Stories of Dhaka

Dhaka is one the world's megacities with 15 million and rising

Dhaka is one the world’s megacities with 15 million and rising

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Across the road from the hotel where I’m staying is a large watery slum, built on the surface of Banani Lake. It sits right in the middle of the city, just a brisk row away from Gulshan, the Manhattan-esque isthmus where the city’s expats, diplomats and elite reside. I’m at the hotel restaurant and an American from the USA arm of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, which incidentally owns the hotel I’m staying at, comes over to introduce himself. We talk for a bit, and then I excuse myself to go outside. Just around the corner is my favourite chai wallah, and I sit in his makeshift stall while an endless stream of cycle rickshaws ferry their passengers through the sea of traffic.

Development expats, rickshaws, diplomats, chai wallahs, slum dwellers, and the world’s largest, multi-national NGO are crammed together in this neighbourhood – an area no larger than a college campus. This is the reality of modern Dhaka. Over 10 days I weave in between all of these worlds, glimpsing enough of each to get a sense of how all these parts fit together in this marvellous, crazy corner of the Earth.

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Off-the-beaten-track: a Bali road trip

170 km around the east of Bali

170 km around the east of Bali

Take a map of Bali and circle the main tourist spots: Kuta, Seminyak, Ubud, Sanur, and the entire Bukit peninsula – it’s an amazingly small part of the island, I’m guessing less than 10%, that captures the imagination of 3 million visitors every year. What about the other 90%? What’s there? When my friend Chris arrived for Chinese New Year break I suggested we do a bit of road-tripping, to go off and see what lay out beyond the well-trodden paths. The result was unbelievable – a two-day adventure of draw-dropping jungle-mountain-ricefield vistas, quaint villages, cops and gun men, and underwater exploration. We set off on two scooters, with little more than a full tank of petrol and rough idea of where to head first.

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Forget the bucket list

The ultimate travel bucket list

The ultimate travel bucket list

I used to have a bucket list, and I used to think completing it would make me happy.

In 2009, after finally ending a long, drawn-out battle with my doctoral thesis, I set out into the world, with a backpack and a ticket to India and South America. On my journey, I dutifully intended to complete the predetermined things that ‘I had always wanted to do before I die’:

  • see the Taj Mahal,
  • trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu,
  • take those incredible surreal reflection shots on the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni,
  • pair wine and steak in Mendoza,
  • party it up in Buenos Aires,
  • go to Carnaval in Rio.

Maybe, if I got round to it, I would also snake my way north to spend time living in a celebrated, world-class city like New York or London (forgetting that I had come from a celebrated, world-class city already, Sydney).

It was a list of my so-called ‘life goals’, things that I had gleaned from glossy travel magazines, movies, documentaries, Lonely Planet guides, friends’ Facebook albums and a lifetime worth of other bucket-list creating impulses. For sure, I imagined, getting these things ticked off would make me a more complete, satisfied person.

Carpe Listem!

Or something like that.

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Gusti: the Guide of Tirta Gangaa

Our guide Gusti

Our guide Gusti

Tirtaa Gangaa

Tirtaa Gangaa

“G’day mate. Bloooody awwwwesoome”. Gusti, our local guide during our tour of Tirta Gangaa bursts out in perfect Australia drawl. This would be a little gimmicky, cringe-worthy even on anyone else, but for some reason it’s just plain endearing on this guy. Maybe because it’s the way he looks – his appearance is comic, in a good way. His body and head are tiny, with over-sized ears and a toothy grin that almost never leaves his face – he’s like a real-life caricature. The cheesy faux accents seem to fit naturally into his entire persona.

We met him as soon as we got to the Temple entrance: “Do you need a guide?” I’m not sure. In our experience, it is very hit and miss with local guides. When they’re knowledgeable and can tell you things about the site you would never have discovered yourself, I find they’re worth every penny / rupee / rupiah. But more often than not, especially in India, they regurgitate some obvious facts from wikipedia, rush through the tour and you finish in one of their mates souvenir stores.

I don’t know why, but something about Gusti made me take a chance on him. To be fair, he wasn’t the best guide in terms of knowledge, but he made up for it in terms of comedy. Every sentence starts with “Well Brad and Mesi…” The first time it’s normal. By the fifth time it’s annoying. But by the twentieth time it’s so ridiculous it’s funny again, and more so as ‘Brad and Mesi’ slowly becomes ‘Brad and Menshi’.

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Papa Nyoman, the reflexologist

Papa Nyoman works his reflexology magic

Papa Nyoman works his reflexology magic on Mesi

When you first see Papa Nyoman, he doesn’t strike you as an extraordinary healer. In fact, he looks very ‘ordinary’ – he’s diminutive, thin and sports a pair of unremarkable glasses. Cigarette poking under his 80s-era moustache, with loose blue singlet and long fisherman pants, he could be an accountant on vacation.

The only thing that gives him away is the line of people waiting to have his treatment. People from all around Bali, indeed the world, come to Papa Nyoman for his reflexology, a craft he has practiced for 20 years. In the two days Mesi visits him, he treats a Russian couple, a young Chilean, a woman from Botswana, a slightly unadjusted Singaporean and me, while she is there.

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Sehbatu: A visit to the waterfall temple

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

A Balinese man cleanses at the Sehbatu waterfall

Robert, a Californian who leads tours around Bali, took us to Sehbatu – a small but enchanting waterfall temple situated just a few kilometres outside of Ubud.

The waterfall is fed by cool groundwater rushing up from deep within the Earth, where it has waited decades, perhaps centuries, to see the light of day. The Balinese, who believe that the water at this site has powerful purifying properties, have set up a modest temple next to the falls, and the entire complex – temple, waterfall and pool – is surrounded by jungle. It is a beautiful mix of the natural and the sacred.

It is not surprising to me that much of Balinese spirituality revolves around water. In many ways it is simply a reflection of how important the element is to life on Bali. The island’s hilly interior and rainy season mean that rivers abound – providing a drinking supply and irrigating the water-intensive rice fields. Water, literally and spiritually, nourishes the island.

To receive the purification powers of the waterfall, one enters the waist-deep pool at the base of the falls. An offering is made before thrusting one’s head straight under the falling stream. The waterfall is small, less than a few metres, but its power is unmistakeable. Straight away you feel the chilly bite of the ground water. On several levels, it shocks you awake. You can’t hear anything except the white noise of the crashing water and the rest of the world disappears. Breathing is possible but not easy and you have to concentrate not to panic as your lungs and senses are stressed.

The Sehbatu temple

The Sehbatu temple

But once you settle in the process can be strangely calming. It’s not unlike meditation. To keep your head under the falls you have to quieten the nerves, concentrate on the breath, and remain in the moment (you actually have no choice on that last one). Robert suggested we consciously think of something we wanted to let ago of, something that didn’t serve us anymore. On an adjacent waterfall, you can do the opposite, lie your back up against the rock, chest to the sky, water flowing right over you and open up to something new. Our small group took in turns to do this and all found it a moving experience.

While we were there Balinese locals came to the waterfall, and performed similar purifications. One of these women came to us while we were seated at the temple to provide a traditional cleansing with the altar water, guiding us through the steps of ritual, before smiling and going on her way. She wasn’t a priestess, just an ordinary Balinese woman.

The Natural Beauty of Hong Kong

View of Stanley on the descent from the 1000 Steps

View of Stanley on the descent from the 1000 Steps

We decided to go for a hike in Hong Kong.

When I was younger, I spent quite a lot of time in the island city visiting my Por Por (grandma). During these previous visits, the closest thing we came to a strenuous hike was carrying full shopping bags up mall escalators when the lifts were full. So it was nice this time round to see the ‘other side’ of this Asian metropolis.

We met up with Stephen – a travelling yogi, Mesi met in Hungary (by the way, he writes a great blog on www.myfiveacres.com) – and his friend Theresa, who suggested we accompany them on the ‘1000 steps walk’. The trail starts in the middle of the island and goes all the way to the south near Repulse Bay in Stanley. It was beautiful, and utterly surprising. Only 20 min away from the hustle and bustle of the harbour – the malls, the traffic, the concrete jungle – you find yourself in the middle of a REAL jungle. Green for miles around, I couldn’t believe this was the same Hong Kong I grew up with.

Halfway through the walk, we met a French man who had lived in HK for 14 years. He summed it up well – you can’t find this anywhere in the world: an international, world class city with stunning, natural scenery separated from each other by less than half-an-hour.

Concrete jungle and actual jungle

Concrete jungle vs actual jungle

A small, small portion of the 1000 steps - are we there yet?

A small, small portion of the 1000 steps

Later in the week, on the suggestion of my Budapest buddy Jeremy, we headed up to Sai Kung – an area dotted with limestone islands that you can traverse by boat. We hired a junk captained by a quaint, ageing Chinese lady and over a few hours, visited a islands, villages and a beach. Wouldn’t say it was as spectacular as other island chains in Asia, but again, it was fascinating to see a side of the country that I didn’t even know existed before this trip.

It was good reminder for me that you can always explore, even in places you think you know well.

O Captain, My Captain.

O Captain, My Captain.

Our junk in Sai Kung

Our junk in Sai Kung

Sai Kung islands

Sai Kung islands

Junk life

Junk life

Sai Kung dreaming

Sai Kung dreaming

Leaving the Nest: Teaching Yoga in KL

Warming up to take flight

Warming up to take flight

While we were in Hungary, Brad had an ‘out-of-the-blue’ idea that I should teach yoga on our travels. I thought it was great, because it would keep me in touch with teaching, and soothe the somewhat difficult process of giving up classes in Budapest. We looked up studios in cities we were going to hit, and wrote to the ones that felt sort of intimate and less commercialised as most of the yoga spaces in big Asian cities can be. We had a response straight away from this place called Aravind Yoga in KL, and after a bit of back and forth, we agreed on me teaching a class.

I choose the theme LEAVING THE NEST, which was to be a two hrs class full of challenging bird poses. The aim of the class was to inspire confidence – enough to be able to “fly” so to speak, and leave confined comfort zones, expand and explore outside of what we know and what we feel at home with. Basically, the concept touched on the very essence of my life right now, and I must have chosen it sub-consciously as the correlation between the theme and my current experience didn’t occur to me at the time.

We left our home in Hungary roughly a month ago. We had an established life, and more importantly, a very comfortable and rewarding one. We both were doing what we are passionate about, we both had a nice circle of friends and also common friends for the first time in our relationship. Leaving all that behind felt wrong at times. So the subject of the class seemed like a pretty good analogy for what I was going through: leaving our Hungarian nest, our home, and flying into the big wide world.

As you may have read in a previous post, it didn’t take long for India to teach us a a very hardcore lesson in dealing with discomfort. Then I headed into Asia proper: the far East, a culture I was (and still am) completely new to. I’ve never been in this part of the world before and, I’m going to be honest here, I found it quite intimidating. Almost everything about it, starting with the food, the size of the cities, the consumerist attitude to life and the obvious lack of open communication, was challenging. In Hungarian they have a saying “Ez nekem kínai!”, which Hungarians use when they don’t understand something. It translates into “it’s Chinese to me”.

Chinese culture is basically Chinese to me. Insight of the year.

So then I went on to teach. And it was fun. 20 people showed up, the owners of the studio were super sweet and we had a smashing class. I’m really happy that Chris and Phillipe, took a chance on me, and it all turned out really well. If you ever end up in KL I couldn’t recommend their yoga studio enough.

Me and the owners of Aravind Yoga, Phillipe and Chris

Me and the owners of Aravind Yoga, Phillipe and Chris

Fun fact: a Hungarian guy, Akos, and his Malaysian girlfriend, Cheryl, showed up to the studio (but accidentally an hour late, so they didn’t participate in the class), and we went out to have coffee afterwards with them and their friend Su Mei. So the five of us, in a surprising, but totally awesome, Malaysian-Hungarian cultural exchange, ended up in a Hungarian Bistro (in a KL food court) run by this older Hungarian woman called Piroska (shown on picture). We ate kurtos kalacs, a typical Hungarian sweet, and drank some bad Hungarian coffee. Akos and Cheryl invited us to a Hungo ex-pat party to celebrate one of the girls’ birthdays. We went and had a blast. More Hungarians than Malaysians showed up and we thought it so strange that we could find ourselves in a bar in Kuala Lumpur in this situation, when only hours before we didn’t expect this at all.

Piroska and her kürtős kalács

Piroska and her kürtős kalács

The Hungarian ex-pat party

The Hungarian ex-pat party

The next day Brad and I went out for sight seeing and for some reason I was in a foul mood. I was whinging about the heat outside and then the antarctic AC settings inside, the culture, the contrast of our value systems, blah blah blah…then Brad stopped me. He reminded me what I talked about in my class to others just the day before: about how to broaden our minds, how to become comfortable with the unexpected and how now I wasn’t applying any of it.  That’s not exactly what we call walking the talk…

It was not nice to hear as you can imagine. He doesn’t confront me a lot, or question my integrity but when he does I do listen because I know he is coming from a true place and I need to go straight away and get some real perspective.

So I went.

This is where we are right now. I’m working on finding that constant calm, that space inside where I can always retreat to regardless of the circumstances. A place which is always there for me to tap into, and guides my behaviour. I do believe that we all are the same in the end, we all just want to be happy…

Right now, we are on the plane to Singapore after a week spent in bustling Hong Kong with his mum and granny. A post on that is coming soon, but for now we are spending the day with our good friend from Sydney, Chris in an another Asian mega-city. Then tomorrow we are off to BALI!!! Finally! Back to my own Zen Paradise! Or not… Will see soon enough…

Another chance to practise being at ease with the unease.

For updates on where I’ll be teaching in the future like my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/yogamesh

A week with the Dalai Lama

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150,000 pilgrims attended the Kalachakra Initiation

We are running late for the Dalai Lama.

Stuck by the side of the road, outside a travel agency waiting for a taxi that should have arrived 20 min ago. Where is our driver? I’m nervous, and losing my centre.

It is the first day of the Kalachakra, a week long teaching and initiation of the highest Buddhist tantra, led by His Holiness himself. We’ve planned for months, organised visas and tickets in advance, taken three planes and endured several misfortunes just for the chance to be a part of it. And now, at the last hurdle, the universe is teaching me a lesson in patience. I don’t particularly want to listen.

I’m mainly worried because I want to get a good spot. Today is the first day, and we should get there early to ‘mark our territory’ so that we have a good vantage point for the rest of the week. I’m attached to the idea of getting a good spot to see the Dalai Lama. Buddhist irony much?

It’s now 30 min late. We call our guy – he’s coming, 5 min away. I’m agitated. Theoretically there’s still a bit of time but I know everything in India takes longer – there will be lots of traffic, bumpy roads, a multitude of people when we arrive, security checks, navigation issues. We rise with hope as cars approach – maybe this is our car? – before watching with disappointment as each one drives away. 40 min late.

An old van pulls up! Finally! 50 min late. Our driver senses our anger (not very mindful of us) and heads off quickly. Just outside of Leh we hit heavy traffic: Bumper-to-bumper cars, jeeps, vans, buses and motorbikes fill the dusty road. I’m pretty sure every vehicle in Ladakh stands between us and the venue.

With barely time to spare we arrive at Choglamsar. We have to walk about a kilometre and so we hurry. We need to buy a radio for the English translation. There’s a queue for security check. We’re going to be late for sure. We enter the grounds – there’s a sea of bodies. It’s incredible. 100,000 people have filled the makeshift venue for Kalachakra. The horns are blaring, the monks are chanting, people are settling into their spots and we’re rushing to the foreigner section, on the far side of the main stage.

As I rush by the dais, someone appears from the shadows. It’s His Holiness! I find myself facing the dead centre of stage, 15m away, with an uninterrupted view to the Dalai Lama. He walks to the edge of the platform to greet the people. Amazing. It’s the best view I’ll get of him all week. I can’t believe it – half a minute earlier or later and I would’ve missed this moment.

Perfect timing.

********

Photo by MANUEL BAUER. His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the 33rd Kalachakra Empowerment in Leh, Ladakh, J&K, India on July 11, 2014. Originally published on Dalai Lama's Facebook page. The photographer's page: http://www.manuelbauer.ch

Photo by MANUEL BAUER. His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the 33rd Kalachakra Empowerment in Leh, Ladakh, J&K, India on July 11, 2014. Originally published on Dalai Lama’s Facebook page. The photographer’s page: http://www.manuelbauer.ch

When we heard His Holiness would be giving a 7-day (!) teaching on the highest Tibetan Buddhist knowledge, in Ladakh – a place probably more Tibetan than Tibet is right now – in his native language, we jumped at the chance. We figured this would probably be the most authentic experience we could have with His Holiness, short of getting in a time machine and transporting back to Lhasa,1949. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. That said, Mesi and I, are absolute beginners when it comes to Buddhism. We don’t have a regular practice in this tradition but we grasp opportunities to learn more about it – such as doing retreats, engaging in Buddhist style meditation and reading / listening to Buddhist dharma.

The schedule for the seven day event went like this: The festivities began with a celebration of His Holiness’s 79th birthday. Dignitaries, representing various religions and governments gave short speeches. The foreigners were represented by none other than our high priest, Richard Gere (Mesi was very excited by this). The next two days His Holiness gave teachings on several of Nagarjuna’s texts: Precious Garland of the Middle Way and, Letter to a Friend. Both are heady, difficult texts, mainly on the nature of emptiness. Then three more days of the Kalachakra initiation, concluding on the last day with a long life offering to His Holiness.

What is Kalachakra? I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t know much about the initiation before I got to Ladakh, and even now I don’t profess to be an expert. Suffice to say, it is a special ritual, which involves taking Buddhist vows (both the lay and the tantric ones), while performing several visualisations on a mandala. The purpose of taking the initiation is to accelerate oneself away from the cycles of Samsara. We only attended one of the three marked initiation days, deciding to go to Sakti on the first day and then skipping the last initiation day on account of the heat. We didn’t take the vows, because we’re not ready for the commitment it comes with, but for many others – particularly the local pilgrims – the Kalachakra initiation was the most important part of the week. Indeed the three days, we were told, were the most well attended days of them all.

On the first day His Holiness gave a generalist talk on Buddhism and human values. He touched upon the idea of different faiths:

“All religions have at their base, the same fundamental principles: love, compassion, non-violence, unity” he stated.

“Different religions in the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism etc… – are just different manifestations of this same principle. The philosophical tenets are different, but the message is the same. This is a good thing because it allows people to find the one that suits them best. I’m friends with people of all faiths, and people of no faith. What is important is that we recognise each other as human beings first.”.

I find these statements by His Holiness as some of the most inspiring. In a time when religious division captures much media attention, it’s rare to see the leader of a religion not only accept, but readily welcome the presence of differing spiritual philosophies. It sets a great example for the world.

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The Dalai Lama has had a long fascination with science particularly quantum physics and relativity, and he spent some time talking about this too. He argues, there is similarity between the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness of inherent existence and these strands of scientific thought. In a nutshell both science and Buddhism posit that there is an unseen interconnectivity between things that otherwise appear separate. The universe is more unified than we perceive. Excitingly, the Dalai Lama unveiled that he has been working on a book that takes the scattered elements of Buddhist science and collates them into one tome. It will come out around the end of this year.

By the second day the proper teachings began. His Holiness jumped straight into the texts. Systematically he would quote the relevant phrases and then dissect their meaning. He talked about the four noble truths, the four mindfulnesses, bodhichitta, buddhahood, compassion, emptiness, the philosophy of the mind, single pointed concentration, dependent origination and much much more.

He went at a cracking pace – this was the Dalai Lama at work. This wasn’t a typical secular speech he might give at a college graduation or at a roundtable. He was teaching dharma, the insights into buddhism he had gained from decades of study, contemplation and experience. Throughout he would sprinkle in anecdotes from his life – his experiences with monks from the Theravandan and Zen traditions, the monkeys in Dharamsala, his life in Amdo, Tibet, when he was younger.

In particular he told a story about how he dealt with a group of aspiring Buddhists, in Mumbai, who asked His Holiness to teach something easy, rather than the difficult texts so common in buddhist literature. His response? A resounding no! Hard teachings were better, he reasoned, because the road to enlightenment is even harder! The Dalai Lama is a true task master.

The final day saw a festive atmosphere after a long, rewarding but challenging week. A highlight of the early morning was when His Holiness transmitted the teachings on the iconic buddhist mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. He gave an explanation of every word of the short mantra and then began to lead what must’ve been a 30 min meditation on it. 150,000 people chanting Om mani padme hum – praise to the jewel in the lotus – led by the Dalai Lama himself. It was a really powerful moment, for us the highlight of the week.

 

Like the first day, the final day involved many speeches with a particularly touching tribute from the governor of Jammu and Kashmir. The ceremony ended with His Holiness walking to the front of the stage to give his final speech. He joked to the foreigners that the event was a double blessing – seeing as it had been really hot, we had managed to get Buddhist teachings and a sun tan at the same time! The Dalai Lama is not without a sense of humour.

It would be a lie to say that the Kalachakra was not without challenges. The location housed 150,000 people daily and getting in and out of the venue was hellish. People pushed and shoved their way to the exits, and there were only three bridges across a makeshift moat that created massive bottlenecks and long waits. Returning back to Leh each day was a challenge (though sometimes quite fun too), require a solid, dusty hike from the venue to the transport hub and then vying for limited taxi and bus space with the locals.

Every day was an endeavour. Starting out from Leh early in the morning, finding a ride to the venue (which didn’t always appear), negotiating vehicle traffic to Choglamsar, negotiating human traffic to the teachings, listening to the teachings, and then reversing the whole process back to Leh: A solid six to seven hours and by evening we were exhausted.

His Holiness spoke in Tibetan, and so to understand we had to use radios to tune into broadcast translations. This transmission from Dalai Lama’s words to my understanding was not always so smooth, on account of the technology, the quality of the translation and my (limited) capacity to assimilate the teachings. Add to that the length of each day’s talks – 3.5 hours – and it was difficult to maintain full attention all the way through. The heat was intense – several days started at midday and everyone was forced to endure the worst of the midday sun.

WHAT’S THE POINT OF IT ALL?
At the end of the third day of teachings the Dalai Lama said: “Be humble and respectful and do not just think of yourself. Show in your actions the meaning of the teachings”.

This was, for us, the main point we learned from the whole week’s teachings. His Holiness was implying: the essence of Buddhism is not the rituals, the prayers, nor the scriptures. It is how one uses the lessons of the teachings in every day life – the tricky and difficult situations you find yourself in away from the monastery, away from the meditation pillow, away from the ceremony. Can you maintain equanimity in the face of obstacles? Can you still feel compassion for the annoying people you meet throughout life? Are you aware enough to calm your mind under extreme stress?

Being able to accomplish this is more important than adhering to any religion. And whenever he talks, the Dalai Lama tells his audiences that over and over again. Don’t just blindly follow anything he says – test it for yourself. Check up.

The value of being around the Dalai Lama isn’t so much that he is particularly better teacher than say, another learned monk. Rather, I would argue, it’s because he embodies and lives the lessons of the Buddha – and the example he sets is so captivating, you don’t even have to be Buddhist to recognise it. When His Holiness laughs, he laughs with so much joy you can’t help but join in. When he gives teachings, uninterrupted for hours he doesn’t appear to get tired or weary. He puts full effort and attention into all that he does. He is humble.

In Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh, there is a quote that nicely sums up the way I feel towards His Holiness, the religion he leads and its impact on me:

“Labels do not interest me. I have found a man in whose good power and spirit I believe and that gives me strength… truth is a living intensity transmitted from person to person, a living experience, not a set of practices or even philosophical positions. I revere Buddhism; I meditate in Buddhist ways; but I would not call myself a Buddhist or a Hindu. I am man searching to understand myself, before it is too late, after a rather spoilt and ignorant life. That is all.”

Monk walking to Kalachakra grounds at Choglamsar

Monk walking to Kalachakra grounds at Choglamsar

A Precious Human Life

“Today I am fortunate to have woken up.
I am alive, I have a precious human life.
I am not going to waste it.

I am going to use
all my energies to develop myself,
to expand my heart out to others,
to achieve enlightenment for
the benefit of all beings.

I am going to have
kind thoughts towards others.
I am not going to get angry,
or think badly about others.

I am going to benefit others
as much as I can.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Monastery Hopping in Ladakh

Hemis Monastery - note this photo is not mine, it's from walkthroughindia.com

Hemis Monastery – note this photo is not mine, it’s from walkthroughindia.com

The Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh are nothing if not, breathtakingly spectacular. All of them, centuries old, are built into sheer cliffs or upon bare Himalayan mountain-sides. Monastic white buildings sprout from the grey rock – almost blooming – like some special, magical expression of the mountain character.

We loved going to the monasteries. They were such amazing spaces and allowed me to tap into a part of myself that I usually find so hard to reach. Everything about them invokes a sense of ancient wisdom – the smell of the incense, the old wooden structures, faded winding prayer flags, crumbling paintings, the alternating sounds of silence and Tibetan instruments in puja. Moving in each gompa, we were compelled to meditate, unable to escape the residual energy borne from centuries of contemplation on the nature of reality. There is something very special about these monasteries.

Small statues of Padma Sambhava with a completely open third eye (L) and the Vajrasatva (R) in Taktok gompa

Small statues of Padma Sambhava with a completely open third eye (L) and the Vajrasatva (R) in Taktok gompa

Several specific experiences spring to mind. In Sakti, we visited the Taktok monastery, literally built around a cave where the great Indian Sage and ‘Father’ of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh, Padma Sambhava meditated. Cut off from the outside sounds, the silence in the cave has an amazing resonance. You can literally hear the silence, and it clears the mind immediately.

In the same village there is the less renowned Tuphuk gompa. We had been walking around Sakti for an hour, and for some unknown reason I felt incredibly drained, more so than I should’ve from such a short walk. Passing below the gompa, we heard the sounds of the sunset puja emanating over the village. We climbed up to find not a congregation, but a sole monk – his entire brethren had gone to Kalachakra. We sat down and let the sounds of his chanting, the drums and cymbals wash over us in meditation. For who knows how long, it was just the three of us and the incredible sound of the puja. When we left, I was magically refreshed. No lethargy, no exhaustion, no illness.

The view of the village from Chemrey monastery

The view of the village from Chemrey monastery

Hemis is perhaps the most important monastery in Ladakh. One of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, Kargyu-Drukpa, flourished here. The main gompa is so beautiful it almost brought me to tears. More so than any other place in Ladakh, you can feel the sense of history in that gompa: be it the fading beauty of the decorative cloth piece that hangs from the ceiling, or the massive, ancient wooden pillars that seem to support the very foundations of Buddhism itself. It is a stunning, sacred space.

In contrast, Turktuk has the smallest Buddhist structure in all of Ladakh. Perched on a hill, It is a small, comfortable room, mostly empty except for modest statues of the Buddha, Tara and Manjushri. The village is muslim, and no monk is present. However, someone in Turtuk dutifully maintains the gompa by cleaning it, stocking it with supplies and lighting incense and butter lamps everyday. It is beautiful in its simplicity. One morning we trundled up to the plateau where the gompa is situated – hoping to do yoga outside and take in the spectacular sunrise views of the village below. However, the weather soon turned foul and we had to rush inside the gompa to escape. We found ourselves trapped in the room, alone, in the darkness of the overcast dawn, with the sound of the wind and rain thrashing the side of the gompa. There was nothing to do but surrender to the circumstances, be in the moment and go inwards.

Turktuk gompa - a small room on a hill

Turktuk gompa – a small room on a hill

In total we visited eight monasteries in Ladakh: Leh, Thiksey, Hemis, Taktok, Turtuk, Tuphuk, Stakna and Diskit – all were amazing in their own way. We feel very blessed to have spent time and experienced the energy of one of the few places on Earth that still carries the true essence of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sunset over Leh

Sunset over Leh

The top of Stakna monastery - Brad trying not to fall off the edge

The top of Stakna monastery – Brad trying not to fall off the edge

Young monk just chilling

Young monk just chilling

Mesi explores Diskit monastery

Mesi explores Diskit monastery

32m tall Maitreya near Diskit

32m tall Maitreya near Diskit

Hair-in-the-face windy Leh monastery

Hair-in-the-face windy Leh monastery

Taktog Monastery - the door in the middle leads to the Padma Sambhava cave

Taktog Monastery – the door in the middle leads to the Padma Sambhava cave

A wooden bridge over the Indus river with Stakna monastery in the background

A wooden bridge over the Indus river with Stakna monastery in the background

 

 

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