Sheila Rock is an American photographer living in London. Her photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and on album covers, and are part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Her forthcoming book, Sera: The Way of the Tibetan Monk, will be published by Columbia University Press in November 2003.
In 1998 Sheila Rock visited Sera Jeh monastery in Mysore, India. The original Sera Jeh monastery, in Lhasa, Tibet, was ravaged during a 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese occupation. The monastery was reestablished in its current location in India, and today it houses five thousand monks living in exile who carry on the Sera Jeh legacy.
I came to Sera Jeh monastery by accident. My boyfriend and I were planning a trip to India and Sri Lanka. A woman from his church in Suffolk, England, had sponsored a young monk at Sera, and she asked if we would deliver a gift to him. But it turned out to be more than a gift to him—it was a gift to us, because we just found it the most extraordinary place.
I remember arriving in the evening, and I could hear this sound of humming. The sky was an amazing violet, and in the distance I could see the main temple. I walked into the temple to see twenty-five hundred monks chanting—and I was mesmerized. It was an extraordinary time of day, the sky was the color of a pink and purple sari. The combination of coming to the monastery from urban India, which is beautiful but very mad—the electric colors and strong smells—to a place of quiet, was wonderful. I’m not a Buddhist, but I could feel the healing energy immediately.
After I returned home, all I could think about was wanting to do portraits of those faces. So I decided to come back and spend a bit longer there. I seem to blend in with Tibetans because I’m Japanese American, although I’ve lived in England for thirty years. I was like a shadow, invisible. The monks would look at me photographing, and then they would carry on with what they were doing. No one ever told me to move away.
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