15. The Road to Lhasa

The Potala Palace

 

The Road to Lhasa was a long one; a further two days of our driver manically speeding along perilous cliff roads, overtaking on blind corners and playing Chinese electro music on full pelt. By this point he had gained a total disregard for his passengers and Charlie and I had learned to simply live with it. He certainly was not going to get a tip though!

We spent the night in another small TIbetan village in a local nomadic traveller lodging. The starts that night were some of the most profound that I have ever seen. The entire firmament was stretched out above our heads, each one piercingly clear. There was nothing separate us from everything.

We stopped off in a few villages on the way to Lhasa to get food. The customary poster boards of Chairman Mao seemed to inundate every public space wherever we went.

And yet, in spite of this, the Tibetan spirit remains indomitable. They understand impermanence. All conditioned things are impermanent. Decay is inherent in all compound things. That which is of the nature to arise is of the of the nature to pass.

Finally after many days of traveling, we made it to Lhasa.

When the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959 Lhasa was a very small agricultural city, whose only distinguishing factors (aside from its astonishing natural beauty and seclusion) were the Potala Palace, the Sera Monastery and the Jokhang Monastery, as well as a number of other smaller monasteries and monastic palaces.

Lhasa 1900s

Lhasa has changed a lot since the “Cultural Revolution”, when the Chinese entered Tibet. Like Shigatse, concrete has overtaken the natural agriculture of Lhasa. Fields have been replaced by roads, farms by shopping malls and Chinese Karaoke bars. Like in Shigatse, Chinese have emigrated to Lhasa en masse in the past ten years. Some estimates now put the number of Han Chinese inhabitants at 70% of the overall populace, which does make it tricky to get a sense of the authentic Lhasa of old.

It is easy to romanticise the early Tibetan settlements, making them out to be some sort of 20th Century spiritual utopia, but the truth is that this was not the case. As said earlier in this blog, life was hard for the average Tibetan, who lived in a quasi feudal state, with complete dependence upon the local monastics for their survival. However, looking at the peoples of the Limi Valley, who face similar poverty, you can get a glimpse of the profundity of the peace and innate wisdom that is found through simplicity. This is a peace that no education system, no wealth and no improved transport can buy.

In spite of the ever presence of the Chinese military we still managed to make the most of our time in Lhasa. The Potala Palace, which we were allowed a whistle-stop hour long tour of, was breathtaking, if a bit hurried. The Sera and Jokhang monasteries were equally as beautiful. Sera was once one of the largest monasteries in the world, with over 6000 monks. Even though the number has drastically declined since the “Cultural Revolution” (there are now fewer than 600 monks in residence there) and the teachings that these monks are given access to is very limited, the energy there is still electric and the rooms alive with six hundred years of Dhamma study. There was a bit of a sense of ‘this is a monastery… please can all of the tourists just let us get on with things’ from the monks, but they did their best to cover this up and put on a smile.

We arrived in Lhasa in time for the annual Yoghurt Festival. The Yoghurt festival originated in the 16th Century. It was a banquet given by lay people to the monks. Yoghurt was one of the staple foods of the feast. Prior to the festival, which is held mid August each year, the monks would do retreat for a month, not leaving the confines of their monasteries to avoid stepping on and killing any of the emerging summer insects. It involves feasting, dancing, singing, chanting, theatre and music. Lhasa was alive with thousands of Tibetan tourists that had traveled from all around the area to attend. Vast Thangkas were unveiled and hoisted onto the sides of monasteries and hills.

Lhasa Nun

In the bedroom of the Summer Palace, that is the bedroom of His Holiness, Tibetans would line up to prostrate in front of his childhood bed, many weeping as they did so. The Chinese guards stood by sheepishly, with a look of not-knowing-what-to-do on their faces!

On the second night in Lhasa we found our way to the local nightclub, which was filled with Han Chinese teenagers and twenty somethings letting off steam. There was also a smattering of army officers who had recently finished their shifts, dancing, singing to karaoke and having a drink or two. As non-drinkers Charlie and I were strictly on the sodas but we had a great time regardless. It was a little surreal being in such a modern setting after so long in the sticks!

After three days in Lhasa Charlie and I finally decided to head back to Kathmandu, from where we would return to the UK. I had been toying with the idea of a ten day Vipassana retreat in Thailand with an English friend of mine who was training to become a monk. By this stage however I was exhausted and very ready to return home to a warm bed. Home was calling and so the retreat would have to wait. We spent one final morning site seeing, before saying our goodbyes to Buchop, our Tibetan guide who had been such a trooper over the past few weeks. We then boarded a plane and made the hour long journey over the Himalayas, flying over the summit of Mt Everest in the process. It was here that I was finally consumed by the bug that had begun to creep up on me from my time spent in the cave next to Everest, and I made the aspiration to summit the mountain. I am still reflecting on this aspiration, trying to decide whether it is the ultimate statement of ego or whether I am indeed just wanting to breathe the fresh air and look out over the world (the reason that I am still trying to persuade myself to be the overriding motive… perhaps with a slight degree of self-delusion!) But this is the subject matter of a future blog in a future time!

I only spent two more nights in Kathmandu, where we met a group of Japanese and Spanish travelers who we befriended and spent the rest of our time with. I offloaded the majority of my climbing kit onto one of the Japanese girls, who was departing to climb to Everest Base Camp the following day.

I then packed my things, got on a flight and left for home, having had one of the most profound, eye and heart opening, challenging, meditative, dangerous and awe inspiring three months of my life.

I will be forever grateful for every single person that I met on my travels. For every precious moment that I spent in deep meditation, or roaming and climbing carefree through the Himalayas. From scuba diving with magnificent turtles, to drinking with new friends, or watching the sun rise on a far flung beach with a beautiful woman at my side. For the moments spent completely alone in sacred caves, watching the impermanence of things in concentrated sits, to the moments spent collapsed on the floor holding my aching back. All that I can say is a huge thank you to everyone that was kind to me along the way. But a special thank you goes out to Anila at Lawudo Gompa, and Geljuin from the Limi Valley, as well as Buchop from Tibet. Without these three wonderful people my trip would have been much more difficult! A special thank you also to Burgs from The Art of Meditation and of course to Ajhan Chah of the Thai Forest tradition and Pau Auk Sawadaw of the Burmese forest tradition, whose teachings have inspired my teacher and changed my life. A special thank you also goes to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Although my main meditation practice derives from the Theravada practices, His Holiness’ teachings, leadership, faith, resilience, patience, kindness, serenity and wisdom are not only an inspiration to me, but a light to a world that is consumed by darkness. His light has led so many people out of this darkness. He is still the bond that holds together all of the people of Tibet, and the faith and compassion that this world so dearly needs right now.

 

Dalai Lama

 

May all beings, in all directions, without exception, be free from suffering, and find real peace, real happiness.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings be happy.

2 Responses to “15. The Road to Lhasa”

  1. mr4nders0n
    18. January 2014 at 04:57

    I considered it odd, the story you related about Tibetan schooling in which the children were asked to “bring a dead animal to class”. What I found odd was that a VERY similar story is recounted in the book “The Art of Happiness” by The Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler, except in the version of the book the children were told they had to kill something and bring it into class, however I also recall the animals and points system in each story were very similar. Now either you have read this book AND have part plagiarised it, OR it is an absolutely amazing coincidence with an incredibly unlikely probability of coinciding (thus making it both amazing and incredible) OR that such events were massively prevalent across Tibet and amongst the indigenous Tibetans OR the story is some sort of pro-Tibetan propaganda. I would look to the most probable in attempting to gauge truth, though that does not mean that it is just an amazing coincidence, it just means that I am led to consider the other possibilities as equally likely. Therefore, either the Chinese government has perpetrated the most clever and most horrendous kind of propaganda imaginable, OR the Dalai Lama is complicit with pro-Tibetan propaganda OR the universe is a ridiculously weird place. First off, I definitely know the latter to be exactly true (but that doesn’t mean that the other points can’t be true as well, nor does it prove that it is just coincidence) and secondly, having carefully considered the Dalai Lama’s stance on various issues and having attempted to understand them, with the express point at understanding current affairs from the perspective of TRUTH (and attempting to understand TRUTH in general) I can only conclude that either the Dalai Lama is one of the most intelligent people on the planet with an almost perfect talent for deception OR that he is one of the single most compassionate and wisest people on the planet OR that the Chinese government is (along with the US government, and possibly the UK) one of the most insidious forces for evil or at least for cruelty and sadism in their insatiable appetites for greed & power. The trouble I have with the possibility of the Dalai Lama being deceptive is that, if anyone could feign such exacting measures of apparent wise and compassionate behaviour, they would eventually become that wise and that compassionate, in which case he would no longer be complicit in such deception.

    What do you think ?

  2. admin
    25. January 2014 at 17:40

    Hi there,

    Thank you very much for your comment. My blog is not a perfect one by any means. When I was staying in the mountains I too read an extract from the book ‘The Art of Happiness’ and it is possible that I confused this with some of the stories that I was told by Tibetans that I met along the path from Nepal and through to Tibet. It is also possible that I was told this by one of them… to be honest it is a few years past now and I cannot quite remember.
    The stories that I can, however, definitely remember are stories of tongues being cut off, crucifixions of living Tibetans and Tibetans being shot trying to cross the border or of freezing to death as they tried. One young Tibetan told me that when he was making the perilous journey across the border, over the mountains, he came across a large group of Tibetans also trying to cross, but who had run out of supplies and were now dying and more or less literally freezing. These stories are commonplace and it seemed that most people that we met that had made it across the border had similar stories to tell, albeit of varying levels.

    The truth is very sad, but it is also what it is. There is suffering all over the planet, not just in Tibet. There are many Chinese officials and citizens that I met along the way that were truly lovely. It is just a major blockage that the country is facing, and it is hurting a lot of people.

    Regardless, His Holiness is a shining beacon amongst all of this, and please do not allow my poor memory or translations hinder your opinions of a truly humble and wonderful being such as His Holiness.

    May you be happy.
    May I be happy.
    May the Tibetans be happy.
    May the Chinese be happy.
    May all beings, in all directions, without exception, be free from suffering, and find real peace, real happiness.

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