Across the Tibetan Plateaus – Part 1 Lhasa

To those gone but never forgotten x

After my parents passing a few years ago, I had opened up my mind to accepting Buddhism as a possible fit for me. They became Buddhists towards the end of their lives and their ‘Celebration of Life’, as I like to call it, was conducted with Buddhist monks. But the meditation, the books and the soul searching trip to India that followed my mother’s passing, seemed to fade in that transition of mourning that invariably leads to acceptance.

Today, another recent family tragedy, and I am on the search for something again. Only this time I can’t quite put my finger on what; like an annoying itch that can’t be reached. Is it Spirituality I’m seeking? Faith? Peace? Assurance? All of the above perhaps? Whatever it is, I hope these sweeping plateaus lead me to my answers…

After all, once upon a time, it was within the stone walls of the mighty Potala Palace that the spiritual heart beat most resonantly. At an altitude of 3700m and built on the Red Mountain (Marpori), it was not only the former home to the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibetan political administration, but a religious sanctum for all Buddhist teachings and meditation.

Legend has it that a sacred cave in the mountains was the dwelling of the Bodhisattva Chenresi. It was used as a meditation retreat by Emperor Songsten Gampo in the 7th century and in 637, Songsten decided to build a palace on its site instead. Over the centuries it has been added to, expanding it in to the white and red palace we see today.

lhasa 02lhasa 03Rising over the city of Lhasa in her fortress-like glory, it is an undeniable landmark worthy of its UNESCO status. But today, as we squeezed through the jostling crowd of tourists I couldn’t help but feel that this heart had lost its soul long ago. It was a museum now, an ironic exhibition of Buddhism’s timeline … Capitalism had squeezed its way through the mortar joints; bank notes stuffed in every nook and cranny, offerings from the Chinese in exchange for blessings of good fortune, prosperity and better business… I felt nothing but irk when we were reminded of our one hour time slot, shuffled along from room to room like we were part of a manufacturing plant.

I had imagined something more climatic than this… A voice of realisation that Buddhism is for me in that meditative symphony of sounds… The low resonant murmur as burgundy robed monks chanted to the mountains… The mesmeric high pitched ringing of singing bowls… The jubilant flutter of wind chimes… Instead there was a ‘clash-boom-and-a-bang’.  The Potala Palace was no longer a place for quiet solitude and reflection… It was hard to believe that it ever was…

lhasa 01It is at the Johkang Temple now, in the Old Town of Lhasa, where pilgrims flock from all over to world to offer their prayers to Buddha. Known as the holiest temple in Tibet, die hard pilgrims show their fanatical reverence by throwing themselves on to the floor, proceeding to then drag themselves slug-like towards the foot of the temple in some bizarre ritual.

Inside the temple, it was amass with bodies again. Tour guides shouted above each other to be heard but no-one was listening. Eyes were bright and awe struck as we came face to face with the Jowo Rinpoche – the most revered image in Tibet. Many Tibetans pray to see the statue, believing that its positive energy will transform them, but belief aside, the Jowo Rinpoche was spectacular; an oversized statue gilded in gold and swathed in blue and dazzling gems.

Something strange was happening to me… The cramped, dimly lit chambers and infusion of yak butter with incense was intoxicating. I half listened to our guide punch drunk as ghoulish faces of the red, blue, yellow and white protectors swam in front of me. A woman was crawling on all fours, clockwise around the perimeter of the room, adding to the surrealism. It was overwhelming, claustrophobic and stifling. We pushed through the crowds, entering and exiting half a dozen more windowless, intimate chambers… more golden idols of Buddha towered above us; colourful Tibetan murals and Thangkas (fabric hangings) whispered their hundred year old stories… until finally we were back in to the gratifying open air of the courtyard again.

On the roof of the Johkang Temple now, overlooking the Old Town of Lhasa and beyond, the panorama of Tibet’s expansive plateaus beckon to me. I didn’t find what I was searching for in the Potala Palace or the Johkang Temple… Sadly, China’s ‘assault’ on Tibet has rendered these in to soulless ‘tourist attractions’. I’m not the only one to feel China’s Capitalist touch… Our guide (who I cannot name for obvious reasons) is beside me now and points to the sheared off tip of a sacred mountain where an ugly radio mast dominates the skyline. The crushed look on his face tells what all Tibetans fear… that their religion, culture and language will be slowly erased.

I know that if Faith or Spirituality is to be found, it will not be confined within these walls or even in Lhasa. Tomorrow we start our journey across these plateaus towards the mighty Everest… A laminated photo of my parents and of my brothers Ed and Alan have been sitting in my bag close to me since my departure out of Singapore… I know it’s silly, my own made-up-belief, but I believe that if I find a sacred place for them, a place on the ‘Roof of the World’, so close to the Heavens, they will always be just a kiss away from us…  

lhasa 04
Monks debating at the Sera Monastery
lhasa 05
The Summer Palace in Lhasa
lhasa 06
The Summer Palace in Lhasa


2 thoughts on “Across the Tibetan Plateaus – Part 1 Lhasa

    1. Thank you for your words of encouragement as always Randall!
      Tibet was life changing…I don’t think I’ll ever come across people as humble and warm hearted as the Tibetans.


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