The Brahmaputra River is like a liquid opal winding its way through the faded sand colored landscape. It is the artery of life in this part of the world. To get to the Samye Monastery one must cross it on a flat bottom barge squeezed in next to claret colored robed monks wearing knock off ray bans and North Face jackets. Once on the other side there is the choice to either walk to the monastery along a rough and dusty road or take a bus that has neither shock absorbers nor enough seats.
There is no warning before you come upon the oldest monastery in Tibet. It just appears from the sandy bottom of a plateau surrounded by beige graveled mountains with snow caps. It is so dry here that licking your lips does nothing but to make them more chapped.
The monastery is laid out like a giant Mandala, a metaphor for the Buddhist universe with a temple in the middle representing Mount Meru, its mythical center. It is to the top of that temple that I have been told to go.
Inside, the dark corridors are illuminated by rows of golden prayer wheels. They look like upright barrels atop wood fence posts. If you touch one, it will keep spinning long after you walk on, its embossed Sanskrit letters catching the dim light. The reflected Buddhist text reads: Om mani pad me hum. It is the sacred mantra whose meaning I am still trying to grasp. Translated in English as six words: generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation and wisdom but said together it means none of this and also much more. The purpose of reciting it is to help purify the speaker of ego, jealousy, desire, prejudice, possessiveness and hatred and as one says it one should consider how to live out this wisdom while all the while becoming less fixated on oneself. I am not sure how to do that.
There is a second floor that wraps around an inner courtyard overlooking the temple. The walls are white washed up to bands of burnt umber that dye into golden eves of intricately carved overhanging roofs. Along the mezzanine that makes up the second floor are the monks’ rooms. Their privacy provided by a cloth of blue and white draped across a doorway. The walls of the corridors are painted in vibrant hues of yellow, blue, red and green.
Inside the temple the light is dim and the air is filled with the smell of yak butter candles, like rancid milk mixed with sweet wax. I pass the barrels of little lights, the prayer benches, the draped prayer flags, some fashioned into origami like cascades hanging from the ceiling. There is the golden Buddha and a row of bodhisattvas. Everything is covered in a thin film of dust. The space around me is cloudy and oily.
I climb up through the temple then, one step at a time on ornately painted orange stairs. Inside the room on the third floor I am the only one except for a monk who quietly shuffles away when I arrive. Another Buddha sits here as if waiting for those who choose to make the journey from the opulence below to seek him out in this simple and quiet space. He surveys the room and me with it.
I put my palms together and close my eyes. I make the sound, the first vibration. I feel it deep within my abdomen where it rests upon my pelvis, then in my chest surrounding my heart, over my shoulders and down my arms and then onto my lips.