Monday 19 December 2016

When the Lone Owl Calls...

The Un-blinking Gaze of Awareness
 In the year 2011 when I was living in a tiny hut in forests of Lopchu, a wooded area straddling a ridge between Darjeeling and Kalimpong, I had a good deal of time to ponder the realities of life.

I lived less than a hundred meters away from an old village cremation ground and witnessed the unceasing flow of processions, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly. The solemn groups of family, friends and community members who carried the deceased on their final journey to fires of dissolution. All passed by my small abode. 

The cremation ground was an unpretentious open space with a simple platform where a pyre could be built and after all due ceremony, once the final rites had been given, the corpse laid to rest before being consumed by the flames.

Living in such close proximity to the spot where all of this was taking place, it was impossible to ignore or in any way forget the truth of the uncertainty within which we act out our short, distracted lives.

One evening in the stillness and cold, as I sat in my upstairs loft, the power suddenly went out. Being far from a city or even the village lights, everything was plunged into the inky darkness. I was well prepared for these occurrences.

I opened the large windows just in front of me and breathed deeply. I loved those times when the world was bathed in darkness. In the safety and comfort of my loft I could gaze out of the window and see the stars above in their glorious Himalayan splendour while below spread the valleys far far away; mere tiny speckles of light glimmering in the distance like forgotten promises.

Often clouds swirled around in these valleys and one almost felt that one was gazing from the window of a soundless aeroplane.

Such nights were not rare in this part of the world and if a moon had risen one could also clearly see the glittering white flanks of the Kanchenjunga massif, the world's third highest mountain. It seemed to hover like a surreal, yet stationary cloud in the northern sky.

This fantastic location readily gave rise to thoughts beyond the petty trappings of day to day living.

A lone owl called out from its perch in the nearby forest. Mournful, solitary and echoing throughout the hills. That call was so poignant, so haunting in the darkness of those long winter nights.

It was as though the owl's call was inside me echoing the call of my own awareness; persistent, near and unspeakably mysterious.

The following morning I woke to discover that the electricity supply had still not returned. The generator for the mobile tower over in the village was humming away, barely audible, amid the wailing calls of the birds that visited this location every year from Bhutan.

The mournful sound of their cry had an oddly poignant edge on those bright and sunny mornings and drowned out the chirps and cheerful melodies of the local bird life.
It intrigued me that they turned up in this little patch of
forest near Darjeeling, year after year. 

Many families from Bhutan were established along this ridge and within this patch of forest with its few remaining giant Utish trees, dripping with orchids and ferns. 

A little further up the road, the forest changed markedly as huge, Norfolk pines rose up in long, straight lines. Nothing could contrast more with the semi-tropical forests that surrounded the old temple than those towering, pine giants.  

The Norfolks were remnants of British rule and had been planted during the days when they came to these hills to enjoy the views and the cool temperatures during hot summer months. They had never been touched and had grown tall and thick. They were jealously guarded by the forestry officials. Rising up like a line of silent sentinels they marched up the mountainside appearing to gather all the light of the day to themselves.

When I first moved to the small Gompa, which had been offered to my teacher  (Chadral Rinpoche) some decades before, the caretaker was one of Rinpoche's elder Bhutanese students.  He had left Bhutan some years before to settle in these forested hills, bringing with him his two young sons, both of whom were ordained as Buddhist monks.

Pala, we called him. He was a wonderful caretaker. He had a green thumb and the gardens around the compound were always a mass of blooms. He was never idle and seemed always to be busy fixing or making something. He endlessly tinkered and planted and created and during his 'reign' the Gompa precincts were a bright mass of marigolds and everything looked fresh and well attended.

The two sons returned regularly but were often away and busy visiting local villages where they performed rituals and pujas for families who were celebrating births, deaths and marriages.

 However, some years after I moved to Lopchu Gompa, they decided to build a small temple of their own just up the road in a place called Ninth Mile.  This village was little more than a tiny cluster of dwellings and was situated right in the midst of those towering Norfolk Pines. 

Eventually, when the living quarters were completed, the sons moved up there taking Pala with them. He was sorely missed.

 A few months later, after they had settled in, the eldest son, Gomchen, decided to construct a small Mani Lhakang on the road. This would consist of a number of prayer wheels and it was intended that the locals and those passing by could spin the wheels rending the silence and casting the merit of thousands of mantras into the mountain air.

They were large barrel-like objects that spun on a central spire. Each wheel was painted with the syllables of a mantra and contained many thousands of tiny rolls of prayers written out painstakingly on thin sheets of rice paper. They were carefully prepared before being blessed by a Lama and then packed inside the wheels. Each wheel turned in a clockwise direction and the faithful were said to generate a great wealth of blessings and merit thereby extending their lives.

Actually, the idea, to build these prayer wheels had been on Gomchen's mind for quite some time and he had been saving long and hard so that he could begin this small construction.

One morning while he was up on the road, preparing the iron rods for the workers to begin setting that day in concrete, he lifted one into an upright position in order to make a measurement. Unmindful of the wires nearby, it suddenly connected with the main overhead power line. Unfortunately, that day, there was no power cut.

The result was instantaneous. Many thousands of volts of
electricity poured through his body and out of his feet. In fact, the surge was so powerful that it blew holes right through the soles of his shoes.

His heart could not sustain itself under such a sudden and tremendous assault and within moments he was dead.  He was 48 years at the time.

He had been a Buddhist monk since childhood and had completed a
number of long retreats, hence the name Gomchen, which means 'great meditator'.  He had practised and meditated and led a life which by all accounts was praiseworthy and yet he did not see what was coming. 

When he had lifted the rod that morning, his mind was distracted by many competing thoughts, the very least of which was the thought of impermanence. That thought had slipped away into the hazy recesses of long years of repetition and habit.

He had pondered much on death and the impermanence of life, it was true, and yet when death came it was totally unexpected and he was not prepared.

Palla was inconsolable with grief. He too had pondered long and hard on the Buddha's primary teachings. In his eighty years, he had seen a good deal of joy and sorrow but none of it had prepared him for this. 

This was an irony beyond understanding.

Even in the midst of a 'holy life' one may constantly forget one's true nature. If we are endlessly distracted we cannot be prepared for the inevitable, which may tap us on the shoulder at any moment. 

We live our lives as though they will never end.  As though there will always be tomorrow and yet our death is the one and certain thing in this world, the thing none of us can avoid.  

We all know that death can visit us at any moment. We all understand this, we are all aware that this is what awaits us in some form or other and yet we get caught up in the dream of the unfolding cycle of day to day events.

And this is as natural to us as breathing. We have forgotten our true origin. We have forgotten who and what we really are.

Many would say that to remember death as our nearest companion is morbid and depressing.  But there is another side. It can help to wake us from the reverie that enslaves us in our day to day routines. 

Life and death are only two sides of one coin. The awareness from which they are inseparable remains unnoticed.

By carrying this awareness with us where ever we go, each moment and each day becomes a gift and an opportunity.

The thought of death reminds us to open our minds and hearts here and now, not tomorrow, not next year. It prompts us to look further than the tiny circle of our thoughts and our ordinary preoccupations.

May we all remember the inexhaustible spring of our awareness which is our true nature and which is, at every moment, awaiting our recognition. 

When the lone owl calls it is the distant echo of our own awareness.

This very moment, which is our constant yet unheeded companion is our golden key to unlocking the mystery of the eternal present which is ever beyond the vagaries of transient life and death...

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