Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.


Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
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The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.


I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.

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Faces in the Dark

When we entered the Monastery, the lights were out. Every step we took was as if blind, and we had to navigate by way of cellphone light.

“Huh, that’s strange,” our guide Tashi said, going on with the tour regardless. He introduced Buddhas, scriptures, and other figures to us in the quiet hall.

But as we walked through, it was as though we were only catching glimpses of the Buddha: a foot, a smiling face, an outstretched hand, and when we turned one corner after Tashi’s explanation, a whole row of tall Buddhas looking down at us below. Sometimes the butter wax candles glowed in front of the altars and we could see a flickering image of the Buddha. Sometimes we saw only as far as our feeble flashlights could show us. In that still hall, I could feel the presence of a thousand faces we couldn’t see just then, but who all looked out from the darkness.

It’s a similar feeling to our drive through the Himalayan region, where the green mountains stand out, but the truly magnificent ones are hidden behind clouds and rain. Sometimes the clouds burst and we can see wrinkled snow on the cliffs, sometimes we can only see a glimmer of it as we continue on our ways. But we know that there are faces in those clouds, looking down from above. WeChat Image_20170719153255

WeChat Image_20170719153302I sometimes wonder if this is just the nature of coming face to face with something truly divine. It doesn’t matter how close you get: it will remain unknowable, and by not being completely knowable, it remains divine. It’s not good or bad or right or wrong. It’s just a face in the dark, looking out at you as you strive to catch even a glimpse of its smile.

 

Debate Time

When our guide told us that we would be seeing monks debate scripture at Sera Monastery, I guess I pictured something more austere and solemn. Perhaps a monk making a point, and another saying something along the lines of “yes, perhaps, but have you considered…?” in a very gentlemanly manner.

Instead, to my delight and surprise, we entered a very lively courtyard full of red-robed monks who seemed to almost be sparring with each other. They were scattered around the courtyard in pairs, one monk standing and one sitting. The one standing wound up and clapped his hands together in an emphatic lunge and asked their question. The one sitting had to answer in a satisfactory way.

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The whole area rang with the sounds of clapping, the sounds of questions. By unlike most debates I’m used to, this one was practice and seemed like a lot of fun. In one area, a monk clapped three times in succession before the other could answer and they all just started laughing. The younger monks got very aerobic with their questioning, almost leaping from the ground as they thought of new questions.

Of course there’s more to it than this, but I like the excitement and joy that was all over the courtyard as people gathered to discuss philosophy. I like that new questions and new thoughts were a celebration, and that the challenge of twisting around words and thoughts was like a game. I like that it was practice, and so questions could be considered without consequence before more public debates.

Mostly I liked that for once in my life I could see a different kind of debate that didn’t end with people shouting at each other, and instead lifted the human spirit as it tried to make sense of a complex world.

 

A Thousand Words

We had already made our ways through Jokhang Temple that morning with our guide, a local Lhasa man, who is without a doubt the most impressive example of making the most of a temple visit I’ve ever seen. The temple is one of the main centers of Tibetan Buddhism, and is quite well preserved, with ancient thanka paintings still gleaming on its walls. But as much as I liked Jokhang Temple, it was where we went next that left a deeper impression.

Had I been on my own, I probably could have found the temple tucked away on the local shopping street, and I might even have walked through main prayer hall for a quick look. But when we entered, we were met not with crowds of tourists, but with actual believers making their rounds.

The room hummed with mantras as a crowd of monks stood by the main statue in the center. Our guide told us to touch our heads to the statue for good luck and to follow him to the kitchens. As we walked out of the prayer hall, he passed a monk who as it turned out was his uncle, and as we entered the back hall of the kitchens, we ended up meeting his aunt, who was a nun.

They welcomed us to the table and served us some milk butter tea and bread. I noticed that they were dipping the bread into the tea, so followed suit and tried to figure out how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Tibetan. (No dice, so far…)

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Then, as we were enjoying our tea, I heard the young boy speaking Mandarin. I know Tibetans don’t really like speaking Chinese, but I figured “aw, why not?” I told the boy to come over and took out a small stack of Minnesota postcards.

“This is my home!” I said. “You can choose one.”

He looked over all of them with rapt attention and then selected the one with the sunrise, running over to show his mom. In his excitement, he was showing them the sunrise upside down.

We kept drinking the tea, and the old nuns kept spinning their small prayer wheels. Alas, I was never really able to verbally express my thanks for the family letting us crash their tea-drinking time, but maybe sometimes words aren’t necessary.

 

I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter!

On my last day in Xining, I decided to visit the Kumbum Monastery, even though the Lonely Planet (rightfully) warns you that it’s very touristy and crowded. It holds a very important position in the “Yellow Hat” sect of Buddhism. But if I’m being honest, that’s not why I braved the crowds that sunny day. I went because of the butter sculptures.
See, my home state Minnesota often has bitter sculptures as part of its annual State Fair, and these are always equal parts bizarre and impressive. Usually they’re busts of famous people carved out of butter, and they’re put in a revolving case so that all visitors can admire them.

So, what could the Kumbum Monastery offer?

As it turns out, a lot. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures inside, but let me tell you, these monks put butter art onto a whole new level. First of all, the sculptures are not just images of people, but are whole intricate religious scenes. Second of all, they are colored so that they almost looked like actual statues made from concrete or marble, and not the kind that melted in the sun or was destroyed every year to make a new one.

Third of all, they are extremely intricate.

Imagine if you will, a dragon with every individual scale, a lotus flower with millions of tiny, needle-like petals, a monk with a string of beads around his neck, or the folds in the flowing robes, or the tiles in the buildings, or the billowing clouds around the entire scene. I was more than stunned as I stood there staring at all the details. Wave after wave of Chinese tourist group lapped me as they admired it and then moved on. I kept looking, searching perhaps for the chink in the armor, proof that this was indeed nothing but butter and was transient.

What can I say? We Minnesotans have met our match.

 

I’ve Just Seen a Face

As soon as we entered the prayer hall, a monk came over to check our tickets. We greeted him and he smiled, bobbing behind us as we walked through.

“What are the glasses of water for?” I said, motioning to the lines and lines of water cups in front of altars.

He mimed offering prayers to the heavens and pointed to the water cups.

“They’re for prayer?” I said. He nodded vigorously.

“What are these made of?” My friend said, pointing to what looked like candles.

The monk paused and said something in Tibetan, and then something in Mandarin with a very thick Tibetan accent.

“Oh,” we said, not understanding even slightly.

We then paused in front of an image of the Dalai Llama, displayed quite openly despite being a banned topic in China. Prayer cloths drapes over the image and offerings were placed before it. My friend and I whispered together rapidly and I looked back at the monk.

He grinned at me with a slight nod, not saying a word.

But that one, I understood perfectly.

 

From the Studios of Rebkong

He was a slight monk with a round pair of glasses, and deep red robes swirled around his body. We heard him commenting on the prayer hall with another monk. Since my travel partner and discovered that he spoke pretty clear Mandarin, we figured he was the one to ask about the thankas.

What are thankas? Well, they’re a traditional Tibetan painting depicting religious scenes or figures that are done either in bright colors, with deep red backgrounds, or in all gold. Some versions aren’t painted at all but are embroidered, or layered with different strips of cloth. It’s the subject matter and method that make them thankas. That, and the incredible paints that contain elements allowing the vibrant colors to last for hundreds of years. Rebkong, the town we were visiting, is considered the center for thankas.
“Ah yes, thankas,” the monk said. He told us where some studios were and starting walking away, rearranging his robes with a flick of his wrist. We followed him, and in less than a couple of minutes and not far from where we had been, he unlocked a door and led us in.

Wall-length thankas in golds and reds and vibrant colors hung on the walls, some still stretched on the canvas. Each contained a multitude of lines and shapes that boggled my mind. When we pointed to a particularly large one and asked how long it took him to make it, he said “about a year” with a serene look. He had smaller ones that fit inside of small glass boxes like pendants that took him an entire day to paint.

“Yeah the ones here are special,” he said. “People in Lhasa even ask for them.”

We examined them some more and asked him about thankas in Rebkong as a whole, and he just smiled and chatted, even though it was already clear we weren’t purchasing. He was proud of his art and it seemed that the act of making it was enough.

Perhaps that’s the secret to good thankas: taking a long time to make them, because making them is the reward in itself. At least that’s what I decided to think as we looked into other thanka workshops and watched other artists make them, one painstaking stroke at a time.

It’s a lesson all creators must learn, and one that I’ll take to heart: love your art for the process, not for the reward at the end. Then, it’s truly valuable.