least they'd stopped charging. I kept on a little more quickly and steadily, carrying my branch all the way down to the road.

The van wasn't there so I sat on the bridge waiting and writing.  A strange crow hopped closer and closer, talking in what sounded like English.  Back up the mountain, it began to cloud over. A young woman came up the road carrying a phallus, to dispel bad luck.  As the rest of the group showed up, a herd of horses came up the road, one trying to hump another, which wouldn't stop to allow the satisfaction.  Their driver, an old woman with loose swaying breasts, threw a stone to break them up.  

We drove a short way to a farmhouse where we'd have dinner.  There were kids and young mothers everywhere.  Two very small twins were wrapped up in shawls and hats and socks made of yarn.  One kid had a terribly runny nose, and later I saw the mother suck it clear with her mouth.  An ancient woman chewed betel, her toothless gums moving frantically.  Clarke gave the kids a balloon, which they happily batted around awhile until it was hit high enough that a gust of wind carried it down the valley.  

We went inside the kitchen where the older women were making buckwheat noodles, putting a clump in a wooden press, lowering the lever by sitting on it, to squeeze the noodles into strands like Play-Doh.  These were thrown into hot water, ladled out with something like a lacrosse stick, one of which I'd seen hanging from a fence up the mountain.  The kitchen area, as usual for Asia, contained only the women, but one guy came in briefly, wearing Adidas sweat pants over his gho.  I stepped back on the balcony to watch the sun go down.  Huge phalli hung from each corner of the house, and one over the doorway.  Dorjee told me they were for strength and protection, but I told him that for most men, they bring nothing but trouble.  

Back inside, we were served the alcohol doma by a persistent woman in the Chinese shawl, who filled our cups despite our protestations.  Four young girls began to dance and sing in the adjoining shrine room lit up with candles.  All of the girls had beautiful voices and they harmonized perfectly.  This was professional level singing, coming from farm girls in a remote valley.  (It seems that traditional music can be sung well by all, while modern music only by a few, for better marketability.)   I was mesmerized and kicked myself for the hundredth time that I didn't bring my handheld recorder.  As the dancing went on, more and more girls joined in, and more kids came in to watch.  They and the ancient woman sat riveted, and I was so pleased to see young people so at ease and comfortable with their culture.  I took out my samba and began to keep a beat.  Everyone seemed to like it, especially one young boy who Clarke was thinking of sponsoring.  He tried to play, plus swayed and snapped his fingers, leading the other boys and laughing.  

At one point, I leaned over to whisper something to Cheryl and we were shushed and snapped at by Susan.  I was surprised, not used to such directness anymore.  I suppose Susan was disappointed at not finishing the climb.  Letting it go, I went outside, into full darkness, the only light the candlelight coming from the window of the shrine room.  The silhouettes of the dancers caused strange supernatural shadows, and the voices of the girls cut through the stillness outside, joined now by Dorjee's It was even more beautiful in this environment, under a handful of stars showing through gaps in the clouds I could have stayed forever had not the sound of barking dogs moving closer drove me back outside. 

Dorjee and I did a duet on "Hana" while the girls took a break.  He sang with his arm around me and I think we both did well, capturing the emotion of the song.  Before dinner, I was again given doma by the persistent woman.  I opened a window next to me and spat it two stories down.  The dinner that followed was elaborate considering the poverty here, and we were told to eat much and eat slowly so as to finish at the same time as the dancers.  Karma the driver offered us "Sikkim Milk," which turned out to be alcoholic.  This geared us up for a final dance, which we did with the girls. It lasted a long while.  

We said goodbyes, riding home in various states of merry drunkenness.  Dorjee, buzzed, expressed his happiness with this trip, saying that the things he'd seen and experienced wouldn't have been possible without us.  Back at the hotel, we all slept well. 

On the turntable: Gontiti, "Gontiti Recommends Bossa Nova'"
On the nighttable:  Gavin Bell, "In Search of Tusitala"

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