The Nyune Festival took place at the monastery just a few days after we arrived. Everything was abuzz. The eight older monks (age 20+) ran around like crazy making preparations for the three Rinpoches (high lamas) who were to arrive at any time (the exact day and time was impossible to estimate as one can only travel by foot in this region and can never guess what social obligations may arise while walking through the endless string of villages). The nineteen younger boys basked in the excitement and just added to the chaos with all their eagerness to help. Nyune is a festival marking the beginnng of a one-to-two-month-long celebration of Buddha’s birthday.
Once the Rinpoches arrived (2 days and 4 hours later than first expected), the festival launched into full swing with 3 days of puja (chanting). Puja started at 4am on the first and second day, and at 3am on the third day. After a giant lunch on the first day, fasting began, continuing through the second day and ending the morning of the third day with bottomless rice pudding for breakfast at 6am. Devout worshippers who had come up to the gumba (monastery) – a 40 minute walk straight uphill from the nearest village – brought sleeping mats and were given blankets as they set up beds for the nights in the gumba’s upper room and in makeshift shanties outside. After puja ended at 6am on the third day, everyone went home or to relatives’ houses, dressed up, and came back around 4pm for the big performance.
I started out with the best of intentions and got myself up at 3:30am the first day, walked up to the smaller monastery above ours (10 minutes up the mountain) by 4am and earned a front-row seat in the monastery. I was under the impression that the morning session would be four hours long, and mentally prepared myself to sit cross-legged for that long without squirming, as stretching one’s legs out during puja is insulting. I had been given some bad information, however, because the morning session lasted until noon...EIGHT hours of chanting. I was exhausted and went home to sleep after a lunch of dal bhat (lentils with rice).
That night, sitting around the kitchen fire, I was excited and relieved when Pasang, one of the monks my age, asked if I would like to help him with decorations the next morning. I desperately wanted to be involved with the community event, but unlike the two other volunteers, Jenny & Joanna, I’m not Buddhist – so though it was interesting to see how the first few hours of puja went, I didn’t ask for prayer beads and wasn’t interested in chanting “Om-Mani-Pad-Meh-Hom” for two more days. Plus, someone had directed me to a conspicuous seat in the front row, and though this isn’t a problem in and of itself, one of the older monks gave me the evil eye when I didn’t join in the prostrations before the golden Buddha statue. I stood, out of respect for everyone and their tradition, and I know that overall my own faith is respected here, but it just happened to be unlucky that my location in the monastery put my different faith in the spotlight. I knew that I would feel much more comfortable hanging out with the monks upstairs and decorating.
It turned out to be so much fun! I turned out to be a big hit with the locals, probably due to my curiosity to see and learn how to do everything, and I became a sort of unorthodox novelty – a female doing the work of male monks – with unrestricted access to their sacred rituals and traditions. Perhaps it’s because I realized what I privilege and opportunity I had been given and treated it as such, that no one objected and even the stodgiest old men were gracious and friendly towards me. It was a beautiful experience!
(see www.shirah.mobi for photos!)