I am in Lhasa as the Tibetan starting point for my journey to the sacred lands of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, a rich experience which I will chronicle in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, our arrival here from Kathmandu, Nepal, brought with it a significant jump in altitude. Lhasa, the birthplace and former home of the Dalai Lama before he fled in 1959, is one of the highest cities in the world at just shy of 12,000 ft. As such, our sight-seeing here is not simply for cultural value, but a necessity so that we get ourselves moving in order to get acclimated to the altitude since we will be jumping up to 15,000 ft in another day. So after taking one day to rest, we spend a full day seeing the city and visiting three very different but spectacular monasteries.
Our first stop is the Jokhang Monastery and the adjacent Barkhor temple, located in the heart of old-town Lhasa and one of the most holy places for Tibetan pilgrims. As is the case in most sacred spaces, no photos are allowed inside the monastery or temple itself, which is just as well since photos couldn’t possible do the place justice.
Walking into the monastery feels a bit like waking into an exquisite and resplendent cave. The preceding courtyard area and large, winding entryway is already an intense show of color and texture, but once you walk through the actual doors, it’s like stepping into another world altogether. Like something you would conjure from the deepest parts of your imagination, there is no surface, no space that is not covered with layers upon layers of bright color, rich texture in the form of cloth and fabric, layers and patterns of carved wood and inlaid gold, intricate paintings and figures on every inch of wall and ceiling space, with statue after statue of Buddha, from the small, ornamental carvings to the huge floor-to-ceiling versions, each rendition draped and wrapped with it’s own shimmering satin scarf. The never-ending details are beyond anything you’ve ever seen, and that’s just the visual aspect. Add the incense, which burns everywhere and brings a fragrant thickness to the air that mingles with fresh flowers and the distinct smell of melting wax from the hundreds of burning candles. And of course the background sounds of chanting that comes from some unseen corner and merges in your head with the hundreds of hushed voices of visitors from all over the world, all clamoring to get close enough to each precious element and exhibit in order to absorb it before moving on the the next. It is a sensory overload, to be sure, and yet the incredible and overwhelming beauty brings a sense of softness and tranquility that quiets all the physical jostling and unrest going on around you.
Making your way through the labyrinth that brings you through room after room of different representations of Buddha, various gods and bodhisattva’s, you eventually find yourself upstairs and outside where the golden temple roof shimmers in the sun. Once we are back down on the ground floor and outside, we are privy to the throngs of worshippers who come to the temple courtyard to do their prostrations – a full body gesture, not unlike sun salutations, which is form of devotion to Buddha and his teachings.
Our next stop is the Sera Monastery located on the hilly outskirts of town and the feel here is very different. While Jokhang is still an active monastery, it is also one of the most sacred temples for Tibetan Buddhists and it attracts thousands of worshippers each day. Here at Sera, there are far fewer crowds, but still, the tourists come for a very special reason: the infamous monk debates.
Knowing nothing about what we were going to witness, I presumed we would be watching some sort of tranquil discussion amongst the monks, so the vibrant and energetic exchange was not only surprising, but a bit confusing. After the fact, I had to do a bit of research on the subject to understand what was happening.
As part of their training, these monks must have a clear and unwavering understanding of the entire realm of Buddhist philosophy. These discussions date back to the time of Buddha himself, when the need to clarify his teachings in a multi-religious world became increasingly important, and so as part of their education, these monks must be able to articulate and defend their understanding, down to the most minute detail, in a very precise manner.
The monks are paired with one another based upon equal levels of training and education. The standing monk poses a question or topic to be explained by the seated monk, and during his explanation, the questioner will often contradict and push for further explanation, trying to find error in his theory. The movements, the distractions and the ‘badgering’ are all meant to ruffle the confidence and tenacity of the seated monks viewpoint. In some ways it seems outlandish and fanciful, but it is, in fact, a serious part of their training. They go back and forth until the questioner is either unable to find further argument and the debate is ‘won’ by the seated monk, or until the seated monk is unable to make a convincing enough argument of his point. Meanwhile, the teachers roam through the pairs, observing and assessing the exchanges.
As is typically the case for me, the most memorable moments always occur away from the crowds and when I am least expecting them. With some free time to wander after watching the debates, I make my way down a path and sitting there is an older woman, watching me look around and take photos. When I catch her eye, she motions me over, and ever curious, I go. In other countries I am always prepared for the hand to come out, as the locals learn quickly that Westerners are a source of money, and yet here in Tibet it has been blatantly noticeable that almost no one asks you for anything. Even in the stalls surrounding the temples there is very little “hard sell” and mostly just the free giving of smiles as you walk by. As a foreigner, it is absolutely delightful and there is a strong element of kindness mixed in with their curious glances.
As I sit down next to this woman, she smiles at me but does not miss a beat in the repetition of her mantra nor in the movement of her hands across her prayer beads. It is clear she has been uttering these words and fingering these beads for her entire life, and it is mesmerizing. I am so utterly drawn into her warmth that I can’t help but smile as I watch her, and tears of joy begin to fill my eyes. Given the language barrier there is obviously no exchange of words, but none is needed. We just sit together for some time, she doing what she’s probably done every day of her life, me simply absorbing it. After awhile, I motion if I can take a photo of her hands and beads, and she smiles her consent. She then gives me the biggest smile yet, showing me her toothy grin, which is another consent for me to photograph her face, and I feel honored at the privilege.
Eventually I must say goodbye, make my way back to the group and get on with the day, but this woman has made an indelible imprint in my heart and I feel so fortunate to have been in her presence for that short period of time.
Our final stop leads us back to the center of town, where this imposing palace sits high atop a hill. The palace was once the winter home for the Dalai Lama and a major hub of both monastic and administrative activity, but has since been abandoned of all worship and turned into a museum. We did not go inside, but rather used the time to walk the entire perimeter giving us a chance to reflect on the complicated history of this beautiful building, a chance to witness daily life of the locals who continue to pray and circumambulate here, as well as a little workout to increase our stamina for the upcoming journey.