John Vincent Bellezza
Menri Monastery Road Trip
At the end of October, I made an excursion to Menri Monastery, the chief Bon religious center in exile. It’s a long drive but well worth the time and effort. I happily passed three days at Menri, consulting with monks, seeing rare texts recently discovered in the Himalayan borderlands, and generally enjoying the salubrious atmosphere.
Menri (Medicine Mountain) Monastery is located in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, in a rather out of the way corner, far from cities and bazaars. How this place has changed in recent years! From a sleepy, albeit culturally important backwater, Menri has become a bustling hub of religious learning and ritual activity. Until 1998, Menri was a very rudimentary facility with a few simple adobe and stone buildings. Even the main temple was bereft of the rich decorations that have come to characterize Tibetan religious edifices. There were around 100 monks then. Now there are over 300 inmates, and large concrete buildings have come up to house the new library, Bon philosophy center, institute of culture, as well as the burgeoning community.
There is also an orphanage for Bonpo children at Menri. A large number of the orphans come from the Tibetan borderland region of Dolpo, in Nepal. Unfortunately, the Maoist insurgency and the inability of the Nepalese government to provide ordinary services for its people is creating more and more orphans, and parents who can no longer provide their children with the basic necessities of food and clothing.
The chief lama of Menri Monastery is Menri Trizin, who is also the titular head of all the Bonpo. Now aged 80, His Holiness still maintains a full work schedule, overseeing important functions at the monastery. A typical day will see Menri Trizin delegating tasks to his circle of leading monks (all of which hold the Doctor of Divinity or Geshe degree), participating in religious ceremonies, receiving visitors, dictating letters, and supervising construction and education projects. Menri Trizin fulfills his role as the spiritual leader of the Bonpo admirably well. He cuts and impressive figure with his deep resonant voice and regal bearing. His Holiness however, is very approachable, a good listener and always ready to help those who seek him out. In short, he is the ideal spiritual beacon.
It is good to see the Bonpo finally come out from under the shadow of the Tibetan Buddhists, and to take their rightful place in the international spiritual community. It is no exaggeration to state that Bon has everything Tibet Buddhism has and much more too. There are still many who believe that Tibet is synonymous with Buddhism, not realizing that it is home to another of the world’s great religions. Fortunately, attitudes are changing as the Bonpo reach out to the rest of the world with ever greater vibrancy. In addition to possessing the doctrinal traditions and ecclesiastic structures of Tibetan Buddhism, Bon has preserved a variety of more ancient cultural traditions. This is of course my area of scholarship.
Needless to say, native Bon traditions are of great interest to historians, anthropologists and archaeologists. But they are also highly valuable in a practical sense, for they contain much that is of relevance to human physical and mental well being. To name but a few aspects of Bon’s indigenous heritage, there are medical therapies, rituals for psychological contentment, systems of divination, and special rites for environmental harmony. This profound pre-Buddhist spiritual bequest draws its inspiration from the primal wellspring of human experience, seen as the universal birthright of us all. The Bonpo believe that the foundation of our human identity has been ignored in the theologies and institutional frameworks of the other major world religions. Often mistakenly equated with shamanism by laypeople and poorly-informed religious scholars, the ancient Bon legacy is actually concerned with divinity as it abides in all natural systems. It is held that this divinity or essential state is tantamount to human beings in their fundamental phenomenological form. Known as the ‘natural state of mind’, this view of reality is elucidated in a highly advanced system of teachings known as Dzokchen. Wed to Buddhist cosmological and ethical traditions over the last twelve centuries, Dzokchen is considered the highest of Bon teachings.
More Adventures from Old Journals
Once again, I have picked up a huge pile of my photocopied journals detailing my life in the Himalaya (running to 46 finely printed volumes) and opened randomly to the following passage:
September 2, 1991 (In the shadow of Mount Everest)
Good morning. I am playing the waiting game. The couriers have not yet returned with permission to cross the river. The people of Kangoon are friendly, if even the village is smaller and poorer than the ones upstream. The perhaps ten households represent five clans, I am told. They subsist on their meager agricultural parcels and limited livestock. I really hope I can get across the river soon. The only other alternative, I think, is to return to Sakya, a prospect I will avoid at nearly any cost. There is no question, it is cooler than a few weeks ago, and a southern wind [from the Himalaya] blows relentlessly. It made hiking these last few days more difficult. Since entering the Karta gorge, shrubs as tall as me have appeared. Also, junipers grows somewhere in the area because people in Kangoon use it as fuel. My host and his wife have gone out to cut grass. I am alone now in the alcove. Freshly roasted tsampa (parched barley meal) with curds, butter and perhaps sugar is a joy to eat, but old tsampa with plain tea is a chore to get in one’s stomach. Fortunately, I have my own food rations. I dread thinking of subsisting on tsampa alone, yet I know the people here do. In Kangoon there simply isn’t much dairy or meat available. Pastoral lands are limited thus there are no drokpas (herders) in this region. Tibet is a beautiful land and this corner is no exception. The blue, blue sky, the snow dusted mountains, and the long vistas stir one’s senses to new highs. The physically high plateau is esthetically lofty. What other land can evoke the grandeur and mystique of Tibet? For what other reason am I here?
I think I pinpointed my location on the map. I am where the Karta Chu makes a sharp turn to the south. Now, if only I can get across the river! Immediately to my east, the mountains rise up to Nyonni Ri, more than 22,000 feet high. Forty air miles to the southwest is the peak of Chomolungma/Sagarmatha (Mount Everest). I was just finished writing the above lines when the man of the house, Pemba, and the courier walked into the alcove. With smiles on their faces they said they had permission and for us to go. I definitely wasn’t going to ask where the permission came from. As far as I am concerned it was a godsend. We drank a little chang (beer) for our success and walked out of the house. We climbed a ridge on the south side of the village and then dropped down a steep sandy slope a couple hundred meters to the Karta River. A rock prominence conveniently juts one half the way out into the river so; the actual crossing is only approximately fifty feet.
I very soon came to appreciate that this was a totally indigenous system. The cables are not steel but rawhide. Thick rawhide strips were twisted into ropes. Three of these ropes span the river and are anchored on both sides to rock and wooden bastions. The yoke is made of wood, hollowed out in the middle to let the harness rope pass through. The ropes themselves are made of yak and goat hair. I don’t doubt that a similar set up has been used since the New Stone Age. As a token of my good will, I gave the four young men a set of small prayer flags. Deftly and speedily they spun yarn out of some tufts of wool they found lying around, and used it to tie the prayer flags onto a tree that curiously grows out the end of the prominence. The men explained that on Nyonni Ri lives the presiding deity of the region. After the prayer flags were tied on we were ready to start. First, my host attached his yoke to the cable and slid to the other side of the river carrying a safety line. The youngest of the group followed him across. Next, my gear was tied into a yoke and with the safety line pulled across the river. Now it was my turn. The two [remaining] men tied me into a yoke and pushed me towards the river. In seconds, I was suspended over the muddy torrent. The other two men used the safety rope to pull me across. I quickly learned to help by pulling the cable with my hands. In less than a minute I was safely and soundly on the Tingri Xian (County) side of the Karta Chu. We wished each other well and set off in our opposite directions.