Traveling becomes a quiet pilgrimage when you visit sacred places.
It is August, 1999 and I am in Mongolia attending an academic conference with a small group of my Korean university colleagues. From the overloaded droopy-winged Chinese plane, we could see the vast windswept plains that stretch in rolling hills often revealing distant settlements circular and dotted with yurts. I was on the other side of the world, in what has been known as Outer Mongolia, even behind the Inner Mongolia of China. I felt behind the beyond.
Even in mid-day, the streets of Ulaanbaatar, the capital, seems relatively deserted. Little circles of people in the distance are sitting and talking. A small group of people wait for a trolley, Russian soldiers, out of uniform but easily identifiable with their sullen looks and metal teeth, stand in boredom. The buildings are gray crumbling concrete, some with people lining up outside an open window to buy goods. Ruddy faced Mongolian men, in knee-length robes with orange cloth sashes tied around their waists, wear boots and felt hats with pointed tops. There are women in colorful dresses, some tough looking teens in western clothes and even a few kids on skateboards. As people walk from drab apartment buildings that look like Eastern European, the city seems to lack a soul.
But beneath the surface, there is a splendid and well-hidden warmth. There is a soul deep within – a remarkable sacred place only blocks away from the cinder-block buildings at the center of the city. A sudden turn of the corner brings me to a different world – a temple complex, A shabby exterior wall encloses gleaming golden spires and roofs. Inside this compound, ripples of excitement and religious fervor – people spin prayer wheels, prayer flags flutter in the breeze, local people prostrate themselves on tilted slabs as they pray toward the central temple.
A narrow passageway draped with blankets and drapes opens to a large circular temple, ringed with dozens of seated monks generating a deeply guttural sounding rumble of a chant. Cymbals clang in unison and delicate incense smokes and darkens the air. The chanting comes in waves, increasing and then calming down. Rows of monks, sitting in circular rows, sip bowls of fermented milk and eye this strange person who has entered their midst.
The religious artifacts of Mongolia are just coming out of hiding after the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and the dark decades of communist mandated atheism. They are polished and crammed them into every inch of this yurt-like cloth temple – priceless jeweled altars, richly embroidered rugs and ancient cloth wall-hangings. Gold and silver shrines with hundreds of golden Buddhas gleam in the candlelight. An extraordinary energy envelops all of us. The chanting fades out until the grizzled senior monk resumes the chant and the room fills again with deep sounds and rhythms that seem to pull at our hearts rather than sound in our ears. The assembled monks work their way, one by one, through worn parchment leaves containing the ancient scriptures of Tantra Buddhism.
Some of the monks, heads shaven and wearing the robes of Mongolian Buddhist monks, are young boys and teens as well as ancient men who have sung these chants for at least one life time, sustained by their power. This time a brightly clothed monk, who speaks some English, leads me to another small circular temple in the compound where I am served a bowl of the thin, fermented mare’s milk. An iron stove stands in the middle of the temple with the stove pipe ascending through the conical top. A monk brings us baskets of hard candies, each wrapped in cellophane.
It is a jeweled cavern, hidden to all but seekers, yet it is only seconds away if you know the entry point.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE:
- Write about a time when you have felt that you were on a pilgrimage or you were visiting a sacred place.
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD