Tag Archives: tibet

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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Sketches of Lhasa (#2)

11 Oct

Rock paintings of Lamas outside Drepung Monastery

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

Main Temple – Drepung Monastery

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

Fresco – Drepung Monastery

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

Paintings on outside of Nechung Monastery

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

Detail of painting – Nechung Monastery

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

Sketches of Lhasa (#1)

4 Oct

Souvenir stand at Yamdrok Tso overlook

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

Potala Palace – Lhasa, Tibet (2007)

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

Potala Palace

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

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

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

Gyantse Khumbum

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

Eyes of the Khumbum

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

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

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

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

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

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.

SkyDrive (Lalunga Pass)

12 Sep

We were roused from our sleep at 4am. The rain was still falling.  We had overnighted in Zhangmu and had not been able to leave as planned because of the mudslides the rains had caused. Due to the steep elevation gain over the first couple of days of the overland drive, each day had been carefully plotted to help gradually acclimate us to the altitude change. But, we were now faced with making up the lost day and would bypass our initial destiantion point of Neyalam, and instead head straight to what should have been our second destination point –Lhatse. Lhatse was over 435 km away from Zhangmu and would require us to go over the Lalunga pass at 5,050m (over 16,000 feet high). We were to reach Lhatse later that evening and overnight there at a height of 4,050m (over 13,200 feet high). Zhangmu is close to being a subtropical area of Tibet and its elevation is 2,300m (7,500 feet). So, when I got up that early morning and shook myself awake, it was with the knowledge that we would be more than doubling our altitude gain on that same day.  I could sense trepidation trickle through a few of the other individuals in the tour group. One guy kept talking about the onset of symptoms of “A.M.S.” — acute mountain sickness.  I was so relieved this guy was not sitting in my Landcruiser.  But, at that point, I wasn’t as worried about the dramatic altitude gain as I was concerned about the idea of driving up and through a muddy mountain road over the south face of the Himalayan range that lay before us — with only our Landcruiser’s headlights under a moonless night with no sun at least for another 3 hours.  I sat shotgun and will never forget it. What we drove on was an insane excuse for any kind of vehicular road. It was nothing more than gravelly switchback trail that happened to be wide enough for one car to be on at a time. The rain had churned the dirt into a gummy mud, and of course there were no street lights — or lights of any kind. My Tibetan driver had nerves of steel and I could only bounce my head up and down as we dodged and weaved around fallen boulders, tree branches, and had the tires spin out from time to time in the deeper mud. During one bend of the drive, we entered an opaque portal of thick mist where the car seemingly drove itself. There was no overt maneuvering by my driver and it felt like we were in a sled coasting along through the mud.

Himalayan sunrise

I didn’t unclench my teeth or hands until I saw the first ray of the sun. And from that initial point of light, the sun just exploded out in front of us — we were headed due East. When we came out of the mountains and onto the first flat stretch of land, our driver stopped. We hopped out and looked behind us. The mountains we had traversed stared silently back. They were massive. It was hard to believe these were just the initial rim of the Himalayan range. We then drove into the 2-road town of Neyalam and our guide who was in the lead car motioned for the other cars to stop. He went out and knocked on the door of a storefront. It was still very early and the sun was just starting to warm the earth. The town seemed abandoned. But, when the door opened, I realized this was a restaurant and we went inside to have breakfast. The family that ran the restaurant was still asleep — their living quarters was on the other side of the dining area. I felt bad that they had to get up just to serve us, but we had been expected the night before and they had been prepaid by our guide. They brought out some butter tea (a mix of milk, salty yak butter, and black tea which warmed and then confused your tastebuds – a godsend that morning), some bread & butter and one hardboiled egg. Neyalam had an elevation of about 3,800m (over 12,000 feet), and other than feeling drowsy, I felt no ill effects. We got back in the cars and saddled up for what I can only describe as the skydrive. The road was nothing more than packed dirt and rock and as it got higher every sign of life began to drop away. The trees, bushes, and scrub faded into oblivion as we climbed.  The roof neared.  I felt a tightness in my lungs. At first, I thought I was just getting cold and bundled up as we went through the pass and crested. We were now on the Tibetan plateau.

Prayer flags at Lalunga Pass, Tibetan plateau (2007)

The driver motioned for us to get out of the car. I opened the door and an icy wind hissed. I took a few steps and I remember not understanding why my feet felt so heavy. I plodded along as if my shoes were fitted in concrete.  There were colorful Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind and I wanted to walk in the middle of them.  Bits of patchy cloud were suspended overhead. So close – maybe only 10 feet above my head. I could have jumped and touched them, but I was having a hard enough just moving one foot past the other. When I got into the center of the prayer flag configuration, I did a 360 turn to take in the vista around me. My eyes teared uncontrollably — not because of any sadness or joy, but because of the thin air and piercing wind. As I wiped away the tears, I felt a freshness. I breathed deep and was momentarily gripped by the unknowable or otherworldly. I looked at my Landcruiser in the distance and although I could see it, I wasn’t actually seeing it, but was instead looking through it. I was completely transfixed by the enormous white-domed mountains looming around me which were so overpowering that the man-made car before me ceased to have any meaning. I was standing in the middle of a cathedral. On the surface, I appeared to be surrounded by nothing more than a lifeless landscape, but people had lived on this plain for millennia. Their trinity consisted of  yaks, barley (tsampa), and Buddhism. That was what had sustained them — unchanged — even up to the present.  As my driver waved me back to the car, I thought it would take me forever to walk back. I began the slow shuffle and I was overtaken by a whiteness.  My brain felt bigger than my head.  I had to continue through the whiteness, and as I did this, I had the sensation of being able to see myself walking from above.  It was as if another door of consciousness had opened. I had nothing to say when I got back in my seat. My head throbbed. I thought I saw the letters, A.M.S., spelled out in the windshield. I prayed for a speedy descent.

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