Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Shelter From the Storm

Aug 6

A quiet sombre mood permeates the monastery grounds. Last night, the second night of a fierce storm (the worst in history), struck the high desert lands of Ladakh. All through the night, the rains poured buckets from the sky, the winds howled, while thunderous lightening shook the valley. Big flashes of white lit up the dark mountain sky. With no power, we watched and listened to the raw power of nature, until the candle burned to completion.
In a place that averages only 3.5 inches of rain annually, no one was prepared. However, upon his arrival in the Nubra Valley, HH the Dalai Lama had confided that the Oracle had prophesied that a great big storm was brewing. The local people said their prayers, made the appropriate offerings to their protector gods, and went on with their lives. For there was work to be done in the kitchen and in the fields. Besides, what else could they do†?
During the middle of the night, the village of Thiksey was abruptly awaken by a torrent flood of high waters, rushing through the streets and into their homes. With no hesitation, the people picked up their essentials, food and blankets, and headed up the hill to the village monastery. All day they have poured in, hundreds of people, men, women and children. It is admirable to witness the level of community and resource the monastery offers the village and its people, as it has functioned traditionally for thousands of years. As we watch the procession of families and possessions pour in, filling all dry empty space, I am reminded of a somewhat similar scene I had witnessed a few years ago in the States…


While living in San Diego, during the Spring of 2008, the county burst into California wildfire. Thousands of buildings and homes were destroyed. I recall the government issuing an air health-safety warning, we wore masks through the streets. Not because of the fire per say, but because of the toxic chemicals, the paint from houses, which was being spewed with smoke into the neighboring air. And as we are quickly learning, there are no borders in the sky.

Over one million people were evacuated from their homes with no place to go. A few shelters were set up for the new American refugees, but most were sent to Qualcomm Stadium, home to the San Diego Chargers NFL football team. Like Thiksey monastery, the football stadium opened its doors during the time of crisis to shelter its people. A few friends and I took the local bus over to lend hands. The scene was mad. Thousands and thousands of people, pouring in from all directions. Truckloads of tents, food, and supplies were arriving. Big mountain piles of donated food and clothing were being sorted through in the parking lots by volunteers. We helped young families set up tents to try and get some needed sleep for the night.

California’s Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, helicoptered onto the scene to make his routine press appearance. Cameras and people flocked towards to hear his holy words. I recall being surprised by his unproportionally large Ken-doll face, but I don’t remember what he said. I do remember the new which came the following day. The next day at Qualcomm Stadium was a Sunday, a ‘holy’ day for NFL fans, and a scheduled home game for the Chargers. It was decided and announced that the game would not be cancelled. The game would be played. And the thousands of homeless San Diego citizens, many of whom no doubt were die-hard Chargers fans – who had been following their beloved team since they were born, into a family of die-hard Charger fans, who had attended tailgate parties and gone to every game they could afford, every Sunday like it was Church, and who would have no doubt loved to be at this Sunday’s game, were it not for the fact that their house burnt down in flames the night before – yes, these people, along with everyone else, were forced to leave the Stadium, exiled into oblivion, so that their beloved Chargers could maintain dreary hopes of making the playoffs.


All of this I am reminded of, as I watch these poor Ladakhis, Indians, and Pakistani’s, endlessly trickle into the gompa courtyard. But here I am struck by an altogether different scene. Not just the obvious dichotomy in locality of a Buddhist monastery versus an NFL football stadium, but the social function of the ‘Church.’ Here in Ladakh, the first born son of every family is sent to monkship at the local monastery, where he will learn to read and receive a proper education. It is supported by the community, and in turn, the monastery nourishes the community, as the center of learning and religious activity. It is a mutual and reciprocal functioning relationship. The kind healthy ecology is made of. And when disaster strikes the village, there is no question or hesitation of where to go, or what to do – like a public school fire-drill, everyone heads for the gompa, safely perched high on top the hill. The monastery opens it’s big Dharma gates to embrace all. Shelter is provided. The school closes, to open its rooms for everyone. Tea is served. Food is fed. A natural sense of oneness and camaraderie is felt throughout the community.
The puja carries on by a few elders, because tradition must. But most of the monks become workers, leaders, and community organizers. Passing by a stream of new arrivals, one monk says to us, ‘We take this very seriously.’ He smiled, ‘But these buildings are very old, and we must be careful with all these people.’

Not only do the local people have an extended home, but we too have a place to stay, a shelter to take refuge. Because we arrived a few days prior, we had secured a clean comfortable room†; with big white walls, high wooden ceiling, big white bed, and large mountain view windows. Just outside our door, families are lined up laying on the hallway grounds. The villagers lay on blankets and mats under gompa awnings and dining room floors. They gather for shelter. circled around big Mani prayer wheels. My heart perturbed by the commotion outside our bedroom, I open the door to offer a small bag of nuts and barley to the women. I cannot help but feel guiltily, but do my best to cultivate compassion. More than anything, I feel gratitude. Grateful to be healthy, safe, and alive - with my beloved in my arms. We received word that many others were not so fortunate. Less than 12 miles away, in Ladakh’s capitol city Leh (where we were staying only two days before), over one-hundred people were announced dead this morning. Many more are injured or missing. Bodies continue to be dug up from the storm ruin. The roads are all closed – the buses destroyed. The water supply has run dry (truly an anomaly after last night’s downpour…), and the power comes and goes in waves.

I hear screams from outside the hallway. But they are only of children playing. Despite the somber mood, there is a sense of festivity in the air. The family is together. The community is strong. The monks’ mothers, brothers, and sisters are here. All generations under one gompa. The toothless grandmothers smile at us as we greet them, ‘Juley!’ The old men waddle around, fingering their rosary beads as they breathe heavily, ‘OM MANI PEMME HUNG’ faster than is Englishly possible. As the late afternoon fades to early evening winds, I look up to the ominous dark grey sky. Thunder begins it’s familiar tumultuous rumble. I feel a few drops of rain splash upon my head.

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