It took me 38 hours to get there, but I was finally in Ladakh, India. Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet, its terrain is as harsh and dry as its monasteries are rich with color.
Among the many aspects that called me to this venture, two stood out. First was the daily meditation and puja [ritual offerings] with Tibetan Buddhist monks. I wanted to sit in a monastery, feel their voices awaken my spirit, and watch my little self disappear. I knew better, but I came expecting transformation anyway.
I forgot that I’d be coming with me on the trip. This turned out to be a significant obstacle.
The other aspect that drew me to this trip was the opportunity to exercise my photography muscles. I’m a dedicated amateur, and one of the organizers, BJ Graf, is a professional photographer who promised tutorials for anyone interested. His wife, Lauren Rathvon (the other organizer), is equally accomplished with her camera.
As part of the orientation, we were informed that while photography is allowed, it’s important to silence our cameras inside a prayer hall, and not to take pictures of any individuals without their permission. As I look back on it, suddenly the phrase “take a picture” stands out. There are so many ways that clicking the shutter could come off as a theft: a theft of privacy, of autonomy, and, for some, of the soul. On the other hand, when it is done with profound mindfulness, as in the stunning work of French writer and Tibetan Buddhist teacher Matthieu Ricard, photography can be a gateway into the divine. It could even be its own spiritual practice. I’d like to think this was why I carried my camera to Ladakh.
I stayed at the Hotel Chamba, directly across from the Thiksey Monastery, which became my mainstay for morning practice during the week we were there. The Thiksey Monastery is a 600-year-old 12-story edifice. Hundreds of uneven stair steps wind through it, leading to its pinnacle, where four temples beckon. Every single day of the year, the monks perform a ceremony in the main prayer hall. They alert the community by blowing horns in several directions from its rooftop. At around six in the morning on the first day, I heard this invitation and began the first of what would become a daily climb to my practice.
The altitude is no joke, so the first days were daunting. I made the ascent slowly, my brand new Lumix 2500 camera hanging around my neck, ready for the National Geographic-worthy shots I would surely bring home. On the second day, an elderly monk (probably in his eighties) saw me struggling to breathe and followed me to the top, keeping a protective eye on me. I wanted to take his picture, but didn’t want to be disrespectful. I guess the real truth is I was too shy to ask.
Once I made it to the prayer hall, I was led to a tiny staircase (more stairs!) that led to the rooftop where the monks blew their conch horns. The view from there made everything in my mind sit down for a minute. The Himalayas in the distance, the Indus River snaking through the valley below—my skin prickled with awe. I breathed it in for a little while, then a soft click: I took a picture. It didn’t match the majesty. It couldn’t.
The first part of the ceremony took place outside the entrance to the prayer hall. Young students in maroon robes chanted the opening prayer. We stepped out of our shoes at the entrance, where I noticed the sign reminding us to “Please silence your camera. Do not disturb the monks during meditation.” I double-checked my camera’s settings, and we took our seats.
I settled into my own form of meditation, luxuriating in the live sounds of monks chanting, cymbals, horns, drums—a spiritual cacophony calling my heart to a new place. At the same time, my photographer’s eye was on the lookout for good shots. The monks sat in the central part of the prayer hall. Visitors sat around the outside edge. I positioned myself way in the back with my muted camera, trying to compose and take my shots with minimal disturbance to those around me.
The ceremony went on for hours, so people came and went in waves. At one point, a group entered that I immediately disliked. One of them was a pushy woman with a camera lens that was around 15 inches long. I closed my eyes and tried to resume my meditation. When I opened them again, I saw her sitting next to an 11-year-old boy monk who was drumming and chanting, her camera only inches from his face. If that wasn’t bad enough, suddenly, from clear across the prayer hall, I heard the “CLICK!” of her shutter.
To his credit, and to my astonishment, the boy didn’t blink.
But I filled with fury. This was a prayer hall. It was a sacred space. What the hell was she thinking? The bonfire was growing in my belly. These monks are not objects for your digital consumption. They get up every morning, probably earlier than they want to, maybe even when they’re sick and don’t feel like it, and they pray for the awakening of every living being. Put your camera down and let that sink in for a minute.
I was getting closer and closer to mindfully getting up and mindfully punching her lights out.
And that’s when I noticed. That’s when I noticed that I was there, too. With my own camera in my lap. Mine was smaller, and I had silenced it, but I was still there, digitally consuming these monks and their ceremonies. My consciousness, rather than embracing the meditative process, was always scanning for when to pick up the camera and capture a shot that would gain me the praise I craved.
This woman was a gift, a mirror, sent to me by my very own consciousness. “Here you are, honey. Enjoy.”
Still angry, I calmed down just enough to let my perspective expand. I tried to take a look, to see what was happening right at that moment. None of the monks seemed particularly disturbed in any way. Plus, this monastery was actually billed as a “tourist attraction,” which no doubt provided the lion’s share of their sustenance. Maybe I had misjudged the whole thing.
I had respected these monks with mental lip service, but I hadn’t respected their real power. The power to continue chanting and drumming and meditating, regardless of distraction. Regardless of clicking cameras, clueless tourists, and poisonous judgments broiling in the back row.
They continued chanting for every living being, everyone desperate for the peace just beyond their reach, everyone suffering heartache, indifference, depression, grief, unconsciousness of all kinds.
They continued chanting for the victims of cruelty, its perpetrators, and its institutions.
They continued chanting for everyone delusional enough to think that it matters if you take a great shot of a Tibetan monk in a Ladakhi monastery, and everyone who puts you down for it.
The transformation I’d hoped for wasn’t the one I got. But it was real. And it pointed me in the right direction.
On the last day, I left my camera in the hotel room. I had been using it as a shield between me and the moment, rather than a window into it. I’d been using it to protect, even to beef up, the ego I’d gone there to let go of. Fortunately, my years of practice have helped me notice when I’ve dozed off. I can more readily recenter myself and start over.
These days, I don’t have to leave my camera behind. I have a new relationship with it. I used to want the world to see and appreciate my photos. But now, I just want my photos to help me see and appreciate the world.
Every year, Tricycle organizes intimate and transformative pilgrimage trips around the globe for our community. Join us on one of our upcoming trips to Sri Lanka (January 7-18, 2019) or Angkor Wat, Cambodia (January 8-18, 2019). Learn more here.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.