The creation myth of our trip to Ladakh took place on a Wednesday evening in the Woodhead Lounge at Wesleyan. Jenny, Ben and I were enrolled in a small seminar with Professor Willis on Women and Buddhism. For this particular lesson, Marlies Bosch paid us a visit, presenting a PowerPoint on the nuns of Ladakh, weaving a quilt of tales through photographs and anecdotes. My immediate reaction was astonishment. The content of Marlies' photographs was so strangely unfamiliar to my Western outlook - deep red robes, liturgical accoutrements, strange buildings.
Although an interest in Buddhism had preceded this lecture, the practice of Buddhism was an abstract notion to me, merely speculative because the conditions in which I studied it were strictly academic, always conducted within the confines of a classroom. All of the stories and facts that I had absorbed in reading the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Thich Nhat Han, though rousing and beautiful, were merely well crafted fictions without any literal context. Now, for the first time, completely engrossed in the dialogue between Jan and Marlies, I began to sense the magnitude of the religion. Buddhism was not an isolated activity, it was not just an intellectual diversion for preoccupied college students, and it was not just beautiful. It was meaningful, purposeful and functional to an entire society. And while Marlies spoke of Thiksey and itinerant nuns who had spent their lives without a place to commune, to pray and live together, I recall being faced with a torrent of emotions. I was impressed, and I became convinced that I could help. In those moments, a trip to Ladakh became an imperative.
After speaking with Marlies and Jan, we dedicated ourselves to making the trip to Ladakh the following May. And the thought remained fixed in my mind for sixteen months, as we prepared for our sojourn. We took a course called Tibetan Buddhism the following semester, which provided me with more insight into the practice and history of Tibetan Buddhism. Ben and I took Tibetan language lessons with a Tibetan refugee named Sonam Gyaltsen, supposing that a minimal knowledge of Tibetan would make communication easier (although we discovered rather quickly that while texts in Ladakh are often written in Tibetan, the spoken language is an entirely different story). I would encourage those that visit Ladakh to prepare themselves as thoroughly as possible. Any understanding of the traditions, rituals and history of Ladakh that I developed prior to the trip enriched my experience in countless ways. For instance, as a student of Art History, I am fascinated with visual culture. While working with Professor Willis, I became intrigued with Buddhist iconography, and especially tangkas and statues. I read countless books on the tangka tradition over two years, which made visits to monasteries meaningful. I was able to understand the meanings of the painting programs, their symbolism and their liturgical purposes.
Before beginning to recount my experience in India this past summer, I would like to underscore the difficulty of writing such a memoir. Spending three months in Ladakh, working at the Nyarma construction site, was the most valuable experience I have had in my life, something that has fundamentally altered my mindset and my way of life. It was beautiful, humbling, at times awesome and unusual, at times painful, others blissful, and had instilled in me a security that is inexpressible. However, I fear that my words are useless. Anything I say will betray the indescribable weight of what I felt so often, lost in that liminal space between words and what they are meant to convey. So I will begin by saying that when I left, I was radically different than when I came, and I am sure Jenny and Ben were the same way. We left knowing that we were standing on the border of something wonderful, something that had become a part of us, that we will return to time and time again, if not in person, in the thousands of prayers that unfold across oceans, empty space that eternally defines us to them.
We flew to Ladakh in the first week of June, which was long before the tourists arrived and the snow melted from the mountains. The flight over the vast, snow-capped Himalayas was beautiful, the landing a work of flying expertise on the pilots part. We were greeted at the Leh airport by Abid, a jaunty Ladakhi man slightly older than us. A ride in his car revealed immediately his droll personality, his kind demeanor and his passion for Ladakh. He took us to his Internet Café, and immediately disappeared, giving us the opportunity to look around. The Café was nothing more than an empty room with boxes and a poster of the famed Zanskar trek (it would later be transformed into a bustling convening point for Western tourists). When Abid reappeared, he had black tea for us. 'Joolay Americans, tell me everything,' he said laconically. This was the beginning of an extraordinary friendship. Abid helped us move into a small hotel, where we stayed for the first eight days.
The high altitude of Ladakh makes for an interesting transition. We were careful not to exert too much energy during the first week. The first time that I noticed the effects of the high altitude was during a trip to the Shanti Stupa for sunrise. We awoke from slumberous moments in our new abode at the Milennium Hotel and walked at a brisk pace to State Road. The ascent to the stupa was difficult because our muscles and lungs weren't acclimated to the heavy air. Some 530 steps later, I arrived at the top, gasping for air, looking out at Leh and its peripheries. The land was streaked in pink and peach from the morning sky, the hills rising to celestial heights.
I would encourage volunteers to approach a trip such as ours with an open mind and an open heart. In making the trip to Ladakh, I never thought once to have an enumerated list of expectations. I certainly had hopes and curiosities. But to have anything concrete in one's mind, to desire a structured program, is to set oneself up for disappointment. Ladakh is an endless source of pleasure for the curious mind and has so much to offer. When we arrived in Leh, we expected to spend several days resting and begin work on the nunnery immediately. Of course, we were not familiar with the setbacks we had to overcome: the roads to Manali were still covered in snow and supplies couldn't be transported, the nuns were away and many of the locals were still returning from the university at Jammu after a year of study. It was almost two weeks before we even met the nuns and Mr. Ishey. But we were able to fill our time with long hikes into the hills, pleasant afternoons reading and writing and conversations with locals. When I arrived, I knew that I wanted to learn first-hand about tangka painting. After perusing the shops in Leh and meeting some friendly locals, I was advised to find Phuntsok, a Tibetan refugee who owned a shop in Leh. I greeted Phuntsok in Tibetan, told him about myself and inquired about the large Wheel of Life tangka he was then painting. He brought me warm tea, sat down with me, and began to explain the beautiful tradition of tangka painting, his ten years of meticulous training, and the meanings of these wrathful protectors that he painted. Visits to Phuntsok's shop became a part of my weekend agenda. During one visit, I witnessed him repaint a three hundred year old painting that had lost its color. I was shocked at first, my Western mind not yet unaccustomed to the Tibetan logic: the age of the piece, of course, was not as relevant as its significance as a brilliant icon.
Our first encounter with the nuns at the Ladakh Nuns Association was wonderful. We were invited over for tea, and spent the afternoon with Dr. Palmo - although the young nuns would often peek in and laugh at what Palmo called "your Western faces" - discussing our prospective summer. She spoke to us of Buddhism, how excited they were to have us helping them. She asked us to write down our expectations. I recall scrawling in my notebook, 'I hope to contribute in the most constructive way possible, to have a positive effect on the people and community.'
Our first encounter with the older nuns for whom we were building the nunnery took place about one week later. We all met at Thiksey monastery for lunch, entering a small dark grotto full of paintings. The nuns chanted, singing in harmonies, beautiful songs that we could not understood then, but that by the end we were able to hum along to. I recall being completely consumed in the moment, watching these unfamiliar faces contort in laughter, in concentration, and sometimes in sadness. Palmo, Marlies and Ishey expressed gratitude for our presence. Ben also thanked the nuns for letting us into their lives, summarizing many thoughts I had been having for the previous weeks. After Ben spoke, I began to cry.
We spent the first several weeks in Leh. We would often walk from our residence at the Milennium, past the Shanti Stupa, down State Rd. to the LNA. It was always a pleasant walk, enough time for a fulfilling conversation with Jenny or Ben, or to become completely immersed in my own thoughts - often drifting across an entire subcontinent to memories of walks with my mother near our home in suburban Boston or rides in my fathers truck. It was really a wonderful opportunity to reminisce. For this interim before our voyage to Nyarma, we spent our days with the nuns and Geshe Tarchen (Geshe-La).
Ben and I spent the bulk of our time with Geshe-La, making a determined effort to teach him the rudimentary tenets of English grammar and language. Despite his reticence about speaking English, we soon discovered that Geshe-La was already familiar with, and quite gifted in the language.
We would retreat to a guest room with Geshe-La for our lessons. We would invent exercises and situations for Geshe-La to practice his English, which were often successful, and certainly very funny when they weren't. I recall a particular lesson when Geshe-La became extremely animated when we asked him about the Four Noble Truths. We spent the next hour discussing them, and I suspect it was in this particularly compelled state that Geshe-La spoke English at his best, without any hint of uncertainty. Although we would visit Geshe-La intermittently during our stay at Nyarma, it was during these two weeks that we were closest to him. In the future - I do predict a return to Ladakh in the not-too-distant future, I would like to work on devising a program for teaching English to the nuns and practitioners like Geshe-La. This was a moment of tremendous excitement and energy for me in the program. Geshe-La was eager to learn English, which he professed was vital in his teachings to a large audience, and we were so content to spend time teaching him, and of course being taught by him. His sense of humor was terrific too: what a magnificent, jovial laugh!
Then we moved to Ishey's house, where we would walk forty-five minutes to Nyarma (or on some occasions be transported in Mr. Ishey's big jeep, which was always reason for laughter). After a week of working on the site, we stopped treating our water with iodine and water filters, after the nuns and Ishey repeatedly encouraged us to drink the water, as it was pure and harmless. But within one day of ingesting the water, I contracted a stomach bug that kept me sick for three weeks. I was unable to eat much more than bread and rice in small portions, and visits to the bathroom were not infrequent. But the entire time, everyone was very helpful and supportive. During visits to Leh, we would meet other Westerners whose bodies were struggling to make the adjustment to a Ladakhi diet. And I began to understand that my problems were not unique. But the more aware I was of my diet and my limitations, the healthier I became. It only took time, patience and mindfulness for my body to become increasingly habituated to our environment. One major caveat: any Western visitor should bring a water filter, iodine pills or similar precautionary items. They are very helpful. Living in Mr. Ishey's home, with his son Thusthop and niece Lhamo, was memorable. I was grateful for the hospitality and endless entertainment Mr. Ishey provided us with. We spent most of our time together, and we were blessed with Mr. Ishey's propitious control of the English language, which made communicating much easier. Ishey treated us with so much respect, and I know we tried our hardest to reciprocate his kindness. We spent roughly a month in Ishey's home, cooking, watching the strangest music videos I have ever seen, dancing.
The site at Nyarma is an extraordinary place. The vestiges of a monastery that have endured the passage of time in such beautiful contrast to the beginnings of a new building. Before the bricks were dry and before the timber arrived, we had to search for tasks. We spent a number of days at the site with Dolma and Dolkar shoveling dirt and rocks into the foundations of the complex. Working with the two women was our first opportunity to get to know them personally. We assumed that without a language in common, it would be impossible to communicate well. And while we had our fair share of embarrassing misunderstandings, we discovered a language of gestures, Ladakhi and English phrases, that worked well. I recall thinking often that time in Nyarma seemed suspended. The passing of time was hardly noticeable sometimes. It was as if time hung in the air, whistled in the wind, or was intimated in the blue ethereal sky, and was only noticeable in the gradually melting snow of the mountain peaks. Another leitmotif for my experience at Nyarma was the mountains. The mountains bracketed my thoughts and my existence, were always peripherally there, with a silent omnipresence that felt humbling.
When the supplies began to arrive en masse, and our time was more valuable, we decided to move to the construction site. Although our stay at Ishey's home was a significant and memorable component of the trip, I was most affected by our stay at Nyarma. After furnishing the partially constructed rooms with glass panes and wood plank beds, we moved to the site. We thought that we would maximize our work time if we were able to wake up, make breakfast, and begin work immediately. The plan was very effective, and allowed us to spend much more time with Dolma and Dolkar and the six Nepali workers. Because of our presence at the site, we were able to witness the daily rituals of Dolma and Dolkar, and it was in this context that I developed both a wonderful friendship and profound respect for them. They are two very special women. During our time on the construction site, Ben and I shared a room directly to the right of theirs. I awoke every morning, the intake valves to my soul open in those slumberous moments before one rises to greet the sunrise each day - which I locate somewhere between tired stupor and nostalgic bliss - and listened to Dolma and Dolkar doing their morning chants. It was these moments that I valued the most in India, the rise and fall of their voices, the most beautiful and heartbreaking song I had ever heard. And this was something I could never thank them for when I went next door to make breakfast with them - eggs, sunny side up, chapathy and black milk tea, oma cha ngarmo. I could never think to hug them, or describe to them in simple words how much they changed me. Dolma and Dolka taught me so much through their actions, lessons that I won't begin to describe, but that nevertheless have shaped myself (or rather strive) to be today. They dealt with their circumstances with such pride and faith and were so kind to us. Not to mention that they were so much fun.
Spending time with the Nepali workers was always entertaining. We communicated through jest and nonsensical banter. They were thrilled when during our tea break Ben and I shaved our beards into thick moustaches to match theirs. We returned yelling "dzoonga!" Nepali for moustache. They laughed, rubbing their moustaches to acknowledge our shared camaraderie.
At night, Nyarma became an altogether different place. As the last rays of crepuscular light disappeared, nascent Nyarma became shrouded in a quiet darkness, the exact opposite of noise. The waxing moon, nebulous mountains and infinite stars became a setting for aloneness, a place for thinking. It was in these times that my thoughts, those that I had stored so deep in my mind, began to rain down in a deluge. It was here that I began to corrode my inability - no doubt built up during a career of classes, structured appointments and distracted interactions - to view the world with compassion and enthusiasm. Walking towards the Indus, I could hear the monosyllabic voice of the Indus River. Walking up the mountains in undulating and winding paths - what fantastic geometry the mountains had, anticlines and cascading shadows - I could swear they echoed eternity.
It was also during our residence in Nyarma that we began to spend more time with the locals. They invited us to a wedding, to archery tournaments and dinners. CB Thundhup, who became one of my closest acquaintances, brought us chang - he called it "local" - during the particularly hard work days, when we loaded thousands of bricks into trucks and brought them to the site.
When Ben and I departed from Nyarma, I recall being confused. It was leaving something that had become so familiar. Living in a place where time can seem so relative, where the still of the night, the isolation, makes you notice your surroundings so much more, I felt I was leaving a part of me - an appendage maybe - behind, and that the absence would be painful. We had our farewell at Mr. Ishey's house, and many of the nuns came to say goodbye. Dolma and Dolkar burst into tears as we bid them farewell. I wanted so much to hug them, to tell them I would be returning and that was why I couldn't cry, simply because it was so engrained in my rough hands, in my memory, that I would have to. But of course, as always, language was not our strong suit, and I tried to look deep into their eyes and let them now I would return. And I fully intend to.
Ben and I spent the next three weeks traveling - Dharamsala, Kashmir, Haridwar, Rishikesh - but I couldn't help but feel my thoughts drifting northward to Ladakh. Those three weeks were pleasurable, but not nearly as meaningful as days on the construction site (it is these days that I recall with the most acute nostalgia, which of course reminds me of the words etymology, Greek for "longing to return home.") Long days slapping mud on bricks, carrying buckets of water, wood planks. Sometimes, the unbearable feeling of fatigue, others the satisfaction that labor induces when greeted by a big grin of a middle-aged nun. Walking past the stupas, the eternal monuments of Nyarma, at night, turning my neck to the zenith and seeing a perfect sea of stars, I will never forget that. Nor will I forget making mo mo with the nuns, the sensation of dough in my fingers, my sides aching from laughing as they ridiculed our inferior culinary skills.
So as I say, the experience of living in Ladakh was indescribable. It was everything I had hoped for, sometimes what I had expected - "Delhi belly" was one thing I had been warned about - and sometimes not at all. I had no idea, for instance, that I would become so emotionally involved to the site at Nyarma, to the nuns, or with Ben and Jenny. These places and people will remain inimitably present in my mind's eye, in that particular summer, for a very long time. And I am certain I will return. In fact, I suspect this may be a long affiliation….