Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India
In 2000, I travelled to India, as a naive 20 year old to shoot my thesis film while attending Hampshire College. About half way through excursion, I wound up in Varanasi, a 4,000 year old city, on the banks of the holy Ganges River. There, over breakfast in a crowded local cafe, I met a Kazakstani poet, who was a practicing Tibetan Buddhist.
He told me of his many trips to India and Mongolia. He went on to tell me of a Tibetan monk, he had become friends with, who lived in the Chinese monastery in Sarnath, 10 kilometers outside of Varanasi.
I had been to Sarnath. It was a lovely small town, where the Buddha had gone to teach the Dharma after gaining enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, some 200 kilometers east.
This Kazak poet, then asked me to do him a favour: To deliver a package of red seeds to his monk friend. These seeds had been blessed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, at a private audience, that the poet had had with HH the Dalai Lama. For some reason, I cannot remember, a death in the family perhaps, the Kazak, had to leave India with great haste and was unable to deliver these seeds to his monk friend himself. These seeds were something like echinecea of the west, with healing and immunity properties, but also with this blessing were extra special for the Tibetan people.
I agreed to the mission. Delivering a mysterious package of great auspicious and power to a Tibetan monk, who could refuse?
The next morning I caught a rickshaw for 50 rupees back up to Sarnath, where I was dropped in the center of town. I wandered down one of side streets to the Chinese monastary. I walked in to the residence area, asking around for an English speaker. Eventually, I found a frail, old nun who spoke English, I told her who I was looking for and she guided me in the right direction. As I approached the door, I saw a frail old monk, sitting, seemingly sadly on his bed. The nun announced me and lead me into the room.
It was a dark, dank room. With very little furniture. A small bed was wedged up against the wall, where this wrinkley old monk sat. He didn't wear the normal maroon and saffron robes of a typical Tibetan monk. He wore a yellow sleeveless shirt and an orange dopata. His eye brows grew long, down over his eyes. He had terrible cataracts in his left eye. He sat like the Buddha.
He invited me to sit, along with the nun, who would serve as translator.
I told him, I had met this Kazakstani poet. The nun translated. The monk knew who I spoke of. I went on, telling him that the poet had an audience with His Holiness and was given this package of seeds. I pulled out the package and handed it over. The nun translated, "The poet wanted you to have these, they are from the Dalai Lama, he blessed them."
The monk looked shocked. He froze for a moment. Took the seeds from me and began to cry, while at the same time, saying a prayer and thanking me.
The nun, translated his Tibetan back. "He says: he doesn't know why or how this could be, but he is so thankful and happy, he says you are a great messenger and have given him something, that is out of impossibly out of his reach, a great gift, indeed," she explained in broken English.
I didn't know what to do. I just pressed my hands together, closed my eyes and bowed slightly to the monk, as he continued to chant with the seed pouch in his hands.
A few minutes later, the monk made a move to the edge of his bed and reached for a crutch near leaning on the wall. But got seemingly winded. He had a gimp leg. In fact he was paraplegic. The poet, did not tell me of this. Essentially, this monk was immobile and needed a lot of assistance. I was shocked.
He motioned for the nun, instead, to get a jar from the top of his dresser. She obliged and took out a big jar of hard candies. He said in Tibetan, to give me a handful of them. She did, and I accepted. He gestured for me to eat some, I did. As I sucked on the candy, we continued to chat, via the translating nun, about what I was doing in India, where I was from, as well as his story of leaving Tibet and how he ended up in India as a refugee. I have to admit, I forget the details of his story. I was so overwhelmed with his joy and the whole situation, I was in a state of awe during the whole exchange, I sort of just have that memory. I do remember, however, it was a daring escape and took him through the Himalaya and Nepal, before he eventually came to Sarnath.
About an hour went by and it began to get dark, and it is hard to get a rickshaw back to Varanasi after the sun goes down. I said my goodbyes, in my broken Tibetan and was off.
I have held that experience with me as one of the most exciting and fulfilling moments of my adult life for 7 years now.
This winter I wound up getting a job as the Hi-Def Camera Tech on a Pakistani feature film. We shot for two months all over Sindh, Pakistan. After we wrapped, I took the opportunity to head back into India, where my girlfriend Wendi, met me in Mumbai. We headed out on a little sojourn to retrace some of my steps from six years ago.
Our first stop after Mumbai was Varanasi. After a few days of walking along the banks of the Ganges, we headed up to Sarnath. After visiting the main temple and some old ruins, Wendi asks me,"What about your monk? You told me that crazy story, I remember, you should go find him!"
"I don't think he is still alive," I said.
"Let's go see," she insists.
A few minutes later we were walking down that side street, toward the Chinese monastery. It came up quickly, I didn't remember it being so close to the main temple, but there it was. We walked through the main gate, I remarked, "I bet he's not here, he was so old, there's no way." We continued across the court yard toward the shrine.
As soon as we walked through the main gate, sure enough, sitting there on a grass mat, was my old, long eye-browed monk, reading through some booklet with his one good eye. I walked up to him and knelt down. He said something in Tibetan. I tried to tell him I knew him in English. He didn't know who I was.
Wendi laughed. I said,"This is my guy!"
"Clearly," she says and laughs some more.
I tried to grab a couple Indian tourists that were passing by to explain to him what the scene was, but the monk did not speak Hindi and I could not get across my story to the Indians anyway. Eventually, someone motioned to another monk across the courtyard,"Thai-monk...English" they said.
I went to the Thai monk. He spoke English. I explained my story. "Do you speak Tibetan, can you help explain who I am and my story?"
"Of course," the Thai monk says.
And we crossed back over the courtyard.
We knelt down to explain.
As soon as the Thai monk explains, the Tibetan monks eyes light up and he laughs and begins to chant and reaches out for my hands. He grasps them so tightly, closes his eyes and says a prayer as I kneel there with him. The Thai monk explains,"He remembers you, he just didn't recognize you, because you have grown a beard and have gained weight!"
We all laughed.