Gochak in Chulichan by Kelly Klein
Last February, I was visiting my best friend and head nun, Thupstan Kunzes, of Rizong Nunnery (Chulichan), the oldest nunnery in Ladakh. She has been head nun for the past 14 years with no salary, no personal money, and serious health problems. She is going next month for her second heart surgery. But that’s another story.
As I was leaving, I asked when might be the best time to observe Gochak, the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of making prostrations for great distances for three days. She suggested I return in a week or so. We hugged and I said goodbye to the young nuns and headed down the road. Before reaching the end of the valley, I saw a procession of 70 men and women performing Gochak. So much for coming back in a week or two! I had to notify Kunzes that they were coming. There was no way to pass them, as the valley is only wide enough for the river and a single dirt lane. I had to reverse for quite some time before I could turn around, another challenge on these narrow roads with steep drop-offs. Returning to Chulichan, running up the steps, up and up, breathing heavily, I told Kunzes that pilgrims were coming. We got back in my car and headed back down the valley to the group. Kunzes spoke with some folks asking if they needed or wanted tea, food, and to sleep in the nunnery. They were delighted and we left them to go prepare for 70 people to stay the night. Only in Ladakh could you house and feed 70 people with one hour’s notice. So I stayed another night as well to help with our guests. After everyone was settled, there were still empty extra rooms as men and women chose to sleep up to seven in a room, sharing mattresses, talking and laughing for hours.
For Gochak, people start sometimes at 4 am making prostrations as they walk, a very slow process en route to sacred places. Many roads are closed for these days as people make there way between these areas. The purpose is multifold but includes focusing on the body, speech, and mind, laying our egos on the ground and rising up again, to gain merit for the next reincarnation, praying for the wellbeing of all sentient beings, and more.
I see so much of this in Ladakh, where physical work, climbing up and down rock terrace walls with 50 kilo loads on your back, sitting in the hot sun all day cutting the fields while singing, and laughing, collecting cow dung daily to save for the winters….chores are done with confidence, with joy not dread, with an acceptance that this is part of life… how liberating it must be to face life from this perspective.