Saturday, March 7, 2015

Masked Dance

The Dosmoche festival came in the latter half of February, on the last day of the old moon and the first of the new. We went with the students down the Indus valley to Likhir, for the masked dances at the monastery there. An hour on the bus west along the highway, past the confluence of the Indus and Zaskar Rivers, and through the large town of Nimmu: army encampments and electrical wires ran by the road as we traveled, giving way at intervals to desert, rock formations like eroding sculptures, and the sheer walls of the river gorge.

At Likhir we left the main road and climbed up a side-valley, old and new construction thickly together in the lower lands. Whitewashed houses with yaks or small shiny cars in the front yard alternated with concrete ones, roof trim painted in pastel acrylics, and red metal Airtel shopfronts, closed and locked. Terraces of willows and apricots rose at an incredible pitch on the other bank of the valley stream as we ascended from the outskirts of the town. An old farmhouse sat on the water’s edge just below the monastery, worn, well-kept, with faded red window frames and hay piled neatly along the edge of the roof. It was a world— entire, as it seemed to me— with neat fences and terraces, stables on the lowest level, a shovel leaning near the gatepost. Sufficient.

A parking lot had been built below the main monastery building, a forty-foot retaining wall keeping it from sliding down the cliffs to the fields below. We left the busses and walked up, taking off our shoes to enter the first of a number of temples.

I remembered these things from the last time I came to Ladakh: dim space, clean with the smell of juniper incense; elaborate, beautiful murals of the fierce protectors and their consorts, the bodhisattvas, and narratives of humans or devas I could not recognize; golden or gilt statues draped with white silk scarves (kataks), small rupee notes piled on dishes for offerings in front of them; dark red-painted pillars holding up the ceiling, the floor a similar color, worn smooth by devotees making prostration and centuries of passing feet. I felt grateful to enter the space as one of a stream of sincere comers. A young father in a puffed down jacket walked with his son at one hand and a string of prayer beads in the other, chanting mantra; an old woman in a goncha made prostrations near the door. We circumambulated slowly, each person moving individually but also a as a part of an unbroken flow of bodies, and of prayer.

On, through another temple where Dorje Vajrabhairava, the bull-headed fierce protector sat behind glass in a rear gallery, his face covered by a scarf. He was pictured on the left-and wall as well, not as Yama holding the Wheel of Life, but with his consort Vetali in embrace. A monk, agitated, spoke to me: “No ladies here!” He acknowledged my apology with a curt nod as I quickly left the gallery.

Outside enormous butter lamps in a glass case burned steadily, a pyramid of plastic bottles labelled refined soybean oil stacked outside (more half-full, inside among the lamps) from which they were continually filled. The offering of a butter lamp, I think, includes the morning milking, and the churning; in wintertime, the cutting and the drying of summer hay. I could not help but wonder about the fields (in the Punjab? In America?), the factory, and the landfill, all also present in the offering there.

Up—though it is difficult to speak clearly of above and below, the monastery a beautiful maze of stairs and narrow passageways connecting rooms and courts, ascending and descending in a complex tangle—to a broad roof, where a giant statue of Chamba (Maitreya) sat straight-backed in his chair. Recently I read something of him that has stayed with me: as the future Buddha, he is now one of the many beings wheeling in samsara. I had not thought of this before, Chamba’s image as a testament to the present, common possibility of enlightenment.

People circumambulated; a group of our students gathered for photographs (not with the statue, which felt at least a bit respectful) and we were pulled in. They were eating from large balls of firm dough made from sgampe, churpe, and chang (barley flour, yak cheese, and local beer); they offered more to us, pleased that we liked it.

Drums and horns began in the courtyard below and we went down for the dances. Standing first at the upper rail, we watched pairs of dancers come down the stairs from the monastery doors, every movement an act of full intention. They wore incredible robes, silk brocade with long triangular sleeves and silk banners down their backs from the crowns of their hats. The masks, too: fierce and fiercer horned monsters, antlered deer, others, many colors and expressions, teeth always bared. The smallest children would sometimes run out onto the court as the monks danced, risking being chased.

The oldest men and women lined the walls of the courtyard, cross-legged, respectable, wrapped in thick wool. Mani beads moved continuously through their hands, the motion breaking only, I think, for a grandchild to be pulled near. Closer to the dancers several rows of watchers sat on the flagstones, and we sat down next to three women in spectacular traditional dress. Each wore a goncha, and an up-curved, flat-topped Ladakhi hat (tibi) over two long grey braids bound together at the bottom. Two of the women had square shawls of sheepskin overlaid with silk over their backs, tied straight across their shoulders, as people carry baskets here. Lundup, in front of us, turned and told us that they were from Zanskar.

We managed a happy, broken conversation, learning where their villages were, speaking of wool. The woman nearest to me told me that she had three children, and asked me if I had any. We offered them some of our sweet dough; later, they gave us chapathis from the lunch that they had brought to share.

The dances climaxed in a stream of unmasked monks joining the spirits, spinning, circling, processing across to the cloister where the musicians sat. In one hand each held something that looked like an ornate iron knife. On the far side they received a set of cloths in each of the prayer flag colors before returning again, two by two.

The people dispersed quickly. On the road above the main temple men served rice and dal from giant pots, laughing, calling out for people to come.

After perhaps an hour the monks processed again, coming in a parade through the crowd, carrying a large plate of torma to which people added offerings of food or money. The oboe they played looked almost exactly like a European oboe, but decorated with flags; the smallest monks played the drums. The parade wound down to the terraced fields just below, where a pyre had been built. They placed the offerings inside the frame and set it alight, dancing again in a large circle while the fire burned quickly behind them.

The monastery sat not at the top of the village, but at the center. From where we stood I could see Likir continue up the valley, square whitewashed houses interspersed with the open spaces of fields and the grey haze of bare-armed Lombardy poplars. As the mountains drew in, the human dwelling seemed to grow more spacious, and gentler on the land. I find myself more eager all the time to be up a valley like this, somewhere.

Phey Monastery

Twenty tiny monks welcome us as we arrive each afternoon, standing together and chorusing “Good afternoooooon Sir, good afternooooooooooon Maaaam,” sitting only after we do. They wear maroon robes and many other things, old fleeces and sweatshirts (Gyatso’s is Chicago Bulls), scarves, hats, knit socks, all in shades of orange or red. Many have crocs, mostly pink, lined up neatly along the wall in the sunny hallway where we have class.

For the first hour Jason teaches second class and I, third. My boys pile against each other like puppies, sitting cross-legged on cushions on the floor; they memorize with incredible speed and ease, and love to sing. We were give no books or guidelines for these English classes we were asked to teach, and so we are making things up as we go.

On the second day I gave them a song about winter (to the tune of Frere Jacques) and by the third time through they knew the words—even the new ones— without looking. I feel curious, too, about their imaginations, and we have begun writing stories sometimes, though it is a challenge. Every day I ask them for words in Ladakhi, which they love giving nearly as much as songs. Last week I learned that one of Jason’s boys is a Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a high lama. His attention is mostly elsewhere during class, except when there is the chance to dance, or run in place, or spin, which he will do with his full heart. As all the boys will: these games are the best way I have found of teaching verbs.

In the second hour I work with four teenagers while Jason talks with Thubstan Lama, the monastery’s director. The older monks’ understanding of English is good, though they are shy and hesitant to speak; it is hard, hard work getting three of them to talk at all. Most classes we spend working through texts they choose, talking about grammar and vocabulary.

Recently I brought the Longman’s Student Atlas—maps of every country and continent, with pages about land use, water access, plate tectonics, climate—I asked them to look through, and write down questions that they had. For the next week, we had the most animated conversations of our time together yet. “How do people on the bottom of the earth stick to it? Why don’t they fall off?” “What made the Himalayas?” “How do islands stay in one place?” “What does it mean, a black hole?” And then, “what is an atom?” “Does the ocean really go up and down?” One day Sonam asked me, “Does earth go around the sun, or sun around the earth?” When I answered he looked at Tenzin, smirked, and clapped his hands—as Tibetan monks will do when making a point in philosophical debate.

Namgial had written, “There is not much snow falling in Ladakh. Why?” We talked about the rain shadow of the Himalayas, but then Sonam said, “But in past times there was very much snow in Ladakh. Now very little. Why is it?” I began telling them what scientists have learned of climate change, and the effects of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. After some time, Sonam looked at me with patent disbelief: “You mean that what people do in America, these places, affects weather? In Ladakh? This is possible?” He wrinkled his nose, not convinced.

After classes we drink tea with Thubstan Lama in the small kitchen, cement walls radiating cold. The monastery was built only eight or ten years ago; the newly constructed buildings have a hard, hollow feeling to me. I remember conversations in college about how spaces inform the lives lived within them. It continues to feel like an important question.

Most afternoons Thubstan Lama walks us half of the way home, so that he may keep practicing English. He was raised in Phey village, with no intention of becoming a monk. He took vows in his late teens, then studied in southern India for some years before returning. We talk about whatever comes presently to mind: the students’ progress, the Dalai Lama’s visit for the Kalachakra initiation, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantric vehicles of Buddhism, monastic land ownership, relations between Muslim and Buddhist people in Ladakh, our plans for the rest of our time here. We told him about our wish to start a school in Maine, and he said, “The first thing you must do is build a Ladakhi toilet. Then you will never be worrying about fertility.”

We walk the last mile or so along the winding river road looking down on a rich, living slope, where springs come out of the embankment above the Indus. Small streams wind through an almost moss-like ground cover, and sea buckthorn gives the thickets a lavender cast. Many, many willows grow, pollarded and harvested by the villagers. This land is a commons; people may plant (and so own) individual trees, but nothing can be fenced. Often dzo are browsing there, and birds: magpies, chickadees, and little black-and-white ones with rust-colored tails. As the days grow warmer, more and more often we walk with their songs.

At the beginning of class, several of the small monks will run somewhere to find the chalkboard and its stand. One day two of them, carrying the stand together, playfully fired it like a machine gun into the circle of other boys. “It doesn’t seem to matter,” I said to Jason as we walked home. “Even little monk boys will turn things into toy guns.” “Yes,” he said. “But little monks are much less likely to be carrying real ones someday.”

So maybe it matters after all—what people learn, and how. I wonder how different these monks’ lives will be from those ordained five hundred years ago, or fifty? Will their understanding of the world be changed if they can speak in English about gravity? Will their practice be changed? Will their hearts? How different are their thoughts from the boys their age that I have known in America? Or here, at SECMOL? And when the choice is fully theirs, how will they choose to live?