Tag Archives: nirvana

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.



1 Aug

After many, many decades of traveling through different lands, kingdoms, villages, valleys, mountains, plains, and forests, the Buddha’s body began to fail him. He had grown old and was prone to sickness. Yet, he was determined to travel back to the place of his birth one last time. He told Ananda, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, that they would travel to Lumbini and there the Buddha would pass on. Ananda wept and protested against the Buddha’s wishes. “When the Buddha is no longer in the world, who will teach us?” Ananda asked. The Buddha admonished him thus, “What more is that you want of me? I have taught you all I know with an open hand. I have kept nothing back. There is no hidden teaching, Ananda. My teachings are your teacher now. Follow them and you will stay true to me. Take refuge in yourselves and be islands unto yourselves. Hold fast to the Dharma as an island. Hold fast to the Dharma as a refuge. Resort to no other refuge.” Ananda then went to prepare the other disciples for their trip to Lumbini. As they began the journey, the Buddha became ill, but he pressed on the best he could until his body could no longer carry him. He did not want to leave his followers without speaking to them one more time, so as they neared the village of Kushinagar he told Ananda to prepare a mat for him to lay down upon between 2 large sala trees. The Buddha slowly lowered his body onto the mat and rested on his right side with his head propped up on a cushion so he could face his disciples. Although he was just a simple monk, there was something regal about how he reclined before his followers. Others in the village heard the Buddha was near death and was preparing to give his last sermon, so they gathered around him. They too were captivated by the Buddha’s “lion pose” as it thereafter became called. The Buddha was using his frail body to teach these people about death and that there was nothing to fear. “The moment has at last come. Do not forget that death is but the vanishing of a body. The body was born from parents and nourished by food, so sickness and death are unavoidable. But, although the human body must vanish, the wisdom of Enlightenment will exist in the truth and practice of the Dharma. You who see only my human body, do not truly see me. But, you who accept my teachings, you are the one who see me. So, you to whom the truth has been made known, make yourselves masters of it, practice it, meditate on it, and teach it to the others. Satisfy your desires only in the same way that the butterfly sips nectar from a flower, but do so without destroying its fragrance or its texture. Be mindful of the truths I have tought you and actively pursue the right practices in order to keep to the eightfold path that leads to Nirvana.” As the Buddha spoke, his eyes became heavy and he started to sink into a deep meditative state. Just when it appeared the Buddha had finished, he spoke his last words: “All things must grow old and be dissolved again. Seek out the truth and work out your salvation with diligence.” The Buddha then entered into the ultimate state of bliss. Some of his disciples despaired at the thought of going on without him, but Ananda and a few others assured the rest that the truth which the Buddha had taught them would live in their minds and they could now go out into the world, preach the Buddha’s message, and continue to foster the community that would support them along the way. The disciples and village people began to anoint the Buddha’s body with perfumes and garlands. Some music even began playing while the Buddha’s body lay in its final repose. A continuous stream of people passed by in order to pay their respects. Finally, when they were ready, they lit the funeral pyre that had been placed around the Buddha and the sky turned black — not from the smoke, but because of the sudden absence of both the late day sun and early evening moon. The earth quaked and a forceful wind snaked through the forest shaking all the trees and causing flowers and leaves to fall on the ground. When the flames of the pyre had become extinguished, so had the Buddha attained Nirvana. The disciples and other people who stood over the Buddha’s remains then did something that only human beings would do. They let their feelings for the Buddha take over and they all wanted to claim a share of his earthly remains. There was an overwhelming desire these people had to stay attached to the Buddha through some physical link. Not even Ananda nor the Buddha’s other most trusted disciples were able to stop this, and instead, they ceded to this desire. They agreed to distribute the Buddha’s relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — into eight parts. Whoever received any relic would have to preserve them within the walls of specialized shrines — what became Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas — depending on the country in which these were constructed. So, although the Buddha had said otherwise, his body had not quite vanished. Instead, his relics would travel far and wide across the land and ocean and there would be stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics would make until they reached their final resting spots. And when they did reach their destinations, the most amazing shrines rose — created by the mortal hands of the faithful and the communities which supported them. For each would receive the Buddha’s message and each would take refuge.


30 Jul

There would be many teachings in the Buddha’s long life, but the heart of these teachings was contained within the first sermon the Buddha gave to his 5 companions on that day.  There were 4 truths the Buddha wanted to share with them and each truth had to be recognized, its pursuit envisioned, and its attainment fully achieved in order for any person to become Awakened. “Think of these 4 truths as the footprint of an elephant,” the Buddha began. “Just as the footprints of all the other animals – tigers, deer, monkeys, and birds – in this forest can fit within the footprint of an elephant, in the same way, these 4 truths will provide the footprint for everything else you will ever learn.”  However, the Buddha prefaced his teaching of these 4 truths by explaining to his companions that one would never be able to pursue any of these truths through engaging in the practice of either extreme self-denial or extreme sensual indulgence. The companions had to follow the Middle Path in managing their lives and staying on the path that the Buddha could only map out for them. The first truth was based on those eye-opening visions the Buddha had experienced when he had gone outside the palace’s walls – sickness, old age, death, and the wandering stranger who spoke of suffering.  These realities of human existence could all be summed in one thing: there was suffering. From the moment of birth, each person took a step closer to aging, illness, and death. But, suffering did not manifest itself through the physical only. There was also mental and emotional suffering which most people had to face each day of their lives and this took the form of dealing with dissatisfaction in one’s life, being separated from what made one happy, and not getting what one wanted.  So, the Buddha told his companions that they had to accept the fact there was suffering in human life and they had to understand the physical and emotional incarnations of this suffering.  The second truth was acceptance of the underlying causes of suffering. Suffering was rooted in our attachments, our need to cling to things we believed made us feel better or made us look better in the eyes of someone else.  One’s desire to seek out that which was pleasing and to live a life only in pursuit of such desire was a common trait in all people.  And it was this same trait that had so many people become miserable in their lives because of how they could not cope with being cut off from what pleased them. The third truth the Buddha spoke of was simply the recognition that only when one detached and freed oneself from the innate desire to only seek out the pleasing could suffering end.  This was straightforward enough, but the spiritual practice and discipline that one had to apply to relinquish the blinding cravings for self-gratification that created suffering was not so easy. This was the fourth truth and it was more than just a statement. It embodied the same journey to Enlightenment that the Buddha had traveled and it was the essence of his teaching. After one accepts and understands the first 3 truths, one must recognize that the cessation of suffering will not occur through meditation and reflection alone. Again, extreme self-denial would not work. There had to be an active desire that would fuel one’s spiritual practice, but one could not let this desire to overcome and subvert the person.  The Buddha made sure to caution his companions about this. They would never be able to become Awakened if they only attached themselves to their cravings to attain Enlightenment. This compulsive  desire would have the adverse effect of creating suffering since they would become quickly dissatisfied with the clouded and forced nature of their findings. They would only awaken to the cessation of suffering through maintaining a Middle Way during their spiritual practice and the specific guidance the Buddha taught his companions for their practice consisted of 8 principles:  they each had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.  There was an ethical import to the “right” kind of mindset and conduct each of them would have to integrate in their actualization of these 8 principles.  The Buddha would illustrate the nature of each of these principles in many of his parables and lessons he would later teach. His sharing of these 8 guiding principles with his companions for the first time could be said to be similar to when Moses received the 10 Commandments.  When Moses was given the 2 tablets listing each Commandment he was told to share them with the Children of Israel so that they would have a set of principles to follow. These principles established ethical parameters around their dealings with one other and their worship of God.  Breaking of any of these of the 10 Commandments would bring with it penalties of either an earthly or divine nature depending on the transgression. The Buddha explained that following this 8-fold path of spiritual practice could lead to Enlightenment for his companions in their present lives.  There were no provisions for worshipping the Buddha or any creator of the world, and there were no penalties if one fell off this path — the only consequence would be that one would not attain the complete knowledge that came with being Awakened.  Further, the Buddha told his companions that after one had achieved Enlightenment, then the final goal was to consummate the end of suffering by extinguishing it fully – and that was when one reached Nirvana.  This was not Heaven as understood in the usual Western sense, but instead represented one’s passing into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – and it could be realized in life or upon death.  His companions absorbed all the Buddha spoke of on that day. They repeated the 4 truths and then discussed each of the 8 principles that they would incorporate into their spiritual practice going forward. They had become the Buddha’s first followers and wanted to travel with him to wherever he would go next. They had to spread his teachings and so they decided to go back to the site where the Buddha had attained his Enlightenment. The Buddha would return to see that king who had 6 years before asked him to rule the Magadha kingdom by side. The Buddha would now tell the king what he had learned and the king and all his subjects would convert to the Buddha’s teachings.  The Buddha knew he would need to establish a bond with the laity. He had to have a spiritual network that went beyond just those would follow him.  He would have to connect his ministry to the public and that meant creating a community. This community would then sustain him and his message.

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