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Buddhism at its purest: Ladakh’s mountain monks


An old, ashen-faced, monk kept silent gazing into barren, windswept expanses of the Indian Shangri-La. The great unseasonably cold wind, gusting in from craggy slopes, broke the timeless silence around us. I was standing aside on a steep, rocky plateau seemingly asleep in the heart of an unspoiled wilderness of the Ladakhi valleys. The morning fog disappeared and the  clarity of the sky let us see stern trans-Himalayan ranges sheltering a lavish,green valley in the north.

A stone-strewn path followed the rise of a ridge towards the summit and then suddenly sloped down to a small village sleeping peacefully on the edge of the valley. Along the track few, shattered praying flags fluttering in the wind, whispering the holy mantras (prayers)  The monk shambled forward and his emaciated figure darken in the shadow of rugged mountain slopes. His ruddy robe collecting dust, his eyes bright ,smiling.

‘Rizong Gompa’- uttered the monk pointing to a shabby-looking monastery sitting gracefully in the middle of the valley.

A gompa – buddhist monastery- has always been a center for religious studies , spiritual exercises and meditation. Belonging to the Gelugpa order of  the tantric Buddhism – Rizong gompa was erected on a windy plateau  in the northen part of Indian Ladakh  (Jammu& Kashmir). Ladakh, frequently reffered to as the last Shangri-la, is an isolted region of high mountain passes (4000 m) peopled with various ethnic groups – mainly Tibetan refugees. The region, having its rich cultural heritage, remains also a stronghold for the Tibetan Buddhism.

The hesitant morning sun hovered a while, blinking in and out  of a lonely cloud before making its way down the dusty path , passing an ancient stupa(a chorten). With a cold wind hissing venomously in our faces we followed an unsigned track. Walking down I caught one more glimpse of the ancient chorten half –covered with broken mani-walls. The mani walls, holy stones inlaid with buddhist prayers (mantras) as an act of merit, resting on the barren, cracked ground , sparkled in the sunlight.  The grey, cylindrical stupa, similar to a dagoba from the ancient Sri-lanka kingdom, towered heavenwards through dank tendrils of a dusty fog. The lonely stupa seemed to be hiding inside its bell-shaped figure not only the remains of old sages but also the wisdom of Buddhism- the truth beyond the Eightfold path – the key to Nirvana.

We followed the track entering the village from the north, leaving aside a moonlike landscape of the Ladakhi plateau. In some distance the stupa, beaten mercilessly by fierce gusts of mountain winds,  dissolved into a mere shadow.

The village of Rizong, sheltered by a rocky embrance  of the Indian Himalayas, seemed to be an oasis among moonlike valleys of Ladakh. The gompa, hidden beyond pale slopes, is said to be a paradise for meditaion. A famous teacher (guru) of Buddhism –called Padma Sambhava was believed to gain enlightement while meditating in the caves around that monastery. Once in Rizong, one can truly experience the unique atmosphere of a Tibetan gompa.  Like majority of Ladakhi gompas the one in Rizong was erected in 12th century when Namgyal dynasty was rulling the kingdom. The Namgyals patronized Buddhism and were known for their nobility and generosity toward the subjects. It is also important to mention that the 12th century witnessed the rise of  the tantrism( a religious movement against the indian orthodoxy ) which overhelmed the earlier doctrines and introduced  a serious change to both hinduism and buddhism.  Rites and ideologies  that flourished in that period  eventually  intermixed with local philosophical traditions of the Indian subcontinent . As observed by Max Weber: ‘… It is and undoubted fact that in India religious  and philosophical thinkers were able to enjoy perfect , nearly absolute freedom  of thought. That freedom of thought in India was so considerable as to find no parallel in the west before the most recent age..’

The Rizong gompa was sitting proudly among windy hills, guarding religious treasures inside its austere stone walls. I followed the monk into the semi-darkness of the gompa’s interior. We walked slowly along old, dusty wall-paintings. Each unique painting designed by artists well-versed in religious iconography was an astonishing piece of art. Those images dating back to 13th  century were   prizeless masterpieces  retelling in vivid details the stories of Buddha and bodhisatvas.

The monk ushered me forward  up to  a huge Buddha statue overlooking  piles of  manuscripts- both in tibetan and devanagari(old indian) scripts. The massive, monumental but dynamic figure of the great thinker projected elegant technical finish. Buddha’s left hand half-raised holding a  mala (a rosary) ,his hair arranged upward , his face serene.

The room was in shadow but for an oil lamp’s  glows  that danced on  surfaces of  some religious scrolls . Behind wooden tables full of Buddhist scriptures there was a group of young monks reciting holy mantras over and over again. ‘Mathurya’- thought I, recollecting what I have  read about an Indian thinker Abhinavagupta and his theory of literature. According to the Abhinavagupta’s thought the real poetry is the one that is charming to listen although being heard thousands of times over. The famous philosopher called that unique feature of poetry – “mathurya” – the sweetness.

Few chelas (young buddhist monks apprenticed to an experienced one called lama)clad in red robes hurried forward, saying their prayers and sweeping the floor of the main hall. A dull echoing toll of a gong, somewhere in the western part of the gompa, made them stop for a moment. For me it was a moment of recognizing the holiness of that place.

My guide, the old lama,   followed the chelas into a spacious library where the old manuscripts were kept. A moment later I found him reading silently the holy stanzas from jatakas( stories from previous incarnations of Buddha) . A person from the West could consider retelling the jataka stories as an act similar to re-reading the gospels during the holy mass. I left the monks and walked to another room.  In the monastery vaults the air was dank and stale…

I glanced at the landscape emerging behind a half-opened window of the Rizong gompa. The main gates of the monastery opened and a group of visitors flooded in. One minute later a mob of  tourists, storming out the  entrance,  with their  hi-tech video cameras, disappeared in spacious chambers of the  gompa.

Whoever dreamed about travelling to the anicient Tibet and envisioned his/her trip to be an adventure similar to that recorded on  pages of  James Hilton’s story (‘the lost horizon’)will surely enjoy his/her  stay in Ladakh. The moonlike panorama with its gompas, castles and green villages is only a part of a wonder called Ladakh. That unique region of India offers visitors a chance to see a variety of wild game, not to mention yaks, wild donkeys, camels and even snow leopards hidden in the windy valleys of many national parks.

If old stones could talk the ruined palaces of Ladakhi historic towns would be unequalled story-tellers.  The ancient stone-walls could tell the story of mighty Ladakhi kings fighting for freedom and independence. The castles of Shey, Leh or Hemis  could elaborate on religious peoples –  followers of Allah and adherents of Buddha living together in peace on the Ladakhi ground. One could listen to the stories about buddhist monks(bhiksu) travelling cross-country, teaching about the morality and  sins . We could learn more about their faith being a mixture of Buddhism proper and the Tibetan Bon cult. If stones could speak we would hear the history of  a mysterious land hidden in the embrance of  the Himalayas; we could listen to the story about a wonder called Ladakh.

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