TOURS TO TIBET
JOE & CO IN TIBET
So, here's a brief, beginning sketch. Linda and I are in our early fifties. I'm a Rolfer, she's a psychotherapist. Our daughter travelled to Nepal and India last fall with a group of thirty or so women from America and around the world who are involved in the sacred Tara dance started by Prema, an American woman who had studied sacred dance for years, became Tibetan Buddhist and essentially channeled the 21 Praises of Tara sacred dance which had been lost over the years. So they performed for His Holiness in Dharamsala, in Bodhgaya, in nunneries in Nepal and had a magical, powerful experience. Linda and I have been moving steadily into practicing Tibetan Buddhism since HH came to Tucson in 1993 and gave a teaching on Healing Anger.
Glenn Mullin's tour to Nepal and Tibet was advertised in Snow Lion, caught our eye and we made the commitment to go. We were gone from May 15 to June 14. We spent a few days in Bangkok, joined the tour, spent several days in and around Kathmandu, and then flew to Lhasa. We spent ten days in Tibet, drove back through the Himalayas, spent a couple days in Nepal and then had a small side tour to India. Varanasi, Taj Mahal, and Dharamsala. HH was in Dharamsala and we were unbelievably lucky to be among many hundreds who got to see him and shake his hand. So that's the sketch.
The tour had fifteen of us, all coming from some sort of spiritual passion, about half practicing Buddhists. Glenn spent fifteen years or so in Dharamsala studying through the Library Archives School for foreigners. He became fluent in Tibetan, became a part of the official translator group and has authored a number of books on the Dalai Lama lineage with translations of their writings as well as other books on Tibetan Buddhism. He is Irish-Canadian. And so an extraordinary storyteller. He has followed a Tantric path and knew so many lamas and folks in Nepal and Tibet that we kept going into places that nobody else went in. We sponsored and put on a tea ceremony in the Jokhang Temple the night before the great holy night of Buddhas full moon Enlightenment celebration.
Tibetans were in Lhasa in large numbers from villages on pilgrimages, circumambulating the whole village, the Barkhor, and lined up in front of the Jokhang doing prostrations and standing in line to go through the Temple. The Jokhang has a myriad of side chapels inside and the pilgrims typically had a container of butter to spoon a little bit into the offering lamps inside each chapel. The statues were so boldly colorful. Dressed in great brocaded silk garments, all faces painted in gold paint and blue hair, katas hanging from their outstretched mudra expressing hands, offerings of money, mallas, hair ties, personal items. And a monk in each side chapel to tend the butter lamps and chant prayers. Unbelievablly rich wall paintings on every wall. Scenes from Buddhas life, the Indian and Tibetan saints. In one side chapel a whole village of perhaps thirty people were completing a day long ritual to their village's protector deity. A lama had already performed the formal rituals and they were all out in the area outside the chapel doing a chung ceremony. Chung is the homebrew. They'd sing a song in their villager dress and Peruvian looking hats, and then have a glass of chung. Then they'd chant and do a little shuffle dance and then have a glass of chung. And on and on. Glenn said this goes on until the monks drag the villagers out totally blissed out or passed out.
Back to the tea ceremony. We went down into the kitchen at the Jokhang where the head kitchen monk and Glenn (old friends) worked out the deal. Butter tea and Tibetan bread for a hundred or so. [---] Waist high butter churns lined one wall, big pots and vats to cook for many. The clerk or scribe took down all of our names so they could give us credit for the ceremony. He transliterated all of our names or made them up in Tibetan for each of us. Linda became Pema Chodron and I became Jowo Dorje Wangchen. That evening we came back and went inside the railing surrounding the monks main hall area. We were sitting with the monks and Tibetans and tourists were outside looking in at the ceremony. We all received enormous silk kattas. Linda's about 5'2" and almost tripped on hers. The monks chanted a whole series of prayers to Tara. Then a monk chanted all of our names and the tea and bread went around. Finally Linda, Glenn and a few others went around and gave each monk some money as well. When the greater part of the ceremony was over, we were invited by the head kitchen lama to follow him. He took us up the stairs into the back where we had peeked in the door (earlier in the day) at the Dalai Lamas private suite of rooms. In we went.
A small suite really. A couple of low couches, thankas and two extraordinary half life sized statues fully dressed of the thousand armed Avolokiteshvara. This was kind of an L shaped space. And in the back of the L between the two statues was a curtain that led into the Dalai Lamas personal meditation space. This has been used by the Dalai Lamas since the fifteenth century. Embroidered thankas covered the walls in this narrow, cozy little space. It was like entering perhaps the most peaceful vortex I've been in. It was difficult to leave. I kept moving aside to let others go in and out, and finally had to leave. We thanked the kitchen lama profusely. I can still see his kind, gentle face in this poised, energetic body.
Some of the other highlights were of course the Potala, Ani Gompa ( a nunnery in Lhasa), the Tara Temple, the Barkhor and the old section of town not levelled by the Chinese, Drepung, Kumbum, Tashilunpo, the small villages through the high passes on the way back, Chomolungma (Mt. Everest), and all the extraordinary Buddhist holy places in Kathmandu and India.
We were in Tibet from about May 25th through June 3rd. We flew into Lhasa out of Kathmandu. Misty day. We rose through a blanket of cumulus clouds. And pretty soon there were these odd things poking through the clouds. Such a strange sight to see mountains above clouds. And eventually we recognized Chomolungma (Everest). Everyone was on that side of the plane taking pictures, scrambling for views. Eventually, the Himalayas were done and there were moonlike landscapes. Very barren, valleys with turquoise lakes here and there between ridges of mountains. This moved into green river valleys and what looked like terraced villages between these ridges. All the ridges were sort of parallel, so it was easy to see why travel from village to village would be a huge undertaking. And finally a big, wider plain with a ribbon of water in the middle and an airstrip. When we got out the air was clear, crisp and the colors were bizarrely bright. The altitude was a huge factor. We were advised to bring Amoxyn, which helps eliminate headaches and sleep deprivation. And it was about three or four days until I stopped losing my breath just getting up to go to the bathroom in our hotel. For a day or two several of us were giddy, silly, and high as kites, rambling on and on. The colors and images were surreal because of the sharpness of the edges and the fullness of the colors from long distance. Anyway its a couple hours to Lhasa from the airport, driving along a beautiful river that just looks so clean. Very rocky terrain, above treeline, but again surreal in that nothing above treeline ever had that much above it still. So, we drove past a large army base, saw army trucks, were introduced to a feeling of occupation. A razor wire surrounding a compound which was partially a barracks and partially a prison. Sparse traffic. Some trucks, horse drawn carts, a few cars. As we approached Lhasa we crossed over the river and began to see more little settlements. The Tibetan houses are traditional and obviously built in a very intentional way. Anything else was Chinese. And those buildings were typically cinder block, and without style or character. They all had a "government" issue kind of look, like the old living quarter buildings on army bases in the US. Lhasa is not very big and felt like a medium sized US town in Wyoming. Old wooden telephone poles, construction here and there and the mess that goes with it. We initially rode through the Chinese section of town. Lots of cinder block, wide divided street, shops along the way. We had gotten bumped out of Tibetan Hotel in the Barkhor area (near the Yak Hotel), by a Chinese group of importantes, so we stayed in the relatively new Chinese Hotel: The Grand Hotel. Big open cement area inside gates with bright gold/brass columns upholding the entranceway. The construction was as if the trade unions had been put to sleep. Standards for wiring, plumbing, etc. were ..."it wouldn't have passed code." Leaky roofs, etc. The traditional Tibetan structures are geared for the climate, thick walls, packed roofs, deep set windows, all handing the test of time for altitude, wind, etc. Prevalent was the obvious lack of learning by the Chinese from the Tibetans. We drove by the Potala for the first time and pinched ourselves. There it is. The Chinese took down lots of houses and buildings in front and made a huge open area with a wide street. And you go right by the Stupa that used to be the entrance to Lhasa City. It's still there in the middle of the huge street. One way goes on one side, the other...There were lots of Tibetans walking the circumambulating route of the Potala. The traditional route goes right across this main street, so there was a continual band of people moving through traffic to continue on, prayer wheels turning, or mallas in hand, some chatting and joking, some focused on saying mantras, most in traditional dress. All of this continued until the full moon when the commitments to honor the fourteen days before Buddhas Birth/Death/Enlightenment celebrated on the full moon of the fourth month ended. Most of the shops on the wide streets are owned by Chinese, Tibetans still have shops either stalls at the Barkhor or the old market area which adjoins the Barkhor path, or in side streets in the"old section" of town near the Jokhang. What we understood from Glenn was the Han Chinese that came in, weren't so much resettled as looking for a way to make some money. They'd bring in a load of plastic from Uncle so and so, sell it and work their way into a shop. Conditions were apparently better for them in Lhasa than at home. And of course resettlement incentives too. Graft and bribes seem to a part of the routine. The army and police get touched for most privileges. We heard any Tibetan can get papers to leave for $10,000. One of our tour lost his passport at the Chinese bank we exchanged money at. The nightmare of the century. He either left it on the counter or dropped it. Changing money took three windows. First window filled out forms showed passport and money. Second window the guy looked the papers over in an arrogantly officious manner, finally stamped them all and handed all of it to the third window where the exchange was made by an even more officious fellow. So Jerry looked for his passport, checked the bank...nothing. He took the advice to offer a reward. A couple days later he called the bank in the morning offered $500, and also told the police of the reward no questions asked. By the afternoon a call came: The janitor had found his passport on the steps. Jerry went and gave the bank some money, they directed him to a shop. The man had a drawer full of passports. The fence we assumed. He got the rest of the 500, squawked a little at not getting it all, and was mollified when Jerry and Glenn pointed out they still had to relate the whole thing to the police and assumed he'd like to be left out of the picture. Jerry was lucky. He had spent all the day before getting an exit visa for Nepal, our tour was reworked to wait for him, which gave us all a great free day to explore Lhasa. But he would then have to apply for passport in Kathmandu.
We thought the food was incredibly tasty and healthful. Most tried butter tea, which tasted like milk tea that someone had poured about a third to half the cup with melted salty butter. I liked it enough to enjoy it at ceremonies. Tibetan food preparation is very similar to Nepal. Dal, momos, great rich soups, wonderful frybread. The meats are chicken, pork, and yak. At our favorite restaurant, the Snow Lion, which is on the street which faces the entrance to the Jokhang (theres a huge sort of open plaza/corridor in front of the Jokhang that opens into this street). We were advised against pork. Yak was tasty in either fried or steamed momos (dumplings). They even had Yakburgers on the menus, which were delicious. The patties were mixed with somesort of herbs and spice mix. Most of us favored vegetarian. Linda and I never had any GI problems anywhere, which was a huge surprise. We didn't eat from street venders, and frequented only a few restaurants. Bottled water was everywhere. In front of most temples and especially at the Jokhang there are large "smudging" areas. The traders stalls go all around the Jokhang on both sides of a land. And in front of the entrance to the temple are these little fireplaces. They have a chimney and a belly where there are coals glowing all day long. You buy a bundle of cedar or other stuff and go throw it into the opening and smoke comes blowing out. Like the native american smudge, it's for purification. It creates another surreal sort of space. When we first went into the Jokhang, the first open area is a school for the monks from the sister temple. We went into a side area, sat and did a meditation guided by Glenn. We would do simplified tantric meditations in many different places. Soon there were lots of Tibetans around us just checking us out. We got up and moved on as if we were what was on Channel 4 that night. "Tashi Delek" always elicited a big smile or chuckle and a sense of acceptance and a "tashi delek" in return. Several days into our stay in Lhasa we went to the Potala. Partly so that we could handle the steps, partly to savor the upcoming event, and partly to be sure we went on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, which is when the Tibetans go there. I wasn't sure if that was by their design or the Chinese design. Anyway we went on Wednesday, so lots of pilgrims were part of our experience. One of our group went on the "free day" to the Potala and it was virtually empty. As a photographer, he was blown away by the opportunity. Each room requires a fee, some as much as five or ten dollars. All of this money as well as the offerings made by pilgrims at the statues and shrines are collected by the Chinese. There are Chinese army stationed here and there in the Potala and surveillance cameras in most rooms hanging from the wall near the ceiling. Although we rarely saw any sense of open antagonism, tourists are kept away from observing anything awful, there were arguments and flareups between Tibetans and Chinese. One such in the Potala between someone's Tibetan guide and a Chinese "tourist" who told them to hurry up, the guide got into an exchange that seemed like the tip of an iceberg, but pretty hot. The Potala was so remarkable. You climb a zigzag course to get to the mid-way courtyard. Pause, have a drink and catch your breath. Then you enter up some steps and are greeted by a huge prayerwheel, murals on the walls and a staircase that winds you up to the roof. From the top you proceed down going from room to room. The roof is where the Dalai Lamas rooms are. A relatively small suite of rooms. And there we were at the place where HH looked out his telescope down into town. The area he probably looked down into is now the huge street, the cinderblock shops and the big cement square. The first rooms we went in were the Dalai Lamas. A small receiving temple with a throne area, an inner chamber with bedroom and meditation room and a separate room for his tutorials. The teaching lamas seat was clearly higher than the student's. Beautifully painted walls, thankas, great thick wooden doors. Perhaps a 100 or so rooms were open. What I had no idea of was that the previous Dalai Lamas from the Great Vth on are all there. They were all mummified and are each in his own stupa room. The Vth's and the Great XIII's stupa rooms were enormous. Probably at least three stories high and containing a large stupa with the remains in the round belly. Each of these rooms had an incredible energy. The Tibetans always put their forehead to altars to make connections. We started doing that as well, and the Vth and XIIIth had mystical energy, at least for me. Glenn joked, the Tibetans believe that there is still some consciousness remaining in the mummified bodies, so be sure to wave. It was like that. There was a presence there. The VIIth Dalai Lamas stupa room was the next most extraordinary with statues of him as a boy, a man, and an older man. In addition a room dedicated to the VIIth had a manuscript that was quite enlightening for me. The VIIth had been a great writer and interpreter of Dharma. The Manchus were so taken by the Tibetans that their sons were tutored by lamas and the high court language in Beijing was Tibetan. The Emperor was so grateful and respectful of the VIIth that he had his works translated into several languages. Chinese, Mongolian, Manchurian, and Tibetan. And then hand scripted and put into Tibetan style books with decorations on the cover in fine jewels surrounded by pearls. Other extraordinary rooms contained three dimensional images of Mandala (palaces). One room had three all in solid gold. They were perhaps six to eight feet across and rose several feet. The image we see in the mandala expanded into three dimensions with all the detail. And then in its own room a solid gold perhaps eight to ten foot sided Kalachakra mandala.
I just wanted to Tom Thumb myself and go for a walk into the palace itself. With its three or four levels it was stunning. We went through a room where a lama from the Ting Ri area (near Everest) was doing a ritual. This was the room where the Eight Medicine Buddhas flanked a major Buddha statue. The lama was kind to bless kattas for a few. And then we met again as we left and he was a great presence, chatting with Glenn and blessing kattas for those of us that had them waiting for such a moment. And always we returned to wandering the Barkhor, to pick up another treasure. Perhaps a prayer wheel, or a malla, or some old silver and leather horse tack, or any number of wonderful treasures.
I think I'll stop for now. And I'll continue, and/or respond to anyone's questions, and hopefully others could share their experiences and the other things that were talked about . Joe