The sun hung low in the sky. Silence reigned in this mountain range. Not even leaves rustled, there being no leaves to speak of here, well above the tree line. Choden sat in a desolate little cave, just as devout men before him had done each year for centuries. He sat fingering his 108 prayer beads as he chanted. Lonely, hungry, tired … it had been a tough month, but this was the last day.
They needed this discipline. Every year he and his fellow monks would ascend to the holy lake then scatter and go yet higher. For a month, his activities had been limited to a quick scramble down to the water once a day to fill his pot. He avoided his fellow monks - they no more wanted to see him than he wanted to see them. After boiling up some black tea, he would add a lump of rancid butter and some salt. Once a day, he’d allow himself the luxury of adding some pre-cooked ground barley. This was adequate to sustain life … just. His month was almost over. One more sleep.
Choden rose early. With a spring in his step, the yellow and mauve robed man hastened down to the lake, washed in the holy water, then followed the well worn path to the road. If he hurried, he could be back in town by late morning. His stomach grumbled in anticipation.
It was his sister he saw first. Blessed girl, dressed brightly in her long skirt and colourful apron, with a sparkling headdress and her neck draped with beads, she ran to him holding a jar of yoghurt.
Choden greeted her formally as befitted a monk greeting a woman. She bowed her head and handed him her gift. He sipped the rich dense liquid. Sustenance. Refreshment. Bless the animal that provided this wonderful source of health and strength.
Together with his sister, Choden walked the last few kilometres to town. The noise is what he noticed first, the view of the town blocked by the hill they had yet to skirt. Chatter – activity – the piercing sounds from the opera. People. How he had missed people.
The path wound its way around the hill. The huge thangka, usually stored in the monastery where he served and which was only ever brought out at the Shoton Festival, was now spread out on the steep incline, its blues, golds, greens, reds and oranges glittering in the sun. The meaning behind the designs would have made a good object for meditation … but that could wait for another time. He was done with meditation for now. It was a day of celebration.
Colour. Life. Vibrancy. There were his parents, standing at the edge of this valley of humanity. Choden’s heart warmed. He was glad to have brought them honour and earned them merit. Spotting him, they lowered their eyes and hurried to him, draping a white good luck scarf around his neck.
The smells wafted through the air. Choden’s stomach growled yet louder. His mother immediately led him through the chattering, laughing, feasting crowd to where his family had pitched their own colourful tent here in the town square. Handing him a soft furry peach and a glass of home-made barley wine, she beckoned him to sit, then began to cook up a storm.
Even a monk … perhaps especially a monk … appreciates his mother’s cooking. Let the banquet begin!
‘Choden’ is a Tibetan name, meaning ‘one who is devout or religious’ – see http://monksponsorship.org/the-scheme/tibetan-names/
The Shoton festival (literally meaning ‘Yoghurt Banquet’) is celebrated during the summer each year. In 2012, it falls between August 17th and 23rd.
Traditionally, it was held by the lay people to welcome back the monks after their month-long meditation sessions in their monasteries or as hermits in caves up in the high mountains. They would meet the monks on the road with gifts of yoghurt. Today it is one of two major Tibetan festivals, when families gather in the towns and ‘camp out’ together, enjoying local opera and other performances.
A note to the Christian reader:
Ask that devout people like Choden who endure such deprivations and work so hard to ‘earn merit’ will come to hear of and accept the grace that is offered without cost. May people just like Choden and his family be able to one day participate in the Greatest Banquet of all – the ‘Wedding Feast of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19:9).
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