October 31, 2006

Speedy Pilgrims of Tibet

Standing still in the current of chanting Buddist pilgrims, people continued to flow around me as I tried to take in the scene. We were in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in front of its holiest place, the Johkang Temple.

The Johkang dates to the 7th century, an imposing white and maroon stucco structure. It appears little has changed since then. 20 foot tall incense burners billow out plumes of smoke from burning herbal offerings, and colorful prayer flag columns reach even higher into the sky. Pilgrims of all sorts, from frail solitary figures to entire families tugging toddlers briskly march clockwise around the Temple, while chanting mantras, counting rosaries, spinning small prayer wheels in their hand, and constantly moving. It is a flurry of color and sound and movement, against a background of an unbroken row of stalls, with merchants hawking prayer flags, yak butter, beads, scrolls, wood carvings, and more. (Check out Jonathan’s great photos)

The truly dedicated prostrated themselves around the entire quarter mile long kora that surrounds the Temple, standing, bowing, then sliding along the ground one body length to stand and repeat. Some of the pilgrims have special pads for their hands, a block of wood with a piece of metal attached on one side, to slide smoothly along the paved street.

The pilgrims struck me as extremely busy – or as people with a bit of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Everything had to be touched, in the correct order, while chanting the correct mantra. Each Buddist deity inside the Temple had to be bowed to, presented with yak butter to fuel the candles, and given a small donation of cash. There are half yuan and 1 yuan notes everywhere, stuffed at the feet of buddist statues, in their hands, in glass collection boxes, and slipped onto window cases in front of the deities. And with some Temples having dozens of internal chapels housing specific deities, the pilgrims quickly did what they needed to do and moved on in a matter of seconds, while the tourists stood still, admiring the artistry.

The Buddist monks and nuns were a treat to see in their traditional saffron and yellow robes, yet sporting Nike knit hats and chatting on cell phones. We were told that monks (especially at the better known temples) received a stipend for their work, and although not allowed to have worldly possesions, cell phones were somehow completely acceptable. Maybe they’re chatting with their girlfriends – evidently not all monks need to be celibate. :)

Tibetan Buddism was strangely reminsicent to me of South American Catholicism, with its pilgrims, elaborate and ornate holy shrines and idols, patron saints and gods, hierarchical clergy, sets prayers and rosary beads.

We discovered (although it shouldn’t have been surprising) that no pictures of the Dalai Lama are allowed in Tibet by the Chinese government. I found it odd that one of the very few things I knew about Tibetan Buddism was what the Dalai Lama looked like, and yet many of the monks did not. I didn’t understand the harsh impact of this simple act until I learned that portraits of lesser Lamas were allowed, and were displayed prominently next to the Buddist statues that the Lamas were supposed to be reincarnations of. Not knowing what the present reincarnation of the leader of the Tibetan Buddists symbolically seems to say that there is no head, no leader. Buttons with the picture of the Dalai Lama and flags of Tibet were freely available in Nepal, but the border crossing from Nepal to Tibet is one of the most well guarded and tightly regulated in all of China.

The Chinese presence here is made very clear, a sharp contrast of language, of culture, and of time. While the Barkhor and the Johkang Temple remain mostly unchanged for the last 1000 years, the rest of Lhasa looks exactly like a newly developped Chinese city, with its white tiled buildings, neon signs, traffic lights and restaurants. The ultra modern concrete “Liberation of the people” monument in the center of the city stands in stark contrast across the street from the 7th century Potala Palace, the traditional seat of the Dalai Lamas.

I am glad that we were able to see this point in Tibet’s history – clearly change is afoot, with the opening up to tourism and the completion of the new train direct from Beijing. The Chinese tourists who are here stand out. They are clearly the most affluent in an increasingly wealthy population, dressed either in suits or jeans, fleeces and high heeled boots, toting HUGE lenses and mini video cameras. The Tibetans we encountered, whether pilgrims or Lhasa city dwellers, were astoundingly tolerant of photos and tourists. Let’s hope that they can hold out against what will sure to be an onslaught of new Chinese migrants and tourists.

1 Comment

  1. The tolerance and genuine warmth of the Tibetan people was one of the things that really struck me during our visit there. This was especially the case while we were poking around through their temples and monasteries. Although trying to be unobtrusive as possible, it was tough not to be doing the “annoying tourist” thing: lingering around, taking pictures, generally getting in the way in some of the tighter spaces that pilgrims were trying to rush through (the faster they go, the more rounds they can make and holy sites they get to visit, which equals more karma points!). I know that if the tables were reversed, I would be seriously annoyed about the “damn tourists” getting in my way, but we received nothing but genuine warmth and friendly smiles from all the pilgrims with whom we made eye contact. Our Tibetan guide would even stop random pilgrims as they passed by to show us their distinctive regional styles of dress, and the pilgrims would just wait patiently until she stopped handling the very clothes they were wearing!

    The ban on photos of the Dalai Lama was one of the sadder things we encountered in Tibet. During a visit to one monastery (the one on the highway between Lhasa and the airport), a pilgrim walked up to us and asked “Picture? Picture?”–apparently one of the few English words she knew. We weren’t making the connection of what she wanted until our guide said that she was hoping we had pictures of the Dalai Lama. It was sad trying to explain that we didn’t have one. And even if we did, it wouldn’t have been safe for us or her to give it to her, given the significant number of government spies rumored to be spread throughout the society–even in the monasteries themselves. Still, it made me wish that I could have smuggled in a whole stack of Dalai Lama photos and left them in a dark corner of some obscure monastery, to be discovered, some time later, as a “miraculous manifestation.”

    Comment by Mike E. — November 13, 2006 @ 4:10 pm

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