My Inner Purity

PILGRIMAGE 1971 (Part 3)
My Inner Purity

Russell Rolfe

(from part 2) … I was told I would miss an exceedingly rare opportunity to sleep in the presence of hundreds of age-old sacred Tibetan relics and Buddha rupas. I just wanted first dibs on the shower.

We were the first large group of Westerners to be given these initiations and teachings. It was the beginning of the transfer and preservation of what had previously been consecrated secret Tibetan rituals. It was all so strange and exotic; clouds of juniper incense, hundreds of small oil lamps, peculiar deities framed in silk hanging from intricately decorated ceiling rafters, multicolored umbrellas and banners. One whole wall was a great glass case filled with what appeared to be flat boxes covered with yellow and maroon cloth. At first I thought these held the ashes of departed lamas but soon learned they were sacred books recently brought out of Tibet. Rumtek monastery, even though completed several years before our visit, seemed as if it had been there forever.

In the morning we were to experience the Black Dorje Hat during a special ceremony. Our teacher, Ananda Bodhi, had told us about this magical hat ceremony on board the ship to India. From my notes I re-read that the crown was presented to the Fifth Karmapa by the Chinese Emperor Tai Ming Chen. It's origin goes back to very ancient times, when the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwara was presented with it by the other Enlightened Ones. It was said to be made out of the hair of 10,000 dakinis or goddesses. The Karmapas are an emanation of Avalokiteshwara and custodians of this Black Crown, the mere sight of which is believed to ensure Liberation within one lifetime.

There was no way I could enter the temple for this sacred event in everyday travel attire. For this very day I had saved a white outfit - shirt, pants, socks all sealed in special hotel laundry plastic in a separate zippered compartment of my suitcase. I had even saved a pair of white tennis shoes. However I discovered they were not as pristine as the rest of my turnout and much time was required meticulously scrubbing off every visible earthy blemish.

Finally I was showered and dressed. I stood in the grimy kitchen whose stoves consisted of petrol drums with fuel-holes cut out of their side for the dung patties . The yak dung chips were stored just outside the door. There was a little shiver of excitement and pleasure standing in the squalid kitchen as I anticipated entering the assembly hall in spotless whiteness, a true manifestation of my inner purity.

Amidst all my grooming, I had lost track of time. How long ago now had I heard those long Tibetan horns? I dashed outside and saw only a few monks wandering over to the men's toilet. My God, it had already started and everyone was already inside! And now I had to go to the bathroom.

I rushed to the men's facilities just outside the courtyard wall. Well, to be honest, they weren't really facilities but simply a dirt floored room with a trench cut out next to the wall. The trench was filled with the offal of the entire monastery. I decided to squat. If I relieved myself standing, it was certain to splash on my undefiled whiteness. The trench was about a foot from the wall which required placing one foot on the ledge to straddle the trough. I very carefully balanced myself, not wanting to touch the wall or anything in that room. The ledge was slick, compacted mud. Before I even had a chance to dig into the wall with my fingernails in a futile attempt to keep upright my left foot slipped off the ledge and I was in the trough, literally floating on my back in human waste. I lay there, frozen in shock as the two monks turned around to see what had caused such an enormous splash. I must have presented the most bizarre sight they had ever seen - a Westerner, dressed all in white to make himself whiter, lying on his back in a deep trough of dark excrement. They convulsed with stifled laughter, running out before they had finished themselves.

I climbed out on all fours in a state of complete stupefaction. This was no time for traumatic paralysis. I ran back towards the kitchen to a waste fire burning in a petrol drum, undressing and throwing in my clothes. I chuckled to myself as I bolted naked back into my room. This was like one of those dreams where you find yourself publicly exposed without any clothes. As I threw on the levis and travel clothes that everyone else would be wearing I thought this was the authentic self, without the urge to establish a persona at odds with reality. Finally I realized that all this preoccupation with clothing was pretension, a weakness for worldly display.

As I entered the main assembly hall, His Holiness The XVI Gyalwa Karmapa looked up and gave me a sublime warm smile as I slunk to my seat.

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