The following day, still sober from my visit to the Tibet Museum, I head off to the Tsuglagkhang complex (no, I can’t pronounce it and, no, I’m not in a hurry to learn how to!), which is not only a functioning temple but the official home of his Holiness the Dalai dude. My secret hopes of spying his Holiness (I am not sufficiently arrogant to assume I am worthy of an audience) are dashed when I am told he is currently out of town! Bad timing I guess.
Nevertheless, there is much to intrigue me in the complex. I decide, firstly, to make a “kora” – a Tibetan Buddhist ritual which involves walking clockwise around a sacred site. The surrounding views are wonderful, and I drink in the silence. All around the temple are brightly coloured prayer flags, fluttering in the wind, as well as prayer wheels and shrines.
As one does, I fall into step with an amiable Swedish guy by the name of Lars, who tells me that he is spending 3 months here, studying Buddhism, volunteering as a teacher in the local school and taking cookery classes up the road in nearby Bhagsu. I decide to pick his brains, because everywhere I gaze, monks, pilgrims and tourists alike are spinning these wheels and I’m dying to know why.
Lars is happy to oblige. Apparently, he tells me, the prayer wheel represents all the actions of Buddha. Simply touching one erases negative karma (which I suppose is why so many Buddhists have them in their front rooms). Actually spinning a prayer wheel is an excellent opportunity torid yourself yourself of the bad stuff, and “transfer your consciousness to a pure place.” Nothing like Catholicism (confessions and rosaries and all that chit chat) and far from the Jewish set-up (no graven images, if you please).
Still, I like the idea and decide to give it a whirl (Literally), as Lars accompanies me, only with some malas of the mantra. “Om mani padme hung” he chants softly (and at this point I lose the plot completely). Not that it matters, because spinning these wheels is fun, costs nothing and, if Lars is to be believed, doles out a lot of karma in the process.
About 50 minutes (and 12 prayer wheel spins later) I’m back where I began and the inner temple beckons. I love it! Beautiful golden Buddhas abound, resplendent, luminous, awe-inspiring. On every alter, all manner of gifts have been left – huge boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates cartons of orange juice and even – yes! – packets of cornflakes. The level of respect people inside this complex are showing also impresses me – not once do I hear a mobile phone ring. Butter burning lamps flicker (the butter comes from yaks, I believe) and, surrounded by these golden Buddhas, you could hear a pin drop.
What I do hear though, when I wander off outside, are the lasas, in the Debating Court, in pairs or groups, in turn poring over texts or gesticulating wildy. Like we Jews, there is a long tradition of debating in Buddhism, and in these particular battles of words, I notice all kinds of gestures – hand clapping, a rolling of the tiny beads that comprise their necklaces and, once or twice, even a few pushes and shoves directed at their partners…no malice aforethought I trust!
I wander through the halls, down to the library, past the butter burning lamps, along the prayer wheel walk (I spin a few more – after all, no harm in improving my karma, eh?) and back to the main hall. The statues stand, it seems to me, at at least 1.5 metres high, and are cast in gold, some even decorated with jewels that glitter madly…and I am intoxicated with the combination of beauty and ‘mindfullness’. I’ve been here three hours and leave feeling dazed yet peaceful, physically invigorated and spiritually uplifted. As serious as I am about my Judaism, I can really see the attractions of this ancient philosophy.
I mouth a silent adieu to the Buddha. Is it my imagination or does he nod his head gracefully in thanks?!