Resilient Souls

By: Siddhi (written after a trip to Lhasa in 2007) 

There was a welcoming coldness that radiated from the gaping, dark hole of rock in front of me. Relief. My ravaging hunger and exhaustion were, for a moment, alleviated by the thought of escape from this furnace. I felt like some sort of ethereal being after this ascent: physically existent, but mentally hollow. I was standing on the rocky summit of the Drepung Monastery, the heartland of Tibetan Buddhism.  But I really didn’t care. This was my fourth monastery visit in a row, and the “spiritual journey” was getting old.  All I could feel were drenched clothes clinging to my slimy skin; acid pincers gnawing at my stomach. I was going to pass out.

But the moment I stepped foot into the cave, a damp and humid air heaved down my chest. I couldn’t breathe. And thinking about breathing made it even more unnatural. Tibet was reputed for altitude sickness; people came here with more oxygen bottles than water in their bags. Sharing the cramped space with my family and guide only pushed claustrophobia to gain a stranglehold on me. I shut my eyes, inhaled deeply, and slowly peered to absorb my surroundings.

The shelter was lit by a single ring of candles that burned hazily in the dust. I could see two cloaked figures with their backs faced to the entrance of the cave, but I could barely make out the crimson red of their robes and the wrinkled skin beneath.  Yet, I instantly sensed the anxiety that crept into their motions when they heard our cautious footsteps, as if some foreign and undesirable thing had penetrated their space.

They turned around. I saw sags of skin under eyes that seemed worn by a troubled history.  I saw bony, gaunt cheeks. I saw pale faces strained by weakness. And then, after a few dead, frozen seconds, I saw smiles that softened the concern and eased my growing discomfort. They knew our guide, and understood we were just tourists accompanying him. We weren’t intruders to be feared.

In a soft, scarcely audible voice, I asked our guide the unmentionable question, the one he had reprimanded me many times for asking in public: Did these people keep a picture of the Dalai Lama? The younger monk must have heard me, because she instantly turned towards our guide and they exchanged a few words. After taking a closer look at my sister and me, and with a faint smile on her face, she gingerly walked up to a barely visible black cloth against the edge of the cave. It was like she was opening a part of the wall itself.

Beneath the sheet was a photo of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader who had been banished by the Chinese and forced to seek refuge in the hills of India. He was the man who wasn’t allowed to step on the earth of his own home, the man whose land I, the tourist, was permitted to freely roam. The image was in such contrast with its black surroundings that it was blinding. To me, the American, it was just a photo. To her, the suppressed Tibetan monk, it was a portrait of a hero she would be brutally murdered for worshipping. Courage, danger, defiance- all of it lurked unnervingly beneath an act as simple as hanging a photograph on a wall.

These were simple, moral people. They were once children with ambition, just like me. They were students who had been taught by their spiritual elders about right and wrong, the meaning of karma, and loyalty to their beliefs.  But because of something as scathingly pitiful as politics- greed – they had degenerated into an existence in which they were barely surviving.

The monk put her fingers on the tranquil face of Tenzin Gyatso, then delicately placed her hands on our faces, as if transferring to us some of the enduring hope he gave them. The elder monk, who had till then observed in silence, beckoned us to sit and took out an oval object covered in cloth. As she unwrapped it, the moving folds revealed a light brown object resembling a stone. Her coarse hands picked it up and struggled to break it. She finally tore off a large portion and put it in my hands, lifting her wrinkled arm and motioning towards my mouth. I realized that this wasn’t a stone. It was a single chunk of stale bread, the women’s only meager ration for several days. She wanted me to eat it. I couldn’t. But I had to. To not would be the most offensive form of disrespect.  I put it in my mouth, and let it soften under whatever saliva was left in my parched throat, refusing to work my tongue, denying the taste. It was equivalent to chewing on a rock.

I watched the monk pack away the trivial remains of bread. After a few moments of being lost in a wave of pensive silence, she moved closer to me. Our eyes locked. Out of her fatigued black pupils leaped an invisible force that tugged ferociously at my gut, and then ripped it out. I was overwhelmed by emotion. The heat, the painful heaviness, the lethargy and hunger- it all just faded into insignificance. I still saw the sags under the eyes. I still saw the gaunt cheeks. And I still saw the physical weakness. But this time I also saw the unwillingness to surrender.   It was at that point, that for the first time in my life, I felt raw pain. There is something deeply profound that transpired when I looked into those pools of relentless hope, of inexplicable peace. It was too surreal, too impossible for happiness to exist on a face so weathered by eternal terror and paranoia.

The world no longer existed. It was just the two of us, experiencing the most honest connection I have ever felt, the purest manifestation of human sentiment.   Our lives are defined by those small moments when we figure out things we are never going to be told. They are those split second flashes that somehow enlighten us better than all the books and teachings in the world; like that moment did to me.

Gratitude has taken on a different meaning for me.  Till I came to Tibet, the concept was almost entirely intertwined with material abundance. And yet, both in this cave and beyond, I experienced a class of people who the world would term as impoverished, but in my observation were enriched with the scarcest possession of all: contentment. Knowing that one can stay alive by believing in small and fleeting moments has convinced me that I have way more than I really need. The encounter with the monks in Tibet was a defining experience in weaving the fabric that binds together the idealist and the realist within me.

I am confident that the further I journey into the unknown, the deeper these revelations will become, and the stronger my urge to pursue them. Maybe they will be beyond my power. But the least I can do is know.

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