15 December 2007

Behold! The jewel in the lotus!

When I first arrived in Lhasa, it was evening. I had just gotten off the train from Lanzhou, a more than 30 hour journey. Does this sound like a long time to be on a train? Well, it's one of the shortest routes. From Beijing, it takes about two days, and some die-hards (Japanese) come by hard seat. Luckily, the shared taxi driver who wanted 30 yuan (I paid 10) to take me to the city center also rounded up a Chinese woman who speaks perfect English (with a New Zealand accent). I have been relying on "Vivienne" for the last week as a translator and companion. I feel like this is cheating, but she doesn't speak Tibetan, so there are still challenges.

On our ride to the Tibetan side of town, I caught my first glimpse of the Potala Palace. I was reminded of a similar experience in Athens, when I first saw--beteared--the Acropolis. So white, from such a commanding height. I visited it the next day, I and Vivienne and hundreds of pilgrims and few other tourists. Every temple I would later visit would have such an atmosphere. Maybe the Acropolis looms large in the imagination of the sentimental Classicist, but it is a dead place, a ruin. The temples of Tibet, though embattled, are alive, and you there are immersed in a stream of life with a continuity of centuries: the whitewashed, gold-accented buildings; the combined odors of incense, yak butter, and pilgrim sweat; the chants and prostrations of Tibetan nomads from all over the plateau, speaking their innumerable dialects, adorned in innumerable styles of hair and dress; and the crimson monks, freely bestowing benedictions on all and even on me. It's pilgrim season in Tibet, so even though it's (not that) cold, it's fascinating. So fascinating! In all the ways you expect fascinating, hidden mountain kingdoms to be, though they tend so often these days to be engulfed by the gaping jaws of bourgeois tourism. I have never been to a place so permeated by sincere religious feeling--except Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is a wicked place, tense with competing exclusivities. In Tibet, all are embraced (despite the odd internecine slaughtering) in the exhortations of infinite compassion.

Too many days have passed full of too many details, too many odd and interesting encounters, already fleeing from my overwhelmed mind, for me to recount them in full. At Samye monastery, designed to be a map of the Buddhist universe, and which I just returned from illegally visiting, a monk in the Longevity Buddha chapel poured fragrant water into my palm to drink. At Sera, another monk prayed over me while balancing a stick from my forehead to the heart of a Buddha image. And at Drepung, some teenager monks who were fooling around sat with me for funny photos. And all the while, I am handing out the common currency of pilgrims (notes worth 1/10 of a yuan), intermittently drinking liters of yak butter and sweet milk tea, sometimes in caves with surprised Tibetans, sometimes at the behest of a lonely monk in a less-frequented mountain temple.

But Jokhang Temple... tucked away in the Tibetan 'hood east of the Potala, the holiest temple in Tibet. By no means imposing, though lovely, it is a magnet of fervent religiosity such as I have seldom (never?) seen. A circuit, called a kora, circles it. To either side, the inevitable stalls and shops. But in its midst, hundreds (thousands?) of pilgrims--a river of colorful, dirty pilgrims--circulating irresistibly clockwise. Most pray, some spin prayer wheels, a few make the rounds laboriously by prostration (I have considered trying this). Inside the temple, I had an experience.

Most temples I visit, and have visited in China, certainly, seem no more than glorified souvenir shops. Tourist groups herd through, look around, and leave. Some burn incense, but they hardly seem the notable structures of a vibrant, current culture. Not so Jokhang. Again, I was the only white face in the crowd of humming, worshipping Tibetans. At the rear of this, the holiest temple in Tibet, is its holiest precinct, containing the nation's holiest Buddha image--a golden Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha of ancient India and Eastern Philosophy 101. Normally guarded by a steel mesh, on this day the monks drew it aside, allowing the devout to just touch the sacred statue, circumambulate it, and pass out again, blessed with prayer scarves by a monk within. This sort of scene is typically intimidating, because, you think to yourself, "what should I do?" Participate, or is that disrespectful? Or merely look on, reflecting with idiotic sentimentality on how beautiful this people is? And there was such a crowd, waiting turns, shoving their way in, foregoing the niceties of queueing. And I let myself be shoved in, too. As I entered, one monk was undressing the golden image. He removed layer after layer of rich, silk garments, to the astonishment of all, finally exposing its golden, naked radiance. Passing around the back of the image, giant protector deities looming above me, I passed a monk handing out white prayer scarves on the other side. I was shy and kept moving, but Vivienne muttered that she'd like to receive one of those scarves. Apparently, the monk understood English, because he turned to us both, blessed us both, and I kept that scarf around my neck, not knowing what else to do, the remainder of the day. When I stepped out of the chapel, a small child in his mother's arms spontaneously reached out to me his little hand. I grabbed it, his mother smiled, and I almost cried... certainly had to get out of there. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply feeling one, and it's difficult not to be persuaded by such moments, even if you are currently reading Hobbes' "Leviathan". What struck me the most, is that I was allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the holiest temple of this religion and even touch my forehead to the leg of its most revered, ancient icon. Would I be permitted, much less invited by beckoning smiles, to do the same at Rome? Jerusalem? Salt Lake City? Mecca?

I must add that my dorm room is just about 100% Japanese, and their personalities run the gamut of that subtle country. I'm getting lots of Japanese practice and haggling advice, too: Miyuko-san somehow managed to get a 200 yuan coat for 40. "I always win!" she said triumphantly. Naturally, nobody has a Tibet permit. I have already been invited out for a night of Japanese fun--avoiding that by doing this--and the group seems to agree that I am a "yasashii hito (desu ne!)". Given their charm and reliability, I figured they would be perfect Land Cruiser companions, should any of them be going that way. I quickly assembled a group of five, called a meeting (they love that) to discuss the details, and it looks like we'll be on our way to the Maoist-ridden kingdom in the next few days.

I imagine you all, my friends, as manifestations of Kannon, Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of infinite compassion--whose thousand-armed, myriad-headed form witnesses the lamentations of the world--in my thoughts (however confused) and in my prayers (however conflicted and however infrequent).

Om Mani Padme Hum! Behold! The jewel in the lotus!

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