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The Old Monk

I went on a soul searching trip when I was 21. Well, it was more of a letting-out-steam trip than an actual soul search. The usual - fight with parents over career, fight with girlfriend over everything else. I ended up in Sikkim, the beautiful little Buddhist state nestled in the wake of the majestic Himalayas. With the most extraordinary view of the unmistakable Kanchendzonga, towering at an impressive 8586 m (making it the third highest mountain in the world).

I was so angry those days. In fact I can’t remember ever being so angry like I was during those years. Much has changed. I checked into a small hotel in Gangktok and didn’t speak to anyone for days, barely mumbling food orders at the local momo shops. Then one day I decided to walk up to Enchey Monastery. Interestingly, Enchey Monastery translates to The Solitary Monastery.

There I met an elderly monk who was doing the rounds of the temple with his prayer beads while whispering prayers under his breath. I felt a strange attraction to him and I don’t know what came over me as I brashly walked up to him and said, "I want to become a Buddhist". The monk did not even look up and continued with his rounds. I was stunned; almost furious for a moment. I tried to put it aside as an old man’s aloofness, swallowed hard and left.

Anyway, after talking to the monastery office, I managed to get permission to attend some of the classes that the young monks were attending as part of their formal spiritual studies. I did not qualify to participate, one because I was not a monk and also because the discourses were in Tibetan. But I loved the monotonous chanting that seemed to unlock childhood memories from Darjeeling, where there was a monastery a few notches up the hill from our house. So I made myself invisible by tucking into the rear corner of the classroom and surrendered to the powerful vibrations from the sacred texts. Deep vibrations when the teachers chanted followed by shrill overtones when the young monks repeated.

This became my daily ritual. Hotel. Momos. Monastery. Momos and wine. Hotel.

My mind started to calm down. I began engaging in small talk with the hotel staff and the bookshop owner round the corner. I was smiling again. I felt a new energy entering me and by now I was more than determined to become a Buddhist. I had ‘forgiven’ the old monk for his standoffishness. So I went up to him again and this time, after clearing my throat I very politely placed this question at his mercy. "Can I please become a Buddhist?". He paused for a second, looked me in the eye with absolutely no hint of emotion and slowly continued his walk around the temple.

This time, I felt really hurt. I had been courteous, polite and humble. And yet he treated me like I did not exist. I just wanted to pack my bags and leave for home. But by evening, my mind was calm again, and this time I did not pass off his behaviour as indifference. There was something about the way he looked at me. It was scary and liberating at the same time. That night I did not drink my customary Golconda Ruby Red, (a cheap potent wine that has inspired many a poet, long before ‘real’ wine entered the Indian market) and went to the bookstore instead. After browsing indefinitely for a while, I zeroed in on a bright pinkish cover titled Surfing the Himalayas by Rama Dr. Frederik Lenz. I paid for it and came back to the hotel.

It was a fascinating book. I will let Google Books describe it for you. “Charged with energy, humor, and insight, this is the engaging story of a young American snowboarder who travels to the Himalayas seeking the ultimate high - but surfs into an experience more transcendent than he could have ever imagined. In an accident of karmic destiny, the young man plows into a Buddhist monk named Master Fwap who takes him on as a spiritual apprentice. Using snowboarding as a path to enlightenment, the charming and learned Master Fwap shows how, by freeing the mind and challenging the soul, one can master any mountain - and master himself.”

I did not sleep that night. I finished the book little after sunrise and as I opened the window to let the sun in, I wasn’t the least bit tired. On the contrary, everything looked and felt brighter than usual and there was a lightness in my being that I had never experienced before.

I reached the monastery and went straight up to the monk. I waited patiently till he looked up at me and much to my amazement, he stopped, creating a little vacuum for me to fill with my question. "Should I become a Buddhist...?"

His voice was a whisper from disuse. I’m not sure, but I think he smiled when he said, "First find out who it is that wants to become a Buddhist".

I was ready to go home.