Where I grew up, it really wasn’t ok to be seen as a ‘smart-arse’ (or, in fact, ‘smart’ full stop). It meant you thought too much of yourself , getting ideas above your station – that you thought you were better than everyone else.
By the time I actually had grown up (about this time last year, then), I’d realized that ‘smart-arse’ is pretty much the ideal way to be. Athens wasn’t built without smart-arsery, the first steam engine was built by a ‘smart Alec’ and if the code-breakers at Bletchley had cared about being seen as ‘too clever by half’ we might be looking at the rest of Europe from the other side of the German border.
I was reminded of this when we arrived in Gangtey and discovered the hotel was right next to a monastery that was offering ‘meditation’ at 5pm and a bit of a Q&A with a very special Monk that we were told ‘would be very open’ to discussing the fact they are the most recent incarnation of an important Lama of old. Who doesn’t feel they could use a spot of mindfulness now and then? Besides – it’s very Gwyneth Paltrow: I might lose a few pounds and come out ‘hashtag serene’
So in we go, to what must be the ‘lounge’ of the monastery (rainbow drapes, whiff of something ancient and fetid). Our Monk enters with his translator (he’s the second Monk I’ve met on this trip that looks a bit like Mads Mikkelsen… weird). We open with Jamie’s question:
‘Who is the Panchen Lama?
‘We believe the Panchen Lama is lost’
Aaah, we said, does that mean the Chinese took him when they invaded Tibet?
‘No – there is no Panchen Lama in Tibet’.
Oh? So is there one in India?
‘No – the Chinese have one though, in Tibet. That’s where the Panchen Lama is’.
Riiiiiiiight. This is going so well.
Next Adam asks if the monk has any advice for our kids? Great question Adam!!
‘We believe that it’s the parents’ job to give advice to their children.’
Epic swerve. This guy’s a politician.
Then I go in with the big one:
‘Who are you the reincarnation of?’
We’re waiting for the name of this important Lama we were tipped off about. Perhaps he will actually start levitating or something?! Maybe he’ll be able to tell us what we were in past lives?!:
‘Haha no idea. Probably a dog.’
Our Mads Mikkel-Monk then does one of those massive, gross, deep lung-clearing bark-coughs that only someone that grew up apart from their mother, and any rules about manners, could get away with. And not something a reincarnated Lama would do at all.
It’s not going well and this has already taken about 45 minutes. It’s very hard to attain the form of a human being, we’re told. Other creatures have to strive very hard to hit the homo sapiens jackpot.
Enter the Smart Alec. Adam’s eyes twinkle and I can see him processing this nugget.
‘So then if the population of the earth is exploding the way it is, does that mean that creatures are getting generally better overall at becoming human beings?’
Our translator, at this point, looks like he wishes he had run away and joined a circus instead of being a monk that’s good at languages. When he translates Adam’s question Mads Mikkelmonk’s eyes get ever so slightly narrower. Big phlegm hack.
‘There are many more insects than humans. That is because it’s very difficult to become a human.’
Undeterred, Adam rephrases the question several different ways, after which there’s a bit of an exchange between the two monks in Dzongkha that I would imagine included the words ‘smart-arse’ and ‘get them out of here’. I’m very happy to oblige: it’s my wedding anniversary and there’s a glass of wine with my name on it. But Adam came for meditation and – an hour and ten minutes later – he’s going to bally well get it.
We all sit on the floor and Mads wraps his legs around each other in a perfect lotus and goes through the 8 steps to the perfect meditation position. One of them involves holding your shoulders ‘like a vulture’ which is about the least zen animal I could ever have imagined channelling sat on the floor of a monk’s living room. But vultures we become. And then there’s 5 minutes where I catch glimpses of him through my squinty eyes. He’s perfectly still and calm and if he’s ruffled by Adam’s attempt to bust his reincarnation philosophy, he’s not showing it.
He’s also not bothered by the fact that the minute we start, there’s a bang and a crash from upstairs and what’s loosely termed ‘a band practise’ begins, involving instruments that sound like a didgeridoo, a pair of cymbals and one of those snake-charmer’s pipes. It’s the worst band in the world.
Quick selfie before we go and I’m out the door and down the road before you can say ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. The wine tastes good. So does atheism. Religions are daft. Science is great. Hurray for the Golden Ratio and the Enigma code.