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October 18, 2006

Painting the Monastery Red

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LOCATION: Shegar Monastery, Tibet
Longitude: N: 28.26°
Latitude: E: 086.01°
Miles from Singapore: 4865

My visit to Shegar monastery just 180 km from the Nepal border was I think the highlight of my time in Tibet. After traipsing around a couple of the larger monasteries that serve as little more than expensive museums to tourists the penny finally dropped that if I wanted to see real monks living and working in a vaguely authentic environment I'd have to seek out the smaller, less publicized, Buddhist establishments.

Built in the 12th century this testament to the skill and daring of architects and builders back then (the monastery is basically built on the side of a cliff) is currently home to 35 monks (once 800 in pre-cultural revolution times). On walking through the main entrance I was greeted by a chubby little guy wearing a paint-splattered t-shirt [that barely stretched over his paunch] and loose-fitting tracksuit bottoms that threatened to slip further and reveal a full-on workman's bike rack at any moment. Being in rather a good mood I stopped to exchange pleasantries in a muddle of broken Chinese and English. I'm glad I did. He turned out to be the abbot.

His unusual appearance was on account of everyone pitching in on the annual painting of the monastery. All around me monks were running back and forth laughing and shouting, flinging paint at each other and [it seemed] at anything other than the monastery itself. But they all looked to be having a wonderful time.

At first I was a little disappointed as I was hoping my visit would coincide with a prayer meeting that I could film. This was my fifth monastery visit in Tibet and I had managed to miss such events so successfully on each occasion that I was beginning to find my ill-timing rather a joke. My visit to this particular monastery seemed destined to be no exception to the pattern. But having wandered around for a while taking photos and filming the monks at their work/play, I was about to leave when the abbot approached me again with an offer to come back the following morning for breakfast. I hastily agreed.

At first light I found myself walking briskly back up the mountainside spurred on by the cold. I was ushered into their basic dining area and planted beside the abbot who had one one of the younger monks bring me a section of a sheep's ribcage to use as a spoon. Yak tea (chai) came around first followed by tsampa (barley flour) that I was shown how to mix with the remains of the tea to create a soft ball that could then be eaten in little chunks. 'Tupa' (sp?) - basically potato stew with body parts - came next, rounded off by a final cup of tea. All very edible, even the tsampa that I'd been told was revolting by a tourist in Lhasa. The monks watched every mouthful I took to see if I would spit any of it out. But I'm proud to say that it all went down and more to the point stayed down.

Afterwards I felt a great sense of contentment and peace come over me, and a twinge to stay with these people - whom I could barely communicate with but I sensed a strong connection on both a personal and spiritual level. I wondered why this should be so? And then I remembered a conversation Steve and I had on the Atlantic crossing way back in 1995.

Steve had asked me if there was any chance that I would leave the expedition prematurely. I replied no, that I couldn't foresee any factors, at least at that point, that would prevent me from finishing what we'd started together. Yes of course being cooped up in a tiny wooden box for months at a time on the ocean wave can get tiresome after a while, and the attempts to gain sponsorships had already proved the most challenging and frustrating part of the whole thing before even leaving London. But these were all just inconveniences or physical discomforts that were temporary and open to control from a disciplined mind; something that I was very interested in developing then, and still am, as part of the larger effort of finding ways to become a 'better' person in life. However there was one scenario that sprang to mind that I could see might derail my future involvement with the expedition.

"When we get to Tibet I might find a monastery where I can sign up and focus all my time and energies into pursuing Moksha", I told him (and I was talking about the literal translation of the word, not the pedal boat).

I knew I could justify leaving the expedition if it served as a stepping stone to this higher goal. I'd already made great strides in meditation during the voyage and had even experienced a 5-minute period of 'samadhi' (non-dualistic insight) that wetted my [dare I say it] desire for more. But when we arrived into the confusion and chaos of Miami and turned our attention to tackling the ever growing expedition debts the priorities had to change. It seemed OK at the time because we expected the entire expedition to take only 2-3 years more. Tibet could wait.

But somehow 11-years went by. The combination of accidents, disasters and the never ending grind of raising the estimated $500,000 that this thing has cost so far all added up into minutes, hours, days, week...years...(a lifetime?). So when I finally found myself sitting beside the abbot there in Shegar Monastery I realized that if this had been 8 years ago it might well have been the end of my trip, as Steve's was back in Hawaii in 1999. But with so much time passing I'm a different person now. And although I still recognize the goal of seeking and achieving Moksha as being of infinite more use and value than a human powered circumnavigation, I also recognize that the method by which I would pursue it now would be different. Freezing my arse off in a monastery on the roof of the world might have worked back then, but that 'ship has sailed' as the saying goes. I'd do it differently now. I like to be around people (other than Tibetan children of course) and being locked away from the world is too insular and frankly self-serving.

I'm sharing this rather long-winded tale with you because many people have asked me over the years the WHY question followed immediately afterwards with "Have you ever felt like giving up?". Well now I can honestly say that sitting on that wooden bench beside the fat abbot digging around a bowl of potato soup with a sheep's rib is about as close as I've gotten to throwing in the towel. But Greenwich beckons...


Posted on October 18, 2006 1:42 PM