Read Buttertea at Sunrise Online

Authors: Britta Das

Buttertea at Sunrise

BUTTERTEA AT SUNRISE

Copyright © Britta Das, 2006

The right of Britta Das to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Condition of Sale

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.

Summersdale Publishers Ltd

46 West Street

Chichester

West Sussex

PO19 1RP

UK

www.summersdale.com

Printed and bound in Great Britain

ISBN 1 84024 498 4

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For Mutti and Hardy, who encouraged

me to explore the world,

and for Bikul, who waited to share the way with me
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Contents

Prologue ..............................................................................7

1: A Road Leading East .....................................................12

2: From a Distance ...........................................................21

3: First Encounters ...........................................................32

4: Where You Going, Miss? ..............................................39

5: Don’t Close Your Eyes .................................................47

6: Lhamo ...........................................................................58

7: Back-breaking Work .....................................................66

8: Om Mani Padme Hum ................................................75

9: Choden .........................................................................82

10: Compassion for Little Things ....................................90

11: Chilli con Carne .......................................................100

12: Friction .....................................................................108

13: Are You Feeling Boring? ...........................................117

14: Minakpa Ama ............................................................125

15: Buttertea is Warm and Salty .....................................132

16: Meme Monk .............................................................144

17: Different Expectations ..............................................150

18: Chortens and Prayer Flags .......................................160

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19: A Trulku Star ............................................................167

20: To School on Crutches .............................................178

21: Town Planning ..........................................................189

22: Dharma or Dollars....................................................195

23: Kadam Goemba ........................................................204

24: The Dances of Light .................................................218

25: A Midnight Prayer ....................................................231

26: Woes in Trashi Yangtse..............................................238

27: Losar New Year .........................................................248

28: The Sound of a Conch .............................................255

Epilogue .........................................................................263

Glossary of Frequently Used Bhutanese Terms ............268

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If you blow on a conch, guiding your breath deep into the
twists of its pearly coil, it produces the sound of Om.

Some say that this is the beginning of all things.

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Prologue

Somewhere in the valley, a conch signalled the start of a new day. The deep echo bounced off the cliffs of a magnificent mountain range and, faithfully, the sheer walls repeated the ancient message until it faded in the thickness of the jungle.

Two red-robed figures sat motionless under the long thin branches of a cypress tree. Only a wispy beard danced on the chin of the old lama as he solemnly murmured a prayer. His eyes were closed. He did not need to see the script written on a page to follow its rhythm and intonations. After a few moments, the other monk joined the recitation. His young voice was strong and confident, and the old lama quieted, only his body continued to sway back and forth to the ebb and swell of the holy words.

In the distance, the softly rounded Himalayan foothills were flushed in pink while morning sun flooded the Indian plains. Gradually, the bright yellow fireball climbed in the eastern sky. When the first sunrays reached over the ascending height of a mountain range culminating in the highest peaks on earth, the last lines of the prayer were completed. The old lama stacked the sacred pages back between their wooden covers and wrapped them with a yellow cloth. He nodded and heaved his body from the seated position. Then he turned to face the young monk by his side.

‘Today we will see if you are ready for your lessons,’ he said. ‘You have grown up, Sangay.’

The young monk also stood, but he did not meet the eyes of his elder.

‘I hope that I will not disappoint you, la,’ he replied. ‘I am still small and ignorant.’ With these words, he bowed 7

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B U T T E R T E A A T S U N R I S E

deeply and offered a white silken scarf to the old lama. The teacher accepted the respectful gesture and then motioned to a narrow muddy path.

‘We will go now,’ he said and turned towards the

mountain.

Sangay followed his teacher without comment. His mind wandered ahead to the test that he must pass, an initiation rite, which many had failed before him. An enormous cliff stood above the monastery of Larjap. He used to come here as a little boy, when the red robes he wore were the only thing he knew about being a monk. His mother had always warned him to stay away from the deadly drop-off that plunged hundreds of metres into the forest below. When he was a child, he used to turn from the ledge in tears.

Today, however, he must face it.

A group of long white prayer flags rippled lazily from their wooden poles on top of the crest. A few feet from the edge of the cliff, the lama stopped. Hesitantly, Sangay approached.

‘Go now, Sangay,’ the old man urged. ‘Do not be afraid.

Believe in yourself and the teachings you have learned.

Show me if you are ready for the true meaning of the dharma.’

Sangay nodded. Bravely keeping his gaze fixed on the line of earth separating solid ground from the airy void beyond, he placed one foot in front of the other until he stood only centimetres from the abrupt ledge. There, paralysed with fear, he choked on his breath and quickly averted his eyes to the soft blue of the morning sky.

‘What do you see?’ He heard the old lama’s words drifting to him through the haze in his mind. Forcing his body to remain fixed at the very edge, Sangay lowered his gaze slightly. Immediately, he began to sway.

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P R O L O G U E

‘I see clouds,’ he stuttered truthfully. Perspiration began to collect on his forehead. With each passing second, the cliff seemed to draw him farther off his carefully balanced inner strength.

‘Everyone sees clouds,’ the old lama replied. ‘Look down!’

In the distance, a silvery band snaked its course through the valleys to disappear in the mist, and Sangay stammered,

‘I see a river.’

Again the lama corrected him; ‘You are looking too far ahead, Sangay. Look down!’

Trembling with fear, Sangay let his view span the land from the bluish hills in the distance to the green of the forest below. Suddenly, a sea of spiky treetops rose out of the bleary landscape. Again, the lama’s voice travelled to him from afar.

‘What do you see now?’

Sangay refocused and let his gaze settle on his feet.

Dizziness and nausea fought within him. His toes gripped onto grass and rocks, and he wondered almost passively if he would now fall and tumble into the great emptiness.

As if the lama could read his mind, the old man walked up closely behind his student. ‘Look beyond your toes, Sangay. Believe in your teachings. Find your strength.’

Sangay’s sight blurred and his body swayed dangerously close to the edge. A shiver ran down his spine, and he failed to notice how the old lama stretched his hand protectively towards him.

Closing his eyes for a fraction of a second, Sangay took a deep breath. Then, at first faltering, but slowly increasing in strength and conviction, he started to murmur the syllables of his mantra, the secret formula given to him by his guru.

As he spoke the precious words again and again and let his mind open to the image of the guru, the young monk could feel his body relax. After a while, the features of the guru’s 9

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B U T T E R T E A A T S U N R I S E

face became strong and clear and finally Sangay allowed his sight to shift to the awesome splendour of the morning before him.

This time, unhurried, he took another deep breath and tilted his head and body forward. Below him, beyond the edge of the rugged cliff and the outline of his big round toes, he saw the gleaming light of the golden pinnacle of a monastery. At that moment, Sangay felt the gentle pressure of the lama’s hand on his shoulder.

‘Yes, Sangay, you are ready.’

For a long time, the teacher and the student stood in that same spot, watching the morning climb over the giants of earth around them. Then, after a deep silence, the old lama spoke again.

‘Sangay, you have travelled far in your young life. You have received an education outside of our world in the mountains. You have seen places that I have never journeyed to. Tell me what you saw.’

Quietly Sangay described the Buddhist college in

Bangalore, and the lessons he received in southern India.

The old lama did not interrupt. Finally, Sangay pointed to the faint line of the horizon where the kingdom of Bhutan bordered its giant southern neighbour. ‘Life is different there,’ he said.

The old lama nodded. He himself had made a pilgrimage to the temple of Bodh Gaya in his younger days, and had seen that the world beyond the Himalaya was a different one.

‘It is not that,’ Sangay tried to explain. ‘Things are changing.’

Again, the old lama studied his student with fondness.

‘Of course, there is always change,’ he said. Then he shook his head. ‘But we are happy to live in this ancient country with a good king who knows how to protect his people. I do not think that for us life will ever change.’

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P R O L O G U E

For the first time, Sangay met the eyes of his teacher. He did not want to oppose the old man’s words. He did not even know what it was that made him question the future.

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