Alarm clock blaring, it’s five-thirty in the morning. A few moments later, I’m stumbling across the dark room to turn it off, recalling why I must get up before the sun. Awe, yes. Today is a holiday, so a few of us foreign teachers have planned a day trip to Ganden. Built in 1409 A.D., under the watch of Zongkapa, Ganden is one of the ‘great three’ Gelukpa university monasteries. Located in the prefecture of the city where I currently reside, a bus is required for the hour and a half drive to Ganden and leaves at half past six. That means I had better get moving.
Forty minutes later, I find myself racing on my bike through the pitch black of morning in order to catch the bus on time. Finally, out of breath and perspiring from my furious pedal session, I jump on to the bus and find my seat amongst four other friends, looking forward to the day that lies ahead. Twenty minutes later (apparently the bus wasn’t shooting for punctuality, which worked to my advantage), we’re on the road to Ganden.
Once outside the city, we pass open fields, misty mountains and pools of water. About midway through the journey, our bus driver screeches to a grinding halt and smoke begins to rise out of the center console as another man reaches for a few tools. Uh oh, this could be a while. However, after a few short moments of tinkering around, the driver and his side-kick decide it’s no big deal and we’re back on our way. Sporadic grinding noises leave some passengers (particularly me) a bit unsettled, especially when making our way up the final set of switchbacks. ‘Crack the whip’ is kind of what it feels like from the back of the bus as the driver makes quick, sharp turns. I turn to Becky, “They do this all the time, right?” She looks at me with a bit of bewilderment and says something like, “Yeah, but I don’t think that matters. I’ve experienced much worse, though.”
Becky and I cling to the handles of the seat backs and ask for special blessings over the vehicle that will hopefully carry us to our destination in one piece. Finally, Ganden emerges on the scene, a variety of mostly white, individual buildings scattered across the hillside, the fresh morning sun casting shadows on some.
Hopping down from the bus, we take in the view and wonder about the early departure of our vehicle. It’s only about eight, but the pilgrims are raring to go. Our little pack of five inquires about how to take the Kora, a path that must be followed clockwise around the monastery, according to Gelukpa practice. After being pointed in the right direction, we walk past a row of four monks chanting out loud. They don’t seem to miss a beat, their deep red robes reverberating off the colorful backdrop of mantra flags and pure blue sky. We pass by them and make our way through a curtain of flags as the sun filters through the multi-colored fabric, creating beautiful spots of light.
Just on the other side, we take in the view of a breathtaking valley. At this moment I come to see our early departure time as a blessing and not a curse. My mind and heart take some time to thank the One who has set this valley before me. Then the five of us proceed to scootch along the path, enjoying beauty, peacefulness, snippets of conversation and laughter.
At various places along the trail, small alcoves filled with a combination of small idols, offerings and literal trash sit nestled withing some rock. Many times we have to duck beneath the hanging mantra flags, printed with mantras and Buddhist scriptures, fluttering in the wind. Mere motion of these flags is believed to gain merit for the practitioners that walk this Kora.
Our small band of “chi gye mi” (Tibetan word for foreign people) pass by a cave where people are entering and chanting in hopes of gaining blessing. A woman taps a stone against a smooth rock face where natural dips in the rock occur. Again, her hope is to gain merit and blessing through this repetitive act. Moving farther along the path, I notice scriptures and bits of colored wool up in the tree branches. Swathes of sheep wool are sometimes hung by pilgrims to ensure a good harvest. Looking down to my left, I survey a bird’s eye view of the switchbacks we endured via the sketchy bus. Chuckling to myself, I note the winding curvature of the road. From up here, it looks like a gray garden hose, flopped in the middle of towering mountains.
Coming back upon the main buildings of the monastery, I see a monk strapping a canister of what must be water to his back. He ambles off down the stone road to take care of his daily activities, which most likely include the reciting of scriptures within the dark, musty temple walls, lighting butter lamps, tending to offerings, sipping tea and taking part in the occasional monk’s debate.
Walking through the various temple buildings, one is reminded of how similar they all feel. Colorful hand-done paintings cover the walls, depicting various deities, outer realms and spiritual beings. Some portions of the wall are covered with cloth, not suitable for the public eye. Carpeted benches fill the center of most temples where the monks meditate and study. Discarded robes and personal belongings now lay scattered upon the benches, showing signs of previous occupation.
Pilgrims walk around the perimeter of the dark, smokey room, filled with the scent of yak butter, mingled with dust and incense. They pass under large cabinets that house rows of scriptures, believing that merely walking beneath them will grant more blessing. They stop in front of the glass cases that contain statues of deities, some with crazy eyes and painted smiles, others looking a bit more serene. Followers bow their foreheads and leave small money offerings in front of the statues that compel them most. Rows of burning butter lamps flicker in the dimness and reflect off the gold paint of a few idols. Steep stairs lead to an upper room where a lama taps on the heads of those who bring their offerings in anticipation of further merit-making. I’m overcome with a need to step outside for some fresh air and find my way to the heavily draped door.
Once outside, I drink in the natural beauty of the earth sprawled out below. Many people desire to obtain goodness and merit on their own terms, I too also try from time to time, but I know it’s futile. What about truth? Do people desire it with the same type of intensity? Can we obtain anything good without first seeking truth fervently? I’m thankful for the opportunity to observe a very unique culture of people that long for goodness and cleansing, just as I do. Seeing how we’re the same and yet so different moves my heart.
Eventually, my four fellow observers materialize and we decide that a bit of time in the tea house would be an excellent way to finish off our day. So we make our way over to the beating heart of the Tibetan way of life and pour ourselves some steamy cups of tea. It has been a good day.