In the year 2011 when I was living in a tiny hut in forests of Lopchu, a wooded area straddling a ridge between Darjeeling and Kalimpong, I had a good deal of time to ponder the realities of life. I lived less than a hundred meters away from an old village cremation ground and witnessed the unceasing flow of processions, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. The solemn groups of family, friends and community members who carried the deceased on their final journey to fires of dissolution all passed by my small abode.
The cremation ground was an unpretentious open space with a simple platform where a pyre was built and after due ceremony, and once the final rites were given, the corpse was laid to rest before being consumed by the flames. Living in such close proximity to the place where all of this was taking place, it was impossible to ignore or in any way forget the truth of the uncertainty within which we act out our short, distracted lives.
One evening in the still and cool evening hours as I sat in my upstairs loft the power suddenly went out. I opened the large windows just in front of me and breathed deeply. I loved those times when the world was bathed in darkness. In the safety and comfort of my loft I could gaze out of the window and see the stars above in their glorious Himalayan splendour while below spread the valleys far far away; mere tiny speckles of light glimmering in the inky blackness.
Often clouds would swirling around in these valleys and one almost felt that one was gazing from the window of a soundless airplane. Such nights were not rare in this part of the world and if a moon had risen one could also clearly see the glittering white flanks of the Kanchenjunga massif, the world’s third highest mountain, hovering like a surreal, yet stationary cloud in the northern sky.
This fantastic location frequently gave rise to thoughts beyond the petty trappings of day to day living. A lone owl called out from its perch in the nearby forest. Mournful, solitary and echoing throughout the hills. That call was so poignant, so haunting in the darkness of those long winter nights. It were as though the owl’s call was inside me echoing the call of my own awareness, persistent, near and unspeakably mysterious.
The following morning I woke to discover that the electricity supply had still not returned. The generator for the mobile tower over in the village was humming away. Barely audible, amid the wailing calls of the birds that visited this location every year from Bhutan. The mournful sound of their calls had an oddly poignant edge on those bright and sunny mornings and drowned out the chirps and delicate melodies of the local bird life. It was interesting to me that they turned up in this little patch of forest near Darjeeling, year after year.
Many families from Bhutan were established along this ridge and within this patch of forest with its few remaining giant Utish trees, dripping with orchids and ferns. A little further up the road, the forest changed markedly as huge, old Norfolk pines rose up in long, straight lines. Nothing could contrast more with the semi-tropical forests that surrounded the old temple than those towering, pine giants.
The Norfolks were remnants of British rule and had been planted during the days when they came to these hills to enjoy the views and the cool temperatures during hot summer months. They had never been touched and had grown tall and thick. They were jealously guarded by the forestry officials. Rising up like a line of silent sentinels they marched up the mountainside gathering all the light of the day within themselves.
When I first moved to the small Gompa, which had been offered to my teacher, Chadral Rinpoche in the 1970’s. The caretaker was one of Rinpoche’s old Bhutanese students. He had left Bhutan some years before to settle in these forested hills, bringing with him his two young sons, both of whom were ordained as Buddhist monks. Pala, we called him. He was a wonderful caretaker. He had a green thumb and the gardens around the compound were always a mass of blooms. He was never idle and seemed always to be busy fixing or making something. He endlessly tinkered and planted and created and during his ‘reign’ the Gompa precincts were a bright mass of marigolds and everything looked fresh and well attended.
The two sons returned regularly but were often away and busy visiting local villages where they performed rituals and pujas for families who were celebrating births, deaths and marriages. However, some years after I moved to Lopchu Gompa, they decided to build a small temple of their own a little up the road in a place called Ninth Mile. This village was little more than a tiny cluster of dwellings and was situated right in the midst of those towering Norfolk Pines. Eventually, when the living quarters were completed, the sons moved up there taking Pala with them. He was sorely missed.
A few months later, after they had settled in, the eldest son, Gomchen, decided to construct a small Mani Lhakang on the road. This would consist of a number of prayer wheels and it was intended that the locals and those passing by could spin the wheels rending the silence and casting the merit of thousands of mantras into the mountain air. They were large barrel like objects that spun on a central spire. Each wheel was painted with the syllables of a mantra and contained many thousands of tiny rolls of prayers written out on sheets of rice paper. They were all carefully prepared before being blessed by a lama and then packed inside the wheels. Each wheel turned in a clockwise direction and the faithful were said to generate a great wealth of blessings and merit thereby extending their lives.
Actually, the idea, to build these prayer wheels had been on Gomchen’s mind for quite some time and he had been saving long and hard so that he could begin this small construction. One morning while he was up on the road, preparing the iron rods for the workers to begin setting that day in concrete, he lifted one into an upright position in order to make a measurement. Unmindful of the wires nearby, it suddenly connected with the main overhead power line. Unfortunately, that day, there was no power cut.
The result was instantaneous. Many thousands of volts of electricity poured through his body and out of his feet. In fact, the surge was so powerful that it blew holes right through the soles of his shoes. His heart could not sustain itself under such a sudden and tremendous assault and within moments he was dead. He was 48 years old at the time. He had been a Buddhist monk since childhood and had completed a number of long retreats, hence his name Gomchen, which means ‘great meditator’.
He had pondered much on death and the impermanence of life, and yet when death came it was totally unexpected, and could in no way be prepared for. Pala was inconsolable with grief. He too had pondered long and hard on the Buddha’s primary teachings through out his life. In his eighty years he had seen a good deal of joy and sorrow but nothing could have prepared him for this. This was an irony beyond understanding.
We live our lives as though they will never end. As though there will always be tomorrow and yet it is the one and certain thing in this world, the thing none of us can avoid. The reality is that death can visit us at any moment. We all know this, we all understand that this is what awaits us in some form or other and yet we continue to get caught up in the dream of the unfolding cycle of day to day events. And this is as natural to us as breathing. We have forgotten our true origins. We have forgotten who and what we really are.
Many people would say that to remember death as our near companion is morbid and depressing. But there is another side. It can help to wake us from the reverie that enslaves us in our day to day routines. By carrying this thought with us where ever we go, each moment and each day becomes a gift and an opportunity. The thought of death reminds to open our minds and hearts. It prompts us to look further than the tiny circle of our thoughts and our ordinary preoccupations.
May we all remember the inexhaustible spring which is our true nature and which accompanies us every moment of the night and day. When the lone owl calls it is the distant echo of our own awareness. This very moment, which is our constant yet unrecognised companion is our golden key to unlocking the eternal present beyond the vagaries of a transient life and death.Photo of the Un-blinking Gaze of Awareness, provided by the author.
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