Um, about the previous post? Yeshe’s out of the ICU and apparently blinked awake, looked at the nurse, and said, “Howdy.” Now he’s sitting up and wanting to take a walk. I’m hedging my bets and buying him a 108th birthday card.
Anyway, I got pressing bidness to tend to this week, like scratching together the...scratch to send our lovely Mongolian nuns to India so they can get on with becoming hardcore Nyingma yoginis (why yes, of course you can contribute, how kind of you to ask -- last big push to the November 1 deadline, OK?), so I’m gonna hurl together an account of the latest South Gobi hajj in one go, with limited yapping and lotsa pix. Ready?
First off, I did indeed ride shotgun the whole thousand-mile round trip in a jet-black Hummer H2. Now, such a ride might generously get a B+ for comfort, and perhaps turn heads in either wonder or disgust, but as far as being a serious off-road vehicle...it’s really kind of a samsaric metaphor, you know? It certainly has the appearance of the real thing, indomitable and all that. But once you actually experience it as a vehicle, your haughty confidence quickly deflates as the speedometer malfunctions, knobs come off in your hand, the simple act of braking causes alarming drift, the front bumper keeps whacking the dirt, and your growing disappointment might morph into real anger and resentment as you empty your wallet again and again to feed this deceiving behemoth that is, in all honesty, butt ugly.
The purpose of this journey was to see, photograph, and pray near the stupa being constructed by Lama Purevbat and his students, while they were actively doing it, at the last monastery Danzan Ravjaa built in his life, Demchig Khiid, in Omnogov, Mongolia’s South Gobi province. If you want to get a feel for the landscape on the way, and some background, see the posts from the last trip here, here, here and here.
We rolled into our camp next to the monastery about 8pm Wednesday (the ‘we’ being Otgoo and her husband – the Hummer owners, a woman from Taiwan named Sharon, Purevbat’s wife Kim, the driver, and one bad monk). Purevbat kindly directed his students to set up my tent – which was good because it was dark and the first time I had used this $15 Chinese wonder – and invited us into his canvas palace to be welcomed in the only truly civilized manner: with a full bowl of khormog, thick, rich, lightly fermented camel milk. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it, baby!
It was a breezy night, the tent was a little flappy, and the dogs a little yappy, but I slept contentedly (ha) nonetheless. After sunrise and a quick breakfast, I caught a first glimpse of the stupa beyond our site.
It was time to explore further than I had before, and practice in the surrounding rocks.
The rocks –the setting for the jewel that is Demchig – rock. The formations have a real masculine character. They reminded me of the Granite Dells between Jerome and Prescott in Arizona. Dig it:
Slightly further afield I wandered into a different array that look as though several million metric tons of mud balls had dropped from the sky and hardened just as they splat upon one another:
In here were these remarkable twin mounds that look for all the world like the ancient Indian stupas such as the one you see in Sarnath:
And also in here was one of three sites I found – caves or simply overhangs – that had clearly been turned into meditation shelters. You get the feeling that Danzan Ravjaa’s scene was intensely focused on spiritual accomplishment, a ruthless, self-sacrificing pursuit of awakening to our immaculate nature. I mean, these cats would take the barest hole, or bit of rock, and wall themselves in until they really rang the bell. Tough to find that kind of chutzpah these days. Here’s the cave opening...
...and a sinkhole forming within it:
The other two erstwhile shelters:
In this glorious landscape is arising such a magnificent stupa, of Lama Purevbat’s innovative design. This was traditionally a place of Padmasambhava, so he has conceived the stupa as expressing what are known as the three kayas (bodies) of enlightenment: Amitabha as the Dharmakaya, Chenresig as the Sambhogakaya, and Padmasambhava as the Nirmanakaya. Here is the Amitabha statue they created, along with the sogshing, or “tree of life,” that forms the central axis at the top of the stupa:
And here is the mansion-in-progress in which he will dwell:
Notice that the bottom square section has an opening. This is because it will not be a sealed chamber for offerings, but rather a shrine room for a Padmasambhava image, into which devotees may enter. They were just beginning to apply the decorative details, and believe me, it’s going to be stunning. The only thing I worry about is that there are no lamas in the area. Who will care for it once it’s done? Purevbat says local families trained to do so, but that’s a little sad, considering how it once was.
As I showed in the last postings from here, the central stupa will be surrounded by eight smaller stupas, arrayed in the eight-petal lotus pattern that had existed before. Here are wide and tight shots of the current state of construction:
Lama Purevbat is also implementing a local innovation. Throughout its geological history, the Gobi Desert – once a vast sea, once rife with volcano fields, once forested, for ages tramped upon by dinosaurs large and small – has produced a fascinating variety of mineral aggregates, sometimes with embedded fossils, and petrified wood. At an alarming rate, people are combing the desert for these treasures and selling them to – guess who? – the Chinese. As much as he’s able, Lama Purevbat is gathering what specimens he can for preservation, and using them as offerings within this stupa. For example:
The few trees also produce interesting figures...
...into which one of the artists carved this little snow lion:
As day became night, I shared the sustenance that all the crew ate. Now, we Americans are quite familiar with Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. But if I were a consultant helping them to penetrate the south Mongolian market, I’d tell them to forget that, and bring out Campbell’s Camel Noodle Soup. Because that was all that was on the menu, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even the dogs survived on the detritus. Here’s my buddy Bob. Called him that because he was, you know, a barker:
Next morning, I explored in another direction, along the dry riverbed and was stunned to discover a local graveyard nearby. I was quite taken with the hand-carved headstones. Some sported traditional Mongolian script...
This one had a clever contraption for allowing the wind to turn a small Mani mantra prayer wheel...
...while this, I thought, displayed a particularly artful rendering of the sun and moon, that for some reason adorned most of them:
And I quite liked this shot with the stupa in the background:
I spent another morning in the rocks pestering Guru Rinpoche. By early afternoon, the wind had abated and the sun warmed things up to the point where I was comfortable in a sleeveless t-shirt. I wandered over to the stupa to take some shots of the workers when a sudden gust of cold wind, then a sharper one, threw clouds of dust into my face. I looked to the north and went, “Ruh roh.” Columns of black clouds stretched from the horizon like an angry hand just before it clenches into a fist. The freezing gusts started becoming a gale and I hustled back to camp. Too late. The first blast had torn my tent from its moorings and flattened it (if knocked-out boxers ‘kiss the canvas,’ what do knocked-out tents do? I'm spending at least $20 on the next one)...
...and had another desperately on the ropes:
I sought shelter for a bit in one of the gers (as with the genius of most indigenous design, this structure is impervious to even the harshest elements) but my love for dramatic weather soon brought me out with my camera. Here’s the storm as it engulfed the stupa...
...and spit snow across the distant landscape:
Sometimes, Buddhists feel that weather events reflect something auspicious. This didn’t feel like that. This felt like upset and wrath and I wondered if something had gone flooey in the stupa construction. But this wasn’t Purevbat’s take. The Mongols consider most significant mountains to be inhabited by powerful, non-physical beings. He said that just before the storm blew in, local people had dynamited a huge hunk of rock off a nearby mountainside in order to make a big sculpture somewhere. But the being who considered the mountain to be his had neither been asked nor appeased and was royally pissed.
The wind raged for hours, and eight of us relocated into one of the gers to sleep. I was lodged at the far edge and what with the hard wooden floor, the cold wind seeping under the felt walls, Bob barking at all threats real and imagined, and one denizen treating all the rest to a somnolent recital of extravagant flatulence impressive both in its variety and volume, there was little sleep to be had.
No matter. We dawdled the next morning at the nearby well to draw water for a small herd of camels. This is no small job. Camels, I read, need about 30-40 liters of water a day and can snarf 100 liters in 10 minutes if especially thirsty. But what no article mentions is that after drinking, the camel will shake its head and, like a cartoon, seemingly sprout about six inches of lower and upper lip that flap in all directions. I thought I would be sick from laughing so hard.
After I successfully persuaded my travel companions that we had gotten far too late a start to make a detour to eat the legendary Gobi boiled sheep innards (swear this is true and you should have seen the puss on the husband’s face when he realized he was to be denied such a delicacy), I found the toggle that reclined my seat, settled back and dreamt of Danzan Ravjaa all the way home.