Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monastic Magic

The reason for my silence in the last week or so is that I was in the capitol fulfilling my duties as a member of the Volunteer Advisory Committee, a group which serves as a bridge between the Volunteers and Peace Corps staff. It was somewhat productive and worth the trip in but unfortunately due to the flight schedules and the timing of the meeting, I spent a whopping week in UB to attend a 3 hour meeting. However, I managed to pass the time well in the company of friends, sunshine, good food and coffee. It was a lovely break from countryside life but I was glad to return to the normalcy of my job, my wonderful friends and the comfortable churning rhythm of my weeks here in Hovd

Though life in the big city can get pretty expensive and exhausting emotionally (how does one operate an elevator?), there are some really delightful surprises to be found just below the surface if you open your eyes to them. One day, board with the typical pattern of working, eating and drinking that PCVs tend to adhere to in the big city, I decided to take a stroll to a different part of town. A few girl friends came with me and our merry band set out in search of the funky, offbeat shopping district which is a fair distance from our normal stomping ground in the city center. I was leading the pack, a rather risky move since my sense of direction boils down to plodding in the general direction of the final destination. This technique seemed to be failing at first, as we quickly realized that we weren't quite in the right place. However, it turned into a rather beautiful accident when we stumbled upon a tree lined avenue and found ourselves at the foot of a rather impressive monastery. It was a prefect day and it was wonderful to behold people linked arm-in-arm strolling across the grounds freely as the monks moving to and fro. We congratulated ourselves on the lucky find and prepared to follow suit, starting off towards the grounds. However, no sooner had we entered the gates, an attendant sprang to life and demanded that we pay an entry fee. Confused by all the locals around us coming and going as they pleased we tried to tell them that our goal was merely a pleasant walk, not to sight-see. When this failed to register, we gave a collective shrug and took a less scenic route around the monastery wall. Somehow, spending our small discretionary income on nail polish is more justifiable than shelling out for bribes. We trudged along in a zig-zag pattern until something stopped us. One of our crew had to pee and scurried off to find a corner in which to do so; another went along as a lookout. That left two of us standing at the back of the massive monastery. Idly we chatted and waited for our friends- until we heard the most breathtaking noise. We turned to see a tiny house on the opposite side of the dingy little street from which the most intriguing sounds and smells issued forth. A droning filled our ears; not unlike a swarm of a million bees. It was punctuated by the cacophony of sundry instruments being played simultaneously with great gusto. We wandered towards the house and soon found ourselves at the threshold of a beautiful, albeit tiny temple. The two-story room was smoky with incense which filled my nose and delighted the senses. It would seem here, though the Russians tried hard to both literally and figuratively kill religion in Mongolia, that Buddhism is very much alive and well. Frozen in awe we stood in the threshold of the temple, trying our best to soak it all in. It was so beautiful. The fragrant incense, the way the light filtered through the smoke, the colorfully painted space, the ornate cloth cascading from the ceiling and the wall filled with ornate, cryptic shrines laden with offerings all came together to create a staggeringly stunning and exotic scene. Even the maroon and gold garb of the brothers was a sight to behold in the already vibrant room. Unlike the larger monastery, which seemed to be used as a tourist trap and a park, this one was very much alive. There were two rows of monks, young and old, facing each other, some were reading, all were chanting. Every once in a while, the younger boys would pound away on drums or blow into huge Seuss-worthy horns with as much lung power as they could muster. Around the two lines seated in the middle, monks were also plying their trade on the side walls. There were desks at which families were seated, apparently desperate for advice or help from their spiritual leaders. The wizened elderly and tiny infants were inspected by the gentle hands of the monks, all seemed to be under some sort of spell. It was one of the most tranquil places I've known; certainly it possesses the most supreme calm of anywhere I've been in Mongolia. Peace seemed to wash over me, as it did everyone else, as I walked through this domain, trying to make myself as strait and small as possible out of respect. After passing by the wall where people were consulting with the holy brothers, I reached the alters. There were so many Buddhas; I felt painfully ignorant not being able to tell what each one meant or what the different offerings that lay in silver bowls at the Buddha's feet symbolized. People came in a trickle to pay their respects to the deities, bowing their heads with hands clasped in front of them. I moved slowly, without taking pictures, bent on absorbing this place and committing it to my deepest of memories. My friend and I looked at each other as we discovered each new wonder, our eyes wide in amazement. As we began to depart, I tried my hand at spinning the large prayer wheels by the door. I walked reverently towards the first one and spun it. Probably amused and hopefully only a little offended, the old man seated near the door shook his head kindly but firmly at me and pointed in the other direction. I smiled in thanks and apology and walked to the other end of the wheels, spinning them clockwise, as they should be. My friend followed suit and as we walked out, we turned back for one last look at the magical place we found on accident. And as we walked down the stairs, the sound of chanting and banging was a glorious wind that sent us back out into the traffic and squalor of the urban jungle that is Ulaanabaatar.

Incredibly, after almost two years, Mongolia still amazes me in it's ability to surprise. The surprises are not always good, but not always bad either, which is perhaps how they never fail to catch me off guard. Sometimes it will be something as small and lovely as a student doodling 'I love you, teacher!'s all over her test or occasionally more frustrating things will happen, such as hearing slurs shouted out of apartment windows. And then there are the physical surprises, like the monastery. Stumbling upon such a beautiful place in the middle of a trash strewn mud street was truly a surprise. It reminded me of what is really important, both in Mongolia and life as a whole. I look forward to the rest of my time here being filled with surprises, both good and bad. They are with out doubt some of the things that make life here the most fascinating and rewarding.

1 comment:

E in Atlanta said...

That is a wonderful scene that will stay with you always! I had a similar experience in Sri Lanka listening to monks chant under huge trees in filtered sunlight. Years and years ago, but still fresh.