This was first posted August 14, 2007 and is the second of three parts. Angela McDonald wrote this after returning to India. It’s especially apropos after the students who were arrested in Beijing for unveiling a flag that said “Free Tibet” on the Great Wall.
I was living in a village called Tanauk which is about a 15-minute walk away from Labrang Monastery, and beyond the monastery is the city of Labrang or Xiahe (Chinese name, probably spelled it wrong). Shedhe’sbrothers still live in Senko, the nomad grassland which is about 20 minutes from Tanauk. He grew up there, but his parents moved into the city maybe 10 years ago so that they could take care of their grandkids while they were in school. Labrang monastery is enormous, with nearly 2,000 monks studying there (though the Chinese technically put a 1,000 cap on the admittance…..the people have to come up with interesting tricks to try and hide that one). Though largely destroyed during the cultural revolution, it has been mostly rebuilt and is considered to be one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet. I helped Jinpa write a brief history of the monastery so learned a lot about it, but I will spare all the details. Basically, it is a really huge and important Gelukpa (one of the 4 major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the sect the Dalai Lama also belongs to) monastery which is also the central monastery for the surrounding area.
Most of the houses (including the one this family lived in) were are made out of what appeared to be mud-covered wood. The Tibetans are famous for buildings made out of pounded mud. Some newer buildings are now made out of bricks in the Chinese style, but most were still mud, especially for Tibetan families.
The mud seemed to take fairly constant upkeep, and many mornings I would see Mother or our neighbor dragging a big stone wheel across the roof to further compact the mud (it looked like a primitive steam roller), and take more mud to fill in cracks or damaged spots. When they were doing this, pieces of mud would fall in from the chimney holes in the roof or through the wood planks on the ceiling. Inside, the walls, ceiling and floors were solid wood. It was really beautiful, but I would often worry as the wood didn’t appear to really be treated (with anything other than dirt), and Shedhe explained that often the wood rots and needs to be replaced. Water is constantly poured on the floor to keep down the dust (especially in the winter, homes for the nomads, as the floors were just dirt, so it was constantly wetted to keep the persistent dust down) and the floors were also very uneven, the boards raising up in one spot and flat down in other places. It was easy to stumble when you awoke in the night drowsily stumbling to the toilet.
There were several rooms in our house built around a central courtyard; one was used as a small apartment which another man and his son lived in, one was the room with a hole in the ground serving as a toilet (mostly I used it; usually the others just went outside) and also held all the dried sheep and yak dung (which fueled the cooking stove), one room was for storage, one had a stove especially for roasting tsampa, and then our family lived in three of the rooms.
In the courtyard of every home is at least one ferocious dog, which acts as the doorbell (built in with person recognition, a different bark tone for every call at no extra charge), home security system, compost, and garbage disposal. In all the rooms, which people lived in there is what looks like a standard wood stove but is fed with animal dung, and is used for cooking and heating the house. Sometimes the stoves are also made out of pounded mud, and those are only used for cooking, but others were made of metal and used also for heating, with a tea pot of boiling water or tea constantly on top.
The Tibetan people are incredibly religious, especially the older families such as the nomads. I found it interesting that the lay people actually knew very little about Buddhism, but they know that they have to go by the ceremonies, holidays, and rituals, etc. that were tradition for the religion. Lamas (similar to priests or monks for Christians) are consulted to do mo (a form of divination or fortunetelling) for everything in life from marriages to debating about going to a hospital or not, which business opportunity to take, etc. Every morning some form of prayer and offering is done at home as every home has its own small altar inside (including a picture of the Dalai Lama which surprised me), and during the day at any free moment, the older people have prayer beads in their hands (similar to a rosary) and are chanting mantras or going gorah(circumambulation – prayer by walking clockwise around a monastery, temple, or stupa). Everything in their lives has to do with Buddhism.
I read in My Land My Peopleby H.H., the Dalai Lama that around 10 percent of the Tibetan population are monks or nuns. A large percentage of families have at least one member living in a monastery/nunnery. When a monk comes to your home, special food is made, they are given the highest seat in the house, and every demand is served with care. Some of my friends who were monks avoided going to other peoples’ homes very often because too much of a fuss was made over their presence.