There I was, staring at a beautiful Buddhist Lamasery in Inner Mogolia. I had to squint mind you; it was that time of day when the sun seems desperate for your attention. Whichever way I looked was aesthetically pleasing. Being slap bang in the middle of Hohhot, it was surprising not to be fighting my way through the maze of ancient architecture. Instead, peace and tranquillity (what you expect to find in such a place) was in fact present. Little did I know at this moment in time that my entire perception of Buddhism – Monks included – was about to change. The happy Buddha himself was about to be turned unexpectedly on his head. But he would still be smiling.
Stepping over the gateway entrance, my eyes adjusted to the dark open space. Hanging from the ceiling in long, woven patterns were many prayer flags. My memory did me proud and I recited their meaning quietly to myself. Red for the sun (much like my skin tone this day), yellow for the earth, blue for the sky, green for the grass and white for the clouds. As my neck stretched as far back as possible to see the top, I reminded myself to come back down to earth. During this daydream, I lost my companion to the turning of the prayer wheels. They snaked around the rectangular shaped room, creating a spiritual barrier between tourist friendly and keep-out territory. In the centre small, round cushions lined the floor, hidden amongst the flags. Sadly no Lama’s were sat on them.
I ran my hand over the tired looking wheels, creating a squeak that suggested they rarely got a break. Stepping in to the back room, I was greeted by a golden Buddha smiling down on me. Her expression was an accepting one. Happy in the silence amidst a busy city, we continued anti-clockwise down the line of wheels, turning them to create a dizzy stretch of golden blur. That’s when the sound of the drum began.
One beat, followed by two. Back to one. Then came three. A continuous slow beat for another few minutes. Clare checked her watch; it was just after 3pm. We’d mentioned earlier how special it would have been to witness a Monk (or Lama?) performing his chant. A performance in the eyes of a tourist, a step closer to Nirvana for a holy man. Now such a man was headed to the aforementioned cushions, offering a warm smile on route.
“Suddenly he turned his head in my direction. Oh Buddha, I had been spotted!”
I stood nailed to the spot waiting for the sound. My first thought was that the sound was faux – surely that was a didgeridoo I was hearing. A deep grumble in the throat so fast, that even if I could understand Mandarin, the words would remain indistinguishable. My legs moved my feeble feet to a break between flags until I could see the left side of the Monk. He sat cross-legged on the mat, leaning against a pillar. With one hand he twisted the beaded necklace, touching each bead one by one. His other hand would turn the loose pages of the bible, and periodically he would rub the entire necklace between both palms. I was fixated.
Suddenly he turned his head in my direction. Oh Buddha, I had been spotted! Thrice more he looked my way. My awkward demeanour decided on the fourth look I would toward the exit. But a wave over in his direction put a stop to this. Me? Was I allowed to step into the keep-out territory? Resisting the urge to look over my shoulder, I went for it.
Now within arm’s reach I perched myself on a cushion. The sound became more intense. The world outside the temple ceased to exist. The prayer wheels quite literally blurred the reality from this surreal event. I was peripherally aware that other people were following the designated path, but I didn’t care for them. I let the tears fall. I’m not talking the kind of tear you shed when Bambi’s mother gets shot, I’m talking real tears. There was no real explanation for them; I was a seemingly happy, atheist human being. So I accepted it and let the vulnerability take full flow, quite literally.
There came a point in time when the chanting stopped. The bible was returned to a complete pile, before being wrapped in a red and gold cloth. I was ushered forward once more to sit upon the same mat. Knowing full well my face now too resembled the colour of the sun flag, I perched in awe. The round-faced Monk took the bible, tapping my right shoulder, followed by my left and then my forehead. He muttered something in Chinese to which I replied ‘I don’t understand’ and we shared a smirk that translated as ‘typical tourist’.
“How many people get blessed and hugged by a Buddhist Monk in the same day?”
Apparently the insightful event was not yet over. His extended arm led back towards the golden Buddha and we stood to observe her once again. Perhaps this was the final blessing – she needed to give me a once over, check I was worthy of enlightenment. The spiritual interrogation went on for some silent minutes. Just how long should I stand here? My mind began to stray and the thought of Clare leaving me behind in search of food awoke my stomach. I turned, overused the term xiexie (thank you) and attempted my exit.
Now my new friend stood there with both arms extended to the sides. I’m not sure what my expression resembled, but I like to think it was like that of a confused dog with her head cocked to the side, mouth slightly ajar. He wanted a hug? I asked myself, how many people get blessed and hugged by a Buddhist Monk in a Tibetan Lamasery in the same day? Again, I went for it.
Now, I’ve always found hugs with familiars a little on the awkward side. As for a stranger, well this nervous energy was certainly heightened. For some unknown reason, my brain decided on a European-style hug – one quick embrace on the left, before moving across to the right – and sent the message to my arms so fast; I had no time to accept its proposal. The result was an equally awkward, shocking embrace.
“My head forgot it was attached to a neck capable of motion.”
I went to hug the left, he went for my left. I began to change sides, he held on tightly to my left. My head didn’t know what to do and forgot it was attached to a neck capable of motion. Nervous laughter escaped our mouths. The Monk’s hands suddenly came alive. As the left remained on my right shoulder, the right snaked down my back and landed on my bum. Without hesitation and with wide fingers, he gave it a considerable wiggle for as long as possible before brain kicked in again and sent me flying backward saying ‘that’s too far!’
I should have been appalled. I probably should have given him a slap. Instead, I inwardly giggled at his expression. Like the face of a man that has concluded a delightful, yet unremarkable exchange of conversation, he stood there looking rather indifferent. A mere pleasantry smile on his face. It did in fact reflect just how I felt about the situation, even though logic was telling me to file a harassment report. He extended his arm for a final time toward the exit and I walked away in silence.
Minutes later I was sat with Clare crying again, but this time with laughter. Sure, he shouldn’t have groped me like that, but did it really do any harm? My initial mental response was that my views and opinions on Buddhism were ruined. After much thought this ‘ruin’ is for the better. It is easy to believe that because a man devotes his life to his God, agreeing to celibacy and to seclude oneself from society, he ceases to be human. By that I mean to lack human instinct; that because this man is holy, he is not capable of any wrong-doing. If anything, my intimate afternoon at a Buddhist Lamasery taught me that vulnerability is perfectly acceptable, but so is it important to remain on guard no matter what the circumstance. He gave me a truly beautiful experience, and I am thankful for that. But I practically obeyed his every command, because I was in awe of his ways. This time round it has helped create an interesting, funny story and I am genuinely left with no negative feeling about it. Next time, when I am ushered by a man with no name, no matter the circumstance, I will remain open minded and vigilant.
To leave you with something to ponder, then. Shortly after my return, I was informed about a common greeting in Mongolian culture. It is customary for elders to stand with their arms extended whilst the minor steps forward to hold the arms up by the elbow.
Perhaps I misinterpreted this traditional greeting for a hug. Perhaps he thought I was in fact coming on to him. Perhaps he just couldn’t resist my squishy touchy. Perhaps we will never know.