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Sunday Blog: Buddha Heads and Butter Tea

We have rags and cold water from the melting Himalayan snow. These mountains lay off in the distance, but within site of the Thiksey Monastery where we are staying. Today’s job? Clean miniature gilded Buddhas. I take the first one from an ornately carved cabinet and wipe its lapis crown with a soft chamois cloth. Just 999 more to go in the Hall of 1,000 Buddhas.

Their faces and yellow robes must be cleaned gently, with great care. I notice that they all have a sublime inner smile each one is slightly different. They are delicate and hand made, painted with gold leaf. This job requires patience, concentration and endurance.

10 ancient vitrines hold them and the windows are particularly filmy. We use soapy water first, then a rinse of clean, and finally a quick spray of Windex. Still there are smudges and lines. The cabinets’ wood has accumulated decades of soot from the lighting of oil lamps and incense. The hall has been swept and aired out over the years, but layers of dust remain. Rice from thousands of blessings has been stored away by one of the resident mice or fallen into the cracks between the uneven floorboards. It’s clear this 600 year old meditation hall hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned since its renovation 1959.

I’m here as part of Nikki Costello’s retreat group who have come to Ladakh, India. Each day eight of us practice asana, pranayama and meditation in this sacred place. We spend time taking supine and seated poses and work on perfecting Anantasana or Vishnu’s Couch. It’s a posture also known as Reclining Buddha and because of that it has special meaning in this setting.

One day Stanzin, one of the monks, led us in a series of 60 prostrations This pranam, complete with mantra, in front of larger statues is a long established way of honoring the Buddha, lying at his feet to relinquish our egos

Later, Stanzin teaches us about the Buddhist Wheel of Life. The cycle of birth and death and rebirth as we work patiently through our ignorance, anger and attachments. The process of cleaning the statues combined with the asana has helped me purify my body, speech and mind so that I can make room for good qualities like kindness, compassion and happiness. I am taking baby steps on the path to enlightenment. Stanzin suggests that we wouldn’t have made such a long pilgrimage to Thiksey unless we were meritorious and I am bolstered by his claim that anyone can reach Nirvana if they practice diligently to overcome the obstacles to happiness that life presents.

I realize my own grime is the accumulation of habits that no longer serve me and these characteristics result in a clouding of my own luster. As with the Buddhas, I need to compassionately remove my personal build up or samskaras so that in the next life I can be more luminous.

At daybreak our group joins the monks for puja and meditation in the ornately decorated meditation hall. Young monks, dressed in maroon robes, hurry along rows of colleagues carrying heavy metal pots. Out of these, the monks pour steaming bowls of butter tea. Other monks follow carrying buckets of tsampa, a roasted barley flour. The monks take spoonfuls and add them to their tea creating a sticky gruel. Our group sits in the back of the room, where we’re served last.

Chamba, another monk , has given us wooden tea bowls as welcome gifts. We’ve been warned that the concoction of black tea, milk, salt and butter may not be to our liking but each one of us has drinks it down with gusto. It is deeply satisfying like liquid salted high quality artisanal butter floating atop a rich broth.

Each morning, the butter tea, which leaves a gleaming patina on our bowls, provides nourishment for the long ceremony that begins at dawn and sometimes lasts well beyond two hours. Chants are recited, drums are pounded, cymbals are clanged and horns are blown. The tea primes us for absorbing the vibrations of the service.


Over a few days, I begin to notice the monks’ skin glows. Is it the copious amounts of butter tea or the inner radiation of such intense devotion that turns them golden? I am not sure but I begin to see the resemblance to the now thoroughly cleansed miniature Buddhas.

In Buddhist philosophy your interaction with spiritual art, ritual and relics can hasten your progress towards wisdom. If that is the case, I was blessed by removing layers of my own murky Karma through cleaning Buddha heads and absorbing the radiance of understanding by drinking butter tea every day in the thin air near heaven in Ladakh.

--Brette Popper, with additional thoughts by Peiling Junek

--Photographs by BJ Graf

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