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Damchaagiin Gendendarjaa
b. January 3, 1893
Omnogobiamag, Mongolia

Stepping off the plane at 12:30 a.m. into minus 26 degree air might sound like the beginning of a novel about traveling to another planet, but when I stepped off the plane into the cold morning air of Mongolia, I did enter a different world. The faces of small children lining the entry hall of the airport were unfamiliar to me. Smiling, ruddy cheeked with bright colored jackets and tunics, laughing and craning to see their relatives, these children immediately set the stage for a different experience.

In the morning I was escorted to the Temple of Gandan in Ulaanbataar, the capital of Tibetan Buddhism in the country. Established as the state religion by Khubilai Khan in the 13th century, Buddhism is at the core of the culture. The temple is a series of buildings of earth and wood containing a library of 50,000 ancient books, teaching and living facilities, and houses of prayer. I entered one building to see the 26-meter -high gold Buddha, melted down by Communist reign of terror and later rebuilt by the monks. Dark and quiet, the crisp air held the muffled sounds of boots on the stone floor. The very scale of the Buddha overwhelmed me as I stood at its feet. Out again into the bright sunshine, I was lead through a crowd of traditionally dressed older people gathered at the entrance of another lower building. Pulling back a heavy blanket concealing the doorway, I crossed into the sights and sounds of an important religious ceremony. As I breathed in the smells of incense and candle wax, I saw a small window high up backlighting the breath of the elderly people who were standing shoulder to shoulder in the freezing temple. The rhythmic chanting of monks, sitting in rows facing each other, filled the air. I was struck with awe at all of this. At the far corner of one row of monks lay an elevated green pillow, in what seemed like a place of honor. I lost all track of time as my interpreter ushered me on to the scheduled photo session.

We drove up to a Soviet-built apartment complex, a decaying concrete structure with the architectural flair of a prison. On the second floor, a smiling woman in her seventies greeted us, holding my hand as she escorted me into a small room. Sitting quietly on a low bed was a man dressed in yellow and gold silk with his eyes closed. His skin was almost flawless, his posture relaxed yet upright, and his hands rested peacefully in his lap. The woman said something in his ear and he gazed at me. I was introduced to the Lama of Gandan, the spiritual leader of the temple and of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, the man who normally sits on the green pillow.

His life in many ways parallels the recent history of Mongolia war, revolt, invasion, and constant struggle. Born in 1893 in Omnogobiamag, the oldest of six children, he was chosen by his father, an herbalist, to enter the monastery when he was five years old. Educated by the monks, his studies were rigorous, but he recalled growing up like the other boys, up getting into mischief and enjoying play. He recollected his parents' visits with him at the monastery. Life changed dramatically as Mongolia became the first of many Asian countries to fall to Communism. As Marxist doctrine took hold, 17,000 monks were arrested, shot, or deported to Siberia to starve. The monasteries were looted and razed until a cultural heritage that had stood for centuries was destroyed. Damchaajin went into hiding, returning to traditional farming on the steppes, retaining his religion in secrecy. During these years he didn't forget what he had learned as a young monk, and when Buddhism was resurrected in Mongolia after Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops in 1987, he continued his studies at the Gandan monastery.

His daughter was very proud of her father's accomplishments. She took from the wall a framed piece of yellow embroidered silk with old Mongolian writing. This was his "Gavjiin Damjaa," his doctorate of theology, a Ph.D. received at the age of 106. Only ten monks have ever reached his status in Mongolia and she pointed out that his lama robe was sewn with a special black border to indicate his distinction.

As I was photographing him, he closed his eyes and prayed; his right hand enveloping amber beads that he used while meditating. He opened his eyes and looked with great stillness at me. I asked if his family was known for longevity. His mother died at eighty and his father at ninety. His youngest sibling, a brother, had died recently at ninety-eight. The reason for their longevity, he believes, was due to their food regime. "I have a strict diet," he said. "I consume very little meat, however, a lot of dairy products, rice and vegetables are a major part of my diet."

After an hour, the Lama became tired and wanted to rest. His afternoon would be spent in prayer when he woke. I was taken to the next room to continue to talk with his family while he slept. I was offered a small silver bowl with warm yak milk and tea. In it was the same kind that I had been told the lama carry under their robes. For sanitary reasons no one else is ever allowed to eat from your bowl. Also, tradition has it that after a meal, one turns over the bowl and rubs the rim on a stone. Doing this over one's lifetime grinds down the silver so that the bowl becomes smaller. Mongolians believe that as they grow older they should reduce the amount of food they eat. I was told that Damchaagiin had never been to a doctor in his life, that he had all his teeth, and his only ailment was some arthritis that was beginning in his lower back.

Earlier, the Lama had been asked about longevity. He replied, "Its great to be alive when you are not dependent on anyone." He said no words could describe the joy he felt about the fact that he could still dress himself and move about without the aid of a walking stick. I discovered that this word dependency had many meanings. His joy came from this contradiction of physical and spiritual reliance. His monastery, his fellow monks, his immediate family were all-interdependent- and his long, rich life seemed to underscore this paradox.

As I had after meeting many of the people I have photographed, I left with a gift. The Lama's daughter gave me a blue silk scarf as a symbol of health. But the scarf wasn't the real gift. I left Mongolia thinking over and over about this man, his health, his longevity, and his spirit. What greater gift could I receive than awareness?

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© 2009 Earth's Elders