Monday, November 30, 2009

Two Catholic Missionaries In Tibet III

After a three-month stay at the great monastery the two missionaries were ready for to undertake the final long journey to Lhasa. They headed south and for a while traveled with a huge caravan which consisted of 15000 yaks, 1,200 horses, the same number of camels and 2000 men. On the 29th of January 1846, after a grueling 18 months on the road the weary but elated missionaries finally arrived at their goal — Lhasa. The golden spires of the Potala Palace, the richness of the Jokung Cathedral and the color of the pilgrims and merchants from every part of Central Asia were all overwhelming. But they had not come to sight-see and as soon as they found accommodation they began planning to conquer for Christ this citadel of paganism. When the authorities knew their presence they received an order to appear before the Regent, ruler of Tibet until the young Dalai Lama came of age. Full of trepidation and hope they obeyed. The Regent happened to be an urbane and deeply religious man and as soon as he was satisfied that the strangers were not spies but genuine men of religion, he became friendly towards them. When he asked why they were in his realm they told him that they had come to convert the Tibetans the one true religion. Far from being perturbed or angry, the Regent was delighted. Hue recorded his words; "All your long journeys were made for a religious purpose. You are right, for man’s business in life is religion. I see that you French and we Tibetans are one in this. But your religion and ours are not the same so it is important to find out which one is true. We shall therefore examine them both carefully and sincerely. If yours is true, we shall adopt it. Indeed, how could we not? But if ours is found to be true, I hope you will be reasonable enough to adopt it yourself". The missionaries could hardly have wished for a more positive reception. It seemed that all their prayers had been answered.
In the following month the three men met often, had long discussions and gradually developed a genuine respect for each other. The Regent arranged for them to learn more Tibetan so they could more clearly explain their beliefs, found them more comfortable accommodation and purchased their horses at a very generous price thus giving them much needed extra cash. As at Kumbum, curious and interested people began visiting them, some of them on a regular basis, to find out about the new religion. But just when it looked like all the missionary’s prayers had been answered, disaster struck. The Chinese ambassador had been trying for some time to have the missionaries expelled but the Regent had put him off, found excuses to do nothing or used delaying tactics. Now Chinese pressure became intense and the Regent and his government finally had to give in. After a friendly farewell from the Regent and an invitation to come again at a better time, the two men left the Forbidden City and headed east towards China.
Huc and Gabet arrived in Macao in October 1846 full of plans to establish a mission in Lhasa but their dreams were soon to be dashed. They learned that the Vatican had granted the Society des Missions Etrangeres the exclusive right to preach the Gospel in Tibet and they were not prepared to let Lazerists or any other Order poach on what they now considered to be their turf. As it happens, the Society des Missions Etrangeres was never able to get around to organizing a Tibetan mission and indeed no Catholic or even Protestant missionaries were ever to step foot in Lhasa again. Thus ironically it was not Buddhist resistance but ecclesiastical rivalry and polities within the Catholic Church which prevented the Gospel being preached in the fabled Forbidden City. Father Gabet went to Rome to plead to be able to return to Tibet but was unable to reverse the decision. He was eventually posted to Brazil where the friendship he had cultivated with Tibet’s regent, the language skills he had learned in China and Tibet and his knowledge of the region were all wasted. He died of yellow fever in 1853. Father Huc remained in Macao for two years writing an account of the mission. In 1852 he returned to France but never really recovered from the hardships of his long journey and he died in 1860 worn out at the age of 47.
This three-volume travelogue attracted much attention in academic circles, being the only first-hand account of Lhasa to appear during the whole of the 19th century. It went through several editions and was translated into English. Huc’s account of the Tree of Ten Thousand Images in particular created much interest. The idea of such a tree sounded so improbable and yet in all other matters Huc seemed to be a careful and objective informant. Further, as a Catholic missionary hostile to all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, he had no reason to say anything positive about it. Unfortunately, the truth about the wonderful tree can now never be known for certain. The British traveler Peter Flemming saw it in 1935 but it was autumn and it had shed its leaves. Andre Migot saw it in 1946 but by then it had been enclosed in a temple and he was unable to examine it carefully. Communist Red Guards destroyed the Tree of Ten Thousand Images in the 1960’s.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two Catholic Missionaries In Tibet II

After many adventures and difficulties Hue and Gabet eventually arrived at Kumbum, the fourth largest monastery in Tibet, housing as it did some 4000 monks. This monastery had been built over the birth place of Tsong Ka-pa, the great 14"’ century reformer and the founder of the Gulupas, the main sect of Tibetan Buddhism. They found accommodation and someone to teach them Tibetan and then settled down to a period of diligent study. Their main akin was to both learn Buddhism and then write a book explaining the basic tenets of Christianity. As word of the two strange ‘lamas’ got around they started to have a continual stream of curious visitors. Monks would come and respectfully ask them about the alter they had erected and inquire about the meaning of the pictures of various saints put up on the walls. The polite questions, the nods of appreciation and the requests for deeper explanations raised the two men’s hopes that they were going to make some converts. But the lamas were nearly doing what is natural for Buddhists - being respectfully interested in and open to other faiths. Huc and Gabet tried to impress their visitors by telling them about the miracles Christ had performed. But wonders that had supposedly happened long ago and far away did not have the same immediacy or appeal to the Tibetans as the wonder that they could see every day - the Tree of Ten Thousand Images. Kumbum monastery had grown up around a miraculous tree which, tradition said, Tsong Ka-pa had been born under. Called the Tree of Ten Thousand Images, this tree was famous throughout central Asia because it was covered with letters from the Tibetan sacred alphabet. Western scholars had heard of the tree and were curious to know whether the stories about the it were true but up till now no reliable persons had seen it. Huc and Gabet were the first Westerners to see the tree and to give an full and accurate description of it. Huc wrote; " Here the reader will expect us to say something about this tree. Dose it still exist? Have we seen it? What is it like? What about those miraculous leaves? All these are justifiable questions. And we will therefore try to reply to them as far as we are able. Yes, the tree still exists; we had heard so much about it during our journey that we were quite impatient to go and see it. On the foot of the mountain on which the monastery was built and not far from the main temple was a large enclosure surrounded by a brick wall. We went into the courtyard and could examine at leisure the miraculous tree whose branches we had already glimpsed from outside. We immediately looked at the leaves with burning curiosity and were dumbfounded to see that, sure enough, on each leaf there were well-founded Tibetan characters, sometimes darker green, sometimes lighter, than the leaf itself. Our first reaction was to suspect fraud by the lamas; but after the most detailed examination we could find no evidence of this. The characters gave every appearance of being part of the leaf, like the veins and nerves; they were not always similarly places, but were sometimes on the top sometimes in the middle of the leaf, sometimes at its be base and sometimes on the side; the young leaves had the character in a rudimentary form, only partly formed; the bark on the trunk and the branches, which peeled off something like the bark of palm trees, was also marked with characters. If one removed a piece of the old bark one could see on the new bark beneath the vague shapes of the characters, which were in the process of formation. The strange thing is that they were often different from the characters on top. We made every effort, until out brows were wet with sweat, to discover some evidence of fraud, but in vain. Others cleaver than we may be able to find a satisfactory explanation of the peculiarities of this tree, but we gave it up. Some will smile at our ignorance, we care little so long as our integrity is not doubted ...The Tree of Ten Thousand Images looked very ancient. Its trunk, which three men could hardly encircle, is not more than eight feet high. The branches did not go upwards but thrust outwards to form a plume and were very bushy. Some branches are dead and decaying with age, the leaves were evergreen, the wood reddish and with a delightful perfume rather like cinnamon. The lamas told us that during the summer, about the eighth moon, it produces large red flowers of great beauty”. Over the centuries efforts had been made to grow offspring’s of the tree from seeds or cuttings but these had always failed and it remained the only one of its kind. After being in Kumbum for a while the monastic routine and the various pujas started to seem strangely familiar to Huc and Gabct, sometimes uncannily so. Huc commented; “It is impossible not to be struck by the similarities between the reforms and innovations introduced by Tsong Ka-pa and Catholicism. The rozier, the mitre, the dahntic, the cope or pluvial which the Grand Lamas wear when traveling or when conducting a ceremony outside the temple, the service with two choirs, the singing of psalms, exorcism, the five-chained censer which can be opened and closed at will, the blessing given with right hand raised over the head of the faithful, the chaplet, the practice of celibacy, the retreat, the worship of saints, fasting, processions, litanies, holy water: all these are common to both religions”. Hue and Gabet were neither the first or last to notice these parallels. Amongst 19th century Catholics the most popular explanation for this closeness was that Tibet had once been Catholic under the legendary king Prester John and then become perverted by the Devil and only the rituals remained. Huc suggested a much more rational explanation. He knew that in the 14th century several Catholic monks had arrived at the court of the successor of Gangeis Khan. It is possible, he conjectured, that the Mongolians had been so impressed by the majesty of Catholic ritual that they had adopted it from where they passed to Tibet. Most scholars now put the similarities down to coincidence, albeit uncanny coincidence. The missionaries also noticed that the behavior of the lamas towards them accorded to what they would expect from the best Christian institutions. “So strong is the effect of religion on the heart of man, even when that religion is false and knows nothing of its true purpose! What a difference between these lamas, so generous, so hospitable, so brotherly towards strangers, and the Chinese who will even sell a glass of cold water to a thirsty traveler. At the welcome we received at Kumbum we could not help being reminded of those religious houses, built by out forefathers, those hospitable monks, as hostelries where travelers and the poor alike could always find relief of body and comfort for the soul”.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Two Catholic Missionaries In Tibet I

By the 1840’s the Imperial Chinese government was beginning to realize just how precarious its long cherished independence was. It looked on with alarm as one of its neighbors after another fell to the Western powers. The pattern of absorption was often the same — first came either missionaries who attacked traditional institutions, or merchants who demanded unfair privileges. When their behavior caused trouble and the government tried to keep them in line, the missionaries or merchants would demand protection from their respective governments and soon gunboats were sailing and armies marching. Determined that this would not be their fate, the Chinese had banned all missionaries and had tried to restrict merchants to a few so-called treaty ports. But if the merchants were and cunning and determined, the missionaries were even more so. Ignoring rightfully enacted laws and statutes, missionaries had disguised themselves and penetrated into some of the most remote parts of the empire. Suspecting some of them of spying for Western powers, as indeed they often did, the Chinese had put in place a series of draconian measures to deal this threat. Any missionary caught could expected to be executed, often after horrible torture. Such was the situation when Father Regis-Evariste Huc, a French member of the Lazarist Order arrived in Portuguese enclave of Macao in 1839. The next year, taking advantage of yet another British attack on Chinese forces, Huc slipped across the border in disguise and made his way to Peking. From there he went through the Great Wall into Mongolia. He spent three years learning the language and later met Father Joseph Gabet who was head of the mission there. The two become friend and gradually conceived the audacious idea of taking the Gospel to the most remote, the most forbidden place on earth - Lhasa the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. The chances of getting there and returning alive were, the two men knew, very slim but with a courage and faith typical of their kind, this only made them more determined to go. In August 1844 the two intrepid missionaries together with a Mongolian convert acting as servant, set of towards the west on what was to be a remarkable 2400 kilometer journey. Passing through seemingly endless stretches of uninhabited grass land and desert they finally got to the regions where Tibetan Buddhism prevailed. On one occasion while staying at a wayside inn a senior lama and his retinue arrived. Curious to know who the strangers were the lama paid them a visit Hue and Gabet refused to stand to greet him, a breach of etiquette which the lama had the good grace to ignore. After a few polite exchanges the lama saw the prayer book which the missionaries had deliberately put out for the purpose of initiating a discussion on religion. The lama picked up the book, flicked through the pages, admired its gilt edge and then said; "Our two faiths are like this", raising two fingers and putting them besides each other as he did so. The missionary’s response to this spontaneous gesture of good-will and magnanimity was predictable. "Your beliefs and ours are at odds with each other", Huc said. "The object of our journey and our efforts, and we make no secret of it, is to substitute our prayers for those in use in your monasteries". "I know", said the lama with a smile and after some more conversation he left. If Huc and Gabet were hoping to become martyrs it would not be at the hands of the Buddhist lamas. Despite their rocklike sense of superiority and occasional rudeness, Huc and Gabet were generally far more sensitive and tactful than most missionaries of the time. Huc later wrote, "All the experience of our long journey... convinced us that it is through teaching and not controversy that one must work for the conversion of the unbeliever. Argument can reduce an adversary to silence, humiliate him even, anger him sometimes, and convince him never. When Jesus Christ instructed his Apostles, he told them; Ite, docete omnes gentes, and this does not mean ‘Go and argue with all nations’. In our own day, two schools of philosophy, one following the steps of Descartes and the other of Lamennais, have long argued the question as to whether paganism is a crime or an error. In our opinion it is neither, but simply the result of ignorance. The mind of the pagan is in darkness; show him a light and the darkness is gone. He needs no Cartesian no Lamennaisian imputations, he simply needs instruction". However, such sentiments also highlight Huc’s naive optimism. During their stay in Tibet the two missionaries had the opportunity to ‘show the light’ to many people but not one came forward to be baptized.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Western Tibet offers some of the most awe-inspiring and unusual vistas I have ever seen – parched, treeless plains, deep maze-like gorges and canyons, and all along the southern horizon the glorious Himalayas. Our purpose of driving nearly 1000 kilometers from Lhasa to western Tibet was to see Tholing and Tsaparng. This second place was a once fair sized city that commanded the main trade route from Kashmir/Ladakh to central Tibet. Even in its ruined state it is still quite a sight. The Red Guards did great damage to Tsaparang’s three main shrines but there is still enough left to make the arduous journey needed to get there worthwhile. Sad to say, young Chinese tourists who are now coming to Tsaparang seem to be perpetuating the worst behavior of their parents by scratching their names on everything.

This part of Tibet is even more arid than the rest of the country. From the top of the Tsaparang palace I could see only one tree which I later went over to have a look at. He’s a gnarled old codger, maybe several hundred years old. The only other vegetation is the grasses and thorny, stunted bushes that grow on the banks of the Sutlij. One particular type of bush was in fruit and our driver assured me that the beautiful golden buries were edible. I tried them and they were as bitter as gall. When our driver say me screw up my face at the taste he said, ‘Only very hungry people eat them’. Grrrr! Despite the extreme aridness of the landscape, Tsaparang nurtured what must have been several large monastic communities. Around Tsaparang itself and above Tholing are massive ancient ruins and man-made caves that once served as monk’s cells. Across the Sutlij are the remains of three or four large monasteries, there huge walls still standing after 500 years of neglect. The numerous caves monks cut into the cliffs are clearly visible there too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Computers Behaving Baldy

I apologize for not blogging for the last few days. As soon as my computer starts behaving properly again a new post will follow immediately.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Give What You Can

If beings knew as I do the result of giving things, they would not enjoy them without sharing them with others, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart and stay there. Even it were their last and final scrap of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it, if there were someone to receive it (It.18).
Have a look at this most unusual wed web site, read it and carefully consider the suggestions it makes.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dhamma In Luganda

The Brickfields Temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has just published the first book on Buddhism in in Luganda, the language spoken by about 10 million people mainly in southern Uganda. The book is a translation of How to Practise Buddhism? by the late Ven K Sri Dhammananda. The book was translated by Nicholas K. Sewanyana and Tom Kyembe and edited by Bhante U. Buddharakkhita, currently the only African Theravadian monk. Bhante Buddharakkhita has also authored another popular book, Planting the Seeds of Dhamma - the Emergence of Buddhism in Africa, telling of his journey towards the Dhamma and his experience as a monk in country where Buddhism is almost completely unknown. He has also set up the Uganda Buddhist Center in Kampala, the first Buddhist center in Africa set up by a native African monk. Bhante’s mother has been ordained to become the first African Theravadian Buddhist nun. The Uganda centre and it’s Buddhist population is growing slowly with the support of Buddhists overseas and the small expatriate Chinese, Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan communities. At present there are also Buddhist temples and associations in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana South Africa and Cameroon. For more on Bhante Buddharakkhita and Buddhist in Uganda in Africa go to

Friday, November 20, 2009

Thoughts On The Chinese Occupation III

Around Shigatze there are several monasteries of great importance, the main ones being Nathang, Shalu and Ngor. I had tried to visit them during my first visit to Tibet but this proved impossible. During the 11th century these monasteries were important centers for translating Buddhist texts into Tibetan and when the great Rahul Sankrityayan visited them in the 1930’ he found hundreds of perfectly preserved Indian palm leaf manuscripts in their libraries. It was at Ngor that he found the only known copy of the Subhasitaratanakosa which he was able to acquire so that we can now read and delight in it (See my post of 15th May 2008). He found numerous other unknown Buddhist works, photographed some, copied others out by hand but had to leave most of them in their libraries. After the Chinese invasion these monasteries were trashed and desecrated, their priceless manuscripts torn up and burned and the few that survived were carted off to Peking where they presumably still are, although no one really knows. Now that Shalu and the rest are ‘State Designated Cultural Relics’ it’s possible to visit them and so I took the opportunity to do so. It turned out to be a very depressing experience. Shalu was the seat of Buston Rimpoche, one of the greatest minds Tibet ever produced. The once stately Shalu is now a shambles, trash, garbage and dirt all over the place, its once hallowed halls silent and its library empty. A few years ago a UNESCO-Norwegian group that came to inspect the government’s restorations at Shalu reported that ‘concrete has been used to fill a number of cracks. New paint and varnish is seen in many chapels. In the top-most Vajradhara chapel, a panel with garish new paintings does not match in any way the superb quality of the 15th originals’. In short, the so-called restorations are inept, unprofessional and destructive to the temple’s original character. We saw evidence of this too. The paintings were done in 1304 by Newari or perhaps even Indian artists and are a rare and precious survivor of this genera of painting. Those that survive are breathtaking – Buddhas, bodhisattvas and scenes from the life of the Buddha. The abbot showed me where Chinese vandals have hacked a long scar down one side of a painted image with the intention of removing a whole section of wall (see picture below). In other places the eyes of all the figures have been hacked out. It seems that two principles have guided the Chinese government’s attitude to Tibetan cultural treasures – (1) Destroy the original then build a copy, and (2) Don’t trust the ‘natives’ to look after the treasures they devotedly preserved for 1500 years. Shalu offers a good example of this second principle. The circumambulatory passage around the main shrine is covered with the most exquisite paintings. Pilgrims and devotees have been shuffling through this passage since the seven centuries and there is not a mark, not a scratch, not a dirty fingerprint on the paintings. They are immaculate. And yet the Chinese have now nailed chicken wire to the lower level of these paintings ‘to protect them from damage’.Narthang is in an even worse state than Shalu. All the original buildings erected in 1033 and the famous ‘forest of stupas’ have been raised, piles of rubble being the only witness to what was once there. One of there stupas has been rebuilt in a rather poor copy of its original (an example of the first of the two principles). Only a few 17th or 18th century buildings are left standing. At first we couldn’t find anyone to open the doors but eventually an old monk appeared and I asked him about the library. As I half expected, he said it didn’t exist any longer but he offered to show me the old printing press. The Nathang edition of the Tibetan Tipitaka was one of four such editions and was published in the 15th century. Thousands of printing blocks lined wooden racks around the walls. I was relieved that this precious resource had not been damaged and mentioned this to the old monk. He pointed to some of the lower racks and I realized my optimism was misplaced. There were printing blocks with all the letters planed off, some were split into two, three or four, probably to be used as kindling, others were hacked in half. I found a trowel made of a cut-up printing block and an intricately carved book cover (I would have said about 14th century) split into three, again probably to make kindling. The Red Guards had given most of the printing blocks to the villagers to use as lumber or fire wood and had used the rest for various purposes. The villagers had hidden the blocks until the glorious Communist Party of China ‘corrected’ its policy on nationalities, and then reverently returned them to the monastery. Nathang is now yet another ‘State Designated Cultural Relic’ which doesn’t mean very much after the state that’s now doing all the ‘designating’ destroyed just about all the ‘cultural relics’.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts On The Chinese Occupation II

The other significant difference between the Nazis and the Chinese communists was/is their attitude to culture. The Nazis were careful not to destroy any great works of art, apparently on the direct orders of Hitler and Goering. Paintings, sculpture, manuscripts, furniture, etc. was looted and carefully carted off to the Reich to adorn Nazi museums and the homes of Nazi big shots. The Chinese communists by contrast, dedicated themselves to smashing, denigrating, tearing up and destroying as much art as they possibly could. It has been suggested that more cultural treasures (Chinese and Tibetan) were destroyed ‘than at any time or place in human history.’ Oh, and don’t give me the, ‘That was then, this is now’ brush off. The party that perpetrated these crimes is the same party that still rules China, and many of the hooligans who committed the vandalism now sit on the regional and central committees of that party. The portrait of the man who authorized all the destruction still hangs in its place of honor on the Gateway of Heavenly Peace. Can you imagine the German government hanging a portrait of Hitler on the Brandenburg Gate! The CPC has never come clean about its atrocious past. Of course scroll paintings, statues and Ming vases are not sentient, they feel no pain. Read Chang’s Mao – The Untold Story on the fate of several million people tortured and beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution and shudder. A visual reminder of this time can be seen at
On my journey through Tibet I saw ample evidence of the destruction to Tibetan culture caused by the Chinese, despite nearly 30 years of cleaning up the mess or trying to hide it. The monasteries, hermitages and stupas that once dotted the landscape have nearly all gone, as have the Om Mani Padme Hum invocations that were once etched into the hillsides. A few larger monasteries that might bring in tourist dollars have been repaired, rebuilt and ‘museumized’. When in Lhasa I asked our guide to take us to the Yuto Sampa (Turquoise Bridge) which I had been unable to find during my trip in 1984. It was one of the ‘six sights’ of Lhasa, but he had never heard of it. I asked him to inquire from some older Tibetans who might know its whereabouts, he did, and we found it. I could hardly see this once beautiful monument being as it is now squeezed between some modern flats and a line of shops, one end walled up and serving as a Chinese medicine shop. A plaque in front proclaims that it has the dubious distinction of now being a ‘State Designated Cultural Relic’.But nowhere was the destruction more obvious than in Tholing. Most of the shrines and temples, built in the 10th century, have been reduced to rubble, their sculptures, paintings, manuscripts, ritual objects and furnishings gone forever. The once magnificent Yeshe O Temple, designed like a huge mandala and famed for its beauty, has been completely gutted. All the murals have been scraped off and all the images smashed to bits. The only evidence of its belated ‘State Designated Cultural Relic’ status is a few $1.99 plastic lamps illuminating the empty interior. Walking around the outside I found this fragment of an ancient sutra in a garbage heap.
A series of temples of enormous cultural and historical significance have been destroyed and hardly any fuss has ever been made about it. Imagine what the world would be thinking now if the Nazis had scrapped all the frescos off the Scrovegni Chapel, smashed all the statues in the Loggia dei Lanzi or dynamited the Sistine Chapel! Every time a Chinese delegation turn up at some UNESCO conference they should be confronted with pictures of all this vandalism and asked to explain it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thoughts On The Chinese Occupation I

What’s the difference between being occupied by the Nazis and being occupied by the Chinese communists? Mmmm. Let me think. Two significant differences come to mind. After the Nazis took over they made no effort to win the affection of the subjugated peoples. Their attitude was, ‘We’re here, we have the guns and the rubber trundgens and we’ll blow you away if you look sideways. GET USED TO IT!’ When the communists (of whatever sort) took over, they expended enormous effort and recourses on trying to create the illusion that the subjected peoples were joyously happy. Huge billboards proclaimed it, all media outlets broadcast it and pictures of smiling workers were everywhere. The weird thing is that the Party knew it was a lie, the Party knew that the people knew it was a lie, the people knew that the Party knew they knew it was a lie, everyone in the so-called Free World knew it was a lie, and yet they kept up the charade right up to the day before communism consigned itself to the dustbin of history.
Visiting Lhasa must be one of the few places in the world where you can still see this type weird, cloud-cuckoo illusion, North Korea is probably the other. There are heavily armed Chinese soldiers and policemen on every main intersection; their surgical masks (against H1N1 flue) and white gloves making them look even more sinister. We had to pass through at least 30 military and police checkpoints during our trip – four between the airport and the city – and they don’t just peruse your documents, they check the thoroughly, sometimes ringing the previous checkpoint to confirm the time you passed through. While walking on a Lhasa street I passed a group of SWAT team-like guys – black balaclavas, black body armor, black AK47’s. I’m not joking when I say I tried not to make any sudden movements or eye contact. A platoon of soldiers, guns at the ready, paraded around the square in front of the Jokang all day. There were also soldiers with binoculars on the rooftops constantly monitoring the crowds in the plaza. I saw one Chinese policeman approach a group of Tibetan men casually chatting, check their ID’s and order them to move on. How many plain-clothed secret policemen there were mingling with the crowds is anyone’s guess, but I suspect there were lots of them. At one military checkpoint the vehicle in front of us was being thoroughly searched, apparently at random. As we entered and left Tibet customs officers again went through everyone bags and seemed particularly concerned about printed matter. Someone told me they are after Lonely Planet’s Tibet – a subversive publication if ever there was one. For all this suspicion and caution, checking and control, intimidation and paranoia, the Chinese spend nearly as much time and effort insisting that the Tibetans are just so damn happy they can hardly contain their joy. I saw a huge billboard showing a beaming Tibetan lady in traditional dress appreciatively pouring chang for a group of PLA soldiers. There were signs up everywhere (in Chinese and Tibetan) trying to whip up enthusiasm for the 60th anniversary of the communist takeover. None of it fools anyone, especially not the Tibetans. At least the Nazis never bothered to pretend, probably the only honesty thing they ever did.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Glory Of The Lhakhang Karpo

Without any doubt at all the highlight of my Tibet trip was visiting the Lhakhang Karpo, White Chaple in Tsaparang. Over the years I have been privileged, I might even say blessed, to have seen nearly all the great Buddhist monuments in the world except those in Korea and Japan, and I would have to say that nothing I have ever seen compares to the glorious Lhakhang Karpo. I stood in silent awe at the exquisite paintings of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Even the images of the Tantric deities left me speechless. On the right side of the chapel on the lower edge of the paintings is a series of panels depicting events in the life of the Buddha, which even in this treasure house of art stand out as superlative. I have not been able to find out when they were painted but the Indian/Newari influence is most noticeable so they must be very old – I’ll say 13th century. The colors are stunning and so shiny their surface, that they look like they could have been painted yesterday. Most amazing of all I was able to recognize most of the events they depicted. It thrilled my to think that people in this most remote place eight or nine hundred years ago, outwardly so different from me, read or heard and connected with the same things I do now. The Dhamma is truly timeless (akaliko). I took of some of these panels. Some of them are of poor quality but the light was poor and I’m not such a good photographer so I’m sure you’ll forgive me. (1) The Bodhisattva practicing austerities. Note the cowherd boys poking sticks in his ears as mentioned in the Majjhima Nikaya. (2) The Temptation of Mara. I cannot figure out what the object on the pedestal below the Buddha is meant to be. (3) Enlightenment. (4) The gods giving the Buddha a crystal bowl. (5) The First Sermon. I cannot identify (6), (7) and (8). (9) Floral decoration. (10) The Parinirvana and the cremation of the Buddha’s body. (11) The first eight stupas.

Monday, November 16, 2009

That Was Then This Is Now

I notice quite a few wed sites making the claim that Tibetans are better off under the Chinese than they were before – the standard claim imperialists and colonialists have always made. These wed sites all include photos of the gruesome punishments that were handed out in the good old days and of dirty, ragged serfs. So far so good. Traditional Tibetan justice could be barbaric and all visitors to the old Tibet commented on how filthy the place was. The Japanese Buddhist monk Ikai Kawaguchi dubbed Lhasa ‘the citadel of filth’ and by all accounts it was pretty dirty. But have things improved after 60 years of Chinese occupation? Well, I found Lhasa to be relatively clean and neat and one could not help notice the extensive reforestation, at least in the areas I visited. But beyond Lhasa every town was squalid and filthy beyond description. The level of hygiene in hotels and restaurants was uniformly rock bottom. The main street or streets of all towns was filled with piles of stinking garbage, puddles of reeking sewerage, rotting animal parts, mud, dust or both. The bathrooms/toilets of one new Chinese hotel we went to were all padlocked and several others we stayed in, again all new, had no bathrooms or toilets or running water at all. One was told to go around the back and do it in an open space stinking to high heaven and covered with the shit of earlier guests while pigs and dogs waited in anticipation. Now I’m well accustomed to the squalor of Bihar and UP in India and it doesn’t worry me – but Tibet was something else. Nowhere except Lhasa did I see evidence of a sewerage system, of garbage collection or of the delivery of safe, clean drinking water. And as for the people, many had that unkempt, grubby look that usually goes with poverty and want – although they were all cheerful and good humored. Then has the system of justice become more civilized? Not according to every single human rights organization. Under the lamas it was iron chains, whips and the stocks. Now its rubber truncheons, electric cattle prods, drills, surgical pliers and stun guns. In the good old days if a serf didn’t like his lot he could leave, although there was no refugee community in India or Nepal. Now Tibetans can only approach the borders of their country with a special permit and they’ll be shot if they try to cross them.
Recently there were reports of such a shooting which the Chinese indignantly denied. But a mountain climbing team happened to witness and film the whole incident and later posted it on the internet, Don’t be fooled by the smiles and the business suits of the Chinese officials. They’re as brutal as they ever were and they still couldn’t tell the truth to save their lives. Some 20 survivors of the shooting remain missing. If they are still alive they’re probably receiving ‘patriotic re-education’ in some grim prison. So are the Tibetans really better off under Chinese rule? Nothing I saw gave me that impression.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Circumambulating Mt. Kailash

After our time at Manasarovar we drove to Dachen, got two rooms in a rather dirty jerry-built hotel and made preparations for doing the parikarma the next morning. I had trouble sleeping, not because of my blocked nose and my headache but because of the elation of finally being able to do something I had dreamed of doing since I read Lama Govinda’s Way of the White Cloud nearly 40 years ago. Cittalaya had been lethargic for at least three or four days, a condition he and I attributed to tiredness. In his enthusiasm, he had climbed up to the to the fort at Gyantze, scuttled up the hill above Sera and Sakya and was, we assumed, paying the price for overexerting himself. In the morning he looked terrible. I happened to notice that his fingernails were purple and I immediately knew that he was suffering from altitude sickness. Reluctantly he decided to stay in the hotel while we did the parikarma and we made arrangements for him to be fed and looked after until we returned. That done we left. I had my staff, my pack and my Singapore Armed Forces boots and a horse and two porters carried some of Jason’s and Hoai’s gear. I had decided to do the parikama as mindfully as possible and very soon I fell into a state of being completely focused on the movement of my feet. This didn’t just keep me focused, it allowed me to ignore the the physical strain of the march. After several hours we got to Chorten Kanayi, the stupa that marks the official start of the parikarma. The steep walls of the valley are really is impressive here and you can see the summit the holy mountain above it. A few kilometers before Dirapuk Gompa it started to snow, first lightly but then quite heavily, although at least it was blowing from behind us. By the time we got to the monastery, our rest for the night, I at least, was freezing cold and utterly exhausted. The thought of the next day’s march, the most arduous of the parikarma, was starting to fill me with foreboding. After several cups of tea and a cup of instant noodles I went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately. When we awoke the next morning we found that it had been snowing all night. An icy wind was blowing, the yaks were covered with snow and visibility was reduced to a few hundred yards. The view for Mt. Kailash from Dirapuk Gompa is the mast spectacular on the whole of the parikarma but we could see nothing, not even the cliffs behind the monastery or on the other side of the valley. Our whole visual world was white. During breakfast (two cups of butter tea and a boiled egg) we discussed with our guide and other pilgrims the possibilities of continuing. If it stopped snowing soon it would probably be possible to keep going, even more grueling than it would be otherwise, but still possible. If we continued and it kept snowing we could be snowed under or even end up in serious trouble. We agreed that we had to turn back. With the wind and snow blowing in our faces, the plummeting temperature and all our energy sapped by the previous day’s march, the return journey strained my physical endurance almost to breaking point. By the time we reached Chorten Kanayi I was finished. The physical exhaustion was compounded by disappointment of not having been able to complete the parikarma. After a days rest at Darchen we left for Toling and Tsaparang with the intention of trying to do the parikarma again on out our return. When we did return the sun was bright, the sky was cloudless but because it had been snowing all the time we were away, the snow was also deep – neck deep on the path around the mountain locals said. I was not as disappointed as I thought I might be. I resigned myself to not circumambulating the sacred mountain this time. Perhaps next time.