Saturday, 19 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Tibetan Buddhism 101

So just what is Tibetan Buddhism? Erm..... A tad confusing if I'm brutally honest as I found out on day one of Tibetan Buddhism 101 yesterday. It is likely that you know the best known face of it, the 14th Dalai Lama. What you may not know about him is that he has actually lived in exile in India since he fled the Chinese occupation of his country in 1959. Basically, Tibetan Buddhism is a religion in exile. Dalai is a Mongol word meaning ocean, and refers to the depth of the Dalai Lama's wisdom.

The religion is derived from the Indian Mahayana form of Buddhism, but much of its ritual is based on the esoteric mysticism of Tantra (a style of meditation and ritual) and on the ancient shamanism and animism of Bon, an older Tibetan religion. It is also called Tantrayana (tantra vehicle) or Vajrayana (vehicle of the thunderbolt). Padmasambhāva is said to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. He was the founder of the Nyingma, the earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism which are: Nyingma (Red Hat), Kagyu (Red Hat), Sakya (Red Hat), Gelug (Yellow Hat). Like I said, it all gets a little confusing, which is I guess why it is esoteric, but if you ever see a statue wearing a yellow hat at least you'll know! Don't even get me started on the hand positioning (Mudras) which are external expressions of 'inner resolve', suggesting that such non-verbal communications are more powerful than the spoken word. Oh and then there's the female statues with 7 eyes!

Coloured flags/scarves hanging from various places inside most temples represent air (white), fire (red), earth (yellow), blue (space) and green (water).

Drepung & Sera Monsteries fall under the Gelug school, if you're still with me!

As far as all the temples and palaces you will see in Tibet, Potala Palace is definitely one of the more unique and memorable ones you will come across. It was once the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas.

Built on the side of a free standing hill you need to walk up several flights of stairs to make it to the palace grounds. Otherwise you will spend you time just staring up at towering fortress-like walls. Not that that initially is a bad thing mind you, gives you a sense of its wow factor before you've even stepped foot inside.

There's a large staircase leading up to this impressive structure. An architectural wonder even by modern standards, the palace is 13 storeys and contains more than a thousand rooms. The altitude alone will make this a challenging exercise, regardless of your fitness. Be warned - once inside there are many many staircases inside too, so go as full of energy as one can at an altitude of 11450ft + 13 storeys on top of a 426.5ft hill.

Note: you can't bring water inside with you, because someone tried to smuggle in some flammable liquid several years back to set fire to the place. However, you can buy water inside relatively inexpensive. Also don't forget to slap on the sunblock.

Naturally the history of the palace relates to the Dalai Lamas and your tour guide will give you the full run down. The layout includes the rooftop White Palace, used for the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, and the central Red Palace, used for religious functions. The most stunning chapels of the Red Palace house the jewel-bedecked golden chörten (Tibetan stupa) tombs of several previous Dalai Lamas. The apartments of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas, in the White Palace, offer a more personal insight into palace. However, one can't help noticing that it is notably missing its main occupant, the Dalai Lama. Photographs cannot be taken inside any of the buildings. Still, this was a unique experience because of the number of pilgrims who were visiting the temple. Many carrying urns of melted Yak butter as an offering. I even got a lesson in Tibetan from an elder in how to chant the mantra, Om Mani Bêmê Hum, for generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation and wisdom. You see it written everywhere and it is often what you will hear being spoken with prayer beads and the turns of prayer wheels.

It is Jokhang ("House of The Lord") that is the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism and this is one of the most sacred places for Tibetan Buddhists. King Songtsen Gampo first built a temple in the mid-7th century, but the structure seen today is largely the result of reconstruction in the 17th century, commissioned by the Fifth Dalai Lama.

In the Sacred Temple, the first floor houses a series of chapels, each dedicated to a different deity, monk or king. Behind the numerous sculptures, the chapel walls are covered in vivid murals depicting relevant sutra and historical narratives. A path eventually leads you to the inner sanctum and this is used daily for worship. At its centre stand larger than life size statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who have put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment).

Outside, above the temple's third story rooftops are an agglomeration of pavilions, comprised of craftsmen's workshops and monks' living quarters. Looking out from here, you get to see some spectacular views across the Barkhor, the pilgrimage route encircling the temple, and across the roofs of Lhasa towards the Potala Palace (don't take photos of the rooves if you notice police on them, it is strictly forbidden to take photos of any police or military personnel).

The Jokhang houses the Jowo Buddha, a Buddhist sculpture brought as part of the dowry of the Chinese Princess Wencheng upon her arrival in Tibet. This ancient Buddhist sculpture is one of Tibet's most revered images.

The pilgrims prostrating around the temple is humbling to watch. The temple is stunning in its artifacts, colours, and one can feel the spirituality within the building. The air was kind of dense with incense smoke and the smoke from the Yak butter lamps and this can be a challenge. But it is just an amazing place to visit.

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