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Lit from Within

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There should be a word for that moment of sudden joy after you’ve been through turbulent times and realize everything in your life is, after all, in perfect harmony.

I had that feeling when I finally arrived at the Dolma Ling nunnery in Dharamsala, India, after seven hours of hard, stinky, noisy riding in a grubby bus with flowered curtains and no springs. Traveling with a small group at the invitation of the Seattle-based Tibetan Nuns Project, I would be among the first foreign visitors to stay at the newly built nunnery that had been inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama just the previous year.

I knew that the journey would be challenging, but I had always felt a strong wish to understand more about the brave Buddhist women who had risked everything to rebuild their community in exile. Sometimes the rebuilding was literal, as they hauled sand and stones to construct their nunneries. With our bus driver honking all the way from Delhi and most of the way into the Himalayan foothills, though, it was hard to think about much of anything, let alone meditate on the source of their strength. Then the landscape spread out to reveal hills and pine trees, gamboling monkeys, and tangles of orange lantana blossoms, and I began to focus on what lay ahead.

We found the community, with its gracious white and maroon buildings, at the foot of a snow-flecked mountain with green terraced fields on the lower slopes. My simple but comfortable room had a tiny balcony, and as I walked out on it, I heard the energetic rushing of a stream below. Two nuns in maroon robes were laying out a length of material on the grass beside it, and the air reverberated with strange and marvelous bird calls. A kalij pheasant with long tail feathers swooped past—a living version of the birds depicted in the Kangra Indian miniature paintings I’d loved for years.

That was when I knew things could not be better. There was even enough space to do yoga, so I practiced a few poses, including Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose), said to symbolize the destruction of the old self in preparation for the creation of a new one.

Remarkable Women

That evening, feeling renewed, I attended puja (prayers) with the nuns. They sat in rows on low wooden benches in the temple assembly hall, with our group sitting a little apart against a wall. Down at the far end of the hall I could see three magnificent fabric images: Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion; the Green Tara, the female bodhisattva of compassion (also known as “she who saves”); and the Buddha Shakyamuni (the historical founder of Buddhism, also known as the Awakened One). The nuns ranged in age from 14 to 80. I was near some young novices who occasionally had trouble keeping up with the words in the thick Tibetan scripts they were following.

The sound of their chanting seemed at first unremarkable—rhythmic, but mostly limited to a few notes. But as I sat admiring the beauty of the temple and the serene faces of the nuns, I started hearing new sounds. Beneath the strong common pulse, inner notes were emerging as individual voices rose and fell at different pitches, volumes, and speeds. The chanting reminded me of the sound of river water flowing over stones.

I was so mesmerized, I ceased to feel the discomfort in my knees from sitting cross-legged for so long, and I became lost in the sound of human voices that seemed as eternal as the babbling of the stream beneath my room. My breathing was even, my sense of contentment even greater than it had been that afternoon.

Then something changed. The alteration wasn’t in the nuns or the chanting, but in my head. The sounds were so extraordinary that I started grasping for them. First, I regretted not bringing my tiny digital tape recorder. Then I started worrying about whether the nuns would approve of my recording them. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about radio stations that might be interested in broadcasting the chant. Instantly, I berated myself for even considering exploiting such a sacred event.

Soon, I had a cacophony of thoughts going on in my head—longing, self-accusation, regret, denial. By the time puja was over, I was barely hearing the chanted prayers anymore and had quite lost my meditative mood. Back in my room, a short session of Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate-nostril breathing) helped me regain some inner calm, but I wasn’t cured of my grasping yet.

Fragile Flames

The next evening, we were invited to attend the lighting of candles at the dedicated butter-lamp house, where the nuns send blessings out into the world by lighting countless lamps that they leave to flicker out overnight. The lamps traditionally burn yak butter, but here the fuel in the little copper bowls was more likely to have come from the community’s cows—one of whom had cantered about the grass after getting loose that morning and had left her calling card on the sloping path that led out to the butter-lamp house.

Though the nuns were wearing scarves over their noses and mouths as protection from the heat and fumes, I basked in the unaccustomed glow and scent of the lamps. About one-third of the lamps were lit when I arrived. One of the nuns handed me a lighted taper, and I moved from lamp to lamp, bringing each one to life as I quietly named the members of my extended family, dear friends, and those I knew to be in special need.

Then, with the lamp house ablaze, my old “grab it” instinct caught fire. We had been told the nuns didn’t mind photos, so I’d brought my camera. But once I started shooting, I couldn’t stop. Every angle looked more enticing than the last. I wanted to capture the fiery glow, the copper bowls, the nuns’hands holding the lit tapers, and the reflection of lights in the glass windows of the lamp house.

As I moved about the tiny space, I suddenly became aware of how my own actions were disrupting the calm and focused mood. I noticed the glance of one of the nuns—not judgmental, not angry, just puzzled. Reflected in her clear eyes was my avid attitude. Why did I have to possess this delicate moment that was so full of meaning? Better simply to live it, feel it, and hold it in memory.

Back in my room, I thought about the long and difficult routes that had led the exiled nuns away from religious persecution in Tibet to this peaceful place, where they found shelter, education, and companionship in a land not their own. Many of them had left behind everything they knew. Many had families or friends who had been imprisoned by the Communist regime in Tibet or had died either there or on the journey over the Himalayas.

These women had had to learn not to grasp for the past or future, for their country, for those they loved, or even for their own lives. The joy they must have felt on arriving in a safe, secure community must have been a thousand times greater than the relief I felt after a few days’journey by air and bus. Yet as Buddhists, they had been trained to turn their attention again and again to the reality that even such a profound joy cannot last forever.

There was no need to understand the words of the puja chants to know that those ever-changing sounds, and the butter lamps that flickered and went out, were part of the discipline that teaches us to understand the evanescence of all things—and to let them go.

Diana Reynolds Roome wrote “Italian Journey” in the November 2006 issue of Yoga Journal.