Only two spiritual practices were given in the monastery. They were walking and washing one’s clothes. In truth, although they were received he was not sure it was quite right to say they were given. Nothing had actually been given since the day he arrived. He had never seen another soul since the young boy showed him to his cell. It was more as if these practices were discerned from the ancient stone walls that contained him. He wasn’t sure how long it was since he had been sent to this place – he kept no record of time.
He had been living in a large canvas tent on the edge of the town. He lived with a Tibetan family who ran a restaurant selling momo – little steamed dumplings of either meat or mixed vegetable, and chang – an illegal rice beer which they brewed in large earthenware pots which were hidden under a table at the entrance to the tent. During the day he washed dishes and vegetables and helped the children carry provisions from the market. At night he was free to eat momo and drink chang. Sometimes he was joined by an old Lama who would sit beside him in silence. When the Lama came they were served a clear liquid which separated out on top of the milky chang. The drink had a potency similar to whiskey – chang was more like weak beer.
He used to love the silent drunkenness of the Lama – he was the best drinking partner – his drunkenness was not confused with words. One night the Lama turned to him and said, “Tomorrow you leave – go here.” The Lama handed him a scrap of paper with a tiny map drawn in pencil. He folded the scrap into his pocket and thanked him. That was all the Lama ever said to him. In the morning he packed his few possessions, thanked the family and left. He followed the dirt track into town and opened the map to find his bearings. The map led him past many temples built in the town by Buddhist nations of the world and into a part of the town he had never visited before.
He arrived at an old stone wall with a wooden door set into it. He was greeted by a boy and led through a passage that ran along the wall to his cell. His cell was a tiny stone room barely twice the size of the wooden bed it contained. On the bed was a thin rolled palliasse and two folded sheets. The room had a door and a small window which opened onto a courtyard garden. That was it. He made the bed and lay down. The stillness was dreadful after the vibrancy of life with the Tibetans. After a short while he got up and stuck his head outside the door. A jug of water and some fruit and bread had been left there. He had heard nothing. He took the supplies into his room and lay down again.
As he lay there he became acutely aware of the agitation of his body. He couldn’t find his comfort. He decided to move the bed. The grating of its wooden legs against the stone floor disturbed him intensely as it reverberated against the silence of the room. He abandoned the plan and with a final committed scrape he shoved it back to the place it belonged. He stood for a moment in the centre of his cell.
He noticed the shortness of his breath. He deepened his breathing, slowed it down. Now it was too slow, too laboured, he could hear the excess tension of the muscles of his chest. He soon discovered that as he breathed so his cell breathed with him. The discovery excited him and he started to play with it. He slowed his breathing down then speeded it up. He tried different patterns. He tried holding his breath for a second, for two seconds, then four then eight.
He tried exhaling fully and then holding his breath as before. Once, by chance, when he stopped trying and his breathing became natural he felt the entire atmosphere of his cell alter. It alarmed him until he realised the profound beauty of the change. In the moment of noticing he lost it. He could hear the agitation again. He was tired from his efforts and lay down again to rest. He fell asleep.
He was woken some time later by a single sound. He didn’t know if it came from a gong or a bell. In the quietness of just waking he listened to the sound. He could hear it expanding across the courtyard outside his window and contracting as it passed through into his cell. He heard harmonics as the sound touched surfaces of the room, fragmented and bounced momentarily back on itself until it reformed into a completeness that defined his room, his bed, and his body on the bed.
He noticed a response like a breath from everything touched by the sound. He noticed that everything was different for the sound, minutely altered but forever changed. As his surroundings settled into their new shape he remembered his breathing. As he lay there he discovered a rhythm that suited the room. It was a natural rhythm but it did not come naturally. It required that he try not too hard nor too little. To stay with that rhythm was like balancing on a wire. By lowering his centre of attention, from his head to his body the balancing became less wobbly, less of an effort. He soon found that lowering his centre of attention was also like balancing on a wire. It called for a new kind of awareness to avoid becoming too light or too heavy.
His efforts were lost in an urge to move, to leave his cell, to walk. He leapt out of bed and his clumsy movement resounded back on him from the walls of his cell. Now everything was different. Even his movements affected his surroundings and their tension and clumsiness were amplified back as a dissonant noise that disturbed him. He remembered the experiment with his breathing. He tried to lower his centre of attention as he stood in the room. As he lowered his centre he became aware of a pulse in the air of his cell.
He was not sure if he heard it or felt it. It came from somewhere between sense and sensation. He knew it was the pulse of the cell at rest. He found a place in his body that corresponded to the pulse. It was as if the cell were a metronome, a silent metronome. From somewhere within his body there was an answer to the rhythm it gave. He tried to move and keep a sense of the rhythm. It was difficult. Each movement affected the rhythm.
It was like dancing with a partner. He had to keep a sense of himself, of the movement of his body, of the pulse in his body and at the same time he had to keep a sense of the room, of the space around him, of the pulse in the air. Every moment was different to the last, every moment created afresh from the last. He felt very alive, searching for the movement called for.
Now he saw that his movements were not his own, that there was a call from the room that asked for a response from within him. There was a constant search for the balance between what was asked for and what he could give. He started to walk and found that every step was like a meditation. Every step called for a new balance, a search for the right moment when his foot could touch the ground and the ground reached up to receive his foot. He was reminded of pushing a swing door, of catching the door as it swung back, of finding the precise moment when he could connect with its motion, and send it back without force.
As he walked from his cell and back toward the door he found brief moments when something really connected – moments when, as with his breathing, he let go of the effort. They were moments when his sense of himself expanded, when he was no longer in control, no longer trying to do, when his body was walked and his body was breathed. In those moments there was peace, free from trying, free from effort, free from worry, and yet contained within that peace was his agitation, his grasping, his trying, waiting for the moment when he would forget and they could seize him back.
He turned past the door and reached the courtyard garden. It was a small space contained by two walls and two arcades. Two diagonal paths cut across it and the four triangles so formed were delineated by hedges of box. Within each triangle were bushes of fragrant and aromatic herbs that offered new smells with each step. The garden was open to the sky which was framed like a living picture. He stopped and rested at the edge of the path, listening to himself, to the shape of the courtyard, to the life of the plants. As he rested he felt the new pulse, the pulse of the garden and courtyard and sky. He felt his anxiety returning, his body tightening, his breathing shortening. He lost connection with the pulse and also with himself. He wanted to turn and leave, to abandon this life and return to the tent. He could no longer find what was needed. In the midst of his chaos, the tensions of his body and the tangle of his thoughts he felt a call.
A quietness called and supported him. He knew he had only to try, that he would be helped. He refound his centre, refound his own pulse and stepped forward. Each step called for the same, a moment to connect, to receive and to give. Slowly he travelled the path. At the end of the path he passed through a space in the walls to a small contained yard. There was a porcelain toilet tray set in the floor with a hole for the waste and two raised ellipses for feet. Opposite the toilet was a large bathing tub built out of stone. A constant flow of clear water poured from a brass spigot set in the wall. Everything was spotlessly clean.
The only sign that anyone else had been here was the slight wearing down of a block of soap that sat on the edge of the tub. He undressed to relieve himself and to bathe in the water. He knew he would not be disturbed, this time was his own, this place was his for now.
Back in his cell he lay on his bed, listening to the pulse, giving himself to it, allowing himself to be drawn to that place with no time, no expectation, just quiet potential. From across the courtyard garden, from the little bathing yard, he heard a sound, a new rhythm. This was not a rhythm of this place, of the walls nor the structure. This was a rhythm made from the sound of washing clothes. He could hear the sound of the fabric held beneath the spigot, absorbing its fill of water. He could hear the sound of the soap applied to the fabric. He could hear the sound of wet and soapy fabric pounded against the stone of the bath. The sound was not intrusive – it belonged, it harmonised with the bath and the soap and the stone and the building. It was an active improvisation, man and nature, doing and being done.
As he allowed the sound to mingle with him he could hear the subtle changes, when the fabric needed more water or more soap. He could hear the sound of the water as it carried away the grime. He could hear the moment of clean, when no more was required, when the washer stopped the rhythm, wound the fabric into a coil, squeezed out the water and shook the fabric in the breeze. Now he could only hear the sound of the monastery, that slow reference pulse and yet he now knew that hidden within that pulse, blending with it, was another person – cleaning the bathing area, gathering his things, walking across the diagonal that cut through the courtyard garden. Although he knew this was happening, there was no sound to betray the movements taking place except for one moment when the person lost the connection and appeared for a second, emerged from his secret place contained in the rhythm of the space – and then he was gone, invisible again.
He realised from this that there were others like him. They were like planets each set in their motion. Each had his own orbit, his own speed, his own time, his own atmosphere. Each had his time to wake up, to walk, to bathe and to wash clothes. Each maintained the overall rhythm and yet none were free from it. Each was invisible to the others and yet each carried the responsibility of maintaining the rhythm for the others. He deepened his listening becoming aware of the moment when one of his invisible colleagues would lose the connection and appear. He realised that the others were listening too, holding the connection with the pulse, supporting the person in movement. He realised too that whenever he set off on his journey – from his cell, down the corridor, across the diagonal path through the garden – the others were listening for him, holding the pulse so that when he forgot, when he suddenly appeared he could find his connection again.
One day as he sat in his cell he perceived a newcomer. He heard the agitation of thoughts, jarring with the quiet of the walls. He heard the stiffness and clumsiness of movement – he heard a bed scrape against stone and the discomfort of a body lying on the bed. He felt the unease enter his room and challenge his poise. He felt the offer of responsibility and accepted. He sat silently on his bed and allowed himself to be drawn back, to the quiet, to his place in this structure and he knew that throughout this place there were others like himself – invisible, unseen, receiving a pulse, transmitting a pulse, supporting another who like them had been sent to this monastery. He knew now that his life was no longer his own and yet was more his own than ever before. He knew that in giving himself he received himself afresh, dying and being reborn.
Now he would wake before the sound of the bell. Now he knew it was a bell. Now he could hear the moment before impact, the moment when a log suspended by four silk cords was drawn back. He could hear the moment of preparation. He could hear the moment of release. He could hear the journey of a log through air and he could hear the moment as wood met bronze. Now he could hear one side of the bell absorb the impact. He could hear the force distribute evenly throughout the form of the bell – for the bell was made by a master. He could hear the intake of air and the wave of expulsion followed by another and another as ripples of fluid bronze pushed air until it formed a sound.
Now he could walk and wash clothes. Now he could give without knowing to whom. Now he could receive without knowing from where. Now he knew his time to move and his time to be still. Now he knew his place.
He awoke. It was earlier than usual. He eased himself from his bed to the floor and slowly walked from his room measuring each step in turn according to the rhythm given. Instead of turning right as usual he turned left and walked along the corridor. He passed many open doors and knew it was not for him to look inside. At the end of the corridor he turned left and found himself in a long arcade which he had only before seen from the other side – from the garden.
His pace slowed, dictated by a deeper pulse than any he had encountered before in the monastery. In the slowness of his journey he could feel that each arch was very slightly wider than the previous one and the space contained within the structure slightly grander than the previous one. Arch by arch he was slowing down until, toward the end of the arcade, he no longer had any sense of moving at all. It was now as if he were being moved, as if he had given himself over to another. In this state of near total abandonment he found himself on a threshold notified by a thread of fine gold set into the stone pavement. A question formed itself in his mind: “Are you ready?” He allowed the question to enter him, to become silent, to became a state. His body silently answered by stepping across the line. In front of him he saw the bell and in line with his belly the log suspended from four silk cords. He received the log into his hands and drew it back. He prepared himself, waiting for the moment. The moment was given. He released the log.
He returned to his cell. There was no water jug, no bowl of fruit outside his door. He entered the cell. The palliasse was rolled up on the wooden bed. Two fresh sheets were folded on top. On the other end of the bed was some maroon fabric. He picked it up and it unfolded to reveal itself as a robe. Still lying on the bed was an undershirt of vibrant saffron. He put them on and left his cell. When he reached the door to the street he found it open – the Indian boy was waiting there.
As he stepped through, the young boy raised his hands prayer fashion to his brow and bowed down. He turned and walked down the lane from the monastery until he reached the main street with its temples and its hordes of milling tourists. As he passed by they were touched momentarily by the slight hush that remained in his wake. He reached the dirt track that led out of the town to the refugee tents. He entered the tent that he knew and in one corner saw a young tourist lost in his thoughts. He sat down beside him. Two glasses were brought of clear liquid from the top of the chang. They drank in silence together.
© Howard Evans