Tag Archives: pilgrimage

To Be A Rock and Not to Roll [The Route Up Mt. Kyaiktiyo]

7 Aug

I was soaked to the bone, tired, dehydrated, and bogged by doubt. I had come to a fork somewhere in the middle of a road that was cloaked in a monsoon cloud. I flashed back to my climb up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka which had occurred almost exactly a year to the day I now found myself [see previous post regarding the encounter with Adam’s Peak: https://startupkoan.com/2012/11/02/sri-pada-adams-peak-prologue/].  That had turned out to be an incredible experience — but this time I may have taken things too lightly. I was glib — not prepared, had no map, no food or water. There were 2 paths before me. I could see no more than 3m in any direction. The rain pounded down in a manner that I still cannot properly describe. This was invasive and insidious rain. I was carrying a pathetic excuse for an umbrella and wearing a thin poncho, windbreaker, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I had my camera and a small daypack tucked between my shirt and bare skin. Everything inside — the pristine U.S. dollars, my passport, hotel voucher, etc. — was in jeopardy of being ruined.  If I chose the wrong path, I probably would not have realized it for a long period of time, and then I would probably be too exhausted to walk back.  I stood there mutely, licking the rainwater pooling on the corners of my mouth — at an utter loss.  I was on a journey to get to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in eastern Burma. The elevation is only about 1100m (3400ft), but this is no ordinary mountaintop. It is where the holy Golden Rock sits. The Golden Rock consists of a large round boulder — perched at a ridiculously precarious angle atop a small cliff-face. The boulder is covered with layers and layers of flattened golden foil placed by the faithful over the centuries. A 7m (24ft) golden pagoda spire has been placed on the top of it. Inside this spire is a single strand of hair which belonged to the Buddha.  It is this hair which keeps the boulder from rolling over the precipice on which it rests — oblivious to the winds, rains, earthquakes, and other natural and manmade disasters that smack against it.  From the second I had seen an image of the Golden Rock, I knew I had to make the journey.  I had come during the monsoon season which was the “off” pilgrimage season, and so the route would be more arduous and the conditions unpredictable.

Betel Nut seller - Bago market

Betel Nut seller – Bago market

My trip had begun that morning from Rangoon where I had booked a driver to take me about 150km east through the old town of Bago, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mottama, and then up to the small village of Kinpun. Kinpun is more or less a mountain base camp where travelers and pilgrims can pick up supplies before venturing to Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The most common way to get to the top of mountain and see the Golden Rock is to hop on one of the specially outfitted trucks which come and go during the morning until the late afternoon. These trucks have flatbeds with rows of wooden slats/benches that people can sit on. The trucks zoom up the winding road until they reach the Yatetaung bus terminal. No vehicles are allowed to go any further than this terminal. From there, one has to walk up to the top of the mountain which should take about 45 minutes to an hour.  I had reserved a room at one of the 2 hotels on the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo which was close to the Golden Rock, so my plan had been to get to the hotel and check-in by 2pm and then spend the rest of day until sunset at the Golden Rock. I would come down the mountain the next day and my driver would meet me in Kinpun and take me back to Rangoon.  When I arrived at Kinpun on the day of my trip up the mountain, I found one of the trucks waiting for passengers.  I paid the truck driver around 1200 Kyat and climbed onto the truckbed and found an open slat to sit on.

A bit of a squeeze - but headed in right direction

A bit of a squeeze in the truckbed – but at least no rain

Sitting in the back of a truck - headed toward Mt. Kyaikhtiko

Securing bags while driving up

Within a few minutes afterwards, all the slats were occupied by other people — who seemed to be locals. There were no backs to the slats, but despite the cram and having elbows, knees, and arses in one’s face, it seemed cozy.  It was not raining at Kinpun and while the sky was cloudy there was the occasional glimmer of sun. The truck began driving up the mountain which transformed into a lusher landscape with each twist that took us higher. People were chatting and laughing along the way. One of the men who I assumed was an assistant of the driver was securing bags and luggage that had been stored in the front compartment of the truckbed while the truck was doing hairpin turns. I was cautiously optimistic that perhaps the monsoon would skirt around the mountain, but then — like we crossed some boundary — the heavens opened and the rain fell — HARD. Everyone in the truck put their heads between their knees and tried to shield themselves.  All voices abruptly quieted and only the swishy sounds of switching gears and the truck sliding along the wet road remained.  I remember clutching my camera and daypack tightly against my stomach and silently counting off the minutes — thinking that the 10 miles up to the bus terminal would not take more than 30 minutes.  But, as the rain kept hitting me, I dropped the counting and just steeled myself to stay warm and focused on the walk up to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo that was waiting for me.

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

When the truck pulled into the bus terminal — which was nothing more that an iron shed help up by a few posts — I disentangled my legs and arms from the person next to me, shook off the rainwater, and walked down the step-ladder that was affixed to the truck dock. I looked out of the shed and hoped to find a storefront with a roof to run under before figuring things out. As I scanned the scene, I met the eyes of a very young female Buddhist monk in pink who was barefoot and standing with other female monks collecting alms from a few people in the area. She didn’t have an umbrella with her and her robes were drenched. She struck me as completely ambivalent.  When the alms collection finished, she trudged off in the mud and disappeared in the mist like an apparition.  I darted out of the shed to a small building across the way. The mist was getting heavier now and visibility was starting to get reduced.  It was around 1pm and I had to get moving.  I found a sign in Burmese with an arrow pointing up and to the left. I interpreted this to mean: “Golden Rock – This Way”.  After a few strides up, I was confident I was headed the right way. Then, something made me turn around and look behind me. I did not see a single person around — anywhere. What happened to all the people who had come up with me on the truck?  There was no trace of them. The mountain and the rain seemed to be waiting just for me.

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Summit (or Fellowship Found)

13 Nov

Getting close to the top? – Adam’s Peak

My sense of time got lost. I can only guess that I had been doing the ascent for over 3 hours and the lightness I had felt in my stride was now gone.  I was cramping in parts of my legs that I did not know existed and the bottom of my feet felt like they had collapsed. The angles of the stairs were extremely steep and each step up for me at that point was like accomplishing a small miracle.  My breathing was labored and I could only do about 4 to 5 steps before having to stop. I looked back behind me and couldn’t see much. I had entered into the whiteness above only to see that I had come out of the whiteness below. It was as if I was in purgatory.

Looking back into the mist

The journey for me at that point resembled a carefully designed torture exercise. It was meant to wean out those who could not mentally step up and steel themselves through the punishing ordeal. The stone steps had no give and they actually felt like they pushed back on my feet with each step I took. The air temperature had also noticeably dropped, but my body was so flushed that I felt hot. The rain still fell in an annoying barrage of pinpricks.  I pressed and pressed — my instincts told me I was close and that just around the next bend I would see the top. And then something appeared out of the mist and darted towards me.  I was startled. I had seen no signs of life — no birds, squirrels, or people ever since I had begun the journey. But, before me now was something on 4-legs bounding down to me in a blur. It was a fox-sized dog and it was treating me like I was the first thing on 2-legs it had seen in a very long time.   There was something strange about this dog. It gave a little squawk when it first saw me, but then looked at me as if it had been expecting me. I gave the dog a piece of an energy bar and it eagerly took it. I asked the dog, “Am I there yet?” It wagged its tail so I began walking up and it charged ahead of me.

Dog & entry gate to summit of Adam’s Peak

I saw the last flight of stairs that led up to an entry gate. I felt an adrenaline boost and I nearly levitated up the remaining stairs. On both sides of me were small, squatty shelters which appeared to be abandoned. They had a few windows and doors, but I saw no lights in them and heard no human voices. I came to the top of the stairs and steadied myself on the gate as I reached down to remove my shoes. My bare feet came out of their encasements swollen and grateful to be freed. I placed my shoes outside of the gate and entered. Interestingly, the dog who guided me to the summit did not follow me. He sat outside and I went in alone. I felt a chill run through my body as my feet touched the cold slabs of the stone floor.  The summit of Adam’s Peak comes to a head in the form of a square.  In the middle of the square is a raised shrine with one more staircase that must be climbed. I wasn’t ready to climb up to the shrine yet. I wanted to walk around it in a clockwise fashion first. I slowly began the small circuit around the shrine and as I did I saw how fast the monsoon clouds swirled around the summit. They relentlessly jetted across and through the mountain top. I had heard that on clear days one can look out from Adam’s Peak and see the city of Colombo in the distance. I was barely able to see 10 feet below me when I stood over the railing of the summit. After I finished the circuit, I walked towards the shrine in the center and it came into a foggy focus.  As I looked up, I saw 3 shapes tucked away along the wall. I couldn’t believe it — these were people standing silently in prayer. They must have come up before me or via another route. I was careful not to disturb them as I walked up the steps and I positioned myself on the same wall where the men stood. They were facing the footprint, but as I had heard, the footprint was behind steel doors that were locked. So, all I saw were the locked doors. But, the 3 men were so composed and their presence filled me with such reverence that I closed my eyes and as I listened to their whispered chants, I could see through the doors. It wasn’t a stone image of a human footprint that I saw. Instead, I saw the shared heritage of the human spirit and its quest for understanding its connection to the universe.

The Shrine housing the holy footprint

When the 3 men finished their praying, they looked at me — intrigued by my presence.  I said hello and one of them spoke a little English. He told me he was a reporter for a newspaper in Colombo and had come to climb Adam’s Peak for the first time and write about the experience. He had come up that morning with 2 individuals who had served as his guides and said their route had been very difficult because of the wind, rain, and other monsoonal conditions. I told him that I had climbed up myself that morning from the Dalhousie route. He wanted me to talk about my experience and my understanding of Buddhism, and so we chatted for a bit. He snapped a photo of me and then invited me to have a coffee and snack break in one of the shelters just below the shrine. He said there was one security person who lives at the summit during the non-pilgrimage season in order to watch over the shrine. I told him I would join them in a few minutes. The 3 men then walked away and I was left in the shrine by myself. The wind whistled straight through the shrine with such force that it almost carried me aloft a few times. After some time alone, another figure emerged out of the cloud sitting on the summit. It was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk wearing a wet, chocolate-colored robe. He seemed very young and he nodded at me as he entered the shrine. I was able to figure out that he was there for noontime prayers and he began to prostrate himself before the footprint.

Noon prayers at the footprint

I was moved by his dedication — he was shivering and soaking wet — but there he was on his knees on the cold unforgiving ground doing his recitations in front of the hidden footprint. When the monk finished, he smiled at me and we tried to speak broken Sinhalese and English to one another. It didn’t matter what we were trying to say — and nothing really needed to be said. I followed him out of the shrine and saw 2 bells hung off a cable above one of the railings. The tradition is that each pilgrim rings these bells based on the number of ascents the pilgrim makes up to Adam’s Peak. I rang each bell 1 time.

Quiet contemplation

I found my way back to the entry gate and found my shoes. My feet felt like they had shriveled during the time I had spent at the shrine and they sank into my shoes. I walked toward the shelter on my left and saw a door slightly ajar. I entered it and found my 3 companions from the shrine sitting on bunks and the security guard was talking to them.  The individual who spoke English welcomed me inside and asked the security guard to get me a coffee and biscuit.  I was told there was no electricity or running water up here, so the security guard and monk that live at the summit had to get supplies brought up from people every other week or so during the monsoon season.  I took my coffee greedily since I needed something to warm my blood.  It was thick and dark with a chunk of sugar thrown in. A godsend. The security guard gave me a biscuit to eat along with my coffee and I thanked him. Here I was then: On top of Adam’s Peak with 4 Sri Lankan chaps sitting in the dark exchanging smiles and having coffee. I told them about a few of my travels to other Buddhist sites and each time my stories were translated into Sinhalese by the English speaker, I could see the others react with wonder. I learned that none of these individuals had ever been outside of Sri Lanka, so I was providing them with firsthand glimpses into these other lands.  I tried to speak in a non-boastful manner and told them that the trek up Adam’s Peak during the monsoon through such difficult conditions was the most incredible experience — although I didn’t even see the footprint!  It was the journey that was important and that journey had allowed me to meet them and the monk. We were now breaking biscuits with one another and connecting our separate worlds through a shared experience. That was the imprint we had come for — not a stony image but something of reflective resonance.  That’s what a pilgrimage was all about.

The Ascension – Adam’s Peak

6 Nov

Gateway to start of ascent

I felt good when I woke up that next day. I had some eggs and toast and a full pot of Sri Lankan premium black tea. Nothing — not wind, rain, cold — would hold me back from trekking up to Adam’s Peak. I set off with a brisk pace and at first couldn’t believe my good luck — the conditions were cloudy, but there was no rain. I actually thought the clouds may break-up and the sun would come out. The first leg of the trail took me through a base camp area for pilgrims. There were rows of concrete pit toilets, basic sleeping bunkers, and a large standing statue of the Buddha. I walked past these and then came to a grove where there was a statue of the Buddha in his lion pose (the reclining posture he took at Kushinagar before he died) and there was an ornately carved stoned gateway that marked the official entry to the path that would take me for the next 5km or so up to Adam’s Peak. The initial 1km was more or less a comfortable, steady incline where I walked on a muddy clay.  The next marker of note was a Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba that was built a few decades ago, and there were some stone benches for pilgrims to rest on here. Waterfalls streamed from the cliffsides above this pagoda, and as I looked beyond the ravine ahead that’s where I saw the heavy sitting mist ahead.

View of the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba

It was hard for me to judge where the summit was from here. I just couldn’t see anything above the mist. The mountain face was complete hidden. I wasn’t concerned by the situation. There was something completely exhilarating by just letting go and having nature dictate things. I would have to take one step at a time and rise further and deeper into the mist.  There was also no one else on the path! I had yet to see anyone coming down or passing me. During the pilgrimage season, I had heard people crammed on the narrow trails and when you got close to the top, there was only enough space for people to file by one at a time and so there could be hours of waiting while pilgrims carefully passed one another. I  did not have to worry about any human traffic jams. I was going to enjoy every step up. I had packed some food and water, and I would shoot some video along the way. The only traces of pilgrims that I saw were the many lost sandals strewn about here and there.

Self-explanatory signpost

About an hour and a half into the ascent, I noticed a steady rain was falling. Not big drops — only pinpricks and they felt sharp upon impact. I was inside the outer layer of the mist and every now and then I was blasted by a gust of wind. When I got to a rest area, I sat down and took about a 10 minute break. I could imagine that during the pilgrimage season this rest area had to be packed by tired pilgrims who would pass out some tea to drink and share conversation about how much longer it would take to get to the top. It was a bit eerie to sit there all alone thinking about how many souls typically filled the area as they sought the merit that would come from accomplishing the climb. I assumed that I was about halfway up to the summit at that point. As I got up and began to hike again, the wind grew stronger and buffeted against me. I would take a step up and get hit by a blast, and then take 3 or more steps, and get hit again. I put my head down and went through it the best I could, but my thighs and knees began to slowly ache. After about another 30 minutes, I came across a sign that said the Buddha had torn his robe in this spot and he had stopped his climb until he was able to mend the loose strands of his robe so they would not get caught on the brushes and rocks along the way.  In order to commemorate that moment, pilgrims take a long white string from this spot and carry it along the railing until the entire string has been unwound and released.  I could see all these strings placed along the path up from where the Buddha had torn his robe.  They hung like a tangle of wet spider webs and it energized me to be connected to the Buddha in such a concrete way. I was actually walking in his steps now and the strings before me were reminders of his own journey.

Stringed remembrances of the Buddha’s torn robe

Then, as the strings dropped away, I found myself in the mouth of a cloud. Visibility was limited to only about 20 feet or so and the rain was colder now. I told myself I must be about an hour away from the summit, but there was no way to know for sure. I couldn’t see the top. I couldn’t really see anything except endless steps that cascaded into whiteness. I was literally on a stairway to heaven, but had no idea how long it would take to get there. I powered through the next 30 minutes and then another 30 minutes, but whenever I thought – aha – this must be the last stretch – I was wrong! And that happened over and over again, but I noticed the trees dropping away and getting smaller and more rock face appearing. I kept on going driven by a spiritual hunger I had never known before. I rose higher and the steps became steeper and thinner. I was squarely in the center of the monsoonal cloud now. The rain continued to fall in sharp incessant beats. The wind was not only wild, but it howled and howled. So much so that I thought of the song “Wild Is The Wind” and began to sing it to myself. The stones were slippery and I had to sidestep dozens of tree branches, rock debris, and rivulets of mud. Each time I looked up I still only saw the thick cottony blanket of a cloud which enveloped the peak. I pushed myself upwards and into the cone — into what appeared to be the dividing line between cloud and sky, earth and heaven. It had to be at hand.

Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue

2 Nov

What Adam’s Peak looks like on a non-monsoon day

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Those were the last words that Adam heard as he was cast out of Eden. And where did his first step fall outside of the Garden? That was where I was headed. It has many names. Names tied to the many religious traditions which have revered it for several centuries. A few of these names are Ratnagiri, Shiva Padam, Mount Rohana, Samanalakanda, Pico de Adão or Adam’s Peak.  In Sinhalese, the proper religious name is Sri Pada or the “Holy Footprint”. It’s not a very tall mountain at 2243m (7,359ft), but it goes vertical from the forest floor to the clouds.  Years of pounding rains and erosion have chiseled it into a cone that dwarfs everything else around it.  At the top of Sri Pada is an imprint of a large human-looking foot in a rock. Legend has it that the footprint was first uncovered over 2000 years ago, when an exiled Sri Lankan King had been forced into living in a remote forest and then one day while hunting a deer he found his way up the mountain and stumbled upon the large footprint. Word of the footprint’s existence spread from there and it was deemed by the Sri Lankan Sangha to have been made by the Buddha’s left foot during one of the 3 trips he had made to Sri Lanka.  Certain Christian and Muslim traditions which took root in Sri Lanka through colonization and trade believed that this footprint was made by Adam himself when he fell out from Eden. Hindus who saw the footprint concluded that it had to be that of Shiva. Regardless of the exact divinity of the footprint, it is an object of deep veneration and during December to April of each year tens of thousands of pilgrims flock en masse to climb the mountain and pray at the shrine that has been built around the footprint. This shrine has metal doors that remain open during the pilgrimage season so that the footprint can be seen. However, the footprint image that is made available to the public is a man-made footprint complete with engraved depictions of the Wheel of the Dharma and other Buddhist symbols. The actual rock containing the footprint (or petrosomatoglyph) is found several feet below the public-facing external image and from what I understand this rock is not able to be viewed by the public. Based on writings of people who have seen the actual petrosomatoglyph, the footprint is nearly 5 feet long and would have to belong to a giant. Some accounts of the Buddha said that he was incredibly tall, but to have 5ft-sized feet certainly could not be possible. The Buddha was just a man who found a path and practice, and then was awakened. He was a giant in mind and purpose, but not in physical size. He could not have flown as Sri Lankan tradition believes he did from the top of Adam’s Peak down to Kelaniya in Colombo. I would have to personally make the climb, get to the shrine, and reflect on all of this.

Train to Hatton, Sri Lanka

I took a train from Colombo to Hatton which is a town in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.  The elevation and climate of the area combine to produce some of the best tea on earth. Many tea estates and plantations dot the hills and some of these are open for tea tastings. From Hatton, I had to hop on a bus and then switch to a minibus in order to make the last leg of the journey to the village of Dalhousie which is located at the entry to the northern route to Adam’s Peak. Scottish tea planters apparently liked to bestow names from their own country onto the areas in Sri Lanka where they planted. I was staying at a guest house called the Yellow House. When I entered, it was immediately clear that I was only the person staying there. I did a quick recon walk down to the main area of the village and found it was completely deserted. There was not a soul around. When I went back to my guest house, I talked to the owner who said that during the monsoon season everyone left Dalhousie except for just a handful of people who worked in the tea estates around the area and maintained properties in the village.  He told me that if I was going to climb the mountain that it would be unlikely that I would see the sunrise because the mountain was encased in a cloud. He also cautioned that the mountain was extremely windy and rainy and that large chunks of the trail had been completely washed away. I thanked him for the info and said I was doing the climb. I wasn’t here to see a sunrise. I wanted to experience the same walk that the Buddha had undertaken over a millennia ago. I wanted to have my lungs burn, my legs quake, and my back ache in the same way as the Buddha must have felt when he did the steep climb to the summit.  I would leave in the early morning and hopefully get to the summit by noon. Before I left, I would make sure to see the proprietor one last time — just so he could be alerted to my absence if something were to happen and I failed to make it back. It was a morbid thought, but I nevertheless had to cover my base on that.

The first of ten thousand steps – “5km to Adam’s Peak”

So, that was my plan — to climb Adam’s Peak that next morning — come Hell or High Water.  While the High Water came in Biblical proportions, there was no Hell (despite my horribly mangled knees). Instead, there was something altogether different. A communion.

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.

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