We've spent the past two weeks exploring the Spiti Valley, and it's passed in the blink of an eye. Originally only planned as a sidetrip on our way north, we were quickly seduced by the culture and landscape, and have spent the past 14 days exploring this small corner of India. Nestled up against the Tibetan border, it's an arid land of rugged mountains, narrow river valleys, and terrifying, heart-hiccuping roads. The culture is almost completely Buddhist, and it's said to feel more like Tibet than India. Having never been to Tibet, I can't say if that's true or not, but I can vouch for the fact that India seems miles away, while Tibet is within sight from any of the high passes visible from the roadways.
Before coming here, I knew essentially nothing about Buddhism, other than that it dealt with a fat dude who liked his belly rubbed, and was very "Asian". I suppose I also knew that some Buddhist monks moonlighted as bad-ass kung-fu masters, but I attributed that more to Hollywood's tendency to exagerate than reality. (Sadly, Hollywood appears to have created some expectations that plenty of monks are having a rather hard time living up to. I have yet to see any monks doing any type of martial arts, other than play fighting at a festival, and they looked no better at it than me.) Most importantly (relating to our travels through Spiti), I had no clue whatsoever that India had an entire area considered more Tibetan than Tibet. Since everyone knows that Tibet is the original land of the Dalai Lama, and the spiritual home of Buddhism, that means that I am currently in a place more Buddhist than the most Buddhist place in the world. As you can see, it's been a dizzying two weeks.
We've visited as many different monastaries as we've been able to, and at many of them you can spend the night. It's a very imposing thing, spending the night at a monastary, and the first time we walked tentatively through the front gate into the silent inner sanctuary of the compound, inquiring as to the possibility of a room, I felt very conspicuous, very white, and very much the little blasphemer. Is it right to sleep in a bed surrounded by pious monks devoting their lives to the search for Truth, if you don't believe in God, don't believe in religion, and pretty much think that Hedonism is the way to go? With no God to strike me down (Buddhism is all about YOU, and finding your own inner answers. Buddhas are only enlightened teachers, with no supernatural or god-like powers save those of concentration), I slept like a baby, and was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when the 5:30 gong announcing morning puja sounded.
We walked quietly down to the prayer room, and entered first right (D'oh! Always left side! Counterclockwise, counterclockwise! Monks furiously gesturing "Other way! Other way!"), then left. We sat down on soft cushions along the outer wall, and watched and listened as the monks began their hour and a half chanting. It was magical, it was mystical, you could close your eyes and get lost in the rythmic chorus of the voices, until you started paying closer attention and realised that half the monks looked bored stiff, a quarter were multi-tasking, and the two young ones in the back were trying very hard, but with little succes, not to laugh. Knowing nothing about what they're really trying to accomplish, I have no idea if they were being successful or not, but it just seemed so informal and relaxed, and...amateurish. Pious! You're supposed to be acting more pious! I wanted to yell at them. Rather presumptuous of me, wanting to tell monks how to act in their own home, deep (?) in worship, but I couldn't help it.
So far, this contrast between my expectations and reality seems to be the order of the day, and I can't decide if I'm disappointed or not. Although I said I knew very little about Buddhism, I've realized that I DID have very definite expectations about what it was supposed to look like in action, and imagined every monk to be a smaller, slightly less distinguished looking version of His Holiness (HH) the Dalai Lama. In person, they really do kind of look like that (especially the little ones), with their purple robes, saffron tops, and long, thick scarves wrapped around their shaved heads. Their behaviour is...normal. I mean, sure they seem calm and kind and a bit more serene than the average bloke, but they still horse around, they play with their friend's gadgets, they snicker and laugh and act like normal people. The monastaries are incredible, all with amazing views, fabulous, ancient artwork, and the monks are ordinary people.
We stopped at the monastary in Dhankar, to inquire about staying the night and get some food. We were greeted by a middle aged man wearing wind pants, a knock-off Levi's t-shirt, and a knock-off Nike ball cap, who'd been sleeping on a cot in the corner. He proceeded to tell us that he was in charge of the monastary, and had been running it for the past 5 years. Why would the most important person in the place, the most enlightened lama, be wearing western clothes, sleeping on a cot in the dining hall, waiting for westerners to show up so he could serve up cold rice and dhal? Again, knowing very little about the religion, maybe this is him being the best lama in the world, but to me, it just seems kind of funny.
I spent an afternoon at another monastary trying to sort out all this confusion in my head about what Buddhism is really about, but had trouble finding anything that was at a low enough level for me to grasp any of the concepts. Do they have a Buddhism for Dummies book? If so, I'd love a copy for Christmas (hint, hint). I'm intrigued, and I want to learn more, and I'm in the right place to do it, so hopfeully another couple of weeks of my awkward fumbling will give me some enlightenment. 'Cause that's what it's all about, right?