The Buddhist Monastery at Tengboche stands at thirteen thousand feet, high in the Himalayas. There has been a monastery here for generations but the present building is quite new, the original one was destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1989. It took ten days to burn itself out and consumed all the ancient artefacts and manuscripts. It very nearly spelt the end of the monastery but it was rebuilt with the help of the Himalayan Trust and foreign governments- the Swiss used their Alpine construction techniques to secure the new roof against Himalayan winter storms, although even they had to have two goes at it when their first attempt was a spectacular flying failure during the first winter. As the highest inhabited monastery in Nepal and the largest one in the Everest Region it was important to preserve it and there are now some sixty monks back in residence. Inside the main prayer room are three giant Buddha statues. Made of clay but painted in gold, they contain thousands of prayer mantras inside. And they are beautifully painted, as is the whole room including the walls and ceiling. Twenty highly trained artistic painters were brought in to complete the work; it took them two years. Painting of the two upper floors had not yet begun but they will get around to it in the next decade or two. It is a holy site, strong on atmosphere and history and a memorable place but one where the pace of change is slow.
The monks begin their morning prayers around 6.30am. Visitors are encouraged but are asked to sit on the floor against the right hand wall. About forty monks are present and are arranged in a hierarchal order spreading out from two rows of senior monks facing each other across the central aisle. It is these monks that lead the chanting and play the instruments- a hand-bell, two different sizes of trumpet-horn, a set of cymbals and two huge metal gongs. Behind the two front rows are two more tiers of monks and behind them are the two outermost rows. These are the youngest monks, some are only about twelve or thirteen. The youngsters are just as curious of these strange westerners as we are of them. There is a good deal of head turning, nudging and secret little smiles going on. They seem particularly fascinated by a young western woman dressed in a sherpa shawl and hat; she has her eyes closed and is silently joining in by mouthing the chanting and constantly turning a string of beads in her hand. She is taking it more seriously than some of the older monks even, who are not averse to a bit of yawning and fidgeting- the atmosphere is really quite relaxed. But sitting at the back of the central aisle is a solitary monk who is the disciplinarian and responsible for bringing any errant monks back into line if they get too distracted, and for keeping a watchful eye for visitors who might get too enthusiastic. The music and chanting is rhythmical and compelling and the whole effect draws you in. Several western visitors appear to be meditating and some who only came for five minutes are still here an hour later. It is a riveting and rewarding experience.
Outside, it is a stunningly beautiful panorama of mountain peaks and rifts of cloud intricately woven in the wonderful hues of the early morning air. Thin spirals of curling smoke from one or two of the lodges add to the evocative scene. Two young monks are making a half-hearted show of washing their feet at a spring. Amadablam mountain still has its head in the clouds but Everest and its surrounding ramparts are gloriously visible. When John Hunt passed here on his way to conquering Everest in 1953, he too was taken with the beauty of the place- “Tengboche must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. The monastery buildings stand upon a knoll at the end of a big spur flung out across the axis of the Imja River. Surrounded by satellite dwellings, all quaintly constructed and oddly medieval in appearance, it provides a grandstand beyond comparison for the finest mountain scenery that I have ever seen, whether in the Himalayas or elsewhere.”
After breakfast we returned to the monastery for an audience arranged with the Lama Incarnate, or Head Lama as he is more usually known. Entering by a side door, we crossed a narrow courtyard into a small simple wood panelled room. Each of us received the traditional blessing by handing the Head Lama the white silk scarf we have brought with us and one by one, he placed it around our necks. He is framed in the half-light from the one small window and looks old and grey but extraordinarily wise and serene. Sitting around the three sides of the room we are able to ask questions which are translated by our guide, Roshan. We have been joined by a couple of other people who have attached themselves to our small group. One is a tall, rangy, travel-stained north European of uncertain nationality- perhaps Dutch or German. He has long greying fair hair tied back in a pony tail and is definitely on wacky-baccy or similar- he is well spaced out. In strongly accented English he asks an earnest question- “Can you ask Buddha for forgiveness?” The essence of the translated answer is- “No, the art of the Buddhist religion is within yourself. You may ask senior monks to forgive your sins but you cannot ask Buddha for forgiveness. Knowing what is right and what is wrong is within yourself. That is why, as a religion, Buddhism does not seek to convert anyone from a different faith. Only the individual knows if and when he or she is ready to embrace Buddhism.” That seemed a pretty wise and reasonable answer but it is clearly not the one that our friend was looking for and he mutters on a bit. It is obviously a very important question for him; he has a dark secret somewhere in his past and is trying to unburden it. He is carrying a heavy load I think. A young monk dashes in and has a hurried conversation with the Head Lama and both men promptly leave the room. Even our guide is bemused. The audience appears to be over he says, the Head Lama has been called away to take a phone call! There are no phone lines to Tengboche so it must be a satellite phone- but who would be ringing him do you suppose? The Deli Lama from his exile in India perhaps? It was an extraordinary stay at Tengboche, even though it was short. There is a unexpected beauty and a kind of serenity about the place. It was a truly humbling experience and I left feeling enriched and privileged by it.