the bells of buddhism

Everyone meet in the lobby of the hotel at 7:30 am.

On the first morning we would participate in a meditative walk through the park and the grounds surrounding the major Buddhist temple in Mcleod Ganj. The park itself is among evergreens on side of the mountain, winding upwards and around, with spectacular sights through the trees into the valley below and the town of Dharamshala christened by the warming sun.

Prayer flags hung throughout

Prayer flags were strewn among the trees and rocks, the number and density intensifying around each bend, closing in on the temple. Prayer wheels lined the path itself, at least a couple hundred, wide and thin, brass and painted tin, twelve inches and twelve feet, with bells and without; we spun each and every one clockwise by the wooden handles at the bottom when found at a standstill or by our placing our palms in the middle to help continue the rotation. Our layers of clothes were being shed one piece at a time as we climbed further along the concrete path.

One set of the hundreds of prayer bells in the park

The path itself, although not narrow, meant you were walking on the edge of a precipice. No guard rails, and only trees to stop you, a step too far to the left and you could disappear down the side. It was also not immune from beggars. A man, possibly Hindi, was on his haunches whisking the concrete with a straw thatch, clearing our pathway while his wife begged from a squat position and the children looked up at you with their pleading eyes and mucus dripping noses. More beggars, most with some physical deformity, awaited the people at the end before entering back into the city streets.

Eventually we wound our way to the top where the complex appeared and as we continued along the path, the sound of chanting could be heard from above. The group decided to enter the complex which contained the home of the Dalai Lama and a temple of worship, separated by a court yard for gathering and contemplation.

The chanting drew us to the upper level where two rows of monks were facing two more rows across an aisle in the temple, reading 3 by 18 inch stack of musical cards in their laps, chanting in baritone voices, largely in unison, bells at the ready, ringing at specified times, led by two more senior monks with their headsets sitting at an elevated level. You could observe from the open end or enter the temple itself, without your shoes and sit quietly on the floor.

People moved about and the chanting continued unabated. Suddenly as if the tape player became tangled and slowed to a stop, the sound of a deep moooooooooo ended the piece. The musical cards were flipped, a loud hummmmmm and chanting began in earnest again. I left the temple at this point, making room for others, sat in the courtyard collecting thoughts and notes when a louder than usual ringing burst into music. The chanting was now accompanied by the banging of a gong, the pounding of a drum, the blast of temple horns, and the call of ceremonial shell conches. I began to watch from the open end as the monks continued their two, maybe three, note chant, a ringing of bells and the chorus of instruments. The pattern went on for several minutes, then the moooooooooo end. It was over.

Monks leaving the temple

Wrap up the musical cards, a pretend washing of hands, and the monks get up to leave. The whole scene was mystical and mysterious and very human. Most were engaged but some of the young were yawning, another was rubbing his eyes and head, there were smiles of inward laughter at an apparent miscue. And when it finished, many jumped up and left like the recess bell went off. It brought a smile to my face.

Oh those monks can ring those bells. Hail, hail, hail.

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