Photo: Efired/Shutterstock

Life Lessons From a Buddhist Monk and a Fish

Student Work Narrative
by Holly Morse-Ellington Nov 19, 2014

I linger on my friend Pravin’s porch in Baltimore. I adjust the modest hemline on my white shift dress and comb my fingers through my hair. Then there is nothing left to do but ring the doorbell. After years of friendship with Pravin, whom I consider my dai, or older brother, I have no reason to be nervous. I know more than I knew when I first met him and my Nepali friends. When, against all Buddhist good manners, I’d hugged — no, embraced — a monk friend of theirs goodbye. On this particular day, an even higher-ranking monk is visiting Pravin.

I’m playing tour guide for the day. And I’m uncharacteristically timid. H.E. Khenpo Sange Rangjung Rinpochhe became a monk at the age of seven at Samten Choling Monastery in Ramechhap, Nepal. If the position of the Dalai Lama is similar to that of the Pope, then this lama’s position is similar to that of a Cardinal. He’s devoted his life (and three years, three months, and three weeks in solitary meditation) to achieve his monkhood status. He travels the world to share Buddhist teachings and conduct ceremonies, but mostly from a formal distance on a stage. Pravin has invited me to accompany him and Khenpo Sange on an unofficial trip to Baltimore’s National Aquarium. Pravin will translate for us when necessary and assist me with following traditional customs.

Pravin opens the door for me. I draw a deep breath, exhale, slip off my shoes and step into the house. Khenpo Sange sits in the living room. Unlike Western men who stand to greet women, he remains seated when I walk in. He’s dressed in a red-ochre monastic robe. The morning light coming in from the window glints on the few flecks of silver in his close-sheared black hair.

Pravin is burning an incense of balsam tree leaves that Khenpo Sange has brought from the Himalayas. My friend hands me a silk scarf that’s frayed at the ends. He instructs me to bring it to the lama. I step barefoot before Khenpo Sange and bow with my hands in prayer. He drapes the scarf around my shoulders as he recites passages from memory from the Pustak, or Tibetan holy book. “Om vajra guru Padma siddhi hun,” Khenpo chants, bestowing blessings for a healthy life free from suffering. He and Pravin smile. I take this as a cue that Khenpo Sange has completed the ceremony.

The lama speaks again. “Holly, apshara jastai daykhin cha.” Pravin translates. “Khenpo said, ‘You look like an angel.’” Khenpo Sange goes on. Pravin’s grin fades as he continues to translate. Compared to me, Khenpo says, Pravin is underdressed and his hair is a mess. I laugh to myself because we’re always teasing Pravin about his laamo kapal, or mop of black hair. Khenpo sends Pravin up to his room to change before we leave.

The aquarium entrance is congested. School groups, church groups, and groups of parents with their children flood through the doors. We’re all bottlenecked at the “We Were Here” photo booth located just inside. Normally I’d bypass these touristy gimmicks. Today, I’m commemorating every precious minute with Khenpo Sange. Pravin and I pile our backpacks and gear against the wall. The photographer waiting to click the camera snickers as we shuffle around, finally settling on a respectful pose with Khenpo Sange in the middle. Khenpo gives the girl a thumb’s up.

Khenpo slides his fingers along the glass. A yellow snapper stops. We stop. Khenpo Sange hovers his hand in front of the immobile fish. He smiles at it.

We have backed up the line. One of the employees yells in our ears, “Keep it moving folks! You can’t stand here!”

I’m ready to shoot him down. Why block the entrance with a photo booth? Do you have any idea who this is that you’re shouting at?

I pause and glance at Khenpo Sange to judge his reaction. His face is relaxed. The word zen often gets tossed around, but this is the first time I experience its meaning — if only secondhand. I summon my inner calm and say with sincerity, “Sorry about that.”

We move along. My instinct after a confrontation is to hurry away, but Khenpo maintains a steady stroll. I make a mental note: You can be courteous to others without letting them set your pace. We come to a waterfall pouring over towering rocks into a little fish tank. “In Nepal all the cliffs are outside, here they’re all inside,” Khenpo Sange says.

Children push in front of us. They press their faces to the windows and smear their fingertips across the glass as their wide eyes explore the hidden world brought to the surface. “Look, Mom,” some of them point and yell.

I summarize the information from the exhibit signs at each window of clustered amphibians, reptiles, and fish. Pravin translates: The blue poison dart frog forages for termites and beetles. Jellyfish lack a brain and a heart.

“What do they do with the fish?” Khenpo asks, concern in his eyes. “Who will eat the fish?” He swipes his hand across the tank glass. “Why not just cats and dogs?” he asks. I think he’s implying that fish are not pets, but I’m not sure. I wonder what his advice is for protecting future generations of wildlife without trapping and removing it from the wild. I try to ask, but my questions get lost in translation and the noise of the crowd.

Khenpo Sange sweeps his arm across the glass again.

I look at Pravin. “He’s praying for the fish, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he’s giving them blessings like he did with you this morning.”

Khenpo Sange waves and taps at the glass. The guide in me wants to tell him that knocking on the tank walls, even gently, is frowned upon. The Buddhist-trained side of me refuses to tell a Guru elder what to do.

“He has compassion for the fish,” Pravin says. “He wants all the living beings to be free from suffering.”

We continue to the top floor of the aquarium, where a spiral ramp descends through the middle of a 13-foot-deep Atlantic coral reef exhibit. Sharks and eels encircle us as we walk down the center of the recreated reef. Tropical fish whip around and around the tank. Khenpo slides his fingers along the glass. A yellow snapper stops. We stop. Khenpo Sange hovers his hand in front of the immobile fish. He smiles at it. The fish peers back at Khenpo, it’s one-eyed glance appearing skeptical yet intrigued.

“Pravin, are you watching this?” I whisper.

“I can not believe it,” he says.

No one would believe it. If Pravin weren’t beside me to validate what we’re witnessing, I would doubt my own eyes. Not only do we observe this fish suspended in stillness, but we also sense the energy running from Khenpo Sange to the fish. And back. A slogan of the National Aquarium is, “There’s Magic in the Water.” In this moment, I am sure of it.

I snap a picture for proof. The flash from my camera startles the fish. I’ve broken their connection. I make a second note: It’s better to live life than to document it. The fish darts forward to swim away, but turns back. It looks at Khenpo Sange one last time, as if to say thank you.

We have walked a long time. I imagine Khenpo Sange is tired not only from a long day of walking, but also from imparting his healing energy to others. We rest on a bench and he shows me his cell phone apps.

“Do you have Viber?” he asks.

I hear Bible. I’m confused, but I think maybe he keeps apps of religious texts on his cell phone for reference. To explain, he opens an instant messaging program called Viber and plays a video for me that a friend sent him. We laugh at the little baby dancing and giggling. Khenpo plays it again, laughing harder and grinning bigger the second time through.

He then asks me a question that I understand clearly. It’s a question that I get often: “Do you have children?”

“No,” I say, “my husband and I do not have children.” I hold my breath and brace for the standard response and look of disapproval. I’m relieved when Khenpo smiles.

“You have no worries,” he says. We chuckle. “Family is all things,” he continues. “I no married, but I have family.”

He scrolls through pictures of his family; his students and contemporaries at his monastery in Nepal. I share pictures from my phone of my husband and friends. We don’t need Pravin to fill in the language gaps.

This is the moment that calls for a hug in my culture. But I hold back. Besides, as Khenpo Sange has shown me, there are many ways to communicate emotions and thanks. Ways that overcome crowds, walls, oceans, and even species. So when it comes time to say goodbye, I simply turn to him and bow my head.

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