I have always been fascinated by what I have read and heard about supernatural forces and entities. Before coming here, I used to think of Tibet as a holy place high in the remote Himalayas where paranormal events were more common than anywhere else.
Consequently, I had my eyes and ears wide open to spot any sign, in myself or in others, of something that could in the slightest manner indicate the presence of spiritual forces.
I looked hard but only saw a very poor population dominated for 5 centuries by the absolute power of the tibetan theocracy and subjected to the Chinese occupation forces since 1950.
|Lonely Planet CIA|
I quickly got used to thinking of Tibet as a province of China. It was difficult to do otherwise after passing the Chinese customs here in Zhang Mu. The Chinese military occupation was obvious everywhere and so was the dilution of the Tibetan population by the massive immigration of Chinese nationals.
Crawling up this absolutely grandiose gorge was soul lifting, I was getting closer to that very special place where supernatural secrets were kept!
Finally the road breaks out onto the high Tibetan Plateau.
We stopped at this Tibetan village to get to a cave reputed to be the one where the legendary poet Milarepa is supposed to have spent six years in isolation to atone for having used black magic to kill his family's enemies in the 11th century. There was a widespread belief in Tibet that paranormal black magic powers can be acquired through mortification of the body, meditation and the practice of tantric rituals. Milarepa was admired for having developed the ability to fly through the air to wherever he wished with his physical body and not only with his spirit (which apparently was a more common achievement).
This little girl looks at us without surprise for she has seen many other tourists stop in her village to see the holy cave.
This Tibetan woman calling someone ignored us completely. Clearly the novelty of foreign tourists had worn off.
This is indeed a barren and harsh land.
Here and there a small protected valley with a favorable micro-climate allows the cultivation of barley (the Tibetan staple), corn, buckwheat, rapeseed, beans and vegetables.
Climbing towards Lalung La with the Everest in the background.
Lalung La (Lalung Pass) a high pass at 5 050 meters (16 600 feet) with the Everest (8 848 meters - 29 029 feet) in the background. The air is thin and cold at this altitude.
This beautiful expanse appears barren now in mid may but in a month it will produce enough hardy grasses to graze some yak and tibetan sheep and goats.
The tibetan plateau reminded me of the altiplano of Peru and Bolivia as they both support grazing in the summer months. Replace the yak by lamas and alpacas and this could be somewhere in Bolivia.
Individual travel is allowed in China but not in Tibet where a special group visa is required. That is why I joined a group. We drove from Zhang Mu in this white GMC van and stopped here in Tingri for lunch.
We met very little traffic on the way here and the village appeared deserted but this small restaurant was full of Tibetans. If I had been alone I would have tried to communicate, even by sign language, to quell my curiosity about these people.
Group travel makes the logistics a lot easier in this part of the world but it does cut you off from contacts with the local people. Hot tea with rancid yak butter instead of milk was welcome chow in this desolate place.
We saw several ruined forts on the way up here but could not obtain any information about them from our guide who either did not want to answer our questions or who did not know himself. Here again, this great ruined mountain fortress is evidence of Tibet's military past.
Close up, the yak looks like a small hairy cow. This one looks pretty docile and might by a cross between a wild yak strain and cattle. Notice how this Tibetan's face is sunburnt to a red leathery complexion, the high altitude sun produces the same result on the Andean altiplano in Bolivia.
I have posted yet another photo of this barren landscape to represent fairly the hard reality of this beautiful Himalayan desert.
The desert goes on and on... Sometimes the monotony is broken by a patch of ice, actually, all of this land is snow bound in the winter.
Gyatso Pass lies at 5252 meters (17 225 feet), above sea level. Thibet converted to Buddhism in the 8th century but developed its own variety which integrated many elements of the ancient shamanist Bon religion which preceded it. The multi-coloured flags flapping in the wind were put here by pious Tibetans as a form of ritual worship to their ancient mountain deities.
This young Tibetan boy was alone on the wind blown Gyatso Pass when we got there. We all wondered what he was doing there all by himself miles from nowhere. There are so few tourists going by here that it is unlikely that he was begging and actually he did not beg. Maybe he was going somewhere like the solitary Bedouins I have seen miles from nowhere in the Sahara. He did accept a few coins without responding in any way and just stood there in his rags and looked at us until we left.
This great battlement does not belong to a medieval fortress, it is the wall of a religious establishment, of the famous Sakya Tibetan monastery founded in the 11th century. In the 12th and 13th centuries monks of the red hatted Sakyapa sect forged an alliance with Gengis Khan and his son Kublai Khan that yielded them mongol support until the 14th century in their struggle for hegemony with the other Tibetan sects (red hat Nyingmapa, red hat Kagyupa and yellow hat Gelukpa).
The walls of the Sakya monastery are evidence that the competition between the various sects concerned temporal power and not only matters of dogma. It could not be otherwise in a theocracy where there is no separation between spiritual leadership on one hand and civil and military power on the other. Sects and Monasteries also competed over the extension of their estates and the corresponding number of tenant peasants that provided them the economic basis for their power. The Sakyapa declined and eventually lost their hold on power when the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (initiated by Kubilai Khan), to which they were allied, was replaced by the Chinese Ming Dynasty in the 14th century.
The Gelkupa sect (yellow hats), founded in the late 14th century, grew in importance and established the Ganden, Drepung and Sera monasteries near Lhasa. In 1577, their third great-lama Sonam Gyatso allied himself with the mongol great-khan Alta Khan who bestowed upon him the title of "Dalai Lama" (Ocean of Wisdom). Dalai Lamas were declared to be successive incarnations of the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara. In the 17th century the great 5th Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang) united Tibet with the military assistance of the Mongols who crushed all opposition to the Gelupa theocracy which remained in power until the Chinese invasion in 1950.
The heyday as a center of power of of the great Sakya assembly hall behind this entrance was over. The Sakyapa sect survived to this day but it was severely impoverished by the confiscation of monastic estates, by the constraints put on all religious expression since 1959 and by the complete destruction of their northern monastery close to this one during the Cultural Revolution in the late '60s.
Behind this entrance lies the Hall of Silver Stupas where eleven large silver vessels hold the remains of past Sakyapa leaders. Several monasteries have reopenned since the Cultural Revolution and are being carefully restored but the monastery population has fallen to a tenth of what it was during the theocracy when important revenues were derived from monastic estates.
When these large prayer wheels are turned clockwise, the prayers written on scrolls rolled up inside are deemed to be pronounced bringing credit to the one that does the turning. This technique of ritual prayer appears to me, more efficient than the ritual recitation of hundreds of "Hail Marys", one by one!
These small prayer wheels may be less efficient but they are easier to turn than the big ones. These young monks were quite friendly and the tall one could speak a little English. It's a shame I could not stay to find out what they thought the respective roles of religious and civil structures should be in the future. I would have liked to ask them why they had become monks and what alternatives they had when they made their decision. I also would have liked to ask them if the harsh rules of past monastic life under the absolute authority of the Abbot still prevailed and if so, how they could accept the beatings and ill treatment that young monks were traditionally subjected to.
During the theocracy and up to 1950, the monastery, the dzong (fortress) and the monastic estates formed centers of power similar to the feodal principalities and baronetcies of Europe in the Middle Ages. Here the dzong is on the hill we see and the monastery is behind us. The Tashilhumpo Monastery was built in the 15th century on the order of Gedun Drub who succeeded the founder of the Gelupa (Yellow Hat) sect and to whom the title of first Dalai Lama was awarded long after he died.
Here is a shot of the hardy bunch who deserved medals for their patience with an incompetent guide; in front, Linda & Henrietta, in the back, Natalie, Corine, Isobel, Steve, Sebastian and John.
This is the Tashilhumpo Monastery with its three principal temples (golden roofs), multiple shrines and living quarters. In the 17th century, the great 5th Dalai Lama conferred the title of Panchen Lama (Great Scholar) to the fourth Abbot of Tashilhumpo. Since then successors to the positions of Dalai Lama and of Panchen Lama have been more or less competitors (in both cases they acceed to their exalted position by being declared the incarnation of their predecessor).
Here is the central Palace and main temple. On the left, but difficult to photograph, is the Maitreya Hall which houses a 26 meter (85 foot) statue of Maitreya (the Buddha of the future) plated with 279 kg of gold!
Panchen Lamas have been rather pro China since the 9th Panchen Lama fled there after having quarrelled with the 13th Dalai Lama. His successor, the 10th Pancen Lama, was born in China in 1938 and stayed there in more or less good terms with his Chinese patrons.
This ancient monk might have met the 10th Panchen Lama who, although living in China, remained the official Abbot of Tashilhumpo Monastery and came here for occasional visits until his death in 1989. Since no one has been recognized as his reincarnation, the "Panchen" dynasty has now ended.
Because of its relation to the Panchen Lama this monastery has not been as adversely affected by the Chinese occupation of Tibet as some other monasteries have been. It has undergone extensive restoration and now seems to play the role of "Model Lamaist Monastery" similar to the role of "Model Orthodox Monastery" played by the Zagorsk Monastery near Moscow through the years of religious oppression in the Soviet Union.
A two hour drive from Shigatse brings us to Gyantse with its Monastery, which can be seen at the end of this street. Of course, its dzong is not far, just behind us.
The monastery is enclosed by a protective wall and it is further defended by the impressive fortress built on this high rock outcrop close by. In 1904 a British military expedition headed by Colonel Younghusband tried but failed to take this dzong in spite of its superior armement.
The monastery and Dzong once housed thousands of monks but, since the Cultural Revolution, only a few buildings remain; the large assembly hall, the senior monks residence on the hill and the Pango Chorten on the left.
On the day we visited, two dozen young monks were practicing dances for a religious ceremony to be held in august, three months later. The small orchestra had only two "dhung-chen" trumpets, one "nga" tibetan drum and cymbals but the music was rhythmic and lively. The beautiful deep sound of the long tibetan trumpet is just fantastic.
The next morning we climbed up the Dzong to look over the town and monastery before leaving for Lhasa. It is easy to imagine the military importance this place must have had with a full complement of warrior monks! The choice of this site and the still complete fortifications of the monastery and high citadel speak volumes on the relations the competing sects and monasteries entertained between each other until this century.
It is useful to recall that these monasteries were built in the middle ages when Europe also had its feodal lords, fortified towns, castle fortresses, constant strife between the powerful and constant misery for the serfs and peasants. In Europe, most of the architectural witnesses of feodal times have succumbed to social and economic change while here they remain intact even after the Chinese invasion.
It is striking to realise that in 1950, the social, economic and power structures of Tibet had hardly evolved since the construction of the Ganden monastery in 1409 which marked the beginning of the Gelukpa theocracy. Tibet's physical isolation might have been a factor in maintaining this amazing immobility over five and a half centuries but in my judgement it could not have been possible without the total hold of Lamaism on the people.
After that heavy comment we can do with a break don't you think! Isn't this a great photo! It's lake Yamdrok Yamstso about 100 km south of Lhasa.
The Potala! Now, here is a powerful looking place! It was built in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama who combined political, military and religious authority thanks to the awe inspiring quasi divine nature of a reincarnated Bodhisattva on one hand and to Mongol military support on the other hand.
This power is very impressive but power was not new to Lhasa which had been the capital of a vast empire in the 7th century (just before the introduction of Buddhism) under Songtsen Gampo, 33rd king of the Yarlung Dynasty. The next two generations of that dynasty converted Tibet to Buddhism and extended its empire from Kashgar in the west to Xian in the east and from northern India to southern Mongolia. Later, a revival of the Bon religion in the 9th century brought about the collapse of this empire and the persecution of Buddhism.
I thought I would be impressed by piety, mysticism and a supernatural aura of holiness but all I could see or feel as I stood here, in the Dalai Lama's lodgings on the roof of the Potala Palace, was the aura of the absolute and pervasive power of the theocracy that controled Tibet from 1409 to 1950. I had not expected to discover that aspect of the Potala and, frankly, I was a bit disappointed...
Now, power has changed hands. It is firmly in Chinese hands since their gradual take over from 1950 onwards culminating in the brutal military crackdown of 1959. The new masters have undertaken the transformation of Tibet through the application of restrictive controls on monasteries, through the massive introduction of Chinese immigrants and through the equally massive building of roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and low rental housing. The hovels that used to occupy the area in front of the Potala have been bulldozed away and replaced by the large plaza and exhibition hall we see here from the Potala's roof.
The once powerful Potala Palace is now a beautiful thing of the past, a great museum still occupied by a few monks but emptied of its substance which was as much the management of absolute power as it was the worship of Buddha and other supernatural entities.
Even as a museum, the Potala is still impressive in the extraordinary setting of the Tibetan Plateau. Our tour was supposed to include visits to the important Ganden, Drepung and Sera monastic universities but these were cancelled by the Chinese authorities following an incident between monks and police seeking to confiscate forbidden images of the Dalai Lama.
I thought that was a shame for I would have loved to inquire first hand into the content and structure of the traditional educational system which, according to my readings, was very complex involving 5 religious and philosophical topics spread over 17 degrees requiring a minimum of 20 years of studies. I knew that schools were inexistent for the general population and that access to this elaborate educational system was limited to a very small elite but I was mostly curious about the extent of the mathematical and scientific content provided to this elite.
A few poor hovels have been left at the foot of the great Potala, maybe as a reminder of past social extremes or maybe as a foil to set off the great palace. I hope they won't be replaced by concrete low rental prefabs!
Here's the happy bunch again: in front, Natalie & Steve and in the back, Sebastian, Corine, Isobel, Henriette, yours truly and John.
If you like insense you would have a ball here as great wads of it are burnt (for a price of course), to honour the Lamaist pantheon in front of the Jokhang temple, the holiest of Tibetan temples. The merchants in front of the temple are doing a boom trade in ceremonial scarves (khata), votive plaques (tsa tsa) and various other accessories required for the religious rituals carried out inside.
In the recess you can see directly in front of the temple, two dozen faithful were doing their ritual "Klangchag" full prostrations. I was so moved by this spectacle of voluntary total abasement that I could not photograph it at that time. Later, I did get a couple of shots of prostrators doing it on the Barkhor circuit around the temple.
Inside the temple, this Tibetan monk orchestra was providing a most pleasant musical background to the worship rituals executed by the locals and to the ogling of the tourists. A number of rooms, large and small held innumerable statues of Buddhas (Sakyamuni, Adibudha, Amitabha, Maitreya etc), of Bodhisattvas (Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Vajrapani, Tara etc) and of past Lamas, Kings, Saints and minor Deities which the faithful worship by offering money or lighting yak butter oil lamps (it is a common sight to see a monk counting wads of dirty bills collected from the ubiquitous money boxes).
After spending some time in the various worship rooms, it's treat to come out for a breath of fresh air in the courtyard for the smoke from thousands of traditional yak butter lamps makes the air unbreathable in some of the smaller rooms. Actually, the lamps burn hydrogenated vegetable oil (margarine), imported in big blocks bearing Nepalese labels.
These people are pilgrims going around the Barkhor market which surrounds the temple to fulfill the "Korlam" ritual. The pilgrimage to the Jokhang is a merit earning ritual as important to the Tibetan Lamaists, as the pilgrimage to Mecca is important to Muslims. The similarities and differences are interesting; among other rituals, the "Hajj" requires that the faithful walk around the Ka'aba seven times in a counter clockwise direction.
The Tibetan "Korlam" ritual also involves circumambulation but the requisite direction is clockwise, it is applicable to any holy place and the spiritual merit gained increases with the number of circuits. These pilgrims come from all over Tibet and some may come from China or Mongolia where the Lamaist faith has spread in the days of the Mongol - Tibetan alliances.
This gentleman is performing the Klangchag ritual as follows: Standing up with his arms at his sides, he claps his hands together twice and raises them above his head where he claps them a third time. Then he stretches himself at full length on the ground with his arms out in front of him, says a prayer, claps his hands and makes a mark on the ground before rising to his feet. Finally he takes three steps up to this mark and repeats the ritual the required number of times to complete the circuit (about 400 times if he is doing a Korlam around the 800 meter Barkhor market like this gentleman).
Here is another prostrator earning merit in order to free his soul from the wheel of reincarnations. One would have to be particularly unperceptive or extraordinarily insensitive to view this gentleman with equanimity and to condone a regime that can encourage such abasement.
I was only one week in Tibet and, being herded in a group and not speaking the language, I did not have the opportunity of having significant conversations with Tibetans but the scenes I saw were enough to tell me that the Lamaist Tantric Buddhism prevalent in Tibet was quite different from the tolerant Buddhism found elsewhere.
After a while, I realised that the only forms of religious expression that I had seen were related to Lamaism. It appeared to me that Lamaism has had an exclusive monopoly on religion in the past and that religious tolerance was not part of the Tibetan tradition. I felt on the contrary that the Tibetan population had traditionally been subjected to pressures similar those prevaling in fundamentalist Soudan which I have visited in 1995.
I was astounded to discover how the media (and the very mediatic Dalai Lama), had manipulated my perception of Tibet.
No, I did not take this photo, that is why there is a black border around it. I took all the other photos but this one I had to copy without permission because I never had the occasion to get close enough to the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama Dynasty to photograph him. I apologise to the owner of the rights to the photo and will remove it if he so requests..
I'm posting this picture to illustrate how the picture of this benevolent, holy looking gentleman can project the image of a generous, tolerant social and religious system quite different from what I have perceived by visiting Tibet. It is clear to me now that the idealised image that the media have chosen to present of what Tibet was before the Chinese invasion does not correspond to the reality of the harsh theocratic rule that prevailed under Lamaism. I have no doubt that this smiling gentleman is as kind and benevolent as he looks but I also have no doubt the the system he represents has prevented the Tibetan people from evolving into a society where freedom of choice and basic human rights are recognised.
Presently, it is obvious that Tibet is militarily occupied by the Chinese invader, that the Tibetan people have little to say about their destiny and that human rights are not guaranteed. I feel however that the influential mainstream American media have concentrated their attention on the oppression the Tibetan people face today while whitewashing that of yesterday. It is now 40 years since the Dalai Lama left Tibet but it is only since the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre that the word went out to the media to promote his cause to punish the evil communist China.
I am very glad I came to see for myself. If I had not, I probably would have been stuck with this convenient black and white, cowboys and indians, cops and robbers vision of the good Tibetan monks and the bad communists. Reality is not as simple as that!
The Chinese built this "Golden Yak" monument at the foot of the towering Potala Palace to symbolise the liberation of the Tibetan people from the feodal structures that oppressed them before their arrival. The symbolism is striking; the golden hind of materialism replacing the tables of divine law!
There is no doubt that the Chinese invasion and present domination is felt as a new oppression by the majority of Tibetans. But, are they aware of the extent to which they have been oppressed in the past by the absence of alternate modes of religious expression, by the absence of schools and by the economic disparity between the land owning monasteries and their tenants, the poor, ignorant, dirt grubbing peasants?
These are the people of Tibet. I have posted the pictures of a woman, a man and a girl dressed in their best finery to do the Korlam on the Barkhor. I wonder how they would react to this document if they had the chance to view it on a computer.
What do they think about the end of the theocratic regime and about the schools, hospitals and roads the Chinese have built? About the growing presence of Chinese immigrants in their midst? Do they think that the quality of their lives (material and spiritual), will be better or worse in the coming years than it was under the theocracy? That is the only pertinent question.
Look at them and try to imagine who they are... Try to imagine how much freedom of choice they have had in becoming who they are...