Tibet: A Journey of the Spirit

By Steven Mark

Seattle Times staff The Seattle Times.

Sunday, June 02, 2002,

If the altitude of the Himalayas isn't enough to take your breath away, the beauty is. The thin, dry air, combined with an overpoweringly direct summer sunlight produces clear, deep colors and high contrasts. This is high-definition scenery: soaring, snow-capped mountains against deep-blue sky.

Gathering himself like a baseball pitcher winding up, the crimson-robed monk drew his hands back and yelled a question at another monk, punctuating his point with a flesh-reddening clap of his palms.


His rival shouted his responses.


The debate was progressing in fine form, as dozens of young monks engaged in heated exchanges over the day's Buddhist teachings. And the din rose above the Sera monastery in Lhasa, Tibet's ancient capital city.

It was a far cry from the serene, contemplative image I had of Tibetan Buddhism. Today's debate, as our guide, Dawa, explained, was merely a practice for younger monks. To advance through the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, monks have to win a formal debate in front of the entire class with a panel of monks acting as jury. The clapping, in addition to being tradition, ratchets up the pressure and adds some entertainment. It clearly is not intended as polite applause.

But it is infectious. From then on, whenever I asked Dawa about Tibetan Buddhism philosophy, I had to clap.

"If Buddhism is supposed to be about wanting nothing, how come all the people here are praying for prosperity?"


"The Buddha wants nothing, people give things to him."

"A Buddhist legend says a man who was a butcher repented just before he died, and he became Buddha. So doesn't that mean you can do whatever you want, just take it all back in the end?"


"You never know when you die, so you won't know when it's too late."

Dawa, who studied at a monastery for five years, had learned his lessons well. He had all the answers - and he didn't yell them back at me.

Though I clapped, I didn't yell, either. That would have taken too much energy, too much oxygen, both of which were in short supply in the high altitude of Tibet. I hadn't had any time to acclimate myself - climbing Mount Rainier would have been good practice for Lhasa, altitude 12,000 feet.

Though the people in our small group were taking altitude-sickness medication, we all suffered from headaches, sleepless nights and fatigue during our tour, which took us from Lhasa to Shigatse, Tibet's second-largest city at 14,000 feet, and Gyantse, an ancient city on the trade route to Nepal, at 14,600 feet.

If the altitude of the Himalayas isn't enough to take your breath away, the beauty is. The thin, dry air, combined with an overpoweringly direct summer sunlight produces clear, deep colors and high contrasts. This is high-definition scenery: soaring, snow-capped mountains against deep-blue sky, showing none of the haze that usually shrouds Mount Rainier.

Political life The political situation is as omnipresent as Buddhism. It's an article of faith in the West that China's policies in Tibet have been repressive. China's refusal to allow the return of the Dalai Lama, the Nobel-Prize laureate who is the spiritual leader of Tibetan culture, accompanied by regular reports of monasteries being forcefully shut down and monks being imprisoned, fuel the controversy.

During our one-week trip, however, my impression was that Tibetan life is as lively and vibrant as the monks' debate. Shops and bazaars were crowded with vendors hawking household goods and religious items. (Shirts and hats with the Chicago Bulls logo were popular, apparently because of the logo's similarity to a yak.)

Homes appeared well-constructed in the traditional square Tibetan style, with darkened glass in the windows to protect against the sun, and TV antennas standing on the roofs. One farmer invited us into his home, proudly showing his worship room decorated with wood panels painted with Buddhist deities. A large pile of blankets, spun from yak hair, was evidence of his prosperity. He had a brother studying engineering at a university and another ran a business in town.

Agriculture appears to be thriving. In broad plains that stretched from the Brahmaputra River to the foothills, mustard fields bloomed, terraced into the steepest mountains. Because of the altitude, there is only one harvest a year from these fields, but it has been enough to sustain local villages.

Dawa said the government has helped many villages build refineries to process the plants into oil, helping the local economy. Barley is another popular product, raised to produce a zesty beer and a pasty dough used to make offerings and snacks.

Health care also has improved, as I was to find out one morning in Shigatse when I woke up with uncontrollable sweating and a blistering fever. Was this a symptom of a more acute altitude sickness? If you don't get to a lower elevation in a hurry, the sickness can be fatal.

With the nearest airport at least a day away, I was very worried. We went to a local hospital, where a bespectacled, soft-spoken doctor pushed at various areas on my abdomen. A mild case of gastroenteritis, he said. Though the diagnosis was comforting, the treatment - a day in the hospital getting an IV - wasn't, so we asked for a more palatable treatment. A few pills were prescribed and few hours later I was fine.

But if China has brought improved health care and economic assistance to Tibet, there is a sense of the kind of propagandistic pressure that is commonplace in China.

The night before we left Beijing for Lhasa, we stayed in a hotel where a Tibetan dance troupe was having a party. Tibetan culture has become very popular in China. The recent winner of a national popular-song contest is Tibetan, who won with a song about "Shangri-La."

Buddhist fervor After several rousing pop numbers, sung karaoke style, a man stood up and gave a long speech about the "unity" of China and Tibet. His audience seemed bored.

The next day, the same troupe was on our plane. My mother overheard one of them say, with a tone of resignation in his voice, "We'll probably have to tell (the government) everything we did."

Whatever the political situation, there's no lack of Buddhist fervor. At the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism that dates to the seventh century, dozens of pilgrims genuflected in the courtyard. Some of the most devoted had large bumps on their foreheads, evidence of knocking their heads on the stone square in front of the temple. Pilgrims crowded its narrow passageways and tiny chapels, chanting the Buddhist mantra "om-mani-padme-hum" ("Hail to the flower of the lotus").

Outside the Jokhang, hundreds more circled, pausing to spin one of the hundreds of cylindrical prayer wheels that encompass the temple. A good Buddhist will circle the temple 108 times - always clockwise - during a pilgrimage.

In Shigatse, Tibet's official seat of the Panchen Lama religious leader, we saw hundreds of faithful Buddhists participate in an annual ceremony to honor the Buddhist version of the Christian holy trinity - the Buddhas of the past, present and future.

Many had traveled for days by bus, tractor and yak-pulled cart for the event and climbed to the highest point of the Tashilhunpo monastery to view a 10-stories-tall tapestry of the Buddhas. Monks blessed the image with flour - representing the desire for prosperity - before dropping it like a huge movie curtain. The crowd stayed in the blistering sun until the tapestry was packed up and put away.

A slow comeback While China's Cultural Revolution succeeded in destroying and closing many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet (as well as many Confucian and Taoist temples in China), many are making a slow comeback. The Sera monastery, where we witnessed the debate, once housed several thousand monks, from elders to very young boys. It now has several hundred monks.

Mostly, I noticed the small, simple gestures that suggest a sense of happiness and warmth. Gestures like a pilgrim stepping aside in one of the narrow stairwells of the Jokhang Temple to let someone pass - and smiling at the same time. Such courtesy rarely occurs in other Chinese cities, where two people can seem like a hundred if they're both trying to get into a train at the same time. (In fact, there are often a hundred, which then seems like a thousand.)

I appreciated the monk who paused to give me encouragement as I rested while climbing stairs at the Tashilhunpo monastery, my lungs laboring to find oxygen.

And I was stunned by another old monk at the Potala Palace, the huge white-walled former residence of the Dalai Lama that towers over Lhasa, who said to me in nearly unaccented English, "Are you American? You look like you are Tibetan."

How can you help but feel good about people like that?