Tag Archives: Cultural Revolution

Musings From Tibet II

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.

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Musings From Tibet I

I first posted July 16, 2007 on my Blogspot blog. I want to make clear that I do not know Angela McDonald. She posted this on a list I was on to do with things nomadic. I asked her permission to post elsewhere. With some of the discussion on my piece “There is No God” I mentioned maybe the Tibetans were the only people that were ruled by a benevolent religion. That got some discussion going that there have been discussions to the contrary.

Unfortunately, I worry some on how much of that might be Chinese propaganda. I then stated that Tibetans ruled by Tibetans (and not Chinese) would probably be less oppressive and who knows as the Dalai Lama has never had a chance to rule since he was a young man. And the guy has won a Nobel Peace Prize and really does have some good and insightful philosophies. But it’s conjecture.

I give you one Westerner’s view of Tibet while living there.  Angela McDonald has spent quite a lot of time living with people in Tibet and teaching English to the monks. She sent it July 7th. This is one of three parts. (I have corrected typos.)

Back in India, and happy to be home. Again here with my friends, people who speak English, and of course, my beloved cows. It was very difficult to leave Tibet, but at the same time, in some ways I was ready to leave. I loved it there very much, but I’ll admit that it was a very intense experience, and after 3months, I was feeling the need to go some place relaxing to recuperate a bit.

Before I left Tibet, Jinpa and I traveled around for about a week before finally arriving in Beijing where I flew to Delhi. It was a lot of fun, Jinpa is great. We went to a few different places in Tibet, then into China. Poor Jinpa, it was difficult for him to travel with  me in Tibet because as a monk, it’s not exactly socially acceptable for him to be wandering around alone with a woman (as the most common way for monks to stop being monks and become lay people is to have sex). Especially since he had taken off his monk robes to avoid extra attention from police (or other people for that matter). We did run into a friend of his from Labrang monastery one time. His friend looked at Jinpa, then looked at me, and then got a very concerned look on his face and whispered to Jinpa, “Are you still a monk?” Jinpa laughed and assured him that he was. I’m hoping that no rumors circulated in Labrang about that. Oh, the scandals I create…… 😉

I’m glad that I got to travel around Tibet at least a little. I think my favorite place was Rekong. It is known as the art capitol of Tibet (and I really love art as many of you know), and the monasteries were just incredible. The landscape was also wonderful as the mountains were filled with forests and rivers, so it looked a lot like Oregon and Dharamshala. Made me feel a bit homesick. Labrang is beautiful, but its basically all grasslands, there are very few trees.

We also went to Kumbum monastery which, though beautiful, was actually rather depressing. It was once one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet, but now it is only a Chinese tourist attraction. There is very little monastic activity there. The monks didn’t even really speak Tibetan, they mostly just spoke Chinese. I asked Jinpa what language they taught Buddhism in at that monastery and he looked at me strange and said “Tibetan of course!” But when I pointed out to him that the monks barely spoke Tibetan he leaned down to me and whispered “The monks at this monastery don’t really know much about Buddhism anymore.” Almost all of the monasteries in Tibet were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (I saw ruins of them all over Tibet), but the Chinese are actually allowing them to be rebuilt now, mostly for tourist purposes. They are still trying to restrict monastic activity by putting limits on the number of monks admitted, imprisoning and intimidating many monks, not allowing certain teachings, etc. but they discovered that they could make money on the tourism from the monasteries so they are allowing them to be partially rebuilt. It’s very strange, and makes me really sad to see. Also, in many of the monasteries the tour guides are Chinese (not in Labrang monastery, the tour guides there are all monks, including Jinpa) who don’t really know much about Buddhism or the monasteries, but instead just make things up to tell the tourists. Jinpa listened to the tour guides as we went to different places and many times I heard him whispering under his breath “That’s not true.” I was amazed to see just how much the Tibetan culture was perverted and changed by Chinese influence. It was really difficult to see…..

It was hard to pry myself away from Tibet. Saying goodbye to Mother and Father in Labrang was really difficult, then having to say goodbye to Jinpa in Beijing was hard again. But I am confident that I will be back there again. Jinpa and I are plotting to get me back there next year to really study Tibetan language, and he and I have several projects we want to do together (teaching English, writing books, etc.) when I return. So many things to do…..

And now back to India! The first few days here were strange, there is always a little culture shock when I switch countries. I had to get used to things like running water, toilets, pants, answering to the name Angela, and eating good food again. It’s been nice, but I still find myself occasionally in the market looking around for a field to pee in. Then I remember where I am and instead I just go to a bathroom. Weird…..

I’m still basking in the small glories of life such as toilet paper (but I still find myself rationing it ands tucking napkins in my pockets at restaurants), showers, tampons, people who speak English, peanut butter, etc. But things like tsampa, yogurt, and milk are really disappointing now. You win some, you lose some. But it’s funny how much you appreciate small things like these after you go without them for so long.

I’ve had bad luck on weather. When I left India in April it had just fully turned into summer and was hot, sunny, and absolutely beautiful. Then I went to Tibet and it was snowing. It continued to snow off and on in Tibet until I left, and when I got back to India, the monsoon season had started. It’s still nice and warm here, but there is torrential rain every day (and lots of awesome thunderstorms) which means that everything is in a constant state of dampness. Everything in our house is completely moldy yet again,and the cement walls are literally deteriorating from it. There is not much point in doing laundry as it takes about 4 days for anything to dry, and at that point it is also moldy. If you make laundry a 24-hour job for a few days you can get it done quicker, but that means taking laundry in and out of the house (and hanging it on the line outside) every couple hours between the rains. We’re to busy for that, so I’m just getting used to everything smelling like mold.

As soon as I came back, I was practically mobbed by my friends who were anxiously awaiting news and pictures of their families. It’s been fun to show everyone pictures of Labrang, and especially of their families, as many of them have not seen pictures of their families for many many years. All of Shedhe’s cousins came up the day after I arrived and they were practically bouncing up and down when they saw me. It was very cute. I had so many things to bring here that when I left Labrang I left most of my clothes there and just packed my bags to the brim with all the things for people here. I must have been quite a sight getting into the airport, I probably looked like an overburdened animal (I’d say a loaded yak, but I don’t have a big wood ring through my septum and really I’m just not quite that big).

Yesterday was the 73rd birthday of  H.H. The Dalai Lama, and there was a big celebration at the temple. Shedhe got me to dress up in the fancy nomadic clothing that his mother sent with me from Tibet, so I again became a blonde haired, blue eyed Tibetan nomad walking through the streets of India. Always an odd sight. But it was fun to wear a chupa again, though I didn’t wear it for long as that thing is made of wool and it’s hot here! Today, the Dalai Lama started a 7-day teaching which is wonderful as always. I love being here for his teachings and getting to see him. Never experienced anything else like it, I feel very blessed to have this opportunity.
All in all things here are good. Getting settled back in, and having a good time relaxing. Of course, it didn’t take me long to pick up new students, and as soon as the teachings are finished I’ll start studying Tibetan language and Thangka painting again I hope. There are just to many things here to learn, I feel like a kid in a candy shop…..

Take care, Angela

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