Finding Nemo

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tibetan Mecca

Long way 'round
<<NOTE: most of my Tibet posts will not be posted until I'm out of China for obvious reasons, stay tuned ... >>

I watched the man chant in a melodic way, hands clasped in prayer.  The sun beat down upon his brown wrinkled face.  He wore tattered gray clothes, threadbare shoes, a small white rag on his head to gather his sweat.  For some reason his forehead looked rubbed raw and covered in dirt.  Tibetans swung their manis as they walked the Jokham pilgrimage route.  The man finished chanting and fell to his knees, and using smoothed blocks of stone tied to his hands, slid forward until his forehead touched the stone floor.  Ahh, secret revealed.  A moment passed, then he gathered himself back up and stood.  A 90 degree turn, 3 strides, a turn back, and the chanting resumed.

Granpilgrims, manis a-swinging
For most people, the pilgramage around the Jokham temple was done in about 20 minutes, many would do the circuit up to 6 or 9 times and call it a day.  But for some, it was done this way, the hard way.  3 steps at a time, chanting, falling to the dusty stone road, then repeating it all again in the hot sun.  The process took 3 full days.

The Lhasa scene reminded me a bit of Thamel, Kathmandu in Nepal.  Souvenir shops hawking prayer beads, cheap swords, demon masks, buddha figurines, and whatever else a tourist could possibly want lined the streets endlessly in both directions.  Except, unlike Kathmandu, the people walking the street weren't just monks or tourists or locals.

Om mani padme hum
The vast majority were poor Tibetans rolling in from all directions, nomads from the high snow-covered plains, farmers from the valleys, some even traveling all the way from Sichuan or India.  They were here because this was one of the Tibetan Buddhist Meccas, a center of their universe.  (The other is Mt Kailash.)  There was a pilgrimage route around the Potala, the Jokhang, and a bigger circuit around Lhasa itself.  I looked at their faces, most were lined and sunburnt and old.  My guide told me that the younger Tibetans had to stay home and work, this kind of pilgrimage was an expensive once-in-a-lifetime trip that often was delayed until one realized they'd better go or else.

One image stayed in my mind.  Many of the Tibetans looked tired from their journey, it was not an easy trip for a beaten-down farm granny.  But as we left the Potala palace, we happened upon one old lady who was making the rounds, shuffling slowly but surely.  She asked for money, and my conditioned reflex of saying No short-circuited my brain.  I waved her off.  But unlike every other begger or tout that asks for money, she gave me the nicest smile I could imagine and just continued her walk.  I realized in a beat that giving alms to a pilgrim is far different than giving money to a beggar.  She would use it for her journey, to buy water or food or transportation home.  As she shuffled away, turning the prayer wheels and twirling her mani, I wanted to run back up and give her something.

Thank you for the smile
Instead, I took a picture and walked away.  What kind of jaded traveler have I become?

No comments:

Post a Comment