“You have to imagine,” said the man in broken English, “that this…” he gestured his hands at the view in front of us, “big lake… flood wide and deep… great water!” He broke into a wide toothy smile.
There was a pause as we considered this.
“But… not at the moment,” Cesca eventually prompted.
“No!” the man said vehemently, still smiling and shaking his head.
“At the moment it is just a dry field full of Yaks”.
The closest Yak stopped chewing and looked up at us, as if responding to the sound of its name.
“That is a Yak there then?” Colin asked.
The Yak looked at him, and then barked loudly as if to say – “of course I am a Yak, do I look like a moose?!”
“Yes,” said the man still smiling and bowing his head, although he couldn’t have missed the notes of disappointment in the tone of our questions, “make good tea!” He blurted out.
“Tea?” Cesca asked.
“Yes. Come. We go to my house and have Yak tea!”
The four of us looked at each other and I shrugged.
“Sure mate, let’s do that,” I said, “back in the Taxi everyone”.
So that’s how we ended up sitting around the hearth of a Tibetan cab driver’s house watching him pump Yak butter into tea, the production of which was an almost hypnotically terrifying sight. large slabs of Yak butter was spooned into a foot long tube along with steaming hot water.
Then a slim plunger was rammed in and pumping commenced. It looked to me like he was priming a very small cannon, but the noise was surely unique and nothing I have ever heard before or since has quite the same disgusting viscous squelching sound.
I pulled my eyes away and considered our surroundings.
The building was a basic farm common to this region, two story, but built low to the ground and with a surrounding wall to hold in the many animals.
He had ushered us passed these creatures, in a flutter of feathers and baby pig hooves as they dived out of our way, towards the inside where there waited his amazing looking toothless mother.
At least I presume it was his mother as English was not among the lingra franca here. She was incredible to behold: her skin was like leather and she was clearly very old, with the stoop caused by a lifetime of working outside.
She welcomed us in and then, after a few faltering attempts to communicate with us via her son, curled up onto one of the chairs and went to sleep.
We all were now seated around the stove-like hearth in the middle of the room with our host at one end. Cesca was soon asking for permission and then snapping away with her camera and the man was happily introducing us to his children, who he clearly loved and was very proud of.
Then he got down to the very serious business of rustling up four cups of Yak butter tea. He poured out the yellowing liquid into bowls and handed them to each of us.
The smell coming off mine was exactly like what it was: rancid butter and hot water.
The man also offered each of us a stale pastry of a type I have never tried before or since, which we were informed that we should dunk into the bowl, and probably to make it soft enough to eat as it had the consistency of hardtack from the 1800’s.
Also, alongside the tea, which none of us had made any motion to drink yet, the man showed us a bowl of flour stored by the hearth. He wet his hand in his tea and run it through the flour producing a clump of wet pastry that he ate without any further ceremony.
We all spontaneously shared a look. In each of our eyes was a challenge to the others. Silent agreement was reached and we all drank our tea. I closed my eyes and drank mine in a mighty deep draft, wanting to get it down me quickly.
The first mouthful tasted horrible and was just the wrong side of too hot.
There was a huge pause while people smacked their lips and considered the bowls in their hands. Mine had little hairs floating in it.
There was another huge pause.
I downed the remaining drink and bit hard into my pastry, managing only to remove a chunk of it by violently twisting my head – almost wrenching my teeth out of my jaw. Then I smiled to the man, who was watching us intently,
“Very nice thanks!”
He seemed happy with this and so the others followed suit, effusing over the quality of the victuals, the excellence of the small building and how much we were honoured to be having a genuine experience like this. Most of which was absolutely true, especially the bit about being honoured.
Thanking someone for something you didn’t enjoy is a time honoured tradition that the English have down to a fine art. We needed to skate down the razors edge between convincing the man that it was a wonderful drink (as our natural feelings may actually be showing on our faces) all the while firmly stating that we didn’t want another (as this would sully the spiritual journey we just experienced, naturally).
Cesca, Marilou and I managed through body language, nods, and smiles to achieve this delicate balancing act and the man was satisfied, but Colin made the mistake of motioning slightly with his bowl and immediately the man took this to mean that he wanted another serving, which was delivered to him at once and before Colin could interject.
It sat there in its bowl still steaming slightly.
Now Colin had to drink this with everyone in the room watching and the three of us trying not to laugh. He girded his loins, raised a mighty Irish toast and drank the stuff down in one gulp like a true man.
“More?” our host’s expression queried.
This time Colin managed to stay on the right side of the line and firmly placed his hand over his bowl, shook his head and swore an oath that a third helping would be merely greed on his part, what with the host only having half a ton of rancid Yak butter left, and that he, Colin, shouldn’t take advantage of such a generous offer.
It came out as something like this, “Oh, fuc… I mean, no man – Christ in heaven! – I couldn’t really, thanks, no I mean it! I shouldn’t, really. Thanks”.
We went outside and played with the baby pigs for a while, who all ran away from us in a flock like birds. Very cute. The man talked falteringly about Tibetan life, which was a lot of fun and we laughed together over many a misunderstood subject.
Cesca and I were going to get the bus up to the large golden temple/monastery and Colin and Marylou were going back to their guesthouse. Ostensibly for Colin to recover from his ordeal, but I could tell the sort of recovery he had in mind.
So, after being dropped by the taxi driver in Old Town, we said our goodbyes and thankyous and caught the bus across the plains passing all the Yaks in the dry gulch of the river towards the temple.
Sat above a small town the temple looked down from on high like it probably has for hundreds of years. One new building at its base was a government office that sold tickets for entry. It wasn’t cheap, but cesca and I paid and made our way to the base of the steps leading up the mountainside. It was at this point that the angle of these steps was made to clear to me; they were almost vertical and numbered in the hundreds. We started our journey up them in the blazing sun past smaller outlying buildings with bright white walls.
After a few stops to catch our breath in the thin air we managed to crest the final stones to arrive at the ground floor of the temple complex.
It was made of three large buildings immediately in front with more stretching off to the right. It also had at least four levels and I leaned back to take in the higher chambers. I wondered aloud how we might get up there.
The next thing I noticed was that the complex was very old and run down. Considering the price of the tickets I was expecting to find a very modern and wealthy structure kept in the kind of condition that we found at the temples in Singapore, for example.
But, no, here the Buddhists didn’t look like they got any of the cash from the gates. We entered the first building, which had a hanging cloth for a doorway, and came across more of the “demonic” art we had noticed in the temple back in the old town.
I had been furiously looking this stuff up on the Internet, but I had not been able to come across much that made sense to me with my understanding of Buddhism. I was beginning to feel that Tibetan Buddhism, like many organised religions, suffered from an over abundance of dogma. Indeed this form of Buddhism appeared to me to be counter to many of the central tenets I had come to understand and appreciate.
When I first came across Buddhism, the accepted transmission of the Buddha’s story suggested that the key to enlightenment came from physical hardship. It seemed that way on my first reading, what with the intense starvation he went through, the large rejection of his position in rich society and the night spent battling with the demon Mara under the Bodhi Tree.
I later realised that the Buddha may have physically suffered, but that is mainly because he was looking in the wrong places. His trials were his many attempts to find enlightenment on, what he finally decided, were the wrong paths. He found the right path only when he stopped trying so hard to find it. The true “struggle” was forging his new mind that could “let go” enough to become enlightened.
Buddhism is a message about clarity and seeing the obvious right in front of you. Looking at these mysterious paintings I felt that the dogma surrounding the Tibetan version of Buddhism was obscuring the message and piled so high as to make any sort of clarity almost impossible to the uninitiated.
I was very unsure about the requirement for membership found in Tibetan Buddhism as the Buddha never asked his teachings to be the domain of private, hidden hermits high in unreachable temples. He said, “Whoever wishes may dwell in a wood and whoever wishes may dwell near a village”. He extorted that nothing should ever be simply believed unchallenged and that even in his last days he gave his priests the authority to change all the lesser precepts. He said that humans are unhappy because of their “thirst” and to become happy they must make themselves a new heart and will. Tibetan Buddhist temples claim to have a “short cut” to enlightenment, but surely that is to “thirst” for it?
How much faster could it possible get? When the Buddha preached his first message to his freshly-minted followers in the deer park in Sarnath the topics were simply “All is impermanence”, “The Middle Way”, “The Four Noble Truths” and the “8 Fold Path”. That was it. Understanding these concepts is not beyond anyone as they are all fairly obvious once pointed out. The Buddha then made all the listeners priests on the spot; missionaries to take the message to the world. If he considered them sufficiently equipped I don’t see how the Tibetan form can claim to be any quicker.
Inside the temple was an enormous statue to a Buddha that reached high up into the rafters.
The room was very dark and lit only dimly, but I could still tell that the statue was painted in gold leaf. We explored around and found a staircase leading up. This eventually led to the roof of the temple and an amazing view.
A few people had ventured up here, but we spied another level entirely built into the rear wall and in it another stair.
There were no signs saying do not enter so we went up and found ourselves walking across a rickety corridor beside a collection of rooms facing awindow looking out down the valley.
The floor felt as though it would give way at any time and it was deserted. This must have been some of the senior monks cells before the red communist soldiers turned up and ransacked the place. It looked like not a thing had been turned back up the right way since that fateful day.
Beyond them was another stair, even more derelict. Up that we found ourselves moving towards what must have been the senior Lama’s quarters. It had the highest and most commanding view of the valley and must have been simply incredible during sunset and sunrise. We could however ascend no further in safety and we both watched for a while. The wood here was old and dry rotted underfoot and I had a definite feeling that to continue would be to court disaster and so we descended.
To find this great building in such a state of repair was heart-breaking. However, I was to spy one young monk running around the grounds and so perhaps this most form of teaching does have a future up here in the mountains.
In the end it was easy to decide that Tibetan Buddhism, with its mysteries and secret knowledge, was not for us and this left Cesca a little lost in where her spiritual journey was taking her. I too felt unsure, but took comfort that Japan and Zen Buddhism lay ahead. Little was I to know that another great tradition was to capture my attention first.
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We spent a few more hours exploring the temple complex before heading back down the steps. At the bottom we caught a bus back to the old town and our friends. Our next plan was something very special: we were to walk the deepest gorge in the world, “Tiger Leaping Gorge” and Cesca was going to have an unexpected ride on a donkey. Not a yak!