The altitude sickness is real. Too real. My nose bled last night and I slept less than my first night in Tibet. I have had a dull, deep headache now for two days straight without relief. My breath shortens from a flat walk down the hotel hallway. The air is shockingly clear.
We began yesterday in Sera and Drepung Monasteries. In a land where there were once 7,700 monks to a single monastery, now only 700 call the buildings home. The stairways feel empty and too clear in the harsh noon light. The windows of the old dormitories stare at us like broken eyes. I feel like I am visiting ruins, not live monasteries. In 1959 Tibet rebelled and the Dalai Lama escaped to live in exile. Monasteries emptied into burial grounds and exile. In 2008, Lhasa rebelled again. Now there are security checkpoints to enter the city and police posts almost every few hundred yards. You may not become a monk without the express permission of the government, which isn’t easily granted.
Religion is everywhere. I step out of a restaurant one afternoon and wait while a man passes slowly, prostrating himself on the sidewalk at every step. He is circling the city this way. It will take him a week. Monasteries are massive, sprawling complexes. Meditation and hermit caves fill the mountains. Prayer flags hang from every peak, every rock outcropping, and every house. The busiest part of the old town is the temple, rather than the shops. I’m always intrigued by cultures where the sacred is close to the surface of life. And I do mean Sacred, not simply Religion. Does it change the quality of life? Are people happier? It’s hard for me to determine in Tibetans’ stoic faces.
But it is beautiful to witness at the very least. Even a momentary nod that there might still yet be mystery in the world, a brief acknowledgement of the unknowable pulls at a deeper part of me.
And yet rules abound. I do not go anywhere without my passport and permit paperwork. Nor do I go anywhere without a guide. The local people are very shy and most do not want to be photographed. I cannot determine if this is pure shyness, tourist-exhaustion, or fear. Chinese tourists are told a different history by their guides than I am.
Toward the end of my trip I visit one of the nearby holy lakes. It costs me more than $750 for a single day. It’s not entirely clear to me what that money went to, which I suspect means I do not want to know the details. Tourists pour off the busses when I arrive and there are locals waiting to take photos with Tibetan mastiffs and tame yaks. It is not quite the holy site I expected. But I am the only person with light skin here and my interest instantly undermined my ability to negotiate months ago. Perhaps the high fee isn’t one of this trip’s mysteries after all.
I look at the harsh, rocky soil which makes anything more than subsistence farming difficult. The steep mountains are unfriendly to large, fat herds of livestock. There are few trees and no forests full of lumber or life. I haven’t heard there are mines or large mineral deposits found here and the brilliant clear blue sky heralds harsh sun and viciously cold winters. This seems like a good place for monasteries. It is a good place to let go of muddled thinking and disordered priorities. This is a place to clear your mind. There is something about the land itself that encourages you to let go. Like your self could fly away into the wispy clouds and clear air at any moment if it wasn’t held down by flesh and bone.
I’m unclear why another country wants to rule it so badly though.
The government is not the only ones setting rules or structure. Fish (and dogs) are not to be eaten by edict of the Dalai Lama. Many Tibetans can be found circling the temples or Potala Palace (the home of the exiled Dalai Lama) each morning with their prayer wheels. I narrow my eyes at the mosquito who has been hungrily buzzing about me, but hesitate to smack him out of existence. It certainly would not be kind.
Monks practice changing their minds in the debate courtyard of a monastery. One stands, the other sits, and they debate. The standing monk questions the sitting and punctuates his questions with a full body engagement and loud clap. You will not fall asleep here on the job of changing your mind.
I’m unsure of this place. Maybe it’s because I am in pain, or maybe I am frustrated by all the rules. Maybe it is the intensity of the religious practice and the hint of serenity and the sacred in many faces. In a world and culture that has become so secular, it seems easy to hail the Dalai Lama’s speeches as wise and his remarks as pithy and eminently perceptive. But it is equally easy to put those remarks aside. Or put them onto cleverly distressed boards to be hung on the living room wall, never to be deeply meditated on again. It’s less easy to ignore inside Tibet. Here, compassion is Intense. And much effort is required to understand, to follow Buddhism, and to navigate the pressurized political situation.
By the end of the second day I recognize I am not up to the task yet of wrestling “what” or “why.” I give up on following my guide into every incense-filled room filled with more gold statues of lamas and buddhas. I give up worrying I will offend him because after 2 years in Asia I have lost the nascent curiosity I once had for temples. And I give up trying to isolate sacred moments from secular, or moments of oppression versus public safety. To tease out the contrast between kindness towards strangers, and fear of them.
Instead, I spend three times the allotted time on the roof of the temple, staring out across the choreographed flow of people around the temple, and 15% of the expected time inside the third temple kitchen where photographs are forbidden. I wonder more about an entire culture that is a life built on a tight rope. I lose myself in the flow of colors and peoples’ faces and I avidly chase light and voluntarily wake to see sunrise. The headache has dwindled to a background irritation. Overwhelmed by the complexity, I release some of my own petty issues and preconceptions.
Again, I think, this is a good place to learn to let go.