‘We’re all waiting for the 活佛 huofo‘ the young woman told me. I nodded, pretending I had any idea at all about what she was talking about.
We were at the De’er Monastery in Gansu, drawn in by the enormous gathering crowds we’d seen as we drove past.
‘It’s a fair!’ the girls said from the back of the campervan, seeing a line of tents and some smoke in the distance.
It certainly looked like a fair – people were arriving from every direction by motorbike (minimum four to a bike) by tractor (minimum six to a tractor) or by open-backed tricycle trucks (no minimum, or for that matter, maximum number).
Those arriving were dressed in their finest and most splendid Tibetan dress – long woolen coats lined in silk brocade or fur with sleeves that hung almost to the ground, velvet jackets, silk tunics in bright colours, red silk sashes, belts studded with rows of raised silver discs, heavy coral and turquoise earrings, heavier strings of amber and coral beads, felt hats and leather boots. And that was just the men.
The women were dressed even more ornately with heavy silver tassels hanging from their belts, their black hair parted and plaited into two long plaits falling down their backs. Those with insufficient hair of their own supplemented their plaits with coloured silk, plain black wool or black yak hair.
Spectacle doesn’t begin to describe the procession of rich colours, textures and decorations. Most arrived in extended family groups with grandparents, parents and children together carrying bags of apples or jujubes, with picnic rugs and umbrellas.
Whatever was happening, it looked like a lot of fun. Could it be the inauguration of a new temple building? An annual harvest festival? It’s tricky though, when you don’t speak the local Tibetan language and you really have no idea whether this is someone important’s birthday party, or a very upbeat funeral.
We could figure this much: the focus of the event was definitely the temple, and the crowds were beginning to seat themselves on the ground radiating out from the central low temple building decked with orange, white and red flags. Something might be about to happen!
|Please somebody, tell me what this happy occasion is?
Or….not. We found a patch of ground to sit on, and waited expectantly, like being at a rock concert where the audience are as yet unaware that the band are passed out drunk in a hotel room elsewhere.
I passed the time looking for clues (a sudden movement of ten monks towards the upper platform! what could it mean?) and taking portraits of the wonderful and beautiful Tibetan families seated near us. Lord knows what they thought we were doing there.
Then we got lucky – one of the very few Chinese-speaking people in the assembled crowd of twenty thousand Tibetan Buddhists, a fifteen year old girl from a nearby town, spotted us and sought us out so she could practice her few words of English like her teacher had told her to do. She was delighted to discover we could speak Chinese and began to offer a running commentary on what was going on, which was terribly helpful because we still had no idea.
‘The huofo is coming!’ she said again, as I racked my brain to think what it might mean and finally gave up and pulled out my trusty iPhone dictionary. It said:
Huofo 活佛 : Living Buddha
Now you would think after several weeks spent in this Tibetan part of Qinghai and Gansu we might know what a Living Buddha was, and he certainly sounded really important. But we were still embarrassingly clueless.
‘Is he a baby?’ I asked.
‘Is he very old?’ my husband asked.
‘Does he wear a crown?’ my daughter asked.
‘He comes out and reads a very special sutra to the people!’ she laughed at us.
I looked around me. People were expectantly watching the temple. There was a building sense of excitement.
‘So…do you know what actual time he will do this?’ I asked
‘Oh, very, very soon!’ she said.
So in anticipation of seeing something quite extraordinary, a real live Living Buddha, we waited. And waited. And…..waited.
‘Um…how much longer will he be?’ I asked after a couple of hours, not wanting to seem impatient in the presence of such devout attention. But we were getting dreadfully hungry and very sunburnt at that high altitude.
‘I think we should just go’ said my husband. Now, he has a habit of leaving right before something really exciting happens. We once left a town in Thailand just two hours before the arrival of the KING, something people in that town had waited for ALL THEIR LIVES but we couldn’t wait TWO HOURS for.
‘You mean we’ve just waited for three hours to see the Living Buddha and now you want to leave FIVE MINUTES before he appears?’ I hissed under my breath.
My husband turned to our young friend. ‘When exactly will the Living Buddha appear?’ he asked, rather bluntly I thought.
‘Today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day!’ she replied.
‘This goes for THREE DAYS?’ said my husband.
‘Three days!’ she said, smiling happily.
Well that certainly put a different spin on things. Three hours, OK, but three days might be a little long in anyone’s books, even for a Living Buddha.
We made our polite excuses about miles to go and roads to be covered etc etc and left. We stepped over the feet of hundreds of families settled in on picnic rugs and under umbrellas, with babies and small children, their faces full of extreme patience. We bustled past thousands of people standing on dirt paths, on the edges of walls, and in ditches, faces turned towards the temple.
I felt really, really bad. And very un-something. Un-zen, I think. Certainly im-patient.
We reached the far edge of the field and had just opened the doors of the campervan when I heard it, a sudden profound hush in the crowd followed by the deep, throaty sound of a single chanting voice. I spun around. On the far, far, far-off platform of the upper temple building I could just make out a tiny crimson speck.
It was the Living Buddha, and we had MISSED him. My shoulders sagged.
‘Onwards and upwards?’ said my husband, trying to soften the blow.
‘Onwards and upwards’ I sighed. And off we went.
|I wait three days for the Living Buddha and just when I go to get a sandwich he decides to appear! Damn!