Before discussing Buddhism, its important to relay the common feeling in USA particularly, that Buddhism is considered by some a “practice” and not simply a “religion”. It can be – and is both. As if inwardly a practice and outwardly a religion… That discussion is for another day.
You can adhere to “Buddhist principles” and still follow a different religious path. With thousands of years of tradition and history in perspective in Tibet – Buddhism is simply way of life. A central tenet of Buddhism is that we are on a path of enlightenment. There is a joy in knowing who you are and in Lhasa, one can certainly feel the energy. A basic premise I have learned long ago and appreciate is that we are here for our “soul’s growth” and gaining spiritual maturity, discovering our inner sense of mindfulness that takes us there, and that there is no rush. And from the Buddhist perspective, that we don’t have to do it all this time.
What’s important is that we are on the correct path that fits our innate nature. For me, as inspiration, I like to refer to the Bodhisattva Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who is not confined to knowledge or concepts, he who is noble and gentle and works for the enlightenment of all beings. It is the bodhisattva Ideal or some would say Vow – that one takes as directed consciousness, that guides one toward a spiritual goal which alone can convert consciousness into a unified vital force that can span more than a single life time. I go through this because this seems an innate quality of true mindfulness and to begin to see the people of Tibet as they might see themselves. Finally, I am a student who has barely scratched the surface in beginning to understand where it all may lead. As if it doesn’t matter where you are doing it from because you’ve already arrived at where you are supposed to be in taking the next step. But that’s the joy of it all. But from where do we leave a sense of worldly consciousness before entering the path – what the Buddhist calls sotapatti, to become one who enters the stream of consciousness that begins to take us there known as sotapanna? Excerpts of an article in the May 1995 issue of the Shambhala Sun by the 14th Dalai Lama with my own input and reflections helped to show the way. From where do we begin… or some would say continue?
Finding the peace of mind from within. Striving for contentment while staying wholly within yourself with simple simplicity and an innate sense of modesty. Finding a certain strength of character so as to not be challenged nor surrender to the provocative that leads to an affluent or comfortable lifestyle or way of life.
As you find the natural temperament within yourself, the stronger your will and capacity to endure hardship. With this, you will gain enthusiasm and forbearance laying a solid foundation for spiritual progress to develop a singleness of mind and penetrating insight.
Aspire only to tranquil abiding. Strive for and achieve a sense of contentment and modesty and an ethically sound and disciplined way of life. In thinking about disciple, it cannot be imposed from outside. But must come from within yourself. Discipline should be based on a clear awareness of its value and also a degree of introspection and mindfulness. Once ingrained, it becomes automatic or self‑imposed. You then become free to develop alertness and mindfulness.
When you have developed these two basic factors of awakening, then you can attain singleness of mind. Have no personal involvements or obligations that will direct your attention from the path you must now follow.
Transcend the limits of your human existence. Forever losing your identity and endeavoring to take care of your ultimate aspiration. Understand the role of attachments and clinging and use them in letting go. With little or no obligation and involvement remain free to fly away. (written in May 1995)
The feeling I get in Chengdu in southwest China is that it’s easy to understand how one comes to find the mythological Shangri La that all believe must be close by in the Himalayas, that separate the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau.
For myself, there seems a coming together and a comfort present that is not found elsewhere. I love coming here. I don’t want anyone reading this to feel they have to drop everything and rush off to China and Chengdu, but it’s a feeling of finding comfort in your own skin so to speak, as if nearing your source and becoming universal again… call it to God, the Christ presence, Allah, Lao Tzu and the Tao, Buddhism and the Buddha, etc. It’s where all paths are universally respected and equal. For me it’s living in convergence with all others in common practice. It’s where spiritually directed people can see themselves and others in the same way. Finding the place that speaks to the sanctuary from within and going there. Dropping the pretense that your way is the only way to God and that we have a responsibility for the divine presence of everything we see, do, and touch and all begins from within. For the Buddhist there is no separation and that we are all one. When we look upwards to the stars, we only see reflections of us. It’s what Rumi was talking about… as we too find ourselves dancing above the clouds.
Now on to Tibet… Early one morning I take the two-hour plane ride to Lhasa. I have been blessed here by a guide. Not just someone who takes our group through two days of monasteries and temples (a talent for which he has few peers), but Tashi Delek, has agreed to augment my limited knowledge with his wisdom. So on to Tibet… and Tibetan Buddhism. Nothing here is meant to have or relay any political overtones. It is simply to relay its importance to history and provide an overview… my own.
Also I failed to mention sooner… you can only go to Tibet as a part of a tour group (you can’t go by yourself). Second, you must book with the travel agency with copies of your passport and Chinese VISA at least ten days prior to your planned entry, and third you must show that you have already booked your airfare to and from Tibet.
First, a very brief sense of what you find when you arrive and brief history of Lhasa. And second, the highlights of the four monasteries and temples here that we went through together with our group. This will have an on-going “growth and change”, as additional information is added. For myself, it continues with the thought of developing mindfulness, that what and when I write it is from both my head and heart – that are listening to my soul’s eternal journey and my own steps into eternity. My heart tells me to be true to my own intrinsic essence towards Taoism, my head tells me that the Way will be made clearer with my serving, or being a conduit for others transformation, not simply my own and that I have far yet to go. Wisdom becomes universal when it is shared by all.
I left Chengdu at 6 AM and arrived in Lhasa two hours later and make it to the Lhasa Gang Gyan Hotel on Beijing Road, where I will be for three nights (Sun/Mon/Tues), then leave Wednesday morning for Beijing and Missouri. Sunday after checking in was a free day and I did some shopping for Marie and Katie. The tour begins tomorrow.
Lhasa has a unique history unlike almost any other city. It’s been at the crossroads of human travel and has served as the spiritual mecca for what was to be known as Tibetan Buddhism for thousands of years. Most of it’s late history was shaped by the influence of the Mongols and connection with Mongolia. The Mongols recognized Buddhism early and how the Dali Lama’s influence shaped the entire region.
Coming here is one the most humbling experiences I have ever encountered. The breadth of commitment over the centuries to mindfulness, self-awareness, and what are considered to be universal truths, (in Buddhism routinely called the four noble truths) is not something one can absorb in just a day or two beyond just appreciation in the highest possible sense. Tibetan Buddhism here in Lhasa, is all encompassing. It contains and is the fabric of all who have come before and permeates the local culture in the most positive way imaginable. It’s not something you do… it defines who you are. You can see this in the locals who take what can be called “ritual walks” around the city that is kind of ingrained in Tibetan culture, and without it and early morning rituals by pilgrimages to Jokhang Temple among others, the Tibetan flavor would be lost. Another example is the yearly painting of the exterior of the Potala Palace that was to occur a few weeks here after our visit. Everyone either volunteers to help to paint, or provides food and money to help with the community effort.
You can’t get much closer to God physically, than here high in the Himalayas. Lhasa has an elevation of about 3,600 m (11,800 ft) and lies in the center of the Tibetan Plateau with the surrounding mountains rising to 5,500 m (18,000 ft). The only thing I felt in the change in elevation was a severe headache the second morning after arriving. I think it was the lack of oxygen to my brain. After a couple cups of coffee and walking around outside I was fine. I was also helped by my having gone up and down Songshan and Huashan mountains in China in the weeks prior to coming to Tibet.
One of the best explanations of the spinning wheel you see at every Buddhist temple and monastery was given by Tashi when he said each wheel contains copies of the Buddhist sutras. By spinning the wheel, bits and pieces of the sutras (sutras are comparable to Bible verses) are released to you… the person doing the spinning. As you focus on your highest endeavor and possible destiny, you hope to be noticed by your devout sincerity and compassion towards others on your own journey.
The four monasteries and temples below give a representative overview as to what that means to history and what Tibet has become today. There is ample additional information on all four on the internet. I asked Tashi to give me some specific details that may not be all that is considered “common knowledge”.
The tour began Monday morning at Drepung Monastery. Drepung is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and is located on the Gambo Utse mountain, not far from the western suburb of Lhasa. It was the home of the Dalai Lamas before the Potala Palace was built in the 17th century. There were ten people in our group, plus our tour guide, Tashi. It can be a somewhat useful analogy to think of Drepung as a university along the lines of Oxford or the Sorbonne in Paris. The various colleges having different emphases, teaching lineages, or traditional geographical affiliations. The plan is to visit two monastery/temples today (Drepung and Sera) and then two more tomorrow, the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple. The rest of the group is going to a base-camp hours away from Lhasa and will be here seven to ten days. My tour is for four days and I leave the group Wednesday morning and head for Beijing and home.
Drepung Monastery, also called Tashi-Megyur-Chahju-Ling, is one of the largest monasteries of the Gelupa Sect. It was built in 1416. It had more than 10,000 monks in the 1940’s… I think the mindset you should have is the pictures tell the story of what you see, the narrative from Tashi will be from the inside out.
After lunch at a local restaurant (yak dumplings and yak butter tea) we went to the Sera Monastery also known as the “Wild Roses Monastery”. Then back to hotel a little after 4 PM. Sera Monastery was founded by Jamchen Choje Shakya Tesh, who was a disciple of Tsongkhapa in 1419. The Sera Monastery has three colleges and thirty-three houses. It is the second biggest monastery in Tibet. The two things that got my attention were first, the afternoon debates in the courtyard. The daily debating is a class to practice and test the monk’s mastery of Buddhism. The second was the Circle of Life, or Wheel of Life, depicted here that describes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
Tashi would add… The Wheel of Life can be interpreted on several levels. The six major sections represent the Six Realms. These realms can be understood as forms of existence, or states of mind, into which beings are born according to their karma. The realms also can be viewed as situations in life or even personality types—hungry ghosts are addicts; devas are privileged; hell beings have anger issues.
In each of the realms the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears to show the way to liberation from the Wheel. ( A Bodhisattva is a person who has attained prajna, or enlightenment, but who has postponed Nirvana in order to help others attain enlightenment). But liberation is possible only in the human realm. From there, those who realize enlightenment find their way out of the Wheel to Nirvana.
The Wheel of Life is one of the most common subjects of Buddhist art. Mandalas are works of sacred art in Tantric (Tibetan) Buddhism. The word “mandala” comes from a Sanskrit word that generally means circle – hence the concept of circle of life – and mandalas are primarily recognizable by their concentric circles and other geometric figures. There were several to be found here at the Sera monastery. A mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe.
The detailed symbolism of the Wheel can be interpreted on many levels. The Wheel of Life (called the Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth and existence in samsara. In Buddhism, samsara is the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature. Whereas, in Hinduism, it is considered the endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all beings are subject. Tashi, our tour guide, explained the different parts of the Wheel and what they mean. The main sections are the hub and the six “pie wedges” depicting the Six Realms. Many Buddhists understand the Wheel in an allegorical, not literal, way. As you examine the parts of the wheel you might find yourself relating to some of it personally or recognizing people you know as Jealous Gods or Hell Beings or Hungry Ghosts.
The outer circle of the Wheel is the Paticca Samuppada. (Sanskrit, meaning the chain, or law, of dependent origination, or the chain of causation — a fundamental concept of Buddhism describing the causes of suffering and the course of events that lead a being through rebirth, old age, and death). Traditionally, the outer wheel depicts a blind man or woman (representing ignorance); potters (formation); a monkey (consciousness); two men in a boat (mind and body); a house with six windows (the senses); an embracing couple (contact); an eye pierced by an arrow (sensation); a person drinking (thirst); a man gathering fruit (grasping); a couple making love (becoming); a woman giving birth (birth); and a man carrying a corpse (death).
The above explanation helps to understand in a brief way, the underlying concepts of the history of Buddhism. For those who follow the “teachings of Buddhism”, being here in Lhasa, seeing these principles put into practice and how others have incorporated this into their own lives often leads to a transformation, or furthering, of one’s own journey.
It’s also easy to see how religion and one’s own philosophy of life can blend into how every day should unfold and how we can/should adapt our lives into something much bigger than ourselves. Ultimately giving structure, context, and meaning to where and how everything fits together in the universe, i.e., what Sakyamuni, the Buddha intended.
On Tuesday we first went to Potala Palace, then after lunch we went to Jokhang Temple. Pictures were limited to outside both locations.
The Potala Palace (presently a museum as well as a World Heritage Site), situated between the Sera and Drepung monasteries, was the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama up to the point when Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama) escaped to India because of the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion. What struck me was its division into what is known as the red palace or section and white palace of the administrative complex. To the left is one of the famous wall hangings from the Thangka Museum. Going through the museum is a requirement prior to entering the Potala Palace. The jade carvings, esp. the Jade Phoenix, and Buddha statutes (the Maitreya statute, representing the future Buddha) were highlights for me. The palace, founded in the 7th-century, is an iconic structure that represents the role of Tibetan Buddhism in the administration of Tibet. It had been named after the Mt. Potalaka, which is believed to be the dwelling of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The Heritage Site also comprises the Jokhang Temple, that I will be this afternoon.
The historic structure has been constructed over a palace that was erected on the Red Hill by Songtsan Gampo. The Potala Palace consists of two chapels – the Chogyel Drupuk and the Phakpa Lhakang retain some of the portions of the original structure. Construction of the new palace was started in 1645 by the Fifth Dalai Lama (Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso) after the site was deemed suitable as the seat of the government. Gyatso was the first Dalai Lama to wield effective temporal and spiritual power over all Tibet. He is often referred to simply as the Great Fifth, being a key religious and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet. While the external structure took 3 years to complete, the palace interiors were completed in 45 years. The Dalai Lama along with his government shifted to the White Palace (Potrang Karpo) in 1649. The Red Palace (Potrang Marpo) as well as its ancillary buildings were added to the complex during 1690-1694. After seeing Potala Palace, we had lunch in Old Town, then continued to the Jokhang Temple.
Jokhang Temple is considered to be the spiritual heart and holiest Buddhist site in Tibet. We visited on a Tuesday afternoon on my last full day before leaving the next morning for Beijing and home. Situated in the heart of the Old Town and surrounded by Barkhor Street, this four-storied building was built in the seventh century by Songtsan Gambo. With roofs covered with gilded bronze tiles it demonstrates a combination of the architectural style of Han, Tibetan, India and Nepal, as well as, a Mandela world outlook of Buddhism. It was originally called the ‘Tsuklakang’ (Tsulag Khang) – ‘House of Religious Science’ or ‘House of Wisdom’ during the Bon period of Tibet, which is referred to as geomancy, astrology, and divination of Bon. Today, it is more commonly known as the Jokhang, which means the ‘House of the Buddha’. Most Tibetans go to Buddhist Temples in the morning hours, as tourists fill the sites in the afternoon. Another thing of interest is that the number of people going through the Potala Palace must be limited each day. The thousands of people streaming through the ancient corridors have caused them to be concerned about the structure’s ability to carry so much weight. Tickets to enter are measured and limited by the hour. Our time was scheduled for 12:45 (about noon) and our guide (Tashi) had to make sure we entered and left at the right time. One reason pictures are not allowed inside the monasteries and temples is that some people attempt to use photos to make copies of what they see inside and then try to sell. They frown on this.
Another interesting note was watching the local people walking around the city, the ring roads, and the prayer path around the bottom of the Potala Palace. There you will find Tibetans from all walks of life, Lhasa folk and pilgrims, doing what many of them do every day or as often as they can, circling the Potala, praying for the long life and good health and return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and for all sentient beings. If I had more time, walking around the city on the paths taken for centuries by the local citizens would have been a must, just to get a better feel for Lhasa and its history.
Notes on the aspects of the “Ritual Walks” in Lhasa
At the Jokhang Temple and around Lhasa, all Tibetans take the statue of Sakyamuni as the core for the ritual walks, and any believer walking around Jokhang Temple clockwise can be viewed as following the center track. Tradition says you take the ritual walks in and around the Jokhang Temple three times. First, they walk the inner ring around the statue of Sakyamuni, founder of Buddhism, in the Jokhang Temple; second, they walk the middle ring along Barkor Street, skirting the temple; and third, they walk the outer ring around the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, the Yaowangshan Mountain and other parts of Lhasa.
While taking these group ritual walks in the clockwise direction, they count rosaries in their hands, spin prayer tubes, and chant the Six Syllable Prayer. As they recite OM MANI PADME HUM, the six negative emotions, which are the cause of the six realms of samsara, are purified. This is how reciting the six syllables prevents rebirth in each of the six realms, and also dispels the suffering inherent in each realm. (discussed above at the Sera Monastery as the Wheel of Life). Generally speaking, other names are referred to walking the outer ring, called “lingkor,” early in the morning, and they will walk the middle ring called “Barkor” in the evening. During the traditional Grand Summons Ceremony, which takes place in the first Tibetan month and during the Sagya Dawa Festival in the fourth Tibetan month, taking ritual walks is said to have a much better effect; as a result, many more people take ritual walks at those times.
Finally, many local Tibetans you see are here in Lhasa on a “pilgrimage”. Tibetans generally use the term nekor that means “circling around an abode”, referring to the general practice of traveling from one temple or monastery to another. In the context of kora, one is rendered as “empowered”. The “sacred” or “holy” place/object, and the né (places you visit on your pilgrimage) is credited with the ability to transform those that are on the ritual walk, or path, that connect and encircle Lhasa. Thereby, you become a part of it as well..
Oct 18, 2018 / The Journey Home
One thing coming to Tibet has shown me is I am not to become a Tibetan Buddhist just yet. That in many ways we become a conduit – initially unaware of one’s own role – until we open ourselves to the universe and accept who we are truly yet to become. Having a sense of the underlying reason why and how Buddhism came to China, and it’s impact on Chinese religion and culture is though. Beyond just a cursory review, I have had an opportunity to expand my own knowledge and hopefully wisdom of some of the intricacies here on my website. How it progressed over the centuries in both Tibet and China and what was to become Chan and Zen Buddhism is essential in understanding the convergence of philosophy and religion not only in China, but the entire world.
For myself, it is a key element in reminding us that we are all universal and that understanding our origins, as well as the origins of others and where it has taken them, is central to our own enlightenment, for lack of a better term or description, as well theirs.
This “convergence” begins and continues within each of us. All of my entries here have additional thoughts, notes, and pictures in some cases to be added. My journey is never to be completed, only added on to… as if telling the stories that are here to tell, and teach, and learn as well.
It is as if all I need to know I already knew and I am simply to be reminded of my own origins and why I am here. Home is everywhere we’ve ever been and/or will be. It is not a physical place, except as we can define as what we create as our sanctuary, our source, or perhaps Shangri La. It is the place where our body, heart, and mind reside. Our role is simply how we have influenced all we have ever touched or will touch, as we go forth from the past, present, and future with compassion, virtue, and wisdom. That journey continues… and yes I have far yet to go. Coming to Lhasa was as if a remembrance and reminder of my own continuing pilgrimage as well.