||[Aug. 6th, 2004|03:25 pm]
Creepiness permeated the air as the four of us climbed up the ravine. Perhaps it was the clutters of symmetrically stacked stones that pimpled up from the gravel. Or maybe it was the massive strings of Tibetan prayer flags that hung from the skeletal posts next to the ghostlike structure at the top of the hill, flaps of colors that looked once vibrant and now worn down by wind and other forces. Or maybe it was because we were following our friends up to the sacred sky-burial site near Lhasa, where residents brought the dead bodies of their loved ones for decapitation, dismemberment, and where the meat was eventually fed to the birds circling overhead.|
Yap, it was probably that last one.
A few days earlier, one of the more studious members of our tour group had enlightened the rest of us on the fascinating but gruesome details of the ancient Tibetan ritual that we came to call "Skyburial". In Buddhism, emphasis is placed on the soul/spirit rather than the physical body (the idea of reincarnation is the best example). The body, then, is merely a vessel of Nature, and when the spirit leaves it the Tibetans don't wish to waste it. So naturally they feed it to the birds, essentially completing the Circle of Life (cue Elton John...now!).
Of course, after about the 13th monastery, the idea of spending another morning surrounded by vats of yak lard sounded less and less exciting to most of us, while a trip up to the sacred plateau where the sky-burial ritual was performed ghoulishly appealed to the darker side of all of us (with the exception of Rainer, who on this trip seemed to be consumed with nothing but darkness). Realizing our tour guide was susceptible to mob persuasion, we cleverly utilized the Turks to prevaricate about the sky-burial being a part of our itinerary, and soon enough we left monastery #13 early and headed towards the hills to the west.
Initially, I thought we were only going to glimpse the site from afar. The act of chopping up dead bodies and leaving them for the birds did have the smell of sacredness to it, and I hardly thought that the Tibetan Minister of Ghastly and Stomach-Turning Rituals was open to the idea of a group of grubby tourists marking up the immaculate location. That, of course, was conservative me; the crazy Germans were the first to get out of the car and start running across the barren terrain to the small little stucture on top of the rock. The tour guide, in a shining moment of competence, chased after them, perhaps realizing that a band of free-range Germans at least posed a small threat to the sanctity of her ancient religion. The Turks, after finishing their cigarettes, were more than happy to follow, which left me with the option of going along, or staying behind and dealing with the recumbent Rainer's less than savory flatulence. So I jogged after them.
After scaling the slope and reaching the top of the huge rock, the Turks and I found the remaining portion of our group inside the little chapel, talking to a weathered old monk. We soon discovered through our tour guide's serviceable translation that the monk was the caretaker of the sky-burial site, and was the only one allowed to live in the chapel and manage it. He had been living there for years, with the only visitors the families of the dead bird-feed and volunteers who brought up water and supplies. He had never been visited by outsiders before, and, with a huge smile, informed our tour guide that she should never ever have allowed us to come.
It's hard to put down on paper the effect of hearing that chilling translation. You had to have been there, a group of nervous tourists, listening to a monk who lived a life of complete solitude, standing next to a fearsome-looking collection of tools that we assumed were used for sawing off limbs, tell us that we should never have walked through his chapel door. I wanted to pull Raphael's ears off; it was this derpy German who dragged us here!
The monk’s smile, however, threw us off. He continued through translation: Yes, you should not have come, but I am in a good mood and think you white people are funny looking, so please crowd around me and take some pictures!
Tibet is chock full of surprises. What followed was definitely the highlight of our time in Lhasa. With a huge sigh or relief, we marveled at the blood-stained tools, listened to the monk talk about his decision to become a monk (he wanted to impress one of the high school cheerleaders), and circled him to take photographs with our digital cameras, which he seemed to particularly enjoy. I looked over at the pile of empty beer bottles in the corner, and imagined that if I were forced to live by myself on a rock in the middle of nowhere, I'd take every opportunity to get as sloshed as possible.
The monk showed us the little indentations in the rock where he placed the heads of the corpses he had to chop up. Some of them still had bits and pieces of dried flesh, which was particularly gruesome. Around the same time, a band of young Tibetans came climbing up the hill. They were unshaven and quiet, and strangely enough kept multiplying through the course of our Sky-Burial 101 lesson. One of the Turks shifted uneasily and whispered to me, “I don’t like this.” I didn’t either, particularly because my Lonely Planet had warned me that in May, hordes of young Tibetan monks make a hobby of surrounding tourists and giving them vicious wedgies. “Let'ss get out of here,” I whispered back.
As we slowly walked away from the men and down the rock, we said the appropriate farewells and thanks to this fascinating monk who was kind enough to take us under his wing and showed us the secret ritual of Chopping Dead Bodies Up. Most of us were in awe and were generally grateful that we experienced such a rare opportunity. I lingered on the bedrock a bit longer, soaking the eerie mysticism of it all in one last time. Then I felt an arm grab mine from behind and I screamed.
It was the monk. He leaned closed to me, and I could see that hidden behind his kind, grandfatherly eyes was the soul of a man who had lived too many years in weathered solitude, who had seen too many things that we could not comprehend. Here was a man who was capable of sending people to Heaven, but destroying them from this Earth. At that moment, he was no kind monk but a messenger of all that was frightening and dead in this world. I recoiled, but he pulled me forward. He opened my palm and crammed a crinkled up piece of paper into my fingers. A hex, I was sure!
He leaned in and whispered, “Here’s fifty bucks. Put this on the Packers to win it all this year.”
And with that, he turned around, reached into his thick robe, and pulled out some beers and tossed them to the cheering young men surrounding him. I thought, “No one’s going to believe this.” And I’m pretty sure none of you will. I’m comfortable with that remaining a moment between me, Monk, and all the other Cheeseheads out there.