Learning about Buddhism at a Himalayan temple

Travel Tales, Windows into Culture — By on December 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm
View from Thiksey Gompa

View of the Himalayas from Thiksey Gompa.

It was before sunrise when we arose and stumbled into the chilly morning air of Ladakh, nearly 12,000-feet high in the Indian Himalayas. We’d hired a driver to take us to Thiksey Gompa, one of several Buddhist temples and monasteries that are strewn throughout this region of northern India, just across the border from Tibet. This monastery allows visitors to observe monks performing their morning puja, or prayer ritual, which begins at dawn.

Once there, we took a seat on the cold stone floor of a dimly lit room. Dozens of saffron-robed monks sat on low benches and chanted, some of them rocking meditatively to the murmur of morning prayers. The chants were occasionally coupled with musical notes when one of the monks would crash a cymbal or blow on a horn. At periodic intervals, the younger men of the monastery dutifully rose and fetched containers of butter tea, which they poured into ceramic cups for the other monks. Outside, daylight crept over the snow-capped peaks and illuminated the village below. The chanted prayers seemed to float away through the open door on a light breeze, drifting over the valley to the mountains, where they joined the sun in greeting another day.

When the prayers were finished, we strolled quietly through the rest of the gompa and stopped along a pathway to gaze at a row of prayer wheels. These are metal cylinders that contain rolls of thin paper coiled around an axle. The paper is printed with copies of a sacred prayer and the wheel is meant to be spun whenever someone walks by. As it spins, the prayer is released to the universe, which is supposed to have the same effect as if it were recited. It’s also meant to symbolize the turning of the wheel of the dharma, or the setting of the Buddha’s teachings in motion.

An elderly monk walked up to the spot where we stood, slowly spinning the wheels and chanting words under his breath. He stopped in front of us and smiled. The man appeared to be in his 70s, with a thin head of gray hair and a circle of wrinkles on his weathered but radiant face.

Buddhist monks at Thiksey Gompa

Buddhist monks at Thiksey Gompa.

“Om mani padme hum,” he said, in a soft, slow cadence.

We looked back at him, not quite sure what he had just uttered. He then repeated the words, carefully enunciating each syllable.

“Ohm mah-nee pahd-may hoom.”

He nodded to us to repeat after him.

“Ohm mah-nee pahd-may hoom.”

He corrected my pronunciation of the last consonant, which seemed to be an impossible combination of an ‘m’ and an ‘ng.’ I’m not sure I ever said it exactly right, but he smiled, spun one of the wheels and then gestured for us to do the same.

“Om mani padme hum,” he whispered. “Om mani padme hum.”

It was our own private lesson in Buddhism, although we didn’t grasp it all until later. This chant is perhaps the most important Buddhist mantra and is meant to invoke the blessing of the bodhisattva of compassion. The meaning is not easily conveyed in other languages, but some have translated it into English as, “Praise to the jewel in the lotus.” It is said to refer to the awakening of the spark of divinity within each person, resulting in compassion for the welfare of all beings.

The Dalai Lama, who himself is believed to be an incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, has written that the meaning of the mantra “is great and vast.” At least in part, it signifies that with the correct intention, practice and wisdom “you can transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure body, speech and mind of a Buddha.”

That’s a lot of meaning for six syllables. Although part of me wished I had the words and the opportunity to discuss the prayer with this monk, I also realized that any conversation would have distorted the beauty and simplicity of the moment. So I focused on the mantra.

“Om mani padme hum,” the monk said, one more time.

Then, apparently satisfied that we had memorized it, he smiled serenely and ambled away, gently spinning the prayer wheels and chanting as he disappeared into the distance.

Buddhist prayer wheels

Buddhist prayer wheels.

 

Photo credits: Bob Riel (view and monks), and Fanghong via Wikimedia Commons (prayer wheels).

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3 Comments

  1. What a brilliant moment!

    “…Although part of me wished I had the words and the opportunity to discuss the prayer with this monk, I also realized that any conversation would have distorted the beauty and simplicity of the moment…”

    Absolutely. And I love moments like these, those random interactions that we could have never expected but which make such a lasting impression on us. 🙂

  2. Bob Riel says:

    Thanks, Jessica. You’re right, it was just one of those brief, totally unexpected travel moments that stick with you forever. The moments that make travel special.

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