Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places

Revering by walking, prostrating, chanting, offering…

Offerings – of objects or one’s presence –  affirms the Tibetan’s reverence of sacred places and objects.

 

jokhang threshold

Thresholds can be the shift into a physical structure or rituals for new events in a lifetime. Thresholds are the crossing into another existence whether physical, emotional, or spiritual… or as in these sacred places, the combination of all three.

Jokhang – the heart of Tibetan pilgrimage

Tibetans think of the Jokhang as the “spiritual heart of Lhasa” and it does sit in the middle of the Barkhor, the market square of old Lhasa. More importantly, it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet.

King Songtsen Gampo (traditionally the 33rd king of Tibet) began to build the temple in 652 AD to house the many Buddhist statues brought as dowry by his two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, who both helped him establish Buddhism in Tibet. The most important statue is the Jowo, an image of the twelve-year-old Buddha. The Jokhang was enlarged many times and the scene of many important events in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.

DSC05966

In the morning there were thousands of Tibetans in a long queue to visit the inside of the Jokhang while others did prostrations and circled this most important temple.

DSC05974

Spiritual and social… taking a break from prostrations

DSC05972

Starting young… her mom showed her how to do the prostrations

DSC05977

The police managing entry to the Jokhang let tourists in by another door without the long queue. Most of the other tourists were Chinese… everywhere we went.

DSC05984

The queue was long but people were patient.  Many people carried large thermoses full of melted butter to add to the huge butterlamps by the main Jowo statue.

DSC05982

The murals on the walls were fantastic, but no photos were allowed past this doorway.

DSC05979

This old carving on a stone block seemed old. Some of the temple is about 1,300 years old and some has been refurbished, like on the roof.

DSC05986

DSC05978

We could not see signs of the fire on Feb 17, the day after Losar this year. But, barriers and security guards limited how far we could wander on the rooftop.

 

 

DSC05987

Most tourists were Chinese. An elderly Tibetan man I knew from past visits said that recently published statistics on visitors to the Potala in the previous month were 34 Tibetans, 5,000 Chinese, and 17 foreigners.  We did not visit the Potala on this trip. While I waited for the group, a young Chinese woman started talking to me here on the Jokhang roof. I asked her what attracted her to visit here… “pure, clean land and very faithful people”  It seemed that she had not heard much else about what has happened in Tibet.

DSC05994

Shigatse and Tashilunpo

Tashilunpo is a relatively newer monastery in Shigastse to the west of Lhasa. It was founded in 1447 and sacked by the Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in 1791.  The Nepalis were eventually driven back almost to Kathmandu. The monastery once had over 4,000 monks but we could not find our how many are there now.

DSC00988DSC00978

DSC00982

The worn flagstones… what history has passed over them.

DSC00980

DSC00981

The monks gathering for evening prayers

DSC00983

The threshold into the main prayer hall.

DSC00965

Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig in Tibetan embodies the infinite compassion of all the Buddhas and completely devoted to helping others until all being achieve liberation.

DSC00984

There are four main gompas (temples) in the monastery.

DSC00987

The representation of the spiritual character of a previous lama.

DSC00951

We were visiting in Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment. Local people filled the area around the three stupas at Tashilungpo as they walked the kora, rested, ate, and visited.

DSC00949

The kora path was like a river of devotion.

DSC00948DSC00944DSC00942DSC00958

DSC00955

Toddler sleeping on a bench.

DSC00964

DSC00963

Many of the entry ways just before the thresholds at Tashlungpo had diagrams of inset turpqoise and other stones perhaps as extra symbols of one’s entry into sacred spaces.

DSC00961

This is an ancient symbol represents continuity and good fortune. Unfortunately, its reverse was stolen for use by the Nazis in the 1930s.

DSC00962

Photos on the roof of the Jokhang 1990s

Arriving in ultra modern Lhasa

DSC00915

Arriving in Lhasa, May 2018, I’ve not been here since 1998 … new airport, three security counters, meet our guide, out into the parking lot, and a glimpse of the reality here.

IMG_0044

The old road meant a three hour trip, but one of the highlights was this beautiful Buddha seen along the way.  This photo is from my last trip in 1998.

 

DSC00917

There is now a long, long tunnel that takes about two hours off the trip from the airport to the western edge of Lhasa. The tourist van is equipped with a camera (purple ball to right of centre) to record all that goes on inside and the speed of the van is monitored remotely. If a driver is going too fast, he is likely to get a phone call to say to slow down. The speed limit is 80 km/hr.

DSC00940

The first glimpse of Lhasa is now of high rise buildings at the west end of the city. Next is a security check stop then driving past more mostly empty high rise apartment buildings where Tibetans working in remote areas buy flats as an investment and for their retirement. If they are working and living in a remote area, as our guide said, “everyone wants to live in Lhasa”  (this is just like all Nepalis wanting to live in Kathmandu and 50% of all Georgians now living in Tbilisi) Eventually we got to our hotel in an area of … wide streets, new modern buildings. This photo is actually in Shigastse as I was too flabbergasted to take photos of the journey into Lhasa.

DSC00929

From the hotel, we walked along the wide sidewalks of the main street and then into the narrow lanes in the old city around the Barkor and Jokhang (main temple). Many of the buildings have been rebuilt but this area seemed to have mostly Tibetans going about their daily lives.

DSC00926

As we approached the Barkor, the wide walking street to circumambulate the Jokhang, we were blocked by a booth with an electronic reader for all Chinese ID cards and an x-ray machine. Everyone had to put our bags through the x-ray to continue on to the Barkor.

DSC00933

In late May it was Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (death) of the Buddha. Thousands of Tibetans were circumambulating the Jokhang and hundreds were doing so by prostrating, measuring the length of their body with each prostration.

DSC00923

Most prostraters began their circuit with prostrations to the four directions in the large square in front of the Jokhang.

DSC05970

There were dozens of Tibetans doing prostrations in place at the front entrance to the Jokhang on the new looking squared flagstones.

IMG_0056

This was a change from the 1990s, when it was still the patchwork of uncut stones. As well, we were not allowed up onto this part of the roof of the Jokhang.

IMG_0080

Gone were the women from Kham wearing Khampa jewelry with tables to sell souvenirs in the 1990s. Affectionately called the “lookie lookie ladies” as they chanted ‘lookie, lookie’ at the tourists. The souvenirs were all for sale in shops.

IMG_0002

IMG_0051

The devotees walking the sacred route or doing prostrations were still there but the street life has changed. Gone are the street vendors selling snacks or trinkets.

IMG_0047

IMG_0011

The juxtaposition continues. (1990s photo)

To Perfect Our Minds

“The purpose of our religion is to perfect our minds,” says Tengboche Rinpoche. His point of view is the Buddhism of the Himalaya, the heart and soul of the Sherpa culture.

Pic0103

“I was born in Nauche and as a small child talked about wanting to go home to Tengboche,” says Rinpoche. He sits cross-legged on a wide bench in his dark kitchen lined with shelves of copper pots. In his lap he holds the small text from which he reads prayers every day.

“My mother carried me to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. Upon seeing a monk, I ran to hug him as if I had known him before. He was the nephew of the founder of Tengboche. The Abbot of Rongbuk recognized me as a tulku [reincarnate of a spiritually advanced person], the reincarnate of Tengboche’s founder, Lama Gulu.

“Back in Nauche, I identified Lama Gulu’s belongings. Everyone was satisfied after this proof, so I was brought to Tengboche at the age of five to be raised as the reincarnate lama and eventually become the Abbot of the monastery.”

Rinpoche spent decades studying at Tengboche and Buddhist universities in Tibet and Darjeeling until he was ready to assume the leadership of the monastery. As a spiritual leader of the Sherpa people, he is equally adept on matters as varied as health, education, politics, the building of bridges, and naming children.

Rinpoche’s life had been devoted to study of the Buddhist faith, which he describes by saying, “Our religion protects our character, which is why religion is so important in our culture. Happiness and unhappiness are caused by one’s state of mind.”

Merging the metaphysical with everyday life, the Sherpas’ prayers and rituals aim to generate positive spiritual energy for the benefit of all beings. Whether layman or cleric, religion is the way of life, unifying all aspects of existence. The practice of religion is not confined to a day of the week, it is an everyday affair.

The Sherpas’ religion is the oldest sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Nyingma, which was established by Guru Rinpoche, an Indian mystic who was invited to establish Buddhism in Tibet about 730 AD.

Tengboche Rinpoche introduces me to the principles and practices of Buddhism through my work to complete the Sherpa museum. He often uses examples from daily life to illustrate the complexity of Buddhism. For example, one day talking about the Buddhist concept of emptiness:

“Think about this knife on the table,” says Rinpoche. “It’s real when you are sitting here in Tengboche. Will this knife be real to you in Canada? If you think about Canada right now, which is real — Canada or Tengboche, where your body happens to be?

“This is illusion, the unreal objects. The real objects and events happen in your mind. There are two ‘rivers’ to follow in our minds. The first, Sunya, emptiness, is about the knife. It deals with the perception or non-reality of all things. The second, Karuna, is compassion. After one attains perfect understanding of emptiness and compassion, one attains Buddhahood.”

Pic0107

Meditation, the main practice of Buddhism

 

Pic096

Tengboche’s monks read the scriptures of the old sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa.

“This is why it is important to remember that the purpose of our religion is to improve our minds. This is why it is important to study the Buddhist teachings, think about them, meditate — and then think some more.”

I wonder how to reconcile the purpose of “perfecting our minds” with the many rituals, offerings, deities, and religious objects of everyday life.

“There are many kinds of offerings,” says Rinpoche. Pointing at the urn of smouldering incense hanging outside his window, he continues:

“This is an offering through the sense of smell. There are physical offerings such as torma [dough figurines], visual offerings like pictures and sand mandalas, sound offerings like the ritual instruments and chants or prayers. Our good intentions are the most important offering.”

Pic078

Bells (tilbu) create sound offerings.

Sherpa life is also full of ritual objects. Everywhere in Sherpa country are stones carved with prayers, water-driven prayer wheels, and prayer flags. The carved prayer stones usually contain a single chant, a complete prayer, or a Buddhist image, while prayer wheels contain scrolls of printed prayers, often thousands of them.

Prayer flags, attached to tall poles or on strings, flutter on rooftops and mountain passes, or are strung across rivers and paths. They carry printed prayers and often show the wind horse, the swift bearer of prayers. Their five colours signify the elements — earth, wood, water, fire, and metal.

Stupas, called chorten in Sherpa and Tibetan, are the numerous monuments found across the Buddhist countryside by paths, streams, homes, and gondas. Chorten represent the body, mind, and spiritual development of the Buddha.

Pic05During the historical Buddha’s lifetime, stupas were a memorial for the deceased. As the Buddha lay dying, his followers asked what should be done with his remains. He requested that his body be placed in a simple stupa. Since then, the stupa symbolizes the Buddha, and often offerings or the relics of the deceased, especially lamas, are sealed inside various sizes and shapes of stupas.

While discussing displays for the museum, Rinpoche explains the importance of Buddhist prayers on rocks, flags, and other objects:

“We see them everywhere in the land of Buddhist people. These religious objects are part of our daily lives. They help focus people’s thoughts on the Buddhist teachings and bring about a positive state of mind in people, to the benefit of all.

Pic064

“The religious objects help create harmony between our actions, body, and mind. The Buddhist teachings will come easily to us when we gain merit first with our actions and body and then through our minds. So that everyone may understand them, religious objects have many explanations at these different levels.”

Pic019

These objects allow anyone to gain spiritual merit through good intentions and each flutter of the prayer flag or turn of the prayer wheel.