The Heart of the Supine Ogress

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Saturday, July 1, 2006



On the way to Lhasa, the bus route followed azure rivers and green grassy mountains along valleys with yellow rape flowers.

A starry-eyed couple sat by the river
Fishing
Their hooks on dry land.

A naked boy watched the bus come towards him. He proudly waved his little pecker in the air with his thumb and forefinger to the laughter of our bus.

We drove a road lined with poplars and I knew Lhasa was near; someone had told me that the gateway roads to Lhasa are lined with poplars. Prayer flags adorned the nearby mountain.

Then, around the corner, the Potala Palace came into view, the late summer sun shining from behind its gilded roof. I was in Lhasa.

After checking in to the Banak Shol hotel, I walked to the Potala Palace and sat on a bench for a while, relaxing, contemplating the palace.

Now I've been here a week.

Over the last week I've relaxed plenty. Right now, for example, I've just finished eating a tender yak steak and showered and shaved. Tomorrow I'll be leaving on a sleeper bus for Ali, in Western Tibet, so relaxing now is good: the bus is three and a half days long.

While relaxing, I was able to meet fellow travellers and watch many of the World Cup matches. I met a biking couple from Switzerland, Chinese travellers, a permanent earth wanderer from Berkeley, a Ger-man working in Calcutta for Mother Teresa's organization, and an Englishman walking the entire length of Tibet with a couple of horses. Everyone has their own style and way of getting around and manner of approaching Tibet. Tonight, Germany plays Argentina at 11 pm.

My first stop was the Jokhang Temple, the geomantic center of Tibet, completed in 647 A.D. Without the Jokhang, Lhasa would not exist. Or, more importantly, without the heart of the ogress found here, the Jokhang and Lhasa would not exist.

As Buddhism spread into Tibet, demons and other forces needed to be conquered. Geomancers and magicians saw Tibet as a supine ogress who needed to be tamed. The way to tame her was to constuct temples in important geomantic positions related to the body of the ogress.

The configuration of temples was centered around the heart of the ogress, upon which the Jokhang was built. Around the heart were four controlling temples built on the shoulders and hips of the ogress. Outside these four temples were another four temples built on her elbows and knees--border taming temples. Finally, four outer temples were built on her hands and feet. These thirteen sacred temples tamed the ogress and allowed Buddhism to spread freely throughout Tibet. This was fung shui on a massive scale, not just a "if I move the couch to the left side of the room, I'll have more luck with love" type of feng shui (which means "wind and water" in Chinese and is their form of geomancy).

The Jokhang Temple is also deemed sacred for the relicts contained within it. The most important of these is the Jowo Shakyamuni, representing the Buddha at age 12. The Buddha is covered in jewels and made of precious metals mixed with precious stones. It was supposedly created while Buddha was still alive. The temple is now named as the holding place for the Jowo.

In the Jokhang, I had two things to do: present my white silk khata that I received at Donzhulin Monastery and pray for the sick woman of Lhagu and others who I met on the way (including the boy who threw stones at me). The journey to the Jokhang, however, felt like it began long before that.

I began my approach to the Jokhang with three circuits of the Barkhor, the circumambulation path of the Jokhang. Along the Barkhor were hundreds of pilgrims, all moving clockwise. Many were spinning prayer wheels in their hands. Others had their prayer beads moving through their fingers. A few were prostrating around the temple. Cedar incense burning in white-washed receptacles infused the air.

The event overcame my senses and emotions, and they spun out of control as I walked rhythmically with the other pilgrims. I thought of those who helped me along the way, those amazing people, all of you. I thought of Tibetans and their dreams of freedom from this crazy samsara world. I thought of what all these pilgrims went through to get here from all over Tibet. The act of devotion was beyond comprehension. Tears flowed from my eyes--after my exhausting and exhilerating trip, that was all I could do, walking around the Jokhang.

Inside the Jokhang, an inner circuit is lined with prayer wheels and thangka paintings of the walls. The murals are amazingly detailed, although darkened from years of history. In front of Jowo Shakyamuni, I said prayers for the people I met along the way and placed my khata near Guru Rinpoche--Padmasambhava--and Avalokiteshvara, the bodhissatva of compassion and patron deity of Tibet. I wandered the rest of the Jokhang looking at the symbols of Buddhism located at every turn. Finally, I rested on the roof, looking down at the pilgrims below. Next to the front door, dozens of pilgrims prostrated themselves all day. They lay blankets on the ground and had protective cardboard or other surfaces on their hands as they sprawled towards the center of Tibet and the Jowo Shakyamuni. The stones in front of the Jokhang were smooth and polished from these devoted pilgrims.

Next, I visited the Potala Palace, specifically the Red Palace, the home of the Dalai Lamas known as "Abode of Avalokiteshvara." The burial stupas and thrones of the Dalai Lamas are located here as are priceless three-dimensional mandalas, an ancient gilded sandalwood image of Avalokitesvara dating to the seventh century

The Dalai Lama burial stupas were covered in hundreds of pounds of gold and jewels. The metalwork was intricate, with Tibetan symbols adorning the stupas, which are up to 40 feet tall. This is the most revered burial method, one of the five elements: earth burial, water burial, fire burial, sky burial, and metal burial.

Cremation is a common practice among Tibetans in woodland areas whereas sky burials are the most common method in most of the grassland steppes and dry mountain areas such as Lhasa. Earth burial was practiced for the ancient Tibetan kings, but was also associated with the burial of people who suffered karmically. Water burial occured along some river valleys, but was not as commonly practiced. Burial in gilded reliquary stupas, however, was reserved for the Lamas.

Several Chinese tourists waited for their group to leave, then prayed and bowed to the throne of the Seventh Dalai Lama. There was reverence all around, even if some was more secret than others. I wondered what they were thinking. The Potala Palace was clearly the empty home of the Dalai Lama. Was the current Dalai Lama sacred to them as well? Did they feel that the palace was an empty shell, a cup without tea, a museum.

Which Dalai Lama will return to the Potala Palace? The future is uncertain.
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