A Journey with Elsa Cloud

Leila Hadley

Jhamchoe disappears and soon reappears with a basket filled with coarsely crumbled dried milk cheese. Dri (female yak) cheese, he tells me, some of the supply he has carried out with him from Tibet. What a gift to give me! I have no words to thank him. Trying to keep the tears from my eyes, I hug him, embracing him with the same sudden fervor with which the baby monk had hugged me.

Veronica appears at that very moment in the doorway and is suddenly at my side. "Please don't hug the monks, Mummy," she says in a fierce whisper. "They won't like it."

"It's all right," Jhamchoe says, taking my hand. "She is my sister. She is my mother."

The Abbot of Sera Gompa at Byllakupe gives Veronica and me katas, ceremonial white scarves representing purity of mind and speech, as he and other monks gather on the veranda of the communal hall to see us on our way again. The baby monks, who have been shushed and told to behave by their teachers, and who momentarily stand suitably grave and impassive, twitch irrepressibly into smiles and then shouts of tashidelek, tashidelek, an all-purpose salutation of greeting and farewell that Veronica tells me is untranslatable in English.

I want to tell her not to look so superior, as she says this, but the kata in my hand reproaches me before the words form.

"You asked what a gompa means," she says, as we drive away, showing off more of her knowledge as she consults a lexicon she has compiled of Tibetan words and phrases. I am being unfair. She really isn't "showing off." Resentment when your daughter knows more than you do precedes pride in her accomplishments, I tell myself. I find it hard to accept that there is so much my daughter can teach me, tell me about that I don't know, and am interested in knowing.

"Gompa means a solitary place, wilderness, a waved leaf fig tree. Hence, a hermitage, so-called on account of its original situation in earlier times, in lonely places abounding in bodhi trees. Later on, these hermitages became converted into monasteries used for the support of monks. So a gompa means a school for reading, writing, debate, prayer, history, logic, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and so on, as well as a residence for the monks."

"I liked the monks," I say. "That's why I hugged them. That's why they hugged me."

Veronica reflects that it seems impossible, but is true, that the love one receives from others comes from one's own heart, one's own mind. "Yes," I say, "there is an old proverb that love begets love." Veronica is silent. Silence can also be a form of conversation.

FOR A WHILE, we continue to drive through the estates of Byllakupe, seeing the tilled land, the sleek Swiss cows, prayer flags everywhere printed with script and images of the eight Buddhist symbols of happy augury.

"Here," Veronica says with tender authority, "let me draw them for you in your notebook."

Even though the road is not smooth, she draws small, neat, stylized pictures. The covered, lidded vase which holds the elixir of life and symbolizes fulfillment and immortality. The arabesque, or knot, which symbolizes longevity and eternity. The pair of fish, like the yin and yang, symbolizing duality, harmony, fertility. The lotus, blooming from the mud with its beauty, symbolizing purity and compassion. The umbrella of protection. The conch shell, which like a trumpet or a seashell held to the ear, symbolizes the propagation of the dharma. The octagonal wheel of the law, the original symbol of Buddhist teaching. The banner, symbolic of the victory of good over evil.

A few weeks later, linking her arm in mine, Veronica walks with me in Dharamsala up a dusty road with sentinel deodars to the place where the road narrows and becomes the path to the compound of the gompa, the temple, and the residence of the Dalai Lama. In front of the temple there is a platform where monks are seated, chanting to the accompaniment of prayer drums and bells and little horns called gyalings. Over their heads are canopies garlanded with the perpetual knot, the arabesque.

"I love the sound of the monks. They sound like bullfrogs." Veronica says. Frogs, bringers of rain, bringers of life, worshiped by the Maya. But to me the monks' chanting, this humming roar, sounds more like the wind, like rocks rumbling, like thunder, an avalanche, a volcano, fumaroles, geysers, waterfalls, like all, yet precisely like none of these, or like parts of all condensed, synthesized. The sound vibrates, pulses, contracts and expands in my mind as though I were part of the systole and diastole of the beginning of creation.

Walking up the stairs behind the canopied platform, we enter into the glow of the temple's bronze and gilded images, the scented haze of incense and lampsmoke. I feel like a trespasser admitted to a clandestine ceremony, an Orphic, Eleusinian mystery, until I am standing in front of a tented shrine enclosing a mandala made of grains of sand. Looking at the mandala's patterns of red, green, blue, gold, I feel as one who stands outside a lighted church at night in the lucency of the stained glass, aware of the worshipers within but not one of them. In a niche above the mandala is an image of Padmasambhava, the Indian siddha who came to Tibet.

Veronica greets Geshe-Ia, her teacher, who has appeared with the suddenness of a bird to stand beside us. No, Veronica says, Geshe-la was there all the time. He was standing in the entrance of the gompa and saw us come out of the temple. Veronica says that Geshe-Ia is going over to the residence of His Holiness and that she is going to walk with him to the gate. Would I like to come? And see where the Dalai Lama lives? Is she sure that wouldn't be an intrusion, an invasion of his privacy? Veronica says Geshe-la wouldn't suggest such a thing if it weren't all right.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.