|Will you be having your yak shit|
fried or aldente?
|Buddha in the sky with diamonds|
|"White Snow Frog? Nope, |
never heard of it (wink, wink)."
|The endless lengths one will go to |
find a Tibetan White Snow Frog
I had come to work in Tibet as much for the Buddhist experience as I had for the charity work (which a good Buddhist might argue is one and the same). I was a practicing Buddhist for quite a while by the time I made it to Tibet. When people ask me how long I've been Buddhist I only answer: since creation. When they roll their eyes I clarify that officially and technically it was in the 1990's. I (along with seven hundred other Los Angelenos) participated in a formal Buddhist induction ceremony at UCLA's Pauly Pavillion given by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. There was blessed milk and blessed strings and Talismans given at the massive ceremony, but it was only a technical confirmation of what I'd already believed. Belief is a very personal and powerful thing, but when it comes to religion, you choose your poison. I had chosen this one.
In Buddhism, much like in major league baseball, being in the presence of the great ones is a glorious and memorable experience. You feel a transformation afterwards that can last anywhere from a week to a lifetime (depending upon the immenseness of the hero you meet). In Tibet, seeking out the great Buddhist masters is like standing on the playing field during the All-Star Game. It is going to the source. In the 1990's in Tsurphu Monestary, deep in the hills of Gurum Town, three hours drive from Lhasa, lived The Karmapa. The Karmapa had been living in the snow-capped peaks of Eastern Tibet for nine hundred years. You read that correctly: nine hundred years. He is currently in his seventeenth reincarnation. The first Karmapa, around the time of 1190, was the first Buddhist master to leave clues to his followers that would lead them toward finding his reincarnation after he died. This streamlining of the reincarnation process seemed to make sense to the other masters, including the Dalai Lama, who still practice this method today. When we sought out the Karmapa he was only fourteen years old and in his training to become the spiritual leader for Tibetan Buddhists accross the world. In the late 1990's Karmapa was the highest Buddhist master still living in Tibet. In 1959, the Dalai Lama had escaped in the night as a young man and made his way to India to avoid assassination by Chairman Mao. The Chinese wanted complete control of Tibet and figured that cutting off the head of the snake was the best way to get control of the body. They were unsuccessful. The second highest Tibetan master in Tibet is known as the Panchen Lama. Once reincarnated and recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1989, the six year old Panchen Lama was taken to Beijing by the Chinese government and kept in custody ever since for "his own protection." He is still there under lock and key. This left the fourteen year old Karmapa as the spiritual leader of a nation that was being systematically, piece by piece, usurped by China . He was free to roam about the beautiful monastery of Tsurphu and the surrounding beautiful peaks and forests of Gurum, but kept under military and secret watch. It was the Chinese government's plan that he would never leave Tibet in this reincarnation's lifetime. His captivity was the key towards taking ultimate control of the hearts and minds of Tibet--thus, control of the country. This convoluted political mess must have been a pretty heavy concept for the fourteen year old reincarnated master.
The road was decent for a change. It wound around the foothills outside of Lhasa ever upward into the clouds. Every few miles a twenty foot golden drawing of Buddha could be found on a large flat rock on the roadside. In lieu of a GPS this seemed to be the way to find Tsurphu. Once at the great white gates of the monastery our taxi driver stopped and pointed forward. Tsurphu was in front of us. It was a giant village cut into a wide mountain plateau with a great red temple in the center. As we left the car our driver parked and decided to follow behind us to see what we were up to. Only a handful of Westerners make this trip. I'm sure he was just curious, but four weeks of being spied upon made me twitchy and a little more paranoid than usual. Dr. Ken and I decided to split off and walk different directions. After successfully ditching the driver we met up at the great steps to the Temple. We stood and stared at the steep pyramid-shaped steps that led inside. I know I must have smiled the smile of someone whose dream was about to transition into reality. This must have been the Buddhist equivalent of what it felt like to enter Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth was still playing. I knew that whatever happened next would stay with me forever.
You could feel and smell nine hundred years of existence in the walls of the great temple. This was not just a tourist icon of a temple, but the center of Buddhist development for one of the most sacred cities in the world. Hundreds maroon robed monks from ages five to eighty went about their day cleaning floors or sitting in class or chanting mantras that echoed from wall to wall. We stood in the middle and watched all the activity circle around us. It smelled of cold stone, sweet burning butter lamps and dusty cloth. We sat down to meditate and pray with some of the monks in the back. When we were finished a monk approached us. He was old, but his closely cropped hair was still brown. He spoke surprisingly good English and asked us why we were here. We told him the story of our visit to Tibet and about our four weeks of travel and work through Eastern Tibet. We told him that we'd worked in the prefecture of Kham and in the cities of Markam, Chamdo and others. We talked for a few minutes, but it was the kind of conversation that only passes the time until you ask what is really on your mind. I think it was Dr. Ken who finally said,
|Tsurphu Monastery. Where the|
"Oh yes," said the monk. "He lives here, you know. He is very busy in study."
"Oh," said Dr. Ken, "I'm sure he's always busy. I understand, but please give him our regards."
"I will. Thank you for coming to Tibet to help Tibetan people. Too-jee-jay (thank you in Tibetan)."
And with that he placed his hands together, bowed his head and walked away. We felt a little dejected for a moment, but only as dejected as you can feel in a nine hundred year old sacred temple of your dreams. This may have not been the quest, but it was still a quest. We'd made it Tsurphu. It was unlikely we'd ever be back. Not in this lifetime anyway. We wandered around the temple for another half hour in the shadow of twenty foot, hundred year old carved deities. This was a once in a lifetime chance to experience a living, breathing, ancient museum. As we left the temple we saw the English speaking monk waiting on the steps.
"Tashi delek, doctors. I am glad I found you. Are you leaving to go back to Lhasa?"
"In a little while," I said.
"Can you spend a little more time at Tsurphu. The Karmapa would like to meet you."
I don't think we could speak through the smiles on our faces. It happened just like that.
The monk led us to the back of the temple through a long, dark, winding hallway. I was thinking that we should be memorizing how many left and right turns we were taking, but then again finding our way out after getting lost in Tsurphu could be fun. We stopped at an old red door and waited. An older monk met us here. He looked at us for a minute trying to sort us out in the dark hallway. He said,
"This way, this way."
|Yak Burger: Before|
|Yak Burger: After|
The old monk appeared at the door again and stared at us. We stared back at him. After about twenty seconds he motioned for us to follow him. He walked into a short dark hallway and stopped at a door at the end. As he walked to the door he stopped and pulled the second door open towards us. There behind the door was a snarling Tibetan Mastiff on a short rope tied to a hook on the wall. As soon as he saw us he went crazy. He was vicious and he was angry. The dog was about three feet tall with matted, dusty brown fur and he was pulling on the rope so hard that his front legs were off the ground. He was growling and snapping a pair of foaming jaws into the air. The rope that tethered him to the wall was exactly long enough to let an average sized person slip between the dogs crushing teeth and the doorway, but only if that person turned perfectly sideways. Beyond the door was a narrow dark stairway. The monk was a tiny old man. He slipped by without regard to the dog, like he'd done this hundreds of times. He dissapeared up the steps beyond the dog. I had a long string of white, bone prayer beads around my wrist. I pulled them in close not only to pray, but to keep anything from dangling down low for the dog to bite. I looked at Dr. Ken and said:
"Damn. He looks angry."
"We better hurry up. The longer we stand here the angrier he's getting. I don't like the look of that rope either. You go first."
|"May I please know your intentions with The Karmapa before I chew your leg off?"|
I quickly, instinctively decided to pass through with my back to the dog. That way I could cling to the wall and avoid being castrated. As I got close to him he went even crazier. I turned sideways, slowly stuck my leg past the dogs nose and planted it on the first step past the door. I could feel the heat of his breath through my pants. Then I pushed off hard with the leg still in the room and slid by quickly. I jammed myself up against the staircase as far away as possible.
I walked up the steps far enough to make room for Dr. Ken to follow. He came flying through and slammed against the wall. We whooped and high-fived. The old monk was at the top of the next stairs looking both bored and impatient. He walked through a door and we followed. And just like that, there at the front of the large room was The Karmapa. He was wearing a golden jacket over his robes and sitting in front of a simple red table. Though he was only fourteen years old, the light, the shadows and the moment made him seem eight feet tall. We walked slowly into the room, bowed and prostrated to The Karmapa and took a seat on the floor in front of him.
stay tuned for part II.......................................
|In the sacred hallows of the Master|