by Nils Visser
When I was eleven I sat at the feet of a Tibetan Lama, a teacher, in a Monastery high up in the Himalaya somewhere northwest of Darjeeling, a place where the clouds moved below your feet instead of over your head and where sunrise and sunset played hide and seek with shadow on nearby pebbles that rose thousands of meters upwards into the sky dwarfing everything else. Stairway to Heaven? I reckon that´ll be about the closest I´ll ever come, never have I felt so small and insignificant, none of the three Oceans I´ve seen have even come close to reducing me to such an infinitesimal level that I was finally able to understand the concept of an atom. Ok I overwrite. The Big Mountain made me Very Small. Happy now?
So strum the tune if you must, I´ve already stuck it in the CD player. Let´s Rock-n-Roll.
There's a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking
and it makes me wonder
really makes me wonder
We´d brought along gifts, as was the custom. White silk scarves, soft and smooth as my hairless chin, boxes of incense, orange boxes with red writing on them I recall, the incense coarse and not shy about spreading its scent. The Lama received the offerings with deference, speaking a blessing over some of the scarves which he hung about our necks. Then he gave a little talk.
Hindsight tries to impede with logic, and I must acknowledge it. It turned out it was the only English he knew, and he had learned it by rote, most likely specifically so for the young idealist wanderers, Hobbits from the Shire, who drifted by Lonely Mountain searching for exotic wisdom. Somewhere this was even a bit insulting, those were aimless hippy tourists, later to be replaced by baffled new age pilgrims and these days their footsteps are undoubtedly filled by off-the-beaten-track idolizers of Lonely Planet. We were expats, way better than any of those other creatures, and this man of wisdom didn´t perceive that? It makes me wonder, really makes me wonder. Except that would be to let the mandatory logic win out, which is nigh impossible.
You see, I have lived most of my life based on that little talk. Dammit, I was eleven years old. I was eleven, and I sat at the feet of a holy Lama in a gloomy temple where prayers were murmured incessantly, accompanied by the seemingly random tinkling of bells and rattle of prayer wheels. I was eleven and my eyes were stinging from the thick cloud of a thousand glowing incense sticks and smouldering wicks in yellowed butter candles. I was eleven and when I would step outside again the air would be crisp and cold, the tall snowy peaks where the Gods lived would look over my head impassively but spread at my feet, glowing richly green through the breaks in the cloud cover that lapped at the rocks hundreds of feet below our temporary eyrie, was the world, and it was mine for the taking. I was eleven, a magical age to be and this was a magical moment. I´ll be damned if I let hindsight and logic and reason and prudent rationale and the supposed wisdom that comes with bloody middle age take that away from me.
“You have come from far.” Thus spake the wise old man, “It is good to travel and learn to know the world.”
Spot on! Don´t tell me there was no magic. We came in, gave the man some gifts, were blessed by him and then he just ´happened´ to know all this? I was awestruck, head swimming, tears in my eyes, although that latter was actually related to the thick waxy smoke that pervaded the temple.
“It is good,” The Lama continued his instruction of us, his new disciples, “To learn that a prayer said here, or written on the flags that surround this temple, will fly across the face of the world and join other prayers spoken elsewhere.”
My inner eye recalled the joyous dance of the thousands of little prayer flags which accompanied the traveller up the paths leading to the temple. Red, white, blue, green and yellow in different sizes and stages of disintegration, each strand that worked itself loose a prayer being launched by the winds that buffeted the 4000 meter mark. To me it was indeed conceivable they might well blow to the faraway flat vistas of my mother country.
“They do join each other you must know.” The venerable old Jedi Master told us, his respectful Padawan, “For we all worship the same light, we call it different names but it is the same light, and we do so because the light side balances the dark side. It doesn´t matter if it´s here or there, it´s everywhere. Both the light and the dark. All things are connected.”
Adepts of the Force that we were (Empire Strikes Back had finally made it to Kathmandu about a year after it opened in the States) this made complete and utter sense to us, this man was speaking our language, here, on a hilltop far far away. A goose bump moment. We were fully connected. This was Yin and Yang perfected. It was like being struck with lightning and swallowed into a vortex of mental unity, dare I say: Cranial Nirvana. Yeah yeah: The Big Mountain made me Very Small. That feeling. Then he told us to go home.
“However,” Obi-Wan Kenobi looked at us, little Skywalkers that we -my friend Eric and I- indeed were at that time and location (I only realize this now, with a wistful salute to the Wyrd), “You need not travel thousands of miles to find wisdom. You will find wisdom at home, in the woods, in the fields at the end of your village. Go there, find your home wisdom.”
With that we were dismissed and ushered out by a younger monk who was grinning broadly at our puzzled faces. In our place came three gaunt bearded and long-haired creatures who stared at the lama with glazed stoned eyes.
“You´ve come from far.” I heard the Lama address the newcomers.
“Far Out Man!” One of them exclaimed. “This is like Alice in Wonderland.”
Silly hippies, silly silly hippies.
And it's whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
Yup, and that reason tries to pervade this all important memory. By dropping little reminders, for example, that I´ve mixed up various memories in order to connect my brief Jedi training with a more dramatic locale. Well if you must know, of course I did. The actual conversation took place in a monastery in a semi-industrial suburb of Pokhara town, cars hooting and honking outside, the incense barely overcoming the diesel fumes that wafted in through the open doors, adding considerably to my mental joie de vivre. However, I have been to the monastery that´s perched like an eagle´s eyrie at that 4,000 meter mark high up in the Himalaya. I just didn´t understand a word the lama there said as he spoke no English whatsoever. So combining the two pleasant aspects of both encounters, and banishing the non-communicative moment to the industrial shantytown really does make a great deal of sense. That is happens to make my encounter seem more noble in nature is really just a secondary side effect. Scout´s Honour.
Reason, we spoke of reason and its attempts to mess with my head. I won´t let it. When all is said and done, I happen to know that the top geezer of my Lama instructor, the Dalai Lama, would chuckle and remind me that the nearly automatized repetitiousness of the message only reinforces the truth of the content. Fools will attack the shape of the message if they cannot in all truth find fault with the content. How do I know this? Well, I know the man. You see I met him. So did 10,000 others in the Antwerp Sports Palace that night, but when he came in, a frail old man with a pendant for joyous and infectious chuckling, a tiny wisp of a figure on a main stage usually reserved for large rock bands, he hushed all 10,000 merely by his presence. Then he looked around and connected with each and every one of us individually. That´s what it felt like, to me and others I spoke to later. Heck, a friend of mine, from the far northern Dutch bastion of Groningen and about as sensible and no-nonsense as you can get, saw the man through the window of a hotel in California once and felt the same. The man simply has that hold and power, and makes no attempt to abuse it, which is far more mystifying for most modern people. No: SEND me Ten Dollars to CELEBRATE and HONOUR the LORD TODAY and it will pave your individual Stairway to Heaven. Instead:
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forest will echo with laughter.
Seven years on, you see, I was ready for that new day. Nineteen, fresh from two tropical years in Eastern Africa, and facing a difficult choice. Whilst in Africa my parents had come to the conclusion that a divorce was the best to be hoped for in a marriage that had broken down, heathens that they were. Upon return to the Netherlands I was given an option, move in with your dad, or move in with your mom. Make a choice between your parents for crying out loud. It´s a good thing I´m too inherently lazy to work at maintaining trauma, I tell you, this could have easily delighted the tax accountant of a therapist had things worked out differently. Being independently minded (ahem), I opted for neither and decided to move to England instead.
I´d been there once, when I was fifteen. A week of adolescent sulking in London, and a week of working the various game arcade appliances in Brixham, just to the south of Torquay. To which I must add, a river trip from Dartmouth to Totness which had instilled in me an absolute adoration of the whole country from Land´s End to John O´Groats. A subconscious addition to that river trip, come to think of it, was the desire to learn to know the country attached to the language which I had come to speak better than my native tongue. Plus the ingrained love of English literature, authors who had spoken to me by means of words which survived their mortality by centuries, who had given me characters I seriously deemed and deem still to be friends: Alice, Arthur, Puck, Will of the Old Ones, Ivanhoe and Robin Hood. As Baba Brinkman raps
I’m livin’ every day with the dead poets’ society
Rioting inside my head, so it requires me
To keep every word I’ve read close beside me
Inspiring me to never go quietly.
In short: I was going home. The Hobbit was going back to the Shire.
To demonstrate just how well I knew England my home, I stepped off the ferry at Sheerness (there was a Flushing-Sheerness crossing in those days) in 1989 with a couple of backpacks containing my worldly belongings and a green pushbike. After cycling around Sheerness twice looking for a road to Canterbury I realized it was an island, found a bridge and finally hit the A2 on which I headed east cursing the barbaric English with every lorry that rushed by 25 inches from my right elbow, tugging me every which way in its trail wind. Aye, I had to make a proper effort to get to Canterbury, I was a pilgrim proper by the time I made it.
Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know
The piper's calling you to join him….
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on
As the medieval city centre and surrounding woods and hills were due to become my spiritual home and I was entering a phase of my life where contemplation of the mystic and profound took on considerable importance, one might say that I was ready to pick up the challenge laid down by my venerable Lama: to find wisdom at home. This Padawan was ready to continue his Jedi training in his very own Canterbury Tale.