Tibet: In the land of the Dalai Lama
In Ha'aretz, (Israel) of Oct. 03, 2001 Amir Ben-David, a staff
"Every novice Buddhist knows that the journey is long and difficult, but no
less important than the final destination. Indeed, the difficult path to
the Potala Palace only serves to heighten the experience of the initial
encounter with it. Sitting at the top of the hill stretching above Lhasa,
Tibet's capital, it greets those arriving, short-breathed, with the romantic
scent of mystery exuded by everything Tibetan. The site is surrounded by an aura
that comes from a unique combination of decades of international strife,
centuries of isolation, thousands of Yellow Hat
Lamas (monks) and, of course, the indisputable majesty of the unique
Although the current homeowner -- one Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe
Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith,
Ocean of Wisdom), known as the Dalai Lama -- has lived in exile for decades in
India, the Potala Palace remains a spectacular building and is well-preserved.
The Chinese conquerors have devastated every fine corner of Tibet, destroying
thousands of monasteries and nearly wiping out an entire culture, but they
realized that Potala should be spared. They also understood that there are
things in the world that even Mao Zedong should not destroy.
The land route from Nepal to Lhasa is opened and closed according to the whims
of decision makers in Beijing. The entry point is located at Kodari, a Nepalese
border town some 11 kilometers from the Chinese border at Bzengmu, here Tibet
begins. It's a narrow dirt road that snakes up the hill, above an angry river
adorned with makeshift shrines bearing colorful prayer flags.
In order to reach the Chinese border point, we boarded an open truck with a
group of excited Western tourists, hoping the driver would keep tight hold on
his karma- - and the brakes. The truck began to make its way up the hill and our
hearts began to race in fear of the threatening abyss along the side of the
narrow dirt road, which was covered by a slick coat of frost. But we were also
excited -- after all, this was not just any road.
This was the legendary trail from Kathmandu, Nepal to Tibet. This was the route
followed in 1904 by the British expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband,
who blazed the trail to Lhasa, sending dozens of Tibetan souls to their next
incarnation on the way. It was from here that the bold French mystic Alexandra
David-Neel penetrated Tibet, offering the West the first glimpse of Tibetan
culture in Magic and Mystery in Tibet, a book first published in 1931.
The Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer appeared here in 1937, his Nazi
party membership card in his back pocket. The seven years he spent in Tibet in
the court of the young Dalai Lama were documented in his autobiography and in
the film based on his book starring Brad Pitt. Thousands of the Dalai
Lama's faithful fled via this route in 1959 following the failed Tibetan revolt
against the Chinese occupation.
While we anxiously eyed the steep terrain, our bodies began to adjust to the
rapid change in the amount of oxygen. Our blood marrow began to struggle under
the increasing demands for red blood cells. Back in Kathmandu, we had heard
frightening tales of travelers who couldn't take it and collapsed after being
struck by altitude sickness. For someone who has never tested his ability to
withstand the thin oxygen at high altitudes, a climb to 5,000 meters in a single
day is considered very dramatic. Luckily, and happily, this adventure concluded
with only a moderate headache and mild nausea.
After five days in a wilderness dotted with mysterious shrines, in a trek
through both physical space and time -- from the present to the Middle Ages
and back again, we arrived at the capital of the Tibetan kingdom.
Lhasa is no longer the forbidden city that Heinrich Harrer slipped into, his
ethnic background disguised by a dark coat of yak butter. For years, the Chinese
have been administering a program ironically called The Final Solution,
which encourages Chinese citizens to settle in Tibet. The Chinese
"forget" to mention this program when protesting criticism from the
West. Their main contention, which will be sounded often prior to the opening
ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in China, is that most Tibetans are not at all
interested in independence and do not support the Dalai Lama and his government
in exile. The problem is that the Chinese define who is Tibetan.
Today, there are more Chinese living in Lhasa than Tibetans. The city has
undergone an aggressive modernization process and the remaining Tibetans have
been pushed into crowded neighborhoods around the Potala Palace. The
Chinese are still very suspicious of Western visitors. The palace itself is open
to tourists, but entrance to many of its wings is prohibited for unknown
reasons. Tough-looking Chinese policemen scrutinize each visitor as if he were a
CIA secret agent.
Karma, the Tibetan guide who accompanied us, warned about hidden video cameras
and microphones that are planted everywhere. It may be that his paranoia was a
bit exaggerated, but considering his life story, we forgave him. In 1990, in the
midst of the upheaval that shook Tibet following the Tiananmen Square incidents
and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, Karma headed toward
the Nepalese border with a group of friends.
They traveled during the night, hid during the day, and managed to cross the
border after considerable trials and tribulations. They were then apprehended by
Nepalese soldiers and expelled to India, just as they had planned. He lived for
six years near Dharamsala, studied English and pondered what to do with his
life. A meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1996 brought him back home. "The
Tibetan people need serious, educated persons like yourself," said the
leader whose wisdom is not questioned. "Go back home and teach the
people to read and write. That's what you need to do now," the Dalai
Lama told him.
Karma obeyed and returned to Lhasa. He was arrested by the Chinese. He contends
that he was interrogated and brutally tortured for six months. After his
interrogators were convinced that he wasn't sent on an espionage or terrorist
mission, they released him and even permitted him to work as a guide for
Karma led us through Potala. The palace, which is the largest monument in
Tibet, stands atop Marpo Ri (The Red Mountain) 130 meters above the Lhasa
Valley, rising to a height of 170 meters. Ancient legend says that the
Bodhisattva Chenresig, the bearer of the white lotus, once lived in a cave on
top of the hill.
According to Tibetan tradition, Chenresig -- the Tibetan version of
Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion -- attained enlightenment and could
free himself from the bonds of incarnations and forever release himself from the
sufferings of this world, but instead chose to give up this privilege and
returned in order to serve the Tibetan people and humanity. In every generation,
his spirit returned to the body of an infant who is deemed worthy of passing on
the message. The Tibetans call him Kundun -- The Presence.
The current Dalai Lama, born on July 6, 1935 in the small village of Taktser in
the Amdo region of Tibet, was identified at age two as the 14th incarnation of
Chenresig. A delegation comprising Tibet's senior spiritual leaders found him by
following a series of signs left by the 13th Dalai Lama. These signs pointed
toward the village, the home and the bed where the boy bearing his reincarnated
spirit would be found. He was taken from his family to Lhasa and educated at
Potala by the top teachers of his day. He began to actually lead Tibet at
Even the most skeptical Westerner, for whom the concepts of Tibetan Buddhism
sound like so much Eastern mumbo jumbo, can hardly help from being amazed at the
surprising end of this story: This small toddler, plucked from a distant village
after being selected through mystical signs known only to the wise, developed
into a prominent leader, who has an open door to the leaders of the world. He
was able to lead his people wisely through the most severe crisis Tibet has
ever known, has saved his culture from utter collapse, and has spread his
message throughout the world.
Fifty-two years after being identified by his people as the Buddha of
Compassion, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award cited, among
other things, that "the Dalai Lama, in his struggle for the liberation of
Tibet, consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead
advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to
preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people."
Potala Palace, the house where the Dalai Lama was raised and educated, was first
built by Songtsen Gampo, the ruler of Tibet in the
7th century. In 637, he built for himself a small structure on the top of the
hill that was intended for solitude and meditation. Some 1,000 years later, in
the early 1600s, the earlier building was integrated into the foundations of an
ambitious palace that the fifth Dalai Lama began to construct in order to
fortify his stature as the religious ruler and political leader of his people.
In 1648, the lower part of the palace was completed. This Potrang Karpo -- White
Palace - served as the home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government
up until the Chinese conquest. The upper part -- Potrang Marpo, the Red Palace -
was built between the years 1690-1694. More than 7,000 laborers and 1,500
artisans participated in this project. In 1922, the 13th Dalai Lama made massive
renovations to the palace and added two floors, giving the structure its current
The Potala Palace suffered little damage during Tibet's uprising against Chinese
occupation in 1959. Unlike most of the palaces and temples in Tibet, it was not
sacked by the Red Guards during the 1960s and 1970s, apparently thanks to the
personal intervention of Chou En Lai. Thus, the prayer and confession halls,
adorned with many works of art, have been preserved in excellent condition.
Touring the palace is a dizzying experience. A giant labyrinth of long corridors
lead from one hall to another. The palace encompasses 13 square kilometers
replete with the finest handiwork, rich in detail and precision, created by the
best artisans in Tibet during the past 1,300 years, with all of the common Tibetan
symbols: the wheel of dharma symbolizing the unity of all things; lotus
flowers blossoming in the mud as Nirvana grows from suffering; the infinite loop
that demonstrates the misleading nature of time; the swastika that doesn't
symbolize Nazi evil, but rather the blessing and plenty of enlightenment; the
energetic horse of spirits; and the innocent gold fish. The smells include
juniper, incense of sandalwood, and candles of burning yak butter.
Since the palace was built to serve various and sundry functions, religious and
secular, it reflects the diverse facets of the Tibetan elite during the period
prior to the Chinese invasion. The central purpose of the Potala Palace was to
service as a home for the Dalai Lama and his staff of advisers and aides. But
beyond this, the palace was also the seat of the government of Tibet, a central
site for the kingdom's official ceremonies, a school for advanced religious
studies for outstanding monks, and an office building for the senior
bureaucracy. Since the graves of eight Dalai Lamas are also here, it was
and still is one of the most important pilgrimage spots in Tibet.
There are more than 1,000 rooms in the Potala Palace. The two most sacred
chapels - Phakpa Lhakhang and Chogyal Drubphuk - are in the White Palace. They
were built in the 7th century and are considered the oldest surviving structures
on the hill. More than 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues are spread
throughout the compound. The most sacred statue, Arya Lokeshvara, is in the
Phakpa Lhakhang and attracts thousands of Tibetan pilgrims every day.
Pilgrims enter the palace with great reverence and move from altar to altar,
statue to statue, turning the wheels of prayer in order to spread the spirit of
prayer inscribed upon them for the benefit of mankind. As they walk, always
clockwise, they mumble the mantra of compassion: "Om mani padme
hum." This mantra embodies in its syllables the light that
Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, shines upon the world.
There are many legends about this mantra, as there are about most things in
Tibet. One of these legends, which appears in the Tibetan Book of the Dead,
tells that long ago 1,000 princes vowed to reach enlightenment and release their
souls from the cycle of death and reincarnation. The most famous of these
princes, Siddhartha Gautama, became a buddha. Avalokiteshvara vowed that he
wouldn't attain enlightenment until all of the princes also turn into buddhas.
Then, in his limitless compassion, he decided to work toward freeing all
suffering creatures. He raised a prayer and made a vow: "Let me help all
creatures and if I ever become tired of this important work, let my body be
broken into a thousand pieces."
First, the legend says, he descended to the depths of hell and then gradually
ascended through the level of starving spirits up until the realm of the gods.
He then by chance glanced back down and was horrified to see that although he
had saved countless creatures from hell, many others were still falling into it.
An unbearable sadness overcame him. For a moment, he nearly lost his faith in
the noble vow he had made. He was tired of his work and the destructive clause
in his vow was activated: His body was torn into a thousand pieces.
Desperately, he called upon all of the buddhas for help and they rushed to
assist him from all corners of the universe "like light rain on
snowflakes," as one of the writings says. With their enormous power, the
buddhas made him complete again. From that day, Avalokiteshvara has 11,000 heads
and 1,000 arms. In every palm, he has an eye, symbolizing the unity of wisdom
and skill, the sign of true compassion. In his new form, his ability to help all
creatures grew immensely. His compassion became stronger and he repeated again
and again his vow before the buddhas: "Let me not reach the last level of
buddha until all creatures reach enlightenment."
In the Mahayana Sutra, it is written that Avalokiteshvara
gave his mantra to the Buddha himself and in return the Buddha gave him the
special and noble mission of helping all creatures in the universe attain the
level of buddha. At this moment, the gods showered down a rain of flowers, the
ground moved and the air resonated to the sounds of "om mani padme
According to Tibetan belief, each one of the six syllables of the mantra -- om
ma ni pad me hum -- has a magical impact affecting various levels of the world.
The six syllables are supposed to purify the six poisonous
feelings that cause man to act in a negative way with their bodies, in their
speech and in their consciousness. These six bad feelings, which are responsible
for suffering in the world, are: pride, jealousy, lust, ignorance, greed and
anger. When you concentrate on reciting the mantra om mani padme hum, you purify
yourself from these poisonous feelings and bring to completion the six
perfections, the paramitas, which are at the heart of the enlightened
consciousness: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom.
And thus - purified of all pride, jealousy, lust, ignorance, greed and anger -
we moved on in generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom,
from room to room, chapel to chapel, stupa to stupa, altar to altar, always
moving clockwise, dizzy from the richness, colors, gold, aromas, caught up in
the contagious excitement of the pilgrims around us, spinning the large prayer
wheels and disseminating the spirit of prayers to end human suffering -- prayers
that unfortunately have yet to be fully answered.
From the hall in which the government of Tibet once met to discuss matters of
state, we climbed up to the roof of the palace, which offers the best view of
Lhasa. The roof is decorated with splendid ornaments of gold, among the most
beautiful in Tibet. Here the young Dalai Lama would stand for many hours in the
1940s, using a telescope to observe the life of his people, wondering what it
would be like to be down there among the simple folk. The view from the
roof is still marvelous, but the simple folk have changed -- they are now
The Dalai Lama's bedroom, located on the eastern side of the roof, remains
almost unchanged since the day he was forced to flee. The yellow iron bed
he slept on during his youth is still there, as well as several personal items,
including a watch that has stopped working and a 1959 calendar.
It's hard to believe that the current Dalai Lama will ever have the chance to
return here and rewind his watch. He himself doesn't believe this will happen.
The task will apparently await his successor.
The Dalai Lama has said on several occasions that he believes his successor will
be born in one of the countries of the West. It might therefore pay to work hard
on your karma and devotedly murmur the mantra. According to the selection rules,
the happy winner will not only be released from the bonds of reincarnation,
he'll also receive as a bonus a palace with 1,000 rooms in good condition, with
breezes blowing in from all four directions, and a breathtaking view."
[ Back ] [ Home ] [ Up ] [ Next ]
[ Afghanistan ] [ Bhutan ] [ Burma ] [ Ladakh ] [ Nepal ] [ Sikkim ] [ Tibet ] [ SE Asia ]