Tibetan Trappists

The XIVth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, had already established yearly joint meditation conferences with the Trappists, so they were the order who wanted an affiliation in Tibet. The charter defining their relationship says that the Buddhist and Christian monks will learn many things from each other. The camera zooms to this original document, showing the columns of text in French and Tibetan, one above the other on a scroll.

One thing the Christians have learned is playful, sacred hypnotic dancing, adapted to their own symbolism. A scene shows some monks in white robes, with crowns of flame images for Pentecost, dancing slowly before an open hearth with a blazing fire, to soft large drums stretched to variable pitches. The fire is fueled, the commentator notes, by de-scented waste from yaks and goats. Before it is a stone alter where the gifts wait, for celebration of mass.

One thing the Buddhists have learned is gardening in greenhouses of glass and plastic, sweeping up the south-facing slopes from their chill valleys, with seed varieties adapted to the short growing season. Some monks are shown in short yellow tunic-robes, on mini-combines, harvesting high-protein quinoa grain, and in another area, tomatoes and fava beans. Both monasteries have become known for their recipes with local goat cheeses, lamb, and smoked mountain quail. They also make and sell a variety of gongs and tocsins, which people around the world use to signal meditation times of day. Thus millions commune with the monks in the high Himalayas.

In the shared monastic library at Drepung Loseling, the show’s narrator says, there are books by and about the great Catholic spiritual writers of the previous century, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Some commentators speculate what they might have written late in life if they could have been ‘spelled’ by someone for a time, as monastics can be now. Instead, when in mid-life Merton became the lover of a woman he deeply respected and admired, he had no way to talk about it, and his great writing came to an end. The record of this came out twenty-five years after his death, as he had wished. On the dust jacket of a collection of his earlier writings, published late in his live, he says that peace is not to be sought at any price, that a Christian should seek peace with integrity. And he says the way to it may be roundabout. It may be part of prophetic change, of new dispensations in the loves of God and human beings. As for Nouwen, having beautifully reasoned away his longing for the love of another man, he died early of a heart attack.

The show ends with a shot of the two orders’ charter of affiliation, with lines translated as follows:

What if karma is more sublime than we supposed?
What if the supernatural is more natural than we thought?

‘Well, yeah,’ Carlos muses as he picks up his desk mat of walnut-stained pressed wood and dusts it with a moist cloth. ‘Those two things would match.’