A Soul’s Calling


When we came to the end of the stairs, we were a thousand feet closer to heaven. A dome of royal blue was suspended overhead as several telling cumulus clouds chugged up the valley. Adjacent to the trail was a slanted parcel of land covered with tall alpine scrub where juniper bushes grew among the rocks. Tufts of red and yellow, plants that had changed for the arrival of fall, were peeking out from the conifers’ roots. The small field was marked by a crude stone fence as were the other plots along this stretch of the road. But since this acre was nearest the valley, its far flank met flush with the cliff’s brink. Three piles of mani stones lent the area the hallowed mood of a graveyard. On the other side of the river, Ama Dablam towered majestically into the sky. Struck by his sheer immensity, I stood riveted in place staring at him. He reminded me of a giant, white raptor perched in a spread wing formation, a feathered phantom ready to strike against enemies of the Great Mountain and the world.

I turned to Tej and said, “Let’s just be with the mountain for awhile.”

Tej nodded in appreciation or understanding or both, which, I couldn’t say.

Sitting on a rock, I dropped down into my heart’s center, reached my senses out, and came into a connection with Ama Dablam. He was insanely powerful. He possessed the strength of a titan, reigning supreme over the valley with an authority superseded by only one. He feltdifferent, too. A ribbon of energy quivered inside him with a vibration unlike Thamserku, Kantega, and the other peaks. He was watching me. Like a parent worried over a child, his grave concern matched my every step. He was an ally that much was certain. But he was holding something back, not telling me all he knew. He was angry. Just like the Great Mountain had been.

Shaking my head, assuming my senses hadn’t gotten the conversation right, I thanked Ama Dablam. Turning towards Tej, I noticed he was quietly observing me with an interest he hadn’t used before. Ignoring him, I looked northward where the jagged, snow-capped peaks snapped me back to reality. We were roughly six miles northeast of Namche and the snowy hinterlands from yesterday were looming larger. I shuddered at the prospect of leaving civilization behind noting to myself that complete desolation was a day, perhaps two, away.

From the southern edge of the village, the trail led easily through the hamlet. The route narrowed, winding through a grove of juniper trees and then widened, but only briefly, as it came to a small square where a four sided stupa stood. The reliquary was twenty feet high and its stones had fused together, though in spots it was crumbling. Around the stupa’s base were three levels of mani stones, set like books on a shelf, their script facing out. And the prayers of the village were strung high between the neighboring trees.

As we continued deeper into the hamlet, Sherpa homes appeared on either side of the trail, yards were being used for crops and drying out dung, and women were tending to family chores. One home in particular stood two paces from the path and was playing host to an uninvited guest. A yak had found its way into the family’s living room where a middle-aged woman was yelling and beating the beast with a broom, insisting it vacate the premises. The yak gave the woman a forlorn stare, unfazed by the clump of straw beating his bottom.

Two homes down, Tej stopped, pointed to a large, maroon square adjacent to the trail, and said, “Monastery.”

We broke from the footpath and walked around to the front of the property. The monastery had two stories. Its outer walls, white washed cement, were chipped and cracked, and mud had been smeared, splattered, and lashed against it from the monsoons that had ended the week before. Mani stones leaned against either side of the entrance. The lamasery was as non-descript as a place could get. There was nothing about its appearance, neither the slate tiles on the roof, the mani stones in front, nor the prayer hall rising above the compound in back, that saved the monastery from looking the truth: dismal and dilapidated.

We walked through the doorway into a dark, dank foyer, a room that might have been home to the yak we’d seen minutes before. Several paces further took us into a modest courtyard. The quad was the flattest piece of earth I had seen since arriving in the Himalaya. The courtyard was divided in half where a crop was being dried and readied for use. A young woman was squatted in a corner working patiently with her hands tending to the little bales around her. She was dirty from head to toe, wearing loose fitting clothes, and looked at us briefly before returning to her tedium. Directly in front was a flight of stairs leading to the prayer room which appeared dark and unspectacular from below. Its facade was in desperate need of a new coat of paint. White cement was showing through where the maroon had worn thin with age. Three windows with bright yellow valances hung over the landing. The porch had its own blue ruffled treatment, too.

Tej went up to the young woman and after they shared a few words, she pointed to a corner on the upper level. Tej thanked her and then motioned me to follow as he climbed the stairs to the landing. When we came to the top, a glimpse into the prayer room revealed the sanctuary was just as unremarkable as it had been from below. A veranda wrapped around the second floor, and on the opposite side were four doorways, which I took to be monk sleeping quarters. The walls were the same ruddy red in dire need of painting, and sitting in a corner were three old monks sharing a pot of tea.

The two of us placed our packs at the entrance to the prayer room while the old men watched us. Tej went over and spoke with the monks. When he returned, he said, “He say we need take boots off.”

After removing our footgear, I unzipped my daypack and pulled my bundle out. The oldest of the three shuffled across the balcony carrying himself like a man whose day had been rudely interrupted. His face was as craggy as a mountain and his unkempt hair and frizzled beard were white as snow. He wore a Northface parka over his robes and a pair of beaten up hiking boots underneath. He looked me up and down, and with a wave of his hand, shooed Tej and I into the prayer room.

As my eyes adjusted to the dreary mood, my nose sniffed the musty accents floating about the room. The floorboards were worn planks of wood like the kind found in a barn. Two wide benches formed an aisle to the butsudan, the altar, which stood prominently at the head of the room. On either side of the nave were empty spaces where low, wooden benches waited for monks to commence a meditation. Lying on top of the benches were pads dressed in a faded floral pattern. The butsudan’s two tiers were simply adorned. The upper level had a row of palm-sized, silver offering bowls, a candle burning in every other one. On the bottom mantel were several bronze butter lamps and a hand held prayer wheel that had been set to one side. Behind the ceremonial shrine were three, stone-faced statues peering out from glass enclosures. The wall on either side of the butsudan was arrayed from top to bottom with rows upon rows of cubby holes where the monks’ scriptures sat neatly wrapped in bright orange text holders.

An old drum hung from a frayed cord from the ceiling. Its shell was made of wood and the drum head, which might have been made of yak hide, had scratches and deep grooves beaten into it. Dangling loose at the drum’s side was what had probably marred the instrument to begin with, an ornately carved wood stick. White and ivory kata scarves were draped from a line that stretched across the main aisle. Hanging from every inch of the ceiling, the rafters, and the walls were bright silk and embroidered tapestries and thangkas, paintings done in the traditional Newa style, depicting scenes of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and other deities. And peeking out from all the decorations were floral designs that had been painted on the frescoed columns. But for all the vibrant colors and mystique the artifacts lent the room, a dinginess clung fast to the air.

“Tej, please tell the monk why we’ve come.”

Tej turned to the monk and exchanged words with the old man.

“He say this very old monastery. Six hundred, seven hundred year old. He don’t know exactly,” Tej said.

“Yes, but what about the kata blessing. Will he do it?”

“He no understand.”

“Please. Tell tell him I’d like him to give a kata blessing to my bundle.”

Tej spoke to the monk again. The old man listened intently, looked quizzically at my bundle in my hands, and laughed. Surprised by his reaction, I was taken aback that this spiritual man would make light of any blessing request. But he shrugged his shoulders, offered a few words, and waited for my response.

“He say hundred rupee. You put in box,” Tej translated.

I fished the money out and pushed it through the slot of a small, wood box attached to one of the columns.

The old monk laughed as he grabbed my bundle from me, his swollen, arthritic hands wrapping around it. He shook his head, still puzzled with my request, and carried my bundle to a table where he placed it down. He then set to preparing the incense for the ceremony. He placed three generous pinches of spice into a bronze burner, lit it, and closed the lid. Holding the burner by the chain, he gently blew into its chamber until a steady stream of smoke was wafting from the vessel. When the old monk gauged the incense to be ready, he turned serious. He picked my bundle up with his free hand and began chanting in an old worn out voice. Using the burner, he laid smoke circles about my bundle while singing an incantation. As I watched, my bundle came alive to the old monk’s song as the contents danced beneath their cloth wrapping. The sacred objects rippled with energy as they radiated joy and bubbled with excitement.

Once the old monk had finished, he handed my bundle back. And although I hadn’t requested one, he gave me a kata blessing, too. He placed a white kata scarf around my neck and bestowed prayers for good luck and safety upon me for my journey. His invocations complete, we thanked him and left…..

© 2013 Scott Bishop. All Rights Reserved.