Buddhist Sikkim: mountains in a time of Covid

In every deep a lower deep opens.

                                                                                                              Milton’s Satan

I’m currently in deep regression. And I don’t even have a therapist. Who knows, maybe that’s the best kind of “going back.”

Is this pandemic-induced? A couple of years of forced exile, losing a cherished peripatetic life? Perhaps, but I don’t really think so because the issues at large are, well, large. However, this Era of  the Covid perhaps has compelled us–when we’re not glued to the next youtube clip about the most adorable puppies and kittens ever–  to exercise the imagination even more. And that’s a good thing, right? All is well and fine, so long as you’re not using that miraculous faculty to conjure a vision of an autocratic redoubt on the right bank of the Potomac where all of your giddy devotees are, like you, sporting orange hair and speaking in tainted tongues, yes?

Grand. I’m glad we can agree on that. Which is why I decided to have my imaginative journey based on a real one. Pick over the bones once again because I can’t get out to dig up any new bones and, dammit, I don’t want to do another round of dishes just yet.

So here I am in my head, trying to manufacture a good dose of this in the historical present because we just love the dramatic immediacy of that mode. I’ve returned to the much more physical and fluid ways, much less bug-eyed propensities, of archaic pen and paper. Another power failure puts the little laptop into existential crisis as I sit in the coziness of the Kunga Tibetan Restaurant in Darjeeling in India’s northeastern Himalaya.

Most importantly, I’ve just come back here to return in another way to where I just was. I’m trying to get these nearly indecipherable scratches on the page to make some kind of sense. So far, the handwriting is only producing strange feelings with the occasional flashback to those torrid, ten-page love letters read with halting breath eons ago. But I keep hoping, against the odds, that all of it might eventually transform into something. Maybe a revelation is asking too much. But if only it might morph into something I can transcribe later on. After roughly two weeks of trekking and quasi-pilgrimage in Sikkim–an Indian state nestled between Bhutan and Nepal–will this regress amount to anything? Or will it simply sink, as a contemporary Western Buddhist might put it, into a whole lot of nothin’?

Maybe I have my answer shortly after my arrival at the Kunga when, from mounted speakers, the mellifluous Tibetan flute of Nawang Khechog segues not so meditatively into an Iron Maiden classic. The elemental fragrances of my veg thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup; called gyathuk in Sikkim) suddenly seems to acquire a heavy punk’s punch as the song’s lyrics–“Bring your daughter, bring your daughter, to the slaughter”–reach right down fist-first into my soul, which, some dear ones have argued quite convincingly, exists pretty much where my stomach is. On the other hand, it could just be the Sikkim “super strong” (8.25%) HIT beer that is working my taste buds up into a monk mosh-pit.

Ah, yes, grasshopper, forget about snatching the pebble from my hand, let us instead enter the sacred monk mosh-pit…

Call it my own humble epiphany as the guru-like leadership of my thukpa’s ginger is in crescendo, filling my mouth with incomparable yumminess. I’ve been a thukpa disciple the last number of weeks, especially since, at these altitudes, there’s nothing like a steaming soup to warm up the blood when the temperature dips, as it inevitably does.  And as my blood simmers rather than boils, I start to realize how we just can’t seem to escape those putative opposites or dualities which are so bound up with each other that we can hardly conceive of an independent life for any of them: being-nothingness, beauty-ugliness, matter-mind, love-hate, subject-object, light-dark, happiness-sadness, order-chaos, good-evil, feminine-masculine, spirit-nature, Bruce Dickinson-Yo-Yo Ma.

I know, Yo-Yo. Or Bruce. Sorry, quite an Indian chutney pickle I’ve gotten you into. But bear with me.

Because then there’s that seemingly dualistic monk mosh-pit. I really like that metaphorically if not literally. Maybe you’d like to say I’m a bit on the pagal (or crazy) side of things, but I like the juxtaposition if not paradox. You can feel the tension. But maybe they’re in fact so well-accommodated to each other that the divide is really more of an illusion, what Hindus call maya.  After all, both parties often are bald and tend to be wearing unconventional garb. And somewhere in the pit, though in appearance there’s the sense of frenetic individual pursuit or even isolation, there’s also a collective dancing unity, the presence and feeling that each step or jump, the entire sway of movement, through natural space and time, is needed to sustain the cycle of things small and large.

If I were to queue the music—if you don’t mind, Yo-Yo’s magic this time—then I’d probably ask Teilhard de Chardin to forgive me, too. Decades ago, it was, in part, his essay on “The Spiritual Power of Matter” that got me thinking more deeply of the supposed dualities–not least the sacred and profane–with which we supposedly live, wondering if, in fact, these were true. Of course many Indians like Adi Sankara in the advaita (literally: “non-secondness”) vedenta school have spoken or written about non-dualism. Westerners like Montaigne did as well. And of course there was Emerson: “Other world? There is no other world, here or nowhere is the whole fact.” Ergo– fast-forwarding through much of life’s muck and mystery into the present-day Kunga Restaurant—my monk mosh-pit. Sorry, Mr. Chardin. But, in a way, not.

If you care to think about it, especially with a pint of HIT in hand, there’s a lot of stuff, a lot of science and technology that goes into making that vibrant mosh pit. Quite a lot of liberal democracy, as well as so-called free market economy. But where would we be without, as it were, our inner monks provoking and challenging us into other needed levels of meaning? What exactly is the meaning of “deep,” given its nonexistence in the absence of surface? Despite the semantics involved in what some would say is the slippery flesh and bones of that signifier, isn’t the search for meaning what fundamentally defines us as humans? Even in the modernist or post-modernist context where everything in our human condition is supposedly contingent? Yes, even when “perhaps” is perhaps the defining word?

And given that presumed pulling back of the Great Oz’s curtain, revealing the starker reality of untrustworthy ground beneath our feet, maybe that makes the hunger for deeper meaning, beyond our own personal sand boxes, even more vital. Quite apart from the craving for melodious Kings in sacred, high collars and sequined velvet—and, yes, Mr. Nietzsche’s often credible declarations on the subject—does that hunger still have in its tasty orbit a personal God, Unmovable Mover, Infinite Mind, Absolute Geist or ever-so goody Good? Of course, to say–as Joyce might–that life is absurd is not a statement about God’s existence or lack thereof. God could be gone; maybe, like vaudeville, he has ceased to be; he could, for that matter, be living under perpetual house arrest with Madonna singing Kabbalistic rhymes. But his (or her) absence doesn’t necessarily make our lives absurd or meaningless. It might in fact give us an emancipatory bump up. Likewise, while Bill Gates’ absence might compel a liberating hurrah from some, in the main, his expiry will not, or should not, lead us to life’s despair or angst. In other words, a coherent pattern to life’s groaning plod or merry skip could be found in other deep meaning. As others have argued strongly, such purpose and meaning isn’t really even a question of theism versus atheism.

As alluded to before, there are those, however, who would seriously question the word “meaning,” certainly in terms of any grand patterns or narratives infusing life with unity and sense; they’d attack even more strenuously any deployment of distinction by way of the notion of “deep,” arguing for, like God, its permanent vacation to Sarasota, Florida (i.e., the graveyard). Not surprisingly, I have often had difficulty locating the depth of wisdom, if not the clarity of expression, in some of those who, largely in France, appear to have lived too much in their cultural lab-coats without the benefit of enough vigorous walks in the mountains.

Mr. Heisenberg—physicist Werner not Walter White breaking bad into meth drug lord—probably knew about tramping the alluring mountains. I speculate about this because he certainly knew about the ambiguous nature of reality. Nagging questions of aesthetics quickly become subsumed by the powerful truth masquerading as beauty when looking out from vertiginous, higher ground. On my trodden path rising above a tree-line, this inevitably leads to metaphysics. Werner, I imagine, must have surveyed well the hypnotic contours of the large. From there, a giant leap to his understanding of the confusing behavior of electrons in the tricky quantum world of the very small. Were they here or over there? Particles or waves? Not sure exactly, he postulated his “uncertainty principle.”  I remember the wise and funny Jonathan Sacks once saying that “nothing interesting is probable.” He would add that, to him, “faith is the defeat of the probable by the power of possibility.” The esteemed Einstein himself rationally understood the limits of reason in human affairs. So did Mr. Freud, but with his obsession with repressed pleasure and the consequent neuroses welling up from our dark unconscious. Unlike Sigmund who disparaged the religious impulse, Albert chose to contemplate a God in the physical rhythms of the cosmos. The workings of his extraordinary mind with its gifted mix of cognitive analysis, intuition and imagination prompted him to assert that “religion without science is blind, but science without religion is lame.” From what I’ve read, he also enjoyed a good joke, so I like to think that his un-relative God in the relative universe had a brilliant sense of humor, too.

As far as I can tell, there’s nothing blind or lame–or unhumorous–about my monk mosh-pit. As wayward children of the Enlightenment—which clearly has led to many improvements, be it, for example, in human rights or standards of living, including health and education–we still have other needs. God may or may not be dead. But with or without that, our other domesticated deity, Reason, was supposed to deliver us through secularization, capitalism, and scientific and technological progress to the so-called promised land. Utopias can be very tempting indeed–nicely packaged in a manifesto or not. No doubt for some techno-fashionistas–or even the many–we’ve arrived right now with our i-phones and i-pads and all our i-friends in virtual communal bliss. And with our comforts, we still have, because we need it, our “faith.” Maybe—though they aren’t really equivalents– in shopping or history or art or sports or social media or science or itunes or love (and its various shadings in grey or otherwise). Or, to satisfy the math geeks, maybe it’s all in number 42, as Douglas Adam’s computer of the galaxy, Deep Thought, determined. Or maybe it’s just in “I.”

But, if you’re like me, that just ain’t it exactly. Or enough. I don’t know about Groucho or Harpo Marx, but Karl was a romantic individualist at heart. That didn’t mean he or his disciples in their bully pulpits weren’t consistently muscular in exhorting us to care for our sisters and brothers in the human family, our comrades. True, there can be a lot on that smorgasbord of self to pick over and consume. However, that ubiquitous word—consume—  does get at some of the digestive poverty. As one insightful wag put it, “The problem with modern life is there is too much meaning as well as too little.”

So… “Come on down, folks, to my sacred mosh-pit for the Meaning!”

Is that what I’m saying? I don’t even have the velvety Bob Barker tones. Me say that?! That would be absolutely silly; as you’ve already figured out, that would be something quite beneath me. But…

I do think, like the language we share, like the shared space we inhabit, there has to be a collective dimension to meaning, especially the fundamental—yes, “deep”–kind. Let us also not forget its inescapable source in nature. The scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis strongly reminded us of the complex inter-connections of all life forms which comprise what they termed Gaia, our living planetary organism. So, in a way, I wouldn’t even like to call any of this my meaning entirely. Likewise, it is useful to remember that, to the ancient Greeks, if not to my current Greek grocer, “individual” meant “indivisible:” our individual selves were never conceived as being apart from the greater social context.

Despite admiring, say, Oscar Wilde’s spirited and witty individualism, I don’t subscribe to the rather narcissistic notion that each of us just makes up her or his very own meaning in life. It’s critical to understand—not least to strengthen our own humility and thus respect and preserve our larger ecological home—that any meaning should actually result from interactions between us  (as so-called free agents in a society) and between us and the natural world with its clear limits and very real laws.

While it may not be a law (yet), it certainly is a good principle: having your monk mosh, and then, after the mist over the summit settles, let your mosh monk it. Like me, I’m sure you need that deeply. Or, as some Indians would say, very too much deeply. It is perhaps closely related to what Iris Murdoch once described as “unselfing.” With my warm thukpa coming sadly to its end in the Kunga Restaurant, allow me to elaborate further on my Himalayan regress, most pointedly defined by my walks to some of Sikkim’s sacred gompas (monasteries) and shrines.

Although access to Sikkim is somewhat restricted for foreigners, it usually is procured by patiently enduring some of the typical sound and fury of India’s bureaucratic permits process. It wasn’t long after I’d arrived by bus in Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital, that I wanted to stretch my legs on Ganesh Tok, a hillock (6100 feet) overlooking the small-sized city tightly compacted on the mountain-sides. At its summit, looking towards Nepal, there was a full arresting view of snow-capped Kangchenjunga which, given its multiple peaks, translates well from Sikkimese Tibetan as “Five Treasures of the High Snow.” At 8586 meters, this is India’s highest mountain, third in the world after Pakistan’s K2 and Tibet or Nepal’s Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan and Sagarmatha in Nepali). Two of its peaks are in Nepal, and the other three are shared, being on Nepal and Sikkim’s border.

Walking, and especially walking in the mountains, is a joyous workout, but it’s also a kind of meditation. I remain a self-confessed addict or, to extend one of this essay’s key figures of speech, a devotee. Still, I’ve never really had any desire or need to fully scale Kangchenjunga’s Olympian heights– my apologies to the British team led by Joe Brown and George Band who made the first ascent in 1955. From where I was, looking out from that high but relatively modest hillock and, in those moments, having Kangchenjunga pour her austere beauty into me, feeling the wash-over take away all other noise and lesser things, that was everything that a humble pilgrim could ask for. Obviously we don’t ask for much (apart from global peace, an end to poverty and hunger, and maybe Bruce Dickinson on vocals at the local pub). But actually climbing up into Kangchenjunga’s very, so to speak, anorexic air is counter-productive. Fat air is where it’s at, Baba-ji, especially when you have a wondrous opportunity to ride with the holiest of plump elephants.

The shrine at the top of the Tok is devoted to Ganesha. Far from being a Lord Dumbo to a Monarchical Mickey, he with big ears and trumpeting trunk is Hindu god of good fortune and patron saint of scribes. Of course I want to broaden the traditional parameters of “scribe.” If I thought it would engender any good for my particular sort of scribbling, I would have come with an extra rucksack full of peanuts as prasad (or offering). But delivering a specific consequence is not really what authentic offerings or prayers are for, are they? At least, not in my scree-filled neighborhood.

Prayer, in my view, can have some similarities to meditation: it can be about mindfulness or slowing and quieting things down so that proper attention to one’s blessings widens a space for gratitude, wonder, and humility; or it can become the challenge of compassion, submission to forces larger than or outside of the self, an opening up to greater possibility, something transcendent of the mere me.  My self, indeed all our selves, can be rather elusive anyway, certainly not fixed, so this practice is not necessarily easy. Like many things, I think, if you want to get better at it, it takes discipline. So I got down to it on Ganesha’s Tok.

I made puja (prayer) with the master pujari-ji of the shrine, Zebhrakash. I do enjoy a good many of these local rituals which seemingly are about honouring and respecting things beyond one’s self, perhaps what the theologian, Paul Tillich, called one’s “ultimate concerns.” Mr. Tillich also had, in my opinion, a very poignant way of expressing the relation between faith and reason: “Faith is reason moving ecstatically beyond itself.” I’ve kept that saying with me a very long time. Interestingly enough, given the context of a shrine for “scribes,” it also makes me think of Nabokov, who didn’t think literature, or at least his literature, had any purpose or message beyond the production of aesthetic pleasure; he urged anyone so inclined to write ecstatically. While I don’t necessarily share all his views on literature, I certainly identify with that approach to writing. And that response of ecstasy can indeed be part of your responses to the customs and rhythms involved in puja, whether Hindu or Buddhist, as you feel yourself widening into enlarged mystery and beauty, not to mention into a smile and chuckle with your puja choir-master.

After ringing the bells at the gate, just to make sure Ganesha wasn’t dozing, I crawled inside the shrine which maybe had space enough for one elephant-ear. I sat cross-legged amidst the ringing of smaller, brass bells. Ganesh photos festooned the inner sanctum of the shrine which also had colored beads strung from corner to corner. Burning incense wrapped me up in a melody of musk. Quickly, the chanting began; as it did, I knelt with my head lowered before Zebhrakash who anointed me with holy water. Then, like a surgeon  whose automatically sequenced moves are the gift of untold years of practice, he smeared vermilion paste on my forehead. Lastly, an offering of blood-red rhododendron petals was gently placed on my head. I’m fairly sure that “flower child” wasn’t a label that would ever stick to me. But that didn’t prevent Zebhrakash from continuing to chant floridly while maintaining a 4/4 beat with his bell.

Once outside, walking again amidst all of the rainbow-colored prayer flags that animated the hillside, institutionalized religion popped into my head. While it’s not part of my way, I have certainly benefited from the wisdom of some of its thinkers or writers. I also started to consider some of my respect for Hinduism, perhaps the least dogmatic of the world’s major traditions, at least in the sense of notions of the divine or pathways to so-called truth. In particular, what is not to like about a religion or culture which elevates many animals to the status of god? Of course, given human priorities, principle and practice can too often be competing things with the former ending up on both knees in front of the imposing physique of the latter. But principle should stand as an equal– to keep us humble amidst all of this planet’s other creatures, and remind us of our own vulnerability in the natural world. Even more, it can act as a provocative stimulus to change or at least curb our more venal and excessive habits which, while despoiling our planet, squeeze out other species into early extinction, species which also happen to be critical to our own survival.

As I continued down the hillock back towards town, on a stone embankment before a set of stairs, there was written, surprisingly, a quote from Walt Whitman from his “Song of Myself,” which refers to animals: “They do not make me sick discussing their god… they do not die in the dark and weep for their sins…I think I could turn and live with animals…” Obviously one can readily understand the Ganesha connection here, but there are also the not-small ironies of these particular lines near a shrine in a country like India.

Firstly, in part, because Whitman’s poem is an exaltation of democracy (or, better, American democracy), it glorifies the free, self-made individual. Though obviously changing in the last few decades of frenzied globalization, the latter hasn’t really been part of India’s thing, so to speak. Even more significantly perhaps, there is this land’s seemingly universal obeisance to gods in general– at some estimates, over three hundred million. My own loving appreciation of Walt’s life-affirming perspectives embedded in his untamed verses is quite beside the point, I think. The initial, pleasant surprise of discovering these specific lines from him here was quickly supplanted by utter confusion— or, if you like, a kind of phantom shovel taken in the tender center of my elephantine feedbag. But, as I have learned a great deal while in India over the years, sometimes it’s best to avoid any attempt at rigid rationalization, and just let the perceived chaotic ambiguities and perplexities drain slowly out of you like the Ganga River heading to its big release in the Bay of Bengal.

Before leaving Gangtok for my next destination, I did some more reading on the history of Sikkim. While the Lepcha people are known to have migrated to Sikkim (perhaps from Southeast Asia or Assam, it is speculated) around the 13th century, the Tibetan influence is enormous (Tibetans in Sikkim are referred to as “Bhutias”). It apparently was three lamas from Tibet who migrated to Sikkim in the 17th century and established the Nyingmapa (“Ancient Ones”) Buddhist order around Yuksom, the first capital of the Sikkim monarchy. They also consecrated the first Chogyal (king) of Sikkim there.

Perhaps it derives from our tendencies towards comforting over-generalizations, or maybe it’s a consequence of the so-called “global village” and the pervasive homogenizing dominance of trans-national media conglomerates that we can often perceive–wrongly–things to be uniform, especially in cultures beyond our own. India defies that in sometimes startling ways. It is a country which is incredibly diverse in so many different ways, language and therefore culture being most significant. Trying to dig a little beyond the surface of common ignorance, we can quickly discover staggering complexity in India’s respective states, Sikkim being no different.

Despite the Nyingmapa order being the first in Tibet (established in the 8th century), it was the current Dalai Lama’s order, the Gelukpa (“Virtuous Ones” or “Yellow Hats”) that finally dominated Tibet after the 17th century following a long struggle with the four other competing orders, including the Nyingmapa. The civil strife in Tibet during this period resulted in large migrations of people into what is now Sikkim (its borders today being even more truncated than what they were a couple of centuries ago). As a result, the Lepcha people moved into more remote locations in the mountains.

Given its proximity to Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim also has been impacted upon by both nations. For example, because of ongoing historical conflict with and conquest by the Gurkhas of Nepal, Nepali is widely spoken particularly in the western part of Sikkim. Then, when we take the reins of history and ride her quickly into the 19th century, those Brits with their mad dogs and pasty pates stick their peeling noses and oiled armaments into the fray, and Sikkim eventually becomes another one of the Raj’s protectorates. With independence in 1947, India takes over, keeping the Sikkim Chogyal in a ceremonial role until 1975. In that year, a referendum results in  97% of participants voting in favor of full union with India.

If there’s something that can make you quickly stop thinking of all the possible diversity and complexity, historical or otherwise, it’s a five-hour jeep ride on typically patchy, hair-pin Himalayan roads. With your knuckles white, you focus on mostly one thing: you consider the state of your soul if not the simple physics of the contents of your soul—in my case, my stomach—being propelled violently out of both ends. Punctuating this on several banging descents into snow-leopard-sized potholes or near slides over the muddy edge is the urgent question of the soul’s readiness to fly, literally if fleetingly, into a mountain gorge. Yes, seriously fun stuff as your hands grow increasingly weary grasping onto anything that will maintain even a brief hold, and your shoulders play crashing pin-ball with your kindly jeep-mates packed in, like you, with everything, including an actual kitchen sink, suitcases, crates, a chicken, and a goat strapped to the roof. Given the raucous claustrophobia, there were moments in which I was rather envious of that goat.

Maybe getting from Gangtok to a small town called Pelling in West Sikkim wasn’t exactly rapture, but it certainly was a relief. Now I could concentrate on my upcoming rewards. The next morning I hiked out of town to Pemayangtse Gompa (“Perfect Sublime Lotus” Monastery), which is one of Sikkim’s oldest and most important monasteries.

After the walk up the mountain at about 7:45 am, the day began with some monk novitiates, and our “volleyball” game with a big red balloon. My own head has been shaved into perfect sublime spherical baldness for some years now. No, not a recurring lice problem; or a mosh-pit-conformist necessity; or even a religious conversion; just a thing my too-often shallow head prefers. Being bald with the monk boys, however, did make it a little more difficult figuring out who was on whose team. But really, it obviously didn’t matter. The bald–young and old, ordained or not–have a way of finding harmony even in the absence of a volleyball net.

After this delightful early workout, I went into the gompa for morning puja, another level of workout. I once read somewhere that the Buddhist lamas say religion is sound. What a beautiful idea, one that I was about to experience deeply with all of the senior monks present, front to back, in the main temple area, seated in two rows facing each other. Maybe this is the aural equivalent to what Hindus call darshan (the seeing of the holy, whether a person or image).

I was the only visitor in the prayer hall. Seated on the floor off to the opposite side of the baby monks, I felt very welcome largely because of the warm, inviting facial expressions of older lamas with their flecks of soft white hairs trying in vain to colonize their own bald heads. Getting properly positioned, they were preparing to start the ceremony. In this long-standing tradition, there are only so-called wind (which includes brass with woodwind) and percussion instruments. Generally, the core of a full “orchestra” can consist of anywhere from eight to twelve participants. On this morning, there were ten monks involved. The others, however, were part of what I’ll call the entire congregational choir.

That’s important to understand, I think, both symbolically and experientially. There was a splendid transformative effect created in the liturgy which, in its hypnotic chanting, alternated or even contrasted with the often louder instrumental parts. I regressed to my monk mosh-pit as the sounds seemed to blur all those dividing lines and categories we are compelled to construct over a hard-to-contain reality.

The gliding melody in the instrumentals was created by two silver ornamented rgya-glings (or woodwind shawms). This was interspersed with the frequent crashing of two heavy-looking rolmos (cymbals) and with the haunting call of two six-foot-long dungs (brass and copper trumpets), sounding like the basso of otherworldly elephants. Various rhythms, some quite subtle, were created by two intricately engraved drilbus (hand-bells) along with the frenetic syncopation of a damaru (hand- drum). For the rich bottom of the musical ritual, acting as a booming cipher, there was a seemingly ancient rgna (large drum hanging in a frame, struck with a stick) with its mottled ocher skin.

The pairing of instruments, like the pairing of voice and instrument, ties in, as I see it, to a larger importance: in sound, pairs interwoven, transporting participants in life’s music to one ultimate goal– from time to the timeless (or so it seems). Or, for a Buddhist that isn’t, like me, so negligent about party policy, from the sounds themselves into what is most real–the silence.

As I sat there with the sonorous voices of the men (sorry, sisters!) chanting sutras in different pitches, I’m not sure if I found that kind of silence. But I surely was transported. Perhaps this was close to what 18th century artists and intellectuals often referred to as their “Sublime” (noting too that that concept wasn’t just derived from nature’s easy pleasure or beauty, but likewise could involve stormy or terrifying or overwhelming powers). Experiencing, in particular, the eerie, deeper-than-baritone throat modulation of the wizened gompa lamas, I almost wanted to describe it, afterwards, as a strange form of not listening. It was as if their sounds went inside me and set off a peculiar resonation that joined all of theirs. It was both calming and disturbing. And here’s the other putative paradox (or not): Amidst some of the austerities, whether of setting or practice, that sounding transport was voluptuous. Maybe I was supposed to go right into the shunyata (nothingness). I’m kind of glad I didn’t. But then again, maybe the nothingness is, in typical paradoxical reality, voluptuous. I’d like to think so.

On another day, I hiked north out of Pelling to go up the far “hill” overlooking the town. This is the location of Sangachoeling (“Island of Esoteric Teaching”) Gompa, which was founded in the 17th century. It’s the second oldest monastery in Sikkim, situated on a high ridge. Given—like many gompas in the clouds—its special location, one inevitably has to regard those lamas with another kind of awe— that is, for their discriminating eye for exquisite real estate. I had a similar response when trekking to various monasteries in Ladakh’s Himalaya, which is ruggedly arid, but supports much healthy life through its glacial rivers.

My vigil began shortly after my arrival on top. The prayer hall was closed, but it didn’t matter. I watched an elderly rotund monk doing his puja, circling the compound clock-wise, the direction which is supposed to reflect the trajectory of the sun across the sky. With his mala (prayer beads) hanging from his hands crossed behind his back, each bead passed through his chunky fingers as his low-voiced chant wafted out into the soft wind. For a while, at a distance, I joined him. Not thinking, I just allowed my own breath to flow with his quiet hymn as the palm of my right hand sank in and formed to the rise and fall of embossed Om mani padme hum lettering in the metal surrounding prayer wheels that I vigorously spun one after another. When it began to rain lightly, I headed to the corner of one of the gompa buildings and stood under the protection of one of its eaves.

The view on the misted valley below me started to massage my imagination. Great beasts seemed to be sprawled out on the earth’s crust. Dinosaurs, dimetrodons perhaps, in slumber, huddled close to insulate their saurian blood. Their exhalations formed a curdled brew over their armored backs, and, when the light touched them momentarily, pine-needle green was illuminated. The upper area of clouds was kohled, leaving an array of dark crescents hanging above the reclining animals. It struck me that someone had pasted in the cream above Kangchenjunga’s summit a sulphur-black outline of an enormous bindi.  Slowly, with the increasing intensity of rain, the sky’s coal leeched out and faded at the edges. The weakening of hard, arced lines let in a pale skin of light. From what I could tell, that light seemed in a struggle–as we might expect–to stretch into the reposing heaviness below, and press its delicate tissue out to the horizon.

Then suddenly the air, which had felt damp and sluggish, was full of vitality. From the second story of one of the gompa buildings, sounds spilled out. The jubilant, high-pitched chanting of baby-boy monks along with their master’s leading bass voice charged out with the chiming of bells and crashing of cymbals. Just as abruptly, with the rain’s torrent almost monsoonal, a full-throttle crack of thunder clocked the sleeping dinosaurs’ heads below, if not my own above. Was this the heavens’ revenge or just a beastly lullaby for the big, the not-so-terrible, and the sleepy?

The shower didn’t last long. Soon I could hear the dulcet whistle of one songbird hidden somewhere in the vibrant orange-red splash of a flowering tamarind tree. Then a glimpse of a faint hue of magnolia in the sky as the clouds dispersed into what soon looked like animal-cracker patterns of monkeys (Holy Hanuman?), elephants (Godly Ganesh?), and serpents (Noble Nagas?). All this while my attention was intermittently diverted by a typically androgynous image of Siddhartha at the center of things on a second-floor wall- painting. He was being–well, how shall I put this delicately?–very too much loved (naturally, in perfect sublime lotus position) by a rather fetching acolyte who didn’t quite look his opposite, but could have been given that she seemed intent on straddling him into nirvana.

Though it may appear otherwise, which can have its advantages too, I wouldn’t want this timely image to be seen merely in playful erotic light. Such imagery and practice, of course, is a part of Buddhism, as it is of Hinduism. In its symbolism, it was and is connected–yes, most intimately!– to the idea of fertility, creation, and nature’s power. In Hinduism, Mohini as the leader of the surasundaris (divine beauties) would “enchant” the seeker or pilgrim, and that process of beguilement was seen as ultimately leading to a necessary disillusion, part of the liberation from the world of maya. This is also true of the esoteric rituals of Tantric Buddhism, which is part of Sangachoeling Gompa’s history. In other words, on that wall, what we might see largely as Siddhartha’s grand physical pleasure was by no means an end in itself; it in fact symbolizes a disciplined pathway to transformation, heightened realization, or transcendence. And that all sounds decent enough to me. Clearly, another example of how, when the deep pit is truly deeper, the faux duality of sacred and profane melt blissfully into each other in the rising lyrical steam.

And with that, staring at my empty soup bowl, feeling the ache of my out-of-shape, writing hand, I realized in the now-dim Kunga Restaurant how much darkness my guru-mountains with their gompas had dispelled. More light was possible. Sometimes between the spaces of hand-written, seemingly unintelligible scribbles on a page. Sometimes in a regress which leads in its “less” to more. Sometimes even in a silly or madly conceived mosh-pit filled with wandering, and therefore always wondering, monks.

There. That’s it. Time to feed the fish. Can the head be full and empty at the same time? Is it the third shot? No cough, no fever. Just how all the abbots and abbesses like it in the bubble of their own real or conjured abbeys.




Dedicated to the memory of Professor Charles Davis– teacher, mentor, laughing purveyor of chocolate-chip cookies, Jesuit-mind extraordinaire.


And to my grandfather, Emil A. Gomann– theologian, philosopher, professor, pastor, tailor, gentle purveyor of sugar cookies, master tickler.