The Jokhang temple is the holiest temple in Lhasa, the ancient capital of Tibet. The first time I entered the temple I could feel the energy of its sacred history. Rows and rows of candles were casting shadows on the dark walls. Pilgrims who had traveled from all corners of Tibet were walking solemnly through its halls. The sounds of Buddhist chants echoed throughout the temple. I was walking around on my own, when much to my amusement, I saw a slight young monk draped in burgundy robes, seated on the floor. He was leaning against a pillar, playing with his cell phone.
“You have a cell phone?”
“Why you laugh me?” he looked genuinely startled.
I realized then how impolite I sounded. He asked me where I am from and wondered how I could be Canadian if I am Chinese.
“I moved to Canada when I was 5 years old,” I explained.
Sangye offered to show me the temple. He was glad to have a chance to practice his English and thankfully for me, being Chinese meant that it was easy for him to accompany me everywhere. “Because you don’t look like a foreigner.”
Over the course of the next month, he spent hours and hours chatting with me and telling me about his beliefs, his life and his duties at the temple. He gave me access to the temple even when it was closed to the public, and even invited me to the evening private chanting sessions. As we spent more and more time together, he amused himself by continually leading me astray and putting me in comical predicaments.
“You must walk around the temple in this way,” motioning a clockwise path, though every pilgrim was going the opposite direction.
“The candle is finish, you blow out now.” I blew them out to the horror of the pilgrims.
“Give money to the Buddha, put in that bowl,” again, the same shocked faces.
The other monks who saw this began to laugh too at his antics and could only smile and shake their heads disapprovingly.
“What does that mean? Why do you call me that?”
“It is Tibetan, it means donkey. You foreigner carry so many bags like donkey. Why you carry so many things?”
Once, we were wandering through the temple after hours and I was trying to find an exit.
“Go in there, it is short way.”
I parted the curtains and rushed into a large room. There was a high lama holding a session with a room full of novice monks seated on the floor. Each of them had an ancient parchment in front of them. I embarrassingly retreated out of the room back into the hallway to see that Sangye was laughing into his sleeve. I started smacking him on his back.
“You know punishment you hit monk?” putting up his arms, trying to defend himself against my slaps. “You have bad karma for 3 or 4 lifetimes.” I laughed.
He finally promised, “Okay Pongu, no more joking.”
A few days later, he asked if I wanted to go with him to a temple that was a few hours out of town.
“Tomorrow, I no work.”
“You don’t work tomorrow?” I asked amusingly.
“Yes, once a week, I no have prayer and no have temple do.”
We met at 6 am in the town square; I was so surprised to see him in jeans, a sweater and a baseball cap.
“Oh, you really aren’t working!”
“Red army see monk on bus, they stop bus take monk off. I no wear robe, they no know I monk.”
Towards the end of my stay, Sangye shared with me that his brothers were sick, “Animals in chest, too much coughing red.” I knew that it would insult his sensibilities if I gave him any money, but I also wanted to help his brothers. I came up with the plan to give him a soccer ball as a good-bye present and to give him Chinese currency nonchalantly, “I won’t need this Sangye, I am going to Laos next. Maybe you can use this to help your brothers.” he relented and accepted graciously.
I left Lhasa by a very long bus journey north through high desert plateaus. Sangye met me at the bus station that morning, “Please you take this robe” It was one of the burgundy monks robes. “It is very cold in north, this robe big and warm.”
Years later, I still have that robe.