Archive | Tibet RSS feed for this section

Fear & (Ego) Dissolving in Haa

29 Mar

Legend, mysticism, and historical facts sometimes appear to be one and the same in Bhutan. There are so many stories and accompanying evidence about the existence of incredible spiritual practitioners, the taming of demons, and hiding of relics that it is difficult to separate the purely fantastical from actual events. In my previous post, I shared the story about the phantom cell phone ring and strange photos/videos that appeared on my friend’s phone while we were inside the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten (KYNC) outside of Punakha. So, I had personally experienced inexplicable phenomena in the country and had a grasp for how stories passed on orally from ancestral generations of Bhutanese could possibly strain credulity. The day after our visit to the KYNC, we left Punakha and stopped first at Chime Lhakhang which was a monastery built in 1499 A.D. and dedicated to Lam Drukpa Kuenley (known as the “Divine Madman”) who was a Buddhist master and poet, as well as, fun-loving drunk and vagabond.

DSCN1370

Image of Drukpa Kuenley (the Divine Madman) and his “flaming thunderbolts”

Similar to the Senge Dradog manifestation of Guru Rinpoche, Drukpa Kuenley embodied the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of “Crazy Wisdom” and wielded his own version of a flaming thunderbolt — a large wooden phallus. Depictions of phalluses and their ejaculatory flames are found painted on the sides of houses, or dangling like wind chimes from the rooftops of the village buildings surrounding Chime Lhakhang. Because Drukpa Kuenley employed an irreverent approach to his Buddhist teaching, he used the phallus as a way to force people to look at those darker aspects and truths of reality that society did not want to acknowledge. He was known to shake up unenlightened persons through his drunken sermons where he wielded the phallus for emphasis of his teachings. Apparently, his unique method of sermonizing also resulted in Drukpa Kuenley’s seduction of thousands of women who would seek his blessing. One of Drukpa Kuenley’s most well-known feats was his subjugation of a fearsome demoness who lived in Dochu La. After he had captured this demoness, he buried her in a mound upon which Chime Lhakhang was later built.

DSCN1645

Pilgrims in the courtyard of Chime Lhakhang

When I walked towards Chime Lhakhang, I saw a sign in English that provided a short history of Drukpa Kuenley and the monastery. The sign stated that Kuenley was born in 1455 and died in 1570, so he would have lived to 115 years old. I don’t know if this was his actual age or an exaggeration, but he was a Tibetan Buddhist mystic with an unassailable joie de vivre and the force of his personality could have extended his life well beyond the average lifespan of the time.

IMG_1666

Entrance to main temple of Chime Lhakhang

Chime Lhakhang consists of one primary building which is the temple room and it is surrounded by an outer wall of prayer wheels. I remember 2 immediate sensations overtaking me when I walked inside the temple: first, the charred smell of juniper and butter lamps; and second, the crisp, creaking sounds of the dark planks of wood on the floor. We were able to see the actual wooden phallus that Kuenley used over 500 years ago in his teachings. This same phallus is still sought after for blessings by pilgrims and others who come to Chime Lhakhang praying for health, well-being, and fertility. Based on the large number of worshippers at Chime Lhakhang and our guide’s own veneration of Drukpa Kuenley, it was evident to me that the Divine Madman’s legacy is very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Bhutanese today.

DSCN1650

In the land of smiles – outside wall of Chime Lhakhang

Our next destination was in the far western reaches of Bhutan — the Haa Valley.  As had been promised by our guide when we had first arrived in Punakha, when we returned through the Dochu La pass and came to a designated prayer flag area, we got out of the car, took a few minutes to seek a blessing for safe passage, and then fastened our own prayer flags (which we had blessed at KYNC) on top of a hillock.

DSCN1653

Fastening prayer flags

We then continued west for several hours until we reached the highest vehicle road in Bhutan at Chele La which is at a height of 3,988m/12,700+ft. We stepped out for some air at Chele La and walked through corridors of tall white mandihar spirit flags erected in memory of deceased relatives. The combination of the thick cottony fog and the fluttering of the flags produced an eerie, ghostly sensation which foreshadowed our upcoming stay in Haa.

DSCN1829

Mandihar spirit flags – Chele La

Haa is a rural outpost that primarily serves as a military base and training site for both the Indian Army and Royal Bhutanese Army. Since Haa is close to the Chinese-occupied Tibetan border, Bhutan has enlisted the support of its neighbor, India, in order to maintain a large army presence in the event that the Chinese invade Bhutan. Haa recently opened to tourists in the early 2000s, and at the time of my visit in 2016, there were only 2 hotels in the town. My friend and I stayed in a historical, 2-story farmhouse on the outskirts of Haa and we were dropped off there in the late afternoon. Our guide and driver stayed in one of the hotels. We walked through the surrounding area of our farmhouse and saw meadows, rocky creeks, empty shrines with glowing butter lamps, a strangely-shaped cow skull, other scattered bones, and no signs of people except for the distant, chilling sounds of a buzzsaw. When night fell and we returned to the farmhouse, none of the lights inside worked. I fumbled through the dark on the first floor of the farmhouse and somehow managed to find a fusebox. I instinctively flipped all the switches and –voila– we had lights which was a godsend since we only had a small flashlight and both the bedrooms and bathrooms were on the second floor. When we walked up the staircase to the second floor and found the bedrooms, a large cockroach or beetle scurried through the sheets of my friend’s bed. He ended up sleeping on top of the sheets as a result. During the night, the farmhouse seemed to come alive with various squeaks and thuds, and at one point, we both heard footsteps that appeared to come from the wooden staircase. I was too sleepy to investigate, and instead, held my breath in a mix of fear and anticipation of something or someone entering my room. However, nothing happened and I assumed that perhaps the caretaker of the farmhouse had walked up the stairs late that night in order to check on things. But, we never saw anyone at the farmhouse during our stay.

IMG_1701

Serene but spooky scenes at Haa

When our guide returned the next morning to pick us up, we mentioned the strange sounds and the issue with the lights at the farmhouse. He let out a chuckle and apologized, but then casually remarked that on the same day of our arrival, 2 Japanese tourists had also been scheduled to stay at the farmhouse. However, they arrived there earlier, took one look at the farmhouse, and then had demanded to stay at one of the hotels in town instead! They ended up staying at the same hotel as our guide who learned about the story through his chatting with the guide of the 2 Japanese tourists.

DSCN1760

Haa Dratshang/Lhakhang Nagpo (White Chapel) from 7th Century

Perhaps because of its remote location and possible poltergeist vibe, Haa contains some very interesting Buddhist sights. We first visited Haa Dratshang (also known as Lhakhang Nagpo or the “White Chapel”) which houses the monastic order of the Haa Valley. The grounds of the White Chapel were being renovated and the buildings had been scrubbed clean and were gleaming. It was hard to believe that the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo had constructed both the White Chapel and Lhakhang Karpo (the “Black Temple”) on the same day so long ago in the mid-7th Century A.D.

DSCN1743

Lhakhang Karpo (the Black Chapel)

When King Songsten Gampo descended from the mountains of Tibet and entered the Haa Valley, he wanted to initially construct 108 monasteries. He released one white pigeon and one black pigeon in order to scout locations for the first 2 monasteries. Where the white pigeon landed is where he ordered that the White Chapel be built, and where the black pigeon landed is where he had the Black Chapel built. We walked about a quarter of a mile to the Black Chapel which was not connected to the same complex as the White Chapel. The Black Chapel is actually gray in color and consists of one squat building which was unlocked for us by a monk. The Black Chapel was built on the remains of a lake and inside it there is a trapdoor that leads to where a lake spirit resides.

DSCN1800

Shek Drak hugging the cliffside above Haa Dratshang

From the Black Chapel, we drove slightly up one of the nearby hillsides and then did a short hike up to the cliffside shrine of Shek Drak. When we arrived at the shrine, we waited for a monk to open the locked door and allow us inside the shrine which contained an altar and prayer area used for meditative retreats.

IMG_1747

Cliff-face view of Shek Drak

While Shek Drak provided for outstanding views of the Haa Valley below, it was not the cliffside shrine I had come to see. My primary reason for coming to Haa was to see the Juneydrag (or Juneydrak) Hermitage which was a shrine shrouded in spiritual power and the home of a relic belonging to a dakini (Sanskrit word for “sky dancer” or a powerful female spiritual priest). This dakini was Machig Labdron who lived from 1055 to 1149 A.D. She was born in Tibet and traveled throughout the region and into what is today Bhutan. Machig Labdron not only mastered Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhist traditions, but also spawned her own Buddhist spiritual lineage which took hold amongst her followers and was passed on through today.

DSCN1726

Image of Machig Labdron on rocks outside of Juneydrag Hermitage

The key aspect of spiritual practice that Machig Labdron mastered and taught is called “chod“. This intense meditative practice refers to the complete cutting off or separating of one’s ego from all attachments. The goal of this practice (as I understand it) is to disassociate oneself from the shackles and obstructions of the physical world by visualizing the dissolution of these mental chains, and then connecting to the emptiness of consciousness that actually binds everything. An interesting aspect of chod practice is the use of fear to heighten the intensity of the ritual. As a result, practitioners will seek out places like graveyards and other fear-inducing places in order to optimize their chod practice.

IMG_1780

Juneydrag Hermitage – 8th Century

One look at the precarious perch of Juneydrag Hermitage on the cliff overhead made it clear to me why Machig Labdron had sought this location for her meditative practice. This small shrine is built over a cave in the cliffside where Guru Rinpoche himself had meditated in the 8th Century. Two centuries later, Machig Labdron had climbed up to the same cave for her own solitary retreat. She had left behind a relic from her stay — her right footprint was imprinted on the sidewall of the cave. I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing this footprint and it brought to mind my previous pursuits of the Buddha’s footprint on the summit of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, as well as, the 2 giant footprints I saw in Luang Prabang, Laos (see posts: “Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-hZ and “Summit (or Fellowship Found)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-ja; and post: “Leaving Nothing But Footprints” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Lq). The veneration of these footprints in stone (petrosomatoglyphs) has a long tradition in Buddhist Asia. But, here at Juneydrag, was the chance to see a footprint that was not tied by legend to the Buddha himself, but to someone else. Yet, I couldn’t help think about how much of Machig Labdron’s story was fact versus fiction. Some stories about Machig Labdron say she was originally born as a male and then transformed into a female after studying and mastering the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Despite my possible doubts, I was on a mission to find out what was inside Juneydrag and so I headed up the trail to the shrine with my guide in tow.

DSCN1722

The hermit of Juneydrag emerges from below

After about an hour of zig-zagging on and off the trail, hoisting ourselves up rope pulleys, and climbing wooden ladders, we came to an entrance door that was locked. This door was not not connected to the shrine itself, but instead was part of an outer barrier built on a narrow part of the trail where it was difficult to climb around or over it. I knocked on the door and waited for someone to come. My guide rather quickly gave up and said sometimes the hermit who is the keeper of the shrine leaves to get supplies, or will not respond because he is in deep meditation. I decided to knock one more time and then yelled out “kuzu zangpo la” which means “hello” in Bhutanese. Miraculously, a figure clad in red flowing robes emerged out of small dwelling below us. It was the hermit. He wore a wizened face and seemed to be from another world. He didn’t say much as he unlocked the door and then whisked my guide and I towards the entrance of the shrine.

DSCN1728

Stepping down into the cave temple at Juneydrag

As we stepped down into the mouth of the cave, we passed by demon-like figures and Tibetan Buddhist symbols painted on the rock walls. The interior of the cave was very small, and aside from a few flickering candles, there was not much light. The hermit motioned me to go to the lefthand side of the cave and there it was: the delicate imprint of Machig Labdron’s right foot. It was undeniably a human-made foot imprint. I knelt and touched Machig Labdron’s stony toes 3 times as the hermit chanted. I then placed an offering of a few Bhutanese ngultrum (Bhutanese currency) at the base of the small altar inside the cave. My guide had never seen the footprint either, so he also made an offering and received a blessing from the hermit. There was a near telepathic energy exchanged between the hermit, my guide, and myself as we stood in this 1,300 year old space and our eyes bounced off the footprint to the gnarled rocky interior of the cave and to one another. I definitely felt a communicative bond and a sense of shared warmth between the three of us although we didn’t say one word.

IMG_1739

With the hermit of Juneydrag (2016)

When we felt it was time to exit, we walked out into the sunlight and I sheepishly asked if I could have a photo taken with the hermit. He agreed, but asked that I not share the photo. Since 4 years have now passed after my visit to Juneydrag and I have read that many of the hermits in Bhutan rotate between caring for shrines and temples all around the country, I’ve decided to post my photo with the hermit for the first time here. I do so only with the utmost respect and profound gratitude for this man and the disciplined watch he kept over Juneydrag. While I may never be able to have the spiritual discipline or capacity to practice chod, I have tried to be mindful of adopting the following lesson attributed to Machig Labdron:

Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go places that scare you.”

Though our visit to Haa had real moments of suspense and spookiness, it all made sense. There can be harmony between the power of fear and the quest for understanding.

Happiness is a Place (Not a State of Mind)

8 Mar

Ever since I had visited Tibet in 2007, I knew what I wanted my next destination to be. This was going to be a trip to a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom whose own history reflected the rich Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality of Tibet. This was Bhutan — the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Given Bhutan’s geographic location tucked between the mountains of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [controlled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)] and India’s snaky northeastern borders [portions of which are also claimed by the PRC], planning a trip to this isolated country would be tricky. First, any foreigner or non-Bhutanese citizen cannot independently fly into Bhutan and travel around the country unchaperoned. As a legacy of its fiercely insular past, Bhutan has a rigorous application process for all foreigners to complete in order to be granted a tourist visa. Each foreign visitor must register with a Bhutanese-based tourist agency which books all hotels and meals (which have different tiers depending on the visitor’s budget). The fees paid to the Bhutanese tourist agency include payment of a daily tourist tariff that is applied towards the hiring of a Bhutanese guide and driver who accompany all foreigners throughout the visit. Second, no non-Bhutanese airlines are permitted to fly to Bhutan, so instead, any visitor must use one of 2 Bhutanese airlines (Bhutan Airlines & Druk Air) in order to fly there. These 2 Bhutanese airlines each serve only a handful of other Asian countries. So, because of the careful coordination, financial cost, and chunk of time that was necessary to properly plan a trip to Bhutan, it took nearly a decade after my visit to Tibet until I was ready to head there. This long passage of time had allowed Bhutan to develop and open itself in new ways to the outside world. Bhutan also had a young king as the head of its constitutional monarchy and he had encouraged foreign investment, relaxed trade restrictions, and modernized Bhutan’s telecommunications infrastructure to allow for internet and WiFi services. The timing of my trip to Bhutan in 2016 took place then at a unique moment where technological innovation and foreign influence were impacting this remote spiritual haven to an unprecedented degree.

DSCN1265

Standing Buddha and Buddha Dordenma (Buddha Point) in distance – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) in the 8th Century A.D. Guru Rinpoche was likely born in north India and he traveled to Tibet where he shared and taught the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism before venturing further east and crossing over the mountains into the lush valleys of Bhutan. Bhutan was a cluster of various fiefdoms controlled by regional warlords for many centuries after Buddhism took root. It was not until the 17th Century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led battle after battle that Bhutan became a unified nation with borders very much the same as it has today. Zhabdrung Namgyal is held in high esteem as the founder of the Kingdom of Bhutan and he zealously defended Bhutan from outside invading armies — his chief adversary being the 5th Dalai Lama who led Tibetan armies in several incursions into Bhutan in the attempt to seize the neighboring country.

DSCN1153

Paro Dzong constructed in 1644 A.D. & its watchtower (now the National Museum of Bhutan) – Paro, Bhutan (2016)

As part of his defense strategy, Zhabdrung Namgyal constructed important dzongs in strategic areas of Bhutan. These dzongs were fortress-temples with massive, thick walls that protected the administrative offices, monastic residences, and areas of worship inside. Each dzong was helmed by a governor and was like a small city-state that effectively secured key regions of the country. Perhaps the most important aspect of Zhabdrung’s rule was his creation of a government whose actions were not to be separate or disconnected from spirituality, but instead, emanated from the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion for all living beings.

DSCN1186

Novice monks walking through Paro Dzong

This government ethos that Zhabdrung promulgated was the reverse of the separation of church and state that exists in the United States and other Western countries. Every Bhutanese king since Zhabdrung Namgyal has maintained this creed which had a reinvention in the 1970s when the-then King of Bhutan coined the term, “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The King explained that this concept was far more important to the Bhutanese than the country’s Gross Domestic Product. GNH encompassed a deeper meaning beyond that of a holistic guiding principle. It was a concrete, trackable economic indicator like inflation, spending, and other cost of living metrics. Additionally, the Bhutanese constitution expressly mandated that it was the government’s responsibility to promote and optimize GNH for its citizens. The Bhutanese government uses a formula to compute the annual GNH that is based on data collected from its citizens through surveys and other feedback. This data reflects criteria such as living standards, health/welfare, education, environmental quality, community vitality, and work-life balance. Ultimately, the higher the calculation of annual GNH will correlate to how well the government has performed in meeting its responsibility to provide the Bhutanese people with a beneficial economic system that is in sync with the natural environment and all sentient beings.

IMG_1462 2

Off into the western horizon — Mt. Everest

As I finalized details for my trip to Bhutan, I had to also take into consideration the season and the availability of flights from those few Asian cities that the 2 Bhutanese airlines served.  I also had a good friend who was looking for a spiritual adventure of sorts, and so, once he learned about my trip, he was eager to join. I was able to have our seats booked on a Bhutan Airlines flight for late August 2016 that would fly from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan. Our flight from Bangkok left at 6:30 a.m. and was only about half-filled with people. The plane had a stop in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and as we remained in our seats, a steady stream of Indians passed by us as they boarded and soon filled the plane to capacity. These were laborers who were flying to Bhutan to provide much needed manpower on the many construction projects taking place all over the country. Once the plane took off from Kolkata, I saw the Hooghly river and the green rice paddies below steadily recede as the Himalayas approached. I had my fingers crossed and hoped the cloud coverage would be minimal so perhaps Mt. Everest would be visible. Within about 10 minutes, off into the western horizon, the unmistakable outline of a massive snowcapped peak appeared. It was Everest. It pierced through the clouds like a welcoming beacon — one that I had not seen since my 2007 flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Excitement welled up inside me as the plane crossed over the Himalayas and Bhutan was at hand.

IMG_1502

The descent to Paro International Airport – Bhutan

As we began our descent, the mountains tightened around us and at times the plane’s wingtips seemed close enough to touch them (no wonder only Bhutanese airlines fly into the country). When we landed, I walked onto the tarmac and felt a warm glow caress my face. I looked around and was surrounded by the bluest of blue skies and greenest of green trees and hillsides. We had arrived in the town of Paro which is about 50km (31 miles) from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu. After we cleared passport control, our guide and driver who were each wearing “ghos” (Bhutanese traditional male garb like a kimono) greeted us and placed white prayer scarves around our necks. It was as if we had arrived in the mythical land of Shangri-La.

IMG_1471

On the tarmac at Paro International Airport

We put our bags in the car and then drove towards our first stop to see the Paro Dzong and its watchtower which had been converted to the National Museum of Bhutan in 1960. The National Museum provided us with an overview of the history, culture, natural environment, and spirituality of Bhutan. Below Paro Dzong, we stopped off to enter a very old chorten called Dumtse Lhakhang that had been built in the early 15th Century by Thangtong Gyalpo who was known for constructing iron bridges that spanned key rivers in Bhutan. While Dumtse Lhakhang is unassuming from the outside (aside from its Tibetan design), it had incredible, complex murals of Buddhist legends inside its tight confines. We had to climb up small wooden ladders to get to the top floor of the chorten where legend had it that the spirit of a demoness was trapped. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside Dumtse Lhakhang, so its exquisite interior and any evidence of the demoness remain hidden to the rest of the world.

DSCN1212

Dumtse Lhakhang built in 1430s A.D. – Paro, Bhutan

We left Paro and drove towards to Thimpu where we were to spend our first few nights. There was a lot of excited chatter during the drive between our guide and us as he had many questions about our lives in the United States and we of course wanted to learn about his life in Bhutan. We discussed everything from Bhutanese dishes like emo datshi (chili peppers and melted cheese) and Red Panda beer (barley infused with juniper) to GNH and the Buddhist spiritualism that penetrated all facets of life in the country. Since we were staying in the country for 8 days, there would be many more conversations with our guide about these topics and much more. He was very knowledgeable and brought both a sense of humor and seriousness to the many Buddhist and historical sights we had lined up to visit.

DSCN1385

Directing “gridlock” in downtown Thimpu

After about 45 minutes of driving and passing troops of white langur monkeys along the way, I could see the hills of Thimpu drawing near. It had been a long day of travel given the early start that morning from Bangkok and I was looking forward to getting out of the car and decompressing. We exited from the main highway and pulled onto a road going to the city center where we came to a sudden stop at a traffic circle behind other cars. In the middle of the traffic circle, there was a uniformed Bhutanese man with an intense expression who was directing traffic with dramatic movements of his white-gloved hands. Our guide said that there were no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan — including Thimpu, its most populous city with about 110,000 people. I watched the traffic guard methodically guiding, waving at, and stopping cars with a rhythmic choreography. It looked to me like he was breakdancing at times. I had to smile. GNH was starting to make sense.

The Calming Influence of A Giant

7 Feb

After I had journeyed through Tibet in 2007, I made a vow to myself to never set foot in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). My reasons for that are chronicled in my previous posts about my first-hand experience of the treatment of Tibetans and their vanishing culture under the oppressive policies of the PRC (click the “Tibet” heading under the “Categories” section to read those posts). Yet, even before I traveled to Dunhuang, China to see the Mogao Caves in 2016, I had already visited the PRC on 2 different occasions with the first taking place in November 2012. My 2012 trip was spurred by 2 things: first, China had embarked on a fascinating “re-branding” blitz that had begun during the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and second, my youngest brother was living in Shanghai and working on the design and construction of one of the massive new projects that was part of this “new China” — Disney Shanghai. I wrestled with the decision to go to China, but ultimately relented after convincing myself that the visit could provide me with insight into the attitudes and pulse of the upcoming generation there. In order to procure my Chinese visa, I had to have my brother write an “invitation letter” asking me to visit him in China and then I sent this letter along with an application fee and my flight arrival and departure information to the Chinese consulate in the U.S. While I was interested in seeing the soaring demand for consumerism and luxury Western brands in Shanghai, I had another destination in mind: Chengdu. So, after a couple of days getting acclimated to the frenzied pace of Shanghai, I was soon boarding a long domestic flight to what was once China’s western frontier.

thumb_DSCN4581_1024

Wenshu Pavillion, Wenshu Temple – Chengdu, China (2012)

Chengdu was the 5th largest city in China at the time of my visit. This sprawling city sits about 2,000km (1,200 miles) from Shanghai and is located in the southwestern corner of China in Sichuan province. It is the last major city in this region of China before the mountains and the Tibetan plateau begin to rise and dominate the landscape. Chengdu is perhaps best known today for 2 things: food and pandas. There’s no doubt that Chengdu is the culinary capital of China with its fiery cuisine which features the spicy Sichuan peppercorn. There are thousands of hot pot restaurants where diners boil their own meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth saturated with Sichuan peppers and spices. Additionally, the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is about 20km outside of downtown. The sole purpose of this conservation park is to breed, nurse, and in some cases, release Giant Pandas into the surrounding forests.

thumb_DSCN5149_1024

Bottle feeding Giant Panda cub at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Pandas

Long before the gastronomy and panda craze, Chengdu was one of the “Three Kingdoms” that controlled China in the 3rd Century A.D.  Emperor Liu Bei had his palace in Chengdu and ruled what was called the Shu kingdom. His period of rule has been romanticized in important Chinese books and novels as a golden era of great learning, prosperity, and cultural exchange. Contemporary Chengdu is filled with construction cranes, huge buildings, and the city is connected by a  “flyover” highway where cars whiz above the city without the bother of traffic lights. A few key historical sights in Chengdu include the old district (called Jinli), the Tibetan quarter filled with raucous snooker halls, the Wuhou Shrine (Liu Bei’s burial mound), and Wenshu Monastery (originally called “Xin Xiang Temple”) — the oldest and best preserved Buddhist monastery in Chengdu.

thumb_DSCN4570_1024

The Thousand Buddha Pagoda – Wenshu Temple

Wenshu Temple was built sometime in the 6th Century A.D. during the rule of Emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty.  It is a large complex with multiple buildings and prayer halls. The most arresting feature of the temple is the Thousand Buddha Pagoda in the courtyard. In the 19th century, a well-known Chinese monk who had studied at Bodh Gaya in India brought back a fingerbone relic that is now thought to be enshrined inside the Pagoda.

thumb_DSCN4923_1024

The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa at the Golden Summit – Mt. Emei, Sichuan province, China (2012)

Given Chengdu’s geographic location on the western frontier of China, it served as a natural corridor for the arrival of Buddhism into China. Buddhism is an alien religion in China. Confucianism and Taoism were long entrenched as the dominant philosophical and religious schools of thought before Buddhism began to spread from the Himalayas and deserts in the West to the populated Chinese regions in the East. About a 2-hour drive south of Chengdu is perhaps the exact location where Buddhism first took hold in China — Mt. Emei (Emeishan). This mountain is one of the “4 Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism” and is where the Buddhist monk, Samantabhadra (called Puxian by the Chinese), first arrived on the back of a white elephant with 6 tusks. Puxian taught in the Mahayana Buddhist school and is viewed today as a Bodhisattva associated with meditation and spiritual practice.  The first Buddhist temple in China was built on the slopes of Emeishan in the 1st Century A.D. The entire Emeishan region is a UNESCO site and there is a lot to see. My goal was to reach the “Golden Summit” and visit the key temple complexes that dotted the mountain. From Mt. Emei, I wanted to travel about 35km east to see the largest pre-modern statue in the world which was an ancient Giant Buddha carved into a riverside cliff.  Because of the tricky overland travel and the non-existence of English in West China, I decided to hire an English-speaking guide and driver in Chengdu who would take care of the logistics for getting to all these sites.

thumb_DSCN4870_1024

Walking up the icy steps towards the cable car station at Mt. Emei

It was late November and an early winter chill was in full effect at the base of Mt. Emei where we purchased admission tickets for a cable car that would take us up to the Golden Summit. The journey to the cable car station itself required a combination of riding a shuttle bus, walking up steep stairways, and being on the lookout for hyperactive Tibetan macaques. Going up these stairways was treacherous given the ice and people were buying special shoe covers from eager vendors in order to walk safely. There are over 30 Buddhist monasteries and temples spread around Mt. Emei from its base (Baoguo Monastery), mid-mountain (Wannian Monastery), and top (Golden Temple, Silver Temple). Of all of these, Wannian Monastery is one of the oldest and most eye-popping in its aesthetic and impact.

thumb_DSCN4994_1024

The yellow Beamless Brick Hall of the Wannian Temple complex – Mt. Emei

In keeping with the traditional layout of Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, the Wannian Monastery consists of multiple buildings which include an entry gate, prayer halls dedicated to the Buddha and Maitreya (Future Buddha), drum & bell towers, assembly pavilions, library rooms, and monk dormitories. The most unique of these buildings is the “Beamless Brick Hall” which one cannot miss due to its yellow color and dome. There are no wooden supports or pillars inside this building which is constructed by brick and is likely based on stupa and dagoba designs found in India and Sri Lanka. Directly underneath the dome is an astounding bronze statue of Puxian that was cast in the 10 Century A.D.  Puxian is holding a teaching scepter and sits in a lotus flower that rests atop a 6-tusk white elephant. The statue is over 7 meters/24ft high and is the absolute focal point of all activity inside.

thumb_DSCN5005_1024

Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

thumb_DSCN5001_1024

Bronze statue of Puxian from 10th Century A.D. – Wannian Monastery

When I tried to walk around the elephant in order to observe the statue from different vantage points, I noticed a group of Chinese individuals who were taking turns rubbing one of the back legs of the elephant. I could only interpret this as some kind of good luck tradition and noticed that the rubbed area of the elephant’s leg had eroded and was black. From Wannian Monastery, a shuttle took us further up the mountain to Jieyin Monastery which sits at an elevation of 2,540 meters. From there, we walked up another stairway to the cable car station. At this elevation, visibility was extremely limited due to thick clouds and fog. As the cable car started its way up, I braced myself for the probable disappointment that the Golden Summit itself would be completely encased in suffocating cloud cover.

thumb_DSCN4936_1024 copy

Above the “sea of clouds” with the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple in the distance – Mt. Emei

The cable car neared the summit within about 6 or 7 minutes and as it emerged out of the thick clouds, incredibly, my face was met by warm sunlight and I saw nothing but blue skies. The elevation of the “Jinding” (Golden Summit) of Mt. Emei is just above 3,000m (10,000ft) and in the distance way above the sea of clouds it is possible to see the tallest mountain in Sichuan, Mount Gongga (over 7,550 meters/nearly 25,000ft). As I began walking towards the main platform of the Golden Summit, I had to shield my eyes from the blinding golden temples and pavillions that were coming into view.  The summit platform itself was a fanatical sight of white elephants carrying the Dharma wheel on their backs, white trees, and in the center, a looming, frosted gold vision: the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa. 

thumb_DSCN4897_1024

Walking towards the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa at the Golden Summit

The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa was built in 2006 and is 48 meters/127ft tall. Despite its recent vintage, there’s something magical about this statue. Perhaps the frost and passing mist that I saw around the statue added to its spectral quality, but I had never seen a stupa crowned with such a dynamic statue and was mesmerized. It was hard to pull my eyes away. At the base of the stupa, there was a doorway and when I walked inside I saw a statue of the Maitreya fronted by an altar area for prayer and offerings. The “Ten Faces” of Puxian represent the 10 virtues of truth that Puxian taught during his life.  Alongside the stupa are the Golden Temple and Silver Temple, and hanging on a cliff in the distance, is the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.

thumb_DSCN4947_1024

The Golden Temple & Ten-Faced Puxian stupa

After spending about an hour wandering the Golden Summit and marveling at the perfect blanket of clouds below, we made our way back to the cable car and descended down the mountain. My driver then drove us east for about an hour until we reached another UNESCO site — the Leshan Giant Buddha (called “Da Fo”).  While the Ten-Faced Puxian stupa is a masterwork of modern design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is probably the most stupefying single statue of the ancient world.

thumb_DSCN4702_1024

Riverside view of the Leshan Giant Buddha – Sichuan province, China (2012)

This statue was built in 8th Century A.D. and is 71 meters/233ft high. I first viewed this colossus from a boat which takes visitors across an intersection of rivers to a waiting area directly in front of the Giant Buddha. Today, the rivers are tranquil, but 1,300 years ago, there were 3 mighty rivers that merged in the same spot and due to their whitewater rapids and rocks, boats were routinely tossed and thrashed like rag dolls. It was because of these concerns that a local Buddhist monk named Hai Tong began his quest to build a guardian statue that would be blessed and serve to calm the wild waters. He spent 20 years of his life trying to raise money for his project and was rebuffed at every turn until he finally gouged out one of his eyes in dramatic protest. Apparently, this desperate act did the trick and money for the project quickly poured in from regents and locals. Construction started in 723 A.D., and although Hai Tong died before the project was completed, his disciples faithfully carried out his wishes until the statue was finished in 803 A.D.

thumb_DSCN4817_1024

Statue of Hai Tong and entrance to the spartan cave he lived in during construction of “Da Fo”

The entire Giant Buddha statue is made of stone except for the ears which are built from wood and clay was used to fuse the large head to the torso.  At one point, the statue had a roof over it to protect it from the weather and other elements, but this feature was destroyed long ago. The statue is thought to represent the Maitreya (the future Buddha), and alongside it are other smaller stone statues, tombs, the remains of an old temple, and a few pagodas perched on the surrounding hilltops.

thumb_DSCN4742_1024

Eye-to-eye with the Leshan Giant Buddha

After our boat turned back to the dock, we drove across a bridge and arrived at the official entrance to the Leshan Giant Buddha where we purchased our tickets. The visit to the Leshan Giant Buddha starts from the top where the statue’s head rises just above the cliff plateau. From there, one must patiently and carefully walk down the “Nine-Turn Cliff” to get to the bottom of the statue. Signs in Chinese and English are posted warning visitors who suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, or “old-age” not to walk down the Nine-Turn Cliff.

thumb_DSCN4772_1024

Carefully descending the Nine-Turn Cliff

On my way down the Nine-Turn Cliff, it became immediately clear why the need for the warning. The stairway is steep and the railing that separates you from a likely lethal fall is not very high. To complicate things, people are haphazardly stopping all along the way to snap photos, rest, or chit-chat, so you have to be on high-alert for human traffic jams and not bump into the person ahead of you.  It is also difficult to pass slow-pokes given the narrow stairway. If someone twists an ankle or gets a panic attack and needs to turn around and walk upstream against the slog of people coming down, this could trigger a nightmare scenario of being temporarily stuck.

thumb_DSCN4804_1024

Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

thumb_DSCN4794_1024

A colossus

When I reached the bottom, I walked behind a large incense urn and kneeling area and stared up. This statue was constructed in only 80 years over 1,300 years ago. That seemed inexplicably fast to me. I could see lush bushes and vines growing out of certain areas of the statue (I learned later that every few years Chinese officials undertake the painstaking effort of removing all this greenery which always grows back). This symbiotic relationship between the Giant Buddha and the vegetation that sprouts out of it reminded me of large whales that have barnacles attached to them. These bushes that had managed to take root in the statue made the statue appear alive and sentient. Then, I had a funny thought that the Leshan Giant Buddha was not just the world’s largest pre-modern statue, but also the world’s largest Chia Pet!

thumb_DSCN4673_1024

The climb back up

After viewing the Giant Buddha from below, I had to go back up through another stairway on the opposite cliffside. The walk up was very slow and claustrophobic in certain places given the tight tunnel-like switch-backs dug into the cliffside. As I climbed higher and looked down at the river below, I could see it was shallow with sediment piled up in certain places. Interestingly, this sediment was all the result of the construction of the Giant Buddha. All of the silt, rocks, and other sludge which had been removed from the cliff in order to carve the statue were not carted away or transported elsewhere for other uses. Instead, all of this excavated cliffside debris simply fell into the wild rivers below, and gradually, the rivers were reshaped and the once raging rapids ceased. So, the Giant ultimately accomplished what Hai Tong had sought long ago — it had calmed the rivers.

thumb_DSCN4827_1024

A final look on the way out

Sketches of Lhasa (#3)

18 Oct

Norbulingka (Summer residence of the Dalai Lamas)

I entered the Potala on my second day in Lhasa. The date was July 6, 2007 and unbeknownst to me – this was also the 14th (current) Dalai Lama’s birthday. Call it coincidence, serendipity, or whatever — but one thing it was not — was planned. I had no idea of the significance of that day when I got up that morning and walked from my hotel to the base of the Potala. But, somehow I figured it out. Not sure how– I don’t remember talking to anyone in my tour group about it, and in fact, they had all gone to see the Potala after the previous day’s visit to Drepung Monastery. I had lost them and gone off on my own to the Nechung and then Norbulingka before finding my way to the Barkhor quarter of Lhasa in the early evening. Before I went inside the Potala’s grounds, I walked the “kora” or circuit around the Potala. There was a path for pilgrims to do this journey and there were long stretches where shiny prayer wheels got spun en route. The walk took longer than I thought, but allowed me to observe this magnificent structure from every vantage point. When I completed the kora and arrived back at the entrance of the Potala, I had to pass through a security check and I noticed PRC soldiers stationed in every room and accessible space of the Potala. I didn’t know whether these were the usual security measures or whether things were on heightened alert because of the meaning of that day. There was no written guide or map of the Potala that was provided to me after I purchased my entrance ticket. Instead, I just followed the marked route which lead through each of the open buildings and temples [not all areas of the Potala are open to visitors] and had to climb wooden ladders that had been laid on top of the old steps in certain areas because the steps were either so steep or were being protected from further erosion. I peered through the windows from inside the middle building of the Potala which opened straight through the heart of Lhasa. There was a large “Tibetan Liberation” monument erected on the square below. Off to the left side, I could see the most sacred and holy temple in Tibetan Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple. It had originally been constructed in 642 AD and had steadily been built up during each century thereafter. Its gilded rooftop glimmered in the sunlight and it sat in staunch opposition to the modern PRC architecture that had sprouted on the main roads and walkways that poured directly into the Potala’s grounds. As I walked through the Potala, there were 3 rooms that were particularly memorable. The first was a room in one of the largest buildings which housed the tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama. A bright gold chalice-like reliquary stood in the center of this room which held the cremated remains of the 5th Dalai Lama. It was this Dalai Lama that had first built the Potala and done so much to establish the jurisdiction of the Dalai Lama as not only the spiritual, but also the governmental leader of Tibet. Part of the tomb also contained a statue of an elephant which had an enormous pearl popping out of a turquoise mound that was placed smack in the center of the elephant’s head. This was the biggest pearl I had ever seen in my life. In another room, which appeared to be a treasury room filled with various gold and copper Buddha statues and other objects was a beautifully detailed 3-dimensional mandala structure. This complex structure sat in dusty silence behind plexiglass in a corner of the treasury room. It was practically unnoticeable unless you craned your neck like I did around one of the pillars in order to see it tucked away in the side of the room. It was not possible to take any photos inside the Potala since this was prohibited and there was a PRC soldier in each room, but I wish I had been able to snap a pic of this unique mandala — it was an absolutely divine creation. The most emotive room was the former living quarters of the Dalai Lama. This room was tightly controlled by PRC soldiers and each of the personal items and furniture of the Dalai Lama were encased behind plexiglass. The Dalai Lama’s small bed, a clock with western numerals, and some antique looking eyeglasses seemed to lay in the exact position where the Dalai Lama had last placed left them before he had slipped into exile in 1959. It was his birthday, so I could not help but think of how the occasion would have been marked in Lhasa if he had still been there. In the room next to the Dalai Lama’s living quarters, hung some of his clothes and robes and other emblematic garb of his position — one of which included his official chair. This chair was decorated and painted with various symbols of the Bon and Tibetan Buddhist traditions and had a red cushion. As I was imagining the days of when the Dalai Lama would sit atop the chair and greet visitors, two Tibetan woman entered the room and they quickly fell to the floor right in front of me and began prostrating themselves in front of the chair. Before I could even process what I was seeing, a PRC soldier burst into the room and yanked each woman upright in one swift motion by their belts. He then ushered them out of the room and I thought I heard the women chuckling as they disappeared. I was gobsmacked.

Jokhang Temple – Lhasa

I left the Potala and headed down towards the Jokhang Temple. The Jokhang was the centerpiece of Lhasa’s old quarter, the Barkhor. I weaved my way into the main road leading to the Jokhang which was an extremely well-paved road with broad sidewalks lined with fancy shops selling luxury and brand name goods. This road ended right before a raised stoned square on which the Jokhang Temple stood. Tibetan people at one point or another in their lives make the pilgrimage to the Jokhang, the holiest Buddhist temple in Tibet. The warm, saintly mix of burning juniper and yak butter candle-wax filled the air and led me towards a human current of centrifugal force pulsing around the Jokhang. I was quickly swept up into a clockwise kora composed of Tibetans of all ages dressed in traditional attire, twirling custom-made hand prayer wheels and reciting the om-mani-padme-hum mantra. The kora around the Jokhang featured 4 large yak poles draped and made thick with prayer scarves and flags. I walked alongside these pilgrims — lap after lap — around the Jokhang. I was giddy and smiling the entire time. I was part of something that I can only say felt like going back to the egg. It was a glimpse into a physical manifestation of destiny. When I got back to the front of the Jokhang Temple and was about to go inside I noticed a few pilgrims doing prostrations. Each of these pilgrims had a mat in front of them and was doing such robust, full-body prayers that I could hear the friction of their body rub off the ground. And then I took a closer look at the large block stones that had centuries ago been laid down in front of the Jokhang. Each of these stones were perfectly smooth. They were like glass and I could see my reflection in them. After hundreds and hundreds of years of daily, round the clock prostrations, the stones had been embossed to a glossy finish! That was devotion. I shuddered at the unadulterated power of that devotion. After I toured the inside of the Jokhang and exited, I headed into the tight, crooked streets of the Barkhor area. This old quarter consisted of Tibetan homes and tiny, slot businesses. As I walked around the neighborhood and saw children playing in the streets and adults chatting on street corners, I began to pick up on some things. There appeared to be no street lights — although the rest of Lhasa and the tony streets leading to the Jokhang had electricity poles and street lights. Most of the buildings in the Barkhor were in bad states of repair, had broken windows, and were falling apart. The buildings were crowded together and at times I couldn’t see the sky — but it had nothing to do with the height of the buildings which were not more than 3 stories — there was something about how the buildings were angled overhead. Then, as I was trying to find my way out of the Barkhor, I hit a blackness straight-on. I was confused and stepped back. It was a big menacing wall. I was a bit annoyed, but I thought I could find a way around it, so I began walking alongside thinking it would end and a road or path would lead through it. There was no end or path. This was a WALL. The Barkhor area had been purposely walled in. I saw the wall turn and continue to run into blackness on the far side of the area where I stood. There was no where for Tibetans in the Barkhor to grow or bring in new infrastructure. The next generation would have no choice but to leave this last remnant of traditional Lhasa and live in one of the modern apartments built on the outside by the PRC. I was incredulous. Nothing I had read about Lhasa had mentioned that a wall had been built around the Barkhor quarter. It was like a cement python slowly constricting the life out of the Barkhor. That was the horrible thought that had come to me when I had left the Nechung Monastery on the previous day. This had been further reinforced when I had met a Tibetan man at Palubuk — a cave temple monastery located across from the Potala — who had said there were nearly 300,000 people in Lhasa, 240,000 of whom were Han Chinese. He himself had to sneak out of Tibet into Dharamsala in India in order to learn the Tibetan language because the PRC had banned the instruction of Tibetan in their schools. Once he had learned the language and also had received a general understanding of Tibetan history and Buddhist practice, he had returned to Lhasa in order to help his parents. He told me to be sure to tell people what I saw in Tibet.

Like the centuries old frescoes I had seen get rubbed by the hands of Chinese tourists, the Tibetan tradition and way of life will surely fade away as the aggressive PRC policies of forced assimilation and displacement continue unchecked. But, I pause. I can still remember those perfectly smooth stones in front of the Jokhang. How could the spirit of the Tibetan people ever be broken when such devotion courses through every inch of their being? We need to support their struggle by shining a light on that devotion and the rich artistic nature of their culture and spiritual practice. They will persevere and outlast. We can take some refuge in that.

Sketches of Lhasa (#2)

11 Oct

Rock paintings of Lamas outside Drepung Monastery

Drepung Monastery was built in 1416. It is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and is also a university for monks seeking formal instruction in Buddhism. It was the primary residence of the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama finished the Potala Palace. The tombs of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Dalai Lamas are all housed in the main temple of the Drepung which is located just a few kilometers to the west of Lhasa and sits on the top of a small hill. A good chunk of the original monastery complex was destroyed during the 1959 PRC liberation of Tibet. When I visited in 2007, Drepung was so quiet that it seemed deserted. So, a year later, I was incredulous as I read the limited news releases coming out of Tibet, which reported that some of the monks at Drepung had been apprehended (and likely never seen again) for taking part in the uprisings which had erupted that spring in Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet.  The entire monastery was then “closed” by the PRC for many months after it had crushed the dissent. I don’t think I saw more than a couple of monks in the entire monastery complex when I was there. I had the enormous assembly hall all to myself.  This hall contains tall columns and cushioned areas where the monks gather for prayer, ceremony, and debate. I strolled around the space with a relaxed stride and had no sense of time or urgency. I soaked up the details of each of the beautiful thangkas that rolled down from the rafters and beneath my feet were thick, multi-patterned Tibetan carpets.

Main Temple – Drepung Monastery

I veered off to the right side of the assembly hall and entered a few rooms where the ceilings were very high. In these rooms, I noticed wide shelves running up the sides of the walls and hitting the ceiling. Wire-like meshing had been placed outside of some of the shelves and parts of the items on the shelves crammed into this meshing. Due to the low light in these rooms, I had to use my flashlight to take a closer look at the shelves. I wanted to know what these ancient-looking, boxy items were.  I was able to see loose, rectangle-sized parchment leaves bound together by wood-like binding. They must have been over 300 years old.  Some of the parchment was nothing more than debris held only in place by centuries of inertia. These rooms were old libraries from Drepung’s earliest monastic university days. I wondered if they had ever been cataloged or interpreted by archaeologists, religious scholars, or any PRC agency.  I couldn’t believe that these books were sitting idly on these shelves untouched and crumbling into dust. The loss of knowledge is like losing anything else. Once it is gone there is only the memory of it and then the communication of that memory depends on who dictates it. I guess that’s how it goes.

Fresco – Drepung Monastery

On the walls around the assembly hall, the Drepung has striking frescoes showing “end of the world” scenes of man being ravaged by demons and beasts. These images reminded me of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch in the 15th century. The parallels were uncanny. I spent so much time studying these frescoes that when I finally made my way out of Drepung, I saw that my tour group shuttle had gone. I was not bothered since I had plans to ditch the group anyway. I knew there was another monastery nearby that I could walk to. This was the Nechung Monastery which although small in size contains the mystical soul of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nechung “Oracles” all used to live in this monastery and had their own special monks which tended to them.  I did not know what or who the “Oracle” was until I watched Martin Scorsese’s film, Kundun. The Nechung Oracle is a man who has the ability to serve as the medium between the earthly world and the spiritual realm. Through trance, reciting of mantras, and ritualized dance (complete with a heavy, ornate headdress), the Oracle opens himself to be possessed by the spirits who then are consulted on matters of prophesy, governmental affairs, the protection of the Dharma, and the security of the Dalai Lama. The process of undergoing a possession by the Oracle was sometimes so debilitating that the Oracle would be bedridden for weeks or even months afterwards. The Nechung Oracle was a state official in the government of pre-PRC Tibet and to this day serves as an important advisor to the Dalai Lama in exile. The Nechung Monastery had a very different vibe to it than any other monastery I had seen in Tibet.  It had been thoroughly destroyed in 1959 and rebuilt in part, but when I entered, I felt like I was walking through something that was still lying in smoking ruins.  Without the Nechung Oracle there, the monastery was dead. I know it is strange to say that about something which is made of nothing more than wooden beams and mortar, but there was only a feeling of death in Nechung.

Paintings on outside of Nechung Monastery

These feelings were reaffirmed by the harrowing paintings that had survived or been retouched on some of the walls of the central temple. These paintings showed menacing demons and serpents with their teeth and claws bared. Human skulls and flayed human skins were painted around door frames and along walls. Eyeballs dangled out of heads.

Detail of painting – Nechung Monastery

I thought about those Oracles who through the past centuries had passed through the doors which I myself walked through that day. I sensed the faint murmurs of something that to me was supernatural. There was a kind of spiritual “power source” emanating from Nechung — but this power source no longer had the medium it needed in order to be harnessed and wielded. It was flickering into oblivion – just like the books I had seen in Drepung.  A horrible realization struck me as I walked out of the Nechung:  Extinction.  It was happening right before my eyes.

Sketches of Lhasa (#1)

4 Oct

Souvenir stand at Yamdrok Tso overlook

The final leg of my overland journey to Lhasa took me through one last high pass (Karo La Pass: 5,010m / 16,400ft) where we stopped and looked at the sacred turquoise lake of Yamdrok Tso.  Tibetan pilgrims spend months circumbulating the lake, but the most devout pilgrims do not  complete this circuit through walking, but instead through prostration. The Tibetan form of prostration is an all-out, full body exercise. The person stands upright and with hands together reaches up to touch the top of the head, throat, and heart, then kneels down on all fours and in one motion slides his entire body horizontally on the ground with his hands stretched out before him. He then slinks back to the all fours position and stands back up in one fluid motion. It is difficult for the uninitiated to perform just one prostration, and yet the practice is that three such prostrations must be performed in order to achieve one set. The pilgrim never does just 1 prostration — 1 set must be completed. It was hard to imagine doing thousands upon thousands of prostrations for months at a time in order t0 circumambulate Yamdrok Tso, but it had been done each year for centuries. Blew my mind. Some pilgrims take things even further doing prostrations around other holy sites in Tibet like Mt. Kailash or between monasteries separated by hundreds of miles. I stood over the lake and marveled at its color and stillness. Not a wave appeared to ripple. The entire trip had so far been without boundary – meaning I never felt boxed in or contained by anything — whether landscape, cityscape, or anything else. Then, as the descent to Lhasa (13,000ft) began, the change came. I first recognized the forms of familiar things like leafy trees, grassy knolls, and a river. The once empty spaces that had surrounded everything became cut up and gave way to paved highway roads with onramps /offramps, signs, stop lights, and glass and steel buildings. There would also be another boundary that I would come up against on my second night in Lhasa (something insidious that I will have to describe later). I spent 3 days in Lhasa and as I shuffle through my notes from that time at present, it is more difficult than I thought about how to best convey the experience.  The unjust and unfair exists everywhere and sometimes in unequal parts to the just and fair.  There is war and peace, oppression and liberation, and knowledge and ignorance. Each of these is tied together like the day to the night, and cannot be understood in proper context without the other. So, I will start with my first night in Lhasa. I had spent the entire day at the Drepung and Nechung Monasteries and at Norbulingka, the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas. And I had of course lost my tour group because of my lengthy lingering and meandering and they left without me. I charted my own course from there and ended up at the old quarter of Lhasa, the Barkhor, where I found a restaurant with a rooftop serving area that had an unobstructed, diagonal view of the Potala Palace.

Potala Palace – Lhasa, Tibet (2007)

I’ve seen some of the most electrifying sights in Asia, but the Potala stands apart. It brings to life what myths and the sacred are made of. When I first saw it as we drove into Lhasa and felt it loom over the city, I had to avert my eyes because I wasn’t ready to absorb its presence. I just couldn’t do it. I would have to wait, and so I did until the evening of that first day. The sun was lowering into the sky when I took a chair at the restaurant and used the railing of the terrace as my table.  To my left was the Potala. I swallowed it in with my entire being. It was incomprehensible in size, staggering in its symmetry and zig-zagging escalation. Its central buildings were trapezoids of white with red rimmed windows with the main central building in red with black rimmed windows. It sat like a throne on the huge mountain rock it had been built on in the 1650s by the 5th Dalai Lama. It butted up against the sky and smoldered with an aura of longing. It had been the home for the 5th through the 14th Dalai Lamas, and had stood empty since 1959. If not for the action of a Chinese general who blocked the ransacking and looting of the Potala by the Red Army who had stormed Lhasa, the Potala would likely have been destroyed. It is now a PRC state museum. I don’t think I was able to adjust my gaze or to do anything else except nurse my bottle of Everest Beer in passing intervals. I didn’t look at the food menu until 30-minutes or so had passed. My mind had stilled for the first time during the week I had been in Tibet. I had seen a phrase painted in the Drepung Monastery earlier that day and it said: “Subdue Your Mind In its Entirety.”  Easier said than done I had initially thought. Yet, here I was later in the same day and the stark awesomeness of the Potala had dwarfed anything else of substance in me at that moment. I felt such a sense of pride in the human spirit. How the collective power of mankind when harnessed and geared toward a shared purpose was capable of reaching such majestic heights.

Potala Palace

As the sun set and the sky darkened, lights lit up the Potala and then it transformed into the sublime — seemingly floating and pulsating in a moonless sky.  Fireworks went off. What a sight. It was perfect. I had been pulled here by something restless inside me. This restlessness quieted on that first night when I sat in silence and engaged the Potala with my heart and mind. I can say with no exaggeration that for the first time in my life, I truly gave thanks — and not just some b.s. kind of “I’m so lucky to be here” thanks — but a vulnerable, soul-baring thanks. While I had been transfixed by the Potala, I had simultaneously been reflecting on my own shortcomings and failings as a person who was far from perfect, far from knowing anything about where his life was going.  The Potala stood before me as a giant — personifying my potential to attain something meaningful. It was Nirvana incarnate and it was so close at hand.  I was thankful.

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

I left Xigatse filled with conflict. In a way, I had contributed to the puppetry orchestrated at Tashilumpo by not saying a word about the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama. I snapped some pics and smiled at the monks I saw there and shelled out some Yuans for the monastery’s coffers and it all rang hollow. I squirreled away my thoughts and jotted down notes about the experience as we got back onto the “Friendship Highway” and continued to our next destination, Gyantse. Earlier in the trip I had seen the 4 Tibetan drivers of our tour group excitedly pile into one of the Landcruisers and they were watching something. I became curious, so I went to the car and stuck my head inside.  There was a DVD player hung from the passenger-side sunshade and it was showing the Dalai Lama speaking in Tibetan. My tour guide was standing outside the car and he proudly said he had smuggled the DVD into Tibet from Kathmandu in order to share it with the drivers and others he would see when we reached Lhasa. The thrill on the drivers’ faces was infectious.  They hung on each of the words they were hearing and were scrutinizing all the gestures and facial ticks of the Dalai Lama. They joked and laughed loud. There was a childlike wonderment in their playfulness. It was like they were tasting forbidden fruit, but rather than feel any shame or fear about the experience, they were passing it around and each taking a huge bite. How that scene contrasted with what I felt as we drove out of Xigatse in carefully sustained silence.

Gyantse Khumbum

The town of Gyantse is known for its astonishing chorten (Tibetan for stupa) or “Khumbum” (hall of 100,000 images) as it is locally called. This chorten is part of Palcho Monastery and was built in the early 1400s. Like the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu, the Gyantse Khumbum has Eyes. But, unlike those other 2 stupas, the Khumbum is an interactive, multi-terraced pyramid of chapel rooms teeming with statues and wall paintings of the Buddha, wrathful Tibetan deities, and other important figures from Tibetan folklore.  Although there are a couple of other chortens that still stand elsewhere in Tibet, there is none that compares to the exquisite artistry and “in situ” magnificence of the Gyantse Khumbun. The structure itself sits within the center of a walled old town. The wall runs along the rim of the small mountain above the town. The Khumbum contains 7 floors and one can walk up to the sixth floor and stare right at the Eyes of the Khumbum that stare out over Gyantse. The interesting difference between the Khumbum and other stupas built elsewhere in Asia is that the Khumbum allows you inside it — you can enter each room that burrows inside the structure.  Most other stupas are not inwardly accessible, and indeed were built for the specific purpose of encasing some relic of the Buddha, so they were never meant to be entered. But, the Khumbum sucks you inside room after room, each with a different motif and message. It is a 3-dimensional rendering of a Mandala. It spirals upwards — each floor a square within circle — and one ascends in perfect cadence.  The path takes you into the center which is aloft and beats with consciousness.

Eyes of the Khumbum

There are 77 separate chapel rooms you can go inside as you walk up clockwise around each floor and escalate to the top. I had to go inside each of these rooms and it took me about 2-hours to complete the entire 6-floor circuit to the top floor. Each room was dark with no lights. I brought my flashlight and when I turned it on inside the room I either saw a mural painting, statue, or both.  All of these paintings and statues were created with extreme patience, skill, and brilliance. I was sad to learn that many of the statues were clay replicas because the originals had been destroyed during the liberation.  But, the murals — although some faded and worn — still evidenced the original brushstrokes by the monks who had made them.  What smacks you in the face about the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is its pronounced use of the visual arts to convey the Dharma. Somewhere in the Tibetan tradition an emphasis was placed on learning how to transform the Dharma from something that was orally passed on, discussed, and contemplated into a visual (as well as musical) form of expression that was designed for a shared experience.

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

There is no doubt in my mind that some Tibetan monks had to be great artists as well. The frescoes, murals, and statues I saw in the Khumbum (and elsewhere in Tibet) were not works that were commissioned by the monastery for the laity to paint. Wealthy Tibetan patrons did provide money to the monasteries and all monasteries were ultimately supported by the Sangha, but it was the monks themselves that created such a vivid, beautiful artistic legacy. I can only  theorize that perhaps because the focus of the Mahayana school is on the “anyone can become a bodhisattva” message that this teleological thrust caused generation after generation of Tibetan monks to seek different ways to communicate the Dharma — beyond just the verbal.  The medium of choice of 700 years ago was painting and sculpting. While other Buddhist traditions have definitely created masterworks in their designs of Stupas, ironwork, paintings, and sculptures, the intricate mandala frescoes, thangkas (silk embroidered paintings), and statues of deities created in Tibet are so interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist practice that the efficacy of the Dharma would dramatically deflate if it was separated from the art that has long been used to sustain it.

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

The Palcho Monastery has different buildings built around the Khumbum with one temple built on an outcrop of the small mountain above it. I climbed to this temple and inside were frescoes of Mandalas that almost appeared to be a bird’s-eye view of the Khumbum. Each Mandala is like a fingerprint and is unique — no 2 Mandalas are ever alike. Each reflects the most serious mind and commitment to detail. They are rooted in geometric precision and serve as a roadmap for the viewer to follow as he contemplates the Dharma. These Mandalas are reference guides that one has to interpret in order to actively engage and ponder the specific teaching held within the painting.  When I stood at the terrace of this temple I could see the Khumbum below me and the old fort across from me on the opposite end of the town. The fort stood on top of a very tall hill. As I began to psyche myself for the long walk over to the fort, I looked down again at the Khumbum and experienced a funny thing. Its Eyes appeared to be looking up at me. I had already come face to face with these Eyes when I reached the top of the Khumbum itself and the Eyes had stared out straight ahead. But, from the vantage point of the temple located above the Khumbum, the Eyes now seemed to be lifted up and searching me for an answer to a question. I just remember that the words which popped into my head at that exact moment were, “I’m trying.”  Nothing more, but I felt the Eyes lower. It was a sensation that I can only describe as a gut-check. Lhasa was next. I had to get the mindset.

%d bloggers like this: