"You do some prostrations or get out of here!"
Hotel Garuda is neither the cleanest, most impressing nor beautiful hotel I have seen, and they had given me the dampest, but most silent room. The little village Pelling is certainly no charming place. There would have been no reason to go there for anyone, except the occasional view of Mount Kancehenjunga and the Pemayangtse Monastery. And of course, if one is not afraid of ghost and leeches, the Rabdentse ruins. This used to be the centre of power in tiny Sikkim, if there ever was so much power. The royal family, the Choegyals, stayed in the unimpressive castle until the British Raj appointed AC White as political officer in charge of Sikkimese affairs. He set up his headquarters in Gangtok and the Choegyal moved there too. This have led to the most important, state-bearing ceremonies in Sikkim being held in Pemayangtse or the Royal Chapel, the Tsuklhakhang in Gangtok, every other year.
This is enough for Indian tourists to go there, so there are hotels and hotels, and little else in Pelling; a tourist loge near the monastery, and that's about it.
The Tourist lodge is close to the monastery, but far away from the small township, and seemed more or less empty. The new hotels at Pelling were more or less full of Calcuttan tourists and honeymooners. But at Garuda the "Lonely Planet" kids are assembling; the Aussies and Canadians and New Yorkers and Israeli and Austrians and Koreans and Japanese and, at least the few days I stayed there, a Norwegian and a young Swedish couple. And, of course, the Dutch, who are to be found everywhere. Oh, yes, and then there was the Austrian nurse, travelling with all her things in a small rucksack, always clean and neat in her lightly coloured clothes. And the Nepali wife of the Australian globetrotter; she took turns being one of the locals, gossiping in the kitchen, and one of us, teasing her husband.
There is a distinct dislike of the young Israeli among those travelling dormitory style. Anti-Semitism? I don't know; more likely the fact that some of them are pretty heavily doing drugs and drinking and smoking in the dormitories. One evening I was sitting in the living room upstairs, writing in my diary, but soon we were a merry lot. It started when I came to become an interpreter between a Japanese and the Koreans; my bad English seemed easier as a common ground than the New York art student Elisabeth's. Then things just went on, and the two new Israeli boys, straight out of military service, were sitting there, at the same table. At first they pretended they were all alone; then we got them into the conversation. They were very nice, intelligent young men who wanted to get the bad things they had experienced out of their minds, travelling, before they went back to university, careers, a suburban life with wife and kids.
Then suddenly, one of them said: 'I know you don't want us here, you know. Nobody like us.'
'What?' I said, 'Why do you think that?'
'Well,' the big blond of them said, 'you know, nobody likes me. I know that. It is just how things are. I know.'
I looked at him; he really meant what he said.
'But actually,' I protested, 'you are really quite a nice guy the way I see you. We have had this nice, friendly and even interesting conversation here this afternoon.'
I could see the tears in his eyes.
'You know,' he said, 'nobody ever said anything nice to me. Never.'
This little incident would be of no interest if it did not bear on what he said to me the next evening. I went to the Pemayangtse monastery for the second or third time that day. The first time I was met by one of the young boys, who guided me on what he had found to be the most usual points of interest for tourists. As he discovered me to have some other priorities than most, he just left me, waiting in the next room. All smiles, and all the time talking in what I suppose to be Tibetan, as this monastery by tradition is for Tibetan monks only. There was a relaxed, easygoing atmosphere, while the three or four monks in their late teens recited the texts. One of them were obviously undergoing some kind of test, while the others blew the horns and conches and hit the bells and gongs, letting the most eager of the younger boys take their turn every now and then. There is a different kind of serenity in this, than the more silent and choreographed Western Buddhist style.
The monastery is situated at a small elevation on the eastern end of the hill, overlooking the valleys to the east. This is a very typical location for the temple, according to Elisabeth from New York, who was studying Tibetan architecture. The ascent is from the west, and a pretty steep walk, though not very long; the road is winding up between the lodgings and the monastery. There is a table just where the stairs ends, and a man selling tickets for the preservation of the monastery. A few rupees, if one is not from Sikkim.
The first days I had half-heartedly followed the little boy monk when he took short cuts, omitting the strict rule of walking clockwise around the temple and around any sacred objects. This day would be different. I was wearing my heavy leather trekking boots. So, I took them off, and put them on the stairs in front of the entrance of Pemayangtse Temple or Gompa. Then suddenly, there was this old monk, crying out to me: "Not there, keep your shoes to the ground!" Why me? There were lots of shoes on the top of the stairs, and some of them leather, too. But then, why not? I put my shoes on the ground, and went inside. The boy monk greeted me, and started to lead me upstairs. He waved eagerly to just cut through the hall, ignoring the clockwise circambulation. He was so insisting, that I started to follow him. Then he was there once more, this old monk, waving and pointing; do it the correct way, follow the wall to the left, around the monks reciting and making noises on the instruments; in front of the Buddha statues, before entering the door leading to the staircase upstairs. No problem; I waded through the Indian tourists who would follow their own ideas, walking wherever, talking loudly, touching the statues and artefacts, laughing. Or offering candles and incense. You never know how Indians will behave. Or rather; I never were able to know. But then, they never could understand why I prefer walking when there exists an abundance of taxis everywhere.
As I went the correct way, upstairs to the room where the Kangyur and Tangyur and probably a lot of other books were held in large cupboards with glass doors along the wall dividing the first floor into a library, a small chapel and a room with some newly restored murals and took my time, the little boy monk lost interest. Or maybe he could see that I wanted to do this my own way? Then, at the top floor, there is this magnificent model of Padmasambhava's heavenly abode; made by one monk, Dungzin Rinpoche in five years. It is a structure maybe ten feet high, and glass walls protecting it from the tourists. But, for all its magnificence, there are also the murals, faded, but original on the outer walls of the chapel. At this floor, like the ground floor holding the Gompa, the entire temple is just one room. No divisions; except the space necessary for the stairs. These murals, if one doesn't know what its all about, may be understood very wrongly, as there is depicted some sexual scenes. Like the retired German engineer I met on my way home. He had been invited into the Tsuklhakhang of the King of Bhutan. "I don't know why he needs these," he said, " he has only four wives." Or one might understand, but not approve, like the Korean monk, who said: "This maybe possible, but very dangerous." Possible and dangerous, in the sense of attaining liberation in the Buddhist way, that is.
When I came downstairs, the chanting and recitation was still going on. Along the wall I was to pass on my way out, there were seats and platforms with food. Some guests and tourists were sitting on some of these, so I sat down on the lowest, close to the entrance, just following what was going on. A young couple, obviously from North-Western Europe was sitting to my right, on the slightly higher bench, watching. I felt like meditating, straightened my back, clearing my mind, just trying to be there, and nothing else. For a while there just was the ceremony going on. Then I got back to watching, and suddenly one of the monks, a man in his mid forties, I would guess, sitting next to the front with his back to me, turned and pointed to me: "You," he said, waiting until he saw I had understood who he was directing. Then he went on, in this thundering voice: "You do some prostrations, or get out of here!"
I had seen many of my friends back home do prostrations; the flat-on-the-floor type. What I saw here was more like the Muslim type; get down on the knees and bow so the head touches the floor. But the details … I got up, thinking 'how can I get this right?' Then I noticed this old Tibetan lady, doing her prostrations just inside the entrance door, so I got over to her, thinking 'I'll try do it like she does it.' And when I were at her side, it was like she knew; she went one step to the left and two small steps forward, so that I could see her all the time, and count how many she was doing.
So I did my first prostrations there, by following this old Tibetan lady, in her traditional dress. Afterwards I went back to where I was sitting, following what was going on until the break. I turned out the young couple was Swedish. He had an old Leica M3, worth a lot of money back home, but here pretty safe: No thief would steal an old camera, but most probably go for the new ones. The girl wanted to talk, her eyes shining bright with excitement regarding what had happened to me. She was looking for the mystery, I guess. He got annoyed; he was looking after his property in a way that any Indian gentleman would protect his women. I was 54 and perceived as a threat by someone who was in his mid twenties, like his girlfriend - thank you for the compliment.
When the monk who had addressed me came out together with the other ones, he stopped in front of us, smiling. I couldn't resist:
"Why me? Why did you order just me to do prostrations?" His answer was as simple as his action mysterious.
"I think this good opportunity for you."
I just nodded, not knowing what to think. Then he went on:
"Did you pray for yourself when do prostrations?"
Actually, I was so overwhelmed that I had just been concentrating on doing prostrations, that I had no other thoughts. But, being a good boy, I knew the correct answer:
"No, for everybody."
He smiled, like he knew I was lying, and added:
"For all the animals too?" He was smiling. I smiled back:
"Well, maybe not for the leeches!"
There was a deep intensity in this moment. Some I guess would call it serene. Some mystical. I felt rather important at that moment. I could see the excitement in the young girls eyes.
The monk broke the spell.
"Will you give me your hat?" he said. It's a brown felt hat I have grown quite attached to. In India it provided the shade I need not to get sunburn and a headache from the heat, and a little shading for my eyes from the blazing sun. 'Isn't that hat very hot?' they asked, but no, when it is really hot, it is just the thing for me.
I was taken just away from my feeling of being important. He took my balance away. I did not know what to say.
"Well, you know, I need this hat, for my head. Otherwise …"
Now he was laughing at me. His little prank had worked.
"Maybe I can just try?"
"Of course," I said, taking my hat off, handing it towards him. He looked at he hat, getting silent.
"I better not do that," he said, and suddenly he just quickly disappeared.
There really is not that more to tell. Oh yes, the old monk who had been so severe on me earlier on, came up to me, took my hand and led me around the Gompa the correct way, and in very bad English he did show me where he lived, with the young boys, in a small shack just outside the south wall of the temple, hanging over the cliff.
When we were having dinner at Hotel Garuda that night I was telling everybody who cared for listening about the incident. And here is where the young Israeli fits in this story. He looked at me, wide eyes:
"You did get out, then, didn't you?"
"Of course not, I did my first prostrations in Pelling Monastery today."
He shook his head slowly, and the conversation just went on to something else.
That's more or less it. Just that a few days later I went to Rumtek … but that's another story. Or is it?
When I tell this story, in the west I mostly am asked: 'why do you think he did order you to do that? What kind of powers does he have?'
My answer, the rationalist and sceptic I am, is like this: By observation. One - I am very tall and look very Scandinavian, so I would have been easy to notice and remember. Two, it would not be too hard to see that I knew how to walk around in the Gompa in the correct manner. Three, I was sitting in meditation. It would be an easy guess that I might be a influenced by Buddhism.
The problem, of course, is how he would see this, as I was sitting at his back. He could not see me without turning. But then, I don't know a word of Tibetan.