Rongwu Monastery was like a silent thumbprint of a prayer. Or at least that’s what it felt like as I and my new German friend Beatrice entered the quiet, incense-filled courtyard of Rebkong’s central monastery. All of the evidence of religious devotion remained, but red-robed monks and chanting Tibetans slipped by quick as fish as they made their rounds. We’d walk to a line of prayer wheels and I’d hear one squeak from being turned. By the time I looked, only a spinning prayer wheel remained. Prayer mats from meditation sessions were piled in a corner, and in one hall, people had prostrated so often and so intently in one spot, the wooden floor had grooves from their bare feet and sliding hands.
In the late afternoon sun, few tourists came and the place was so quiet we could hear birds flapping their wings.
But this is not to say that it’s deserted or empty. Far from it. As I walked a circuit with them, spinning each prayer wheel as I passed, the room hummed with mantras and low murmurs or prayer. And it was like the shimmer just outside of a candle’s glow, emanating warmth beyond the flames.
The monastery was very full, though there were few people. It was full because it was being filled, word by word, step by step, thumbprint by thumbprint.
I like to think that I could be Buddhist. The ideas appeal to me, and there are certain phrases like “live in the moment” that strike a chord. Do not kill, be kind to one another–these are things I agree with. It could fit, right?
So when I go to temples or monasteries, I almost feel like I’m “in the know.” Like, I’m aware of what they’re trying to say and could probably say it myself if given enough time and intelligence to think about it.
This morning, Maeva and I decided to join in the walk around the monastery. It’s about 3km, and takes walkers past prayer wheels, monks-in-training, and all of the sights we’d later be seeing in an afternoon tour of the monastery. I thought “yeah, symbolism, I get it” as we entered. But as it turned out, I had no idea.
For one, prayer wheels.
They’re like wooden spindles set up in rows, painted in faded red with designs on them. Underneath are structures that resemble wooden plates and along the sides wooden bars. As we walked, the we reached out and spun the wheels. Touching them somewhere, keeping the energy going in our clockwise circumnavigation of the monastery.
“Damn!” I thought as my fingers rammed into the wooden handle of the prayer wheel. I reached out for the plate on the bottom which slid past my fingers, hardly touching. We’d go down the rows, then enter smaller rooms with more prayer wheels, Tibetans humming and chanting as they fingered the relics up close.
It wasn’t a walk for the Buddhist elite, either. Old women, crippled men on crutches, children kowtowing every other step with fingers caked in chalk and scrapes, stringy men lying face-flat in the dirt to bow. Followers bumping heads against the brick walls, near-invalids bent over along the path. They touched as many prayer wheels as they could, with the creaking and squeaking that comes from constant use.
We were walking, turning, pressing fingers into wood, going in circles. In constant motion. It didn’t matter what ideals I had, or how I interpreted certain pictures or not. This was about Buddhism the verb, not Buddhism the noun.
As I walked, seeing the movement and the absolute sacrifice of body and soul that went into this sect of Buddhism, it got me thinking. I’m not going to be a vegetarian. I’m not as generous as I ought to be. I’m not willing to give up earthly pleasures just yet. I kill mosquitos.
I could stick with the Buddhism-the-noun ideas that I like and gloss over the rest. I could say “close enough” and live in a half-world full of things I’ve specifically picked and chosen for myself. But I have to be honest. That’s not Buddhist. Nor am I.
Because as I watched Buddhism-the-verb unfold, it struck me that perhaps religion isn’t meant to be convenient, or “whatever suits the life you currently live.” There ought to be sacrifice. There ought to be some kind of effort that goes into it. There needs to be intent and sincerity. There needs to be verb.
So as we rounded the final bend of the walk, I felt an almost-release. I am not many things. All I am is someone turning my own wheels, thinking, and ready for the day that I’m ready to verb, whatever that means.