It was a fairly sudden decision to travel to Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Garze, Western Sichuan, for Chinese New Year, informed by the news there would be no tutoring for a week.
“What are you planning for Spring Festival?” I asked on a Tuesday over dinner at my student’s house.
“Actually, we’re going to Lhasa.”
Chopsticks fall dramatically in slow motion from hand to table.
“Oh, really,” I responded a little too enthusiastically, “that’s GREAT!”
The next day I bought a ticket to Maerkang, a town halfway in altitude between Chengdu and Seda. After queuing for half an hour in the pre-NY rush, the overworked lady behind the plexiglass window curtly informed me that tickets could only be bought three days in advance. This is how I bought a one way ticket to the mountains scheduled for 8:30am the day before New Year’s Eve.
Part 1: Chengdu to Maerkang
Drinking whiskey with friends till the early hours and entering into a WeChat hóngbāo frenzy mean my memories of the bus mission have since congealed into a hungover melange of blurry contact-lenses and the oily residue of laoganma noodles.
Luggage and people spilled from the subway and into the bus station. Drivers recited northwestern destinations that I’d never heard of, shepherding homebound pilgrims into their vans for the Chunjie or Losar return. All aboard!
In typical Chinese transport style, the bus welcome was broadcast over the loudspeaker with a saxophonic Kenny G refrain. A group of girls with long, black linen aprons conversed in Tibetan as they squished onboard. A few unlucky people had ticket double-ups and were sent inside to ‘ask about it…’
The ticket lady switched to Putonghua to warn us about fake ticketing websites, though her audience was largely asleep.
Images of Buddha were cellotaped to next to the rearview mirror; prayer beads dangled in a loop below.
I sat behind an elderly woman wearing a headpiece of black folded fabric, ornately embroidered with a grid of colours – florescent yellow, shocking pink, bright red, orange and white with a singular flower in the centre – all masterfully secured with a long plait of hair. The Han woman on the window seat next to me wore a surgical facemask and clutched an enormous cellphone with a screensaver of what was presumably her own face.
Half an hour later, the other passengers returned in a flurry of Chengduhua and Tibetan. The ticket double ups were surprisingly sussed and we were finally ready to leave.
Much to the driver’s displeasure, the Chinese equivalent of Suzanne Paul boarded the bus. “Not now, we’re leaving,” he grunted, shunting the gear stick into submission. Ignoring him completely, Chinese Suzanne Paul proceeded to strut down the aisle with the assured confidence of a successful infomercial host, her headset microphone, waist-mounted amplifier and generously applied eye shadow bringing an abrupt display of glamour to the occasion.
She sold two facemasks and a pack of tissues.
I slept for almost the entire five and half hours, glimpsing snow cliffs out the window before my heavy eyelids were dragged shut by the anesthetizing effects of bus travel.
Part Two: Maerkang
Pulling up in Maerkang, things were eerily still. As is the way with bus arrivals in small towns, the passengers quickly piled off and dissolved. I pressed my face to the cold, grey window of the bus station to find it was most definitely closed.
The ‘plan’ was to buy a ticket to Seda for the following morning and stay the night in Maerkang. But there were no buses. I walked to the road, hoping to avoid the vulture drivers until I’d thought of a valid alternative. The road was very quiet – a petrol station, a ramshackle hotel, a square of gravel repurposed into a car cemetery. A driver approaches. In this case, there was only one.
“Seda, Seda, Seda,” he muttered in my direction.
I engaged with a sigh: “…when you going then.”
“Tomorrow morning, 6am.”
“How much for a seat?” I asked, as if I had a plethora of other options available.
“Depends on how full we get. At this rate, over 400 per seat.”
Dammit. He has the monopoly and knows it. 400RMB is upwards of $90NZD, a.k.a. hell no.
I eked a“waaaaa sai” and endured the expected sales spiel about how everyone else is on holiday and the bus station is closed. I took his number and walked off.
A monk draped in blood-red robes asked me in crystal clear Putonghua where I was going. He was standing with a frail Tibetan woman who had white pigtail plaits on either side of her head and an envious fluffy robe. Somewhere. “Zhuokeji.”
A taxi driver pulled over. He was keen to chat as we swerved through the valley. Prayer beads dangled from his rearview mirror. He asked if I believe in Buddha.
Part 3: Zhuokeji
Zhuokeji is a small village on the river about 8km out of Maerkang, inhabited by the Jiarong Tibetans 嘉绒藏族. The older women all wear black folded headpieces with different patterns embroidered on the back, same as the woman on the bus from Chengdu. Zhuokeji is dead quiet during the off-season.
Prayer flags were staked into a distant hill. Parts of the river had frozen solid. A woman who spotted me sitting idly on the wooden overbridge extended a “tashi delek!” with the raising of her hand.
There was something of a Nordic feel to this tiny Tibetan village in the mountains of northwest Sichuan. Stone and quietude.
White paint lined the eyelids of windows, while rooftops and balconies fluttered with trimmings of prayer flags. Piles of chopped firewood were tucked into their winter beds with sheets of tarpaulin. Doors to homes and restaurants were resoundingly closed. A family watched me from their balcony as I ascended the winding paths, yet no one said a word.
The Jiarong Brew House appeared to be semi-operational as the gate flung open with a clatter of loose chains. An old woman shuffled out with a wicker basket on her back, eyeballing me with caution. Why was I alone on the eve of New Year’s Eve, she queried, and why here? Questions I was becoming more and more uncertain of myself. As she tottered off for the hills, I saw her basket was full of rubbish and wondered if she were collecting or dumping.
Smoke billowed from one or two chimneys on the hill; I could feel the valley of homes watching me as I sat to rest on a plank. We were all privately puzzled as to what I was doing there. Water rushed noisily downstream, surging across snagged, scum-green duvets and ice-coated rocks. Two girls pounded their mops into the riverbed.
An old woman sat next to the bridge by the river, peeling cloves of garlic into a shallow basket woven into the shape of a petal. A fat man with a walking stick sat opposite her on the backseat of a car, breathing heavily through his mouth like a beached manatee.
“No accommodation 没有住宿,” Garlic Lady said in my direction, barely looking up from her basket. I walked over to form a three. She resumed her audience.
“No heating 没有暖气,” she added, “very cold 好冷.”
“…oh, really 哦是这样” I thought aloud.
“Ayeeeee,” she confirmed, continuing to shell her garlics with deft thumbs and a little boredom.
Suddenly, the lady from the Brew House was heard toddling across the bridge, carrying herself with the stability of a giraffe in heels. She plonked herself down on the carseat sofa and heaved a heavy ‘aiya,’ before producing a half-empty bottle of Erguotou from the inner fold of her dark robes, setting it down with a thud upon a table which had recently materialised at her side. Manatee jerked into life with a splutter; a rush of Tibetan began to flow around the brazier, which crackled in the mountain air
“Ding de hen!” Brew House exclaimed, gesturing towards the baijiu, which I interpreted as “I’m a bit pissed!” Needless to say, Brew House had been on the home brew.
In the narrow alley of steps and brightly painted doorways, a little girl was struggling with something.
“Ayi, help me! 阿姨帮我！” she whimpered, her arms struggling to hold a dislodged rock into the crumbling wall. I help a sister out.
“Thanks! 谢谢!” she chirped with relief, dusting her hands on her jacket. “Sis, you know of any home-stays around here? 妹妹 这里有没有住宿？” I asked before she skipped away. “These are all home-stays! 这些都是住宿啊！” she replied, whirling her arm in the air, “just knock and ask! 敲门问一下！”
I push through a saloon-style swing gate and climb a steep wooden ladder within. “Anybody home? 有人吗？” A tiny Jiarong woman with an amazing set of bright white teeth floats onto the balcony to greet me. I ask if she has a bed for the night.
“You’re by yourself? 你一个人吗?” she asked and smiled, her little face framed by plaits and black embroidered fabric.
“HO!” she cackles, “I’ll ask.”
For one week each year, the beds of Zhuokeji are reserved for returning family. I thanked her and continued on.
The exterior walls of a house on upper ridge were painted with white crescents. My knock on the red steel door made an unintentionally aggressive clang throughout the house – triggering the emergence of its singular occupant. Her hair was long, loose and unruly, unlike the neat headpieces of the other Jiarong women.
She shouted something akin to “WHADDAYAWANT?!” from the balcony. The other houses held families, yet she was on her own. I was spooked, suspecting she might be the village loon, a crazy Cathy jilted by a Jiarong Heathcliff. Footsteps scuttled downstairs.
Crazy Cathy promptly appeared at the front door.
“Come in,” she said, running a towel over her head and immediately assuming a state of normality, “sorry, I’ve just washed my hair.” I half crack-up to myself for thinking she was mad.
The house was sparsely furnished with wooden furniture and woven fabrics. I received the village low down: no buses tomorrow, no drivers to Seda over New Years and absolutely no way I’d make that van to Seda tomorrow morning at 6am if I stayed in Zhuokeji tonight, though she does have room available. Also, no way should a seat to Seda cost 400 kuai.
“I really haven’t planned this well, have I?” She agreed with a sigh. She said there was a bus back to Maerkang at 5pm and that it would be wiser to stay there tonight. I thanked her and set off again.
A large mural of Mao Zedong on the Long March is plastered across the face of the very inactive tourist centre. The hills are dappled with white snow and skeletal trees. A storekeeper called me lihai for travelling alone, but couldn’t be sure about the bus schedule. Several sleek, expensive cars drove in and out of the village.
The storekeeper set fire to a pile of cardboard boxes. With the sun’s slow, crawling departure came a finger-numbing, bitter cold. It’d been 40 minutes of no buses or taxis.
I drew on a line by Osho, which had become my mantra for the trip:
First comes courage, then everything will happen.
I was picked up as soon as my I put my thumb out.
Part 4: Back to Maerkang
He was a fairly ordinary middle-aged man who drove a fairly ordinary middle-aged car. His family were following behind us, a couple and their young daughter.
I told him I was planning to stay in Maerkang and find a way to Seda the next day, most likely with that expensive driver from the station.
“We are from Seda 我们是色达人,” he said, “we’ll be driving out tomorrow morning, you can come with us.”
Shit, really?! What luck!
Then the ultimatum.
“Are you going to Seda because you believe Buddha or just going to have a look?” he enquired, his spectacled eyes firmly on the road.
Blue pill, red pill. One of these answers might leave me at a petrol station out of Maerkang. Thankfully, an acceptable response was reached by saying I have an interest in Buddhism, but have only been reading in English. I left out the part about being a blogger.
“I want to go and understand a bit more 我想去了解一下,” I offered, attempting to defuse any possibility of being quizzed on the key tenets of Buddhism in Chinese.
“You won’t understand anything after a few days 你带了几天什么都不能了解,” he responded bluntly. “No, of course not,” I deflected. Silence. I asked how much it would cost to go to Seda in his car.
“I won’t accept money, we all believe in Buddha.”
Holla Buddha, love your compassion.
We continued into a river township, much more established than the bus station area which I’d assumed was Maerkang in its entirety, arriving in an underground carpark. Their usual hotel was closed, so we walked about looking for a place that would accept credit card. The early evening street corners were bustling with snack carts and fruit vendors, while people in animal skin cloaks, fur hats, embroidered aprons and red monk robes slowly floated around.
I thought it wise to stay on my own at a cheaper hotel on the corner. “Ok,” Mister said, “We’ll leave at 8:30am sharp, meet at the carpark tomorrow morning.” The couple were polite but removed, their little girl was super cute and wore a bindi on her forehead.
“My English isn’t good,” the receptionist lamented, flicking through my passport as if it were an unknown alien artefact. “you can fill in your own details on the computer.”
“Uhh… okay,” I said, squashing my backpacked body behind the counter before realising the only language required for the task was Chinese. The receptionist sat back and warmed her hands over the brazier, gleefully relieved of her duties. Her holidays had begun.
By nightfall, the temperature had plummeted beyond cold. I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche beneath the yellowing bed sheets with the electric blanket on high.
“The past is past, the future not yet risen, and even the present thought, as we experience it, becomes the past.
The only thing we really have is nowness, is now.”
Chapter 2: Impermanence
Part 5: Maerkang to Seda
The supermarket team clapped their hands in unison outside the SPAR, before Chinese New Year nursery rhymes pierced the stillness of Maerkang’s 8:30am morning air. Mister and the family were late. I eventually received a call to a bowl of rice noodles. Mister smoked two cigarettes with his brother. Mama fished some noodles in a rice bowl for bubs, who scoffed them down with chopsticks five times the length of her hand.
“Eat up,” Mama said to bubs, “we’ve gotta get home and fold some chāoshǒu for the New Year.”
“Zǒu le 走了” (“Let’s go.”)
“Anquan dai 安全带” (“Seatbelt.”)
It was a good thirty minutes before Mister broke the silence with an unexpected opener: “New Zealand has really big cows.”
He had studied xùmùyè 畜牧业 animal husbandry with a focus on New Zealand farming practices. I rambled my way through a counterpoint in Chinese, where I wanted to say “yes, however the mechanisation of New Zealand’s dairy farming practices have led to the pollution of water ways and increased carbon emissions,” but ended up with something more like “lots of cow poo-poo makes river dirty.” He manages urban construction projects now.
The skies were azure as we rolled through the mountains. Enormous prayer flags hung from the hills, jīngfān 经幡, the wind recites the words of each mantra. Mister discussed Mao’s Long March and it’s historical relevance to the frozen river beneath the road. I followed for a while before falling asleep and drooling on myself.
We stopped for a lunch break. Mister’s brother ran down to the frozen river and threw rocks at it. I was endeared by his relationship with the mountain environment at each stop, in nature he took on the airs of a child. He called for bubs to join him and she soon scuttled down the muddy bank into his arms with glee. Mama gave me two vials of herbal altitude medicine.
A baby yak furtively moved from the river grazing patch towards our car side lunch of packaged crackers and cakes, fruit and chicken. Bubs was scared and began to wail. Her mother told her yaks were friendly and her father taught her how to feed it banana skins.
The waterfalls along the road had frozen and formed jagged, glassy icicles framed by prayer flags and blue sky. Mister stopped the car for us to take photos several times. The frozen water formations were incredible, capturing liquid movement in time. Mister said Seda only has 50% as much as oxygen as Chengdu and that lately it has been dropping below -20 degrees. He lit another cigarette.
We’d driven 100km of bad road, but it was nowhere near as bad as some of the others in Sichuan (Kangding to Litang, Chengdu to Sigunuangshan, Litang to Daocheng, et al), it was just unsealed but not rocky or warped by enormous earthquakes. Construction workers had gone home for the holiday break, large rocks at the mouthes of mountain tunnels punctuated the pause.
Once the bad road was over, Mister, relieved, began speeding around blind corners with the same kind of reckless confidence as a local driving from Auckland to Piha.
The sun was hot through the car windows. I was thirsty. “We’ll soon arrive at your destination 我们快到你的目的地,” Mister said. He told me they would be driving back to Chengdu in eight days, and to call him if I hadn’t found a way back by then. I ghost dialled him to give him my number and finally asked his name.
“中国的中，爽快的爽。” Zhongshuang, which coincidentally includes my favourite character, shuǎng 爽, which means bright, clear, open, frank, pleasurable or more colloquially, just mean.
“We’ll be heading over the bridge to Seda Town, so I will drop you at the fork here,” he said, slowing the car to a halt. “See the white pagodas over there?” he pointed into the distance, “walk up there, the school is in the valley, it’s about 7km.”
He gave me a bottle of energy water and insisted I take a pack of individually wrapped banana cakes. I thanked him for everything, waved to the family and watched the convoy drive across the river and over the hill. I was so lucky to encounter these great people.
Part 6: Arriving at Larung Gar Buddhist Academy
At 4200m above sea level, Seda sunshine is on par with New Zealand’s frypan rays. The road towards the valley was rocky, lined with piles of rubble and half-torn down buildings. A slow trickle of Tibetan people walked in the opposite direction, giving me a curious glare. The mouth of the valley was populated by a few yaks, stray dogs and local people cloaked in fabrics, all congregating around a dilapidated row of stores.
As I walked up between the pagodas flanking the entrance to the settlement, a bright eyed girl in a green robe sidled up next to me with her nun gugu and little brother. Her name was Geriwengmu. She asked if we could be friends.
“Of course!” I replied, before she set about adding my number on her aunty’s iPhone, the only brand that can type in Tibetan.
“Will this be your phone number forever?” she asked with a kind of untainted innocence usually only preserved in small children.
Geriwengmu was from a village further west of Seda and was staying in her aunty’s hut while studying at Larung Gar. She’d never been to Chengdu. I stupidly asked her what she was up to today.
“Uhh… well I’ll be studying Buddhism.”
Suddenly we came face to face with the wall of clustered red wooden log huts, all hand-built, flat topped and chimneyed. I gasped. “Isn’t it beautiful?” We took a photo together and waved goodbye as she navigated her way back to her aunty’s house, a feat that looks harder than finding your tent at Reading Festival.
The road curled up through the valley and the huts became smaller and denser as I moved closer to the core. I didn’t know how far the road went, where I was going or when I would ‘arrive,’ so I just kept walking. After a while, everyone was either a nun or a monk.
When people come to study at Larung Gar, they dedicate their lives to the pursuit of enlightenment. Some of them have been there since they were very young, some of them have come from other parts of China, some of them came and never left. Their everyday lives are stripped back to the bare basics – a lot of carrying and lugging of food, water, fuel using blankets tied around the back. Everyone cloaked their shaved heads from the sun. No one said tashi delek.
I felt like an alien sightseer from the material world of conveniences, cheeseburgers, en suite bathrooms, VPNs, online shopping and takeout coffee – clinging to my possessions, a physical and spiritual outsider.
“Our myopic focus on this life, and this life only, is the great deception, the source of the modern world’s bleak and destructive materialism.”
Chapter 2: Impermanence
The sun was still beaming, but I knew the valley would freeze as soon as it dropped behind the hills. Doors were closed and people appeared to be busily pottering about with their own work. I needed to find somewhere to stay. I’d heard you could stay at the nunnery but so far nothing indicated where that might be. Red huts stretched out as far as the eye could see, layers and layers of them separated by narrow dirt paths and wandering figures draped in red cloaks.
A small, colourful corridor of golden prayer wheels contained a wrinkled woman with grey plaits and navy robes, who looked so much part of the furniture that it was unclear if she’d left her post in the past 20 years. I sat to rest with a trio of ascending nuns. They greeted me and I offered them mandarins. In a synchronised movement, the three of them instinctively declined by raising a palm to the sky, rolling beads with the other.
“You eat,” they said. “Excuse me, where is the school?” I asked. Hands pointed upwards, “another kilometre.”
The huts along the road had become tidier and more condensed than the settlements down the valley. The Buddhist village version of the ‘city centre.’ I passed dozens of monks queuing for their dinner and nuns washing clothes outside their huts in buckets of cold water.
When I finally arrived at the nunnery, a spread of nuns were sitting in the sun on the carpeted front porch, their crimson fleecy robes draped over their heads. It was a large, beautiful temple painted with bright colours and Buddhist imagery. The echoing drone of nuns chanting within the temple underscored the sunsetting beyond the hills. As I plonked myself down and took it all in, I knew I’d reached a very special place.
Shoes were removed marae-style at the front steps. Judging on how people would scan before leaving, shoes are likely repossessed marae-style, too. No one cares for material possessions, after all.
Hungry and needing somewhere to stay, I thought I’d enter the temple and ask. Pushing aside the heavy curtain, I found over a hundred chanting nuns seated on the ground chanting mantra, reading scriptures and staring at me. Too awkward to sit, stand or watch, I slowly backed out the way I came.
Back on the porch, two nuns were vigorously shovelling rice into their mouths, kneeling over their takeaway containers as if prostrating towards the sun. As the culinary options of a remote Buddhist settlement were unlikely to be abundant, I scanned the borders of the square for their source.
Through the window of a nearby hole in the wall, a stocky woman in an apron toddled between a vat of tomatoes and the exchange of small bank notes. Her young daughter swept the small kitchen despite the constant infiltration of hungry nuns.
“Another one of those,” I said awkwardly in Putonghua, wishing I could speak Tibetan like everyone else. “Five kuai.”
Tomato and egg and shredded potato on rice. A lone nun asked if I liked the food. She said the nunnery accommodation would be open again tomorrow.
The Larung Gar Hotel is located on the upper ridge of the valley, meaning a heinous number of stairs must be climbed before reaching it. A nun in a crimson head cap manned the front desk. I took the cheapest option, 45RMB for a four bed dorm. A girl was already asleep in the bed next to mine. Altitude sickness.
Later that night, the other beds were occupied by a pair of nuns. They were trying to use the landline to call someone, before approaching me with hand gestures to use my phone. Speech always sounds louder when you can’t understand it. Several phone calls later, they returned my phone and tried to give me 10 kuai. In the Seda spirit of refusing things, I refused. They thanked me and chat loudly throughout the night, before going to sleep with a spoken mantra on a pocket radio.
I woke to shut the lights around midnight and discovered their beds had transfigured into two crimson-covered mole hills.
Part 7: Life at Larung Gar
The nuns began chanting at half six. Throat clearing, creaky doors and smatterings of Tibetan echoed down the hallway.
Breakfast was pot noodles and a flask of tea. I sat on the ledge of my dorm window, which opened out onto a rooftop overlooking the endless expanse of wooden huts. White smoke billowed up from the village braziers and formed a discernible layer of mist over the valley, hovering like a smoky cloud in a freshly hot-boxed car.
You know you are at 4000m altitude when your crackers have blown up like puffer fish and the ball from your roll-on deodorant has cannonballed across the room. I considered staying at the nunnery, but not wanting to give up the kettle and electric blanket at the hotel, I booked another night.
Larung Gar is the largest Buddhist settlement in the world, home to an estimated 40000 monks and nuns. The ubiquitous sea of red wooden huts has grown enormously since the school was founded in 1980, hand-built by monks, nuns and their families to provide basic shelter for the duration of their studies.
The village settlement was equipped with a few fruit and vegetable stalls, Buddhist bookstores, retailers of robes, candles, pillows, blankets, packaged snacks and drinks, even modern amenities such as an ATM and a China Mobile. Van drivers would yell to prospective passengers out the window, mostly heading into Seda Town.
Sitting in the sun on the Nunnery Porch for hours at a time gave me a view into a world so far removed from my own life experience – everyone was moving, praying, coming and going within a codified set of practices that were understood by everyone but me. I sat as unobtrusively as possible, observing this community of crimson orbs living an existence both in sync and indifferent to the notion of time.
Miscellaneous toddlers wrapped in orange and crimson tried to keep pace with the ascending nuns, who had been migrating around like a crimson colony of spirits for the past unknown stretch of time. Plastic buckets and a few pails of earth-coloured stew were brought up on either end of a bamboo pole.
Nuns would scuff their shoes on as quickly as they removed them, entering and exiting the temple with the comfortable ease of lounge slippers. The valley was home. That porch was its own kind of sacred mountain, a higher space, an all seeing platform heightened by the tile steps that italicised it in a rhomboid.
The passing of time was now taken in accordance with the movement of the sun as it illuminated the sea of huts in slow and steady increments.
A cluster of beings materialised before me in a flurry of activity that could be described as neither sudden nor gradual. A nun with a knife began hacking at what appeared to be yak butter for distribution into several dozen containers. I brought out my camera and took a photo. The hacking nun looked at me with a look of disapproval, paired with the tranquility of a Sphinx. Time to leave.
I climbed the valley trails until I reached a quiet, spacious area of huts, each with well-crafted wood panels, windows and a neat fenced garden area – the Larung Gar equivalent of Wadestown. Monks gave me the eye as I sat panting on the grass, the way they looked at me made me unsure if it was okay to be there.
“To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” -Montaigne
Chapter 2: Impermanence
Not far from the top of the ridge, I made a slow beeline for the border where green grass met azure sky, feeling a compulsion to see what lay beyond the hills…
The only thing more terrifying than being chased by a wild Tibetan dog is being chased by four wild Tibetan dogs.
Teeth gnashing, barking and saliva, oh heeell no. Knowing the monks would not emerge to help, I boosted as fast as I could without running, my heart racing as I contemplated my inevitable mauling, blood loss and rabies infection. Everything I’d read about welcoming death as the next phase of life ceased to register – dogs can smell fear, and I absolutely reeked of it.
They fell back as I reached the frozen river, but their barking had set off others on the opposite side of the valley, as if alerting their chums of the fresh meat coming their way.
The frozen river snaked through the huts and over towards the grasslands, trapping wire fences in its jaws.
That night I walked around the gompa several times before retiring to bed at 7pm, exhausted. The girl next to me still claimed to have altitude sickness and now her boyfriend was tending to her every whimpering need. Through them, I managed to get a number for a guy that was carpooling back to Chengdu the day after next.
Part 8: Losar
I woke on Losar morning to find everything dusted in beautiful white snow. Mantras had been echoing over the loudspeakers throughout the valley since the early hours. With each speaker playing a fraction after each other, the unified chanting track created a reverb effect that bounced through the whole settlement.
“That which protects the mind from negativity, or that which protects you from your own mind, is called mantra.”
Chapter 5: Bringing the Mind Home
Next door to the hotel was a small hut that sold breakfast – rice porridge, buns and boiled eggs. The operation was run by two Tibetan women with long plaits and tough hands. “Is there any special event for Losar today? 今天有没有过年的活动?” I asked, pouring vinegar into my porridge, “No event… 没有什么活动…” a cleaner from the hotel replied with a sigh. If I was looking for a party atmosphere for Tibetan New Year, a Buddhist teaching academy was probably not the right place to come.
I climbed to a spot on the hill with an optimal view of the settlement. As the sun cast throughout the valley, the snow began to melt from the rooftops. Impermanence. Several Tibetan families walked by and greeted me with a “tashi delek!”
That afternoon, I met a dude called Yuan Xian outside the monastery. He was a chubby fellow dressed in tracksuit pants and an outdoor jacket. Yuan Xian had come to Larung Gar three years ago from his hometown of Chongqing with the intention of staying a few months. He never left.
He began talking to me about life and death, karma and a range of other stuff I had no way of understanding. He said he wanted to give me a book to further my understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, so we walked in the direction of his hut. “You wait here, you cannot enter this area, it is just for men.” Little did he know, I had stumbled through that area escaping wild dogs the previous day.
When Yuan Xian returned, he gave me an intense book in traditional Chinese on the key tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, he gave me a small ziplock bag containing several tiny specks of red and blue.
“These are shèlì 舍利,” he said, “I wasn’t sure about giving them to you because you might not appreciate their value, but then I decided this meeting was fate, and that you should have them.”
“Wow, thank you.” While I felt humbled that he wanted to give me something so deeply important to him, I promptly confirmed his initial supposition by looking up what on earth shèlì is on Pleco:
舍利 shèlì：relics left after the cremation of Buddhas or saintly monks (deposited in stupas for worship.) 1. ashes after cremation 2. Buddhist relics
“Keep them close to your heart at all times,” he said with a smile, “they will give you peace and protection.”
We walked up to the gompa and he eagerly talked about Buddhism. He could discuss this forever, he was very devout and earnestly wanted to share his knowledge with me. A lot of what he said went way over my head, but I got some of it when he broke it down to the basics－past life 前生, the present 现在 and the future 未. Everything we do in this life will affect the next, 因果, so we ought to do more good deeds, no matter how big or small.
He took me to some small houses of worship with Buddha statues and a nun in each, then taught me how to full-body kowtow 磕头 in the Tibetan way: there are three prayer positions for the hands – the first above the head, the second at the throat and the third at the chest, representing the body 身体, language 语言 and heart 心respectively. Then the body is stretched out face down on the ground, arms outstretched, and the whole process repeated three times. Once we had completed the kowtow, we walked around the Buddha three times clockwise.
We walked over to the next shrine room on the hill, which was dedicated to Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, the lama who founded the school in 1980. Yuan Xian said Khenpo’s niece is now the leader, but due to poor health, she rests in Chengdu for the winter and comes back in the warmer months.
Up on the higher plains, we walked around another gompa and put our heads to the stone. “Do you feel something?” he asked.
“Whenever we act negatively, it leads to pain and suffering; whenever we act positively, it eventually results in happiness.”
Chapter 6: Evolution, Karma and Rebirth
The nuns would freely relieve themselves in public. The snow had made the trails between the huts incredibly slippery – I was gripping onto wooden fences and stakes in the ground while slip sliding on the ice, before realising a stream of flowing water in my path was actually a nun pissing. Yaks trod about eating trash from the dirty brick depository zones and stray dogs scamper around for scraps.
On my last evening on the porch, dozens of nuns had huddled around like penguins in a circular formation, chanting a mantra to the clanging of a small gong, speed gradually increasing. For those at Larung Gar, prayer is not like church service where everyone sings when told to, rather it exists within everyday life. People are always praying in some form, so participation in group chants or mantras is fluid. Like clockwork, everyone knew when the mantra was over and scuffed their shoes back on to go home.
I met with Mr. Carpool next door to the hotel, where some elderly Tibetan people were sitting atop cardboard boxes and drinking yak butter tea from a large thermos. “We leave at 5am.”
Life for everyone in Seda is free of material wealth and the gluttony of the modern world. Our next lives are more important.
Part 9: Back to Chengdu
Five in the morning was pitch black and freezing, as a fresh layer of snow coated the valley. I walked down to meet Mr. Carpool at the giant golden prayer wheel as planned, passing a woman sweeping the snow from the front of her hut with a small brush. Mr. Carpool was pulling the prayer wheel round and round, so I joined him for a bit to stay warm and reflect on what I’d learned.
It was a full car – a Tibetan chick in the front, a nun, a monk, Mr. Carpool and a man from Hubei who later revealed he had come to pray for his ailing mother. As the youngest, I was squashed into the middle of the middle row by the nun. As we were finally about to leave, she asked the driver to pull over so she could get something from another hut, then set about banging on their door at half past five in the morning.
As the sun slowly began to rise, the light revealed pairs of Buddhists kowtowing their way along the side of the gravel road to the monastery, praying and prostrating themselves to the ground with every step. Some had gloves, some did not. None wore masks.
I slept for most of the way back. I was the odd one out in the van, I have an interest in learning about Buddhism and applying its values to my own life, but primarily in their eyes, I was a tourist.
When people compliment someone for being a ‘good driver’ in China, it usually means they drive at a maniacal, timely speed without killing anyone. We all agreed he was a good driver. The shorter the time I had to be lectured by this uptight nun from Heilongjiang the better.
For some reason, the driver would always stop roadside instead of at a village for toilet breaks. As soon as the van came to a halt, the doors flew open and everyone scuttled out into the shrubs to pee.
“Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion?”
Chapter 2: Impermanence
Part 10: Chengdu
The first thing I noticed about Wuhouci when we arrived back in the city was that it was crawling with armed police and military vehicles. There had been no 3G or wifi access in Seda over New Year’s, VPNs were down nationwide and it seems the Tibetan Quarter was on lockdown, too.
The city felt strange and the noise was acute. The Tibetan girl who had not said a word the entire ride slipped into the crowds and disappeared. Mr. Carpool added my WeChat and said we should drink tea together sometime. As incredible as Seda was, I was glad to be back – I missed my friends, I missed my bed, I missed my shower.
Back in the world of material wealth, a girl outside my gate showed off her new cellphone to a friend, admiring the screen size with what seemed like genuine satisfaction. ♦