Teresa Wolande recounts her trip to Lhasa/Tibet in China
Having been intrigued by the devout nature of Cambodians, I was interested in learning more about Buddhism. And there is no better place on earth to do just that than Lhasa, Tibet, an autonomous state of The People’s Republic of China. Keeping with the remote theme of the trip, Lhasa is 12,000 feet above sea level, ( the same altitude as the first base camp on the Mt Everest climb) is located on a plateau in the middle of the Himalayas, still has a robust nomadic culture, and reminds me of a landlocked Easter Island. Except very cold, dry, and full of wandering yaks. We were clearly in for a fun time flying over..you guessed it.. Mount Everest
Home to both of the Dalai Lama palaces as well as the most holy site of all of Buddhism, the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa is a popular tourist destination for the adventurous. We are visiting in the winter, which means not a lot of tourists but a LOT of pilgrims. The nomads and the farmers use this time to make their trek, similar to making the trek to Mecca. And, after observing them I am here to tell you that these people are PROS at trekking.
One cannot talk about Tibet without giving background on its sensitive political situation. We were coached prior to our arrival to not ask any political questions regarding the existing Dalai Lama, to not take any pictures of any military personnel or local police, and to not stare at the 28 fighter jets and 40 military helicopters parked next to the runway when we landed.
Tibet accepts only international flights coming from Nepal and those must be flown by Air China. Hence we had a charter flight on Air China to Tibet. With an air marshal on board in case we got any ideas.
Tibet for most of its history has been a closed community due to its deep religious underpinnings in Buddhism as well as its geographical location. I think most of you know that historically it was ruled by kings into the 5th century which at that point the leadership of state and religion was granted to the Dalai Lama. ( actually, the Mongolians did this and Khubilai Khan was a practicing Buddhist) The Dalai Lama is by definition the reincarnated soul of the previous Dalai Lama, and usually is identified via a rigorous search and testing at an early age. Think highly precocious two year old. (This is a fascinating aspect of the religion and is too complicated to get into here, but I encourage you to quickly google it)
The current Dalai Lama (14th) was identified at the age of two ( Born in 1935) and was officially crowned at the Winter Palace in Lhasa at the age of 5. Which was pretty usual for them. He was then tutored by the monks and most famously a German gentlemen who found himself stranded there as a result of the Second World War. (The book he wrote is called Seven Years in Tibet and it was also a movie. Both I heard are excellent)
In the late 1940’s early 1950’s, as part of the cultural revolution the Chinese government began to make overtures as to annexing the nation based on a centuries old gift to the Tibetans of one of the first Buddha statues ever made and blessed by Buddha himself. Leave it to the Chinese to have LONG memories. (This is the centerpiece of the Jokhang Temple I mentioned earlier-hang with me here) There was dissent amongst the Tibetans, particularly those that worked more on state matters under the current Dalai Lama, who is, like, 10 and not really contributing much. In confusion and not getting any guidance, by 1959 the Chinese are able to march in and seize Tibet. The Dalai Lama flees in exile to India.
Keeping in mind that the Dalai Lama is both the state and religious leader, you have a situation where there is a leader that the people of Tibet recognize and worship. He is alive and well and telling the Chinese he will come back only when Tibet is freed. Adding to the situation is that the Dalai Lama did select the Palai Lama-who is responsible for finding the next Dalai Lama when he dies. This guy has disappeared. Beijing has appointed its own government sponsored Palai Lama as a result, and this individual will find the next Dalai Lama. Or not. So I think we all see the problem here. The next ten to fifteen years will prove fascinating as to the course of this ancient religion and culture. To say nothing as to the fate of millions of Tibetans.
To Tibetans, their practice of Buddhism is absolutely central to their lives. I personally have never seen a people living their beliefs as completely as this. Prayers flags literally on mountains. Gorgeous large monasteries carved into desolate foothills. Prayer wheels, beads, incense, burning yak butter-it is literally everywhere, including small Buddha temples in their homes. This is a simple yet complicated religion: simple in its belief of compassion, but complicated in its content of The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and The Middle Way. You will need to look this up to learn more because explaining these in detail is way over my pay grade.
One thing to keep in mind is that this is truly an ancient religion. It is widely believed Buddha (aka Siddhartha Gautama) lived between 560-460 BC. He gave his first sermon in 525 BC after establishing his philosophy of enlightenment, and spent the remainder of his life as a wandering preacher, occasionally performing miracles , in the company of a growing band of disciples. (Sound familiar?) These disciples formed the beginnings of the Buddhist monkhood. In the centuries after his death, his religion spread widely, carried along the trade routes by merchants and itinerant monks.
Buddhists believe that all life is sacred. ALL. As in blowing a mosquito off your hand and not eating meat except as a matter of survival. In many parts of Tibet, when one dies, they are taken into the mountains and offered to the animals for food. They believe that at all times one must be giving of oneself in order to build karma so that they may progress into their next life. When you eventually live a selfless life, full of compassion and giving to your fellow beings, partake of rituals, chanting, and meditation, when you are enlightened-this is the path to Nirvana. Nirvana meaning you ascend into paradise and do not have to keep coming back to hot mess situations like Kathmandu.
Therefore much effort goes into speeding up your ability to build up your own karma. Take the prayer wheel. This wheel has within it a rolled up scroll that has numerous prayers on it. Originally designed so that those who were illiterate could pray by simply turning the wheel, it has evolved into a way to pray all the time. There is even a mobile app for this approved by the very techno savvy Dalai Lama himself. ( I am not making this up-check the App Store) Another modern day example is that Tibetans will wait outside fresh fish markets in Lhasa, wait for the Chinese customers to come out with live fish, pay them for it, and then release the fish in the river. Karma, Karma, Karma.
The ultimate karma builder is the pilgrimage. And the tougher, longer and weirder the better. Some will prostrate themselves every three steps from their home town, taking months to reach Lhasa, where they immediately stop traffic as they prostrate themselves to the Jokhang Temple. This are what I would call the Uber-pilgrims. Prostrating is like constant burpees only they have wood blocks to protect their hands and a leather yak apron to protect their body. It looks like an excellent way to get into shape by the way. To see this is just unbelievable. Our local guide emphasized that prior to the onset of the pilgrimage they sell all their earthly possessions and perform many rituals.
With this as background we began our touring. First stop: Potala Palace- the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama. This began interestingly enough as a meditation cave for King Gamboa in the 7th century. After a while he built a room above it. It then was constructed as a palace for the Dalai Lama between 1645-1694 mostly during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama. It has over 1000 rooms and is divided into the White Palace (for secular use) and the Red Palace (for religious use). You can see the palaces clearly in the picture.
But first you have to get up there, and that means a 400 stair climb. Which did not go over so well with members of our group. After that we entered the White Palace for a look around. No pictures are allowed within the Palace, so I will do my best to give you an idea.
What strikes you first are the pilgrims. As it is winter, the majority of these are Tibetans that have come from all over the country. Many are from the nomadic tribes; others are farmers. They are dressed based on the area of the country from which they have come. Twirling prayer wheels, chanting, working their prayer beads and carrying their offerings of yak butter-this is a sight not often experienced. Incredible devotion. You also see young children strapped to their mothers backs, sons and daughters carrying up their elderly parents…it is just so hard to describe. Faces weathered by the intense environment and a life of manual labor, you see their faces light up in wonder as they tour the vast rooms with you. They leave what money they can spare as offerings to the Buddha as well as the monks that tend the palace. They pour the yak butter they have carried all this way into the burning urns as their offering. They silently pray-their strong fingers gently caressing their worn prayer beads. Utterly amazing to observe and an honor to be a part of.
This is still a working Palace as far as the Tibetans are concerned as the Dalai Lama is alive and this is his place. As you tour the secular or state area, you see his bedroom, meditation area, reception rooms for foreign dignitaries, and various throne rooms. Think big time over the top gold oriental themes with an unbelievable amount of dusty knick knacks and you’ve got the vibe. Now Tibet is a cold place, and there was no sign of a heating system as far as I could tell. Upon asking our guide, he stated that this is actually the warmest area in Tibet in the winter. Just saying it was about 10 degrees F in the morning. Between the altitude and the climate these people are the definition of tough.
We the ascended to the religious area of the White Palace which is spectacular, overwhelming, and deeply moving. Arranged all over the walls in all the rooms is the vast original library of the Buddhist religion. No one is allowed to touch these except the university monks. This is also where the original meditation cave is, and that was incredible to see.The large main assembly hall with its massive Buddhas, prayer flags, and burning yak butter was a sight to behold-I imagined what a ceremony would look like with the monks in their distinctive yellow hats, all the color, the chanting…
The chapels of the Dalai Lama’s tombs, and most of them lie right there, are a testament to the devotion they inspired in their people. The Fifth Dalai Lama was particularly revered as he unified the country and his tomb is utterly breathtaking. Made of solid gold and encrusted with precious stones, it is absolutely magnificent.
We then headed down, which was a hell of a lot easier that the continuous climb-our guide was pretty happy to see people breathing normally.
On the way down, a two year old Tibetan boy in full native dress had just had enough. He went into a full tantrum-too many people, too many Buddha’s and too much yak butter smell. He was DONE. It reminded me as a grandmother that two year olds are global in their behavior. We stopped along the way to re-cap what we had seen. As we then descended I again saw the two year old-this time in his mothers arms, sleeping, as she tenderly wiped his cheeks free of his tears. We are more alike than we are different in so many wonderful ways.
After lunch we headed to the big show-The Jokhang Temple, which is the spiritual center of Tibet and the destination of millions of Tibetan pilgrims. It is the oldest Buddhist monument in Tibet. As we entered the grounds you see dramatic religious prostration in the forecourt before the entrance to the temple. You are required to come here at least once in your lifetime as a Tibetan Buddhist, and I am here to tell you that this is absolutely happening.
This was built in the 7th century to house the oldest and most sacred Buddha statue in Tibet, the Jowo Shakyamuni. This was given to King Gamboa by his Chinese wife. (Little did he know the ultimate price of that gift would be Chinese occupation centuries later)This statue originally represented the historical Buddha at age 12- however over the centuries it has been gilded in gold many times, crowned, bejeweled such that it looks nothing like a youthful Buddha. This statue was supposedly blessed by the real Buddha which would mean this is an extraordinarily old statue.
On an interesting note, I was surprised when the Tibetans sought to take pictures of us. But then again a bunch of older white people with matching headsets and backpacks must have been hard to resist in terms of getting a photo of what must have looked like a small alien invasion to these folks.
When entering, you first encounter the courtyard where important ceremonies were held when the Dalai Lama was around. He would observe these from his outstanding golden perch. After that, cameras are off and it’s game on to see the Buddha
Then you are right into the action as there are very excited pilgrims all around you who have waited years, prostrated across the country, left their families and are finally HERE. It was like being in the mosh pit of a concert featuring Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We were swept into the crowd and yes, I caught a glimpse of the Buddha himself. He was being tended to by a monk, and there were guards all around. When I emerged, it was to see our guide pulling members of our group, headsets flying, out of the streaming mass of devout pilgrims. I have to admit to almost laughing hysterically because, well, you just had to be there.
We quickly made our way out of the temple as we had a few of our group, even the New Yorkers, in a bit of shock. The bus was sounding pretty good about now.
Our next and final stop was the Sera Monastery, which was founded in 1419. It is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa sect (yellow hat) and once housed up to 7000 monks. There are now about 600 monks there. This is a university monastery, and has three colleges. We were headed there to observe firsthand the debating that is done amongst the young monks after morning classes. This is performed in the debating garden. There is a saying that I loved when I heard it that describes this practice: Like stones rubbing together within a bag, the monks polish themselves”. The debates hone their intellectual abilities, and can be quite heated.
We arrived at the garden to observe them preparing for their debates with chants led by elder monks. The Yellow hats are arched and sharp looking as they symbolize the sharpening of the mind that is of paramount importance to the monks. Although the photos are great, they do not capture the harmonious chanting of the young men, all seated, all devoutly holding their prayer beads. The prayer beads, of which there are 108, represent the 108 sufferings of all sentient beings. The Buddhists all pray that all beings will be spared these sufferings in keeping with this most compassionate of religions.
Then the debating began. One monk stands, and poses a question with a large clap, and then elaborates. The seated monks respond and debate the question. There is no winner pre se- the objective is increased understanding. I have a wonderful video of this if anyone is interested in which they are debating the concepts around the role of empathy.
Finally it is back the the hotel. As we had an early flight, it was an early night.
I leave Tibet with a much better understanding of its religion and people that is coupled with an anxiousness for its cultural future. Native Tibetans are not considered full Chinese citizens and are therefore prohibited from traveling abroad as the 6 have no passport. They are watched very closely-our guide had a minder who also accompanied us during our walking tours- listening intently to his answers to our questions. In the countryside, there are massive apartment building projects as the Chines government lays the groundwork to develop the mining industry and to begin to relocate its rural citizens to working centers. And then there is the 82 year old Dalai Lama, looming large, an unseen presence that gives so much meaning to many.
An uncertain future, to be sure. But something tells me that, from all I have seen of this remarkable people, they will find their way. Let us hope, and let us too keep them in our thoughts and prayers as they surely have us in theirs.
Thanks for reading!