There are many reasons why I continue to attend puja (chanting) each morning, and none of them is that I am a devout Buddhist.
I enjoy waking up early, and the 6:30 am start time gives me something to look forward to after I’ve been awake for an hour, reading and getting ready for the day.
It’s a time to practice perfect posture, which is reinforced during my after-breakfast yoga hour. I sit on the front of my pelvic bones, my legs folded under me, “Indian-style,” just like the others next to me who line the perimeter of the room on a long carpeted wooden bench. Back straight and tall, shoulders back, neck relaxed, stomach pulled in, hands resting on my knees; an hour and a half of sitting in such a position each day has helped strengthen core muscles and keep my body in alignment – despite some slips and tweaks I incurred on the steep mountain trails.
Puja is the perfect time to simply think; to let my thoughts wander and my imagination run. The voices of twenty little boys chanting in unison is soothing, and the bright colors, intricate patterns, and vivid imagery in the monastery is the impetus for wild creativity.
This morning I was sitting right in front of a hanging tapestry displaying three main gods arranged vertically in the center (two of them blue and one white with many arms) and twelve lesser gods in two columns of six on either side of the main ones. Each had its own little green halo with gold leafing around the border. Every square centimeter of unused space was filled with eccentric designs in every color imaginable – pastels, primary colors, neons, gold and silver – every color except black. Suddenly in my mind the tapestry took on the likeness of a Pokemon poster I feel like I’ve seen somewhere, and I thought it would be cool to create a video game where the Buddhist gods battled each other.
I had to try really hard to keep from giggling as I designed the whole game, including the scenes for different levels, in my head. I wondered if the little boys ever had such sacrilegious thoughts about the interesting and sometimes frankly creepy-looking gods adorning Buddhist icons.
I don’t always think about such inconsequential things, however. I’ve found puja to be a great time to reflect on anything. It’s funny: Whereas my friend and fellow volunteer Joanna makes an effort to “clear my mind and not think of anything,” I enjoy the challenge of just the opposite – trying to let myself think of anything and everything without restraint. One and a half hours is the perfect amount of time to let the mind meander without wearing oneself out or getting bored.
This morning, while sipping my milk tea (as a steaming cup of bottomless milk tea is served every morning about an hour into puja), I was also thinking of how I love the simplicity of life here. Yesterday I read Atlas Shrugged all morning, except for the hour that I spent doing gymnasti-yoga-pilates on the front lawn (which Joanna and I do together and the little boys love to gather on the level above and giggle at each others’ commentary as they peek through the railing). I wrote in my journal, read some more, ate a simple lunch of dal bhat, and then walked with Joanna down to Phakding to buy some needles and thread to mend Samten’s sweatshirt. Our friend Smile saw us and invited us in for tea, where he proudly showed us his many medals, trophies, and photos of his soccer and cross country running victories. All in all it was such a slow, simple, relaxing day.
That reflection led to another thought: I bet my mom never guessed, when she was teaching her restless little nine-year-old girl to sew, that one day I’d be using those same basic sewing skills to mend a pile of little Sherpa monks’ clothing. Or that that one week of one-on-one tailoring instruction could be such a blessing to a community of people across the globe who are lucky if they have more than one change of clothes.