Women’s Travel—Silver: Meeting the Dalai Lama in Tibet

by Jacqueline St. Joan

Don’t take photos of the Dalai Lama into Tibet, my friends advised me. As did the U.S. State Department, the Free Tibet website and my travel guidebook. Before the Chinese Cultural Revolution, photos of the Dalai Lama were as common on the streets of Lhasa as soldiers, then in 1994 a political crackdown resumed and possession of Dalai Lama photos meant treason, beatings, and imprisonment. Religion and politics can clash at any time, any place, and with serious consequences–not to tourists visiting Tibet, but to those who remain behind. When I asked my teacher for advice about traveling in Tibet for a week, he said: “Take your prayer book. And use it.”

In August, I take a five-day road trip from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet, with twenty-one people and a travel guide. Two or three fellow travelersmostly Europeans and Asians–are spiritual pilgrims, but most are simply seeing the world on low budgets. This tour is the cheapest route to Lhasa. There is one other American in the group, whose name by coincidence, is also Jacqueline. She is 28 years old, was raised in Long Island, is living in Hong Kong, and she speaks Mandarin. An experienced Asian traveler, Jacqueline is very competent at negotiating difficulties, and she is bold about going off the beaten path for small adventures. I have none of these qualities, but I do know one or two things about Buddhism, which she does not, so this knowledge makes me valuable to her.

It is the first day out, and I am taking photographs like a mad tourist, as if this might be my last trip anywhere. But when we reach the bridge over the river between Nepal and Tibet, our guide waggles his finger, “Stop taking photos,” he says. Soon we will walk across and enter China.” China? I think, already developing an attitude that rejects China as Tibet. It’s Tibet, not China, I think, but I say nothing. As the days ahead reveal, I am wrong. Tibet is China and China is Tibet, as inseparable as nirvana and samsara.

At the border our two vehicles join a line so that officials can check our documents. We wait and and wait. Local moneychangers stick their friendly faces into our windows, asking, “Yuans for rupees? Yuans for rupees?” One young Tibetan man with bright eyes returns again and again, asking, in tourist-only English where we are from. He is looking at our things piled deep inside the Jeep. Our government-required guide closes his eyes, says nothing. The young man with the sparkling eyes seems to be telling me his name. I finger the red protection cord, given to me by Thrangu Rinpoche and tied around my neck, as I point to my heart. “Tsering Longchen,” I say, introducing myself with the Tibetan name I received on the day I took refuge. I feel slightly embarrassed to call myself “Melodious Long Life,” but his sparkling eyes blink. He smiles and whispers the words I will hear again and again during this trip. “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama,” giving me, and then the others with me, the universal thumbs up sign. Recalling the prohibition on public mention of the Dalai Lama, I look at the guide nervously. He sits with his long arms around his folded legs, cramped in the back of the Jeep, head resting on his knees. He appears to be sleeping. But still I worry. What have I done? There are military and government officials all around. Is this a touching, personal moment, or is it a set up designed to entrap, to cause us to offer a forbidden picture of the Dalai Lama? Or is this just a young man in Levis trying to make some money? After all, we are in China.

The officials require that our group spend the night in the rainy border town. They have been trying by phone to get approval from Beijing for the entry of a French diplomat, a member our group. But Beijing is time zones away, and the offices there are all closed. At the town’s best hotel, I have a sleepless night in a small dank room where water soaks everything. Even the walls drip. Loud music and a neon sign keep me awake. I walk outside to watch soldiers and young women entering and leaving the bar across the street. The next morning, the diplomat is sent back over the bridge into Nepal, and our Jeep continues climbing the wet, green mountains. By afternoon we enter a mountain plateau with wide skies and dry land. Om mani peme hung is written on the landscape with white boulders arranged on the side of the mountain. large enough that you can read them easily from a mile away.

Over the next two days we visit the usual stopsone of Milarepa’s many caves, an 18,000 ft. pass planted with prayer flags, soup at a local teahouse in a mountain town. The town is only a few blocks long (if you can call them blocks), with a few shops, horses tied to posts, and grinning, mucky children hiding near their mother’s skirts. It looks like old photos I’ve seen of Colorado mining towns circa 1860. Then I see Jacqueline through a window, surrounded by several women who are laughing, lifting their aprons, pointing at her. Jacqueline has transformed herself from a sharp, chick traveler into a modest Tibetan maiden. She is wearing a chuba with an apron, and her dark hair has been braided, woven with ribbons, and fastened to the top of her head. Later she tells me, “Oh, I do this wherever I go. It always draws people to meto see a Western woman in their local dress. They love it. They always do.” Lucky for me, that night we are designated as roommates and despite our thirty-year age differencewe become devoted companions.

At Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama, Jacqueline and I stand in line, waiting to enter with fifty others. Most are tourists, but some are Tibetan pilgrims–very tall men with scarves tied around their heads, and women with long dark hair, braided with rectangular pieces of coral, turquoise and amber–three or four inches long. Inside, we follow their leadtouching holy objects, tossing money offerings, draping khatas, and scooping yak butter with spoons from oily bags to add to the plentiful, glowing lamps. A Tibetan man with a young child stops me to hand me my mala, which I had not realized I had dropped. The boy points to my prayer book, a tattered notebook-sized collection of prayers, practices, and bright photographs from a retreat I attended. It has an ink-drawn Sanskrit seed syllable, Hung on a pale yellow cover, and is held together by black plastic binding. Quickly others gather around us, intently paging through the text. The man skips over the written chants and instead looks for pictures. At each one he stops to absorb the colorful image pasted on the page. Are they disappointed not to find photos of the Dalai Lama inside? Do they know the names of these Buddhist icons? Have they had any teaching in the past forty years of Chinese occupation?

“Guru Rinpoche,” I say, pointing to one image after another. “Padmasambhava,”

“Ohh,” the man says.

“Chenresig,” I say, and they all nod.

“Chenresig. Chenresig,” they repeat each other happily, seeming satisfied.

Later that afternoon Jacqueline and I leave the tourist path and follow behind two old monks back into their living area, where brick buildings form a courtyard. One building has potted flowers in front of it. Pink hollyhocks peek from inside a garden wall where I see a shaded place with a bench. I am happy to take a rest. A young monk is leaning out a window above us, watching. Jacqueline gestures with her camera to ask if we can take his photo. He signals “No,” and disappears. But soon he is down in the garden with us, where he poses with her under the tree, and I take the shot. Jacqueline speaks to him in Chinese, but he does not respond. He leads us inside the building and upstairs into his cell. The room is larger than I’d expected, but still, it is small. There is shrine and books, and his clothes are folded in one corner. The room is not very clean, but it is organized. He gestures for me to sit next to him on his prayer rug. When I show him my prayer book, he becomes very excited to see the picture of Chenresig. He looks back and forth at us, one to the other, and we wait for him to find a way to communicate without language. He points to his eye, then to the picture of Chenresig, and signals, his hand over his head, as if indicating the past. Then I hear the whispered words again, “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama.” Is he telling us he has seen the Dalai Lama? Could that be? I have read that some monks do cross the Himalayas covertly, going back and forth into India, to visit family in Dharmasala and to hear the Dalai Lama teach. I explain to Jacqueline that Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama to be a living, human manifestation of Chenresig, the mind of compassion, loving-kindness and wisdom. As I am speaking, the monk becomes excited again, yes, yes, he says in Tibetan, giving us the nod of understanding, of communication.

The next day we drive through enormous valleys, passing villages and barley fields studded with stupas (chortens) and prayers flags. We come upon a work team painting a yellow line down the center of the road. Vehicles stop while the machines drip paint. Children gather at the car windows, “Hall-o. Hall-o,” they call out. Our guide hands each one a cigarette, which they place between their lips triumphantly. Two hours later we reach Gyantse, home of the largest and most famous stupa, Kumbum. The following day Yamdrok-Tso Lake, home of the wrathful deities, and Kamba-Law pass (16, 000 ft). Finally, we see a buddha carved into a wall, suffocated by colorful prayer flags and white khatas. We have reached the outskirts of Lhasa.

My first impression of Lhasa is the ubiquitous, identical white-tiled buildings that the Chinese government builds to line the streets, hiding even the grand Potala Palace from our view. Our hotel, although modest, feels like a palace to me. The entrance is beautifully flowered and we have our first sit-down toilet. I sleep long and deep until morning. After breakfast we climb the steep path to tour the Potala. Along the way I catch my sleeve on a bush of nettles, and at once my arm and hand itch. I scratch furiously. I ask our guide if he has seen the film, “Seven Years in Tibet,” and he nods. “Here in Lhasa?” I ask. He nods. “It was filmed here,” I say, showing off my knowledge. Suddenly, his face hardens. “And many people were imprisoned because of it,” he replies.

In one of the Potala’s thousands of shrine rooms, I search again for old monks– on the theory that they are the ones most likely to be legitimate, trained, devoted. I find one sitting on the floor in silence, his prayer beads flowing through his fingers. I sit beside him, open my book and chant the hundred-syllable mantra quietly. Moments later, recognizing the prayer, he joins me. After awhile when I re- join the tour, I give him a few coins. He smiles back and whispers, “Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama,” both of his dirty, old thumbs pointing straight up.

I enter the large audience room where the Dalai Lama would receive guests. There are images of earlier Dalai Lamas, but none of the Fourteenth. After six days, I have not seen one image of him in Tibet. However, in front his wide, vacant chair along a passage where pilgrims would have come to offer a khata and receive his blessing, a narrow tapestry is suspended, on which is printed the Kalachakra, the mantra of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The cloth is smudged and worn thin from all the fingers that have touched its skin. Pilgrims pass the empty chairhe is not there, they know–but they recognize the Kalachakra symbol as readily as they would know his face.

In the afternoon we visit Sera Monastery, across the valley from the Potala. Red-robed monks are debating in the courtyard, the older ones circling the younger ones who sit in the center quoting texts and make their arguments. It is difficult to know if this activity is for the tourists or for the monks’ training. Probably both. On a back wall we see an ancient mural of a diety with a musical instrument. The mural has been battered mercilessly, and the head of each monk has been hammered out deliberately, one by one.

By late afternoon, I have had my fill of murals, statues, and butter lamps. I decide to wait for the tour bus while Jacqueline continues exploring without me. But twenty minutes later I see her running toward me, her apron flying, eyes red and wet. She’s been crying.

“Come!” she calls out. “Come right away. You have to meet this man! Bring the prayerbook!”

I gather my things and follow behind, up around in back, along a narrow wall to an area outside a row of monk cells. I bend down to look into the room and there he is, sitting cross-legged by the window in a shaft of afternoon light. He is, or once was, a big man. Now he is bald, has a wide nose and what my mother would describe as “jug ears.” He has straggly white hairs on his chin. He is smiling at us, his blue eyes looking curious.

The lama extends his hand, invites us in. We have to more or less climb into the room. I have an urge to do prostrations, but I do not. I have no khata, no yak butter, nothing to offer. He gestures for me to sit in front of him and I sit cross-legged, my knees a few feet away from his. Jacqueline squats nearby. “Show him the book! Show him the book!” she says urgently, and I begin what has become our usual routine when we find an elderly monk. I show him my protection cord. I tell him my teacher’s name. I turn over my prayer book and offer it to him. When the lama sees the cover, he looks softly into my eyes, and says, reverently, “Hung.” I nod and repeat, “Hung.” We speak the word back and forth to each other several times, as if we were naming our baby. Then I begin to turn the pages to show him the colorful image of Guru Rinpoche. He takes the book and moves it in, closer to his eyes, then smiles when he recognizes the image. Om Ah Hung Benzra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung , he says to me, and I join his recitation. He smiles with enormous pleasure. But the second time I speak the mantra, his smile fades, his face tightens, and he repeats the mantra slowly, adding another syllable to it that I had dropped, emphasizing my error. I repeat it two or three times until I get it right, then he smiles, gesturing with an open palm toward Jacqueline. He wants me to teach it to her! Jacqueline recognizes the nature of the moment, of the man, and readily repeats Om Ah Hung Benzra Guru Pema Siddhi Hung .

A young man, observing us from several feet away, seems to be amused. A security guard or perhaps an attendant? Jacqueline’s mouth is twitching. “Pictures of D.L.,” she mumbles through her teeth. “Over my shoulder.” She throws her glance to the back wall. I am trying to see, but the wall is dark and it seems rude to look away during this meditation. Suddenly, the lama nods toward the back wall, “Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama, Dalai Lama” he says, in a relaxed way, as if introducing another guest. No whispering. No hidden thumbs up. Just a simple, direct pointing to the dozen photos of the Dalai Lama taped on the wall–the Dalai Lama as a boy, as a young man, as an old man. The lama is full of happiness and entirely unafraid. Something in the room is stronger even than how I felt in Milarepa’s cave.

The next day our group tour takes us to Norbulinka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, where a few rooms are accessible to tourists. Our guide is a middle-aged man wearing round spectacles, a long black coat, and a soft hat with a brim. His English is very good. The murals in the first room depict the entire history of Buddhism, images of many of the great masters from the past sweeping across the wall. The very last picture in the far corner is of the young Fourteenth Dalai Lama. “The only public image of him that is permitted in Tibet,” the guide tells. Later, when we are the only tourists remaining, the guide tells us that he was once a monk. We walk together through a short hallway where there is no security camera. The guide touches my arm and lowers his voice, “We have no human rights in Tibet. Don’t forget Tibet. Don’t forget Tibet.” The passageway ends, we enter the second room where we join the others, and suddenly he becomes merely a tour guide again.

Stones laid out on a hillside. Mantras as daily reminders. Cloths greasy with devotion. Forbidden images pasted on a private wall. Whispers. Thumbs up. Symbols of the enlightened mind. Over and over Tibetans let us know that the Dalai Lama lives, not only in Dharamsala, but also in Tibet–in the minds of the people who wait for him still.


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