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6/18/08 – cont’d – The guest house was cozy, yet open and comfortable. Some of the decorations reminded me of a Californian yard sale – a little bit of this, a little of that (Western styles). There would be 16 of us once we all arrived, and we had the guest house to ourselves as a result. We were given breakfast and tea when we arrived – the “dining room” was typical of Ladakhi eating spaces. We sat on slightly raised cushions behind low, beautifully carved tables. There was a short 14 year old boy named Sonam, a cousin of the owners, who served us for the most part. He was enthusiastic and happy, plus he enjoyed singing to himself. Sometimes he had help from someone hired in the city. The family who owned the guest house prepared the food.
We rested a little, before heading out to Phyang Monastery, where His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche was staying. We were in luck for multiple reasons that day. The monastery was just completing a week-long ceremony, leading up to and celebrating Saga Dawa – Buddha’s Parinirvana day (which is apparently the most sacred day in that Holy Month). They would be dissolving a sand mandala, bringing the sand down to the river and blessing the waters with it. And we were seeing His Holiness on Saga Dawa.
Therefore, we got to see the monks playing all the instruments – long horns, hand-held clarinet-like instruments, drums large and small, cymbals, bells and a conch shell. The parade of monks exiting the meditation hall was very colorful, and full of life. The monastery had 78 monks, supported by the local villages and the Drikung Kagyu in Ladakh (and tourists / pilgrims like us). The monastery was typical of Ladakhi architecture – white washed walls for the most part with red painted trim around the tile roofs and wooden doors. For most monasteries, the protector shrine was generally always distinguishable from the rest of the gompa (monastery) – usually painted red. I believe this was the case at Phyang.
Every monastery we visited had incredible paintings – sometimes, nearly every surface was painted – whether stenciling on the banisters and support beams, or large, vivid murals on the walls, or aged thangkas hanging in meditation halls. In some cases, even the ceilings would have murals on them (see Chemray gompa later on). It was an amazing dichotomy – the stark, desiccated landscape versus the bright, colorful monasteries. I was told that this purposeful (it contrasted the rich, colorful inner life of a Buddhist contemplative vs. drab outer life of toiling in samsara).
Phyang is built on a long, slender hill, making it similarly shaped. There were a long series of stairs leading up to the main level of the monastery. And due to the ceremony or the fact that a high lama was in residence, there were Buddhist symbols drawn on the concrete with chalk (the eight auspicious symbols). First we toured the main hall, which was where the sand mandala was – in its curtained splendor. We took pictures of the mandala, the statues, the gorgeous thangkas and the murals. Then we watched as the monks began the dissolution ceremony. There were at least 80 to 100 locals – both Ladakhis and Tibetans – at the monastery, also watching the precession of monks pour out of the meditation hall. There was an incense burner on chains, which the monk holding it would swing, reminding me of a Catholic service.
After the monks had all filed out on their way to the river, we toured the rest of the monastery. There was a large kitchen, separate from the other buildings, along with a protector shrine and several smaller shrines – one housing many statues of Green Tara. One of the smaller shrine rooms had pictures and statues of the lineage masters. We had to climb several sets of stairs – steep, old, well-trodden wooden ones, basically ladders – to get up to His Holiness’ level. There was a long line of people (mainly Ladakhis) waiting to receive a blessing from the Drikung Kyabgon. We also waited. And waited, observing the murals painted around the entrance. At the time, I thought we were just being polite, waiting for everyone else to go and letting people go in front of us. But then, when we got in to see him, I realized we were waiting because we were invited to have tea with His Holiness, Chetsang Rinpoche.
We received our blessing in the traditional manner – we offered silk scarves, called khatags, which His Holiness draped around our lowered heads. Then we sat down and took in his presence. It turned out that his reception room was on the top floor of the monastery – literally. The wind was whipping around, making windows fly open and closed, also causing the prayer flags to snap in the gusts. That in and of itself was an experience, and then there was His Holiness. Chetsang Rinpoche was very kind and generous – giving us protection cords, offering us tea and cookies and most importantly, his blessing. He seemed like a simple monk, ordinary in his knowing and purposeful actions, until you looked into his eyes. They were twinkling and sparkling which led me to believe there was more to him than he let on.
It turned out the trip leader’s family, who is from Malaysia, are patrons of His Holiness, so they had a connection.
They chatted about the Kyabgon’s recent activities, how his monastery and library were doing. His Holiness was asked if there was a brief bit of advice he could give us. He consented and told us about the four thoughts that turn the mind toward enlightenment. [In case you are interested in “what are the four thoughts?” acquire and read the book “The Transformation of Suffering” by Khenchen Rinpoche, Konchog Gyaltsen.] Finally we got up and thanked him and ventured back down to our vehicles.
By the time we got back to the guest house, another meal was just about ready. The owners of the guest house took great care of us, wanting our every need to be met. It turned out several people needed to rest as they were experiencing some altitude sickness.