Last day in the monastery

I have a number of picture posts saved to my iPhone, but getting them to upload is spotty at best. I'll continue trying, and just write some text now.

In my last long post I was talking about some of the special things we got to see and do because we're traveling with a senior lama. Doors open for this man, and we've been taken places where ordinary tourists would not be admitted. We've been shepherded into small back rooms where they keep many relics they consider especially sacred. We've been invited to meet other high lamas and directly participate in several ceremonies. We've gotten access to special shrines and temples that are reserved only for religious practices; not open to sight-seers. A few days ago we were taken into a simple but elegant suite of rooms. We weren't quite sure where we were until we were there for a few minutes. It was the Dalai Lama's throne room, meditation room, and bedroom; he stays here for several months during the year.

As I mentioned before, I'm probably not the most reverential person in the world, but the spirit of this place is undeniable... and powerful. All the monks appear to work hard, study hard, and are in near-constant motion, but there's a profound peace in the air. I don't think I've ever felt calmer in my life. There's also a tremendous sense of people caring for one another, and wanting to go to great lengths to treat each other decently... radical kindness, really. I was mildly sick when I got here, and found out later that one of the monks got the entire monastery to say prayers for me. No matter who you are or what you believe, it's hard not to be deeply moved by something like that. Between my Tibetan and their English, there are some monks who I only have 5 or 6 words in common with, yet I feel like I've made genuine friends with them.

Lots of westerners visit India, and many of them see the sites, the temples, ashrams, monasteries, etc. However, I think we've gotten a really special insight into a way of life that probably very few outsiders ever get to see, and I feel very privileged for it.

I've also come to the conclusion that this culture is alive and flourishing. After the Chinese invaded Tibet, it could have worked out that the refugees dispersed, ended up in New York or London, and their way of life could easilly have vanished in a generation. I don't think that's happening. We're in the middle of nowhere, and a small group of people with few resources have managed to recreate some of what was destroyed, in a genuinely impressive way. Of course I never saw any of the original Tibetan monuments, but what they've built here does not feel like a pale, warmed-over imitiation. The art and the architecture seems lively and forceful, and there's a real energy and vitality that animates this place.

What they have is special, and I'm very glad it's here... the world's a better place because of it.

But, we're about to leave. It's been a peaceful week in the protective cacoon of monastic life. I'm now taking a deep breath as we're about to plunge into India, proper. Most of the group I'm traveling with are returning to Boston. A few are going up north on a pilgrimage. My friend Wendy and I are striking out on our own. The plan (at the moment), is to spend the day tomorrow in Mysore. There is a bazaar there that's supposed to be one of the best in India. We'll also visit the Maharaja's palace. Then we're taking a night train up to another monastery, where Wendy has some friends. I think we're staying there for a day or two. While there, we'll see the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. Then it's on to Mumbai for a few days.

After that... it's not certain. I have a vague idea of what I'd like to do, but I'm sort of doing this "India-style"; letting it happen on it's own terms, not trying to plan too hard or thoroughly.

Been here a week, and I still can't quite believe I'm in India.