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Monks on Ice!

© 2001-2012

Originally published in 2001 in On the Bright Side magazine.

This is a true story...

It was a fairly typical public session for a weekday afternoon at the HealthSouth training center in Los Angeles, California. A few home-schooled adolescents training for their next competition, a housewife in new skates working on back crossovers, and two men in burgundy sweats and brown rental skates trying to remain upright. Men in their thirties with close cropped black hair and dark skin were not that unusual a sight in Southern California. But before they had changed into their skating attire they’d been wearing burgundy and gold monk’s robes.

That morning the Tibetan Buddhist monks had been involved in their practice of chanting mantras and later having their morning cup of milky Indian tea. The two monks wore the Tibetan Buddhist version of a three-piece suit; the robes consisted of a long skirt, gold and maroon vest and a separate cloth winding around the upper body sari-style.

Hanging around Tibetan lamas was something I was accustomed to as I was the [then] editor of a Buddhist center’s newsletter. Yeshi Dorjee and Tenzin Nyidon were of Tibetan descent and had been raised in Bhutan and India respectively. Studying in a South Indian monastery, exposure to any type of skating had been via satellite. When the thangka [religious] painters got to America they knew whom Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski were and were. Tenzin, the younger monk, had been given a pair of inline skates but had only tried them out on the bumpy driveway with no instruction. Yeshi, the senior monk with a doctorate in Buddhist studies, had never been on any type of skates before.

The Gelupga School of monks was well known among many Westerners because of the status of the Dalai Lama who won the 1989 Nobel Peace prize and was the leader of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile which had relocated to Dharamsala, India. Distinctive in their burgundy and gold robes, in actuality a long wraparound skirt, separate vest, and outer garment of the sari-like shawl, robes would not make suitable skating attire. But Tenzin and Yeshi were prepared and packed their knapsacks with skating-friendly apparel. I'd never traveled anywhere with monks, but the trip to the ice rink was entertaining as they described their recent visit to the Magic Mountain theme park, and told of all the other popular Southern California tourist sites they'd visited in the past year. My first clue that being around monks was different than hanging with ordinarily dressed friends happened in the rink's parking lot. A security patrolman stared at my friends. Used to such behavior, Tenzin told of someone mistaking an older monk as someone's grandmother! Men in skirts weren't that common of a sight - even in Los Angeles.

Inside the rink my pals changed into their idea of skating wear - burgundy [of course!] warm-ups. Yeshi wore a hooded sweatshirt and Tenzin opted for a jacket with a discreet L.L. Bean logo. Before the session began they were treated to the sight of a pairs team doing a run-through of their short program, plus another senior-level skater effortlessly launching into a few warm-up single axles, followed by a triple Lutz. The monks were impressed with the high quality of skating they were privy to. Yeshi and Tenzin learned that what they were watching was called an elite level freestyle session.

As it was a weekday afternoon, there weren't too many skaters on the ice for the public session, and those that were in attendance were experienced skaters. Even in their monastery back in India they were afforded one day a week in which they didn't engage in any study, but took care of laundry and other chores, mixed in with games of soccer. The getting-Americanized monks still reveled in the novelty of being inside a new ice rink.

Tenzin was the first monk on the newly resurfaced ice. He'd been joking about doing triple axles [in both directions!] earlier, now he was trying to keep his feet beneath him and his blades headed due north. His knees stiffened, and I had to hold his hands. Once he got to the first corner, I left him there while I helped Yeshi onto the alien surface. Knowing he was an aesthetic sort, I wondered how long he'd last. Wouldn't he be happier sitting up in the bleachers and drawing? His body was almost in a state of rigor mortis, and I was worried that he'd fall and not be able to get up. I left him to hold up the railing while I coached Tenzin privately.

As I pulled the young monk, I felt it. Tenzin's knees locked, his feet slid forward and continued to do so until his rear end made contact with the ice. There was a torrent of laughter. In unison, the monks' amusement filled the rink. Soon Yeshi experienced his introductory fall, and he remained on ice in a half lotus posture, too baffled to get up. Progress was slow, as neither artist understood swizzles; two-footed skating that required a lot of knee bending. Tenzin interpreted bending his knees to mean his waist, even though his comprehension of English was fluent.

My simple goal was to have them glide instead of hobble. I decided to have them try a scooter-like move with one skating foot on the flat edge of the blade and the other slightly turned out with the blade doing the pushing. That worked for them, and they quickly turned their walking into stop-and-go glides. Their concentration was keen, and their falls continued to elicit laugher from the "fallee" and from the friend. Tenzin's blades crashed into the wall; he did a half belly flop. Yeshi completely lost his balance when his hips and feet had an internal argument about who was in charge.

Tenzin greeted each lap around the rink with enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment. And Yeshi used his advanced mental yoga training to imitate his teacher, so his skills surpassed that of the younger and more athletic Tenzin. In fact, Yeshi was able to balance so well on one foot that he began to do a modified spiral. That graceful move is to skating what the arabesque is to ballet. One leg is extended behind the skater at hip level, parallel to the ice. Beginners rarely did such a move unless they had extensive athletic training. I wondered if Yeshi was an incarnation of a former world-class figure skater.

For over two hours "my ice babies" frolicked on a surface they'd grown to love. An advanced level teen commented on their improvement, stating that most first time adult skaters never let go of the railing. Both monks managed to spend some time in the center of the rink. Although I was their teacher, I learned more from them. I was shown how mindfulness of one's surroundings allowed a person to excel in an unfamiliar activity. They harmed neither themselves nor any other skater. They didn't attempt moves that were too difficult, yet they tried to perfect what they'd been taught. When I told them that the session was nearly over, both men were genuinely surprised. Not once had they looked at the clock or their watches.

In any religion, effort was always necessary. But enthusiastic effort was what the practitioner was encouraged to cultivate. The monks who skated for the first time that afternoon demonstrated the latter point perfectly. If someone sincerely wanted to learn something, they would.

As they cast a final, longing glance at the ice rink, I asked if they wanted to skate again. Athletic Tenzin didn’t seem too sure, but Yeshi Dorjee, the intellectual artist-turned-skater, did!

Llearn more about the Land of Compassion Buddha dharma center where Yeshi Dorjee sometimes teaches.

Copyright 2001-2012 by Lisa Maliga - this includes all images and text on