The slender, bare-headed man, swathed in red and seated in the circle just to the left and slightly in front of where I stood watching the ring of monks seated around the massive tree gestures to me to sit down next to him. Gently he pulls the square carpet upon which he is sitting out from under him and lays it next to him on the ground, patting it to show me where to sit.
I look around the circle. Comprised of only monks in red, there are no other lay people in the ring. Only monks. In fact, I haven’t see anyone all day who is not Asian, making the invitation to the only white person – a woman – seem all the more unusual.
I suspect that it is the fact that my hair was cut almost as close to my scalp as his, and the mala that I am wearing around my neck, that gives me away. It could have be the fact that I am wearing a traditional kurti made of several blocks of different colored fabric, pieced together with red, blue, green, and white embroidery at the neckline. I probably look like one more flag in the blaze of Tibetan prayer flags that flickers in the wind above our heads, rows upon rows as far as the eye can see.
We are in the Secret Garden behind Maha Devi Mundhir, the temple that protects the site of the actual birth place of Siddhartha Gautam, the Buddha. The specific location where he was born is marked by a stone, now protected by bullet-proof glass, surrounded by brick walls that, at one time, marked off different areas of the vast garden in which he was born. The brick walls extend far beyond the plain white building that was erected to protect the stone and allow people to walk over the historic site on wooden walkways so as not to damage the old, crumbling masonry. If there was ever understated architecture, this is it. Unlike many of the other temples at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lumbini, the Maha Devi temple looks like an abandoned warehouse. The site upon which it sits, and the brick walls amongst which it is situates, dates back 300 BC to 2000 AD. A place of pilgrimage for Buddhists worldwide. Perhaps a Buddhist Mecca but without all the fanfare, and certainly not all the crowds that stream into Mecca. A simple memorial for a simple man.
I sit down, uncertain about what is expected of me. My silent new friend cups his hands in front of him to form a bowl in his lap. I think that maybe he was showing me how to pray and I try to imitate him. Not, apparently what he had in mind. He points to my mala. His cuffs are frayed and dark with dust. His fingers are long; they gently rest upon mine for just a moment, a simple gesture of instruction. We are sitting in on a patch of grass that is more dirt than grass. I see that the cuffs of his pants are also dirty, and my socks are now sticky with bits of grass. None of this matters. I take my mala off and place it in his palms, which then close tightly around it. He begins to chant. I assume that he is going to bless it but then, as time passes and he remains mesmerized in his chant with no sign of ever stopping, a thought passes through my mind that perhaps he considers it an offering and this is the last I’ll ever see of it. Not that this would be a bad thing. I just don’t quite know whether to keep sitting, or to leave. I opt to stay and see what happens. I close my eyes and sink deeper into the rhythm of his chant.
I think even my taxi driver, Chakra, is not sure what was happening, as I see him approaching from in front of us, poised as if to strike. Perhaps he thinks he needs to assist me in some fashion. But I ignore him too, and continue to let the ebb and flow of the chant carry me away from my uneasy thoughts. Chakra gets the message that I am okay, and waits at a distance. Although I don’t know what was happening for sure, I consider it highly unlikely that he is absconding with my mala. Quite the contrary. Funny how the Western mind works when it can’t understand what is happening. Rather than just relaxing into the moment and seeing what will happen next, it goes to the closest interpretation for the action that it can dig up from its storeroom of cultural baggage. Someone reaches out and takes something of yours. Well, of course it must be theft. No…. of course it isn’t!!
The solitary voice rises through the air like a bird on the wing, singing a prayer to bless my mala. There is no one else singing. I can’t tell what the other monks think. I realize that it is probably his youth that allowed him to reach out and drag a foreigner into the circle to bless her mala. I doubt that any of the older monks would have done the same. I listen to the sweet sound of the prayer swirling around my ears and wonder for a moment what the words to the chant actually mean. But it does not matter what the chant means; it never matters. It it the singing of the mantra that carries their significance, never their word-for-word translation. I am being gifted with a most precious gift, a mala blessed by a monk from maha devi. This is a cherished action, in an auspicious place, by bodhisattva who has committed his life to freeing the world from all suffering through asceticism. The tremulous voice, raised in my honor, whispers to my soul across time and I listen to the Buddha’s Words of Grandeur — Foremost I am Chief in the World, Supreme in the World, Eldest in the World. This is my last birth, there will be no more re-becoming. I like the image of “re-becoming”. It feels familiar to me in a way that “reincarnation” does not.
He is still singing. I try to quiet my mind and immerse myself only in the sound of his voice, but my mind is struggling, trying to understand what is happening instead of just experiencing it.
His shoulder bag is laid neatly in front of him, as all the monks’ bags are placed before them. Sometimes someone who is obviously better prepared and better informed than I comes around the circle and drops a crisp new 10 rupee note (worth about 10 cents) on each monk’s bag. Still he sings on. Other visitors to the site pass by us, still others circle the massive tree in front of which we are sitting waving sticks of burning incense. The air fills with its sweetness as his notes climb higher and higher into the branches above us.
I notice that are people taking pictures of the monks, who appeared to be oblivious to the cameras. So I cautiously take out my phone so I can have a picture of my mala being blessed. My benefactor doesn’t look that old, maybe in his thirties, and he doesn’t appear to notice the phone. What’s a cell phone compared to a life of devotion to Buddha anyway? Why would he concern himself in the least with it. Clearly, he doesn’t.
His chant comes to an end for a few seconds. Then he slowly he raises his right hand, next to me, still clutching the mala, and holds it gently against the crown of my head. Once again his voice intones a prayer in song. My mind has finally stilled. I sit, he sings, and the rest of the world drops away.
When he finally finishes and returns my mala to me, I thank him and ask his name, which I then promptly forget. Of course his name doesn’t matter, any more than mine does. I am just trying to find some way to prolong the moment instead of doing what he is obviously doing – devoting himself to the next moment in which we find ourselves. I gather all the small rupee notes that I had in my pockets (around $1.85) and place them on his bag where the woman had earlier placed her 10 rupee note.
He smiles and bends his head slightly, in such a way that I think perhaps that he is mildly amused that I feel the need to give him something in return but in all previous encounters I have had with monks giving blessings, some form of symbolic payment is expected afterwards. Of course, for all I know, maybe his smile was because he thinks what I was giving him isn’t enough. It’s really difficult to know what anyone is thinking, let alone a monk. Unlike the monk who had grabbed both me and my driver upon entry to another temple site earlier in the afternoon, to tie an orange string around our wrists, chant a short prayer and dab a little tikka on our foreheads, who made it very clear that he expected to be paid for a blessing that we did not request, I realize that I really have no idea what he is thinking. In the end, I decide to trust my first instinct, that my Buddhist benefactor did what he did from his heart, and not because he wanted to be paid him for a service.
I walk away from the circle and my taxi driver invites me to sit on a bench that overlooks the entire ring of red-robed men to rest for awhile. As we sit, voices filled the air in chant as the ring of monks begin a group chant. My mind by is now completely quiet. Finally! I could sit here for hours just listening to the music although, I do have to break my reverie long enough to ask the taxi driver to get off his phone. After all, there are signs everywhere saying “be silent”. I guess the definition of silence is subject to interpretation.
As I look around the circle at these men who choose to live an ascetic life in order to free the rest of us from our suffering, my life seems to pale in comparison. While they spend their lives touching ultimate reality, I spend mine mired in the endless distractions of conventional reality. Despite perhaps all looks to the contrary to someone from the West, I have no doubt who is the more free between us …