Sleeping with Monks

Trip Start Sep 30, 2006
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Trip End Jan 16, 2010


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Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Today we leave Lhasa by a convoy of 5 Toyota LandCruisers, as we need 4x4's to get through the rough terrain from here to Nepal. Also we are told to prepare for no more showers, and to stock up on snacks. Chris and I go food shopping in the Chinese grocery, looking for the previously maligned but now much loved Nescafe sachets. These little packets of comfort have instant coffee, creamer and sugar in one convenient pouch. Before coming on this trip I hated instant coffee, disliked those chemical creamers intensely, and dested sugar in my coffee. But after too many cups of bitter green tea, these little packets became one of my favorite travel crutches and one of our activities for pure enjoyment. A clerk see us wandering through the aisles and brings us directly to the Nescafe display. She knew exactly what these Westerners wanted! In my hotel room in Lhasa we had only cold water. I love cold showers in the summer to cool off, but here at over 4000 meters and in the midst of Tibetan winter, I've been cleaning by sponge bath. My hair is getting really dusty from the streets, but I'm starting to look more Tibetan!! After heading southeast, we reach Samye Monastery, where we will stay for the night. We learn this is the very first Buddhist monastery in all of Tibet, founded in the mid 8th century (approx. 775) by King Trisong Detsen with the help of Padmasambhava and Santarakshita, two masters he invited from neighboring India. The monastery sits in Shannan Prefecture, part of which is recognized by China as being the western part of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, though China still considers the area as South Tibet. I've learned that border areas in this part of the world are very political, though with the terrain being the highest in the world, it is not easily contestable. Reading from my little postcard/entry pass, (information sanitized for tourists by the government) it says the monastery was the first formal Tibetan monastery with the Buddha, dharma (laws and truth) and sangha (ordained monks) and was designed in the shape of the universe from the Buddhist perspective with characteristics of Han (Chinese), Tibetan and Indian architecture. This is evident, as it is the first stupa (Buddist religious structure housing relics) we see decorated with eyes, reflecting the Indian tradition. The central hall symbolizes Sumeru, the Buddhist idea of a central-world mountain, encircled by four giant continents and eight lesser ones, sun and moon chapels and four types of pagodas. Samye is now designated as a cultural relic of the state and is protected by the government. This is critical because in the 1960's during China's cultural revolution, the government destroyed many of the monasteries in Tibet, and the ones that remained suffered due to neglect. In the 1980's, the government allowed the Tibetans to start the slow process of restoration. Thankfully, now the Chinese government recognizes the historic significance these properties contribute not only its own country, but to the world.They are also recognizing the importance of the monasteries to domestic and international tourism. The most incredible part of staying here was witnessing the monks debate each other in the courtyard. This is a time honored tradition, where young monks attempt to convince an elder monk of the interpretation of Buddha's teachings. I think it is also to hone the older monks skills at compassion, stillness and peace, because upon seeing these monks in action, there is a lot of emotion being thrown around. An older monk sits on the ground, while the young monks - most of the time two, but sometimes three - stand and hurl what sound like insults and their arguments in support of their position at the sitting monk. To emphasize their point, the young monks slap their hands together, and shout their arguments at their elder. Sometimes, they even slap the older monk on the head, face or shoulder. It seems to be a test of the young men's knowledge and of the older monks patience. It was a privilege to watch, and although I couldn't understand one word of these intense debates, the nods, smiles, smirks, shaking heads, hand gestures and body language told quite a tale. After sleeping in the peaceful setting of the monastery, the following day we drive higher and higher into the mountains, heading for the town of Gyantse. This region, Tsang, has stunning scenery and especially well maintained roads, given the rural nature of the location. We keep climbing and climbing up the Kamba Pass, stopping atop Mt. Kangbala, altitude 4990m (16,372) to look at the spectacular views of the aqua Yamdrok Tso Lake, a holy body of water for Tibetans. Seems fitting, as to look upon the magnificent beauty of this lake, this setting, is absolutely inspiring. It seems everywhere we go, colorful prayflags flutter in the wind, celebrating the clear sunny days of winter with its fantastically bright blue skies. We feel peaceful and joyous as we travel along these holy paths and listen to the high pitched, hyped up, joy filled Tibetan music of our drivers, which reminds me of the nangmas. Eventually after the long drives, a few of the tunes get into our heads.....
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Where I stayed
Samye Monastery

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