As Ani-too (Ani Sonam) left the room she said, “puja at 4 and dinner at 7:30”. So, after getting settled into my little room, which included a bit of redecorating—my gay gene kicking in—I took a nap and then made my way down to the main hall for puja a few minutes before 4 pm. Some of the nuns seem to have specific roles. There’s one who does the beating of the big gong to let everyone know it’s time for puja. She starts about 15 minutes or so before the start time and as the clock ticks closer she increases the frequency of the gongs. It’s a deep resonant gong that carries throughout the grounds and permeates the air adding a layer of intensity. This same nun seems to be a bit of a worker bee. After she finishes the job of alerting everyone, she then retreats to a back room of the main hall where I think she takes care of lighting butter lamps and washing water bowls that are used for offerings. Then there’s a second nun that takes these and performs various rituals up near the front of the hall, under the watchful eye of the Buddha and his co-horts—Padmasambhava and Manjushri. This trio of revered teachers sit side by side gleaming in gold and beautiful bright primary colors and rising up 25 feet or so from the floor. Tibetan Buddhist puja halls are colorful, ornate and impressive!
I placed my shoes outside the entrance and made my way through the curtains and into the hall. It’s customary to bow to the Buddha 3 times. It’s not just any old bow though. It’s a full prostration. So, I brought my hands together in prayer touched my thumbs to my forehead, mouth and heart in succession and then bent down to the floor to touch my forehead to the earth and then back up to repeat twice more. Not every Westerner’s cup of tea, I’m sure, but I find tradition, ritual and gestures of respect to be quite comforting and uplifting. Whether Buddhist or not, there are many reasons to honor the Buddha and the teachings he offered to the world. Sometimes I stop and ponder how incredible it is that there are three beings—Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed—that offered teachings so powerful that billions of people around the world are at least aware of them, and many still practice, today–some 2000 plus years later.
Observers generally sit along the back and/or side walls of the hall, so I made my way in to have a seat. Moments later a young nun wearing bold framed glasses came over to offer me a cushion—a much welcome offering since the floor was quite cold! Nuns came ambling in, each doing their three prostrations before heading to their seats. The seating consists of long rows with flat boards, about as wide as a door, raised slightly off the floor with low cabinets in front of them. Each nun seems to have her spot, although I did notice some shifting throughout my time at the nunnery. The low cabinets are long and open in the back, so the nuns can store their things—bells, books, etc.—inside. Because it’s cold this time of year, at each seat, there’s a heavy maroon robe. At first glance the robes almost look like someone is sitting there. The nuns do this thing that has become second nature to them it seems. They pick up the robes with one hand and twirl it around to form a cone shape and then sit it on their seat when they get up to leave. So when they’re not seated and wearing the robe, they’re left as tidy, maroon, conical heaps throughout the room.
It’s hard to tell who starts the chanting or if it’s the same nun each time, but with some of the nuns in their seats and others still making their way in, the low, deep rumbling murmur of chanting began to take shape. At times it sounded quite similar to the monks down at the monastery. With the various instruments mixing in and coming back out it created quite a cacophony of sound. And then, here and there, without warning, it transformed into beautiful, feminine, melodic, trance inducing harmony. Those mesmerizing moments are powerful and the resonance felt as though it moved right through me.
After puja I retreated to the big tree for a sit. The moon was bright and about two-thirds full—feeling very close and heavy over the earth. The large prayer flags on tall poles waved in the wind. It was cool, but not cold. Young nuns were playing and their high-pitched voices carried through the air as they chatted, giggled and chased one another about. A beautiful first evening at the nunnery, which set the tone for my stay….
**Here’s a short clip I recorded during puja. I used my iPhone, so quality isn’t great, but I thought you might enjoy hearing a bit.