Several folks have written to be sure I’m aware of the atrocities being visited upon the courageous, peacefully protesting monks and nuns, and their lay Burmese compatriots, by the current criminal regime in Myanmar. I am, and I feel agonized and somewhat helpless. I’ve signed an online petition of condemnation, and so can you. But unless China jerks their chain, there’s little to stop it, I fear. And do you think China will? Fat chance. Sure, they’re making the appropriate public noises about “restraint” but that’s laughable. I’ll bet my bottom dollar that in private, they’re telling the junta, “Don’t sweat it, fellas. You remember Tiananmen? Sure, we took some heat about that for a while, but 25 years later they gave us the Olympics! The biggest symbol of international goodwill there is! Even though we’ve never stopped jailing and torturing monks and nuns in Tibet! Or Falun Gong practitioners! Or dissidents of any kind, really! So carry on. We’ve got your back.”
This gives me an idea. The only way China would seriously jerk the junta’s chain is if the nations of the world suddenly discovered some kind of collective moral courage and said to Beijing, “Unless you produce an end to this violence right now, we are boycotting next year’s Olympics. And we’re not kidding.” They’d freak, and then you’d see action.
Ah, a monk can dream, can’t he?
I’m currently reading Xinran’s The Good Women of China. After China’s “opening” under Deng Xiaoping, the author hosted a landmark radio program about the lives of Chinese women, with the unprecedented feature of live call-ins. The resulting book is a heart-wrenching account of some of those lives and an indispensable glimpse into the convoluted culture that forged two generations of Chinese women. I wasn’t sure I would make it through the first chapter, “The Girl Who Kept a Fly as a Pet,” and I should offer a word of caution to those who might have suffered similar experiences. It recounts, from the victim’s point of view, an unspeakably tragic tale of incestuous sexual abuse. Reminded me in tone and impact of Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird.
But there is some good in this world, and some of it is found in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Let’s return to our sanctuary there, shall we?
On Saturday, we arose early and tucked into a substantial breakfast, preparing for a 400km odyssey along lightly traveled Gobi tracks. And by “lightly traveled,” I mean in 18 hours on the road, we passed one truck, one car, and one motorbike.
We began the day journeying to Khar Uul, a nearby sacred mountain. Local lore has it that this mountain is the abode of a certain protectress, though None Dared Speak Her Name. They would only say she rides a camel and wears a green deel. We first paid a visit to a cave that people flock to as it is supposed to covey the power for increasing wealth. No one could quite tell me why. All I got was, “Long ago a hunter lived here, and...then somehow it became a wealth place.” Believers go in with a bank note that contains the color red somewhere and rub it on the cave’s walls. Then they save it, and wait for Ed McMahon to ring their doorbell. I looked in my wallet and found I had every variety of tugrug note except those that contain red. Story of my life. Think I’ll stick with the Buddha’s advice and practice generosity as the means to generate prosperity. Here’s the cave entrance. It’s much roomier inside, but trashed in carelessness.
We then climbed to the summit. For some reason – devised by men, I reckon – this female protectress only allows men to climb to the top. Nevertheless, it was a lovely ascent, and once at the crowning ovoo I chanted the 21 Homages to Tara. On the way down, looking across this rugged expanse...
...I lagged behind, entranced with the lazy, windborne gyre of three gorgeous Cinereous Vultures (also, btw, called Monk Vultures).
And then off we sped, catching an early lunch in Khan Bogd (“What’s on the menu?” “Buuz.” “What else?” “Buuz.” “Um, could I have some buuz, please?”).
Across the desert proper, we marveled at the diversity of landscapes and how abruptly one gave way to another: barren, black gravel; salt pans; pure sand studded with saxaul bushes; mounds like ski slope moguls draped in creeping green ground cover.
At one point we discovered a watering hole occupied, to our delight, by a herd of about 150 camels. We stopped for an hour, during which time I happily wandered among them, snapping portraits. They’re such exquisite beasts; I’ll share a bunch of my pics of them this weekend, but here’s one to tide you over:
The water also drew in scads of migrating birds. I was too absorbed in the camels to pay much attention, but once I did, I came up with a lifer, the pretty-in-pink Mongolian Finch.
Later in the afternoon, what seemed to be a vision shimmered on the horizon, gradually coming into focus as a vast monastery ruin, and yet not all a ruin. There was activity, some new structures. None of us had the faintest idea what it was. We veered over to inspect.
Only one sleepy girl answered our call at the gers; she pointed to a worksite down below where a gate of some sort was being fashioned.
Everyone was there. We wandered down and quickly connected with the head lama, Batmunkh, and another named Zorig. They seemed glad to see us. They don’t get many visitors, much less pasty white monks. The nearest town is about 200km away, and they’re not on any tourist route. I asked them to tell a little of the monastery’s history. They were happy to oblige.
It seems that in the 18th c., one lama by the name of Losang Jamyn Something (I’ve since bought a notebook and a pen; I’m really an idiot sometimes), took up residence in a small cave here and proceeded to accumulate tens of millions of mantras, especially Avalokiteshvara’s Om Mani Padme Hung and Manjushri’s Om Ah Ra Pa Tsa Na Dhi. Astute Buddhists will recognize these two as corresponding to the two fundamental, and inextricable, facets of the Buddhist path, compassion and wisdom.
After his retreat, he and seven lamas decided to settle here. Soon a few others came. Like 1300 others, 1000 monks and 300 teaching lamas. They called it Ölgii Khiid, which is a very curious name. “Khiid” is common, meaning “monastery” or “hermitage.” But “ölgii” can mean “cradle” or “swaddling clothes” or, most intriguingly, “birthplace.” You’ll see in a moment why that resonates.
As the lamas were relating this monastery’s origins, to my great surprise I felt strangely overcome. There’s a kind of strong devotional feeling I’ve come to recognize, which usually only occurs when I see my teachers after a long absence, or sometimes when I read or discuss something especially profound from the Buddha’s teachings. It’s a little hard to describe but it’s like an upwelling in my body that causes the whole surface of my skin to tingle and tears to start flowing. It’s my cue that I’m in the presence of something particularly pure with which I have a clean personal connection. Very unexpectedly, that was what was happening here.
We were given a short tour, beginning with the main temple. Again, the faith of the Gobi people had been undampened by the years of Communist repression, and the second they felt they could rebuild without repercussions, they did. This temple was finished on Dec. 7, 1990. It enshrines many precious images that people had hidden from snoopy cadres, the centerpiece of which was an exquisite 1000-Arm Chenresig statue.
I didn’t photograph the statue because it was behind flash-reflecting glass, but I did get an image of yet another wonderful painted map showing the monastery as it was at its height:
I also snapped this little detail, which will be relevant in a moment (hey, dig it, I just noticed that the lead camel is being ridden by someone in a green deel!):
I asked if Danzan Ravjaa had visited this monastery.
“Oh yes,” they said, “many times,” explaining that it was on the way from Khamariin Khiid to Demchig Khiid. One lama got a wistful smile, adding, “And when he came, he used to take away our best monks.”
“Really?” I chuckled.
“Yes. The monks here used to lament ‘Oh, that drunken lama’s gone and kidnapped our top students again!’”
We all had a big laugh. Then we were taken to the cave.
Now, please recall the natural rock formation at Demchig to the west:
And now get a load of this cave entrance:
Do you suppose there just might be some primordial creative energy permeating this part of the world?
I was allowed to enter the cave, and once inside sung the Mani mantra and recited a little of Manjushri’s. As I emerged, one of the lamas said to me, “This is a very powerful spot. Watch your dreams tonight.”
Sure, I thought, knowing that I’m the kind of dullard who almost never has any “special experiences” when the lamas, at empowerments and such, suggest that one might. But darn if, just before waking the next morning, I didn’t have an elaborate dream that, to paraphrase a good friend of mine, in a manner that was neither auspicious nor inauspicious, seemed to be auspicious. It’s bad form, I’m afraid, to discuss the details, and anyway it might very well have been the product of the power of suggestion and the buuz we ate for lunch. But still.
We were shown one more special site, a small, smooth ravine that also had a strong birth canal vibe:
In fact,it is at the head of this ravine where local people go to pray if they have been unable to conceive children or if the children they have are ill.
After this tour I remarked how this place felt saturated with a particularly female compassionate energy to which I am irresistibly attracted. I really wanted to stay. Like, for good. And then another curious thing happened.
I have the habit of playing with my mala (the string of beads we use for counting mantras). As I was doing so, it shook loose into a kind of rabbit-goes-down-the-hole slipknot. One of the lamas grabbed my hand before I could undo it and said, “My teacher told me that if someone’s mala knots up like that, it’s a sign that they should spend the night.”
I was in distress, knowing this was impossible. I said, “If it were my decision alone, I would instantly agree, but I have to go with my companions to Khamariin Khiid tonight. Can I consider it a sign that I should come back very soon, and perhaps spend many nights here?”
They all laughed and happily agreed. I’m making plans in my head as I type, believe me.
Now, remember the little detail of the painted monastery map? Well, the last thing we did was take pictures of the site where they are re-creating this lovely entrance gate, surmounted by 21 small stupas in honor of the 21 Taras.
Seeing everyone’s joyful dedication to this task, I was so moved I fetched my wallet and offered the head lama (pictured above, standing on the ground) most everything it contained. Then, with deep reluctance, I climbed in the car and off we went.
The sun was setting and I asked how much further we had to go. A quick reading of the GPS and the answer came back, “250 kilometers.” Say what?! But yeah, I had heard right and hunkered down for many more hours of bumpy, nighttime desert travel.
There were three highlights. The first was encountering four khulan, the rarely-seen Gobi Desert wild ass (I'm still laughing about the UB Post headline: "UB to Host Wild Ass Convention"), and chasing them in the Land Cruiser for a bit so everyone could get a good look. The second came when the road, for some strange reason, led us right through the middle of another monastery ruin (I mean, it’s not like there’s a lack of space down there to re-route the road). We later found out from Altangerel that we had passed through Khoinchin Khiid, the Shepherd’s Monastery. He said it had been located on one of the major north-south caravan routes between the Mongolian capital and Beijing. He also mentioned that it had been unique in the sense that it was one of the few monasteries in which all the chanting had been conducted in Mongolian, not Tibetan.
An hour or two later, after meeting the lone motorcyclist, we happened across a large compound with guest cabins and a startling amount of trees and other greenery.
“What’s this place?” I asked as we pulled in for a stretch.
“Watermelon farm,” replied Sukhee.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No no. Watermelon farm.”
Of course, what else?
We were ushered to a small shack where we sat together at a low table outside in the moonlight. Right away, a cheerful woman brought out an enormous platter of...can you guess? Very good, that’s right! Cool, crunchy-sweet, delicious watermelon, perfect on our parched tongues. This was quickly followed by a man offering us a large mesh bag filled with the whole fruits of their labor, special dark-green Gobi watermelons just a little larger than a softball.
Once again I was so touched by the Gobi people’s natural devotion. The woman claimed she was feeling cheerful because she considered it a great honor that a monk had come to visit and that they could make an offering. I thought to tell her it would have been an honor if a good monk had come to visit, but for once I just smiled and kept my mouth shut. I gave them both Guru Rinpoche cards with the Seven Line Prayer on the back, which they received with real pleasure. We drove off into the cool desert night to find Sainshand, and I thought that that had been one of the more perfect days of my life.