A friend of ours who has just about completed a house she’s building invited my little family over to be part of the blessing ceremony she had arranged. She’s a Buddhist, I can’t remember if she started with the Zen tradition and moved toward Tibetan or the other way around. Anyway, there are some visiting Tibetan monks in town, and it can be arranged that they come to your home to bless and purify it as well as anyone within it.
I didn’t know what to expect.
She’s just up the block, and my wife Anette went early to help with some of the setup. I took my daughter up, I just pushed her up the street about a mile on her little trike – it’s got a handle to prevent her from swerving into traffic, so it’s no big chore.
When we got there, our friend’s house had a subtle incense and had been really worked out since I’d seen it last. She was finally starting to look like she’d moved back in, tasteful artwork and little Buddhist trappings. One large corner was set up with a carpet and some cushions and facing a little shrine-like setup with a couple statues of various Buddhas. Maybe 12 other people came, mostly severe looking older people who turned out to be incredibly nice as we all met each other. People were milling about and talking to one another for maybe 15 minutes until the monks arrived in a big van.
After some brief setup and logistics with the host, the monks set up; they arranged themselves in 2 rows and sat cross-legged facing the shrine. They had red robes, not saffron, and short-cropped hair. Most of them had wooden prayer beads wrapped around one arm. They distributed bowls of flower petals and rice and settled in.
Their leader asked if it was OK to begin after they’d sat for a few moments and grounded. He started with some throat-singing, the rest of the group followed closely after, and a chill went down my spine. I hadn’t expected it, and I’d never seen it live. I could see the people immediately around me and their eyes all widened for a moment. My daughter looked up at me and smiled. I have recordings of Tuva singers and similar music, and by dumb coincidence I’d been playing some the day before and she wasn’t shocked or surprised.
The ritual took maybe 30 minutes. It’s a little hard to judge because time suspends when you witness something amazing, and I didn’t do any kind of before/after checking. They went through several styles of singing covering different prayers with different functions, threw some flower petals in the air, some rice, etc. I couldn’t describe it, but it’s one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in recent memory. In the jaded West, we’ve largely lost sight of the idea that words can have power and sounds can have power. It would appear that they still can. The singing filled the room in a strange, otherworldly kind of way. If I spoke to someone in that same room in a normal speaking voice and volume, the sound would clearly have come from me and toward that person; a little room ambience from the concrete floor, etc., but no confusion as to where the sound came from and was going. But with the singing, it surrounded us and came from everywhere. It was amazing. During the moments where I could shut out worrying about my daughter fidgeting and noticing the dog digging outside and the cool horse photos behind the monks, there was something electric in the room. Subtle. Tangible.
Afterwards, the lead monk explained what they’d just done. They had started with a ritual for invoking the powers of good; they had followed with mantras to channel positive energy and good fortune on the house and those within it. That sort of thing. As a Tibetan, he spends his days across the border in India and has evidently picked up some Indian accent. “Thee first prayer was meant to summon the forces of good and so on and so forth.” For someone dealing with lofty spiritual issues and coming from a presumably impressive level of spiritual development, he used a lot of “so and and so forth”s, which was charming. If he had been from the US, he would have added “and stuff.” “We were using our mantras to manifest the power of universal good for the protection and health of this dwelling and those who are present in it. And stuff.” A serious topic treated as though it was as natural as eating or breathing. Serious, but no big deal.
It was yet another of those experiences that was powerful, but I can’t say exactly how. My eyesight wasn’t healed, I didn’t leave with any problems magically solved, nobody and nothing levitated, I didn’t see colors or witness anything overtly miraculous. But it was powerful nonetheless. I keep having powerful experiences that are hard to describe and that have little-to-no commercial value; there’s a message or lesson in there for me, when you start to notice connections between things they’re no longer coincidental. Maybe the message is that I should experience life firsthand more and think about experience much less. I don’t know. I have a tendency to use my “thinking time” to multitask, and it doesn’t do me any favors. In this instance, I find myself pulled toward the odd an personal question, “This rare spiritual experience was fantastic, but how does it help me sort out my day job?” Aaron Copland once said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. An interesting notion, probably, but when you try to tie basically different experiences or ideas together, a little something gets lost. So I’ll take it for what it was, whatever that means. And I’ll work on my day job problem separately, maybe that’s a start.
On further reflection, that’s definitely part of the message. The fact that I can describe more of what I like about a sunset or musical performance doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered “saying what I think.” I can use all the dramatic adjectives and adverbs in my limited vocabulary to wax poetically about my monk experience, and at most I can convey my enthusiasm, or perhaps trigger someone else’s ostensibly similar feelings about an ostensibly similar experience. Even that’s shaky; if you describe the new Batman movie to someone who’s only seen Tim Burton’s version from back in the day, it’s hard to say that you shared a similar experience even though they share an awful lot of surface elements. Even trying to know if you shared an experience with someone on the same night at the same event is sketchy; you might have seen something life-changing, and I might have been distracted by work. So my frustration at not finding words to capture my Tibetan monk experience is misleading; I can’t describe a sunflower any better, but I’ve allowed myself to think I can. Madness. Ego. My real frustration is at having the limits of my ability to communicate brought into focus for a moment, monks or sunsets.
Do you see the same red that I see? We may never know. There are words and there are experiences, and maybe there’s not any way to ever cross between them without changing something in the process. Doesn’t mean that we can’t try to bridge the gap, even knowing that we can’t succeed, but maybe it’s important to understanding that there’s even a gap to begin.