Mentally obscured, bindus unclear…
Awareness clouded over, body heavy–
I have definitely not transcended the 10 bhumis–
Any merit accumulated in the past 24 hours has all been spent
resenting the sunburned skin around the eyes of
a white faced gelding.
Windows open for fresh air summon diesel fumes dust sorrow confusion;
Closing my eyes, I feel the small gray horse inside me–I have no bones of my own, only his–my muscles are the muscles of the small gray horse–a sudden rush up my spine as he leaves, hooves push against my shoulders.
After many days in the Gobi, we return to Ulaanbaatar and from there drive to the Terelj Valley, to another gher camp. We are pleased to have Bayaraa back at the wheel after another driver took his place for a day, a congenial and steady fellow who drove well but bored us. We missed our cowboy.
Again (one can only suppose always) the roads are clogged with cars, trucks, buses and tour vans; Bayaraa does not disappoint. We carnival ride through lethal lane switches, near misses and gut spinning swirls of color. The horn on the van is magically capable of sophisticated variants that insist, greet, apologize depending on how hard it’s hit. Bayaraa plays the van horn like he’s first chair in an orchestra.
Mongolian pop on the radio, choking smog through the windows, gradually the road opens, the air clears.
We climb out of the steppes into the mountains and find ourselves in a mythic gallery of absurd boulders the size of buildings, sculpted by time, wind, rain into the forms of animals, faces, phallic mushroom stems and caps–whatever one imagines can be found. All are displayed on pedestals of rock, timber, grass, all in grand scale. We rubberneck out the windows like children watching clouds.
Water pours from rock through stands of pine, aspen, fir; sky the color blue of Mongolian Buddhist khata offered as backdrop to magnificent magical land.
Horses, sheep, goats, camels, cattle graze. Smoke curls from crooked metal gher chimneys, cars and trucks with saddled horses tied to mirrors, satellite dishes wired to rickety fences that define grazing rights.
Our gher camp for tourists is poor, yet there’s a sense of dignity that appeals. The toilets are clean, the kitchen humble. People are camped but others clearly live here.
“Sain bain oh,” they greet us. “Sain!” We reply. “Ta?” “Sain!” We are a ridiculous but happy conspicuous western karmic band of reluctant pilgrims. Happy campers. We test our Mongolian, stake out our beds, unpack our gear.
In the parking lot, a group of men unload a dead sheep and a dead goat from an SUV. The corpses are bloated and stiff legged on their backs on sheets of cardboard. Dragging them on these strange paper travois, the men disappear behind the kitchen. From camp a trail leads up the mountain to the Arya bal temple, picturesque and auspicious. Everything is here; the land, the dead and dying, the living, the sacred and profane.
Trekking the grueling trail to the temple, I feel so full, so rich, so lucky–yet still I’m struck by a gnawing absence of connection in my bones, a dutiful sense of visiting for the sake of visiting, a need to find my footing. Where is the holiness? The sacred? I experience again, as I have many times thus far, a fatigue of heart, a vague uneasiness that shows up out of the blue. Reminding myself of my good fortune falls flat.
Stopping along the trail to reach for the source of this feeling of mild disappointment and farsighted foggy out-of-body distance brings into focus a string of horses on the road far below, led by a guide, carrying on their backs unskilled riders who pay to bump along the dusty track while tour vans careen past.
I’ve dreamed my whole life of living and traveling with Mongolian horse people. I start to think that the life is lost and perhaps that’s what’s making me feel off center, but that line of thinking strikes a disingenuous chord. Pilgrims light cigarettes, drink beers, file past prayer wheels–what am I supposed to be doing? Reporting? Reflecting? Distilling what’s actually happening into something more palatable? Poetic? Comfortable?
It’s easy to blame this vague unease on my surroundings, on ignorant people, on greed, on what I ate or didn’t eat. Again, this is too simple and simply not true.
I pause. Breathe. Before we left the states, it came up that we have a responsibility to the project and should think about leaving our personal baggage at home. Yet for me, it’s the very personal aspect of each of our stories that stands to connect us to those we left behind and those we’ve yet to meet.
It’s our suffering that connects us, our personal stories of affliction, conflict, misery and joy offer opportunity for practice, a shared path to realization. The nature of samsara is suffering; the untamed mind believes in a world of illusion. The teachings of Padmasambhava are written in the old language yet the poetic mythic verse offers clear instruction on taming the mind and finding liberation; to take these teachings beyond conceptualization–to put them into practice–is to break the code.
I bring with me an injury that topped out years of getting hurt and robbed me of my ability to work with and ride horses, which is how I made my living and how I defined myself. My healing has been a long and arduous process, still ongoing. Loss of self, loss of confidence; finally: surrender.
A sudden rush of recognition, mindful remembering of the nonexistence of linear time is accompanied by waves of renewed heartbreak. Dren shay, mindfulness and discernment. Dren–mindfulness– halters the wild horse of the mind; shay–discernment–talks to the horse, gentles and calms it.
In the morning, a horseman, graceful in his saddle, rides into camp, ties his riding horse and the horse he’s leading to a tree. One, an older white faced sorrel gelding, the other a small, young gray. I watch how he handles them and am surprised to see that although clearly he’s skilled, his connection to his horses is perfunctory and off-hand. I remember this macho style from my days working as an outfitter and guide in the U.S., how gentleness was seen as weakness; equality with the horse a sure-fire way to get your ass kicked.
Back home, people will wonder if I rode, finally and at last, in Mongolia, Nepal or Tibet. They’ll hope for pictures; I imagine a photo of myself in the saddle. The horseman wants to sell me a ride. I pass up the opportunity, realize I don’t want to ride his horses, I want to talk to them. He ties the horses up, and with elaborate gestures warns me that they kick and bite.
He sells a ride to a tourist whose friends cheer as the little gray horse carries the tall man around, the man yanks on the bridle, kicks at the horse’s flanks. The gray horse’s eyes grow wide, but he doesn’t buck. The white-faced gelding watches, the horseman counts his cash.
I wait; the horseman climbs into an SUV with a bunch of other guys and drives away. I approach the horses, who at first ignore me and doze in the sun. I wait some more. The soft, tender skin around the white-faced gelding’s eyes is sunburned, his blue eyes fragile in the hot Mongolian sun.
Crusted and goopy, one eye is completely sealed shut. I offer to clean it and get met with fear that slowly eases into resignation, and then curiosity. Using my shirt sleeve, I lift the mucous away from the edges of his eye. Cupping his eye, I calm him enough so that he allows me to scratch away the dirt, debris and crust; finally he allows me to pull his lower lid down, reach inside and clear the infection away.
Now he shows me his other eye, touching the tree bark with his face, indicating that this eye, too, itches and burns and is on its way to getting infected. As I clean him up and stroke his face, pleasure lights his tired, sore eyes and he looks into my own, not an easy task for him. Something new.
All the while, the little gray horse watches, ears forward, eyes bright, eager. Polite but eager, he shifts his weight from foot to foot, waiting his turn. When it comes he offers ears, his nose; I rub and scratch, reaching inside his nostrils, stretching the soft skin while he sighs. He bows, offers his poll, the vulnerable and intimate space between his ears. I put my face to his forelock and sing.