Perched at a height of almost 12500 ft, the 700 year old Phuktal Gompa stands in an imposing isolation from the world. It is precariously placed at the mouth of a 2500 year old cave and is home to about 70 monks. It also oversees a magnificent valley nestled in the rain shadow arms of the Himalayas. The valley though barren, is strangely scenic and possesses an arresting calm that is only broken by the guttural chanting of the residents of the Gompa.
Reaching here involves surmounting narrow, steep treacherous trails where one often needs to balance one foot against the other. Local legend goes that it is only the lucky who reach the Gompa. The nearest village of Cha is barely six kilometres– where Rinchen’s parents lived- but it would take an ordinary mortal five gruelling hours from there.
Twelve years ago, Lama Lobsang and his monks came to the village asking for food and they stopped outside a home with a kitchen garden in front. Their eyes then fell on a three year old boy playing with what they assumed to be a make believe friend. As soon he saw the Lama, little Rinchen went running to him, tugged at the monks robe a few times, let out a laugh and then sat down staring at him. Diki and Dorje– the parents, who saw the monks outside came running out and profusely apologised to the Lama. But the Lama calmly smiled and asked his parents to have him sent to the monastery the following year. He then and there declared that Rinchen was the chosen one.
By noon, Rinchen , now 15 years old, had devoured his lunch– a hearty portion of thukpa and had tucked away a few tsampa balls in the pockets of his robe. He had his bi-monthly trek ahead of him and it was wise to have a belly that did not grumble along the way. Every winter, for three months, starting December, Lama Lobsang sat meditating inside another cave which was about 7 kilometres from the Gompa– and it was the Lama’s express desire that the chosen one bring him his supplies.
Soon enough, Rinchen was on his way- carrying with him two large provision bags– mostly food– turnips, potatoes, lentils and rice along with some kerosene in five, half a litre, PET bottles for lighting lamps and a stove. This would hopefully last a fortnight. Despite the afternoon Sun, it was still -5 degree celcius and with the wind chill, he was more than grateful for the sport shoes and thermal socks he received from a French visitor at the monastery last year.
His scarlet robe over the three thin woollens, would add to the extra warmth needed as the trek progressed. He had also donned his yellow hat– a strange looking thing he often wondered. He knew that the colour bestowed luck in spiritual endeavours. Representing the earth element it was also a grounding force needed for his deeper meditation practices. A monk’s robe are symbolic in every way– he recalled his Lama words — they should always remind and act as his teachers. The hat represented wisdom, compassion and power of the Buddha. But- what was with the shape? It looked like the claw of a large bird — that unsettled him.
Rinchen loved these treks outside the Gompa, he became one with the landscape. All around him were the grey icy Gods, variedly sculpted by the forces of nature- constantly teaching and testing his perseverance and resolve to be amongst them. They taught him without preaching and speaking and it didn’t take much for his mind to self-start in their company. He thought of the vastness of the cosmos and the infinitesimal-ness of his being. He thought about how the mountains themselves seemed like Chortens bridging the Earth and the Great Beyond and he wondered what secrets they held within.
But underneath all the silence it was the Tsarap that murmured. It spoke to anyone who would care to listen. To Rinchen, it kept gurgling and gurgling and gurgling and it would not stop…it sure had an ability to go on without losing confidence. Maybe that’s what it was trying to tell him. But it didn’t help that he had many “Why’s” haunting him inside, and he was most frightened of the one that screamed– “Why was he the chosen one?”.
Perhaps, it was because his sense of wonder outpaced his naivety.
To be precise, it wasn’t really clear what was meant by the Lama when he said “chosen one”.
For one, the Lama had 3 key disciples who studied and trained in intensity with him everyday aside the months he spent in meditation. Rinchen wasn’t one of them. Far from it- he was often asked to to run various errands for the Lama.
Rinchen was unusually tall for his age, he was also lean and muscular. This further stood him out from most students in his class and was always picked to do the tougher tasks of the Gompa as well. Rinchen would go to the village to get provisions and twigs for kitchen fires, Rinchen would gong the bell to indicate time for debate or meditation, Rinchen would fix the electrical wiring or adjust an errant solar panel. Sometimes, Rinchen would sit outside the Lama’s room after class, ready to help out in any way- make the bed, dust the seating, fetch water. Rinchen didn’t mind any of it. It helped him keep to himself. But to all the students at the Gompa- Rinchen seemed to be the “chosen man-friday.”
It was pretty common to hear “there goes The Chosen One!” or “here comes His Holy Highness, The Chosen One” amidst giggles in the classroom. It did make Rinchen upset, but it only made matters worse for him. Every time he experienced a flushed emotion- his cheeks would turn deep red in an instant. And he was then a sight to see- all the other students would then gather around him and exclaim in a sing songy way: To-Ma-To! To-Ma-To!! Look-at-the-chosen-To-Ma-To! And Rinchen’s only response to that was tears. He would quietly sob in the corner of a class- till a teacher walked in, quietened the class and sometimes relieved him to rest in his quarters.
Once when Rinchen was 10 years old- he could not hold his tears anymore- in a fit of anger, he ran out of the class — through the corridors and prayer halls and past the frescoes of Amitabha and Maiteya both appearing to look at him with a glint in their eyes while all the Arhats cheered him from both sides of the walls. He ran up the dusty stone steps and then some more till he finally reached Lama Lobsang’s room, only to find him seated outside on a small, raised platform. He was smiling, had his eyes open and was turning his prayer mill.
“I’ve been waiting for you dear Rinchen”
“They are teasing me Lama!! Please do something…”
“Come with me Rinchen”
The Lama held his hand and walked with him to a perch barely a few footsteps from his room. The perch directly overlooked the Lungnak valley. Fierce jagged mountains were sharply cut through eons of abrasive weather. Snowy caps, stony hearts and yet, an effervescent turquoise river flowed from their laps. What does one believe? The perspective that one gleans from a distance or the one that Richen was used to, of close proximity- napping by the river, hopping and skipping beside her, hollering as he stood next to her in an effort to hear his echo, talking to the rocks like they were his brothers. The sight he saw now, though, left him disoriented.
“Look at the beautiful valley Rinchen!”
But Rinchen was far from the present. His was disassociated from the moment-and the only thing he could visualise, was the harsh terrain of hurt.
“Lama, please help me!! They tease me, every day” Pleaded Rinchen with his cheeks stained crimson again.
But the Lama smiled and continued, “Rinchen, please meet the valley with your gaze. Tell it with sincerity that you are sorry and to teach you to be better.”
“WHAT?” Rinchen responded in disbelief.
“Why must I say sorry? I didn’t even ask to be chosen!!”
“Do you not trust me, Rinchen?”
Rinchen’s tears would barely let him speak and the gentle firmness in the Lama’s voice found a way to overwhelm his vocal processes. Yet he managed: “I do. I…I do”.
That night when Rinchen lay down on his mat to sleep, he reflected on the strangeness of the word “Trust”.
Unlike the journey to the cave, Rinchen didn’t actually look forward to being there. The cave seemed like a long-narrow tunnel to nowhere with thick soot lining up the walls, making it impossible to see much. The air inside was also thinner and frigid with apprehension. So, it seemed almost intentional to Rinchen, that the cave expected to be left alone.
A green rusty kerosene lamp would be kept at the side of the entrance, which was ignited when he arrived at the mouth. He would then make his way in and leave the provisions in a natural depression found on the right side of the cave-a few meters in. More often than not- all he did was just this and then scoot as fast he could. Very rarely he would catch a glimpse of the Lama- who on those rare days would be seen sitting and smiling on a nearby rock- waiting for him. They would make small talk where Rinchen would inquire of the Lama health and if he needed anything. The Lama, in turn, would only ask how his learnings were progressing, the answer to which was always: “I am doing my best”. But they both knew that this was not entirely true.
Today, was one such day when the Lama sat out.
Rinchen eyes had not met the Lama’s yet. But as soon as he heard the Lama’s voice- he put the provision bags down and bowed. He then lifted his head and smiled back.
“Lama, should I leave the provisions inside? Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No Rinchen, leave the bags as they are. Tell me, how is your learning coming along?”
“I’m doing my best, really!”
“Then, may you learn well!”
Rinchen bowed again and turned to leave- but the Lama called out to him again. “Rinchen, please take care and may Dor Je Chang guide and protect you.”
Rinchen, looked back, nodded and quickly commenced his return.
The Lama, meanwhile, kept his stare firm in the direction of Rinchen, all the while spinning his mill.
The downhill slope from the cave needed Rinchen to be alert, even a slight misstep and he would find himself tumbling down on hardened snow and rocks.
But Rinchen was keen to make haste. He wanted to spend more time with the Tsarap- she would freeze anytime over the next few days. Then it would be just him and his brothers and they were not always fun without her.
Still, he made his way like an agile snow leopard while not forgetting to circle the Chortens he met on route. Eventually, he made it to the riverbank and rooted himself on a small rock nearby. He was keen to listen to her voice, but she was not particularly talkative today. In fact everything around him seemed to be still- the air, the sun, the mountains and the river herself- all very, very still.
“Is everyone meditating today?” He asked while chuckling to himself.
Moments went by and Rinchen’s eyes also began to feel the strain of staying open. The monastery was not very far- but his body felt a weariness that he could not ignore.
“Don’t mind me”, he spoke aloud, “I’m going to take a quick nap.”
Rinchen’s eyes were pried open by gusts of the winter wind whose hounds seemed to be unleashed and howling about him. He was not terrified of them, but it made him aware of how unusually long he had napped. The valley was now bathed in the pristine light of the full moon and he felt incredibly grateful for it. His eyes, now well-rested, would be able to see him through to the Gompa.
He picked himself up quickly and just as he was about to take a step a little egg rolled by near his feet.
“Hmm. And where did you suddenly come from?!” Rinchen wondered as he bent down to pick it up. “Did you roll away from a nest nearby?”
But just as he was about to grab hold of it, the little egg turned away from him. He stretched his arm to grasp it, but the egg veered again. This went on for a little while till Rinchen lost his cool and blurted “Damn it !- I’ve no time for games- I’m late as it is!
In a bid to ignore it, he tried to walk away but as if on cue the little egg began to shake and jiggle and then faint sounds of chirping made their way from the egg.
At first a wee little thing was struggling to make its way out- chipping away at the shell laboriously. But soon enough, a tiny yellow beak with a dark brown body pushed and tumbled its way out. It shook itself off the slimy membranes and stood there with its little wings and beady eyes staring at Rinchen, bobbing its head from side to side - like it was trying to him size up.
Rinchen was caught off guard with all that was unfolding before his eyes, but he could not hold back the urge to catch the strange looking bird. He held out his hand and taking the prompt-the bird flew over and landed on his palm.
“What a curious little hatchling you are!”
The bird hopped on Rinchen’s palms and then unfurling its wings it took to instant flight- at first, clumsily flying about. But once having got it bearings it circled around Rinchen. The bird then landed at a small distance from him, tilted its head a few times keeping its gaze fixed on Rinchen and then began to expand. It grew taller and wider and its claws- now more menacing, looked ready to lob off the tops of mountains. Its wings were glistening gold and as they spread out, they appeared to span the entire of the valley.
“What are you?” Rinchen managed to whisper under the sound of his thumping heart.
The Bird took to the skies, it soared high above and looked like it was almost about to disappear when in reality Rinchen noticed it was making a dash for him. With dread finally uprooting Rinchen, he began to run- he didn’t make it very far, for the bird had swooped down and picked him up in his beak and resumed ascending altitudes. With no point left in struggling, Rinchen began to plead loudly: “I don’t know what or who you are- but please let me go!! I am a mere Monk, and not even a good one…See! See! Look at my robes! Please let me go…put me on the ground and I will never mention what happened”
The Bird, sensing Rinchen’s fears promptly let go of him mid-air. But as Rinchen fell from the sky screaming “Noooooo!” he noticed it was not the sky he was falling from. He seemed to be tumbling down some deep dark tunnel and then he landed with a jolt in what felt like glacial waters.
“Who is Rinchen talking to?” an amused Diki asked as she looked out of the little kitchen window.
It was spring and the garden was lush with barley grass. Little Rinchen was sitting in the middle of a turnip heap busy tossing and throwing them about and mumbling away animatedly.
“Aah! Don’t worry Dear… he is just playing!” Dorje replied.
“But with whom?”
Standing in front of Little Rinchen was a tall luminous Being with a sibylline face whose features were barely visible aside the deep set, but kindly eyes that looked at him. Its skin shimmered gold in the morning light and it wore that peculiar yellow hat.
“So, here we are again Rinchen! You sure make for a cute baby, though!” It said twinkly.
“I don’t understand…what am I doing here? Why am I like this! And who are you?”
“We have met an infinite time in this moment, for you to pick your possibilities. So, what will it be now?”
Rinchen was scrambling to get a hold on his sanity.
“Is this some weird dream? Did I hit my head on a rock?”
“Life is a real dream- nothing weird about it.”
“Look around you Rinchen, Look at the choices you made so far.”
As Rinchen turned his head to look around- bit by bit everything around him, the mountains, the skies, the garden, his home — lost their colour, like a reverse gouache painting and he found himself sitting on a blank canvas.
His various lives now strutted before him — the devoted householder, the ambitious scientist, a bullied scholar, the greedy merchant, an old man burning in vengeance, an ignorant lover, a misguided soldier, the lone wolf, a withering tree, a worm wriggling away in the soil… each fleeting, filled with cravings and leading to disappointments in a vicious cycle of Life and Death. In every lifetime he felt he landed on a fragment of truth which he tried to hold on to for a fleeting moment of happiness but the fragment on its own would not stand and he found himself sinking deeper into Dukkha.
“What is the whole truth?” he murmured as he watched all of this with amused dispassion.
“Dukkha seems to be the truth that even Buddha did not escape- Aging, Sickness and Death and yet HE did not suffer from it. Can I also learn not to suffer?”
“Perhaps!” Replied The Being
“In each of my lifetimes, I have chosen a desire to pursue and none helped me relive my Dukkha- perhaps this time I could try to let go of Desire itself!”
The Being, now looked at Rinchen and glowed- it’s light spread itself all around.
“Ok! Off you go- and don’t worry about the throbbing pain, maybe you did hit your head on the Rock. But it will pass, like everything else- just don’t cling to it!”
In the wee hours of the morning light, two monks were seen desperately looking around near the part of the Tsarap that ran closest to the monastery.
A tall lanky boy, who seemed to have just woken up, emerged from behind a rock.
“Here! Here! I’m coming”
As the three boys walked together, one of them asked Rinchen: “Where did you disappear? Were you sleeping out here all night — in this freezing cold?”
“I think, I fell asleep and didn’t realise how long it was” Rinchen said lowering his eyes. His head was throbbing under his hat and he felt incredibly thirsty.
“The Lama came back last night! And he has been asking for you since…he told us to find you here and asked us to come and fetch you to the prayer hall!”
“Oh! I see.”
Rinchen, rushed to his room after he arrived at the Gompa. He brushed his teeth and put on fresh clothes and soon made a dash for the Hall.
The prayer hall was plunged in profound silence. Lama Lobsang and his three disciples sat pouring over some scriptures quietly.
As Rinchen walked in he noticed Sankhyamuni flanked by the Eight Bodhisattvas gilded on the walls, all smiling and effusing a diving grandeur to the ambience.
“Master!” Rinchen called out, “I am sorry for being late. But here I am and I am ready!”
“Oh Good!” The Lama replied, “And just in time, we have been waiting for you!”
Ps: This is my humble offerings to Swamiji- My Master. I offer it at his feet in immense gratitude 🙏🏼🙏🏼