The first two days of Mongolian New Year – Tsagaan Sar – visiting are for family, those with whom one is particularly close, and greeting your spiritual teacher if you have one. The third day the visiting widens to friends and acquaintances. I accepted two invites from long-time members of our Dharma group, and weaseled out of a third because, you know? Sometimes enough is too much. But the second visit, to a woman named Mandakh who was at her father’s, was way more than I expected.
My translator and I walked in to what seemed an ordinary apartment from the outside, but was decked out like a temple on the inside – wall-to-wall thangkas, texts, Buddha images – and seated in the middle an elderly Mongolian man in lama’s robes. Well, thought I, what have we here?
Turns out Mandakh’s father is the highly regarded, 93-year old Lama Sodnamtseren. It also turns out Mandakh told me all about this before, but somehow I had completely forgotten. I’m not exactly the poster boy for the benefits of meditation, am I?
In any case, we had a whale of a conversation, just hitting it off right away, telling funny and poignant Dharma stories, learning about and just appreciating one another. Mostly I pumped him for info about his life. Sodnamtseren was born in the sacred province of Zavkhan and entered a local monastery when he was just seven. The Communist oppression reached its unbearable peak when he was about 20, and he was forced to join the army. Can you imagine? From monk to soldier overnight. After his discharge, he had to live an ordinary layperson’s life until 1990. The minute the democratic reforms took place, he put his robes back on and resumed his religious vocation, albeit in the family home. Apparently, he gets up around dawn, and does his practices until lunchtime. He certainly has that vibe.
At one point, I asked him about the traditional Mongolian lama robe, particularly why the sleeves were turned up and blue-colored on the cuffs. He had such an interesting reply. He said that during Manchu rule, the Mongolians were forced to wear long-sleeved garments deliberately cut in such a way as to look like animals’ hooves at the end. When the first Bogd Gegeen (the rough equivalent of Mongolia’s Dalai Lama), Zanabazar, ascended to his position, he said, “You know what? We’re done with that. Everyone turn your sleeve cuffs up and color them blue to honor our ancient reverence for tenger, the great sky from which all things are born.” I don’t know how true this story is, but that’s what he told me.
But then he shocked me. He asked if I had such a robe. I said no, just the plain one I was wearing. He called Mandakh and had her bring in a new one of his own. He said it was his good fortune to be able to offer clothing to a disciple of the Buddha and gave it to me with the prayer that we would reunite again in Buddha Amitabha’s pure land of Dewachen. For once I was speechless, and so deeply touched.
But...you guys know my style is to stay simple and close to the ground. How on earth can I face others sporting a garment like this?!
I honestly don’t think that as a gelong monk I’m permitted to wear such a thing and it kind of runs against my general practice of trying to keep my ego in check. What do you think I should do with it?
Anyway, afterward we moved into his shrine room/bedroom. It seems that every year he offers New Year’s blessings to the extended family. This was done in a remarkably efficient way. He had some huge sutras brought to him...
...then he read the title and first couple of lines aloud...
...and then riffled all the pages so that the breeze touched the blessee’s head, such as that of the latest great-grandbaby:
And just because we really can’t get enough of pictures of elderly lamas and babies, here’s another one:
There was such an endless stream of visitors who came to pay their respects to Sodnamtseren that we agreed we’d get together another time and really talk. I found out that, of course, no one has bothered to systematically record his history, so that’s something to mull over.