Sunday, October 7, 2007

Me and the Monk.

Chanting monks, Ganden Monastery.

Okay, I admit it. My image of what a Tibetan Buddhist monk would be like was stamped into my brain courtesy of the Lonely Planet guidebook and the dozens of images that I had seen on the web. I imagined their dress to be extremely modest and behavior to be pious and contemplative -reflections of the self sacrifices they had willingly accepted in order to achieve their ultimate goal of enlightenment. So you can imagine how disappointed I was when I came across this pair, with backpack and sneakers, walking the kora in Barkhor Square.


To add insult to it all, at Gyantse Kumbum, we saw a monk in that classic 21st century stance - holding up his cellphone and walking in a circle to try and get a signal. Someone also told me that unscrupulous men would dress up as monks to try and "collect" money from tourists. Monks with modern conveniences and criminal wannabe monks. Another one of my romantic images about Tibet shattered. Sigh.

Then, by sheer chance, I met Gung Chu (phonetic spelling), a Tibetan monk studying at Drepung Monastery, one of the largest monastic universities in Tibet. Originally from the Amdo region in Tibet, Gung Chu had been in Drepung for just one year. There are four colleges in Drepung and monks are assigned based on their place of birth. We learned from Gung Chu that monks from Amdo are assigned to Gomang College.


Our chance encounter with Gung Chu started out when Barry and I were having lunch at a rooftop restaurant in Barkhor Square. We were chatting away when Gung Chu quietly sat down next to me. A real Tibetan monk! Modestly dressed in his crimson colored robe and carrying the humble yellow canvas bag that is characteristic of the Gelugpa monks - not a 21st century backpack!

Barry and I didn't want to waste the opportunity of spending time with a monk, so we decided to introduce ourselves.

We had a thousand and one questions for Gung Chu. When did you decide to become a monk? How does one become a monk?Why did you choose to study at Drepung and not Ganden or Sera? What's your course curriculum like? What's your daily schedule?......and on and on.


Two seconds into our first question and we realized that Gung Chu's command of English was as good as our command of Tibetan. Virtually nil. However, with the aid of the Lonely Planet guidebook (which has simple phrases written in English, Chinese and Tibetan), a Tibetan phrase sheet that Baikuntha had given to us, and lots of patience on Gung Chu's part, Barry and I managed to have a very basic conversation with the modest monk.

I must say though that it was pretty amusing to watch Gung Chu thumbing through the Lonely Planet guidebook!


I figured this must have been Gung Chu's day off from the monastery so I didn't want to take up too much of his free time which I imagined was a pretty precious commodity. I soon left Barry with Gung Chu and went on my way.

More often than not, travel is not about the places and things you see but the people you meet along the way. This brief, chance encounter with a very modest man was a truly memorable experience that I will never forget!