So... I'm going to write fast before the power goes down again!
I still have hopes to be able to start including pictures with my posts, but until then, I'll just write some text.
The place that I'm at is the Sera Jey Monastery in southern India. Sera Jey was originally founded in the 1400s in Lhasa, Tibet. When the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, Sera Jey was one of the places they bulldozed. The Indian government gave a large tract of land in the south to the Tibetan government in exile, and this is where they reestablished some of their major institutions, like this monastery.
It's actually somewhat a cross between a monastery in the western sense and a full-fledged academic college. The majority of the activity that goes on here seems to revolve around education. Approximately 4300 monks are currently in residence, ranging from very old men to 5-year-old boys.
The purpose of our trip was the graduation ceremony of a friend of ours, who was recieving his final degree - Geshe - roughly a Ph.D. in the traditional Tibetan system. The ceremony lasted two full days; the parts of it we were allowed to see were truly amazing.
The first day we witnessed his debate. In front of the full assembly of monks, he debated some of the texts with senior monks. As I mentioned in my previous posts, Tibetan academic debates are something of a cross between a hockey match and a courtroom trial; very physical and dynamic. I believe this part was roughly equivalent to a dissertation defence in western universities.
The second part on the next day was a major service in the main temple. Our part of it was fairly limited; we were taken to a room upstairs where we briefly met with the Abbot of the monastery, and given instructions. We were then taken down into the main hall, where thousands of monks were sitting in rows running from front to back. Each of us was given a bundle of incense, and we then followed the Abbot, slowly walking up and down each aisle of monks, and then circumambulating the Buddha statues and relics in the front of the hall. All the while, thousands of monks were chanting in Tibetan throat-singing; deep and incredibly sonorous. Thousands of them. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced; moving, powerful, the hair on my neck is standing on end just thinking of it. Later we were again taken into the hall, where we distributed alms to the monks. I can't tell you how badly I wish I had photos, but cameras were not allowed; this is one of those experiences in life I'll just have to remember in my heart.
Getting up that morning, I had absolutely no idea any of this would happen; I thought we'd be watching from an upper balcony. This place seems to be just like that. You never know what to expect; go with the flow, and the surprises are profoundly moving.
We're making this trip with a senior monk, who played an important role in the re-establishment of this monastery back in the 70s. He's now resident in a Tibetan Buddhist center in Boston. Since he's a fairly important Lama, as his guests we are given access to places that no regular tourist would see.
However, I've just been told that we're off to another ceremony, and more sight-seeing (templing) in the afternoon, so I have to wrap it up for now.