The stone was cold as ice beneath me as I sat cross-legged and motionless on the floor with my eyes closed. Inches in front of me, a wooden banister, painted blood red, separated me from the gathering of resident monks in center of the room. Fifty or more crimson-robed men, ages varying from adolescent to elderly, huddled shoulder to shoulder adjusting their position as they formed ten even rows.
Evening prayers commenced. Echoes from muttering and coughing ceased and deep, guttural chanting quickly flooded the main chamber as well as every small corridor which branched from it. Their hypnotic mantras would continue for hours, accompanied by an occasional trumpeting of a temple horn, beating of Mrdanga drums and the raising of a ritual din by crashing cymbals. This was the reason for my presence and the focus of my curiosity. I checked to see that my little, black tape recorder was recording.
Twenty minutes earlier, when I made my way inside from the market that surrounds the Jokhang Monastery, I had hoped to observe the monks and at the same time not make myself unwelcome by recording their praying. I followed the wall around the temple room looking for a place to settle down and hide.
Off this main sanctuary the massive building continued to the east. Small rooms and narrow hallways led to courtyards and other places I’d never see. I poked my head inside some of the open doorways to find chapels dedicated to Buddhist saints and other deities that make up the complex pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism. I continued following the wall around the dark room which lead me back to the entrance way. From here I spotted a place to sit, observe and to absorb my extraordinarily mysterious surroundings.
The light inside was very dim and the air extremely chilly. I could see my breath as I rubbed my hands together to keep my fingers nimble enough to operate my little recorder. My nose was busy chewing on the pungent smell of butter oil lamps burning everywhere.
High above me the ceiling disappeared into darkness. All I could see were the walls which were painted with ornate murals depicting scenes from ancient Buddhist stories and crowned by strata of sculptured moldings; some of heavy, geometric patterns and others of gilded, smoked-stained figures. Gold drapery hung from unseen beams. In the center of the room a twenty foot statue of Lord Buddha sat in lotus position enigmatically smiling into space. Lost in the darkness of unanswered questions, I sat silently in awe of the overwhelming spectacle around me. The throbbing light of hundreds of oil lamps added to the atmosphere of the surreal scene as the monks continued to pray.
At 8:40pm, long after my mini cassette ran out of tape, I felt it was time to untie my sleeping legs from under me and possibly make my escape. Just then I was suddenly encountered by three young monks, ranging in age from about eight to fifteen, walking stealthily towards me. They were busy performing the duties of novice monks and learning the ways of their new life when they spotted me and my tiny black device. I was but a fascinating distraction. They looked at it with wondrous, wide eyes, tugging at each other’s robes, as they stood there.
Feeling a bit awkward at being discovered, I let a smile grow across my face, the best and most successful way to connect with them, I thought. They reluctantly reciprocated with grins seemingly too large for their small, round, shaven heads and we held each other’s stares for endless seconds….a conversation length of time. But then they disappeared into a back corridor leading deeper into the labyrinth of the monastery. The ambient chanting carried their feet away like dust in a draft.
I slowly stood up, rubbed the pins and needles from my legs and feet, and quietly exited the sanctuary. I followed the luminous glow of the prayer candles in the foyer to reach the outer courtyard through which I had to pass to reach the market square. Outside, daylight had evaporated and the streets were empty. I began my short walk back to my hotel in the bitter cold and in a trance-like peace only disturbed by the honk of a sleepy taxi looking for a fare.
I pray that the chanting continues.