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”.


Ken and Visakha said...

Too cool! Here's hoping you too saw the amazing tree!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ken and Visakha,
Kumbum is in the far east of Tibet, a part of the country I did not go to. But as you will see in tomorrow’s post, the amazing tree was destroyed by ‘you know who’ in the 1960’s