Skip to content

MAD MONKS

 

It was dancing practice at the Lindum Monastery.

The young monks stood in a huge circle around the quadrangle, both arms held in the air, holding their cloaks, swaying alarmingly. One monklet sat on the side with a large drum in front of him. He’d bash out a beat on that as the monks circled and swooped; solitary ballroom dancers who’d lost their partner, leisurely floating round and round – drunken bats circling slowly in the late morning sun.

In the centre was a monk of considerable height. He was a giant monk, a monk and a half. I bet he had big feet. I’d seen him before, sitting hunched over some papers with two associates. He was the chopen, the ritual master. He was quite an important fellow.

Unlike his woeful students, Big Foot was a monk of consequence. He was in it for the long run. After basic training, each monk embarks on intensive study in all aspects of the tantric rites conducted at the monastery. Several years are spent learning each ritual skill; shrine keeping, chanting, torma making, the playing of musical instruments, construction of sand mandalas – the full box and Buddhist dice. Then they go on to specialize in one of them – a further period of study that spans the several more thousand years necessary to master the intricacies of their future positions. Big Foot had done his Monk Master’s Degree in sacred dance. He was obviously very, very old.

At the end of the year, the monks perform a week-long Mahakala puja, along with ritual dances in the courtyard for two days before the eve of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. In our calendar this falls in February or March. It was late November. The chopen had the unenviable task of trying to corral sixty unwilling monklets into a dance routine in preparation for this big event.

They were hopeless, hot and bored out of their brain. Big Foot was having a terrible time.

*

A great many of these monks are not trainee priests at all; not drawn by the religious life, not overly devotional in nature. They are sent here as a normal part of growing up, for a few terms at monk boarding school – to be educated, socialized, institutionalized in a Buddhist Hogwarts in the hills – some spend a year here, some stay much longer; young lads in monk’s clothes conscripted into Lord Buddha’s army.

Life revolves around prayers and tantric rituals whose ultimate goal is ‘the complete liberation of all sentient beings’, which, if you’re a fifteen year old lad from Gangtok, may not be the destination of choice. The poor sods start their day at 5.00 a.m., devoting early morning to memorization of the ritual texts of the Karma Kagyu. There are thirty-six sets of texts that must be memorized, some quite long and difficult. Each student is tested on the previous day’s material by the scripture teacher, who confers a seal for each text that has been successfully memorized. Just like the Boy Scouts.The only badge I ever earned in the Boy Scouts was one for masturbation. I’m not sure how they deal with that particular issue in Lindum Monastery. But I digress.After breakfast at 7.30, and again after lunch, younger students study Tibetan, English, writing, and spelling; late afternoon is devoted to memorizing more texts and after dinner, the students return to their rooms and study. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. Add to that the endless rituals, celebrations, pujas and prayers – you have a life of excruciating dullness for a boy.

So when an old foreigner wanders vaguely by, when the tourist smiles his crinkled mongrel smile, all eyes are upon him. He’s the best thing that’s happened to them all day. As a matter of fact, he’s the only thing that has happened all day not governed by ritual, tradition and a timetable. He’s met by sixty impish smiles and a wave from the monks out of their tutor’s eyeshot. Doggy wiggles his head. Sixty shaven heads wiggle back.

And when this apparition takes out his camera and they see that little red light winking and blinking as they waltz by those impish monks can’t help but show off.

It is the way of young lads – monk’s habit or no.This ritual dance was, at its core, a trance. The ceremony involved them turning in their own individual circles while moving slowly round the quadrangle as part of one big circle. That was difficult enough. Some of the lads had decided to increase their degree of difficulty; they were attempting a little trance dance of their own. These naughty boys had their eyes shut and were trying to see how dizzy they could get. This was the closest thing to fun available.

They didn’t really understand what rehearsals were for. Arms had to be held up, cloaks billowing out to approximate the heavy, ornate costumes they would be wearing on the day. They had to imagine they were wearing heavy masks. Some lads found this simulation unnecessary and idiotic. They were being a little creative in their task.

Dogster was a major disturbance. He tried to be invisible but, in his own funny way, he was a Big Foot too. His presence created just the diversion these recalcitrant ballerinas were looking for. Before long a rolling schoolboy hysteria swept through the dancing lads. Some became so preoccupied by their turn in front of the stranger’s camera that they hesitated, held their spot, did an extra twirl or two waiting for the red light of fame to flash and immortalize them on a computer far, far away.

The incoming monks, dancing in their monkish daze, ran into them.

Monks akimbo. The monks behind that ran into them.

The pile-up of giggling monks was so ridiculous, the hopelessness of it all so extravagant that only a curmudgeon could not rejoice in the glorious moment. Dogster laughed. Everybody laughed, even Big Foot. We all had no choice.

But maybe it was time for Dog to go.

With hand on heart and an extravagant bow to Big Foot, I thanked the masses and waved. Everybody waved back and I exited grandly, having unwittingly shattered the calm of their monastery day.

Dog was like a walking circus. He didn’t mean to be – but a smile, a wave and the best of intentions could cause a monkly stumble, an eremite tumble, a sweet Buddhist fall.

Just a click of his tiny Sony had made a monkey of us all.

‘Tell me about when you slept with the hockey team…?’

“You mean people put that – in there?’‘The back seat – of a car?’‘How many people in the same bed?

‘No-o-o-o-o-o!’

Bongo was indefatigable. I was running out of stories. I’d begun to make them up to keep him happy. By the end of my stay in Gangtok I was fully qualified to be a first-rate pornographer.

Bongo’s brother was a monk – another virgin. He lived at Rumtek Monastery. I was surrounded by monasteries full of virgin men. Obviously the Sikkimese reproduce by non-traditional means.

The ‘Shaydrup Kunkhyap Otong Khyilway Tsuklakhang’ or ‘Temple of Pervasive Teaching and Practice Blazing with a Thousand Lights’ isn’t very old. The complex was only completed in 1966. The remote, peaceful site was carefully chosen; it was a mother-lode of auspicious signs – seven streams flowed towards it, seven hills faced it, a mountain rose behind – and a river spiraled like a conch shell down below. Dogster rather liked all that.We spent a monk’s afternoon at Rumtek Monastery, doing what monks do – which didn’t appear to be very much at all. Maybe it was a monk day off. There sure aren’t many of those.

In addition to daily study and classes, each month the monastic routine includes week-long practices, focused on specific buddhas, deities, protectors, or lineage masters, whose dates are established according to the Tsurphu astrological system, whatever that might be. Monks are pretty busy doing ‘virtuous actions’; one-day practices and prayer ceremonies on the eighth, tenth, fifteenth, twenty-fifth, and thirtieth days of the lunar month – as well as prayers that I simply don’t understand on another six. Then, during the month of miracles, the month of Saga; the fourth day of the sixth month and the twenty-second day of the ninth month they’re at it again. Some months, the practices span two weeks. That’s a lot of praying.

But not today. Rumtek Monastery had shut up shop – everything was closed. Obviously they hadn’t heard that an esteemed white man was about to wheeze his way slowly up that steep, picturesque hill with the seven streams flowing towards it and the seven hills facing, stopping only to breathe heavily and stare blankly at the auspicious mountain behind.

I’d come all this way, trudged up this bloody hill; they might have left at least one door unlocked, just so I could see something – but no, Lord Buddha required a different kind of penance from the luckless Dog.

Why do Buddhists stick their bloody monasteries at the top of great hills? Just to piss me off, that’s why.

Bongo and St. Bongo, his religious brother, were deep in conversation. They kept looking over at me.

‘What? What boys? What are you planning?’‘He wants a lift to visit his mother,’ Bongo said.By a strange coincidence, that was Bongo’s mother as well. So that’s how I got to sit in Bongo’s front room drinking sweet milky tea while the family sat in the back garden and gossiped.

Apparently what monks traditionally do on their day off is use the foreigner’s car to go visiting their family, use the foreigner’s car to run errands and pick up their friends, use the foreigner’s money to buy themselves chai – then the foreigner gets to hang around being a pretend monk, which was cool by me. I even got to use the monk’s rest room back at the monastery. After that I didn’t want to be a monk.

Several times that day my Dogmobile overflowed with monks, bags and laughter. We bumped through the hills, delivering monks to monkish places, picking up lost monks on the road, dropping them off, picking up more. They all chattered away in the back of the car, once with one monk sitting pertly on my lap. Life and the Dogster, Sikkim and the mountains, the monks and the moment all rolled into one. The Dog was a happy puppy that afternoon in Rumtek. He didn’t want much more.

When the last monk had disappeared, after the last blessing had been bestowed, my virgin guide turned to me with a broad Buddhist Bongo smile.

‘Have you had a good day?’

He knew I had. I nodded enthusiastically.

‘Are you happy?’

‘Yup.’

‘Then tell me about the time you had sex with the seven Russian acrobats…’

Perhaps I’d gone too far with my stories.

*

%d bloggers like this: