The path to the gompa was clear of any loose pebbles. The lama moved ahead of him slowly but steadily. He seemed to use no more effort than he did. In fact, on some steep portions, where the stairway had been carved into the solid rock boulders, he seemed to bounce and hop ahead of him easily. Dharma Dorje left him breathless behind, extremely aware of the heat. The monk paused ahead, above him, looking down smiling. "Am I too fast for you?"
"No," he lied, almost unable to spare the breath.
The lama moved ahead, without allowing him to catch up. He vanished amongst the bounders. In fact, the gompa had vanished as well. As they approached it, the thrusting rocks hid it from sight. He heard the soft steps of the monk above him somewhere.
"He's too fast for me," he exhaled and stopped to lean against a flat ten-foot rock. Its coolness refreshed him slightly, as his eyes studied its cracks. Mixed in them were colors, blue, orange, and white. He looked carefully and saw that they were not cracks at all, but sharply-chiseled carvings, tiny inscriptions over the entire face of the stone. He smiled.
"Well well, AUM MANI PADME HUM, again. Hello. How are you?" And in the act of speaking to the carved prayers, he pushed himself away and started up the path again, his heart quieter, but still beating strongly.
"Chamba!" called the lama from above somewhere. "Come along! We are almost there!"
And indeed they were. Dharma Dorje was waiting at a chorten, a large construction made of masonry and stone. It was squarebottomed, with a series of small steps girdling it above thatt continuing into a dome, topped by a sharp thrust of layered copper, reaching upwards. Balanced on the top amidst metallic stylized lotus was a glistening crescent holding a flat sun-disc. A designed upside-down question mark, or a flame, sat atop it all. He had seen many of them in his time in the mountains, but most of the others were falling apart or broken. This one looked new or well cared-for.
The lama was actually standing inside the chorten. it was acting as a gateway to the monastery grounds. Its shade protected him from the bright sun. He smiled as the other approached.
"I'm not as fast as you are..." he started, stepping within the chorten. The lama did not answer and turned to continue. Murals of Buddhas looked down from the ceiling close over their heads. These were freshly-painted, or well-preserved. There were no chips, no cracks in the circles full of Buddhas, blue, white, orange Buddhas.
The sun struck his head as soon as they left the shadow of the chorten. As they advanced upward over the well-laid stones as staircases, they passed the carefully-tended gardens, full of rich vegetables. He began to wonder how many other monks were in this gompa, to do all this work. He had to recalculate his number of them upwards when they passed a fringe of gardens all devoted to flowers, blazing in rich colors, full of luxurious leafage and large-sized flowers of every sort. He did not know what they were. But he knew the amount of water it would take to keep them alive. Even next to the Chu Po, right where the water was, nothing grew. Everything would have to be lovingly tended, with lots of water. A great deal of water! And all of that water would have to be carried up from the river.
He looked down the half-hidden path amongst the boulders, up which they had come. That would take a great deal of manpower! He began to anticipate the meeting with some of the congregation of monks. He did not question himself too closely. He did not ask, "Why haven't I seen them coming and going with the water?"
He did not ask. But then as they entered a small doorway, a side door, it seemed, he did ask, "How many monks are there here, Geshe-la?"
"Hmmm?" said the other, as they stepped into the ness of the entranceway. "I am the only one."
Their eyes adjusted to the darkness. Worms of purple rippled across. Checkerboards shifted in the air of the passageway, melting. The lama moved ahead of him slowly.
"How could you be the only one? All the flowers?"
"If you intend to leave, do not ask."
Do not ask. If he intended to leave, he should not
But he wanted to ask. He did not. He wanted to leave.
The chapel was extremely large. It was lit with daylight coming from a clearstory relative to a skylight in the squared center of the ceiling. That did not mean the room was bright, but the beams of light penetrated and cut the gloom. They revealed the dust that rose when they moved through the room toward the altar. Butter-lamps glowed before the giant Buddha who could only be seen partially through an open doorway. Geshe Dharma Dorje went first. Looking about nervously, he followed the monk.
He entered the altar room just in time to see the monk rising from a full-length prostration before the image. He was aware that th6 monk continued to bow and stretch himself on the floor, but his eyes were caught by the huge standing figure. It rose swiftly from him past the level of the ceiling of the other room. This inner room was twice as high to accommodate the image. The Buddha seemed to loom larger the farther it was away from him. The huge head almost leaned down, smiling. It gave him no comfort to see the defiance of gravity of these masses.
"It is Maitreya," said Dharma Dorje. He continued to stare, noting the chorten on the golden image's forehead, the strange teapot-looking vessel being held at his side.
The image shimmered in the light falling from its own window, high above. The face of the Buddha was level with it, looking out over the valley and mountains. Its light struck him brightly on the face, bouncing its light down to the two small men below. It crawled over the golden robe, revealing patterns and pictures, as if embroidered into the clothing of the image. There were horizontal bands, akin to a cartoon or a filmstrip, stretching across the huge figure.
Within these were countless images--people, animals, buildings and landscapes. He could only see some of these, gold on gold, for as they went up to the upper torso of Maitreya, they fused and blazed out of existence into a continuous shine of glistening gold.
Only the lower ones were clearer. But even these were on the edge of the robe, six feet above their eye-level, difficult to see. Difficult to see. The flickering butterlamps onthe altar at the feet sent counterripples of light against those coming from the window above, from the face of the Buddha, set in motion by the moving sun.
"Gigantic!" he said aloud.
The lama smiled, looking at him. "Maitreya. The Buddha yet to be..."
"Yet to be?" he echoed.
"Yes, at this moment... in time ... he is not ..." explained the lama, "not yet a Buddha... in the future..."
The column of shimmering gold and his uplifted eyes made him relax. He asked, "Is it all metal ... ? How could it be made .... ?"
"IT?" asked the monk in a surprised voice. "Ha ha hahahah. As usual, you do not see very well..."
"W-what?" he asked startled, turning to the monk, who seemed so tiny and old in this room, this empty room, containing only a Buddha and themselves.
"This is not metal ... this is not clay..." staring through him. "This is Maitreya Buddha!"
"But you said he wasn't a Buddha yet!"
"Yet!" said the lama. "What is yet?"
He didn't hear, studying the figure.
"I see, he said.
"Good," said the lama. "I wondered when..."
"I see," he continued, disappointing the lama. "it is made of clay with a thin layer of gold. All those figures are on that thin veneer...."
"Ah!" he heard the lama expel air forcefully. He turned to see what was the matter. The lama was lifting his joined palms over his head and was in the middle of a second prostration. When he finished the third, he turned and left the room.
He followed quickly.
As they moved through the larger room he heard Dharma Dorje say, "The Buddha is only made of clay? Only with a thin layer of gold... ! Let us go. Now! Before you waste your life in such statements..." The voice was not angry. It was sad.
He followed as fast as he could. The monk moved ahead of him in the darkening stale shadows of the deep passageways. The monk was sure of his steps, but he, in following, stumbled frequently, only prevented from falling by the nearness of the walls of the descending stairwell. They were blinded by the white-hot landscape as they stepped out of the cold passageway into what now seemed like the heat of a furnace. There were no flowers to be seen. And dust twisted on the stone stairs before them.
"Tomorrow," said the lama, "you will be on the trail away from here, alone. I wish you all the good fortune possible. You will need it."
Dharma Dorje touched his two palms together, bowing his hbad slightly. "This is now farewell. I will not see you off tomorrow, since you will leave while I am at my morning prayers."
"But..." he started, feeling that the conversation was very abrupt.
"Dorje Drelhu," the other said, turning and reentering the dark doorway, "will help you on your way." And he vanished. The words "your way" reverberated in another tone, echoing from the black passageway.
He hesitated. He wanted to step after him to say something. But what? And then it was too late. He was alone.
Drelhu was subdued, packing a small sack with straps attached to it. He explained without looking up.
"In here is some tsampa and cheese."
The other squinted at him and sniffed his nostrils into
lopsided sneer. "Yes, we can make cheese! There is also
heavy short robe, if it gets cold."
"Thank you, but I don't think I am very far from..."
The other continued with the sack. "You," he sneered, "do not know anything!"
"You," scowled Drelhu, glaring at him, "insult the lama, free the dust and act foolish in many ways. Now you're going....
"I have a right... I know what I am doing!"
"Death, again! You will die and waste the chance...'
Drelhu looked away and curled his upper lip. He looked at the monkey-man sympathetically and smiled. Perhaps this was his way of expressing that he would miss him.
"I am sorry, Drelhu," smiling, "but don't worry... It cannot be far and the weather is allright."
"Don't smile about it!" snapped the red eyes. III really am not a stupid monkey anymore! You should listen to my advice...."
He shrugged. "It cannot be helped.'
The other clenched and unclenched his jaws. He scratched his left ear, reached up for his right ear and never touched it.
"Anything can happen!" were his last words before he stormed out the door.
He wondered if he would be back the next morning to see him off. He smiled. He liked Drelhu, but the other was right. He did not think much of his advice. He felt he knew more than the simpleminded elder brother. ... who had once been a monkey," he smiled.
The sun set, bouncing light from rock to rock, to and fro across Cho Tabla. In the darkness, he did not sleep, waiting. Then the moon slowly rose. It filled high spots with light, moving wider and wider like an incoming tide over a flat basin. But there was no water, only light.
And he remembered. He remembered everything which was out there, beyond the forests, in the lower land.
He had met her in one of those adult night classes. You know, a university continuing education course for mature adults. It was held nearby, a street or two from his apartment, and he had gone to enlarge his horizons. He wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but he bought it. It was partly for his mind, to expose himself to culture, and partly for his body--he was lonesome. He couldn't really lose much. It wasn't very expensive, but expensive enough so he was sure, without thinking about it, that his classmates would be from his own level in society or better. He wasn't a snob, but he didn't want to be mugged by one of his own classmates on the way home.
His casual acquaintances at work approved of his decision. "You'll meet some nice chicks there!" Even though he protested, somewhere in the back of his mind he, too, thought that was possible. However, he was curious about the subject also, in some vague sort of way.
His friends thought less of that choice. "Buddhist Painting? What are you in for? Want to join a monastery? You're gonna be sorry!"
"What kinda weirdos will you have with you, taking that class?"
"Yeah. A buncha Hairy Krishnah people or something..."
He had laughed at them and shrugged them off. After the start of the course, they never asked if he were still continuing or whether he had "connected" with some kinky girl and left the classroom scene for substitute meetings at her place.
"...to delve the mysteries of Main-trahs? UHHmmmmmm."
He shrugged it off. For he was interested in art. He did not have much to do with it, after a few courses in college. And he certainly did not have much to do with it when he started to work with Collard and Ives, Inc. The "Inc." was important for them, but not for him. It should have been, since they found him to be one of their most important accountants. But he did not find it important, working for them or being an accountant. Somewhere deep inside, he felt he must have crossed his wires up.
He was successful, in a moderate way, but it meant nothing to him. Art museums helped, but he hardly ever went there. He did occasionally, when his mother or other relatives came to New York City for a few days' visit--he would show them the city, as if he went to all the sights all the time. He used them as an excuse to break his lethargy and go to an art museum.
"How wonderful!" his mother would always say. And he wasn't sure if it was the aesthetics of the Metropolitan Museum's art collections or the spectacle of the hoardes of people using up the air to which she referred.
"I'm glad you like it. "
But his mother had died, and museums reminded him of her for a long time thereafter. "Museums remind me of my mother," he would say on occasion. Luckily, he would only say this to his elderly Aunt Martha. She was the rich one, who was constantly visiting everyplace, everywhere in the world. She visited him in his city as well. He took her to see the dance and he took her to see the works of art, Japanese Prints, Indian Sculpture, and so forth, which he would not have gone to see without her.
The accountant mentality ran in his mind and interfered with his life away from the office. He would think, "Later," but later did not come. He would trick himself into doing what he really secretly wished to do all along.
He held no notions that Aunt Martha would leave him any money in her will. She was too shrewd for that. She played one escort against another, milking some for attention, others for more intimate services.
He did not play in that league, but smiled benevolently from the sidelines when he met any of these panicky men who thought that he, as her nephew, would outlast them, or reap the profits of their soothing ministrations upon the ego of the old woman. She had such an ego! She refused to ever pay for ... ah ... an escort. Or for a dinner. or an evening at the opera. She preferred to lead on virile entrepreneurs in the dance of youth and age.
As it turned out, she hardly left any money at all. And most of that went to a well-hidden sister married to a minister in Oklahoma. That sister knew exactly what to do with it. The minister helped the impoverished Indians on local reservations. His wife, Aunt Martha's almost secret sister, helped herself to one of the young Indian men and they ran off to parts unknown with the money.
Perhaps it should be made clear, for the record, that "Aunt" was one of those honorary titles given to Martha by his mother, and that she really was no blood relative at all. It would have been a strange story indeed if his mother had had this same "secret" sister, and he had never heard of it before. His mother could never keep a secret, if there was a good story to go with it. Oh, how he did love her! But now she was gone. And so were the objects of art, mundane and exotic.
That could not last. His interest was too strong. And if it had not been, the steady flow of oriental references that were appearing, one way or another, on radio, or television, or in the printed media, made him feel that, somehow, even as an accountant, he had to touch this new mainstream or sub-current in the minds of cosmopolitan Americans.
That's when he decided to continue his education.
"Buddhist Art would be a good choice," he thought. "Not too risky. Perhaps all the other students will know as little as I do about the subject. We can start together. If they did know more, why would they be taking the course? Yes, right!"
He preferred the ambiance, as well. A university would be a better place to seek such a veneer of knowledge than some loft or cellar with bald-headed, orange-robed tambourine janglers. He did not care for the tone that went with their mantra, either.
The opening evening of classes resembled the crush of elegant people at the opening of a Broadway musical, or maybe an evening a few weeks later when it has been declared a hit and everyone is after tickets. It might have been the same crowd, he thought. None of this displeased him, for the spectacle was colorful and exciting. Everyone in the elevator lobby was at his best, stunningly dressed and exceedingly handsome or beautiful. This did not mean that there was no-one without warts. Those who had them pointed them up, on nose or chin, to make a blessing of them.
The social plumage, whether pants suits, baggy tweed jackets, elegant vested suits, embroidered dungarees with carefully-frayed edges, and so forth, was all functioning well, sending signals to birds or predators who were prone to that particular set of feathers. Some looked more studious and sent other signals, to students, elevator operators, and professors alike.
He was not taken in by it, but he was pleased to see it. It was like a colorful intellectual picnic of strangers, but closer to a carnival - the flesh did carry about the mind.
The course was better than he had anticipated. The professor was Germanic in his manner at first, but this faded. His name was a Scandinavian one, and his English was one of those peculiar accents caused by living in too many Asian countries.
The lectures were one procrastination after another. Most of the carnival-seekers stopped coming, or at least changed their feath6rs for the realistic long concen trations he was presenting.
The professor was somewhere in his late fifties, yellowskinned and overweight. He was quite formal, addressing everyone, when at all, by their last name and with solemnity. After class he would only say "Goodnight," and vanish down a stairwell, not waiting for the elevator ever. One got the impression that he was the poorest person in the building, or that he cared nothing about his appearance, or both. Or neither.
There was no good grounds for speculation about him. His knowledge and wisdom seemed to pour from the tip of his tongue towards, if not to, the students. Those in attendance who insisted on understanding what he was saying left after a few lectures, possibly complaining to the school's administration. But nothing came of this. It was too late for them to get a refund. Or perhaps they had just found something else to do on those weekly evenings when they got out of the house, and never did alert anyone that they were no longer in attendance.
The remaining students were mesmerized by him. He held them in a trance. The slides, which were repetitious in theme and detail, could also do the same thing. Some students were refreshed by the class--they would fall asleep in the dark as the slides flashed and flashed before their eyes. Few would admit to having missed anything. In fact, few did miss anything. The slides would be shown again and again. Possibly the professor was renting them, and was milking them for every moment of class time that he could, getting his money's worth. Perhaps. But they appeared sooften and he used to linger over them so lovingly ....
"Ah ... Yes..." He put a finger to his lips, pausing. Then a finger went to touch his ear. "Yes. Here is ... another...' (and Another!) '!Japan ese Mandara Ah See ?" Andhe pointed out the concentric circles, displaying Golden Buddhas, Blue Buddhas ... Orange ... He scratched his ear.
It was in this class that he had met her. No, not immediately, for she had not been there at first. She had registered by mail, but had missed the first four classes. Most of the plumage of the others was already gone when she walked in. He noticed her because she was so dazzling compared to the grey people attending the fifth lecture. (By the fifth lecture, the whole school was moderately grey.) She seemed to have stepped from a Broadway stage, ready to act out the scene in the classroom.
The class had not yet started, or at least the slides had not begun, otherwise she may have easily entered later in the dark without his noticing her. But in the light of the room, he was completely aware of her. Was she in the wrong room? He stopped breathing for the longest time. She seemed detached and cool. Did she see him at all? It did not seem so. She sat a few seats away.
"Lights please," said the professor. He obliged, moving past her. First in the light, to the right. Second, in the dark? to the left. He was breathing her perfume as he sat down.
The lecture included many of the same slides. But he was not sure of that. There was a difference. For weeks, the images had claimed all of his attention. He had sunk into them. He had stared at Tibetan Buddhas. He had sunk into Nepalese Mandalas. He had swum in complex yantras. He had seen them. He had just seen them.
Now there was a difference. With her sitting in the dark, nearby, so nearby, he felt them. They hurt his eyes. They hurt his teeth. He swam into them and fell into them. But he did not do this alone. He was always aware of her presence. If he did not see her from the edge of his vision, he could taste her gentle perfume. He swam in the mandalas with her.
But she did not seem to notice him. She left the room before the lights came on. He did not know even if she had taken the elevator,or walked down the stairs. He could never catch her, even to discover this about her.
He began to be very miserable between classes. His acquaintances at work noticed his abstracted silences.
"Hey! You breaking up with one of those..."
"What?" he asked, not understanding.
"Your EXOT-Tick Night-school romance breaking up already?"
"You sure look lovelorn..."
He was surprised by their remarks. going on! I..."
"Too bad, you have our condolences ... tough luck." And they left him, but laughing.
He would not ponder it. Numbers claimed his attention.
"One, one, one. Two, two, two."
He thought about lights in the darkness, colors and circles, Buddhas in all the corners. He looked forward to sitting in the darkness, hot and cold, inhaling and exhaling.
"I could just speak to her," he thought. "After all, welre interested in the same thing.
"Art," he thought. "She likes art, too. But yet ...
He procrastinated more than the professor. She seemed unapproachagle, too elegant for someone like him, trapped in pages. Pages with wiggling lines and numbers. What would he say? He did not know. He felt foolish and exceedingly young and flustered.
"You fool," he thought. "You fool!"
One evening, wet and cold outside, she spoke in class. He was startled, for he was swimming within squares and circles, colors within colors on the screen. In the darkness she spoke up and he hadn't known whose voice it was. How could he? He had never heard it before.
When he did hear it, he felt a surge of courage. "It's not so special-sounding," he mused. "It doesn't sound trained.... Perhaps she's not an actress or a high-salaried professional who'd look down on me ... " She did not project her voice at all. The professor heard it in the darkness, because for a moment he forgot what he was saying.
"What Miss ... ah ... Miss ... ?" But he did not know her name.
1, Is this course going to continue next semester?" she had asked.
"I ... I..." he said, squinting red-eyed into the projector's light, unable to see her. "I suppose so. I ... I ... shall propose a continuation. Heh heh. It depends on students ... whether or not they enroll...depends..."
"A common voice," he thought, and that encouraged him more than he realized.