(For clarity – the picture of the chödpa is just one I found on the net. I don’t know who it is, or whose the picture is.)
Soglio. Almost impossible to find on the map, and, as you can see, even the signpost has fallen on very hard times. But it’s this track-junction that is relevant to my story, rather than Soglio itself.
Saturday was one of those winter’s days one likes. Quite cool, but bright, warm sunshine and no wind. I decided to take the car up to this junction and park it – you’ll see that there is enough room to pull off the road to the left of the sign. It’s only five minutes in the car from home.
I then set out with my gear, scrabbling for another three or four minutes through the bushes to the top of the hill. Not one of those things that looks like a hilltop but just turns out to be a point on a ridge that leads further up; no, a real top-of-the-hill, carpeted with dry chestnut leaves. I came across one or two paths, but evidently of animal origin, not human. Wild boar and a small species of deer are quite common here.
(Ironical, isn’t it, how much kit you want in order to enjoy the simplicity of Buddhist meditation?)
As I was finishing, however, I heard voices approaching. Two Italian guys, probably in their 60s, were drawing near, together with a dog. Hunters? I guessed that they had heard the tok-tok of the drum, the ting-ting of the bell, and perhaps even the nyeeehhhaaahh of the kangling.
I did wonder what I was going to say. Would they interrogate me? Would they tell me I shouldn’t be there? Would they tell me that I needed a permit to meditate, filled out in quintuplicate including my tax code, decorated with a €14 tax stamp and faxed to the office for anomalous cultural activities at the end of the last corridor on the top floor of the town hall, whose fax number is available on application, with presentation of one’s ID papers, from the responsible authorities? Though I never liked cricket, I think the metaphor applies: I decided to play it with a totally straight bat.
“Buongiorno, Salve!” I called, cheerfully.
“Buongiorno,” they replied, commenting to each other about “il signor con i capelli lunghi”, which is something like “the Mister with long hair”, except that it doesn’t sound that stupid in Italian. I should mention that I keep what little hair I have left in a topknot these days. They asked me what I was doing, and whether I was sleeping there. “No, no,” I said, explaining that I lived in the village in the valley below.
At this point I leaned forward, conspiratorially, and told them that, “The thing is – I’m a Buddhist!”
The expression that flooded across their faces simultaneously was a sight to see. Can you guess? It was total relief! No, this was not some weirdo trying to live out in the woods, nor a refugee from justice, nor a house burglar trying to hide ill-gotten gains under a boulder, nor an illegal mushroom-hunter, nor yet an illegal immigrant. It was just a harmless eccentric English guy!
“Oh,” said the one, “you were praying?”
This was not the time to launch into an explanation of how meditation, ritual and prayer relate to one another in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, and how they compare with or differ from the equivalents in Christianity, so I said “Yes, more or less.”
They proceeded to tell me what a beautiful spot it was, and how the was an artist they knew who also goes there from time to time for the beauty and peace.
They told me that they were ex-hunters, which seemed a slightly unusual thing to say. Perhaps they felt uneasy in the presence of this potentially saintly (if only they knew) unknown quantity. In any event, the dog might have been a hunting dog, but they didn’t have guns with them. Perhaps I should explain that hunting dogs here are not aggressive animals bred to take down their prey – they are inquisitive, friendly, high-energy beasts, whose job is to charge around making a fuss so that the boar or deer breaks cover and becomes a target of the hunters’ guns. (That’s how it is.)
And so, finally, they wished me a good day, and went off, saying that they would not disturb me any further.