Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Morning puja

Pulling the curtain gently aside, I slip quietly out of my sandals and enter through the narrow doorway, into the darkness. My sleep-stained eyes struggle to adjust, and while I wait patiently for my pupils to dilate, the pungent scent of juniper smoke fills my nostrils. A few long, deliberate blinks and the interior of the monastery slowly begins to materialize before me.

The room is roughly square, and I'm standing halfway along the front wall of the ancient temple. Abby leads me hesitantly across the unfinished floor around the edge of the room, the wood rough against the soles of my feet. I wonder how rough it must have been originally, before thousands of foot steps could remove the biggest of the splinters, could smooth the largest of the burrs from its uneven surface. We sit down cross-legged on a long, low bench, one row removed from the chanting monks.

They sit in two rows, facing each other under a raised cupola in the center of the temple. The only light comes from a single row of small windows high above, and the early morning sun struggles to creep in. Through the haze of wood smoke the young lamaa' faces are bright and eager, even at this early hour, their energy and enthusiasm contrasting sharply with that of other pujas we've sat in on, where the sleepy-eyed elder monks rock gently back and forth, each absorbed in his own thoughts and meditations.

The chanting, too, is different: younger, more musical. I close my eyes to focus better on it. Reciting verses from their holy book, the boys' voices rise and fall in a loose chorus that slides in and out of sync. A single baritone signals the coming of manhood that stalks them all. At irregular intervals a few of the monks pick up bells and cymbals, the crashing and ringing creating a cacaphony of sound that echoes throughout the room. Anywhere else the assault of sounds would be nothing more than noise - young children playing at making music - but here, in the chamber of prayer, it's strangely appropriate. The echoes fade, the voices cease, and are replaced by the noisy slurpings of butter tea. Breakfast.

I open my eyes and look around. The dark recesses and corners have exposed themsleves to my light deprived eyes, and I take it all in, slowly. Everything is crooked angles and sagging ceilings. Nothing is clean, nothing is uniform; it all blends together perfectly. Rough-hewn timbers protrude from mud-caked walls, cracks and holes and lumps abound. Across the back wall of the temple sit perhaps a dozen deities of various shapes and sizes, their brightly painted bodies covered in a thick layer of dust that dulls their appearance. Like everyting in the building, they look old. Some of the statues are covered with richly embroidered scarves and blankets, other stand completely naked, undressed for the people to see. Modesty has a strange definition in a land where children can run around naked and gods are scultped in the act of love, yet a public display of affection is cause for scandal.

The walls are adorned with intricate paintings depicting teachings from the life of the Buddha, along with other important figures and lessons. The level of detail is incredible: panel after panel of colourful figures in miniature, their faces and postures conveying worlds of wisdom with a few deliberate brushstrokes. A monk at another monastery told us it took a single lama more than three years to paint the inside of their temple. The walls are cracked and water-stained in places, the lessons slowly melting away with time.

My attention is drawn suddenly back to the center of the room, away from the centuries old art. The monks have set down thier mugs and are resuming their meditations. I close my eyes once more and let my mind go blank, to embrace their prayers. The room fades, the world fades, my body fades. My mind is free to soar.

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