Tag Archives: Dalai Lama

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Importance of Being On Brand

18 Feb

When I first traveled to China and arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in 2012, I remember seeing a glossy advertisement for Maserati as I walked through the jetway. Having visited many other countries in Asia where Chinese-made cars and motorbikes are ubiquitous, I got a kick out of this prominent promotion of a non-Chinese brand directed at freshly arrived visitors to China’s largest city. A year later I was in Beijing, and after viewing the embalmed body and orange-colored face of Mao Zedong, as I left his mausoleum, I had to “exit through the gift shop” where I was besieged by vendors selling also sorts of Mao trinkets and other Cultural Revolution merchandise. Where did this appetite for luxury and desire to cash in on “commie memorabilia” come from? More importantly, what would be the limits of the PRC’s tolerance for the growing materialistic impulses and capitalist desires of a newly moneyed generation?  I had these questions swirling around in my head as I walked past the countless storefronts of fancy Western brands and franchises that crowded the large city blocks of Shanghai.

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Old Shanghai nostalgia: suitcases & “commie memorabilia” for sale in the now demolished Dongtai Road Antique Market – Shanghai, China (2012)

Since I had a few days to spend in Shanghai after I returned from my travel to Mt. Emei and the Leshan Giant Buddha, I was keen to explore what remained in this megapolis of the Chinese Buddhist spirituality and religious practice of the generations before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While most of the historical Buddhist schools, monasteries, and temples in Shanghai were destroyed, a few managed to survive or were reconstructed. Much of old Shanghai like the Dongtai Road Antique Market (which was on its last legs when I saw it in 2012) has been demolished to make room for shiny new developments, and so whether or not the remaining Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist temples in Shanghai may need to get relocated or continue as protected sites remains to be seen. Despite all the rapid change and reinvention, I did see 2 enchanting Buddhist temple complexes in Shanghai, as well as, a third temple that was recently restored with sleek features in sync with the bustling city sidewalks surrounding it.

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Longhua Pagoda constructed in 977 A.D. – Shanghai (2012)

First on my list was the Longhua Temple which is located in the far south of Shanghai. The Shanghai Metro (subway) manages to snake into most areas of the city and was my preferred means of transport. The Metro surfaced and then elevated above the city streets as it ventured into the city’s far southern reaches. I hopped off at a stop not too far from a brand new IKEA store that anchored the Xuhui Shopping Center. I then walked about 1km until I saw what once must have been among the tallest “skyscrapers” of old Shanghai — the Longhua Pagoda. This Pagoda is one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monuments in Shanghai and was built out of brick and wood in 977 A.D.  It is over 40 meters/132 ft tall and yellow in color (which brought to mind the color of the Beamless Brick Hall of Wannian Monastery at Mt. Emei).  Given its age and fragile state, the public cannot enter and walk up to the top of the Pagoda.

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Inside Longhua Temple complex

After paying the admission fee and receiving a bundle of incense sticks, I entered the temple complex which was sparsely filled with visitors. I took my time to enter all the prayer halls and pavilions and some of these buildings had signs and old photographs noting their historical significance. One particular statue stood out above all else at Longhua Temple. This was a serene and intricate statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara known as the embodiment of all seeing compassion. The statue was flanked on each of its sides by its arms which were fanned out as if hugging the world. Each of the statue’s “thousand arms” had their palms visible and within each palm was a watchful eye — symbolizing Avalokitesvara’s all seeing nature and omnipresence.

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The “Thousand-Armed” Avalokitesvara statue – Longhua Temple

I noticed a group of Chinese patrons bowing multiple times in front of this statue with their hands gripping lit incense sticks over their foreheads. They may have been praying for assistance and support in dealing with a difficult situation, or affirming their gratitude for the compassion that this Bodhisattva provides to the world. I intently watched the actions of this pious group. It was evident to me that religious practice was very much alive and well in Shanghai despite the 20th Century effort to snuff it out as an opiate of the masses.

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Detail of Avalokitesvara statue – a watchful eye contained in each palm

Unfortunately, Longhua Temple was not always as peaceful as the day I visited. It has a bloody past and served as the grounds for over 5,000 public executions of communist party members by the Kuomintang (KMT) national party in April 1927. A few decades after this purge, communist soldiers ransacked Longhua Temple and used statues like the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara for target practice. One can still see bullet holes in the walls of certain buildings at Longhua. As I walked out of Longhua Temple and into an adjacent park, I came across the “Longhua Martyrs’ Memorial Hall” which was built by the PRC in what was formerly the gardens of the Longhua Temple.  The Memorial Hall is free, and although all the exhibits are in Chinese, the sobering realization that the old gardens of Longhua Temple are a mass grave holding the remains of executed political prisoners needed no translation.

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Exterior of Jade Buddha Temple – Shanghai

After Longhua Temple, I took the Metro to west Shanghai to see the Jade Buddha Temple which dates back to the late 19th Century (although the original temple was destroyed and the present site was built in the late 1920s). As its name suggests, this temple contains 2 Buddha statues made of white jade. Both Buddhas were sculpted in Burma and had been acquired by a Chinese monk named Huigen who had been traveling through Burma in the early 1880s.

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Entrance to main prayer hall – Jade Buddha Temple

The story goes that Huigen had actually purchased 5 such jade Buddhas, but only 2 of these were transported back to his temple in Shanghai where special halls were built to house them. It is not clear what happened to the other 3 jade Buddhas. Since I had visited Burma and seen many jade and marble Buddhas there (Mandalay in Burma is still known for its mastery of marble & jade sculptures), I was curious to see how the 2 jade Buddhas of the Jade Buddha Temple compared.  

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The Seated Buddha of Jade Buddha Temple

Although photographs are not allowed of the 2 jade Buddhas, I did manage to surreptitiously snap a shot of the larger one — the “Seated Buddha”. This statue is displayed behind glass in its own hall which requires an entry fee that is separate from the general admission to the temple complex. Inside the hall, there is a railing in the back that keeps the public at a good distance away from the statue which is located in the front of the hall. The statue contains feminine features that are very similar to those I had seen in other Burmese statues of the Buddha. The seated pose of the statue depicts the Buddha in the “earth witness” (or bhumi-sparsha) mudra that was famously used by the Buddha to respond back to the demon, Mara, who was hoping to tempt the Buddha to give up his search for Enlightenment (see post: “Tempt” at https://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The second jade Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple is found in another hall and is much smaller. This statue depicts a Reclining Buddha and is serpentine in the way its body is curved. I found it interesting that both of these 2 jade Buddhas which reflect the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Burma were acquired by Huigen, a monk of the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The exquisite artistry of the 2 statues probably quelled any potential protests by fellow monks when Huigen returned to Shanghai and requested that the 2 Burmese-sculpted Buddhas be housed at their temple.

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Jing’an Temple (crowned with a mini-Mahabodhi Temple) at West Nanjiang Road – Shanghai

From the Jade Buddha Temple, I was back on the Metro and headed to Jing’an Temple. Nestled smack dab in the middle of Shanghai’s busy West Nanjiang Road, this temple could be mistaken upon first blush as some kind of modern religious theme park. The original temple that bore the name “Jing’an” dates back to the 3rd Century A.D., but that site was destroyed long ago and an entirely new temple was built at the current site of Jing’an Temple in 1216 A.D. from where it enjoyed centuries of unmolested religious activity and spiritual importance until the events of the 20th Century interfered.

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Central courtyard – Jing’an Temple

The present design and construction of Jing’an Temple took place in 1998 and incorporated some key Buddhist icons such as a mini-replica of the Mahabodhi Temple (found in Bodh Gaya, India) perched atop the temple and the Pillar of Ashoka (now in a museum in Sarnath, India) which pops out of the city sidewalk that borders the temple. When I entered Jing’an Temple, it dawned on me that this flashy temple fused together elements of China’s “Big 3” religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I saw distinct religious icons and offering areas for each of these 3 faiths inside the temple grounds and visitors were making their rounds to observe and pray before all of these.

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Central Buddha – Jing’an Temple

The central Buddha statue at Jing’an Temple appears to be made from iron or bronze and is nearly black in color. Directly behind this Buddha is a visually stunning panel that illustrates key episodes of the Buddha’s life (see first photograph in the post: “To the Wonder (again)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-PC).  While I can’t say that the present design and construction of Jing’an Temple captures any of the contemplative atmosphere or spiritual authenticity of either Longhua Temple or the Jade Buddha Temple complex, Jing’an Temple is very much “on brand” with the rest of the modern, reimagined Shanghai. It is a chic destination that allows lay people and devotees alike to practice (or go through the motions of practicing) their traditions of ancestral and spiritual worship.

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Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple) – Beijing, China (2013)

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I was in Beijing in 2013 where I witnessed the same kind of enterprising consumerism as in Shanghai. While most of the key historical sights in and around Beijing are connected to the city’s imperial past (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, etc.), there was one remaining Buddhist temple and monastery of interest. This was the Yonghe Temple (or Lama Temple) which also has its origins rooted in Beijing’s imperial past. This temple was first built in 1694 A.D. as a residence for the Qing crown prince. About 50 years later, the complex was reconfigured as a monastery and center for the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Stairway leading to main hall at Yonghe Temple

Not surprisingly, the entire layout and design of the Yonghe Temple is reminiscent of a mini-Forbidden City because the Qing Emperor’s son initially had lived there. During my visit, the Yonghe Temple was buzzing with visitors and monks were actively chanting mantras, playing drums and other instruments, and treating the public to the visual pageantry of Tibetan Buddhism. As I watched the interactions of the public and the monks, I could not shake the feeling that this spectacle seemed “staged”.  This was based only on my hunch and not anything else. But, it was hard for me to accept the legitimacy of this school or “lamasery” for Tibetan Buddhism given the stark absence of any photos or other acknowledgments of the current Dalai Lama (the 14th Dalai Lama). I also thought back to my experience at the moribund Tashilumpo Monastery in Tibet where the puppet Panchen Lama appointed by the PRC resides (see post: “For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-b4).

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Observing Tibetan Buddhist Monks at Yonghe Temple

The entire vibe inside Tashilumpo Monastery had come across as artificial to me and I felt a similar feeling at Yonghe Temple. Regardless of whether or not the monks at Yonghe Temple must follow a schedule set by the PRC and have to put on a good show for visitors, the Yonghe Temple did somehow survive the Cultural Revolution and is very well preserved. The best sight of the temple is found inside the “Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses” where one of the world’s largest Buddha statues made of sandalwood is located. This statue is 3-stories high and is housed within a colorfully painted space filled with Buddhist icons and symbols. The artistry and craftsmanship of both the statue and the interior of the pavilion are on par with what may still be seen in the monasteries and temples in Tibet. There is no doubt that the first wave of Tibetan Buddhists who traveled to Beijing to found the Lama Temple effectively replicated and shared their artistic skill and know-how in order to transform the once imperial residence into a center of religious teaching and worship that injected the spirit of Tibet into China.

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Sandalwood Buddha – Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at Yonghe Temple

As I said, the original buildings of Yonghe Temple had been planned and constructed by the Qing Emperor to mirror those of the Forbidden City.  Since I had visited the Forbidden City the day before seeing Yonghe Temple, its layout was fresh in my mind. While wandering through the Forbidden City (now called the “Palace Museum”), I had mentally replayed scenes from “The Last Emperor” and was able to pick out many of the exact same locations where Bernardo Bertolucci had been allowed by the PRC to shoot scenes for the film. Towards the north end of the Forbidden City, there is a rock garden area with leafy trees and I had ducked under one of these to take refuge from the scorching sun on the day of my visit. When I had cooled down, I walked up to an elevated platform where I was able to look beyond the tall walls surrounding the palace grounds. In the distance, I was surprised to see what appeared to be the shape of a stupa with Tibetan-like symbols and features.

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Beyond the walls of the Forbidden City – Bai Ta (the White Dagoba)

I used my camera’s zoom lens to take a closer look at this white structure and it was clear to me that this was some kind of Tibetan “chorten” (or stupa). Since this structure was located outside of the Forbidden City and had been built in the middle of an island in a lake, I wasn’t able to walk to it. Later on, I did some research into this curious sight and learned that this was “Bai Ta” (or the “White Dagoba”). It was built by the Chinese Qing Emperor to commemorate the first ever visit to Beijing by the-then Tibetan head of state, the 5th Dalai Lama. I was amazed by this. Apparently, none of the previous Dalai Lamas had ever visited, nor had entered into any alliance with, any Chinese Emperor. Since I had some knowledge about the 5th Dalai Lama’s great achievements and the vaunted place he held in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, it made sense to me why the Chinese Emperor had vigorously campaigned to meet with such a formidable and visionary man as the 5th Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama had done much to usher the Tibetan people into an age of advancement which had culminated with the construction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa (see post: “Sketches of Lhasa (#3)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-eQ). I remember viewing the 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb which is housed on its own floor within the Potala Palace and there are massive statues (one with an elephant with a huge pearl in its forehead) that surround it. When the 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in 1652 A.D., he was accompanied by 3,000 Tibetans and the journey from Lhasa had taken 9 months. No wonder the Chinese Emperor had built the Bai Ta stupa as the crowning feature on its own island in close proximity to the Forbidden City. This grand gesture clearly demonstrated that the 5th Dalai Lama was viewed by the Chinese as a strong independent leader of a foreign land and was someone with whom the Chinese Emperor wanted to establish fruitful foreign relations.

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Closer look at Bai Ta – Beihai Park, Beijing

In thinking back to my accidental spotting of Bai Ta from my vantage point at the Forbidden City, I have to believe that most visitors (including Chinese tourists too) are oblivious to this stupa which I did not see promoted as a point of interest in any travel guides or tourist brochures. Furthermore, whatever information that is provided to visitors about Bai Ta most likely reflects PRC-approved messaging. After all, how would the PRC reconcile the significance of Bai Ta with its long held claim that Tibet has always been a part of China? Assuming that the PRC does simply dismiss Bai Ta as an “off-brand” historical footnote of no importance, this monument’s indomitable presence piercing the skies above the grounds of old imperial Beijing emphatically suggests otherwise.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

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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!

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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.

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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.

For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)

21 Sep
Main Temple [Tombs of the 3rd, 4th, & 5th Panchen Lamas] – Tashilumpo Monastery

Tashilumpo Monastery was built sometime in the 1400s and has served as the seat of the Panchen Lamas ever since.  The Panchen Lamas are the second most important spiritual lineage in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism which the Dalai Lama heads. The Panchen Lama selects the next Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama selects the next Panchen Lama. Unlike the current Dalai Lama who went into exile in 1959, the-then 10th Panchen Lama stayed in Xigatse and aligned himself with Beijing. He broke with the Dalai Lama in a very public way and welcomed the liberation of Tibet. Then, the 10th Panchen Lama did something unprecedented. He did a reverse renunciation — meaning he gave up his vows as an ordained Buddhist monk, got married, and had children. He assumed some ministerial government post in Beijing and did not return to Tibet. But, after nearly 3 decades of playing the part of the reformed Tibetan-turned-model PRC citizen, he went back. He returned to his old quarters at the Tashilumpo Monastery and observed first-hand what was left of it.  Certain chunks of the monastery and areas where the old tombs of the previous Panchen Lamas were interred had been completely destroyed during the liberation.  Something must have stirred inside the 10th Panchen Lama at that point because when it came time for him to give a speech in Xigatse before an assembled crowd of monks, pilgrims, townsfolk, and his PRC caretakers, he lamented the “gains” made as a result of the liberation of his country.  Although these words may have at worst been a backhanded criticism of the PRC, his public rebuke was felt in Beijing.  The 10th Panchen Lama fell dead the next day. It was said he had died of a heart attack. The year was 1989. In that same year, a Tibetan boy was born in Lhari County located in eastern Tibet. His name was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and he was identified as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in 1995. Once his identity became publicly known, the PRC promptly abducted Nyima and his parents. They were whisked away from Tashilumpo and have never been seen since. He was 6 years old.  He may have been defrocked and re-engineered into a model Chinese citizen [like the 10th Panchen Lama had voluntarily done all those years before], or something more sinister may have happened. The world may never know. The PRC swiftly appointed their own Panchen Lama in Nyima’s place and this replacement Panchen Lama lives in Tashilumpo under the supervision of the PRC. The strategy here is clear: The PRC’s Panchen Lama will identify the next (15th) Dalai Lama who will already be PRC-selected and who will then be reared in the PRC school of Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama and his advisors know the game being played and understand the stakes. But, what of the 6-year-old Nyima abducted in 1995?  He would have turned 23 in 2012. If he is still alive, has he been completely stripped of all vestiges of his faith, language, culture, and purpose?  Or has been able to hold on to these while smiling at his PRC captors as he goes through the motions of his reformation?  I thought of him as I entered the grounds of Tashilumpo. At 6 years of age, he must have just begun to have a general understanding of his faith and incarnation and then one day he was yanked from this predestined life and thrust into a physically arrested existence. The mental wherewithal to withstand such a traumatic and schizophrenic ordeal would be too much fo the average person. Nyima may have been average in body, but as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, he was certainly not average in mind and spiritual capacity. Tashilumpo was still his home.

The Maitreya – Tashilumpo

Tashilumpo consists of a bunch of connected and separate buildings — temples, shrines, assembly halls, a central courtyard, and living quarters spread out over a large area. The monastery abuts a rocky hill and a standalone large white wall with red trim rises on the right-side of its border. As I got my bearings, I noticed some Tibetan pilgrims walking past me so I decided to follow them.  They walked towards to 2 mid-sized Stupas and began circumambulating each of these. I saw a large building nearby and so I climbed the stairs towards the doorway. After paying a few Yuans in order to take photos and removing my shoes, I entered the temple. The smell of burning juniper and yak candle wax wafted over me.  What a multidimensional and enchanting aroma. If only there had been a way to have captured that scent and recast it into something visual.  But, upon reflecting on that moment years later, perhaps the answer to that was right in front of me then.  I followed the scent trail into a cavernous chamber. Emerging out of the dark and towering overhead was a wondrous sight. It was illuminated by a lone white light. A giant hand was positioned in a Buddhist mudra (gesture) or chakgya in Tibetan. The tips of the thumb and index finger were touching and formed a circle. All the other fingers were extended upwards. This was the “vitarka mudra” or the teaching gesture made right before the turning of the wheel of Dharma. But, the massive blissful face I was gazing up at was not that of the Buddha. It was the Maitreya. Most Buddhist traditions hold to a prophecy that another Buddha is to be born and will bring back the Dharma to the world.  There will come a time on earth when the path to Enlightenment is lost and the Dharma has been forgotten. Ignorance and self-indulgence will run rampant. At such time, the Maitreya will appear and resurrect the Dharma — teaching it in a pure form like the Buddha had first done in Sarnath. The Maitreya at Tashilumpo is the largest gilded statue in the world. It was built in 1914 and is 85ft high. At its base were large photographs of the 9th, 10th, and 11th [PRC-appointed] Panchen Lamas. All I could think of was, “Thank God they didn’t destroy this too.”

Fresco – Tashilumpo

One of the busloads of Chinese tourists had arrived at Tashilumpo and the serene calm of the monastery was quickly shattered. I tried to avoid them, but they gravitated into the main temple of Tashilumpo where the tombs of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Panchen Lamas rested. The corridors around this temple had lively, colorful frescoes which depicted Tibetan Bon-Buddhisht deities and stories from the Buddha’s life. I assumed that the monks who resided in the monastery had painted them all through the centuries. They were like a visual record passed on from one generation of monks to the next.  I then looked on incredulously as many of the Chinese tourists began to file past me — and one after the other — rubbed their hands and fingers all over the frescoes. Dozens upon dozens of fingers were depositing their oils, dirt, and skin cells onto these treasures with no regard for their upkeep.  The frescoes did not have any protective covering at all. I was horrified by what I saw. I tried looking for the Chinese tour guide leader but to no avail, so I made sounds of chastisement as these tourists went passed me. I think a few of them caught my drift. I would also see similar touching and rubbing of frescoes and other artwork in the monasteries at Lhasa. I think that the Chinese tourists must have believed it was good luck to rub and touch these frescoes, but it was extremely upsetting to observe. I imagined walking through the Vatican and running my hands along the frescoes of Raphael. The Tashilumpo frescoes were masterworks in the same vein and connected the past to the present. They would certainly disappear in a decade or so if the endless rubbing was not stopped or prevented in some way.

Monk and tourist – Tashilumpo

I walked out of the main temple and into the outdoor courtyard. A tall Tibetan prayer pole was staffed in the center. I headed towards the pole and when I looked up at the rafters I was startled by what I saw. A very young monk was standing on the second floor and peering over the scene. He was wearing the yellow hat of the Gelug order. But, he was not smiling, and instead seemed perturbed. He wore a scowl. I thought I was hallucinating. I immediately thought of the 11th Panchen Lama who must have experienced the same view when he had lived at the monastery. I reached for my camera in order to capture this extraordinary image, and then a Chinese tourist popped out of the blue and posed alongside the boy. The tourist started to smile in a cheeky way just as I snapped the photo. Then, right after this tourist left, I tried again to take a picture of the monk alone, but an onslaught of other tourists bumrushed the monk. Each jostled with one another as they attempted to take a photo with him. The young monk quickly retreated and I could hear excited chatter in Mandarin all around me. I put down my camera. I understood now that while the Tashilumpo monks may still live, practice their faith, conduct their rituals, debate, and work at the monastery, Tashilumpo was no longer a truly “living” monastery. It had become a museum and a folk-like curiosity for PRC citizens. Without the legitimate Panchen Lama present and in residence, the complex was filled with a disquiet — a disenchantment. I saw that disenchantment on the young monk’s face. I wonder whether the monks at Tashilumpo envision a time when the 11th Panchen Lama will return.  I think they must for this reason: The same faith they have in the return of the Maitreya would also sustain their belief in a time when the Panchen Lama will come home. I can only hope that the artistry, pageantry, and tradition of Tashilumpo do not have to be completely erased in order to trigger the reappearance of the Panchen Lama. For the 11th Panchen Lama in his 17th year of abduction, we remember and have not forgotten.

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