It may happen that a place you did not plan to go to will change your life forever. It has happened to me in Larung Gar. I did not plan to go there. I had only seen a couple of photos that I searched a few days before. Taking advantage of the Chinese New Year, which in turn coincided with the Tibetan New Year of Losar, we plan to take a short trip to the Tibetan area of Sichuan Province.
I thought it was great, just like every time I discover a place I have not heard of. This is something that happens to me a lot lately to see myself surrounded by people who know so much about so many things. I become aware of my great ignorance about almost everything. I only know that I do not know anything. And what little I know, I'm learning as I travel.
Anyway, I said that the idea made me very excited, although I did not know anything about the place where we were going. Only that it was in an autonomous prefecture of Tibetan culture, and who would not wish to visit Tibet? Larung Gar is in a valley at about 4000 meters. I enjoy the scenery, the peace of the temples and the smiles of the people, happy to have to stay there.
We got on the bus and about twelve hours later, at night, we arrived at a small village on a single street where we quickly searched for a place to sleep. Two children dressed in beautiful traditional Tibetan coats took us to their house, and with them scampering around we had a thukpa to warm up. At that time I was so tired that I did not have time to think too much. But when I look back now I am able to see that since that night that place was not for me one more.
In the morning when we left the house it was very cold, below 10 degrees, and with our backpacks on our backs we started walking. It was a short walk. We left behind a path surrounded by stupas, and some loose houses. Before we knew it the village of Larung Gar appeared before us as in the photographs I had seen a couple of days before.
The first image of all those small houses was shocking. It was not until I began to notice the details when I was invaded by a feeling of strange happiness that did not leave me (with ups and downs) until the day of departure.
It's hard to explain, so I'll just say that I felt good in a very deep way, something that had not happened to me in a long time, and never with such intensity. I do not know if traveling constantly influences the capacity for surprise or emotion. But in any case it was wonderful to see that the problem was not so much my own as it was not having found the right place. And that had just begun.
Larung Gar is a very special town. Starting with the most superficial, I will say that aesthetically it is beautiful, like a toy. There are the red houses finished with colorful details. The plastic flowers giving the illusion of a false spring. We see hundreds of monks and nuns dressed in robes and coats in garnet and brown tones.
They scamper like little ants in the squares in front of the temples, hills, and through all the streets. As a final touch, strategically camouflaged speakers emit chants that seem to come from the air, further accentuating the feeling of unreality. I remember thinking that if the Buddhists had a heaven to go to after they died, it should be something very similar to that place.
I have not said yet that Larung Gar is, or so they say, the largest Buddhist university in the world. I asked (and later I looked for it) how many monks live there without getting a unanimous answer. Doing an average we could place the figure over 17,000, with 40% of women. Many, in any case. It is not important either.
We walked through the town a little lost, not knowing very well what we wanted or expected, or how many days we would stay in it. At first, Larung Gar was one more stop among all the towns we planned to visit within the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. As our visit coincided with the Tibetan New Year I joined the monks in a special celebration that took place in one of the rooms they use for their classes.
I envy those who have a direct and natural approach to the celestial world. I have always thought that those things were beyond my reach. I have had my attempts. For example, a year ago in India, I made a Vipassana retreat. It was a great experience, although it did not change my life. I did not achieve what others did, but it did have certain positive consequences for me.
The days of silence and meditation drew from the bottom of my subconscious. It opened my eyes to a reality that I did not know, although leaving me in doubt as to whether it would be in my abilities to be able to explore it.
In the afternoon we spent three hours in that room, with the men on one side and the women on the other. I was alone, surrounded by nuns who recited sutras without rest. After a while I began to feel a pleasant sensation of fullness, of being where I needed to be.
Then my mind quickened and overflowed with questions about the people around me. I could not stop looking at those women, all the same in their clothes as a uniform and shaved heads, stripped of their individuality. I looked at them one by one and I wondered who they would have been before leaving everything to live there.
Why they held in their hands photographs of those who looked like their relatives? Why they spent every minute of their lives repeating sentences written on paper and what they expected to achieve with it? I have always been interested in the philosophy behind Buddhism, but I have never come to understand its ritual part.
Suddenly, observing all the occupants of the room sitting there, except (obviously) myself, I felt one more. I was aware that my clothes and features made me different and for that reason anyone would immediately notice my presence. But I felt invisible, united to them and to the world in a way that I had never experienced before (nor dreamed of experiencing).
This is a little embarrassing, but the flattest form I can think of to explain it is that I was certain that a mystery was beginning to unfold inside me. And I could not get rid of it anymore. From that moment, in my walks and daily conversations I saw the world with new eyes, through a translucent veil that separated me slightly from the reality in which I have always believed.
I could not put that aside no matter how hard I tried (thinking of another thing, looking for a way to distract me). Also at night there was celestial dreams full of symbolism. I was rushing to write in a notebook, because in each of them I saw revelations about my life and the sense of it in general.
I could establish a rough comparison with what I experienced in the Vipassana center a year ago. But this time without looking for it the images simply came to me.
In the morning we go out to see the famous sky burials. I say famous because now I know they are, or at least that many people know them, but then it was not my case. I had not read, nor seen any image, nor heard of them until they told me right there.
The minutes before, while we waited in the booth where the bodies were brought, I was so nervous that I could not stop shaking. It was liberating, because for a while I forgot my inner journey, and all the ghosts. I could enjoy the simple excitement of something that I knew would impress me. It's not something that happens to me much lately. Sometimes, I've already said, I think traveling so much can reduce your capacity for wonder.
I will not describe in detail the Tibetan funeral ritual. When we arrived at the mountain where the burial was going to take place, I felt a slight disappointment. The place looked like a theater, and to top it all there was a bus of Chinese tourists, more than fifty on vacation due to the New Year. They photographed everything and fought to get the best position, near where the corpses were going to be dismembered.
We place ourselves a little behind. I was not so impressed by the ritual itself (although it is certainly the most shocking I have ever seen), but everything that surrounded it. Before us, two monks, helped by the relatives, stripped the corpses and in a matter of minutes turned them into pieces without recognizable shape.
And meanwhile, the public approached more and more. They almost get on top to take pictures and comment on the play, making what should be a solemn act a show with all the negative connotations that word can imply. I cannot judge them because I was there too.
After the initial stupor I concentrated on the funeral. The vultures pounced on the flesh and that became a frantic dance of wings, feathers and viscera. Even from the distance we were, with all those people in front, it was impossible not to see the details.
It was the final blow to my mental state of those days. That afternoon my head took care of moving the images away from me, but they returned in the night. I thought about their souls, if there is indeed something of us that we can consider as such, and if in that case they would be far away, waiting to reincarnate before starting again.
I had more celestial dreams, and Larung Gar seemed to me an even more intense place so much that it began to make me unbearable.
Finally, we left. A part of me wanted to stay, but another pushed me to leave, out of pure survival instinct, or so I wanted to interpret it. Too many emotions in a few days. By then I knew that Larung Gar had been the trip of my life, not because of what I had seen, but because of what it made me feel.
I know I'll be back. Maybe when I'm ready for it, because I still have things to absorb. Although I am not able to understand what happened to me, the truth is that I felt it, and that alone made the trip to Larung Gar was worth it.