After several hours walking along the Rathong shore, I arrived to a town where my legs voted unanimously to board a jeep; a very timely decision in view of the relatively intense traffic of vehicles loaded with tourists that constantly came in and out of a cluster of hostels known as Pelling. In the jeep I met a skinny guy topped with a disproportionately large head (an effect to which contributed his lion-like hair), and who turned out to be a son of Spanish immigrants in France, who made a living playing the saxophone in locals all over India.

Pemayangtse is a gompa built in a place originally chosen by Guru Rimpoche, and today is one of the main temples of Tibetan Buddhism belonging to the Nyngma School, the oldest. Likewise in Darjeeling and Rumtek, the week of my visit to Pemayangtse “coincided” with a special assembly. Hundreds of monks and lay people from all over Sikkim had gathered there to recite the mantra of Guru Rinpoche for peace (Iraq had just been invaded). I was moved by those inhabitants on the roof of the world, who anonymous but deeply convinced of the power of their recitation, gathered there for that noble purpose.

I could not find lodging in the monastery, so every day I left early in the morning my room in a pension of Pelling, and walked about twenty minutes to reach the monastery, where I remained until the end of the day. The mechanics of the ceremony could not be simpler: the senior monk, a venerable looking old man, began and ended the sessions, consisting of reciting aloud the mantra: “Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddi Hung,” each one at its own rhythm and intonation. The result was a constant hum sometimes broken by a louder voice that soon faded again among the others. Each one of us counted the number of times we recited the mantra by using a rosary of 108 beads, with a couple of extra strings with ten metal earrings each to keep track of the tens and hundreds. At the end of the day, a monk recorded in a notebook the number of recitations of each one of the participants. I used to report about twelve thousand a day, but there were those who reported twice.

During an intermission, the monk in charge of counting the mantras came to chat with me (the only foreigner), and I took the opportunity to ask him about his work, “Why counting the recitations?” Before answering, he opened the notebook and pointed with his index to an entry from someone who had declared thirty thousand mantras in a day; then he said smiling, “I do not believe it.”

He then added, “There is no more merit for reciting more mantras. Counting them is an expedient method to maintain the attention and the interest for many hours and days in an repetitive activity. The slight movement of the fingers over the beads helps to hold the senses so they do not get scattered.”

“Has each mantra a specific effect?,” I asked.

“Each mantra has its own resonances and specificity of results, although reciting mantras aloud produces, in general, a breathing pattern consisting of rapid inhales and slow exhales. The result is that the mind, first relaxes and then enters into a state of deep concentration focused exclusively on the mantra.”

“What happens from there?”

“One enters the territory of the mystical, where words no longer apply. Union?, love?, detachment?, compassion?, God?”

“I never had such a mystical experience,” I said, “but my mind is always grateful for a respite in which to appease, either by reciting mantras or by sitting in meditation, the chattering in my mind that starts with the alarm clock in the morning and ends with the first snoring at night …”

“And extends in between through nightmares,” he replayed, causing us both to laugh out loud.