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The Ninja Monks. And deep devotion takes over the streets of Lhasa

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 18, 2009 with No Comments

One of the things I enjoy most while traveling is waking up early in the morning, wandering around the place I am visiting, and seeing the locals start their day. At 7 am, I was ready to see Lhasa waking up.
But the sun didn’t come out until 8 am. Although it was a dark and chilly morning, locals were already pouring into the streets.

Nima was picking me up at 9:30 am, so I had time to visit the Barkhor Square, the most important pilgrimage circuit—or Kora—in the city.
I wandered around the winding alleyways of the Muslim quarter until I arrived at a busy intersection.

Pilgrims

Pilgrims


Thumbing prayer beads, holding prayer wheels of all sizes, and muttering mantras, hundreds of pilgrims—some walking and others crawling and tapping their foreheads to the floor with every step—were heading toward the Barkhor. I joined the pilgrimage and followed the devotees that had come to Lhasa from all corners of Tibet.

Seeing such deep devotion among the crowd gave me goose bumps.
Although in profound meditation, the Tibetans looked at me and smiled. Their almond eyes and brown faces—calloused by the sun and the cold—mesmerized me. Some pilgrims wore their thick black hair bound with a halo and red and colored tassels. Others’ hair had jeweled rings, pieces of turquoise, or fox-fur headgear. Monks with burgundy-red robes also joined the pilgrimage.

Something odd about this pilgrimage was seeing so many police officers. They turned their faces toward me with suspicion. I just smiled at them. They didn’t smile back. I continued to follow the crowd and immerse myself in its spiritual feeling.

At the Barkhor Square, the devotees held their hands in prayer position, touched their foreheads and hearts, went down in half prostration, and then threw themselves fully to the ground with their hands spread out. They repeated this series of actions over and over as they murmured mantras.

I could have stayed there all morning, but I had to meet Nima.
When I got to the hotel, he was already there.

Nima and Lupong—the driver now had a new, easy-to-pronounce name!— took me to the Drepung Monastery just outside Lhasa. As we drove away from the center, I could see how big and modern the city had become.

“Ten years ago, very different. This part of town didn’t exist,” said Nima.

The famous Drepung, a gigantic monastery, stood at the foot of Gambo Utse Mountain. It used to be one of the most important monasteries of the Gelugpa Order or the Virtuous School, the most politically and religiously influential school in Tibet. It was also home to 10,000 monks until the Chinese takeover in 1951. Supposedly monks still live there, but I saw just a couple. Although the monastery felt “monk-less,”dozens of humble Tibetans roamed the complex. Many of those Tibetans seemed to have come from very far away, wearing old garments and carrying tea holders. These devotees put what little money they had into the offering box. There is no doubt that Buddhism permeates every aspect of Tibetans’ lives.

Tibetan Pilgrim

Tibetan Pilgrim


Inside the temples and halls supported by dozens of red, wooden pillars, the smell of incense and yak-butter lamps was strong. Hundreds of bronze Buddha statues, deities, and old scriptures were in every temple and chapel, which were also decorated with vivid paintings and aged tapestries—many of which were covered by cobwebs.

The Future Buddha in one of the temples was particularly popular among the pilgrims, who seemed anxious to receive a blessing from him.

The monastery is now undergoing renovation.

Nima explained that during the Revolution, the Chinese army took over the complex, and little of was left of it. “Many of those things are only 20 years old,” said Nima, pointing at paintings and tapestries. The walls still contained Chinese characters written in the early years of the temple.

There was a police officer in every temple. “Be careful with photos and video,” warned Nima. “The police, you know. If you get in trouble, guide gets in trouble.”

After that, we drove to Norbulingka Palace or the Summer Palace. The seventh Dalai Lama built it, and it served as the summer residence of successive Dalai Lamas until the late 1950s. Nima and I passed through the entrance and walked through a park with pools and fountains. The sky was clear and the weather was balmy, yet the gardens were empty of both locals and tourists.

We visited some chapels and the home of the present Dalai Lama. Although photos of the Dalai Lama are forbidden in Tibet, his radios and other personal objects were displayed.

As Nima and I were walking out of the palace, I suddenly noticed a Budweiser tent. It seemed odd to have such a thing in the home of a holy figure, but Nima said there were usually festivals in the complex park during the summer.

Outside the palace, Lupong, in a formal, clean suit, was cleaning his spotless Land Cruiser.

“We take you to hotel now, but we pick you up at 2:30, okay?” said Nima.

“I’ll meet you in the hotel at 2:30, but could you drop me off at the Potala Palace instead?” I asked.

“Of course,” responded Nima.

I was thrilled that I was going to have some time to wander around and explore Lhasa on my own.

Although I will be visiting the Potala Palace tomorrow, I couldn’t resist going there today. The palace is the most important landmark in Lhasa, the image that comes to mind every time I think of Tibet.

It is a building of staggering proportions. I took photos from all angles. I couldn’t get enough of it. This had to be the background for my video reports! I set up the video camera and was ready to record when a young police officer approached me.

“Speak Chinese?” he asked.

“No, sorry. English?” I replied. He was asking me for my cameras, but there was no way I would hand them over.

I took my Tibet Permit out of my backpack and smiled. I hoped playing cool and clueless would get me out of trouble.

My mom is already mortified about me getting altitude sickness, and since the moment I left Miami, she has been praying non-stop. I cannot imagine her reaction if I called her from a Chinese jail!

Although there have not been riots or demonstrations recently, there are police everywhere in Lhasa. For my sake and for my guide’s, I would have to avoid them and be on my best behavior.

The police let me go, but I couldn’t make my video report.

I walked back to the hotel to meet Nima.

The Sera Monastery was our next and last destination of the day.

Monks Sera Monastery

Monks Sera Monastery


This monastery has a large chanting hall and a college. Contrasting with the odd silence of the Drepung Monastery, Sera was full of life, especially at 3 pm when monks gathered in the courtyard to debate. I saw several groups debating at the same time. Young monks sat cross-legged on the ground while an older monk stood with a rosary in hand. The older monk, who I assumed was the teacher, questioned the young students. Then suddenly, he raised his right leg and both arms in the air—which looked like a combination of Ninja and Matrix moves—and clapped. It was a heated debate, but there was a lot of laughter among the monks.

Watching the monks debate and joining the pilgrims in the morning were the highlights of my day.

“Be ready at 10:30 am tomorrow,” said Nima, dropping me off at the hotel.

I went inside the hotel, but I wanted to go back to the streets. It is such a beautiful day that wandering around is very tempting, but I must be cautious to avoid altitude sickness. I feel some pressure in my head, and throughout the day I have felt numbness in my right leg and a tingling sensation in my hands, so I am going to take it easy.

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