THE LAMAS OF DHANKAR GOMPA
Sudarshan Krshnamachari was associate professor of Ancient Indian History in the Madras University at Chinnai. Even though he belonged to a chaste Brahmin family, he was an ardent Buddha follower and had done lot of research in Buddhism.
Sudarshan was orphaned in young age and brought up by his maternal uncle. He was a brilliant student, which made him eligible for the government scholarship and pursue his interest in academics. At the age of twenty seven he was appointed as assistant professor in the Sri Radhakrishnan Government College, Chennai.
Sudarshan was an introvert, mostly glued to books. His contact with the outside world was limited to an hour he gave to reading newspapers in the morning. After college, he gave most of his time studying Buddhist literature and visiting Buddhist shrines during vacations.
He had studied all the five sects of Buddhism in general but he believed in the doctrines of Theravada sect, which gave an individual, freedom to find his own way to enlightenment and Nirvana. He was also convinced that Buddha was a normal mortal who attained enlightenment and should therefore be respected but need not be worshiped. He supported the sect’s doctrine of non-proliferation of families of deities.
Sudarshan didn’t believe in the re-incarnation theory and hence his heart remained away from the Mahayana sect even though it was the largest sect of Buddhism. Perhaps his childhood struggle inculcated the survival instinct in him that believed in self effort.
But his real interest lay in Tantric Buddhism. Its mysticism fanned his curiosity towards the sect. He always wanted to have a closer look at the followers of this sect and if possible undergo some of its rituals.
Tantric Buddhism is a mix of Indian Buddhism and Tibetan beliefs, which came to recognition in the seventh century. This form of Buddhism varies from other forms of Buddhism. The Tantric Buddhists worship by reciting prayers and sacred texts, along with chanting of hymns. They meditate sitting in circular formation signifying the shape of the universe. The lamas blow trumpets, play drums and dance wearing masks while performing rituals to scare away spirits. They extol the supernatural by mystical incantation, which endows them with magical charms. Tantric Buddhism exists in the Indian regions bordering with Tibet and Nepal. Sudarshan found out from the web site of Himachal Pradesh Tourism that there was an ancient monastery dating back to eleventh century in the Spiti Valley. It said the monastery was on the left bank of a Pin River resting on an overhanging cliff. Sudarshan was overawed by the pictures and the account of the monastery. He wanted to find out more about it and decided to visit it.
Sudarshan submitted a pilot project to Madras University seeking financial support for leading a study group to the monastery. Unfortunately, the Head of History Department of the university was a known atheist with leftist leaning. He mocked at the proposal and quashed it out right.
“The proposal doesn’t mention specific area of research. It will be sheer waste of time and money. We cannot support such flimsy proposal.” The Head of the History Department wrote on the file.
Sudarshan was determined to visit the monastery. He learnt that July and August were the ideal months when the weather in the valley was moderate. He applied for leave; sold his car, the gas oven and his refrigerator; the only material assets he possessed and left on his mission in the last week of July without waiting for the formal sanction of the leave of absence he had applied.
A week later, Sudarshan was in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla discussing his project with Dr. Awasthi, the Chief Librarian of the Institute.
Dr. Awasthi was impressed by Sudarshan’s enthusiasm and dedication and allowed him to access the archives of the Institute for the furtherance of his research. The records narrowed the area of research to the monastery referred to as Dhankar Gompa, built in the eleventh century.
Dhankar Gompa is about two hundred kilometres from Shimla. An inner line permit is required to go beyond Rampur Bushair, a small town village on the bank of Sutlej River. Sudarshan discussed the matter with Dr. Awasthi who assured to help him getting the permission.
Sudarshan took the morning bus from Shimla to Pooh and reached there by late evening. He purchased some dry fruits and biscuits from a local shop in Pooh and the next day took the bus going to Samdoh and further to the ancient town of Tabu. The road is narrow and hazardous, fraught with the risk of frequent landslides. Luckily, Sudarshan was in Tabu by late evening without much hassles.
Sudarshan had carried a letter of introduction from Dr. Awasthi for the local school teacher with a request to help him in his project. The school teacher told him that a truck of the Public Works Department was likely to go to ‘Dhankar’ village in couple of days. The contractor who was also staying in the school agreed to give Sudarshan a lift to the famous monastery.
It was beginning of August, the summer month in the Spiti valley. Days were warm and bright but there were still snow humps on the shadowed patches. The valley was however getting lively with trees getting new green coat and locals coming out of their houses along with goats and yaks.
Tabu monastery is on a plateau. By its side is a government school and little away is a picket of Indo-Tibet Border Police. Sudarshan had lively discussions with the head lama of the monastery but noticed that the he was not willing to discuss the tantric practices known or exercised in the monastery.
“Isn’t it true that a sect of Buddhism practices tantric powers and some of the lamas were bestowed with supernatural powers?” Sudarshan asked the head lama.
The head lama just smiled without responding. Sudarshan could not elicit any information from him on the subject.
Sudarshan stayed two days in Tabu monastery, talking and discussing various aspects of Buddhism with the monks there. He spent one evening with the officer in charge of the ITBP post who was a very willing host.
“For how long have you been here,” Sudarshan asked him.
“Almost three years and hopefully should be out of this sector in couple of months.”
“Have you heard of any miracle; anything that may suggest anyone of the monks possessing supernatural powers?
“We are under strict orders not to interfere in the matters of the monastery. I do see some patients coming to the monastery for treatment but what they do or how they treat them, I have no idea.”
Sudarshan was disappointed by the detachment commander’s non-committal answer.
“Our boys go to Sumdoh Army MI room,” the officer added after a little pause.
Next morning Sudarshan took a lift from the truck going to Dhankar village, which is at an elevation of 3800 metres in the Spiti valley on the bank of Pin River. It is a small village with a head count of less than hundred.
The village chief spoke little bit of Hindi.
“A new monastery has been built on the plains of the Pin River. The scrolls and other scriptures have been shifted to the new monastery,” the village chief said and then added, “This has been done for the safety of the devotees since the path leading to the old monastery is hazardous. Moreover, the old monastery is in a dilapidated condition.”
“I want to visit the old monastery,” Sudarshan told the village chief.
The village head stared at Sudarshan. “No one is allowed to visit the old monastery,” the village chief sounded crotchety.
Sudarshan deemed it proper to let the matter rest at that point and decided to take it up with the senior lama of the new monastery.
Next day Sudarshan went to the new monastery and spent nearly the whole day there. His interest and knowledge of Buddhism impressed all and sundry. At the close of the day he went to the senior lama and requested him to permit him to see the old monastery.
“It is in a rundown condition. The walls may give in any time. We don’t take risk.” The senior lama told him.
“I am writing a book on ancient monasteries. It will be incomplete if I don’t include Dhankar Gompa in my book.” He pleaded.
“We don’t allow non Buddhists to enter the old monastery. Besides, one should be a member of our order.”
“I am devout Buddhist even though I was born in a Brahmin family. I have presented more than twenty papers on Buddhism in the international seminars. And if you insist, I willing to convert; accept Buddhism right now.”
“What is your area of interest?”
“I am working on the tantric powers of your sect. I understand Dhankar Gompa was one of such centres of Tantric Buddhism.”
The head lama paused, gave Sudarshan a hard stare and then closed his eyes. Both sat motionless. The senior lama looked in a trance like state as Sudarshan sat waiting expectantly for a favourable outcome.
“Good. Come here before Sun rise. Make sure you have no camera, no recording gadget and no pen or paper,” the senior lama said with a feeble smile.
Sudarshan nodded quietly and left with a bow.
Sudarshan could not sleep that night. He wanted to structure his audience; frame a set of questions in his mind for seeking elaboration from the lamas of the ancient monastery. Next morning Sudarshan reached the new monastery where the senior lama was waiting for him. “Come let’s go to the river,” he told Sudarshan.
The water of the Pin River was cold; colder than the ice water from a fridge.
“Take out all your clothes and have a dip and stay in water until I ask you to come out,” the senior lama told him.
Sudarshan obeyed. As he entered the water, he felt as if his body was shrinking. He remembered his childhood days, when he used to dip in the village pond, naked. But then he was one of the many children and the water was very comforting.
It seemed to him as if the clock was moving slow.
“May be, the senior lama has forgotten that he had ordered someone to remain in the freezing water. Well! if this is going to be the end of my mission and my life, let it be. He thought.
Sudarshan was on the verge of collapsing when the senior lama appeared.
“Death is of the body; the soul is imperishable,” The senior lama spoke as he came near Sudarshan. And then after a little pause, he handed Sudarshan a white cloth sheet to wrap around and signalled him to follow.
They walked quietly to the old monastery ascending the cliff hanging over the Pin River. Sudarshan was overly frightened to walk over the terribly narrow path with gorges on either side.
“Fear visits when desires supplant the mind. There is no fear if you desire nothing,” the senior lama spoke.
Has he read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised by the lama’s words.
They entered the monastery. Sudarshan was gleefully happy.
I am close to accomplishing my mission. He thought.
Inside the monastery was a giant Buddha statue with oil lamps lit all around in glistening golden pots. On one side were few bhikshus sitting in a circular pattern on woollen mats meditating and behind them was a Lama sitting on a podium.
He was the head lama of the old monastery.
There was a mat lying unoccupied. The Head Lama beckoned Sudarshan to sit on it.
Sudarshan was still naked with the white sheet wrapped around him. He was uncomfortable but his mind was agog, expecting exhibition of some supernatural powers.
“Supernatural is something to be experienced within. It’s not a matter of exhibition. It is within you, don’t seek it out side.” The Head Lama spoke looking at Sudarshan.
Was it telepathy? How was he able to read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised once again.
“Meditate and seek answers to all your queries from within,” the Head Lama spoke with a smile this time.
Sudarshan closed his eyes. He feigned meditation. He was a near atheist; never had gone to any temple in his adulthood.
Suddenly he sailed into his past. He remembered the banyan tree of his village temple and felt that he was sitting on one of its branches. Then he felt the banyan tree was taking him through his life journey. He saw his mother waiting with his clothes after his bath; his father holding his lunch plate; he saw his friends in his school ground. And then the banyan tree took him to his college and to the college where he taught. He saw all his folks and friends receding beyond the skyline.
Sudarshan was shaken. He opened his eyes and saw himself sitting on the woollen mat inside the Dhankar Gompa monastery.
Then his eyes got closed and felt the mat he was sitting on was getting warmer. Soon it became unbearably hot. He started sweating profusely; the white sheet of cloth fell off his body.
Thereafter he forgot everything; his personal life, his people and his ambition. Nothing existed but a cool blue light before his eyes; blissful and serene. All his strains had disappeared; there were no questions, no doubts remained in his mind. There was a smile on his gleaming face.
Sudarshan felt he was levitating in the air.
The Head Lama came down from the podium and gave him a golden rob to put on. Sudarshan wanted to stay for some more time in the monastery in front of the large Buddha statue but the words wouldn’t come to him. .
“You can stay here until evening prayers,” the Head Lama told him without his asking.
Sudarshan was not surprised now.
He bowed before the senior Lama and the Head Lama. He shared lunch with the inmates and then joined the evening prayer with other bhikshus. After incanting of mantras was over, there was absolute silence.
Everyone in the monastery took his seat and started meditating with eyes closed. Sudarshan followed. It was a genuine effort on his part this time.
It was blissfully quiet, pin drop silence in the monastery. Sudarshan had no idea how long it was. He experienced a glowing light passing in front of his eyes and when he opened his eyes, he saw himself sitting in front of the Buddha statue.
And then he realized he was all alone. There was not a single human being in the monastery. Sudarshan smiled. It reflected his inner happiness.
He came out of the monastery.
It was pitch dark outside save the twinkling of the stars high in the sky. Walking alone in the dark over the dangerously precarious path didn’t bother him not did the Pin River, swishing past the rocks.
He crossed the river devoid of fear and walked to the lodge he was staying in the Dhankar village.
Next day Sudarshan was on his return journey. Travelling past the valley, he was reflecting over his experience at the Dhankar Gompa Monastery and debating within himself.
Was my mission successful?