Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Lhasa, Tibet 11.04.10 - 12.04.10

Tibetan prayer flags/ Norbulingka garden

entrance to Jokhang Temple/ Norbulingka garden

traditional Tibetan door with silk scarves decoration

Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Norbulingka, Sera Monastery
Tibet Autonomous Region, in the southwest of China, has a population of only 2.8 million with it's largest town being Lhasa, at a few hundred thousand. Two hours south of Lhasa lies the border with Nepal and the Himalayas. Tibet has eleven peaks over 7000m and five over 8000m, the most famous being Mount Everest, at 8848m. The plains around Lhasa are vastly unpopulated and very dry at the present time. All over China there have been droughts and water shortages this month. There are oasis' of greenery in the plains however, with willow trees and green marshland. Our guide Gyatsuo explains the need for the marshland to produce some humidity in the otherwise dry mountain air. Most of the winter snow has gone and the sun is very strong now, warming up the afternoons to 22 degrees. In winter, the temperature can drop to -17 degrees Gyatsuo tells us. He introduces himself as a practising Buddhist who is very willing to inform us of all the Tibetan culture, religion and customs but will not discuss the Tibetan political situation. He claims to be no politician and doesn't want to attempt this subject. He does prove himself extremely knowledgable on all things Buddhist and takes us through each and every deity, buddha image and symbol meaning in the temples we visit. There is a lot for us to take in but by the end of our Lhasa tour we've got the jist. In Tibetan Buddhism, which is different to Thai Mahayana and other types, the three buddhas, one from the past, present and future are worshipped. The current buddha, Shakyamuni, was born in 500BC and before him there had already been six more buddhas but he was the one to found the Buddhism religion. Many buddhist influences came originally from India, which borders Tibet and we observe that the design of the sculptures and the use of very bright colours are similar to those of Hinduism. In Tibet, Buddhism was rejected by the people for 300 years from the 11th century onwards and a king overtook the ruling power. The Kingdom of Tibet lasted until the 14th century when the 5th Dalai Lama replaced him and built the famous Potala Palace in Lhasa. To explain about the existence of the Dalai Lama- he is the chosen one who is the highest lama (master), the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. To be chosen by the high lamas, the boy (they were often very young) should demonstrate high levels of wisdom and represent the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. He can be chosen from anywhere, any background. The 5th Dalai Lama built the Potala Palace on the site of an ancient Buddhist temple from the 7th century and it was for the Dalai Lama to spend the months of winter- the Winter Palace. It sits atop a sacred hill called the Red Hill in Lhasa and dominates over the town with its red and white buildings. Inside the palace there are chapels to the buddha, a seating room for the Dalai Lama to receive guests, a teaching room for him to pass on his knowledge and many funerary stupa tombs for the previous Dalai Lamas, of which at present there are eleven. The current Dalai Lama, who is presently in exile in Nepal, is the 13th. All the inner rooms of the palace are small and cosy. Cosy is a strange word to use for a palace but this is because there are many silk textiles in the form of garments on the statues, patchwork lanterns and coverings for the poles and furniture. The walls are all heavily decorated with rich painted colours and murals. Each doorframe and ceiling edge is richly painted with flower motifs and simple gold designs. The thing that hits you the most is the colours. Tibetans believe the colours of red, yellow, green and blue symbolise the natural elements, the earth, the sky, the water, the vegetation. That's why they use them everywhere on the inside walls, decorations and the prayer flags, like bunting, which they hang on every available pole or tree. Gyatsuo takes us through the three most important manifestations of buddha, the compassion buddha (with its thousand arms and thousand hands to reach out and touch people), the protector buddha (who has a fierce, puppet face to symbolise strength) and the longevity buddha (because a long life is the ultimate goal for buddhists- apart from enlightenment of course!) There are many other deities in the distinct Tibetan form of Buddhism, some which represent the giving of good advice, healing for the soul (the ten medicine buddhas) and some of the statues represent the scholars who wrote the scriptures and the 108 commandments. Each and every one is gold painted and lavishly clothed and has their own chapel for worship.
Although Gyatsuo tells us a lot about the buddhas and the deities, he explains that everyday practising buddists will never reach the status of nirvana and do not have the wisdom to practise meditation. Chanting occurs throughout the temples we visit and there is the possibility to practise yoga meditation but normal buddhists cannot achieve the proper meditation technique. They do not have the correct teachings. It takes 45 years to study to become an elite scholar to be able to meditate. This is because the studies comprise the five elements of Buddhism practise including the rejection of desire from one's life and the ability to live without anger and be at peace. The essence of the Buddhist teachings is about learning to be at peace and pray for peace to be throughout the world and give compassion to all living things. It teaches to always be calm and patient, giving forgiveness and understanding to people who oppose you. Never to get angry, as this anger only breeds bad thoughts and leads to bad karma. If you choose to do good things and think about other people more than yourself you will receive good karma in return and good things will happen to you in this life or the next.
There are many interesting features in a Tibetan buddhist temple, like the agregate stone floors which are beaten down and compacted using hammers, then polished by the monks using butter ghee as a treatment and 'skating' around with cloths under their feet. The butter ghee is also used as an offering and pilgrims bring it in large flasks from which they pour the liquid into metal bowls to make candle wax. Butter ghee comes from yak's milk, Tibet's answer to the lama, from which they take the meat and the fur also to use. Aswell as ghee, people donate money by placing it in the hands of the buddha statues or stuffing it into door crevasses or anywhere they can find a suitable place. We get to taste the traditional Tibetan drink of sweet butter tea when we visit a local family's house just outside Lhasa. It's like drinking milky caramel and is very fatty, but very tasty. Traditionally they take this every morning. Tibetan people look similar to the Peruvian people of the Andes mountains. They share the same weather beaten faces and darker skins that come from living at high altitude (Lhasa sits at 3600m). The lady of the house welcomes us through the main door which is heavily decorated, as is the custom, with large brass door knockers and silk scarves tied round them. Inside the whitewashed walls is a courtyard, then the main building leads off from there. The front sitting room is impressive with its large painted dresser showing off all the important offerings of food, sweets and fruit which were laid out for the celebration of Tibetan New Year last month. An adjoining room houses the family chapel with places for local monks to sit. The interior decoration is ornate and colourful, similar to the richness of primary colours in the temples.
Tibetans have their own language originally derived from Sanskrit and its characters look very similar to Indian writing. Not at all like Chinese kangi. When Gyatsuo speaks he sounds Mongolian or even Turkish. It's a very different sounding language to the tonal ups and downs of Chinese. These people are in no way shape or form Chinese. There is a small Han population in the town, meaning the main ethnic group from China, their skins tend to be paler. I can notice in Gyatsuo's speech pattern when he talks about them though that he perhaps doesn't give them the same respect as he does ethnic Tibetans.
We are fascinated by the Tibetan people in traditional clothes spinning prayer wheels as they circumbulate clockwise round the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple. Some of the little old ladies and men have such characterful faces. They make the pilgrimages from the countryside villages once a week and in particular on a Monday. Outside the main door of the Jokhang Temple in the main square, we see the extraordinary act of prostration performed as a sign of prayer to buddha. The people bend and lie face down, slap their hands, in which they hold wooden blocks to slide along the ground with, then push themselves back up to standing, repeating this I don't know how many times. As we make the clockwise walk round Barkhor Street which encircles the Jokhang Temple, Greg nearly falls over a man prostrating, as he collapses down just behind where Greg is walking!