In which we explore the little-understood bridge arcing through the luminiferous aether to form a bond between Mongolia and its spiritual counterpart...southern Vermont.
A Skype chat I had with my mama, proud denizen of Brattleboro, VT, yesterday morning was quite educational. First off, I learned that all this time, right there on Western Ave., sat the Asian Cultural Center of Vermont (ACCVT), by all lights quite the active organization. Most significantly, if you live nearby or know folks who do and you can tip them off, this Sunday, Nov. 2, ACCVT is putting on a Vermont Mongolian Film Festival at the historic Latchis Theater. Ma's gonna be there – look for a handsome elder decked out in Mongolian cashmere, and say howdy.
Starting at 1pm, ACCVT will screen Sas Carey's Gobi Women’s Song, a 73-minute documentary capturing the rhythm of women’s lives over the course of four years in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. More here, with trailer.
Then at 2:30, a naturalist from the wonderful Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) – I visited their raptor rehab facility once and got my life Least Flycatcher in their parking lot; one doesn’t easily forget such things – will come with a live Golden Eagle to give a presentation as a prelude to a screening of Joseph Spaid's film Kiran Over Mongolia. This documentary offers a glimpse into the lives of Mongolia’s far northwestern Kazakh people and their tradition of training captive eagles for hunting. Wonder how it compares to my friend Hamid’s excellent film about the same subject, Balapan, Wings Over Asia (huh, you can watch the whole thing for free here).
Now as if that weren’t enough transcultural depth for li’l ol’ Brattleboro, the town also boasts the headquarters for the School for International Training (SIT). I accompanied 11 undergraduate students from their World Learning Mongolia program this past weekend to the East Gobi as guest lecturer and guide through the world of Danzan Ravjaa, past and present.
This was a very open minded and curious group, prone to asking sharp questions. For example, they might inquire, “Konchog, is there any evidence that Buddhist meditation makes you smarter?” To which I might reply, “Why certainly, my young friends, there are statistical models that blah blah yadda yadda...” until a cool photo opportunity arose, at which point I would discover that for this momentous journey I had brought my camera, but left my memory card in Ulaanbaatar, after which my previous assertions about meditation and memory development would come under brow-knitting scrutiny anew.
What a big dummy I am sometimes.
Nonetheless, Sister Ariunaa, who hooked this gig up for me, shared a couple shots, so all is not lost.
I took the group on the Standard Tour – museum, temples, caves, Shambhala site, Khan Bayan Zurkh Mountain – with a couple of twists.
For example, this was the first time I had been in the new Danzan Ravjaa Museum. After I related to the kids the courageous way Danzan Ravjaa’s hereditary caretaker, Tudev, had preserved 64 crates of Danzan Ravjaa’s treasures from Communist demolition, we toured through the two floors of exhibits. I was tickled to see many unfamiliar objects, texts and ritual items. Later, I discovered that Altangerel, the current caretaker and Tudev’s grandson, had unearthed three more crates this summer. In his office I saw more mind-blowing objects, such as an elaborately silver-worked oracle crown that Danzan Ravjaa would don when he channeled protective deities, that are awaiting restoration before being put on display.
Arriving at the monastery site, we took the obligatory group photo...
...after which I ushered them into the temples. Here, I’m telling my favorite story, that of the Padmsambhava image known as The Statue of 10,000 Knives.
They were game for the funny rituals pilgrims undergo. For example, at the main cave site, there is a low rock arch. It’s said that the opening under the arch spontaneously appeared when Danzan Ravjaa and the Panchen Lama of the time meditated there together. It’s now called “The Mother’s Womb” and people scrunch through the aperture holding hands in a line, and then to the bottom of the ravine, in the belief that, doe to the blessings of these two great lamas, they will then be reborn together in a very auspicious way.
I found that during the summer, several small stupas had been built, the most of interesting of which graced the back of the ovoo mound at the Shambhala site. It commemorated Danzan Ravjaa’s song that everyone sings there, called “Ulemjiin Chanar,” or “Perfect Qualities.” The lyrics and melody are now inscribed there and this was the first time I was able to sing it, as did all the kids and their Mongolian chaperones. The other Mongolian pilgrims were very impressed!
The oddest addition, one I’m still puzzling over, is a huge monument erected by a group of businessmen to honor the 205th anniversary of Danzan Ravjaa’s birth.
My practical American mind thought the money spent on this might have gone toward the new temple instead, but it’s likely that it has spiritual and symbolic significance I’m not aware of. Lama Erdenebat tried to explain this to me, but I still don’t quite get it.
At any rate, it was a great trip, and Altangerel kindly gave the kids an hour of his time before we caught our train to answer the kids’ questions, an invaluable benefit for their education. I’ve been asked to accompany the spring group – oh boy, sandstorm season! – and will happily do so should the stars line up just so.