On The Zanskar River in Northern India
Photos by Jeff Belden
Months ago I received a message from friend and fellow Chico State alum Mark Reiner, who graduated with me in 1998 with a BA in geography. The message described a trip to India for a rafting expedition on the Zanskar River, near far northern India’s Ladakh region. Mark had been a trip leader for Adventure Outings while at Chico, and I had been commissioner of environmental affairs for A.S. Government. Our paths often crossed in extracurricular ways, and at some point I knew we would collaborate on an endeavor in the “real world,” tying his studies in with mine, which were focused on social ecology and personal ethics. This trip seemed to be a perfect opportunity. I signed up to go.
India, land of innumerable contrasts—and of required, moment-to-moment presence. Delhi—a city of somewhere between 9 and 13 million people. Ladakh is an hour-long flight north from Delhi into the Himalayas to Leh Airport, second highest airport in the world.
On August 6 our team of 13 Americans and our unfailingly enthusiastic local guide Siddarth visited the Tiktse Gompa or Monastery (spelled Thiksey for English readers, pronounced tik-say). Thiksey is perched atop a hill at the foot of the Himalayas above the Indus River outside Leh. Built in 1430, it is home to 120 monks and Thiksey Khenpo Rinpoche (head of the monastery) Nawang Chamba Stanzin.
Thiksey is one of the oldest monasteries in Ladakh. Painted a deep Indian red, it is easily visible from the road, yet as with all things in the Himalaya, it appears deceptively small against the backdrop of the enormous mountains.
Thiksey Monastery was built to bring the profound teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to remote provinces. It tries to provide adequate medical facilities and a variety of educational topics to its monks and manages some of this with minimal tourist donations.
As a surprise, Mark and Siddarth had rented traditional Ladakhi wedding attire for a couple from Oregon among us who’d been married at their vacation home in Roatan two weeks before flying to India. Wearing ornate shoes, fancy hats, and colorful wrap skirts, the couple sat across from the Rinpoche when we were invited to his small, private room to enjoy yak butter tea. He blessed the couple, saying that he was happy they had been married and advising, “Don’t be like the other Americans; stay together.” We laughed with him.
The Rinpoche asked if we had any questions for him. All I could say was that it was so peaceful in that moment that it was hard to come up with questions. Thiksey was cloaked in a feeling of serenity. It didn’t surprise me to hear the Rinpoche’s response to my question, “What do you want most in the world?”
“World peace.” And when I asked, “What can we do to help achieve world peace?” he responded with, “It’s easy. It starts with yourself.”
“But, of course,” I thought.
An hour later, we removed our shoes and made our way into the large prayer room to join two dozen monks for their morning chanting. Rose tea with milk was passed out, and 6-year-old monks walked around refilling our cups until Siddarth advised us to let them know we were finished or they would go on refilling our cups all day. Monks aged 60 to 97 reached into a bucket for a few handfuls of powdered barley, which they put into their bowls with hot water and kneaded, and then ate the warm cereal with their hands.
Then they began to chant. The deep throaty resonance of their voices struck a surprisingly emotional chord with me. All I could hear was devotion. All I kept feeling was gratitude for what they do, day in and day out, praying for peace—for all of us.
In our own unique ways, Mark and I both loved visiting Thiksey Monastery. And this was just one tiny slice of a full three-week adventure I’ll share more about in the spring issue of Chico Statements.
If you would like more information about the monastery’s work for world peace, contact Jessica Rios at firstname.lastname@example.org.