If you want to come to an experiential understanding of the truth of impermanence, come to Mongolia. Yesterday was, like, Arizona hot, hitting about 96 to welcome the first day of summer (and, by the way, Palzang’s 59th birthday). Then in the afternoon a front roared in, blowing dust all over everything, and this morning it’s overcast and I’ll be surprised if it cracks 70.
Anyway, I don’t know if I can continue this blog and hang around with the likes of you people. Day before yesterday, Palzang and I dined with the newly-elected president of Mongolia, Nambaryn Enkhbayar. Oh, OK, yes, there were 200 other people there and it was buffet style and we didn’t exactly get personally introduced, but still. The occasion was the first night of the Northern Buddhist Conference on Ecology and Development and I snapped this cool photo of Mr. Enkhbayar and HE Choijamts Lama offering a toast (that’s iced tea in the lama’s glass, not lager).
For the dinner we were bussed to the brand-new airport hotel (complete with police escort and stopped traffic!), which sounds lame, but really isn’t. The “hotel” is actually a sprawling complex of various temporary and permanent structures – everything from gers to a ten-story high-rise – located far beyond the airport down a lovely long valley. For the evening’s entertainment, they put on a mini-Naadam (Naadam being Mongolia’s extravagant annual July festival) complete with music and dance, strongmen and contortionists from the circus, and the three traditional sports of wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Here are a couple of shots. In the first, I got lucky. This little Nikon digital is the first camera I’ve ever owned, and I find the auto-focus delay in shooting a little maddening, especially with moving subjects. But the cool thing about digital is that you can take a zillion shots and hope one or two turn out. The second photo is of a strength and balance feat. I like the layers of red, green, and blue.
Now I know we’re far away from the last Gobi trip, but I wanted to share some thoughts and images on a matter I’ve been mulling over here, and that is aging with grace and dignity, and the sharing of wisdom that enhances the promise of a new generation. Before I get to Mongolia, however, I want to tell you about these two elderly German women. They showed up at Khamariin Khiid just in time for Khamtrul Rinpoche’s first empowerment. They weren’t part of a tour group, so I asked them how they had come.
“Oh,” one of them replied, “we walked from Sainshand with a Mongolian friend. It took about two days.”
I must have done one of those cartoon things where my eyeballs popped out and zipped back into my skull (remember this image?) so she helpfully continued, “It’s the only way to really get a feel for the land. My friend and I are retired now – I’m a goldsmith and she’s a teacher – and we’re taking several months to wander across Mongolia. It’s amazing that we’ve come to this holy place during a special event just at the beginning of our journey. We feel so blessed.”
Hearing this provoked my silent prayer, “Please, please let me be so cool when I get old.”
The harsh Gobi elements sculpt and burnish the faces of the elders there in ways that are gorgeous to my eyes. When I get to know them (and my camera) better, I will ask their permission to take some formal portraits. Already we’re getting along beautifully, though. I address them with respect and affection as “minii eej” and “minii aav” (“my mother” and “my father”); they in turn have started to jokingly call me “shovoo lam” or “bird monk”, given my obsession with feathered critters.
This is Tongalag, and it was her job to serve Rinpoche and his guests in the ceremonial ger. She’s so elegant; everything she did was infused with beauty and love.
This is Baatar under a tapestry portrait of Danzan Ravjaa. He’s the monk who has special access to Danzan Ravjaa’s healing spring and who keeps order during ceremonies in the temple.
This is Ayushjao, the mother of the man responsible for the Shambhala stupas. I’m so in love with her, I can’t even explain it. She’s very reserved and dignified without affectation. But when she went into the tent to offer a kata to Rinpoche, she cast formalities aside, grabbed his face and kissed him on both cheeks in spontaneous gratitude for his coming so far to bless her remote corner of the world.
On the right here is Tserendorj, retired doctor and professor, listening as Rinpoche conducts a blessing of the Sainshand Medical College. He later spoke the words of thanks on behalf of his community. Earlier he had delighted in chatting with Palzang in Russian and was the first to chuckle and call me “bird monk”.
It is these elders who are only now, in their twilight years, allowed to freely express the devotion and faith taught to them by their elders. Seventy years of Communist suppression could not squelch their spirit, especially in a place like the Gobi, which is so utterly untamable, wild and free. And since a full third of Mongolia’s population is under age 25, these elders and their example are a truly precious natural resource. I think this next photo is the best one I’ve taken in Mongolia and says so much about the cross-generational continuity of faith.
These photos, taken at Rinpoche’s college blessing, also convey something of the natural devotion emerging among Mongolia’s young people.
And to deepen and repair these traditions, exceptional boys and girls are being sent to the Tibetan Buddhist training centers in India to fully absorb the wisdom and practices that the Tibetans have preserved in exile and carry them back to benefit Mongolia. This amazing little monk sought Rinpoche’s blessing for his impending journey to the Drikung Kagyu Institute in Dehra Dun, sponsored by the Tilopa Center. It was a moment that was profound beyond words. One of our first projects here in Mongolia will be to sponsor four young people identified by Altangerel and Dush Lama to go to HH Penor Rinpoche’s monastery next March. They actually intend to send ten altogether. Absent major societal disruption, Mongolia’s Buddhist culture should regain much of its pre-revolutionary splendor in a generation or two.
I’ve got to scamper to my Mongolian lesson, but quickly another wander in Sainshand’s town park added three lifers to the list – Dusky Warbler, a ubiquitous ground forager; the gorgeous Yellow-billed Grosbeak; and the Common Rosefinch. And here is my first-ever whack at bird photography, showing a cheeky Desert Wheatear perched at Khamariin Khiid. Not too bad for a first attempt, eh?