Night’s damp blue shadows swept down from the high glaciers and faded in a luminescent dawn that crept across the dark face of the Ganesh Himal. Morning settled through the valley and flowed in a warm and shimmering brightness over the dust and litter of Kathmandu's sleeping streets.
The hospital’s faded red bricks, the decaying remnant of British colonialism, exuded night’s sweet stale odors, as dawn swept and swirled like a restless soul across the rooftops. One by one, the hospital’s high faceless windows, blazed with light as the sun rose over the mountain’s peaks.
The staff room was crowded with the heavy chairs and long sofas of its English past, their dark leather faded and cracked from age and wear. There were a number of small elegantly carved tea tables scattered here and there, and one large white-faced clock high on the wall above the door that led to the wards. The faint odor of tobacco, chai, urine, and carbolic clung to the shadows and lingered in the faded carpets.
The senior doctor assigned to take me on patient rounds was in his late fifties. He was dressed in the traditional whites of doctors everywhere and the Nehru hat worn by most Nepalese Hindus. His deep black oiled hair was swept through with gray and his face lined with years of effort spent on the wards.
His manner was polite, but he barely concealed his doubt that any Westerner could appreciate a profound science revealed centuries ago through the deep and silent meditations of the Rishis. To this, I had no defense. I had a degree in Ayurvedic medicine but felt I was missing the most important piece, the piece that would give meaning to its brilliant science- the abiding Presence, that which is hidden in the spaces where the Divine touches flesh, and the Word transcends all theory and becomes revelation, the space of healing.
Just beyond the last sip of tea and polite exchanges, lay the wards. Rows of iron-frame beds lined both sides of the long room, leaving a narrow corridor in between. There the sick lay in quiet apathy, smelling of the patience and strength found only in suffering and cruel landscapes of pain.
The corridor’s worn floors seemed to go on forever, down past rows of dusty alcoves and once white walls. The windows were opened wide to allow as much air as possible into the wards. Sun-warm heat from the streets, along with dust and din of the city, drifted fitfully around the beds.
The general nursing and care of the patient was the family’s responsibility. Beds surrounded by several generations, talking, sleeping, or eating, large baskets of food and thermoses of tea crowding the floor. Outside at the back of the compound, women prepared rice and chapattis on small charcoal fires. Babies slept while children played in the dust with small treasures found in the refuse that blew in over the wall.
And then there were the beds of breathless silence, where death waited patiently for its time. Here the family gathered at the side of the dying, and as it had always been, the presence of the living would insure that the dying would not lose their way from living to Life through the terror of this one. Herein lived the deepest mystery, the mystery of God’s love wrapped in suffering, the mystery of death born onto Life.
The doctor led me from bed to bed, asking me to read the pulse of the patient and tell him my opinion. I slowly pressed the pulses, one after another, and listened with my fingers, hoping for the Grace to hear the many voices of the life flowing in their veins.
One very elderly woman, withered with consumption, just held out her arm as I approached. Instead of offering me her wrist to have her organ pulses read, she took hold of my hand, tremulous fingers clutching tightly. Her eyes no longer looking around at life as eyes do, but fastened intently on mine. They were as warm and innocent as a girls’, the shadows of poverty and pain slowly letting go, a new waiting when life has lived its fullest and has experienced all that it needs to experience except its final blessing.
This was a last chance to be seen, a last witness to all that she had been- the eyes, hands, and heart of her family. Her wordless gaze drew me into her waiting, asking me to trust myself to death that was walking close by, the death that was Life, so that I would always carry her in my heart, would always remember her as I remembered myself.
She held tight on my hand in these moments just before moments become eternal. Just the two of us, making this place a sacred place where all love lives. Because, where two wait together, there they wait with God.
All we build and gather in the turn of our lives will perish but this- knowing that the great Mystery is a journey of love, the journey of life itself, and is as simple as remembering- remembering that all that is to be remembered is love.
The high mountain passes, their reaches hanging heavy with glaciers, opened into an endless valley, watered by sacred rivers that sing with the music life makes as it passes through the land. For centuries, this music has been singing the words of every song, singing in the laughter and sorrow of beginnings and endings; singing in the sureness of memories true voice. All things, and all things forever, are moving and flowing down into their own sacred valleys, singing the song that life makes as it flows through its lands on the way to a boundless ocean.
My friend Sudharshan was sitting cross-legged on the floor hunched over a large piece of canvas painting an excruciatingly intricate mandala of the Medicine Buddha. His thin brush moving swiftly, darting here and there, the life of the Buddha slowly unfolded through the power and majesty of the colors ground from mountain minerals that had seen the bright beginning of the world.
The darkness of an early spring night smelling of dust and jasmine, flowed through the open window and gathered in the fading corners of the room. It was then he told me about the Siddhi.
A Siddhi is a master, one who had touched the humility necessary to embrace life as a continual gift. One we would call a Saint. This mystery, though it was always in plain sight, required a journey. All lessons in life require a journey. A journey of self for the sake of all Self.
The early morning streets of Kathmandu passed through awakenings and stirrings that crowded around rows of small shops and houses. Every morning dawned in an earthy mix of light, mud, and the dust of generations. Each street brought a new wash of impressions that moved sensually along the skin, flowing into open windows and shadowy doorways, pulling at the fingertips. The rich colors of newly washed saris moved seductively as they dried in the breezes rushing down from the mountains into the transparent glow of the streets. The heady scent of dust, the sweet taut smell of blood from the butcher’s stalls, offal, and temple incense, moved on waves of light flowing with the dawn.
The Siddhi’s house was surrounded by high pale trees enfolded in the shade of a spring sun. Their waxy green leaves seemed to rest in the quiet memories of night when the fabric of a new day was being woven into new and restless purposes. Leaning from its two stories of dried clay and wooden beams, the house stood fronted by a street of packed earth, splashed with daubs of color from the flowers and buds that fell from its trees.
A low wooden door with the faint images of plant tendrils and leaves carved on its lintel, led into the ground-floor rooms that served as stalls for several goats and grain storage. In the muted shadows, a small elderly man sat crossed legged on the dirt floor. On a blanket before him lay a colorful spray of plants and herbs drying in motionless air. He carefully selected and mixed; nipping first the buds then leaves and roots. The powerful aroma of moist herbs filled the room and drifted serenely through the spaces on motes of warm sunlight. As I passed by, he suddenly looked up and smiled.
A young man escorted me to a comfortably shaded room in the living quarters and brought me a cup of sweet black Nepali tea. I sat alone, in a remarkable peace that breathed in the silence. Time passed, and my quiet prayer moved with bright fingers of afternoon light, warm and still, down the wall in colorful speckles of dust that drifted in from an open window.
I was led to a high-ceilinged room; its whitewashed walls spreading a shadow-less light, enveloping and timeless. In the center, sitting cross-legged on the floor was the elderly man I had seen cleaning herbs in the shed below. Sparse white hair stood around his head like a soft halo. His smile held no secrets, no questions or anticipations, only a joyful openness that already included me in all of its warmth.
The Siddhi gazed steadily at me and asked in Hindi if there was anything I wanted to ask him. The young man politely translated. I suddenly knew that I wanted to ask him everything but couldn't even form a question.
The Siddhi began speaking to me in a mixture of Sanskrit and Hindi. Not knowing either language, my mind automatically went blank and I waited for the translation. None came. The Siddhi just continued smiling into my eyes while speaking the soft textured tones and rhythms of an unfamiliar tongue. In my confusion and frustration, I gave up trying to follow what he was saying, and just listened.
Suddenly I began to understand what he was saying though I didn’t understand the words. With no words one is speechless- there was nothing to say only to see, nothing to understand only to know. I began to see that which has no form but only Presence, that which is known but hidden in a timeless Grace, a meaning that gives rise to thoughts before language can express them; that which is knowing. The Spirit praying our prayer.
Tears came to my eyes as I listened, carried by sounds that create rather than define, like a pale fog lifting from the deep well of the heart. I saw this wisdom of life, Ayur Veda, unfolding in the simple spaces of the soul where it had always been, where it resides in all beings. This uncharted depth of all longing to be life, that which brings Creation forth into time; this is what we serve, this is what I was to serve in the patient- Life itself, the Divine, the unconditional, the unconstrained, the all-caring, and the all-merciful. God.
The teaching was over and I rose to leave with a feeling that one is never leaving but always entering; always moving through each day’s moment in a new unfolding, carried on the living hands of the past, that embraces every ending and sanctifies every beginning.
The Siddhi would return to his herbs, and continue to meet the lost and the hurting in the bright silence of his rooms, turning their doubt to joy by simply showing them that Life and all that lives, lives only to love. And I would eventually return to Denmark- now that I remembered the way.
David Russell OFS Kathmandu