Tag Archives: Panchen Lama

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

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

Gyantse Khumbum

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

Eyes of the Khumbum

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

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

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

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

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

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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.

To Xigatse (the Second City)

17 Sep

Himalayan view from Tingri, Tibet

We decompressed at a rest-stop/food shack in the outpost town of Tingri (population: 520; elevation 4,300m/14.000ft+ ft). Tingri is more or less the initial base camp for climbers setting off to the North Face of Everest which is about 60 km southwest from the town, or to Mt. Cho Oyu (6th largest peak in the world).  It had one road running through it and traditional Tibetan buildings and homes sprinkled about on both sides.  At the eastern end of the town, there was a PRC check-in point with a couple of red army staffers.  Everyone in my tour group seemed to be suffering the effects of the high altitude. We had so far come down about 2,000ft from Lalunga pass. Faces were contorted with discomfort and unease. The A.M.S. spouting guy somehow bought a couple of O2 canisters from the shop owners.  He inhaled them like he was doing whippets. I watched him out of fascination, but finally turned away and told myself that I only had a headache and it would subside. I had little appetite, but was able to eat a fried rice dish and drank a bottle of water. I then went outside to find the bathroom which was an incredible sight in and of itself. It was like entering an outdoor closet, but when you got inside there was nothing there to greet you except a rectangular stone slot that opened into a pit. I had used a few bush toilets in my time — some real classics — one of which had crossed my path 10 years earlier during a camping/safari trip through Tanzania. In that situation, the toilet itself was located in an unroofed, thatched space and there was some wooden urinal-esque device raised off the ground.  But, this small concrete slot I looked at now threw me because of its utter flatness and because I was already struggling with my depth perception. I positioned myself about a foot or 2 near the slot — steadying myself for what was probably the most complicated act of urination in my life.  I didn’t want to miss, stumble, or faint during the drainage.  Let’s just say, I had mixed success.

Traditional Tibetan building – Tingri

I walked out in the road and tried to see Everest and Cho Oyu — both were mostly obscured by clouds, but I could see their enormous landbases rise from the plateau floor. I studied the flat-roofed and square-windowed Tibetan structures around me. There was an organic, breathable design to these buildings. I wondered how they held up to the snows which pounded the region in the winter.  I saw a bunch of pancake-sized yak chips stacked high upon one another as they baked in the sun. It then struck me that the yak in Tibet was what the buffalo was to the AmerIndian. It provided all the necessities of life — food, clothing, and shelter.  Like the buffalo, the wild yak herds of yore are no more. Most yak today are hybrids. They have been crossbred with cattle, but a good chunk of Tibetans still pull most of what they need from these animals. After an hour or so in Tingri, it was time to get back in the Landcruisiers and continue to Lhatse. We made it there in the early evening.  My head still ached, but I was more dehydrated than anything else. I went into the town and bought 2 of the largest water bottles I could find. That night I had the most vivid dreams. I saw trees with leaves flashing with multi-colored lights.  Those had to be manifestations of the prayer flags I had seen in Lalunga earlier that day.  I also retained fleeting dream images of elfish spirits or little demons darting from the trees. I had previously read about the pre-Buddhist, Tibetan folk religion of Bon which centered its practice around a multiplicity of gods and spirits of nature, so these concepts must have materialized in my head during that first night of sleep on the Tibetan plateau.  When I woke up that next morning, I felt like my normal self save for some chapped lips. But, other than that, I felt like I had acclimated to the altitude and was ready to kick things in gear which was timely because we were now heading to the second largest city in Tibet, Xigatse (or Shigatse). I was ready to explore every inch of what we were going to see there — the Tashilumpo Monastery – Seat of the Panchen Lamas.

Main Street – Xigatse, Tibet

As we entered the city, the first glimpse of the physical facelift of Tibet by the PRC occupation became clear. The infrastructure and look of the buildings was in stark contrast to what I had so far seen in Tibet. Admittedly, I had only been traveling through the remote southwestern corridors of the region, but if I had been plucked from Kathmandu and dropped into the main street in Xigatse, I would have thought I was in some small Chinatown of any country in the world. There was a generic feeling to everything. It was as if I was walking through the PRC’s version of Disneyland’s “Main Street, PRC”. Even the bicycle-rickshaws seemed fake. As we drove towards the hotel, I noticed a brand new looking white and red brick alabaster building on an outcrop overlooking the town. For a second I gasped. This couldn’t be what I thought it was because we were not in Lhasa. But, it looked very similar. Somehow my driver who didn’t speak English picked out the look on my face and through his broken English and my broken, phrase-book Tibetan I was able to learn that this building was a recreation of the “Dzong” (fortress) that used to be residential and governmental building the Panchen Lamas and citizenry used. The original building had been blown to smithereens in 1959 by the red army when China claimed Tibet.  Now, nearly 50 years later, the PRC had recreated the building they destroyed — brick by brick — in order to establish it as another tourist attraction in Xigatse and charge 20 Yuans per head.  It would never be on my list of my sights to see, but how strange it was to see the PRC rebuilding something that they had purposefully destroyed.  Like any “liberators”, the PRC cut out the heart of the Tibetan people by going after and destroying most of their important monasteries, shrines, and spiritually significant buildings. They had to free the Tibetans from their backwards, Lama-worshipping lives. I saw a stone inscription in some monument that said something to the effect of: “The Tibetan People welcomed their reformation and re-education at the hands of their liberating brothers…”  How many times have we heard that same old rubbish before? After we dropped our gear at the hotel, I took off by foot towards Tashilumpo.  I bypassed the recreated Dzong which was an eyesore to me.  A bunch of buses bringing in hundreds of Chinese tourists from the PRC whizzed by me.  I would see these buses and Chinese tourists during the remainder of my travel in Tibet. I’m afraid to say these folks really got on my nerves as I will detail later.

Prayer Wheels – Xigatse, Tibet

I strolled towards Tashilumpo and I happened to notice something that appeared to be a Tibetan flea market off the main road, so I veered off in that direction. That turned out to be one of the best decisions I made during that trip.  A group of 4 elderly Tibetan women were doing a dance and singing in a small plaza area of the market. I didn’t snap a photo or shoot any film of it. It was too powerful of a moment to mar by reaching for anything. I just stood and watched. Their long hair was braided and joined in 2 strands behind their backs. Their faces were red and cracked by the sun and snow. They wore faded, floppy hats and colorful sleeves poked out of their black smocks.  They moved atop closed-toe, bulky shoes of some kind that I had never seen before.  A crowd surrounded them and clapped along or waved handheld prayer wheels.  Once they finished, they started to laugh and their gestures hinted of embarrassment.  I had no idea what they were singing about, but it was beautiful and rang of sentimentality.  As they filed past me, one of them stopped for a closer look. Other than the Chinese, most Tibetans have never seen foreigners, so I was like an alien species to many of them.  I smiled at the old lady and she responded by sticking her tongue out at me. It was purple in color.

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