Jokhang

For a couple of days already before entering the Jokhang Temple, I had become familiar with the human traffic around it because my hotel was so close. The commercial scene, the human traffic and the security presence are all permanent fixtures. The human traffic reflects the full diversity of the local population, pilgrims, the transplanted population and the tourist population. It is constant from early until late, moving steadily and in one direction only (clockwise around the temple as is the custom everywhere) and seems more concerned with the spiritual purpose than browsing the stores. The vast majority is working their rosaries as they walk.

Yes, certainly there are Chinese tourists shopping and a smattering of other tourists more wandering than taking korra. There are shops encircling the perimeter of the temple complex, with a limited number of entry points from side streets, making it easy to regulate access to the continuous stream of people. And regulate they do, with scanners and spot body checks. But it’s mostly very relaxed.

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Outside the Jokhang is a small enclosed stone monument commemorating a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. Interpreting the treaty may be a matter of opinion: one interpretation is that the treaty marked an “alliance” between the two nations; another suggests the treaty was a mutual agreement to respect each other’s borders. Both could be true. Yet only one interpretation supports the current Chinese view that Tibet has “always” been part of China. I can’t verify that the monument hasn’t been changed in the past 50 years to shade the meaning in China’s favor.

Entry to the temple itself is conditional. A guide must accompany all foreigners. Time inside part of the inner complex is limited to 20 minutes. My guide had to surrender his license for us to be granted the 20 minutes. But once inside, it is immediately evident why this place is considered the heart and soul of the Tibetan people.

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According to treasure-texts discovered in the 13th century, the Jokhang was founded in 640 by King Songtsem Gampo. He had two wives, one a Nepali princess and the other, Wencheng, was the daughter of the Tang emperor of China. As a result of a series of ill-omens, Princess Wencheng used her powers of divination to determine that what was then regarded as the whole of Tibet was “like a Demoness who had fallen on her back.” The lake in the Plain of Milk in Lhasa was her blood and the three hills rising out of the plain were her breasts and mons.

DSC07282 It was decided that temples should be constructed in strategic locations and that the Nepali queen Bhrikuti would oversee their construction. According to a combination of Tibetan geomancy and Chinese divination, the lake was drained and the foundation of the centrally located Jokhang was laid. A series of temples describing concentric squares at increasing distances from Lhasa were then constructed whereby different body parts of the demoness were tethered and subdued and which also met Songtsem Gampo’s intention to convert Tibetans to Buddhism.

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Today, the ancient beauty of Jokhang is radiant with color, detail, space and reverence. The murals must be at least 500 years old. There is no assembly hall since Jokhang did not house monks. But there are certainly monks tending it now. The inner sanctum is an open square space, an inner korra, with small sanctuaries each housing Buddhist statuary make up the periphery. On the day I visited, this space was full of Chinese tours. Indeed, this temple would be highest on the list of sites to see in Lhasa, second only, perhaps, to the Potala Palace. If you’re wondering why I’ve had nothing to say about the Potala, it’s because I never intended to go there. To be honest, I knew that if I ever set foot inside, all I would do is cry.

Entering each small chapel around the inner space of Jokhang, one is struck by the feel of its age: the deeply worn wood and brass of the sills and frames, the smooth stone of the floors having borne the temple traffic for 1000 years. The figures behind the glass enclosures, both in the chapels and around the periphery, enhance the space and its ancient character. Yes, there was damage here from the Cultural Revolution, but areas of recent renovation are hardly noticeable.

It’s regrettable that photos are not permitted. If I could take only one, it would be of the most ornate and detailed three-dimensional rendering of the Kalachakra mandala I’ve ever seen—made entirely of gold. It was about 6 ft in diameter and about 6 ft high, enclosed in glass.

It might be easy to say that once you’ve seen some of these temples, the novelty wears off. Yes, to a degree that’s true. Yet they are each devoted to slightly different historical figures. They might be more or less elaborate in their display of devotional themes. There are a certain number of figures, historical, mythic or religious forms that are common to each. But ultimately, they are not simply about artistic display. They are about refuge, promoting practice, training and education. In terms of the ambience created for those purposes, the places that stood out for me (among a very small sample of which I am now familiar) are Samye (perhaps because I witnessed it in full glorious action), the Shongsep nunnery (site of Gangri Tokar) and Tsurphu (because of the felt presence of the living Karmapa). None of the places in Amdo, though each impressive in their own way, meet this entirely subjective personal standard.

Jokhang is not really a space for practice, as it does not house monks in training. But it does represent a historical artistic, cultural and spiritual standard that stands above all the rest.

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Potala Palace, circa 1930.

Ganden & Norbulakhang

Although Ganden is one of the six principal Gelug monasteries in Tibet (of which I have now visited 5) and the location of Tsongkapa’s burial stupa, its distinctive feature is not so much what’s inside the grounds, but what’s outside. Resting as it does on a peak with a commanding view of the Tsong valley, with many villages and cultivation below, korra at Ganden is both a 360° tour of that view, but more importantly, a chance to regard many “natural” phenomena appearing in the rock as evidence of the spiritual significance of this place.

Ganden was shelled by Chinese artillery during the Cultural Revolution.

The walk itself, which takes about an hour, extends well beyond the walls of the monastery itself, circumambulating the peak on a path that at times skirts the edge of infinity and felt very precarious to me. It is mostly quite safe, and thank goodness it was dry. Locals passed me with the aplomb of frisky mountain goats compared to my plodding placement of every step.

Stone markers on the way denote the presence of at least a dozen images that appear in the rock, Tara, a handprint, Buddhas, various religious signs. And sure enough, they are there, plain as day.

  

This is not the only place where such occurrences are known. There is the footprint in the hermitage high above Tsurphu, the image of a Karmapa at the Chimp’u nunnery, the handprint of Padmasambhava in stone at one of the caves he used. There are many more claimed across central Tibet. It’s difficult to know what exactly they are, but the ones I’ve seen show no obvious human sign of deliberate construction. I don’t know how their authenticity might be determined. They are simply taken on faith to be real, just as real as the terma (hidden teachings to be “discovered” in future lives) unearthed from stone over many centuries.

Regardless of their authenticity, they are reminders of the ultimate view of Buddhism that materiality, formlessness and time itself are all mutable. They are regarded as a sign that their creator, the one who instigated their manifestation, in this case Tsongkhapa, had authentically attained such a state of consciousness and generated proof of his attainment, perhaps even long after his physical death.

There is much more to Ganden than I was admitted—or taken–to see. The small portion I did see were temples devoted to Tsongkhapa, Maitreya Buddha, all the dharma protectors, the spiritual sons of Buddha, the Indian arhats and, of course, Tsongkhapa’s burial stupa.

Tsongkhapa’s cave

Mindroling and Norbulakhang:

The next morning, I expected to be visiting Mindroling, the only Nyingma monastery on my itinerary. But shortly after departure, we received news that Mindroling was closed to foreigners. There was a large event there just as there had been at Samye. No one but Tibetans were allowed. There really wasn’t any choice in the matter, so we headed back to Lhasa to see Norbulakhang, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas.

It’s a sprawling complex of distributed chapels and personal quarters built for a string of Dalai Lamas stretching back to the VIIth. It’s surrounded by shaded lawns, including 100 different species of trees and bamboo. The VIIIth Dalai Lama built a library here housing 36,000 sutras and philosophical treatises. The VIIth Dalai Lama surrounded himself with dozens of thangkas of his favorite subject, White Tara, every one his own creation.

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In fact, he was such an accomplished thangka painter himself, he could produce a completed White Tara in a single day. Knowing this as one views his work in his private chambers leaves one awestruck at his skill. I seriously doubt there’s a person on earth who could do that once, let alone twice.
From a second floor window overlooking a large stone patio and beyond to the shaded lawns, compartmentalized by low rock walls, on one day every year the XIVth Dalai Lama would appear at the window of his personal meditation chamber to view the ritual Opera Dance, while hundreds of adoring citizens would picnic.
It was always a sweet time of holiday spirit, an exchange of mutual admiration, a celebration of kinship in the dharma. All of that was when the Dalai Lama was still quite young. The holiday is still observed, the dance is still performed. The families still come to picnic. But the Dalai Lama has not, and will not return. He left at 9pm one night in 1959. A clock on the wall halfway up the stairs to his personal quarters stopped the moment he left the building. To this day it still says 9:00.

The Karmapa Stupa-Crestone, CO.

The plan to be in Crestone in the summer of 2015 was made the previous winter when registration opened for the regular two weeks of retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. I had been attending two one-week back-to-back retreats with him each summer for several years. He has some land and an office there and comes once a year. The rest of the time he is in Nepal, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, England, now also Russia, and various other US locations (including east and west coasts).

In any case, Crestone is a trip. Four hours south of Denver, it’s a small town at 8000 ft in the foothills on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo range. It’s not on the way to anywhere and it’s 50 miles from any commercial center. It has maybe two hundred people (seriously) in the unincorporated town and maybe 1000 more scattered across a few square miles of semi-developed (on and off-grid) residential subdivisions sprawling out on the flat scrub overlooking the expansive San Luis Valley.

There are no less than two dozen operating spiritual and religious retreat centers there, mostly Buddhist (Tibetan and Zen) but also Carmelite nuns, a big Sri Aurobindo center, Episcopal, Baptist, New Age, etc. that provide a constant stream of visitors supporting the local economy–at least when there isn’t any snow.

It turns out numerous very highly respected and well known Buddhist teachers have been to this land over the past 30-some years, blessing and buying land, opening centers, etc. Why? Because it looks like home, I suppose. One of these guys was the XVIth Karmapa, one of the most revered teachers of the 20th century and the head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, someone we might consider to be the CEO of Tibetan Buddhism.

Although he died in a Chicago hospital in 1981 (and that’s quite a story in itself), a stupa was erected in his honour in Crestone in 1996 now standing on land supporting 3-year retreats by monks in training. It’s 5 miles out a single lane dirt road that gets progressively  rough way up on a mountainside overlooking the immense valley below under a vast sky. The perpetual nature of that vast sky, regardless of temporary obscuration by clouds, is a major draw of this place.

This unlimited, clear, open and changeless quality is a representation of what Buddhists regard as the true nature of mind, innate to all but accessible to only a very few, and no doubt a major reason for the selection of this site. Though I had been to Crestone before, I visited that stupa for the first time during my visit in 2015.

Buried inside the stupa are relics of some of the superstars of Tibetan Buddhism going back to Buddha himself: Padmasambhava, Marpa, Tilopa, Longchenpa, Milarepa, including also relics of more recent figures of the 20th century, Dilgo Kyentse, Kalu Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen and Chogyam Trungpa. There are 100,000 hand-made miniature paper replicas of the stupa cached inside. It’s about 50 ft high and 25 ft wide at the base. Every structural detail is symbolic of some aspect of buddhism.

I had never seen one so large in the United States. Upon visiting a stupa, the custom is to circumambulate in a clockwise direction while reciting one particular common (refuge) prayer. I took a few laps and then settled in front of the face, looking upward at the gold Buddha inset displaying the Apan mudra for purification and confidence. At that time, I could not have called myself a religious buddhist. I’m a student and practitioner of Atiyoga, Dzogchen. I am not dedicated to complex outer ritual; I am dedicated to internal transformative practices. I’ve also had a few extraordinary experiences. But there are also some complex and entirely foreign practices that go along with this tradition. When it starts to feel like organized religion, I generally head in the opposite direction.

But as I stood there, all I can tell you is that I received an immediate and direct transmission of the collective devotion and accomplishment of every one of those teachers represented there. It was a massive hit– like 10,000 volts. Overwhelming–and it broke me open. I went to my knees for several minutes, absorbing the message of unwavering commitment, relentless discipline, the collected wisdom and the heart-opening fruition of ageless practice.

The power of that moment will not likely recur, but it is surely embedded. It was one of those priceless boosts, both humbling and inspiring, that kicks up one’s own view and practice to another level and indelibly deepens one’s devotion and appreciation for the opportunity and benefit presented by these teachings.

How one might interpret and hold an experience such as this is not something that reveals itself quickly. I regarded it as a confirmation that the attitudes we hold in pursuing our personal objectives must be fully explored, teased out and articulated if they are to be realized; that we must be impeccable in our behavior, reach beyond parochial interests and every ideology to an expanded vision that includes all.

That’s certainly no easy task, especially in these times, with every district, state and region protecting their narrowly-defined interests; with fear and scarcity embedded and ritualistically evoked by the elected shamans who claim concern for the many as they act in the interests of the few. Nevertheless, it is good to be reminded that merely recapitulating the divided and divisive nature of every other issue will ultimately lead to a hollow victory.

I know this will appear to be a sharp turn from where I started this post, but not really as sharp as it appears. Some of the guidance I have received:

  • Our future actions will be increasingly limited by the consequences of our past actions unless we grasp and integrate better decision-making practices.
  • We may not see the origins of what happens to us, but we can surely decide to be the origin of what happens by us. 
  • We all have an influence on the sustainability of life.
  • We are the expression of a universal order in this moment. If we do not express it ourselves, something else will be imposed upon us.
  • Nothing is nothing. And… everything is everything.
  • Our biases bind and blind us; they are invisible but knowable harnesses that bridle us, becoming our principle references for reality.
  • Loosening the bridle does not extinguish our bias, but it does widen our view.  
  • To listen for and sense the earth is to listen to our own heart. Listening to our own heart is the pathway to listening to another’s heart.
  • All emergencies are the same emergency. How can we respond together to our common emergency?

How will you respond to the call of the collected wisdom, unwavering commitment, sacrifice, risk and devotion of your teachers?