The rattling old bus arrives in Kaza laden with Mangon, local villagers and a handful of young backpackers seeking the thrill of experiencing breathlessness on the high mountain passes, which brought them for the first time in their lives into heights above 5000 meters in a barren treeless mountain wretched valley spiked with dangerous narrow curves dropping off hundreds of meters to a wild glacier river. The barren and treeless mountain, reaching over 5000 meters, has a valley spiked with dangerous, narrow curves that drop off hundreds of meters to a wild glacier river.
They all share a vision of Tibet, a love for the mystical country hidden in between the highest mountains of the world, a country whose existence was basically unknown to the west until Heinrich Harrer wrote down his account of Seven Years in Tibet. Most of the young teenagers on the dangerous roller coaster ride through the high mountains only saw the movie, starring Brad Pitt, but Mangon, when he was just thirteen, had stumbled upon this book in a second hand book store. He had read it over and over again, each time fueling anew his passion to experience the mystery of Tibet. Throughout his teenage years he daydreamed of meeting enlightened lamas, drinking rancid butter tea with lone traders who crossed the remote areas with their yaks, eating momos and thukpa, listening to stories of yetis, high lamas or mystical men who meditated for years in caves high up the mountain, only coming down the mountain to receive a bag of rice or wheat from villagers who revered them as holy beings.
Mangon’s plan is to venture deep into Spiti Valley, where only a few settlements consisting of simple stone and mud homes, clustered around small monasteries, seemingly untouched by the modern world for hundreds of years, lay dormant for most of the year as travel is only possible during the brief summer when the only road is not blocked by meters of snow and ice. Spiti valley lies in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh which forms a border with Tibet and is surrounded on all sides by the soaring ramparts of the Himalayas forming a remote, high altitude, cold desert region of sheer cliffs and barren slopes. There are plunging gorges and towering ridges, created by layer after layer of ancient twisted rock, which the force of the continental drift has pushed up and whose ocean floor now forms the roof of the world.
The highest, frozen summits pierce into a brilliant, deep blue sky. The sky, rarely blessed with rainclouds as India’s life-giving monsoons cannot surmount the solid mountain barrier of this valley. Winter sees a meter or two of snow, a source of water, during spring and summer-time which villagers use to irrigate the patchwork of tiny, yak-ploughed fields perched on the narrow strips of fertile land which the river has spit out. Snow may lie on the fields for six or even seven months a year making the survival of the 10,000 inhabitants of the valley every day a tough challenge.
The monasteries and the small communities around them largely depend on supplies and tourists which come through only during the few months of the year when the winter deity lets the valley out of its fierce grip. They come on the only road which runs from Manali over the scenic, almost 4,000 meters high, Rohtang Pass all along the Jammu and Kashmir border. Then, turning south to rub shoulders for a few kilometres with Tibet, it bends westward again towards Shimla, another popular tourist hill station.
As no tree can survive in this rough desert climate, dried yak dung remains the main source of fuel for cooking and for heating the medieval looking stone houses during winters when temperatures drop down to -35 degree Celsius. Cut off by nature with great mountain barriers and by long winters that disrupt road traffic, Spiti became even more isolated when its close ties with Tibet were suddenly snapped by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959.
The remoteness and barrenness of this mysterious high mountain valley shielded it from the world and protected it from the Chinese communists who, on Mao’s orders to eradicate all religions in China, sent out their mighty armies who swapped over Tibet like a tsunami destroying every monastery in its wake, killing or abducting thousands of monks, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India and destroying in just a decade a thousand-year-old Tibetan anachronistic traditional society which embraced in its core the values of Buddha’s teachings. India restricted access to Spiti Valley until 1992 due to its proximity of the adjoining border to China. This isolation left Spiti undisturbed for centuries, a hidden spiritual Shangri-La which economically was still stuck in the middle ages.
Travelling by bus into the remote Spiti Valley, where he wants to visit the ancient Tabo and Key monasteries would be the closest Mangon could get to fulfil his childhood dream of experiencing life in Tibet. For years he fantasised about the moment he would spot his first yak and see Buddhist monks dressed in red robes chanting prayers of the sacred Tibetan mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, during the early morning prayers in Tibetan stone and mud temples, built a thousand years ago withstanding almost undisturbed the test of time.
Kaza, a tiny village with 3200 inhabitants and only a few guesthouses, is the first stop on his way into the valley, after a gruelling two hundred kilometres long bus journey from the relative comfort of Manali, where he had stocked up on food and traded his watch for a pair of old mountain boots and a thick sheep skin jacket to keep him warm in case winter decided to cut the summer season short, which could happen any day during this time of the year. When word reached Kaza that the main steel bridge had collapsed during last night’s heavy rainfall, cutting off the rest of the valley from the outside world, making Kaza the end of his journey, Mangon was determined not to give up his lifelong dream.
While other travellers enjoyed a few days in one of the tiny but overpriced guesthouses sitting together in one of the few restaurants of the village, complaining over the missed opportunity of having experienced almost the “real Tibet,” before altering their travel plans to leave on the first bus back to India where they will continue to freak out monks, invade ashrams of Indian gurus, smoke joints in every lassi shop they can find or dance to the psychedelic Goa rave tunes in the backwaters of Kerala and Goa.
All those things are not the reason why Mangon came to India. He is determined to continue to follow an inner voice which kept telling him to keep on looking for something he couldn’t even put into words.
A kind of inner peace, clarification about who he really is and an answer to the same question he had asked himself since he was a young boy: “What is the meaning of my life?” He had crossed South America from Mexico into Patagonia in the south, following the long curved spine of the Andes, through jungles, highlands and desert, but was unable to find an answer to his question. Deep inside Mangon felt that he must go to India, the cradle of spirituality in the world and seek out wise men and women who had realised what they preached. He read countless spiritual books and absorbed many often contradicting teachings and world views of gurus, babas, ascets and other holy men of ancient times. He knew that he needed to find a teacher, one who was enlightened, one who had realised the true nature of reality and who was able to teach his disciples.
He is ready to exchange the wild rough life he had led in South America, where drinking, smoking weed or snorting cocaine until sunrise became his daily ritual, in order not to think too much, get mad and kill everyone with his machete in a dark night; where he travelled from country to country, always on the search for shamans and medicine men who would take him on journeys into the realms of their forefathers, calling upon spirits and ghosts during holy peyote, san pedro, or mescaline ceremonies; where he was high on magic mushrooms or went far, far away on Ayahuasca trips which sometimes lasted for days, lifting him up after having been able to peer into a world so unknown and so bizarre, before crashing and ravaging his body, which already looked much more worn than the twenty three years it had survived until now.
Mangon shaved off his wild mohican hair and left it back in a dirty sink in a Delhi guesthouse. He had also traded his old leather jacket for a lunghi, a couple of t-shirts and a second hand backpack with a filthy and happy Kashmiri seller, who spread out his merchandise, consisting of dirty and used cloths and a few torn and outdated travel guides directly on the dusty road near Palika Basar.
After Mangon’s plane touched down in the hot and incredibly poor and filthy, but buzzing capital city of Delhi, many young backpackers came together in one of the run down guesthouses in the Pahar Ganj area, which absorbed most of the budget travellers coming into the city with little money but a firm determination to “do the Great India thing” which was to cross the entire Indian sub-continent on as little as possible during their two months of summer holidays before returning into the safety of their expensive dormitories on university campuses. They would brag then to their fellow student friends about the dangers they had survived in that wild and strange country. Almost all of them were struck down by the immense heat of an Indian summer, a boring fact which they had skipped over in the introductory section of their lonely planet India guidebooks, eager to discover where India’s best beaches, craziest babas and wildest parties could be found instead. Many decided to beat the heat by escaping to the highlands in the north, to Manali, McLeod Ganj or Dharmsala where his holiness the Dalai Lama took refuge after he had to flee from Chinese Communists in 1959. There they would spend their days sightseeing in numerous newly constructed Tibetan Buddhist temples, battling hordes of tour guide vultures who would talk them into expensive trips to remote destinations in Ladakh and Kashmir, promising the “real” Tibetan feeling, which they claimed could not be found anywhere else on the Indian sub-continent other than in the destination they were able to offer.
Dharmsala is comfortable, a place where western travellers would sit for hours in darkness on old wooden chairs, glued to the latest Hollywood blockbusters on bad quality pirated DVD’s from China, consumed on big screen TV’s which were hauled all the way from Delhi and which were hooked up with a cranky stereo, running on a generator during the daily power cut times.
When waves of hippies flooded to India from the west, they created this unique vision of an India with all its superficial stereotypes which are still repeated in many books and movie plots today. Today plane loads of young middle class teens, mostly couples or group of best friends arrive to India, shedding off their designer jeans and expensive sneakers, forgetting about their university studies for a few weeks, and happy to have escaped the safetyof their parent’s home for the first time in their lives. They would dress up in colourful clothes rich with psychedelic patterns, Indian saris or wide fishermen trousers and the crucial pair of sandals. For the first time in their lives the guys tried to grow beards while their girlfriends had their shiny hair braided, hoping it would turn into a genuine rastafarai look by refusing shampoo and soap.
Many come to India just to get stoned, be high on marijuana or the best dope from Manili. Where they would hang around all day in teashops, drinking chai, (the local much too sweet milk tea), reading books about spirituality, kundalini yoga and or autobiographies of famous Indian yogis, following the adventures of Madame Blavatsky and her encounters with powerful mystical Tibetan lamas who knew the secret location of Shangri-La, instead of hitting the hot dust and dirt roads of rural India to see for themselves if the new world they had discovered in their books was fiction or reality.
Mangon met those excitement hoppers, those holiday adventurers, backpackers on their trip of a lifetime, lasting a mere few weeks, on the rooftop restaurant of the simple guesthouse he was staying. Like them, he had just arrived to India a few days ago and was overwhelmed by all the dirt and smell, overcrowded streets, hordes of begging children cluttering around the moment one left the security of the cheap guest house, cows with bellies swollen from eating plastic out of overflowing garbage bins in Pahar Ganj and a countless procession of sellers trying to sell badly torn books, carpets advertised as handwoven by their grandmother in Kashmir or, drugs, of whom most were of extremely bad quality and overpriced.
When evening approached and the hot sun descended, allowing Delhi a brief break from the intense heat for a few short hours, Mangon sat on an old cushion pillow decorated with many tiny mirror fragments, before an old short table onto which travellers had scratched their names and home countries and enjoyed reading the wise talks of Krishnamurthy when a young couple from the UK, asked to join his table. Soon a solo traveller from Japan with his tablet and outfitted from head to toe with expensive gear from a Japanese travel shop asked permission to sit down on the pillow chairs too, followed by a group of three Americans guys, college kids from Oklahoma who had placed a bet with friends back home that they would roam and conquer India and who were now eagerly texting their friends back home, sending them pictures they took earlier this afternoon just outside the guest house.
The kids must have fought heated debates over the dinner table with their parents, when they revealed to them their plan to go on a real adventure, which did not mean borrowing daddy’s car and driving up to Vegas or getting a Eurail pass to explore the culture of Europe. Their children suddenly got the insane idea in their heads to backpack in India during their summer vacation, a sub-continent of which they knew only was overflowing with 1.5 billion of poverty and lepra stricken people. It was time for the kids to prove to their parents and themselves that they had what it takes to stand on their own feet, which were soon covered by expensive hiker boots with money they successfully had managed to extract from their parents.
Witnessing the worn outfit of weathered and experienced looking travellers, a mixture of torn jeans (stiff with filth of thousands of miles of Indian roads) and t-shirts full of burn holes from joints passed around camp fires, they realised immediately upon arrival that their stylish traveller clothes branded them instantly as newcomers, thus making them the preferred target for every street hawker and tour guide they encountered. Within days they spent good money on authentic looking second hand clothes and low quality Indian rags with locally fabricated sandals keeping only their backpacks, laptops and mobile phones as a last security to call Mommy for help in case their Indian adventure turned into an Indian nightmare. “Love it or leave it,” is the unofficial motto for travels to India, and many determined not to give up and be defeated by the strangeness of this immense country, dragging themselves from one big Indian city to the next. Endless hours spent in crappy and dangerous buses with their expensive luggage strapped on the top, train journeys which last not hours but days, coaches crammed with far too many people all sweating and smelling badly in the never-ending hours of a continental heatwave.
Soon complaints about the stink and filthiness of the beggars have caused them, about slimy sellers who tried to drag them into their little cashmere shops where they asked exorbitant prices for some Indian rags, tam tams or a chillum which the Indian babas use to pray to Shiva by getting high, make the rounds at the table, to which Mangon chooses not to contribute. When he lit his pre-rolled joint with the sweet aroma of the blackest and best Manali, which he had bought this afternoon in a dark side street behind a small carpet shop and a local barber, having bargained fiercely with a young dealer who could have not been older than 14 or 15, filled the air on the guesthouse terrace, it was immediately noticed by the three American college kids who look up simultaneously and stare with big eyes and an open mouth at Mangon. They encourage each other with a quick punch with their elbow into the ribs to dare and ask the wild looking stranger to share his joint with them.
“Mind a toke?” the tall, red-haired kid, his delicate white face with freckles sunburned, eagerly asks Mangon.
Mangon looks at him quietly, studies him, tries to guess the world the kid must live in, a world which he had left many years ago. He takes a deep breath and passes the joint on without saying a word.
The three guys began to giggle like school boys while passing the joint in between them, commenting on the good quality and exquisite aroma of the dope, giving away their inexperience by coughing vehemently. The Japanese man politely refuses his turn after confirming with the Americans that it is indeed real marijuana. A sinister and cold stare by his girlfriend makes the British lad pass on the joint too, without having taken a puff, back to Mangon.
“Where ya heading?” the redhead asks.
“Shimla,” Mangon replies, after a while.
“What can one do in Shimla?” the short, chubby one with the thick spectacles inquires.
“Gateway into Spiti Valley,” Mangon answers briefly, not keen on continuing the small talk.
“Never heard of it,” the short one comments, turning to the third, who, wearing a much too tight Yankee University t-shirt, takes out the latest edition of their Lonely Planet India from his leather hand bag.
He searches by alphabet, finds an entry about Spiti Valley and leafs briefly through the introduction.
“Man, that sounds cool!” he exclaims, passing the guide book on to his friends before accepting the offered joint from Mangon.
“Is this where the Dalai Lama lives?” one of them asks.
“Nah, I read he is up in the north, Dharmsala or so,” answers the redhaired boy.
“What ya’ planning to doing there?” he asks Mangon, who doesn’t feel like continuing this interview.
“Nothing,” he gives back.
It has been several years now that Mangon has been constantly on the road, his home in Pittsburgh being only a faraway memory, having turned into a travelling nomad with no place of his own and only one destination: forward. Ten years on the road has made him tough, and has made him forget about his past, which he never mentions to anyone. Sometimes when he thinks back about the time with Nicky, he feels lonely and misses a companion. Other than the occasional dogs he picks up and who travel with him sometimes for weeks, he has had no one. He survived more adventures than those kids in the guesthouse rooftop could ever make up when bragging to their friends. He has looked into the barrel of guns and it was more than once he has taken out his knife (which he always carried hidden under his trousers and strapped to his knee), to show crooks and bandits he encountered that he knew very well how to take care of himself.
He still clings on to his knife despite his intention to avoid any form of violence. Instead of mobile phones and Facebook status updates to stay connected with friends and family back home, the knife is his only lifeline, one in which he has more trust than in anything else. His mission in India is not a simple one for a westerner, an outsider. He wants to learn from the real India with its traditions and religious schools going back thousands of years, with millions and millions of Indians constantly on the search for enlightenment, leaving their families and all their worldly lives behind, to finally understand reality and break through the infinite cruel circle of life and rebirth. Their present incarnation has placed them in India, into a life of poverty and hardships unimaginable to anyone from the west, but still, despite all, most Indians bear their heavy karma with an unexpected lightness and offer a smile at anyone who directs a friendly word or gesture towards them. Many believe that the outside world is just an illusion, a dream from which they hope to awake one day. Daily they worship in complicated ceremonies with their many gods, of which some have the form of an elephant or a monkey, others which look like fierce half humans with eight arms and a mad expression, carrying skulls around their necks, performing a dance on the bodies of the death.
Less than one percent of the 1.5 billion Indians are Buddhists and even fewer follow the teachings of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhists, who fled into exile more than fifty years ago, creating in the far north and south of the Indian continent, small enclaves where they live together in tiny Tibetan villages or study in one of the famous monasteries, rebuilt near Mysore. The Dalai Lama recognises that the dinosaur of Tibetan Buddhism, which was based on a feudalistic system to extort the poor, died when the Chinese invaded his country. He succeeded in the difficult task of giving the Tibetan Buddhism, with its many strange rituals, a PR makeover. Thanks to prominent Buddhists and friends among actors and politicians, soon it was chic to hang up Tibetan thankas and watch videos of his Holiness and meditate together in silence about his words of compassion. Many of the young Tibetans have managed to get a scholarships from schools in the US and Europe where they eagerly study, returning years later not only with a knowledge about the west and a perfect command of English, but also knowing about the attraction their small eyes, slim muscular bodies and distinct Asian faces have on white girls. The next generation, the hope of many Tibetan parents who hope that their cultural identity will survive, is busy chasing young tourist girls in the streets of Dharmsala, convincing them that sex with them is an enriching experience.
In the south, the big and famous three monasteries of Tibet have been rebuilt and house thousands of, more or less, hard studying monks who live secluded from a modern India with its tantalus efforts to rise up from the exploited and backward ravaged country which the British left behind when they left in 1950. Bombay and Bangalore are modern cities by Indian standards and the price of living has skyrocketed, but yet daily millions and millions of poor Indians from all over the country stream to the big cities, whose slums grow by the thousands every day, on trains or buses sleeping on the pavement in front of modern office buildings or in side streets around posh four star hotels, unaffordable dreams for many whose only possession was their lunghi, a piece of dirty cloth, worn around their waist during the day and serving as a blanket at night.
It is this sight of extreme poverty most travellers to India try to avoid at all costs, the moment of being confronted with the reality of the daily fight for survival of India’s poorest, when stepping out of the hotel and being surrounded by a group of begging children in rags who ask them for “country coins,” tearing on their shorts and skirts, indicating with a gesture from the belly to their mouth that they are hungry. Most give a ten rupee note before rushing into the safety of a taxi, and only a few have the dignity to take those kids on their hands and invite them for a meal in a small restaurant or food from a street seller on the road.
With most travellers gone, having taken the last bus out of Spiti Valley back to the relative comfort of travelling in India with its banana pancakes, cheap guesthouses and air-conditioned coaches, Kaza turned into a quiet rural community again, hurled by the sudden destruction of the steel bridge on the only road leading into an early winter sleep which will last a few months. The magic of the valley transformed it into Shangri La, a mystical land roamed by wizards and spirits revered by followers of Bon, an ancient almost pagan form related to early Buddhism.
Its remoteness and inaccessibility for most of the year had protected the Tabo monastery for over thousands of years despite the continuous threat from the Chinese and many other marauders who periodically fell into India. The monastery is built out of stones and mud, simple ancient walls, and has been continuously repaired and expanded whenever the spare funds allow it. Today more than thirty-five monks study the words of Buddha, debate in the courtyard about different philosophical aspects, and chant and pray in a way which hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Mangon had an unstoppable longing to reach Tabo and Key monastery to receive lessons from monks and lamas. Even the risk of becoming trapped in Spiti Valley all winter long with no connection to the outside, was a risk he was willing to take. If no vehicle could cross the damaged bridge, he would balance over the remaining steel skeleton in the river and continue his journey on foot. He estimated that it will take him two full days of walking the forty-five kilometres from Kaza to the Tabo monastery. He traded his watch, a “gift” from one of the street kids in Rio de Janeiro whom he had hung out with for weeks, for an old sleeping bag, a gas cooker with a used pot and some provisions. He purchased a thick sheep wool pullover from a local woman, which was itchy wherever it touched his skin, to keep him warm during winter nights when temperatures dropped far below freezing point. Consulting an old map on the wall of the tiny guesthouse in which he had stayed for a few days, he knew that it was almost impossible to get lost, he simply had to follow the only road which ran sandwiched between Spiti Valley and the Kashmir and Tibetan border to reach the Tabo monastery.
The sun shines bright in the cloudless blue sky, the midday air is fresh but has already warmed up so much that he takes off his pullover and carries it strapped over his small backpack. The stony unpaved road ahead of him lies deserted, quiet in the absence of trucks, buses or Jeeps with tour guides and tourists.
He covers his mouth with a scarf to avoid the fine dust from getting into his lungs, which the wind blows relentlessly into his face. He has walked for five hours already and feels the pain of blisters from the pair of uncomfortable hiker boots which he found left behind by a tourist, but he knows that he has to break them in as sandals will not last long on the sharps rocks on the road. Mangon decides to take a break, sitting down on his backpack and absorbing the unbelievable beauty of this remote mountain valley which has enchanted him since the moment he laid eyes on it.
In less than one hour, the sun will disappear behind the tall mountains, bare of trees or even shrubs, and darkness will fall over the valley in which an angry river rages, his only companion for his first night under the stars.
He estimates that the Tabo monastery is still about thirty kilometres away and his only way to reach it tomorrow is to rise up early and walk in darkness in the short morning hours before the sun will climb anew over the unusual dry high altitude desert.
For Mangon it feels like he is on a holy pilgrimage, a yatra–voluntarily hardships undertaken by millions of Indians who seek a way for enlightenment. Bloody feet are witness to the determination which makes him set foot after foot ahead of himself, swallowing the pain as a sacrifice to the gods who hopefully will grant him a deeper insight into the mysteries of life when he finally reaches the monastery.
With experience acquired in surviving on jungle treks in South America, he lights a small fire with the little burnable wood he managed to collect during the day and begins to boil rice on the small gas cooker, his only meal today. He takes off his shoes and feels happy and free. In his thoughts he recalls the many stories and adventures he experienced through his long journey which brought him to camp alone under this beautiful night sky at an altitude of over 4000 meters. This is the freedom he found and lives every day but it hasn’t brought him silence or quietness in his mind. This absence of thoughts is the basis to begin to perceive the true reality behind all the appearances. He feels that his life is still lived only on the surface, but that deep inside him is a flame, a fire of aspiration which grows stronger by the day, which calls him to India to find a teacher, who will show him how to look inside, discover a new world within, a world of which he only heard in spiritual books. Mangon read about big Tibetan lamas who possess miracle powers which helps them survive the cold by generating inner heat, about old saddhus with long rasta locks and skin like yellow leather, thin arms and starved bodies, with the ability to sit for hours, unmoved, in a perfect meditation pose, on a small rock in front of their Himalayan mountain cave, their minds still, experiencing oneness with the breath of the whole universe.
He can bear no longer the endless nights which he spends awake in his sleep, tormented by a myriad of thoughts, which seem to come from all sides constantly. When they become too much, he drowns himself in alcohol, cocaine and any other drug he can get his hands on. He feels trapped in a body which he often perceives as only looking to the outside with the eyes of a young child eagerly wanting to explore the world.
There is no happiness in him, no light-headed joy. Life has worn him down, always keeping him on the bare edge of surviving, every day is a struggle to get food, money or just stay alive.
The rice takes a very long time to cook as the high altitude renders the gas cooker almost useless, forcing Mangon to still his hunger with undercooked rice which he eats with just a bit of rock salt he carries with him. He takes out a big piece of dark Manali charras and rolls a joint. The temperature drops quickly after sunset so he crawls into the old sleeping bag, happy he traded it in, despite its stink. Lying on his back, enjoying the sweet aroma of the marijuana flushing through his body, his gaze wanders along the brightest night sky he has seen since hitchhiking through the Atacama desert. “It’s full of stars,” he wonders. That’s where he longs to go, further and further into the infinite. “But wouldn’t it be more of the same life as a nomad, a mere drifter on the surface of a planet?”
Throughout last year he has been moving from place to place, staying only as long as he wanted or until the circumstances forced him to continue his journey into the unknown. He barely works, sometimes he offers to clean a kitchen or wait a few tables for a hot meal and the right to sling his hammock outside of the restaurant for the night. He became an expert drug dealer who sold cocaine, weed or sleeping pills to newly arrived tourists, eager to explore the real South America and the joys of being high on cheap drugs. Mangon knew the dangers for a gringo trying to buy drugs from locals, but as he spoke fluent Spanish and always hung around drug pushers, it was rare that someone tried to roll him. He rented a room in one of the tourist guesthouses mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide, traded or stole a few good books and sat most of the day in front of his room, reading and getting high. It was obvious to even the greenest gringo that this was a guy who knew about drugs. Every day he was approached by groups of young teenagers from the US or Europe who asked him where to buy the cheapest coke and the best weed. Mangon knew the street corners and dark alleys where he met his suppliers and, when asked, pointed the drug-curious kids in that direction, adding that it might not be a bad idea if they brought their gun with them. Realising in an instant the danger of buying drugs in South America the college teens and newly arrivals would naturally ask him if he wouldn’t have anything to sell them. Mangon always had stock and even he charged fifteen dollars instead of one for a gram of coke, which he had nicely pre-packed in tiny, artfully folded paper envelopes which he kept in between the pages of the book he was currently reading. All of his buyers expressed outrage when they heard his price, but Mangon’s only answer was, “Then go outside and buy the shit yourself.” It was a persuasive argument which they accepted. Most of them only bought one package of coke or good weed, but he knew that they would come back. All he had to do was to sit, read and wait for them.
The small fire he lit from the little wood he managed to find during the day had died out and, with temperatures dropping under the freezing point, Mangon crawled deeper into his sleeping bag, closing it over his head. He knows that he will survive the short night despite the icy temperatures before continuing his walk to the Tabo monastery. Scrunched up in the darkness of the sleeping bag with the hostile surroundings closed off from him, he feels a bit like an embryo, protected in the womb of a mother. It is hard for him to recall now the early years of his childhood which were never a happy one. At one point he just could not bear the life at his parent’s home any longer and he ran away without keeping up any contact.
He knows that he could never possibly go back to a life his parents have envisioned for him, a life in which he would have finished university, would have met a sweet innocent girl, married her and bred kids for his parents to play with whenever they felt like it, spoiling them with sweets and gifts out of guilt for the many cruelties that had inflicted upon him. Mangon never held a steady job nor would receive any pension upon retiring. A life exhausted in front of a TV screen in an obese body, fattened by decades of fast food and worn out by work. He would die with his shoes on, maybe on the side of the road with a body riddled by bullets, shredded by knives or thrown off a train.
Mangon begins to realise that his life up to this point has been an escape, an escape from everything he knew, from his home, family and country, but he never managed to run away fast enough to escape from himself.
Who is he?
He is still the young rebel his parents had witnessed in horror growing up, then he became a vagabond and streetwise. He learned to survive under the harshest conditions, dragging his body along, from country to country, an endless journey without a destination.
He knows that he cannot not run away from himself. He knows that instead of escaping in new adventures and drugs, the time has come for him to face himself, to finally find an answer to the one question he always asks himself.
Soon Mangon drifts off into a deep and short sleep, waking up at five o’clock with his body shivering. He lights the gas stove and makes some tea the way the son of the innkeeper in Kaza taught him, adding a big slice of frozen butter and a bit of salt. This brew will give him the power to walk the rest of the distance, reaching the safety of the monastery before the mountains get angry, a story the villagers told.
After three o’clock in the afternoon the gods don’t want to be disturbed and, to discourage travellers, they rain down rocks onto the road, which often amount to dangerous landslides dragging down vehicles and drowning passengers in the icy river below. Hot air rises up creating an air vacuum which results in strong winds blowing over the valley. Because of these strong winds, they move the loose rocks on the mountain top, and they start to fall down, hitting other stones on their way down until there is a landslide. Mangon does not intend to make the gods angry and begins to pack up his few belongings, put on his hiking boots and continues his way in the darkness towards a slowly rising sun.
A few square mud buildings decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, barely discernible from the rocky ground of the narrow Spiti Valley, appear in the distance and the famous over thousand years old Tabo monastery comes into sight. It is surrounded by the bright green glow of a few fields which the villagers had managed to wrestle from nature during the short summer months, when the valley takes a deep breath of life.
Mangon sits down on a rusty oil barrel with white painted stripes on it, a marker of the edge of the road which drops down dangerously steep to the Spiti river ravaging through the narrow valley and signalling the imminent approach of the Himalayan winter, which will seal the whole area off for months. He stills his thirst with the last water and chews hard on a dried chapati, which he brought with him from Kaza. He watches in silence the majestic Himalayan mountains in front of him extending for hundreds of miles eastwards climbing higher and higher towards Mount Everest whose summit marks the border between Tibet and Nepal.
The sun has already reached the highest point on the zenith when Mangon reaches his destination. Tabo monastery is nothing more than a few stone houses but is the oldest Buddhist monastery in India and an important study centre for young monks. It is the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama intends to live out his final years in silent meditation. Generations of villagers lived in this small valley the same way they survived hundreds of years ago, isolated from the rest of the world, cut off by road, under deep snow during heavy winters which could last for as long as eight months.
Only one guest house and one overpriced hotel, called Hotel Grand Dewachen, with prices only rich travellers can afford, are the only accommodations in this remote area, but Mangon knows from other travellers that it is possible to stay in the monastery. He hopes to make contact with his first Tibetan monks there, some who have risked the dangerous flight into exile from Tibet.
Mangon finishes his short break and begins to descend towards the village, passing by piles of stones with prayer flags that travellers erect to pray to the gods for a safe passage or to protect their homes from evil spirits. In front of the entrance to the monastery, surrounded entirely by a mud and stone wall, are a few young monks, all boys between six and thirteen, kicking up dust, while chasing after a ragged football. They briefly interrupt their game and stare at Mangon, not expecting the arrival of a tourist after word about the bridge collapse reached the Abbott, who informed the assembly of monks and lamas during their early morning prayer.
A thirteen-year-old monk, dusty and dirty from head to toe, runs over to Mangon and introduces himself as Yeshe. He adjusts his red monk robe, which is flung over and knotted around his waist for the football game, before inviting him inside. They cross several tidy courtyards and duck through low gates, pass old temples whose scarce beige coloured walls hid hundreds of years old Buddhist treasures, walk by the relatively new assembly hall and monk quarters before Yeshe unlocks the bolted door of the tiny monastery guesthouse already closed in anticipation for the coming winter.
“You only tourist,” he informs Mangon in rough English. “You can stay here but pay money or stay my room for free. I like foreign people. I like to learn English better. You help me?”
Mangon did not expect such wonderful hospitality and accepts gladly, immediately feeling that this could be the beginning of a friendship with the young monk in his dirty robes and a head which needs a proper shaving.
“I am happy to stay with you,” he answers.
Yeshe leads him around the back of the monastery where currently thirty-five monks live together in small dormitories or occupy simple single cells, a privilege usually reserved for older students. He proudly opens the small wooden door into a bare room with only a small bed, consisting of only a few wooden planks with a thin bamboo mat and a blue sleeping bag on it on.
“Gift from Canada friend,” Yeshe says, pointing at the sleeping bag. “You sleep on bed, I sleep floor. I don’t mind cold, I am Tibetan!” he exclaims with a broad smile on his face.
Spotting a calendar with the image of his holiness on the wall, Mangon shouts out, “Long live the Dalai Lama!”
“Pssst. Quiet please,” Yeshe advises him, holding his finger over his lips. “Monks studying and Abbott maybe not like that you staying in room. But if he not know, no problem.”
He laughs while Mangon drops his backpack onto the stomped mud floor.
“How long you stay?” Yeshe asks.
“Don’t know. It all depends if winter arrives before I can continue. Then I might have to stay in your room until spring time,” Mangon jokes.
“Always welcome in my room. We can become friend and you teach me English very well,” Yeshe replies excitedly.
“I plan to be in Hoshiapur in two weeks to find the legendary palm leaf library,” Mangon explains to the clueless Yeshe, “but let’s see! Show me around the monastery!”
To Mangon’s surprise, Yeshe takes his hand and leads him out of the monks quarters. Two males walking, holding hands is not an unfamiliar sight in India where it is a gesture of a puritan friendship, a show of deep affection between two friends and not merely a sign of an intimate relationship like in the west. Mangon realises that it has been years since he walked hand in hand with a boy. He remembers Nicky, who must have been the same age Yeshe is today. But this contact feels different and is for Mangon a warm welcome to the mystical world of Tibetan Buddhism which he vows to experience in its totality.
Yeshe’s tasks consist of studying every day the wise words of Buddha, which means memorising endless prayers in Tibetan, a task he finds infinitely boring; guiding tourists around the monastery and explaining to them in proper English the history and importance of the Tabo monastery, a monologue which he learned by heart and begins to recite to a fascinated Mangon who is eager to find out more about this holy place.
“Tabo monastery was founded in 996 which is the year of Fire Monkey for Tibetan people,” he starts. “The great Rinchen Zangpo, a famous Tibetan Buddhist translator and king of the Himalaya Kingdom of Guge founded this monastery which is now the oldest Buddhist monastery in India and Tibet. Our monastery has a priceless collection of thankas and manuscripts and many statues of deity and gods and there some big murals on almost every temple wall.”
“But some already quite old and not in good shape because of raining too much and Abbott doesn’t have money to repair,” he adds, remembering that one of the reasons for the sightseeing tour was to collect donations from wealthy tourists.
“In 1975,” Yeshe explains, “a big strong earthquake destroyed the monastery almost completely but many monks who worked very hard and rebuilt it. They made also the new Du-kang, our assembly hall. Two times already in 1983 and 1996, his holiness the Dalai Lama came to Tabo to make secret Kalachakra ceremony.” He proudly shows Mangon a small medallion with the picture of the Dalai Lama on it that he wears on a leather string around his neck. “I love him very much,” Yeshe says with big glowing eyes.
“Did you ever meet him?” Mangon inquires.
“Yes, already two times!” he answers, excited. “First time I don’t remember as I was still a young baby after my parents brought me to the monastery, when I was three. Second time he come for secret meeting with his friend, our Abbott, and gave me blessings.” Yeshe remembers and bursts out laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” Mangon asks.
“He told me to be good boy and not make the Abbott angry always.” Yeshe tells Mangon and continues to tell him with a smile. “I am sometimes naughty monk. The Abbott has car before. Very nice car. Old car, but look strong and can drive fast. I like cars very much, but only one monk is allowed to drive the Abbott’s car. I ask him if he will teach me how to drive but he says that I have to be older and ask permission from Abbott.
“I know he will not allow me to drive his car as my study is not very good and I often fall asleep during prayer. It’s too boring sometimes and I am too tired.” Yeshe’s face lights up.
“What happened to the car?” Mangon asks.
“One day it was park behind monastery. I go and have a look and see that Tenzin Lama forgot key inside. I think nobody will see me and I start the car. I don’t know how to drive. I press down my foot but the car was not moving. So I try all pedals and suddenly the beast wake up. It go faster and faster. I don’t know how to make it go slow again. Then it crashed into the house of Tenzin Jigme and a window and part of the wall came falling down on the car. The car was badly broken and I have broken arm and lots of blood coming from my face.”
He shows Mangon small scars on his forehead.
“The Abbott was very angry with me and he give me severe punishment. He said I have to take care guesthouse and show tourists our monastery. And he told me to do a lot of prayers, as I created lots of bad karma when stealing and crashing his car.”
“Twoccing,” Mangon blurs out. “You did a joy ride!”
“Joy riding?” Yeshe repeats slowly, trying to remember the term. “What does it mean?”
“It means that you take someone’s car and trash it after riding it around for fun.”
They both giggle.
“Now you are my English teacher….joy ri-di-ng,” he repeats and both laugh about Yeshe’s unique pronunciation.
Mangon and Yeshe spend the whole afternoon together. Yeshe shows his friend nine temples, four decorated stupas and points towards “too many cave shrines in the hills around the monastery.” Mangon talks with Yeshe about his hometown Pittsburgh, which Yeshe pronounces as “Pissburgh” to the delight of Mangon. The afternoon goes by quickly with talks about baseball, fast cars, “Lam-boa-gini” and Yeshe’s demand for Mangon to try to recall the names of over a hundred TV channels in his childhood home from memory, an impossible task.
“You have travelled a lot,” Yeshe states. “When I am finished study I also want to travel too and see USA and South America and Europe. I want to see the whole world!”
With the sun disappearing behind the high mountain range and the cold evening winds beginning to descend into the valley, Mangon’s stomach sends out a loud alarm reminding him that he hasn’t eaten all day.
“When is dinner?” he asks.
“Dinner is in the big hall after the evening prayer.”
“And when does the evening prayer end?” Mangon inquires carefully.
“I don’t know,” Yeshe laughs, “I don’t have watch.”
“You will hear big gong,” Yeshe adds.
Yeshe can see from Mangon’s face that his answer did satisfy Mangon whose hunger has made him feel dizzy.
“You come with me, we go to kitchen and see if we can get something there,” he suggests.
Mangon finds himself in a smoke-filled kitchen with only a tiny window. There is a big cauldron filled with water, blackened from brick tea, hanging from a metal over a strong fire. An old woman emerges out of the shadow in the corner, slowly shuffling through the dark room in shoes made of sheep skin, carrying a small bag of wheat. Yeshe begins to speak to her in Tibetan using a loud voice, as the old cook was hard of hearing. After what sounds like grumpy complaints to Mangon, Yeshe gestures to sit down on the tiny kitchen table laden with bowls full of strange ingredients and herbs.
“She will make some tea and momos for us,” he says, clearing away some stuff on the table.
“I love momos, tried them once in a guesthouse in Delhi,” Mangon replies.
“Pema-ma cooks real Tibetan momos,” Yeshe points out, while the old woman sits down two bowls of steaming hot soup in which a few perfectly done momos swim.
She returns to the table holding two metal cups with a strong smelling brew which she has dipped from the cauldron over the fire. Yeshe, noticing the disgusted look on Mangon’s face when the strong smell of rancid butter creeps up his nose, encourages him, “Drink. It’s good. It’s butter tea made of yak milk.”
Mangon knows from his chemistry lessons in school that the acid in rancid butter was the same as in human vomit and smells terrible. He peers suspiciously at the beige coloured liquid before lifting it to his mouth, blowing a bit to cool it down and defuse the bad smell and then takes a first careful sip.
It tastes stranger than anything Mangon has ever tasted before, but something deep within him is exalted and excited, stimulated by the strangeness of the taste, like a long forgotten memory which suddenly bubbles up to the surface.
“I can get used to it!” he exclaims with a smile on his face.
“Every Tibetan drinks it especially during cold winter,” Yeshe informs him.
The old woman stands beside the table quietly listening to the conversation between the two but doesn’t understand a word.
“What is the foreigner saying about my tea?” she asks Yeshe in Tibetan.
“The foreigner dear Ma says that your butter tea stinks like Lama Rinpon’s piss,” Yeshe replies laughing.
Pema grabs a nearby broomstick and hits Yeshe over and over on his back while hurling insults in Tibetan.
“I am sorry! I am sorry Pema-ma,” he apologises, adding, “Pema’s tea is the best from Tabo until even in the Potala.”
“Stop speaking such a nonsense,” the cook scolds him.
“Tell the foreigner that my family makes tea for this honourable monastery for many generations. His Holiness always asks for a second cup,” she reveals proudly.
Yeshe begins to translate.
“We use only highest quality tea leaves which are brought in from Sikkim and Darjeeling, the same one’s the British brought from China.”
“It’s not an easy task to get the tea just right,” she adds. “It’s a long process.”
“Will you teach me how to make good butter tea?” Mangon asks.
“No one has ever asked me to reveal this old family secret. You must cook it saying the holy mantra,”she begins before chanting in a murmured voice, “Om mani padme hum. This is the mantra our lord Buddha has given us. It’s important to say it with love and compassion in your heart.”
“OM MANI PADME HUM,” Mangon repeats.
“Good…good.” She nods, satisfied.
“The tea has to boil for at least half a day,” she adds, pointing to the cauldron over the fireplace.
“My father and before him his father have used it to prepare butter tea for the monks.”
She crosses the kitchen shuffling into the storeroom, from which she emerges moments later carrying a strange looking wooden cylinder with a long stick.
“I use butter from my brother’s yaks, take a piece of rock salt and pour hot the dark brown tea over it, right here into the …” She calls Yeshe over, “Come and show the foreigner.”
Yeshe, not happy about Pema’s order, but not daring to oppose her, stands up slowly and begins to churns butter by gripping the long stick with both hands and moving it up and down with slow movements under the watchful eye of the cook.
“When it turns thick like oil and the colour is a bit purplish then the butter tea is ready,” she explains.
Yeshe begins to move the long stick faster and faster, up and down in the wooden cylinder.
“You can stop now, Yeshe,” she orders him.
Yeshe ignores her and continues to stir even faster and begins make obscene noises while laughing wildly.
“Oh! You… you unholy devil! Stop at once or I make you!” she shouts at him.
The boys hold their bellies while laughing and Pema carries the butter tea cylinder back into safety.
“You are very naughty,” Mangon mocks Yeshe, “We are similar.”
“Same as you?” Yeshe grunts. “Impossible! Lama Yeshe is the naughtiest in all of Spiti Valley,” he says.
“Let’s go back to your room and wait there until evening prayer,” Mangon suggests.
As they walk, a strange calming sound, a cacophony of murmured prayers and low pitched throat singing flows from the mouths of the monks who sit in rows in the ancient Tsug Lhakhang, the Great Assembly Hall, filling it with intense vibrations permeating Mangon’s whole body and pacifying his mind. He is fascinated by this dark and dramatic place, with only a little light entering through small ceiling windows directly over the main altar, by the big number of very old statues and paintings covering almost every wall, a semi dark space where every form dissolves into each other, filled with vibrations of countless generations of monks, who have spent their days here in peaceful meditation and prayer.
He learns later from Yeshe that while all the monks abide to the same simple basic rhythm in their prayer, it’s up to each individual monk to say the prayer he wishes by going out and coming in on certain parts, using their voices to inflect sound and create thus a syncopate of many sounds merged together in an always unique and new oneness.
Dinner is taken together in the dining hall and consists of tsampa which is basically roasted barley or wheat flour. It is the Tibetan form of convenience food for many sherpas, nomads and travellers who venture through the Himalayas. The preparation is fairly easy: leave a bit of butter tea at the bottom of your bowl and add a big spoonful of tsampa, stir it gently with the forefinger, then knead it with one hand, while twisting your bowl round and round until one ends up with a large dumpling like object which is washed down with even more butter tea.
Mangon peeks over at the young apprentice monks who stuff little bite-sized portions of tsampa into their mouths. All Mangon is able to produce is a semi-liquid paste which sticks to his fingers—a clear sign he is lacking the high degree of manual dexterity and daily practice of getting the tsampa just perfectly right to form neither a lump of desiccated dough nor a soup of butter tea. Yeshe who witnesses his friend’s dilemma helps out by tossing a few perfectly rolled tsampa balls from the other side of the table into Mangon’s food bowl. Some land on the robes of an astonished young monk to the laughter of the whole table.
“Silence,” an authoritative voice of the beloved old Abbott warns the monks, who immediately halt their laughter and continue their meal in silent concentration.
Not long after dinner, back at Yeshe’s room, Mangon begins to yawn, feeling the tiredness of his aching body overwhelming him. Soon he is sound asleep in his sleeping bag on the bed. Yeshe extinguishes the sparse flame of the yak butter lamp and curls up in his sleeping bed on the floor, happy having met a new friend.
It is still dark outside when Mangon is awoken up by the noise of Yeshe getting dressed in the dark and falling over his backpack before rushing out of the room. Mangon, who is still tired, is happy being able to drift back to sleep.
“Where did you go this morning,” Mangon asks his friend later while they enjoy a simple breakfast made of rice soup and butter tea.
“That’s another one of the Abbott’s punishments for me,” Yeshe sighs, “Every morning at 4 am for a full year I have to say prayers.”
Mangon is curious. “Why not just stay in your room and pray there?” he asks.
“Can’t…I have to do it in the secret temple…to protect the monastery from harm,” Yeshe explains.
Now Mangon’s senses sound an alarm. “A secret temple?” he asks. “Didn’t you show me all the temples yesterday?”
Yeshe’s face shows that he is not comfortable to answer this question and reluctantly adds, “All temples are for everyone to pray, but only people who are protected by a special prayer are allowed to enter the Gon-khang.”
“What is so secret about a temple?” Mangon asks, unable to hide his curiosity.
“I can’t tell you, it’s a secret!” Yeshe says.
“Come on, my friend, I won’t tell anyone!”
“No, I can’t. The Abbott forbids me to speak with anyone about it and he is very serious about it.”
“Did you ever hear of someone dying when trying to enter the temple?” Mangon asks, anticipating the answer.
“No, but nobody would be so foolish and not obey the rules. And now let’s go. I want show you the caves in the mountains, where many lamas have meditated.”
“Secret caves!” Yeshe adds, before running off.
With no showers or running water available in the whole monastery, Mangon suggests they take a dip into a small side arm of the river close by the monastery. Yeshe, who has a strong dislike to the idea of swimming in ice cold water simply cannot understand why Mangon has a need to wash his body as he is, in his eyes, completely clean, compared to himself who hasn’t seen a bath in over two months.
“You are dirty and you smell,” Mangon tells Yeshe, “You need a shower.”
“I will take one in spring time, when the tourists come again,” Yeshe answers sniffing his arms. “No need to smell good if nobody comes to visit and if no lady is around,” he jokes.
“That’s not right,” Mangon scolds him in a tone a big brother would use.
“You can be a poor monk with no girlfriend but at least you should be a clean monk. Come now, let’s go to the river.”
Knowing his friend already so well that he knows Mangon won’t stop nagging him, Yeshe agrees to come along as he doesn’t want to see him drowning in the strong river currents.
“I know a good place for you to take a bath,” he tells Mangon.
“You mean for us to go for a swim,” Mangon corrects.
“Water is cold…” Yeshe tries to voice a last protest.
“I don’t care, we are taking a bath and wash our cloth, that’s it. End of the discussion.”
Yeshe leads Mangon to a secluded spot where the river has filled up a natural rock basin a few days earlier when the water level was high. The scenery of this bath is stunning, set in front of a panorama of high mountains standing out in a bright blue sky and a wild raging river behind, it is the favourite place where villagers and monks come together for an ice-cold bath. As the day is still early, nobody is around. Mangon strips naked and wades into the pool.
“Fuck! It’s fucking freezing!” he shouts out in a painful voice to Yeshe who still hopes to avoid a bath.
“I told you, it’s too cold to bath, we should wait for spring time,” he says.
“No way! Come in, chicken!” Mangon mocks him.
“I am no chicken, just not stupid to get cold,” Yeshe says, defending himself.
“Chicken! Scared chicken!” Mangon keeps on mocking Yeshe while lifting his elbows up and down, imitating a hen.
“Ok, I am coming!” Yeshe concedes and begins slowly to take off his dirt stained monk robes and wades into the icy water.
Encouraged by Mangon’s cold water splashes, Yeshe dives into the cold water and returns the attack. Soon the two boys jump around and play like wild children, enjoying the moment. Yeshe, to Mangon’s surprise has brought soap with him and soon they help each other out rubbing each other’s back and sitting side by side on the edge of the small pool, washing their clothes and leaving them out to dry on big boulders which the early afternoon sun has warmed up. The arrival of the freezing cold and strong three o’clock winds bring with it dark Monsoon clouds, which push them in from the west, from the Indian lowlands, bringing them back into the relative comfort of Pema’s kitchen whose butter tea warms them up instantly.
Shortly before the evening prayers, the heavy rain sets in. A rain unlike any Mangon has ever experienced despite living for months in tropical rain forests of the Amazon river basin. Hour after hour, a massive a wall of water comes pouring down onto the thousand-year-old monastery liquefying mud walls, slipping through the roofs, slowly creeping down walls with hundreds of ancient painted Buddha images. Every temple, the dormitory and even the Abbott ‘s quarters are soon soaked with rain water. A small wall near Pema’s kitchen collapses while the courtyard in front of the assembly hall turns, to the delight of the young apprentice monks, into a mud bath. Rain continues to fall during the whole next day until the Abbott invokes an ancient rain deity to stop the downpour and surprisingly just one hour later the rainfall subsides and brings back a cloudless sky. The sun turns the whole monastery into a humid soaked mud mess which will take weeks to dry out again completely. Winter begins to lull Spiti into the start of a long, cold and deep sleep. Mangon wears his sheep skin pullover even in the sleeping bag while Yeshe freezes in an old anorak, a gift from another friendly tourist. With nothing much to do in the evenings, they soon crawl into their sleeping bags and drift off.
As usual, Yeshe gets up at four in the early morning, almost trips over the butter lamp and drags himself, still half asleep, to perform his daily prayer in the secret temple, which is also called the “Temple of Horror,” as Mangon has found out. He follows the shine of the lamp, unseen by his tired friend, who unlocks the solid red wood door with a big key he wears around his neck and disappears into the darkness inside.
Mangon waits impatiently in front of the gate into the “Temple of Horror” until he hears the familiar voice of Yeshe murmuring in a fast pace the daily prayer of protection. Mangon knows that Yeshe will spot him immediately upon entering, but is confident that his friend will not dare to interrupt the prayer to his fearful deities and gods.
He enters in almost complete darkness, the silhouette of his friend sitting cross legged in front of a prayer book and the flame of the butter lamp dancing beside. With horror Yeshe discovers the intruder and motions him to leave gesturing with hands holding a dorje, the symbol of the thunderbolt of the gods and an old bell. Mangon responds with a broad grin and sits down in the centre of the tiny temple, surrounded by darkness. Yeshe threatens to strike Mangon with the thunderbolt and continues to recite the prayers with an even faster pace.
Mangon feels a strange and powerful energy, unlike anything he has ever experienced before when shamans and witch doctors performed their ceremonies. The energy which he senses is not calm and peaceful, but wild and mysterious like being surrounded by savage beasts. Mangon takes out a torchlight from underneath his pullover and turns it on.
“No!!” Yeshe hisses before resuming his prayers with an eye on Mangon who begins to shine his torch around the temple. What he discovers is unlike anything he has expected. Shamanic masks with cruel animal faces, angry looking deities, fierce gods and demons with broad grimaces seem to unload their wrath upon everyone who set eyes upon them. The protectress deity of the monastery, along with her retinue, stare at the intruder from a large panel on the east wall of the main entrance.
No wonder they call it the ‘Temple of Horror’, he thinks.
Apart from the scary masks on the walls and a small altar, there is not much in the room, apart from an old, heavy wooden cupboard, a pile of dirty cloth, a few ceremonial items like candle holders and very ancient thankas, which have accumulated centuries of dust.
That’s the real stuff, Mangon thinks, that’s why I came into this remote area.
Yeshe finishes his hurried prayer, jumps up and demands Mangon in a hushed voice to leave the temple so that he can lock up again, hoping nobody has noticed the uninvited intruder.
“Just a moment,” Mangon says, “Look! Everything is completely soaked in water.”
Yeshe is in a state of slight panic and does not listen.
“Come on, I don’t want anyone telling the Abbott,” he insists.
“Just look!” Mangon says, pointing his flashlight at the dripping wet protective deity of the Gelukpa sect which has suffered considerable damage from the recent strong rain.
“Even the old thankas are completely wet. If we don’t take them in the sun to dry, they will be completely destroyed.”
Yeshe steps closer to inspect the wall and agrees with Mangon.
“You are right. I will tell the Abbott after the morning prayer, but for now, let’s get out of here!”
He locks up the entrance, hides the key under his cloth and they crawl back into their sleeping bags until it is time for the morning prayers. Yeshe informs the Abbott ,who is busy organising repairs of the leakage on the roof of the assembly hall, about the rain damage at the Gon-khang temple.
The Abbott, worried after hearing about the damage which threatens a Unesco World Heritage temple, accepts Yeshe’s suggestion to take out everything to dry in the afternoon sun.
“Tell your foreign friend to be careful. Many of the relicts are very old and fragile,” he tells a stunned Yeshe.
“I am sorry,” he apologises in a low voice, but the Abbott turns and leaves.
“I am damned, he knows,” Yeshe says to himself.
“What did the Abbott answer?” Mangon asks.
“Just that you should be careful when helping me,” a perplexed Yeshe replies.
“Cool, then let’s do it!”
“Now?” Yeshe asks, hoping he can return to sleep for another hour.
“Yes, why not,” Mangon encourages him. “Come on! It will be fun.”
The light of the morning sun has just began to peak over the mountain and shines through the wide open door of the Gon-khang temple, soothing the horror of last night and bathing the temple with its warm light. Ancient masks and statues, dirty with wet dust, replace gruesome fierce dancing deities who cursed the nightly intruder. They look like spirits and gods of the ancient Bon religion which is said to anticipate even early Buddhism and is still very much practiced by locals and in secret even in some monasteries. Mangon and Yeshe begin to carry out old monk robes, soaked in mud and water, all kind of cushions, prayer books and other religious dorje and bells, and lay them out to dry on the stones in the courtyard which slowly heat up in the strengthening rays of the morning sun. Mangon finds a small square shaped red carpet embroiled on all sides with little frays.
“What is this carpet for?” he asks his friend.
“I can’t tell you,” is Yeshe’s answer.
“If you can’t tell me then surely it means that I can sit on it,” says Mangon and sits down on the small red carpet on the floor.
“Get up! Get up now!” Yeshe shouts in panic, fearing that once more the Abbott will hear about it.
“Please, my friend, get up and I tell you about the carpet,” he reasons with Mangon who agrees, stands up and waits for Yeshe’s explanation.
“It was used for levitation…a long time ago,” he says in a hushed tone.
“Levitation? You mean it’s a flying carpet?!” Mangon asks.
“It’s not the carpet which can fly,” Yeshe throws in, “but some high lamas in the past who have acquired certain powers through their meditation.”
“…but did you see a flying monk yourself?” Mangon interrupts him.
“No, of course not,” Yeshe says, “the Abbott doesn’t teach these things at the monastery.”
“Then why is this carpet here?” Mangon inquires.
“It must have belonged to one of those wandering lamas of the past who use to walk around the Himalayas and visit our monastery from time to time. They are powerful sorcerers who know all kinds of magic.”
Mangon is fascinated. “Did you ever meet one of them?”
“Once, when I was still very little, maybe eight or nine years old. The Abbott told all novice monks to come together in the assembly hall. He said that a high lama would visit our monastery and maybe choose one of us to come with him. He told us that those lamas follow a rare practiced form of tantra which is extremely dangerous and can kill anyone who is not ready for it.”
“Wow! What kind of tantra is this?” Mangon inquires.
“I don’t know,” says Yeshe, “He did not choose me! But what Lama Tensing told me about it is that it is some secret form of ancient tantra which only a few chosen ones can be initiated in. It’s a form of tummo where they use the body’s life energy to warm up your body and learn all kind of siddhis.”
“Siddis? What’s that?” Mangon asks.
“It’s a yogi’s magic powers,” Yeshe explains while walking back into the temple room, which is now almost cleared out.
Mangon follows, urging him to reveal more. “Tell me more about those magic powers.”
“I don’t know…all kind of magic powers. Some lama can see into the future or heal, some can fly and cast powerful spells and when they die they can do it while sitting in the lotus pose and their bodies remain. They don’t die and their bodies don’t rot. It’s spooky stuff and dangerous.”
The Abbott warned us not to practice any of these things without guidance of a guru.”
“Did that magic lama choose a boy when he came into the monastery?” Mangon asks.
“I am uncomfortable telling you secrets of the monastery,” Yeshe says. “You are still a layman and not a monk, “Still… I know you will not stop pestering me.
“We were all sitting very still together in meditation when he arrived. He was wearing monk robes but the folds on his robe did not match the any of the four big sects.”
He points at his robe and shows what he means. “The way it is folded indicates which sect you belong. I took my vows and found refuge with the Gelukpa sect, that’s why I wear my skirt folded like this.
“But that high lama didn’t seem to belong to any sect and his hair was very long, all the way down to his shoulders. He carried only a small pouch but no sleeping bag or stove. Not even food. They say that during the winter he does not eat at all. He uses pranic energy to survive and can do all kinds of powerful things.”
“Wow, that’s awesome. I want to meet one of those guys!” Mangon exclaims in excitement.
“You can’t meet those lamas. They live high up the mountain plateau and cross freely between the borders of Tibet, Nepal and India on their journeys. Only every few years one might come by to our monastery.”
“What happened to the boy, which was chosen by the lama?” Mangon wants to know.
“I don’t know. He went with the lama and we have never heard from him again.”
“What do you think that lama will teach him?” Mangon asks.
“How should I know?” Yeshe says, “I only know of tales which say that those high lamas will test their apprentices hard. They will take them on their journeys which often lead them high up the mountains. If the young monk survives, then the lama will find a cave for him and instruct him in special tantras. He has to do a lot of prostrations and tapas, all kind of stuff.”
“You mean the boy will live alone in a cave?” Mangon was shocked about the toughness of the training.
“Yes, sometimes up to ten years until he is ready to come out. If he survives it. Then he might have gained enough wisdom, the same Lord Buddha had realised and taught, but that’s the hard core way. Not sure I can do it. I am too lazy.” Yeshe giggles.
“Ten years until enlightenment?” Mangon inquires.
“That’s what they say. But not everyone is able to follow that path. It’s very rare and one must have had good karma in a past life. The boy was my friend and a good football player. We should play football this afternoon!” he says, excitedly.
“Yeah, why not,” Mangon replies.
“I will get some hay and we can spread it out on the floor so it dries up. Then we can go and play football!” Yeshe pushes.
“What about that cupboard?” Mangon asks and points to a heavy wooden cupboard which once was clean white, but is now covered over and over by a thick dust which the heavy rain has turned into a paste of dark, sticky dirt.
“Far too heavy,” Yeshe says, “It will break if we carry it out and then the Abbott will have a reason to be angry with me again.”
Mangon ignores Yeshe’s concerns and begins to inspect the empty cupboard with his torchlight.
“We can move it together,” he says.
“No way!” answers Yeshe and leaves the temple.
Mangon, not a bit discouraged, sticks the torchlight in between his teeth and grabs the old cupboard to move it away from the wall. It is much heavier than he expected and gives away a suspicious squeaking sound indicating it might crash any second.
Mangon’s muscles only manage to move the heavy wooden cabinet a few inches away from the wall when instinctively he can’t resist the strange urge to stick his hand into the dark gap. Something in him knows that there is something hidden behind that cupboard.
He takes the torchlight out of his mouth and shines it into the narrow gap between the back of the cupboard and the wall.
Indeed! There is a small opening in the wall. He tries but cannot get a better look. He uses all his power once more to move the cupboard a bit further away from the wall and sticks his hand into the gap.
He feels something.
His fingers tough a big round object.
He grabs it and squeezes his hand back out the narrow gap.
A conch shell, richly decorated with silver ornaments and a few stones lies in his hand.
Almost like in a trancelike state he goes outside to the courtyard, sits down on the red carpet and blows away centuries of dust.
The morning sun shines brightly on the big old conch shell. It has a mouthpiece and the opening is worked in massive silver which had turned black over time. On it is a roughly shaped green turquoise and some red coral cabs are set.
Mangon puts the conch shell to his mouth and blows in as hard as he can manage.
A sort of farting noise and a lot of dust emerges from the shell but its sound is enough to make Yeshe, who has just been piling up hay in the courtyard, look at him.
“I told you not to sit on the carpet!” he shouts at Mangon while running towards him.
Mangon doesn’t answer and stretches out his arms to show Yeshe his discovery.
“A Dkung-Dkar! Where did you find that?”
Mangon tells his friend about the opening he has discovered behind the cupboard. Yeshe, completely forgetting that Mangon is still sitting on the magic carpet, becomes excited. “This is one of the holy treasures of our lord Buddha!” he gasps. “This is very precious. We must tell the Abbott immediately about it!”
“Can you play it?” Mangon asks.
“I know how to make a sound, but it’s very old and surely very precious, I don’t dare,” Yeshe replies.
“Oh, come on! I want to hear it,” Mangon says.
To prevent another attempt from Mangon trying to blow the conch shell himself, Yeshe holds it up, murmurs a quick prayer, pumps his lungs full of air and blows into the Dkung-Dkar.
A long, monotonous and gentle vibrating sound begins to flow from the conch shell, filling up the empty courtyard of the Tabo monastery with its intense and warm energy. A sound which hasn’t been heard for a very long time, a time when the shamans of the Bon religion, long before the arrival of Buddhism, used shells to call the spirits to help grow cattle and plants and to banish evil spirits causing illness and destruction.
The sound alerts several monks who find Mangon and Yeshe in the court yard staring at them from a distance.
“What should we do now?” Mangon, who has jumped up from the carpet when he saw monks appearing in the courtyard, asks.
“We have to bring it to the Abbott immediately or he will scold me if I play around with it,” Yeshe answers.
A dozen monks have approached them and gather around the two friends, taking turns holding the conch shell, admiring its beauty and simple dignity.
“It could be even a thousand years old and Master Rinchen Zangpo might have used it,” a monk comments.
“Maybe it has something to do with the prophecy,” another chimes in.
“What prophecy?” Yeshe asks.
“Better ask the Abbott about it,” the monk replies, then adds, “I overheard him once talking about it a few days ago when news arrived of the bridge collapse.”
The Abbott arrives a few minutes later at the courtyard being informed that something extraordinary happened in the Gon-khang temple and asks Yeshe about the details of the incident. While Yeshe briefs him about the find, he glances at Mangon who holds the conch shell in his hands. They walk with the Abbott into the Temple of Horror and point out the exact spot where Mangon found the relict.
The Abbott instructs monks to remove the cupboard from the wall, which collapses at the attempt and sends a big cloud of dust into the air. The small opening in the wall does not contain anything else, but reveals that during the construction or during one of the many renovations of this temple, a secret hiding place had been made to conceal a sacred object.
The Abbott turns to Mangon and tells him in surprisingly good English,
“Today is a very auspicious day for our monastery. You have indeed discovered a treasure. I would like to speak with you in my private study before the evening prayer.”
“I will be there,” a perplexed Mangon replies.
After the crowd leaves, Mangon and Yeshe sit outside in the courtyard and lean their backs against the temple wall which has heated up in the midday sun. They sit in silence for a while until Yeshe asks, “So no football game today?”
“Sure, why not?” Mangon replies. “Let’s wait until the sun has dried the old stuff and then we will clean out the hay from the temple. Once we have put all the stuff back in, we can have a game and I will show you the power of my football skills!”
Yeshe rejoices at this idea, leaps onto his feet and tries to drag Mangon up.
“Come on, let’s finish this quickly, then we can play longer. I am Diego Yeshe Maradona. Feel my might!”
The afternoon passes quickly, leaving a handful of novice monks and Mangon covered from head to toe in dust and dirt. Despite Yeshe’s protests they take another quick bath in the river, knowing it’s better to arrive clean to the Abbott ‘s invitation.
Mangon tries hard to sit in a perfect lotus posture while waiting silently in the study for the arrival of the Abbott, but pain in his knees forces him to kneel in a more comfortable position. Geshe Sonar Wangdui is the lead lama of the Tabo monastery, enthroned by His Holiness the Dalai Lama with whom he shares a long friendship. The Dalai Lama, who is an incarnation of the God of Compassion, has announced that he will retire to the Tabo monastery to spend the last years of his earthly life meditating upon nirvana before leaving his body, a time the two friends are looking forward to.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama once stated that when he reached ninety he would consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the Tibetan public and other concerned people who follow Buddhism and re-evaluate together with them if the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. The Chinese government has installed an unrecognised 10th Panchen Lama, who traditionally confirms the identity of the next Dalai Lama and insists that it is up to them and not for the Dalai Lama, nor the Tibetan people to decide upon the fifteenth incarnation. Tenzin Gyatse, the present Dalai Lama, said that he would leave clear written instructions of how, in case it is agreed that another incarnation of the Dalai Lama would occur, he can be found and recognised. He reminds the world that no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, despite the People’s Republic of China’s irrational claims for it.
He said once, “Naturally my next life is entirely up to me. No one else. And also this is not a political matter.” Tension Gyatse is known for his sense of humour and even hinted that he might incarnate in the body of a woman. “If a woman reveals herself as more useful, the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form. If the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation is female, she must be very attractive. The reason is so that she will have more influence on others. If she is an ugly female, she won’t be very effective, will she?”
Suddenly the door of the head lama’s office opens and a procession of senior monks and lamas enter, followed by the Abbott who takes his seat in a decorated chair. Mangon is seated directly in front of the Abbott and looks with fascination at the conch shell which looks like a real treasure after the monks have spent all day cleaning it thoroughly.
Yeshe sits down beside him to act as an English translator if needed.
The head lama of the Tabo monastery addresses Mangon directly.
“What is your name, visitor?” he asks in a formal tone.
“My name is Mangon.”
“What is the purpose of your visit to the Tabo monastery?”
Mangon thinks for a while before answering shyly, in a low voice, “I am looking for teachings to find peace in my mind and love in my heart.”
The Abbott seems to be pleased with his answer.
He closes his eyes and meditates a few minutes in silence before continuing to ask.
“Do you want to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha?”
Mangon hesitates and takes his time before answering, carefully choosing his words.
“I don’t know well the way of the Buddha. It would be best for me to live for a while in the community of the Sangha and listen to the teachings of lord Buddha before taking refuge.”
“Very well,” the Abbott says before adding, “Please remain our guest in this monastery for as long as you wish. I heard that Lama Yeshe and you have become friends. Be aware that he is a very wild monk.” He laughs, changing his solemn face.
“Thank you, dear Abbott,” Mangon answers politely.
“There is one more thing I have to inform you, something which might be very important for your future.”
Mangon looks at him astonished.
“There is a prophecy by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He blessed our small monastery with his visit many years ago after strong rains had washed away the old bridge outside of Kaza. He predicted that this bridge would be destroyed in total three times, upon which a blessed soul from a foreign soil would come to the Tabo monastery. Due to auspicious karma in his past he will find a long lost treasure and return it to the monastery. This would be a strong signal that Buddhism is renewing and strengthening.”
Mangon cannot believe what he had just heard and looks around confused. It all sounds so unreal and just too insane to be true.
Who is he after all?
Everyone sits in silence for awhile, but Mangon’s mind is racing with the craziest thoughts.
“If my mind could just be quiet for a minute, it would be the peace I long for so much.” Too many things have happened in such a short time. He had hoped to get in contact with some Tibetan monks to learn about Buddhism and meditation, but now he is sitting face to face with an important head lama of one most influential monasteries in India and who has just revealed to him that he might be someone important after fulfilling a prophecy by the Dalai Lama.
The Abbott senses that Mangon is overwhelmed with the events of the day and informs him the audience is ended, but invites Mangon to attend a very special ceremony in the Gon-khang temple in a few days. Mangon feels honoured and politely accepts the invitation.
The next few days pass quickly. Mangon enjoys the attention he gets from the Sangha. Word spreads about the prophecy and soon villagers ask him to bless their children and call him “white lama” whenever he strolls with his friend Yeshe through the village or explores the meditation caves high above the monastery. He asks Yeshe if he can wear his old set of monk robes. First Yeshe hesitates, but remembering how affectionate the Abbott was towards Mangon, he does not deny him this wish. When it’s time for Yeshe’s tonsure, Mangon asks for his hair to be shaved too. A senior monk shaves off their hair in the courtyard in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. Mangon refuses to have his eyebrows shaved off, but overall he now resembles a monk who has taken refuge in the Buddha.
They observe the preparations for the upcoming ceremony in the Gon-khang temple. There is an air of secrecy among the monks who have sealed off the temple and, to Yeshe’s big relief, even took over the early morning prayer duty. During the evening prayer the Abbott announces that the astrologist, a senior monk who has spent his whole life within the walls of the Tabo monastery, has determined that tonight is an auspicious time for the special ceremony and that he has invited a handful of senior monks to join, while asking the others to come together in the assembly hall and give their support by praying and meditating during this special night.
“What do you think is going to happen tonight?” Mangon asks his friend.
“No idea. It’s the first time that something like this has happened in the ten years I am living here,” he answers.
“What do the other monks say?” Mangon inquires.
“I asked the assistant of the head lama, whom I met when helping with preparations in the temple, but he said that even he is bound by oath and will not reveal anything. Very strange.”
“Guess we will find out soon,” Mangon says.
“Yeah, better get ready,” Yeshe replies. “This afternoon the Abbott from the Key monastery and some high Rinpoches came all the way from McLeod Ganj to attend this ceremony. We should be careful not to screw up,” he adds.
“All right,” says Mangon.
They go back to Yeshe’s room and tidy their monk robes and nervously wait for the gong to summon the monks. The small group of selected senior monks, not more than a dozen, have assembled before the richly decorated entrance of the Gon-khang temple awaiting the arrival of the Abbott and his dignified guests.
The entrance door has been sealed with paper strips and is now cut open by the head lama. Everyone enters the small dark temple which is only lit by a few butter lamps. Mangon is shown a place of honour on a cushion placed in front of what looks like a statue, and has been covered with a richly ornamented cloth.
The Abbott and his guests take their seats on the left and right side of Mangon while the rest of the monks, including Yeshe, cram into the dark back of the small temple room. Soon the silent murmurs of prayers fill the room adding to the spooky atmosphere with grim looking masks and protective deities surrounding them. A few monks begin to play traditional Tibetan instruments which ring bizarre and strange in Mangon’s ears. He feels nervous, a bit insecure and uneasy sitting directly in front of the covered statue, surrounded by important lamas and Rinpoches with no clue what to expect next.
The Abbott stands up and places the Dkung-Dkar, the old conch shell which Mangon found, in front of the covered statue.
Slowly he proceeds towards the back of the statue and lifts the veil.
What happens next is so unexpected, so unbelievable, so insane, and so horrific, that Mangon almost jumps up and wants to flee.
He gasps and cannot believe his eyes.
In front of him sits the perfectly conserved body of a deceased monk who must have died a long time ago.
As he risks a closer look, straining his eyes in the darkness, he realises that it is not a mummy in front of him, but the body of a man wearing monk robes which did not deteriorate after his death.
The monk chants become louder and louder. Offerings are burned and fill the air with smoke, causing Mangon’s head to spin. He feels dizzy. The shock and initial horror begins to subside aided by the warm soothing vibration of the chants which begin to embrace the whole temple.
Who was that guy, he thinks and strains his eyes to get a better look at the body.
He must have been an important lama and lived long time ago, he concludes judging by the colour of the skin which looks like leather. The markings of two ropes have dug deep into the skin without breaking it and are visible on the torso. His hands are held in the form of a mudra, symbolic hand gestures Tibetan monks use during their meditations.
Mangon assumes that this dead monk must have been the previous owner of the Dkung-Dkar, probably a high lama who had left his body while meditating and which was preserved due to the dryness of the high altitude desert. But why would the monastery keep the body of a dead monk? Mangon had read stories of mummified bodies of holy people who are relics for people to worship, a practice which especially Christian religions in the middle ages were keen to use to extract money from naive believers. But he never heard that Tibetans would make efforts to preserve bodies as even important teachers which are usually cremated and a commemorating chorten containing their relics is placed above it.
The singing and humming sound coming from the monks begins to pacify Mangon. He closes his eyes. A strange calmness comes over him, a calmness he has never experienced before. A silence invades, which is a complete absence of his thoughts. He observes himself marvelling in the wonderful peace which he feels pouring stronger and stronger over him. He opens his eyes and studies the body of the monk which looks so much alive…like he just passed away a few hours ago.
The monk seems to have died in a state of complete peace, sitting upright in a perfect lotus posture and a benign face radiating love.
It can’t be!
He can’t believe what he is witnessing.
Slowly, very slowly the eyes of the monk open!
The dead body is actually alive!
Mangon is in shock. Thoughts like “This is impossible” bombard his mind.
He begins to take deep slow breaths and slowly the terror recedes taking with it all thoughts. Peace overcomes him. For the first time in his life he feels truly at peace. He breaths in and breaths out. He is in the here and now with a feeling of perfect happiness and content flowing from his heart. Timelessness has filled up the whole room.
It is not a trick of light because the other monks have also noticed that the dead lama has opened his eyes. One by one, the Abbott and the dignitaries stand up, approach the dead lama with reverence, bow deeply and lay down gifts in front of the motionless body. The Abbott looks at Mangon and signals him with his eyes to take the Dkung-Dkar which rests on a ceremonial cushion and present it to the dead lama. Mangon takes the conch shell and presents it to the high lama.
A silent meditation begins.
How long Mangon remains in silence he doesn’t know. If it was minutes or hours, he cannot tell having lost all sense of time and space. For the first time in his life he experiences a state of meditation opening the doors to a new infinite world inside of him. It is a gift the dead lama has given him. In an instant, Mangon has realised that true happiness and peace is not found outside one self, but is always present deeply inside him. He has experienced a fleeting glimpse of what true peace and happiness could mean, barely scratching the surface of the edge of infinity, but he knows that from this moment on his life will be different. He knows that his real journey has only now begun. He always had been looking in the wrong places for true happiness and peace which were always inside him. Now it is up to him to dive deeper and deeper inside, finding the tranquillity and identify with it more and more.
During the next few days, Mangon spends many hours in silent contemplation. He asks Yeshe to show him how to practice real meditation but without success. Whenever he tries to silence his mind, an infinite chain of thoughts cross instead.
“Be patient,” Yeshe advises. “Thoughts are like clouds in the blue sky. Let them pass. Don’t pay any attention to them.”
The advice is simple, but impossible for Mangon to follow, who becomes angry and frustrated with himself.
“But when will I be able to experience peace in my mind? How long will it take me?” he asks Yeshe.
Yeshe shrugs. “Nobody can tell. It depends on the karma from your past lives and how many hours of boring meditation you put in it. But you must be a special incarnation, maybe even a tulku, otherwise you would have never found the treasure nor would the high lama have bestowed the blessings upon you. But still it might take lifetimes to reach enlightenment and become a Buddha.”
“Enlightenment?” Mangon has never heard this term before.
“It means to wake up and to understand the reality of everything,” Yeshe replies.
Mangon looks confused so Yeshe explains more, “One needs to free oneself from the endless chain of birth and rebirths to be free from suffering, disease and death and to attain Nirvana and dissolve into nothingness.”
“I think I still have a long way to go,” says Mangon, resigned to his fate.
“It can take many lifetimes, but thanks to our Lord Buddha and many who follow his way, enlightenment can be achieved,” Yeshe explains.
“But is Buddhism the only way?” Mangon asks.
“No, there are other ways, every religion has a way, but many ways are clouded. Buddhism is clear and the way we practice in our monastery…” Yeshe says.
After a while he adds,“…will you stay with us and take the vows to become a monk?”
Mangon didn’t expect this question.
“I don’t know yet,” he says, “I really don’t know…”
“We could study together and play football! Maybe you can teach me how to drive a car!”
“Maybe,” Mangon answers, lost in thoughts. “Maybe.”
Night after night Mangon lays in his bed unable to sleep. He has realised that he has arrived at a crossroads and that he needs to make a decision. Truly what he has witnessed is nothing but a miracle and he knows what he has experienced is real, but does this mean he should spend the rest of his life in a remote monastery high up the mountains, separated from the outside world for most of his years? Would he be able to live up to the strict monastic vows which demand of him to give up all temptations he has enjoyed so much, mostly sex and getting high on drugs? He is scared by the thought of exchanging a freedom which he has enjoyed so much for a life confined within the mud walls of a monastery near the Tibetan border. Is he strong enough to bear the life of a monk?
Early next morning he decides to climb up the steep side hills of the mountains alone. The high altitude makes the air so thin and every step up demands considerable effort, but he is determined to climb high enough to have the whole valley in his view. Out of breath, he sits down on a rock and looks into the valley. The famous Tabo monastery and the tiny village appear small beside the wild Spiti River. He needed to get away for a short time from the monastery to clear his mind, knowing he has to make a decision.
A Himalayan golden eagle soars in the distance over the valley. It glides majestically in its flight, barely moving its enormous wings, carried forward by the strong winds which push over the mountains. Seemingly without effort, it moves through the sky climbing higher and higher towards the sun.
It is in this moment that Mangon understands that his way is like the way of an eagle.
He realises that he has to embrace freedom in his heart and follow wherever it will lead him.
It is not his destiny in this life to study in a monastery trying to fit into the life of a monk. His eyes have opened and he has seen in a vision the destination of his journey.
All he needs to do now is follow his heart.
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