Mongolia was an incredible experience. It was a country that I had no preconceived notions of (okay- besides that one Southpark episode!) and one by which I was pleasantly surprised. The Mongolian people we came into contact with through our program were all extremely kind and generous with their time and money, making every effort to ensure that we Americans were exposed to and fully enjoyed the traditional foods, art, pastimes, religious practices, and geography of their mother country. In this post I will illuminate just a few of the many remarkable individuals that our group encountered in our Mongolian adventures.
Our primary contact during our time in Mongolia was a man referred to by our group simply as the Abbott, a former scientist in his early 60’s who, after the fall of communism in 1990, was inspired to found a monastery in honor of one destroyed decades ago in the same vicinity. The Abbott also intended to continue the legacy of his father who had been a Buddhist monk in the time of the communists’ reign. Like many in his father’s generation, the Abbott’s dad was forced to shed his robes and lead a secular existence, including working life and marriage. Throughout the decades of communist iconoclasm and repression, characterized by the desecration of nearly every temple in the country and the murder of thousands of monks, the Abbott’s father preserved his copy of and notes on the sacred Lam Rim – a body of Buddhist texts – in order to pass them on to his son. It was the Abbott’s sole inheritance. Since then, the Abbott has established the Lam Rim Monastery, where our group had the pleasure of studying Buddhism.
One memory of taking classes there that I won’t soon forget was the frequent interruptions by curious laypeople attempting to pry their way into the room —a side chamber with its own shrine. Many times it sounded as if the would-be intruder was about to tear the handle off the locked door in order to discover the secrets within! Strangely, it became a normal occurrence after the first day. However, during both of our test days, the mid-term and final, our brainwaves had to compete with the sounds of chanting monks and loud bells and crashing sounds – rites we never saw, unfortunately.
Apart from allowing us to study in his beautifully decorated monastery, which boasted intricate and brightly colored hand-carved and painted wood paneling all around the outside, the Abbott was an crucial contact for our group. He had worked with our director for nearly three decades and without him we would have been unable to plan and organize most aspects of our outings including meals, transportation, and shelter, among other “details”. On these excursions, the Abbott was kind enough to accompany us and give us lectures, delivered with the help of amiable translators. A shy and humble man, he saw the enthusiasm in our group for Buddhism and provided us with extra opportunities at every corner, from trips to the national opera (which he paid for!), to home visits to meet with old friends of his (who happen to be nomadic herders of 80 years), to unsolicited sessions with renowned scholars on ancient Mongol scripts (to help us with our projects, of course). I shall fondly recall the Abbott’s warm smile and kind gaze, punctuated by his rare but exuberant laughter — for example, when he learned of our great anxiety over crossing the street (more on that later).
The second contact whom our group greatly enjoyed the company of was a Canadian-born Irishman whose gregarious nature and witty, if edgy, sense of humor never ceased to amuse. A prolific writer and expert on Tibetan Buddhism, our friend, Glenn, had penned over thirty books on the subject. His seemingly endless knowledge (and, at times, pure speculation) was hard to put an end to once a single question was asked. Filled with loads of humorous and entertaining side stories, his lectures were at times a bit hard to follow but well worth the time and attention spent listening. Glenn was a large man with a long white ponytail who seemed to consider himself a holy person, a true lama. I couldn’t help but compare him in some small way with Danzan Ravjaa, “the crazy drunken monk” of the Gobi, who we were studying simultaneously during out Buddhism class. (Glenn, who was incredibly well connected, even graciously put us in touch with the author of the famous 19thcentury monk’s chronicler, another character that I won’t have time to thoroughly discuss.)
I dare to make the last comparison to Ravjaa because Glenn was a curious fellow to say the least. He gave off an aura of incredible intellect and seemed to possess tremendous spiritual knowledge, which was accompanied with a great irreverence for convention — much like the whiskey drinking womanizer of the Gobi. On the first night, he made crude references to the opposite sex and encouraged the group to engage in debauchery with him, behavior which made him popular to an extent but was clearly unbecoming of an historian or spiritual instructor. Further, demonstrating a flair for the dramatic, he took pride in his outlandish interpretations of history (e.g. the American War for Independence was motivated mainly by the large debts of the founding fathers to the Bank of England, or his opinion that the world should be run by one simple government, using one single common currency). His seeming ignorance was far surpassed by his incredible grasp of historical and factual information, specifically pertaining to Tibetan Buddhism. It could have been the Irishman in him creatively fabricating brash theories about contemporary politics, but he was smart as a whip when it came to his specialty. I greatly enjoyed conversing with Glenn and thank him sincerely for lecturing our group and scheduling individual appointments to help us with our projects.
The third individual whom we had the honor to meet was the Panchen Ocho Rinpoche, a revered Buddhist teacher and non-profit leader who was runner up to the former Panchen Lama during the process of selecting his Holiness’ next reincarnation. We were very fortunate to have a private audience with Rinpoche, partly due to his being longtime friends with our director’s husband. Small world! Our brief session hearing the life story of the eighty-something year old Rinpoche was a rare and revealing opportunity into how difficult life was in Tibet, especially for monks, during the beginning of the Chinese occupation. I had the rare opportunity at the end of our session to ask him how he recommended young impressionable men and women live the rest of their lives, knowing that they could live another 60 years or die tomorrow. His response was very insightful.
First, he spoke of potentially dangerous animals, which are capable of limited positive or negative karmic actions. For example, a dog could help humans herd sheep and protect its owner from would-be assailants, or it could horribly maul a child unprovoked. Then he compared such beasts to humans, who have the potential for effecting much more drastic changes in our world, for better or for worse. Along with the increased capacity for good or evil action that mankind possesses, we have a much greater level of responsibility, particularly those of us from such privileged backgrounds. (An interesting side note is that throughout Mongolia and our Buddhist studies, a number of individuals viewed our group as having remarkably good karma to merit rebirth into such wealth and opportunity for Buddhist education, especially so far from our homeland.) Next, he reminded us that a lifetime is comprised of individual seconds and minutes and that it generally only takes a few of them to enact a positive change in someone’s life. Each moment is precious when our time is so short on this earth, Rinpoche lectured. I imagine that it is often our lack of courage that prevents us from following through with opportunities for great benevolent acts. As I sat cross-legged on the padding listening to the Abbott, it was hard to hear his words without adding in my personal interpretation or analysis, largely because their depth of meaning sparked many other thoughts – even in the moment. However, I’ll spare the readers further digressions. Regardless, his final remarks were a bit more direct and focused (at least for a Tibetan lama): 1) remember that education benefits not just you alone but others too — it is a great gift that keeps on giving —, and 2) be a contributing member of your community in fostering peace and tolerance.
Can’t find much to criticize there…
While I don’t have enough time to share their wonderful personalities, I have to deeply thank Oko, Shine and Rema, our interpreters and guides during our trips in Mongolia, without whom none of our excursions would have been possible. In addition, I would like to extend my gratitude to all of our support staff including the drivers and the cooks. I admire the gall and fortitude of our drivers, as well as their quick reflexes which were necessary to navigate both the congested and chaotic avenues of Ulaan Baatar and the great steppes, void of anything resembling a road. Even when tires blew out or we became stuck in deep, loose sand of dried up riverbeds they never lost their cool. The cooks, I have to say, did a wonderful job. I ate my best meals in Mongolia on the road with our caravan, whose wonderful soups, dumplings, meat dishes, breads, rice plates, and fresh watermelon repeatedly tantalized my taste buds— which were never bored with two similar meals. As many in my group will recall, we ate mutton prepared about 50 different ways in Mongolia. I for one thoroughly enjoyed all of them, although I was hesitant to admit it at the time.