By Jessica Koch
His Holiness Karma Pa is the 17th
A crimson-hued queue of monks formed outside the portal of a space in which the Tibetans harbored a fabulous mystery. One could do scarcely more than to stare in rapt intrigue at this contemplative group of consecrated beings, each seemingly more fervent than the last in a desire to consummate the next and final step on this sojourn, this pilgrimage of Tibetan faith. Who or what was held within the walls of this room situated at the summit of a golden holy manse?
One of the monks, a shorn-headed Tibetan beauty, stood folding and unfolding a pure white scarf. She creased the silk with an exacting eye, in a manner that made the importance she placed on the task obvious. Back and forth, to and fro, her tiny hands danced over the lustrous fiber. The full meaning of the act was unknown to us and ultimately irrelevant, made so by the reverence and devotion communicated in the meditative nature of the process. Having completed the process to her satisfaction, she clasped the prepared scarf between her two hands and commenced to pray.
Three monks to her front, at the head of the line, stood a wizened and fascinating character whose age, it seemed, rivaled that of the towering Himalayan Mountains that circumscribed the gilded monastery where we stood, awaiting our destinies. He stared at my noticeably foreign person for an intimidating few moments before delivering a benevolent and sparsely toothed grin. His wispy gray beard endeared me to him, as did his eyes, which seemed incongruously young as compared to his aged body. His hands were busy in the fingering of a string of prayer beads.
This man served to quiet my soul for a moment, and I was able to shake myself back to reality long enough to recall the events of that morning. It was a beautiful Himalayan sunrise that awoke me, early enough that my morning walk coincided with the zazen, or walking meditation of the Tibetans that lived in and around Dharamsala. A brilliantly varied assortment of Tibetan people passed me on the hill station road that ran from Dharamsala proper to the Dharamsala Cantt. Some held prayer wheels and some uttered mantras, while still more appeared to be doing just as I was doing: attempting to comprehend the beauty of the landscape and finding within this endeavor an inevitable act of worship.
On this day my professor and I were scheduled to meet with His Holiness. More precisely, we were privileged to have an audience with the 17th reincarnation of Karma Pa, one of the four high lamas of Tibet. This was the whole of the information that we utilized in preparing ourselves for the ensuing experience. As we climbed into the taxi that would take us to Sidh Bar, the monastery that is home to Karma Pa and a multitude of monks, the owner of our hotel bid us farewell and wished us luck. Our ride carried us through 20 kilometers of waking hill country, and we pressed our faces against the windows as we sped past sleepy-eyed Indians just venturing from their abodes to greet the genesis of their respective days. The rising sun lit the snow-capped peaks of the mountains and made the valley glow with its reflection from the white crests.
Upon arriving at the monastery, we were ushered into a waiting room and asked to remain there until a qualified individual became available to meet with us. Shortly thereafter, we were greeted by a young monk with a notepad and an impressive command of the English language. He asked a few questions and listened as we expounded upon our mission in India. He provided little information to us regarding the nature of our audience with His Holiness and apprised us not at all of the proper mode of conduct for a meeting of this sort. Our passports were collected for identification purposes, and we were asked to leave any personal possessions in the waiting area. We were then led up several flights of stairs to the top of the monastery. Before reaching the topmost floor, we removed our shoes in recognition of the sanctity of the place.
It was here, in the anterior of the room that housed Karma Pa, that we encountered the group of monks that awaited their own audience with the holy man. I occupied myself in the study of this group, in an effort to calm my nerves and to quiet the anxiety caused by an ignorance of what exactly I might expect in the impending minutes of my life. As I reveled in the beauty of the female monk and the antiquity of her kindly companion, I realized that there was a coincidence of curiosity; my stare met the stares of several equally amazed human beings. I was pleased to find that this exchange was not an awkward one. We, persons of such differing culture and experience, explored one another with our eyes and minds and hearts, and found that we had a bond.
I must believe that it was as a direct result of this unspoken bond that the young woman monk approached us. We told her that, regrettably, we did not have scarves of our own. She offered to give us each a scarf, explaining that our having them would be very "auspicious". An intriguing choice of words, I thought, particularly from someone whose native language was not English, or a language remotely resembling it. We accepted two white silk scarves from her, and listened intently as she enlightened us as to the purpose of the scarf. It became clear to us that the meticulous folding we had previously witnessed was indeed ritual and symbolic. These scarves were folded in meditation and used in prayer, and then presented to His Holiness, who consequently utilized them in blessing the pilgrims.
I felt awe at the singularity of this experience, and then the emotional height I had reached was dwarfed as we were escorted into the presence of His Holiness. In a yellow room with a crimson floor, behind an altar and flanked by monks and scribes, Karma Pa stood waiting to bless us. His person seemed to tower; I felt infinitesimal to face him, and came to realize that he had not a massive body, but rather a massive presence. He took the scarf from my hands and, speaking in his native Tibetan, raised the scarf over my head and placed it on my shoulders, granting me his benediction. His scribe and translator then asked if we desired to say anything to His Holiness. We told him that we represented the peace initiative of an American university, and that we wished to learn of the Tibetan legacy of peace, and to understand how it was being perpetuated among the children of his homeland.
Karma Pa listened as our words were translated, and sat pensive for a moment before gracing us with his response, the profundity of which cannot be fully related. As his words were translated, we were haltingly bestowed with a weighty piece of wisdom: "the key to peace," he told us, "lies in equality." He went on to explain that by equality, he meant "that every sentient being suffers and struggles to overcome adversity. In this way, each is the equal of every other. The key to peace lies in the recognition of this inherent equality." His Holiness advised us that "mass media and the efforts of religious leaders to spread this idea is not enough. The knowledge of equality and the desire for peace must be in each of us, in our hearts."
We left Sidh Bar quietly. Our attempts to digest this enlightenment were exhausting. From the mouth of a holy man had we received a hint at ultimate wisdom, and a fragile grasp of the true nature of the harmonious inheritance of the Tibetan child.