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Lions Roar : July 2019
so beautiful as knowing that a retreat is underway on your land. It fills the region with something magical, the effort undertaken seemingly seeping into the stones. Villagers point it out, urging their visitors into a special kind of awareness about their space. “That is lovely,” I answered. “May it go well.” “No, no, Sister. You don’t understand. He is there, but he hasn’t started the retreat yet. He is preparing. You can go see him if you want.” Her eyes twinkled. Clearly, she had figured me out, because the next morning, I was up and on the trail before anyone else was awake. And she was right: it wasn’t very far. As the sun pulled itself out of the mountain range, I walked through a dense forest filled with white silk scarves—draped over branches, laid over bushes, stuffed into the nooks of trees. There were piles of mani stones on the ground and festive prayer flags fluttering overhead. I was in a land- scape of blessings. A sacred space on a mountaintop. IT WAS THE WINTER of 2015, and I was in the Lang- tang region of Nepal. “Big Sister?” The old woman of the house was nudging my elbow to get my attention. “Yes, Mother?” “We have a cave just over our village where monks do retreats.” That’s true of many villages. Caves dot the landscape of the Himalayas. “You must be proud,” I replied. “Is it far?” “Not so much,” was her evasive answer. In Himalayan terms, that could mean anything from a few minutes’ walk to a few days. Since I had students with me, there wasn’t much opportunity for a side trip. We were scheduled to return to Kathmandu in the morning. “Thank you for telling me. On my next visit, I will be sure to go see.” But then she leaned in closer. “It’s not far,” she insisted. “And there is a monk there. He is starting his three-year retreat.” A three-year retreat is a very special event. For three years, three months, and three days, a retreatant isolates him or herself completely and concentrates on inner transformation. There is no contact with the outside world. Traditionally, the retreatant shouldn’t even see another human being during that time. She was obviously proud that her local cave was in use. There is nothing quite THIS DHARMA LIFE The Handprint Left Behind A young monk in Nepal practiced so many prostrations that he left his handprint pressed into a mat. VANESSA SASSON can’t forget him. A beautiful cave entrance was waiting for me at the sum- mit. I stopped to catch my breath, overwhelmed by the majesty of the moment. Intimi- dated by it. And then I heard singing. I tucked myself to the side, not wanting to disturb. The old woman had told me that I could approach, but I didn’t want to. It was enough just to be close to someone who was dedicating their time that way—who was doing some- thing I had never had the courage to try. I closed my eyes and let the experience wash over me. I don’t know how long I sat there, squatting by the side of the cave, disap- pearing into myself, but when I opened my eyes, he was standing right beside me. I was startled and stood up. Then I looked away, not sure if I was being intrusive. What was the appropriate eti- quette in such a situation? I stumbled around in my mind, looking for the right way to handle myself. He wasn’t flustered. He smiled at me. And he was so young! Maybe twenty or twenty-five? And he was dedicating him- self to three years of isolation, to trans- form himself. To become a better version of who he already was. I felt so humbled standing before him, and so sad with myself that I had not done the same with my own life. Neither of us spoke. We just stood there. Then he picked up his prayers as though they had been hanging in the air between us, awaiting retrieval. He motioned for me to follow him as he sang. He pointed to the entrance of his cave, inviting me to enter. Then he walked away. COURTESYOFTHEAUTHOR VANESSA SASSON is a professor of Religious Studies at Marianopolis College and the author of Yasodhara: A Novel about the Buddha’s Wife. LION’S ROAR | JULY 2019 15 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE