Today was incredible. We visited Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama; Jokhang Temple, which has an incredibly old Buddha brought here in the 7th century when a Chinese princess married a Tibetan king; and a nunnery.
If you have seen Seven Years in Tibet, you will have seen sets of the rooms we visited: reception rooms, audience halls, and a classroom of the 14th Dalai Lama, and in each, they had wrapped a robe tightly and placed it where he would sit, so to me his absence felt incredibly poignant. Everywhere, there are Buddhas, and statues of former monastic leaders. In some rooms, behind the statues are shelves and shelves of Buddhist documents, written on “poison paper” to keep the insects from eating them. In other rooms, there might be smaller Buddhas, all in cabinets, or paintings of Buddhas on the walls or on fabric. Potala Palace also houses “Stupas,” or the tombs, of most of the lamas. Each Stupa is covered in gold and semiprecious stones and each resembles a massive sarcophagus with multiple lids on top of it in stacks, rising to a point where there is a round, onion shaped grill; in this last part, the The Dalai Lamas are interred in the lotus position in which they were sitting when they transfigured. The smell of burning incense and Yak butter makes the interiors of these buildings smokey, stinging the eyes and nose already irritated by the altitude.
As we wandered through the palace, Scott was asked to sit next to a monk, who asked him where he was from. Scott wished he had been prepared to ask more profound questions.
For a culture that is devoted to compassion as a form of enlightenment, I was surprised to see great interest in good luck and talismans against bad luck and evil demons. In contrast to our culture of “making your own luck” in this life, this felt ancient and mysterious. At both the temple and the palace, we encountered masses of pilgrims in native dress walking in clockwise circles to complete tasks that would improve their likelihood of higher attainment in this and the reincarnated life. People actively prostrated themselves on the ground.
As a major pilgrimage site, somewhat like Mecca, the streets in the areas around these holy places have many, many shops selling prayer wheels, paintings, good luck amulets, prayer beads, etc. Prices seemed exorbitant, though it later appeared we could negotiate.
I am still feeling a little overwhelmed by the experience. Compared with most of our previous stops, here we were in the presence of a very active religion. At the same time, the governmental impact of China is very obvious. According to our guides who have been here previously, the city is growing exponentially. All signs are in either Chinese or Tibetan WITH Chinese. Outside Jokhang temple where there is an open plaza, the police are stationed on rooftops. The massive apartment complexes going up outside the city center speak to a potential massive influx of people, though it is hard to imagine how much food the Chinese will have to import to support all of those people with the short growing season in the area. Tibet is valuable to China because it is rich in mineral resources and contains five major rivers supplying the area.
If you ever wanted to see the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, I would encourage you to come soon. In sharp contrast to our touching day on the streets, our Chinese hosts conducted a mock Tibetan wedding at dinner on our second night. It was a combination of modern music, dancing women, strobe lights and jarring colors. Instructed by our Chinese tour guide, a couple on our tour went through the basic steps of a Tibetan wedding, including drinking tea, listening to and making speeches, and eating barley cake. It sort of felt as though this were a play on what was taking place all over Tibet and that what we were seeing wasn’t a Tibetan wedding in any way, and we could never know what a Tibetan wedding would really be like or whether it would continue to exist, even in private.