Monday, October 15, 2007

Meditation and Metaphor

On my last day in Ulaanbataar, suffering from a spectacular abscess on my back, I walked to the Gandan Monastery. Like many monasteries throughout Mongolia, it was partially destroyed during the Soviet era, while its monks were forced out of service, jailed, or killed. This standing image of the Bodhisattva of Compassion—almost 90-feet tall, cast in copper, and covered with gold—was completed in 1996, a half-dozen years after the Soviet departure.

As a personal metaphor, an abscess takes the cake: a festering from within, a little haven of infection that your body nurtures and grows.

Slightly delirious with pain, I entered the Dechengalpa Datsan, where the monks awaited their noon meal. They sat on raised platforms, with their shoes attending faithfully behind them, a sundry assortment of sandals, athletic shoes, and cavalry boots.

In their chants I could hear a blend of the mature and the childish; some of the robed figures looked as young as seven or eight. In the air I could scent the faint tang of sandalwood.

Each monk received a flat oblong of bread on which was piled a package of cookies, another of candy, and then a layered procession of other small snacks. I watched, straight-backed on a low bench, famished and grateful.

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