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The Old Monk’s Hands

December 26, 2012

in Nepal

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Mu Gompa, at 3700 meters, is the final outpost of habitation in Tsum Valley. Set on a mountainside about two hours walk beyond the last village, the monastery is home to perhaps 10 monks. It is a spartan and windy place upon the earth. We stayed for a night in the monastery guest rooms. In the afternoon, we went to have our prayer flags blessed by the senior lama, a man 77 years old who has lived in these stone walls for 54 years.

As the eldest son in his family, Gelung Gyamtso was expected to take his father’s land and responsibilities. When his father and mother arranged his marriage at age 23 without his knowledge, he ran away to the monastery. Refusing to return to farm and field proved contentious. His family insisted he return as heir to the land — plus the marriage arrangements had already been accepted by the girl’s family — but he would not leave the monastery. The village elders gathered and discussed the situation. It was finally decided that he could remain at the monastery, the family lands would be given to the younger brother, and the family would have to take a large wooden jug of Nepali sake tied with a prayer scarf and apologize to the girl’s family for the incomplete marriage.

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At 35, Gelung Gyamtso became the chantmaster at Mu Gompa monastery, a respected position. He led all the prayers, daily and on special occasions, and he has remained in that role for over 40 years because none of the young monks are qualified to take over (which is to say they do not have all the prayers memorized). Gelung Gyamtso has trouble with his knees and can hardly walk now. When we visited, he was sitting in the sun just outside his room, and he was ready to offer a blessing. He practices a ritual using hundreds of small balls of barley and butter called torma, and this practice can only be done by someone who has completed great purification (i.e., hundreds of thousands of prostrations and mantra recitations and years of meditation retreat).

Now he chants over our flags, squinting at his prayer book, and tossing rice into the air, followed by sacred water. When he finishes, he protests the money I offer, pushing it back at me, then at Choedar (one of the monks traveling with our group). We of course insist that he accept it, and we talk some more. He keeps rubbing his eyes with gnarled, blackened hands. When I ask about his eyes, he tells us they’ve been swollen shut and itching for 10 days. A client brings some polysporin drops, and we teach a young monk how to put them in his eyes. We explain to him not to rub his eyes, but even in the few minutes we’re there, he rubs them again and again with fingers coated in a thick layer of dirt. I suggest that he wash his hands, and Choedar likes that idea.

Gelung Gyamtso can barely walk or see his hands, so as everyone returns to their day, I fetch some soap and a nail brush. Choedar begins to wash the old man’s hands. One round with antibacterial soap and brush takes of an initial layer of grime, so I start on the other hand. Choedar has one hand, and I have the other. We wash them until you can see pink skin, as the old monk chatters in Tibetan. I’m sitting in the warm sun on a cold and windy day, with soapy hands, holding hands with an old monk, an aluminum wash bowl between us, aware of the beauty of the moment.

It’s these minutes of perfect, unexpected simplicity that fill me up. As we leave and walk down the stone stairs, I joke to Choedar that this is the cleanest those hands have been in 77 years. He laughs and replies, “Someday when we’re old, maybe someone will wash our hands.” Maybe so. We should be so lucky.

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