Sunday, March 11, 2012

Butter lamps and blessings

In the past week school has been cancelled 3 times for very different reasons.

Last Saturday the whole teaching staff had to do the Teachers Need Assessment (TNA) questionnaire and general test. Well almost the whole staff anyway 9 lucky individuals, myself included were exempt and we were left to supervise nearly 500 students. That day was also my first Study Duty for the year, so the irony of having to head off to school in the dark at 5.40am when there would be no classes for the rest of the day was not lost on me. In fact on my arrival at school, I mistakenly thought that I had the time wrong as in the dim morning light and absolute silence, it seemed that no-one was awake and nothing was stirring. Before I could check my watch however, the study bells sounded and the twenty odd stray dogs that inhabit the campus and were decorating the car park frozen in comatose poses, leapt to life and sleepy-eyed students began to shuffle towards their respective study rooms.

An alternative programme was devised for the morning school hours and only those interested were actually asked to attend. Since it was the final day of the commemoration of the death of an eminent Rimpoche, who is closely associated with Rangjung, prayers were called and it was proposed that the student cohort and any other interested members of staff walk up to the monastery (founded by his son Garab Rimopche) and pay our respect and light butter lamps. This was the first opportunity I had to wear my new “rachu” (ceremonial scarf worn by females) and I was certainly not going to let it slip by so I eagerly volunteered to paticipate.  I had been looking for an excuse to don my new “rachu” since I had purchased it on our road trip out east and it was commented on by many of the girls and staff that morning.

After morning assembly the entire student body gathered in the MPH and many non-teaching staff and a few teachers including myself joined them. I absolutely love the chanting and mass effect of the voices but actually loathe sitting cross-legged on the floor, primarily because after a knee operation several years ago now, I simply cannot sit like that, at all, any more. It is always required for prayers and in addition to not knowing the prayers or being able to read them, I feel both awkward and embarrassed to be placed at the front on the raised stage when I am sitting incorrectly. My favourite thing is always lighting the butter lamps and I never tire of seeing them or photographing their magical displays of light, so it was with great delight that I accepted the invitation to join in this aspect of the ceremony not 10 minutes after prayers began. It gave me the excuse I needed to get up off the floor of the stage and allowed me to freely roam the hall and balcony photographing too.

I felt quite liberated being able to wander about among the seemingly disciplined and orderly behavior, and it struck me as odd that I had never before noticed that the students are exactly the same in prayers as they are in the classroom. Now that I know many of them by name and have taught at least a quarter of those present it was obvious to me how concealing those mass assemblies really are. In the past I have been mesmerised by quality of their voices and their harmonious appearance and the effortlessness with which they participate. This time I was able to spot the incessant talkers, those who fidget and wiggle, those who endlessly adjust their “kabney” (ceremonial scarf the males wear), those who engage in conversations in low whispers, those who hang their heads and pretend to chant while actually only turning the pages and mumbling and to my surprise those who hiss “One photo madam” as I pass nearby, even at such an inappropriate time- at least to my way of thinking. I was relieved to see that the character of the students’ remains constant.

The walk to monastery and the circumambulations at the top were punctuated with that same cry, “One photo Madam.” As usual I was happy to oblige and so the process of photographing, preparing, printing and purchasing begins again.

By evening study on Sunday, Ian’s school had already cancelled classes on Monday and I hadn’t yet seen the writing on the wall for that to happen at my school too. A much discussed, eminent Lama from Bumthang had arrived that afternoon in our local area. The student counsellors had apparently petitioned for the entire school to be given the opportunity to go to Changmey, where he would be officiating at the inauguration of a recently completed, statue of the Guru Rimpoche. This was a major disruption to study on Sunday evening, which I was again supervising, as was the arrival of the class XI students that very afternoon but everyone finally settled into their rooms and I was asked by each successive class as I did the rounds to check attendance,  did I think we would be going tomorrow. They were certainly asking the wrong person as I couldn’t even hazard a guess. But go we did.

Our neighbour with her grandchild spotted in the crowd

This was yet another perfect opportunity to don my beautiful new “rachu” and witness another formal Buddhist gathering, to say nothing of seeing a new place. Despite the 8-kilometer walk up a dusty farm track, all the students delighted in having the day out of class and suffered the steep climb up and being bathed in dust as the many vehicles heading for the same destination, passed them. I felt privileged indeed to be offered a ride from one of Ian’s colleagues and willingly joined him and his family. The higher the road climbed the more frequently RHSS students would emerge from the verges of the roadside having taken some near vertical shortcut. Justifiably they were all trying to shorten the walk and avoid the traffic on the narrow and treacherous farm road.  At the same time as we climbed, the profusion of flowering Rhododendron trees increased in density. I didn’t dare to try to photograph them as it was taking all my effort and will not to vomit in the car from the bumming, hairpin turns and speed.

A flowering Rhododendron taken from the top -thank goodness for telephoto lenses

As usual for me the crowd was more captivating than the address, of which I could understand not a single word but I did my best to follow the correct etiquette and once again cursed my inability to sit cross-legged. After avoiding the blazing sun for hours, once the official ceremony began, we all sat in meditative, silence while the monks chanted and dignitaries were individually blessed. Bags of grain and other offerings were brought forward for official blessing and consecration too and finally once they had been suitably blessed they were distributed through the crowd by an efficient team of RHSS senior boys who seem to instinctively know what is required of them in these situations. Finally the Lama himself accompanied by an entourage of monks walked through the crowd in dignified silence and touched us each on the head to ensure our long and fruitful lives.

Almost immediately the blessing was complete, the crowd rose and began circumambulating the statues and then making their way back down the steep and now extremely congested road towards Rangjung and the many smaller hamlets and villages, from which they had emerged earlier that morning.  

Again I was grateful for the lift and it was certainly dark when many of our weary walkers finally returned to their hostels and dinner.

Yesterday, the whole school underwent the blessing / school purification ritual know as Rimdro and which I wrote extensively about last year. Since this is now something of an epic I will say only that it too incorporated the beautiful and moving spectacle of a display of butter lamps, which I was once again invited to participate in lighting. I also once again got to wear my now not so new ‘Rachu” and I hope the pictures say it all.

 “One photo Madam.”

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