10 Days of Silence and Unexpected Cultural Lessons at a Himalayan Monastery.

By Kirti Tarang.

It’s an annual tradition that I spend 10 summer days at a Himalayan Monastery.

This year I stayed at a Buddhist Monastery in McLeodganj with 87 strangers from the world over. Apart from yoga, meditation and classes on Buddhism, we observed 10 days of silence. Ironically, from those wordless times came amusing dinner-table stories, four of which I am sharing here:

1. The great Indian stereotype

meditation retreat india, vipassana india
Meditation. Photo by Hartwig HKD.

Imagine a magnificent Gompa (Tibetan Praying Room), and steps leading to a two-leveled garden. On the left of the garden is a Stupa and on the right, a little pond where monkeys come and play. Imagine this place surrounded by the Himalayas and all the beauty therein. I was there, lying in the garden, sunbathing, scribbling a poem in my note-book when it happened.

From the creeks of the rocks, right in front of my face, a snake popped out, with all its fangs and hood glory!

I gasped. In silence one can’t scream. An Israeli girl sunbathing near me gave those ‘hush up’ looks. Gasping is also breaking silence, after all. So, as a reflex I did what any Indian would’ve done. I cupped my hands above my head, like Sri Devi in ‘Nagina’ and began swaying them. The girl just looked at me incredulously. Then it struck me, they don’t have ‘Ichaadhari Naags’ in Israel!

A Gujrati guy was sitting nearby; he got it and immediately came to my rescue with a stick. The snake had already reclined to its hole. So, he and I took a telepathic decision to let it be.

The Israeli girl couldn’t have been more surprised. The great Indian stereotype just happened in front of her - the snake, the snake charmer and my feeble attempt at snake dance!

2. The Brazilian Gargle

prayer flags, himalayan monastery
Tibetan prayer flags. Photo by Paul VanDerWerf
There was a small patio, overseeing the valley, with a couple of tables and chairs laid out. Reading under a lamp at night, listening to crickets and watching the frenzy of fireflies, is a chapter straight from the pages of a fairy tale.

One night, this tranquility was being continuously rippled by the coughing of a Brazilian boy. So, I went to the kitchen to get him hot water with a pinch of salt in a mug for gargle.

By the time I came out, he had left. I went down to the dorm looking for him. He was at the sink just about to brush his teeth. His back was towards me. I stamped my foot twice, tinkling my anklets. The ringing of my ankle bells got his attention. I proffered him the mug. He looked confused. So, I took the mug near my lips, took a faux sip and threw my head back. I offered him again, this time he accepted it with a thankful smile.

Days later, when the course was over, he came to me and said, “Thanks for the tea that night. It made me vomit but throat was cured.”

Lesson learnt: Next time I offer salt water to gargle to a foreigner, in silence, I’ll enact the spiting part too.

3. Diwali minus the fireworks 

Tushita India, vipassana india
Lighting diyas. Photo by Tushita Meditation Centre.

Don’t worry, I am not going to preach on environmental issues. I am sharing dinner-table stories here, remember? This one is from the last night of the stay.

Our mediation teacher had organized a Tibetan lighting ceremony, at the Stupa. When meditation was over, we all were given ghee diyas. Still high on meditation, we strolled towards the Stupa, lighting our diya, praying for the happiness of all sentient beings, then sitting on one of the mats that were laid in the garden, watching others do the same. It was like Diwali had come early this year, in a more beautiful avatar. When there were no crackers to distract me, I could absorb the radiance of light. The lamps, the stars, the moon overwhelmed me with their beauty, as I reclined on my mat. I was calm on the surface, but little pockets of joy were opening inside me. I never knew they existed!

4. Divided by culture, united by compassion

Tushita india, buddhist monastery, meditation india
The meditation hall at Tushita. Photo by Tushita Meditation Centre.

One evening, when I opened my eyes after meditating on ‘attachment’, I saw that the Gompa was filled with teary eyed faces. I was surprised to see that the happy-go-lucky German lady who sat next to me was part of the crying brigade too. I wanted to comfort her, but how?

That’s when a Jewish girl, her face flushed with tears, met her eyes. Both of them immediately smiled. It wasn’t an embarrassed smile or a brave smile, it was a kind and loving smile that showed the mutual compassion that they instantly had for each other. The Jewish girl then rose from her seat, came to ours, and gave that lady a tight illegal hug (touching wasn’t allowed). When we are not divided by our cultures, compassion finds a way to unite and heal us.


Have you learnt about other cultures in unexpected ways on your travels?

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AUTHOR BIO: Xavierite, Yoga addict, got 2 minutes of fame for being an entertainment journalist for zoOm TV, now a full time writer and lyricist who keeps looking for windows to wander off on whimsical tours. Read her blog at thewordnypmhetdiariess.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @kirti_tarang. 

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