DSC09112.JPGThosamling—A NUNNERY LIKE NONE OTHER

                In the words of its founder, Ani Sangmo, a nun from the Netherlands, “Thosamling means a place to listen and contemplate. Thosamling provides a home for Buddhist women who want to contemplate, do retreats, or study under the guidance of a qualified Tibetan Teacher. It is the first nunnery for International nuns and Buddhist women in India.”

I was getting nowhere with the book. My mind, each time I sat down to write, became a thriving, bustling can of worms.  The worms assumed different names—fear, doubt, laziness, anxiety, self-derision—all species familiar to blocked writers. They ate away at precious, fast-dwindling reserves of self-confidence. I thought of calling the publisher and saying, sorry, could we forget about the book?

As the worms flourished, I languished. They thrived on my despair.  I was losing out to them. I was too distracted to write, trying to control my despair. For rescue, I went looking for books on Buddhism and meditation at Tibet House in Delhi. Their bookshop was closed but strangely I found myself asking about retreats for women: where could I get a room and meals and be left alone to write and meditate? Where could daydream away my days, without appearing to be productive?

‘Thosamling in Himachal Pradesh. Try it,’ the director of Tibet House suggested.

Thosamling? A nunnery?  I saved the website as a bookmark. The worms finally pushed me to do it. I bought a ticket to Pathankot. A group of forty sari traders were my travelling companions on the train. They were on a pilgrimage to Vaishnu Devi. They crunched peanuts, drank tea, chewed gutka, and deliberated on how to sell more saris, how to make more money, and how to spend more money. The trader across from me drooled, speculating August to be an exceptionally profitable month with, not one, but two shopping-packed festivals, Rakshabandhan and Eid. His eyes took on the glazed look of a mystic’s.

I plugged my ears with music to brave their garrulousness. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang:

Talaash usko na kar buton mein/

Woh hai badalti hui ruton mein/

Jo din ko raat aur raat ko din bana raha hai/

Wohi khuda hai

Do not search for the divine in worldly beloveds/

The one who lives in the changing rhythms of seasons/

Who transforms night into day and days into nights/

He alone is God

Watery fields of paddy flitted past during the day, and at night a lonesome silver moon hovered over the tops of dark, ghostly trees. Illusions? The trees were not ghosts. The moon was not silver. The sky was not black. And most startlingly—I was not a writer.

In Pathankot I bid a wordless farewell to the sari traders who still had a few hours before reaching Jammu. On the bus to Dharamshala I sat under a brutal Bollywood thriller. Men pounded and thrashed one another on the tiny screen above my head. They made me ache for the solitude of the nunnery.

It was raining when I arrived in the village of Sidhpur. The taxi dropped me off next to a footbridge over a rushing, noisy stream. No more trains, buses, taxis and traders! Two helpers came down to carry my bags. I followed them on a narrow, winding path through terraced fields. I was balancing my umbrella and backpack and picking my steps in the wetness. I paused but the men with my bags raced on. The mist-veiled hills stopped me. They were unreal. They were grand. I felt shy in their presence like a village bride stealing first glances at her groom.

I was shown my room and left to myself. This was the view from my room. DSC08654.JPG

As soon as I drew aside the curtain, it fell down. It was a sign. I had come to open the windows of my mind—best if nothing stood between me and what I had come seeking.  I looked out. Looking is what I did mostly. When it stopped raining, a broad, four-striped rainbow festooned itself between the hills. The drain pipe outside my window dripped onto the gravelly garden path. The only sound was that of water. The only sight was of the rainbow-draped hills. When the rainbow vanished, I found its evanescence disquieting—such unbearable loveliness, yet with no inherent, or lasting meaning?

Behind the hills rose the mountains of the craggy, brown, snow-tipped Dhaula Dhars. They remained distant and unperturbed. The madly falling rain fell over them for days at a time, and drowned every noise and form, submerging everything in a watery mirage.  Then the rain would end just as suddenly. And the sun would tinge the peaks golden. Day after day, the water rushing down terraced fields, the nightly cheep cheep of crickets, twinkling lights in solitary homes on the hills, the raucousness of birds at dawn—and in their midst, the utter aloneness of me.

`               Yet I carried the earnest certitude I wasn’t alone. I was being watched over tenderly in this journey of the soul. As I witnessed the mountains play their now I’m here, now I’m gone game, they transformed into mute gurus. They taught me the meaning of enlightenment: not losing  your mountain-ness whether sun, rain or mist comes. They taught me self-acceptance. The inability to write is also part of your path, they said. Thank your restlessness: it brought you here. When mist hid the mountains, they mirrored my clouded, doubt-filled mind. When mists lifted, they became my sparkling, tranquil, creative mind. The essential mind was pure and poised if I didn’t mistake the passing clouds or sunshine for the Mind.

For days, I couldn’t write at all. I awakened early and went down for morning meditation with the nuns though it wasn’t mandatory for laywomen. At breakfast I drank coffee and ate thick slices of warm brown bread, freshly baked, with home-ground peanut butter, jam and cheeses from Manali and chatted with residents. I met nuns and laywomen from Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Phillipines, Taiwan—fiercely independent and wise women. Between breakfast and lunch, I read books on Buddhism, copied meaningful passages, meditated, and gaped at the mountains. Lunch I ate alone, and dinner I renounced. This minor deprivation improved my meditation as well as my digestion!

I wasn’t far enough from civilization. There was enough to do for spiritual tourists in nearby Dharasmshala and Mceleodganj: Tibetan medicine, massage clinics, teachings by lamas and even the Dalai Lama, films on Buddhism, supermarkets and trendy cafes. But, compelled by some wordless weightiness, I stayed put at the nunnery, going out for occasional walks. I preferred movie nights at the nunnery to sightseeing. When I ventured into town I felt exhausted by people, cars and the busyness of commerce.  My cool, sparsely adorned room at Thosamling beckoned like a waiting mother.

Only silent recollection can encapsulate the unspeakable beauty of those inward-turning moments—I, puny, perishable me, in the vastness of a cold moonlit night in a nunnery in the foothills of the Himalayas, puzzling over the meaning of my existence, demanding from myself a definition of myself. It was impressive and pitiable. The mountains, their constant companionship, the solitude and the immeasurable peace they filled me with, finally thawed my thoughts. I began to unearth much-overlooked treasures of my own mind. I began to approach my writing with a sense of spacious emptiness, with expectations of neither failure nor grandeur. The worms—fear, doubt, anxiety, laziness, self-loathing—retreated. The writing became less laborious. Serenity became my only priority. I proposed a 500 words/day target for myself but decided not to chide myself if I didn’t attain it.

I completed the first draft of a chapter three days before my self-suggested deadline, probably because I managed to hold back all judgment. My month at Thosamling passed with slow dignity. I rarely felt bored or anxious. Like the book of life, my book is still not done, but at least one chapter was written. I left feeling clearer and calmer, knowing Thosamling would welcome me if the worms came out of hiding again.

this essay was originally published in The Daily Star, Dhaka.

A NUNNERY LIKE NONE OTHER

                In the words of its founder, Ani Sangmo a nun from the Netherlands, “Thosamling means a place to listen and contemplate. Thosamling provides a home for Buddhist women who want to contemplate, do retreats, or study under the guidance of a qualified Tibetan Teacher. It is the first nunnery for International nuns and Buddhist women in India.”

                Thosamling Nunnery is located in the picturesque village of Sidhpur, near Dharamshala, at the foot of the Dhauladhar mountain range, in Himachal Pradesh, India. It is possible to do short and long retreats at the nunnery. Boarding and lodging are provided at affordable rates. Nutritious vegetarian meals and delectable baked goodies are prepared on site.  A very friendly staff does everything to make your stay as rewarding as possible. More info at www.thosamling.com or email thosamling@gmail.com

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