I arrived at the monastery almost three weeks ago with many questions about Buddhism. I’d taken a World Religions course focused heavily on eastern faiths and have continued to read about the Buddhist tradition in books such as those by one of my most beloved authors, Huston Smith, but with every question these texts answered they seemed only to provoke two or three more. I was disappointed, to say the least, when upon arriving at Pema Choling I realized that no one here speaks English well enough to discuss with me the teachings of Buddha or the origin of Buddhist traditions. During my first few days, my mind formed questions at a pace so rapid I felt like the omnipresent pot of water kept over the open fire in our kitchen – bubbling faster and faster as it reaches boiling point, only to be emptied into thermos – a holding tank – and promptly refilled to boil more. Like those thermoses of tato pani that will be eventually used for tea, my questions must eventually be answered, I thought. I started to empty my questions into lists that serve as my own holding tanks. But how I need those questions answered now!
Why do you wear only red/maroon and yellow/orange – why are these the designated colors of monasticism? What place do you occupy, as a monk, in Sherpa society? Do you always chant the same words, in the same order, each time you begin puja? I felt that I could not assimilate into the community without having these questions answered or at least knowing which are the important questions – which I am asking as a result of mere cultural differences and which will uncover sensitive sacred meaning.
After four days I suddenly was not satisfied with the monks’ progress in English and threw myself wholeheartedly into learning the Nepali language. I immediately realized that, unfortunately, pure Nepali is not spoken at the monastery and many words they couldn’t even tell me when I asked.** The dialect spoken here is a mix of Nepali (the country’s official language), Sherpa (the language of this region), and Tibetan (the official and holy language of Buddhism). I’ve now learned the Tibetan alphabet and can read and write a bit, and my verbal vocabulary is a mix of all three of these languages (not that I could always tell you which word is from which language, though I do my best), but due to this unforeseen language barrier I’ve decided to turn back to the books for answers to my many questions.
My efforts have not gone to waste. I consulted several people about the books I should read, and came up with a list of at least seven. The first I downloaded onto my Kindle and read in a week. It’s called Seven Years in Tibet, a non-fiction account of German-Austrian Heinrich Harrer’s escape from a World War II detainment camp in India – his trek from India over the Himalayas, across the harsh Tibetan plateau and into Lhasa, “the forbidden city.” As the story unraveled so did my list of questions and along with it, the mental tension caused by curiosity restrained. I felt a sense of kinship with Harrer as he raised many of the same questions I had – in almost the same order – and then answered them, one by one, often with an anecdote or example to illustrate the meaning of each tradition or fact of life.***
I’m about to download the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, which I know will be equally eye-opening. I’ve also started reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – a recent variation on and addition to the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead. The author, Sogyal Rinpoche, is a highly respected figure in Tibetan Buddhism; not only have I learned a lot on the Buddhist perspective on death in the first 25 pages of this enormous tome, but I’m pretty sure I’ve earned myself some major kudos with the older monks when I whip it out to read by the kitchen fire.
Here are some of the most insightful passages from the beginning of the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. These stood out to me as meaningful in both their content and the way it is presented.
All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world, including of course Christianity, have told us clearly that death is not the end. They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come, which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning. But despite their teachings, modern society is largely a spiritual desert where the majority imagine that this life is all that there is. (P.8)
How sad it is that most of us only begin to appreciate our life when we are on the point of dying. I often think of the words of the great Buddhist master Padmasambhava: “Those who believe they have plenty of time get ready only at the time of death. Then they are ravaged by regret. But isn’t it far too late?” What more chilling commentary on the modern world could there be than that most people die unprepared for death, as they have lived, unprepared for life? (P.10)
We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make of every moment an opportunity to change and to prepare–wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind–for death and eternity.
In the Buddhist approach, life and death are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life. (P.11)
*I especially recommend the beautifully illustrated hard copy of Huston Smith’s renowned book, “World Religions” (??) as well as his autobiography, “Tales of Wonder.”
tato pani = hot water
puja = chanting
**For instance, Pasang and I were going through the colors yesterday (red=raato; blue=nilo; white=sheto, etc.) When we got to green, he scratched his head and thought for no less than an entire minute. I started laughing, thinking he was teasing me. Finally he said, “We just say ‘green’.”
“WHAT!?” I shouted in reply – “you’re kidding me; you’re totally lying.” Just then 14-year-old Pemba walked by and Pasang asked him; Pemba thought a minute then laughed and walked on – he didn’t know either. It wasn’t until evening when I asked everyone in the kitchen that some finally came up with the Nepali word for green – arroyo.
***It turns out that red was the original color denoting monasticism. Then one time during an initiation ceremony where monk students of Buddhism were given the title of Lama (teacher), there were too few red ceremonial regalia caps and it looked as though the last student would have no cap in the procession. So that this new lama wouldn’t be cap-less, the older lama in charge of giving out the caps grabbed the nearest one he could find. It happened to be yellow. The monk gratefully accepted the yellow cap and continued in the ceremony. He never (released) the yellow cap and continued to wear yellow and red his entire life. Some years later, he became a Rinpoche (a higher title meaning “Precious One” and also indicating that he’d been recognized as the incarnation of a former Buddhist master) and a well-known and reputed reformer of Buddhism, and following his example, monks everyone adopted the combination of red and yellow as the new monastic dress code.