The Abbott and the Skeptic

  • Manish Nandy | New Delhi

    March 20, 2017 | 01:41 AM

(PHOTO: SNS)

"A sucker is born every minute,” said Barnum, the 19th century showman. I saw enough of that when I lived in India and, on the recommendation of well-meaning friends, met revered gurus who quickly proved purveyors of snake oil. They would spout sacred verses in Sanskrit, which most Indians don’t know; but I had painstakingly learned the ancient language, in which most Hindu texts are written, and I frequently found these blatantly misquoted or misinterpreted.
When I came to the US, I found a parallel phenomenon with religious leaders. They would volubly cite Biblical verses, then interpret them to neatly fit their crass social or political views. A famous preacher in the south would massage them for a happy, upbeat creed, while a popular televangelist would use them for fiery anti-Arab diatribes. They cared little for the historical meaning of canonical texts.
So you will understand my hesitation when a friend in Kathmandu suggested that I join him and visit a reputed Buddhist lama. The latter, I was told in a hushed tone, was both a Rimpoche (the word means jewel), a scholarly abbot, and a Tulku, a child prodigy who is the custodian of a Tibetan Buddhist lineage.
I had barely sipped my first cup of coffee that Saturday morning when my resolute friend came to collect me. Seto Gumpa, the white chapel, was a charming midtown monastery, neither small or cramped nor huge or overwhelming, and, with colorful little flags and bright curtains, almost unmonastic.
We sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of a sun-drenched hall with sixty other visitors, and presently the Rimpoche arrived.
A middle aged man, with a young and sturdy look, he wore a loose brown-and-saffron garb and walked briskly across the hall to take his seat on a slightly elevated platform. The broad eyebrows and firm lips were a contrast to his sparkling eyes. When he spoke, his tone was of genial conversation, not weighty discourse. He gave pauses, seeming to invite questions, and when some came, he explained himself mildly, almost deferentially.
His was the shortest spiritual talk I have ever heard. When he stopped, some of the foreigners present asked him about Buddhist practices and he responded readily, sometimes drolly, to everyone.
Then suddenly the Rimpoche pointed at the last row, and I thought he wanted to talk to my friend. My friend whispered, “He wants to talk to you,” and quickly wrapped a silken scarf around my neck. I walked up to the Rimpoche, and following the Tibetan custom unwrapped the scarf, bowed and placed it around his neck. He acknowledged the gift with a bow and then placed his own scarf – gently but more deftly – round my neck.
As I sat awkwardly on the floor in front of him, he smiled and asked who I was. I gave the conventional reply that I was the American consul in Nepal. He said that I looked a little different from the other Americans in the room. I explained that I was born in India of Indian parents and had spent a large part of my life there.
Why did I then move to the US? I had met and loved somebody in India, who was an American. When she returned to her country, she wanted me to join her, and I did. He smiled broadly and said I was right to do so.
Then he asked me a question that stumped me. Was I happy? Did I like doing what I was doing in my life? I thought a little and said that there were parts of my work – parts where I felt I was helping other people – that I liked. There were also, I added, other parts that I did not like so much. In my private life too, I liked the affection of friends and family, but weren’t comfortable with some other elements.
I paused and then hesitantly said that I was often troubled by the feeling that my life was far too focused on small things and on myself; I would have preferred “a larger role for larger things.”
He looked at me for a long time in silence. His face was as placid as it was earlier, but now it had a tinge of concern and sadness.
He asked me to tell him my full name. When I did so, he repeated it and asked me to help him pronounce it properly. I said it twice more and he repeated it. When I nodded to approve, he asked me, so softly that I had to bend to hear him, to take care of myself. “Good care,” he emphasized.
He was again quiet for a while. Then he said: “Do the small things well. As well as you can. And wait for the larger things to appear.”
More than a decade has passed since that strange encounter. I cannot forget the astonishing tranquility the Rimpoche somehow conferred on me in those few minutes. Never have I talked with a total stranger and felt every syllable heard with supreme attention and, yes, acceptance.
I had heard a rumour that he was clairvoyant. He didn’t need to be, for he saw, I felt, right inside me. He didn’t just hear my words; he absorbed my thoughts, my feelings, all my fears, hopes and concerns. Ludicrous as it sounds, I said to my friend, I felt like a little boy sitting in front of my mother, loved, cared for, fully understood.
When I came out, the colourful little flags of Seto Gumpa, fluttering in the midday breeze, seemed to be singing a silent anthem.

(The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at mnandy@gmail.com)

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