Silence in the Moonlight with Yellow Tara
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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As I sit here in the modern city of Lhasa typing at the Business Center of the Yak Hotel, I realize that this entry on the Guge Kingdom has been in my mind for a long time--it would be long and challenging to write, with many photographs to process and understand, but it will hopefully reflect the emotions, sights, and sensations of the journey.
The Guge Kingdom is an isolated land, encircled by mountains, far from Lhasa, and seemingly an inhospitable environment. The kingdom is no more, long ago destroyed and deserted. Sparse settlements still occur, but the castles and temples are relicts of past grandeur.
Today's environment, however, is not suitable for a flourishing kingdom. Something has changed, as always.
"Because the region was so marginal to begin with, it didn't take much to put this civilization over the edge, and it came tumbling down," said John Vincent Bellezza, a cultural historian with deep credentials, in an NPR interview. "And now only its monuments are left--the nomads have maintained some of the cultural traditions, but none of their old glories have survived there with them."
I met John at the foot of the Tsaparang Citadel, as he was working on a Discovery Channel film about the Guge Kingdom, and talked about the changing environment, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. One of our thoughts was that the Guge Kingdom is a microcosm for the entire world: as climate changes, so to does water supplies and the entire local environment.
At Guge, the lands formerly known as Zhangzhung, the landscape once supported more vegetation and allowed early settlements to occur. Professor Mark Aldenderfer was searching carefully for prehistoric settlements, thousands of years old.
Dr. Aldenderfer, or Mark, gave me a ride with his three research assistants to the Guge Ruins at Tsaparang, about 30 miles from Toling--a large citadel, now in ruins, set dramatically on a steep sandstone summit.
"Pre-Buddhist and pre-Bonpo settlements are scattered throughout this entire area," Mark said, coming back in the afternoon with a Magellan GPS hand-held unit full of data points. Ancient irrigation channels crossed the now parched landscape. Etched fallow fields were now incapable of bearing barley.
"The water table has dropped over the years. Springs are drying up."
The ones that remain may disappear as well; towns would no longer have a water supply and the people must move.
What is left, however, is a fascinating history, intense and rich Buddhist murals, perched ruins, hermit caves, dramatic landscapes, and skies of your daydreams. An ancient feeling surrounds the lands and enters your blood.
Arriving at the Guge Kingdom took some effort. Aside from the three-and-a-half day bus ride across the northern plains of Tibet, I waited two days in Ali for a bus, to no avail, shared a long taxi ride with a Japanese man, hiked for miles, hitched rides on trucks, slept at a tent truck depot, and hiked some more. Highlights included a bucking bronco ride on a cement mixer in the bed of a truck, meeting the Tibetan Ray "Shake Your Tailfeather" Charles shepherd, triangulating off nearby mountains with my compass and ONC map to determine where the heck I was, and seeing Nanda Devi and the entire Western India Himalayas--Ladakh, Kashmir--from the high plains descending into Guge and the Sutlej River valley.
Nanda Devi was directly in front of me as I walked the dirt trail and the morning sun turned into a blistering hot fireball overhead.
On September 11, 2001, I was on the other side of that sentinel of a snow peak, part of a mountaineering course and expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School. We were going to learn mountaineering skills; I was hoping to use them, perhaps as a guide but also just for fun and challenge and more. After 9-11, our concerns shifted to home, as we had little information in such a remote area and were worried about those in the buildings and potential future attacks; some left, some stayed.
Soon, the leaders of the trip decided to end the entire expedition, citing their many reasons. Those that stayed, however, felt safer in the mountains than bording a plane back to the States. We questioned their judgement, but the journey was over, six months of preparation and saving money--done.
We returned home to a changed, awakened world.
A few things awakened within me.
First, that extremists should not guide the direction that humanity is taking.
Second, that ignorance leads people to fight, call people names, and treat people inhumanely.
Third, that greed leads richer countries to seek more resources, crippling less-developed nations with financial mechanisms such as currency disparities.
Nothing new here.
Upon my return, people in America were wondering: Is Islam as a whole violent? Are people in Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan evil? Why would Al-Qaeda terrorize us and bomb the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and perhaps the White House? What does this triumverate represent?
Perhaps we can look at our own history, when we called the Swamp Fox, Paul Revere, and George Washington heroes. In England, they were called "terrorists." They were good terrorists and insurgents and rebels, too. Whoever holds power can label people terrorists or insurgents and tries to hold on to what they have. Those who are suppressed need to fight for their rights.
Perhaps, however, we can forget about history and just look around the world. Visit those places that are foreign to us, that we don't understand well.
Nanda Devi, her white dome standing above all the other Himals, brought all these memories back. It was a powerful image that stayed with me until I arrived at Toling Monastery at dusk, dehydrated with a urinary tract infection after days traveling at 15,000 feet through deserts: "rest house available" the sign read at the door of the 1,000 year-old monastery.
I entered the large portal to the monastery, their first guest, and stayed within the grounds of the most important temples to Buddhism.
One of the main reasons for their importance was that Buddhism declined throughout its former expanse, and temples elsewhere were destroyed. The Guge temple style brought influences from Indian kingdoms, Bengal, and Kashmir, places that are now Hindu and Islamic, predominately.
Another reason was that the temples were constructed with Indian master Atisha and Tibetan translator Rinchen Zangpo at the helm. King Yeshe-O of the Guge Kingdom brought this dynamic duo, founders of the Kadampa sect, to his realm in the early 11th century, and they helped to spread Buddhism around Guge and Tibet.
Kashmiri Pasada-style sun-baked maroon stupas rose from the four directions of the Vajrasattva Mandala Chapel next to my bedroom. Vajrasattva is a manifest form of the primordial Buddha, through which the five Buddha families were created. You can see these Buddha families in the colors of the prayer flags, the elements, the seasons, and the directions as they transform the five poisons into awakened energy.
Akshobya is water, white, winter, dawn, and transforms agression.
Ratnasambhava is yellow, autumn, earth, and transforms pride and arrogance.
Amitabha is red, spring, fire, sunset, and transforms passion.
Amoghasiddhi is green, summer, air, and transforms jealousy and envy.
Vairochana is blue, the blue of space, and transforms the ignorance of our inner truth.
This transformation takes place within a mandala, such as the one found at Toling Monastery--the Vajrasattva Mandala.
Entering the chapel one thousand years ago, a monk would have seen a statue of Vajrassatva surrounded by the five buddhas known collectively as the Dhyani Buddhas.
Today, however, the mandala is in ruins: a broken head lying near the ground, statue-less pedestals, mud-streaked walls, a painted finger created from straw and mud, burn marks on wood, remains of jeweled feet, broken wooden life cords--sok-zhing--the supporting axis for statues, the victim of desert rainstorms and the Cultural Revolution.
Luckily, the misfits of the Red Guard spared the murals in the Red and White Temples of Toling, and workers are currently resoring the outside of the temples to a semblance of their former glory. I talked with Tsering, a mason from Lhasa, who was assisting with the restoration work: "we will finish the work here and then hopefully continue our work at nearby Tsaparang, if we get the permits," he said in good English. "Have to go," he said, rushing off, hair groomed. He was going to Cu Chi nightclub to find date for tomorrow. It was Friday.
I relaxed, washed, and walked the small, one-street town, passing the thumping beats of Cu Chi, restaurants, shops, and the obligatory military garrison and police station. I walked through the monastery back to my room, a waning gibbous moon overhead lighting the temples. The words Silence in the Moonlight entered my mind.
The next morning, I passed the restoration workers with their saws, their whistling and singing, their muddy hands, and entered the temples
The surfaces of the interior mural walls were mud--fine earth and straw--smoothed to provide a surface for the able artisans with their mineral paints--gold, cobalt, cadmium, black, rich skin tones. The colors were saturated and dark, yet gold, jewelry, and eyes were irridescent in the dark rooms, lit from above with a small skylight.
Hundreds of images, symbols, and gilded lettering lined the temple walls: dragons, Tsongkhapa's verses of The Foundation of Good Qualities, dragons, trees, lions, elephants, mermaids, fairies, flowers, horse chariots, Buddha's life in pictures, founders of the branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhas, meditational deities.
Yet, one image stood far above the rest: a perfectly preserved 1,000 year-old image of Yellow Tara, the bringer of abundance and generosity, in the White Temple, the Lhakhang Karpo.
Tara's root Sanskrit word, means "to traverse" or "cross over," thus many mountain passes including the nearby Mt. Kailash pass are named after her--Dolma in Tibetan. Dolma La is the 18,500 foot pass at the northern end of the Mt. Kailash kora. For the Kadampa sect of Atisha and Rinchen Zangpo, Tara is a primary meditational deity and is a common sight in its temples, scattered throughout Tibet, Nepal, and Ladakh.
There she sat on a blue lotus, her yellow-brown face displayed contentedness, voluptuous red lips, luminous eyes, long ears with circular bejeweled earrings, and black hair up within a crown. Around her bare waist and round breasts were jeweled chatelaine and fine golden chains. Her bare arms were encircled with golden arm bands and a silken cobalt and cadmium shawl embroidered in gold covered her shoulders, flowing towards her lotus seat and over her folded legs. Behind her was a red circle further encircled in a sky scene of shimmering blue and maroon. A golden brown grading to cream-colored disk surrounded her face. Her two pink hands were in positions that showed her fearless, boundless, and all-giving generosity.
I stood in awe at the almost life-size image.
The symbolic positions of her hands and fingers are called mudras. Each has a very specific meaning and different deities have their own mudra. One of the most famous mudras is the "rock on" mudra performed by Beavis and Butt-head. To perform this mudra, raise your pointer and pinky fingers into the air, lower the middle and ring fingers, held in place with the thumb and raise your hand up high. Wave this in the air, preferably to AC/DC music.
Another famous mudra is the Bhumisparsha mudra, or earth-touching gesture. In lotus position, touch your fingertips to the ground. This mudra represents the encounter between the Buddha and Mara, the personification of evil. Mara challenged Buddha's right to his spiritual throne. Buddha simply touched the ground with his fingertips and the earth goddess roared to validate Buddha's claim to his throne.
I returned to see Yellow Tara one more time, later.
I also stayed for several days in the Guge Kingdom, exploring cave hermitages, ancient stupas, ruined temples, ancient springs, and the Guge Ruins, where I met John Bellezza and got a ride with Dr. Mark Aldenderfer.
And every night, I would walk home to the Toling Monastery to the Silence in the Moonlight.
Where I stayed