Ladakh is one of the few places humans have made habitable by their presence. It is a land of chilly winds, the scorching sun and blinding snow.
There wasn’t much in Ladakh to begin with. Whole rivers remained frozen for half of the year. The mountains were so loose that one felt like dismantling it with his bare hands. The air was so thin that water evaporated before the rice was cooked. So, it wasn’t a surprise when Buddhists found Ladakh alluring to pursue their quest of non-attachment and established the first settlements along the Indus. Soon, all of Ladakh was dotted with large Buddhist monasteries. These monasteries later became the locus of community action. The monks mobilised the villagers to create canals by channelling the water from nearby glacial streams and motivating villagers to work on the irrigated land. They provided sanctuary to the needy and ensured everyone was well fed. Soon, the surrounding desert had transformed into a thriving ecosystem of trees, insects and animals. In reverence to the monastery’s contribution to the village’s development, every child born in a village is named by the high priest or the Lama of a monastery. The synergy among the people is evident as they sing songs while harvesting each other’s fields and building each other’s houses.
One must understand the tenets of the Buddhist religion, namely compassion and detachment to find out how all this is possible. Compassion is about external concern for others and detachment is about not having any connection with the world. An indifference of sorts. Buddhism is a religion which believes that both these qualities are essential. Detachment in Buddhism is about staying away from both materialistic ambitions and sensual pleasures. To make sure that their influence over the human mind is eliminated. To destroy their power over the human mind, attachment to those desires must be converted to non-attachment. It results in the feeling that no desire can result in permanent satisfaction and happiness. Going for selfish goals results in only more desire from which there is no escape.
A monastery overlooks the village of Phyang where I also happen to live. I work with a Lama who has been in the service of the monastery for the past 45 years. He had reconstructed the whole monastery a few years back. He used to sit on the middle of the road facing the hot sun with his robe flapping in the dusty winds to preside over the construction of the entrance arch being constructed for Phyang village. I never expected a celibate monk whom I had seen only in monasteries until then to meditate over the intricacies of construction work sitting in the middle of the road. That is when I realised how effective a person like the Lama who had renounced worldly possessions could be in getting others work for welfare. But I also wondered what his motivation was, behind doing something like this. It later struck me when I compared his work to the Buddhist practice of creating mandalas.
Mandalas are symbols. Symbols which represent the universe. The symbols are made out of sand by Buddhist monks. They have a very significant place in Buddhist culture and religion. It takes days or even weeks to make them. Yet, eventually, the Buddhist monks destroy the mandalas that they work hard to make in the first place. It sends out a message that things which are visible are insubstantial.
I could see that for the Lama the whole village was a mandala with the monastery at the centre. Even though he was indifferent to the results of the tasks he was engaged in, he found being involved in them satisfactory as the work that he did form lasting bonds between people by uniting them with this common sense of purpose and thus, making them more compassionate towards each other.
About the author: Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian is an India Fellow of the 2015 cohort who was working in the Artificial Glacier Project or the Ice Stupa Project under the guidance of Sonam Wangchuk, founder of SECMOL. Surya continues to work with them till date.