The Prostrating Man

Photo credit: http://www.carolyntravels.com

I had come to attend a workshop at the College of Science and Technology in Phuentsholing. After a busy day’s work, I was relaxing in my room at the guest house when Dechen suddenly barged in.
“Oye, Pema. Quick, quick! My guest has arrived!” she said.
Dechen was a lovely young woman who was one of the workshop participants and a lecturer at the College. She’d told me earlier that she was expecting a guest in the evening.

I got up from my bed and followed her towards the main gate of the College. There we saw a man in his late thirties, dressed in rags and covered with dust, prostrating and approaching the College gate. The man dropped his body forward on the road, stretched it full length on the ground, stretched his arms in front and folded his hands together, which produced a tapping sound of the wooden pair of gloves in his hands. As he got up and took another step, he dragged a trolley behind him that was tied with a rope to his waist.
“Is that your guest?” I asked Dechen, a little perplexed.
“Yes,” Dechen said. She looked excited and full of devotion towards the man. “I know him through my sister. He is doing prostration from Phuentsholing to Paro.” (Paro is more than 140 kilometres away from Phuentsholing).

“This is his first day and he’ll hold the night here today,” Dechen said. “Can you please engage him in a conversation while I go out and do a quick shopping? I won’t take long.”
I said okay.

The man stopped his prostration when he reached near us beside the gate. He greeted us with a broad smile and began to untie the rope from his waist that was tied to his trolley behind him. There was a prominent knob on his forehead and both his knees were strapped with yak hide to protect them from bruises and injuries.

Soon a group of children gathered around us. They stared curiously at the stranger with full of enthusiasm. Dechen shooed them away with an angry grimace on her face.
The man smiled at Dechen and said, “C’mon Dechen, don’t do that. They are just kids, poor children!”
I was surprised to see the shabby man speak English in a clear and loud – in an almost American-like – accent.

Dechen instructed the security guard at the gate to look after her guest’s trolley and led us towards a white building, which was located below the road. The man followed us carrying a tattered brown bag on his back.

Dechen opened the door of her apartment on the ground floor of the building and invited us in. Once inside, she brought us tea and biscuit. After that, she left for shopping, leaving me and the prostrating man in her house. The man opened his bag, took out some clothes and went to the bathroom. Soon he returned freshened up and sat on the sofa opposite me. He had changed his dress to a red shirt and a woolen trouser.
“It’s nice meeting you,” I said. “I really appreciate what you are doing.”
“Oh, thank you” he said, smiling and taking out a yellow piece of string from his bag.
“Here, please take it,” he said, handing me the protection cord. “I brought it from Bodh Gaya.”
“Thank you Lama,” I said, accepting the cord.
“C’mon man, don’t call me a Lama!” he said and laughed. “I am not a Lama. You can call me a friend or just call me Karma. That’s my name.”
“Okay,” I said, smiling back. “Tell me, how long have you been practicing Buddhism?”
“Five years,” he said.
“What did you do before that? And how did you learn to speak English so well?”
“Oh, I worked as a tourist guide before,” Karma said. “It was I, who acted as Richard Gere’s guide when he visited Bhutan.”
“Oh, wow!” I said, pleased with the discovery of my friend’s prowess.
“Who is your master?”
“Rabjam Rinpoche,” he said.
“Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche?”
“Yes. He is my root Guru. Rinpoche treats me like his own son. He affectionately calls me “my only piece Shechen Gomchen.”
Karma laughed when he said this.
“Is this your first time doing prostration along the roads?” I asked.
“No. I have done a couple of times before,” he said. “In fact, this is my fourth time. The last time I prostrated was from Lumbini to Bodh Gaya in India. My destination this time is from Phuentsholing to Paro Kyichu lhakhang (temple).”
“Where do you plan to go after that?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. I don’t keep any plan,” he said. “I will think about it after I complete my present task.”
“Did you start your prostration from Phuentsholing this morning?”
“Yes,” Karma said. “Actually my original plan was to start from Bodh Gaya but I had to dismiss the idea because of the dangerous traffic on the roads in India.”
“How do people react when they see you?” I asked him. I found him frank and friendly.
Karma laughed at this and said, “Well, sometimes people make fun of me. Some people think that I am mad. This morning a group of girls sent out a pitiful cry when they saw me, as if I was being subjected to some kind of torture or eternal damnation.
“C’mon, I am not a beggar,” he said. ” The real pitiful people are those who do not remember death and impermanence and fail to practise the dharma while they can.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“Don’t you face financial problem?” I asked him. “Where do you get the money from?”
“Well, things just clicks on,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Pray to the Buddha and everything will be fine.”
“Do people offer you money when they see you on the way?”
“Oh yes, they do,” Karma said. “Some of them wish me good luck and some offer me donations out of respect. This afternoon, a lady in a Land Cruiser bearing a BHT number stopped by me and offered me some cash. She was a member of the royal family.”
Karma felt his hand in his bag and took out a bundle of cash from it.
“She gave me this money,” he said.
“How much is there?” I asked him curiously, and feeling stupid at the same time.
“I didn’t bother to count it,” Karma said, and passed me the cash to count it for him. I counted the notes. There was one thousand Ngultrum.

“You’ll come across many people on the way. I am sure that you’ll grab the media attention soon,” I said. “What would you tell the media people if they ask you why you are undertaking this challenging task?”
“I believe that the best time to practice dharma is now, when we are young and when we have the energy to do it,” he said. “It is wrong to think that practicing dharma is only for the elderly people. This would be my answer.”
Just then Dechen arrived carrying two large plastic bags of fruits and vegetables.

Karma took out a sewing needle from the side of his worn-out bag and began to stitch a torn portion of it. I felt sorry to see him do this. So I walked back to my room in the guest house, emptied the things from my bag on the bed, and rushed back to Dechen’s house to give it to the prostrating man.
“I know you can afford to buy a new bag,” I told Karma. “If you don’t mind, it will be an honor for me if you accept this bag from my side. This bag has traveled with me everywhere – from Thimphu to Delhi to London, and many other places. I would be very happy to see it reach with you to Kyichu lhakhang.”
The prostrating man thanked me and accepted it with a kind smile. I was delighted that my bag would reach the holy temple in Paro with this incredible man.
“Do please pray for me that I may also meet with a great teacher and be able to develop a mind like yours.” I told my friend.
“Sure, man, I will,” he said. “I will make these aspirations and prayers for you.”
Soon Dechen laid the dinner for us. She had cooked a variety of dishes.

After dinner, I asked Karma for his mobile number and saved it in my phone. Then we departed for the night.

A few days later, I saw his picture featured in the national newspaper.
The last time I read about him, he had travelled for more than five hundred kilometres and reached the snowy mountain pass of Thrumshingla in eastern Bhutan.

Thrumshingla, Bhutan. Elevation: 3,780 m (12,402 ft)

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