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Musings From Tibet III

It seems I somehow didn’t publish post II on Friday. So today I’m doing parts II and III. This was first posted August 15, 2007. This is the last part of Angela’s email on Tibet. Unfortunately I don’t have her pictures to post with this.

There are many arts that come out of Tibetan monasteries, some of which I have pictures of here. Some of my pictures are from Rekong which is actually thought of as the art capitol of Amdo (this upper region of Tibet), possibly even of all Tibet. Mostly they are famous for their thangka painting, which unfortunately I didn’t get to photograph, I only have pictures of the buildings and stupas there, but they are pretty amazing, intricately painted and carved, etc. From Labrang monastery I again have many pictures of the buildings, but I also have some pictures of cham dancing, and the butter sculptures which are both really fascinating art forms. The cham dancing is done by the monks, and it portrays stories of great events in the history of Buddhism. Sometimes it’s the lives of the great masters, or sometimes the bringing of scriptures from India, mythical tales, etc.

The butter sculptures are incredibly intricate and colorful, in this case mostly of great Buddhist masters such as Tsongkaba (founder of the Gelukpa sect), Shakyamuni Buddha, etc., also lots of flowers, and other ritual shapes. The amazing thing about these is that they really are constructed from butter (in case you couldn’t guess that from the name). They make these once a year just before Losar, then keep them throughout the year.

Speaking of butter, food in general seems to be a central theme in Tibetan culture, more so than most other places I’ve seen. The second you enter a house you are offered (practically forced) tea, and bread or whatever other food is sitting around. To refuse is not rude, but it is not really accepted. No matter how full you are, it’s near impossible to get by without at least drinking a cup of tea. This became an entire art form for me, and a very difficult one at that – the art of refusing food. But another thing that I noticed was the fact that whenever I was taking pictures, having food around was essential. If I took a picture of a single person, they usually needed to have a full cup of tea in their hand, and at least a bowl overflowing with bread in front. When I was taking pictures of Jinpa and Gonpu’s (Shedhe’s cousins) homes, they made sure that they moved the bowls of food around so that they were in the picture. After all, if I brought pictures of their homes back to India and there was no food around, they might get worried that their families didn’t have enough to eat. Food heaping is an art for them as it isn’t enough to just fill a bowl with fruit or bread, it has to be heaping so high that it looks ready to collapse if you so much as speak next to it. But alas, after years of practice, it is actually very stable.

You will notice that in the pictures, most of the women wear long strings of red beads around their necks. These are traditional for nomad women, especially in Amdo. They are made out of red coral which is becoming more and more rare in Tibet, and I was surprised to find out that each bead costs between 100-400 Chinese yuen (there are about 7.7 yuen to one US dollar right now). As there are often a hundred or two of these beads on a necklace, the price is often similar to buying a house. This is the way that women literally wear their wealth around their necks as a status symbol. Gold is also very popular, though I recently found out from one of my friends here that gold is a new thing, probably brought in by the Chinese. Apparently at least in some places 10 years ago people only had silver but now gold has become the big thing. Obviously its much more expensive, so again a status symbol. I’m not sure when this came in, as Shedhe values gold much more than silver (we argue about that often as I don’t particularly like gold, but he doesn’t like silver, he thinks it looks cheap) and he’s been here for around 7 years, but one of my friends here said that in her village (which is only a few hours from Labrang) she never even saw gold and she’s been here for around 12 years. Fashion amongst the nomads is very important, and they use it as an opportunity to display their wealth. I was also intrigued to find out that each different village, even if they are only an hour apart from each other have their own distinct fashion. To my eyes it mostly looked the same, but everywhere I went people were telling me that I looked just like a Senko nomad (Senko being the place where Shedhe’s family is from) even when they had no idea who I was staying with. Not only the style of sewing the clothes was different from village to village, but also the way that you tie the chupa/tsarer is different. I not only learned to tie mine from mother, but the ones that I wore were also hers, thus why people recognized the area I was living in. Four hours away, in the town of Rekong the chupas looked very different, even to my untrained eyes.

I was amazed just how different Tibet was from Dharamshala. Being in India I thought that I was learning a lot about Tibet, and though I was, it was nothing compared to actually being there. I could go on for hours about Dharamshala and how/why the people there have changed, but that is an entirely different paper.

The thing that I noticed most about Tibet was just how Chinese it had become, and how much it will continue to do so. In Tibet, I had to be careful to even mention the Dalai Lama, and certainly did not dare to utter the words “Free Tibet.” But while in Dharamshala, I went to many protests for Tibetan freedom, and lived in a city of people who every day fight for it with every fiber of their being and live every day of their lives for the news that they and their families are free at last. After so much of that, I started to believe that it was a possibility. How could it be possible that so many people around the world were fighting for something so noble, and have it not come to fruition? It just didn’t seem possible.

I remember walking home from teaching one day in Tibet, seeing all the Chinese signs painted on walls, the kids in Chinese clothes, all the modern technology and the food wrappers strewn on the side of the street. I started thinking about it, and realized that no matter how much I did not want to admit it, I think Tibet will never really be free from its Chinese colonizer. Though Tibetans work hard to preserve their culture, it is dying out with every new generation, becoming more and more Chinese practically by the minute. China has invested a lot into making Tibet what it is; they just built a new railroad all the way to Lhasa, have set up a huge tourist industry, recently discovered some sort of large ore or iron deposit and have made a lot of money out of the natural resources there. China is an incredibly powerful country, so powerful that nobody in the world, including the US, will stand up to them. To them, there is no reason to give up Tibet, but there is lots of reason to keep it. Upon this realization a very strong sense of grief flew through me, and as I walked into our home to see this old conservative nomad family that I loved so dearly, I nearly wept for the loss that they have to endure every day. Not only have they lost their son Shedhe to exile, but every day they have to watch the destruction of their culture and religion, and live in terrible fear of the people who have surrounded them. I’ve heard stories of the things his parents had to endure after the Chinese occupation (they were relatively young when it happened, but the brutality lasted for a long time), and I see the physical scars and deformities from it on their bodies. I see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Though conditions there are much better now than they were for a long time after the Chinese first came in, it is still a daily struggle. Already they live in a climate which itself makes living difficult, but now they are prisoners in their own lands.

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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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St Peter & Paul’s Cathedral, and Old Mellifont Abbey

First posted Oct. 31, 2007. I’d like to get back to Ireland this year.

I find beauty in stone and architecture, in details and the juxtaposition against sky and flora. St Peter and Paul’s Cathedral was in the town of Trim and not far from the castle. Trim was a very important center at one time. We happened upon the cathedral and just stopped. I loved the sense of age, the details still visible, and that the cemetery was still in use.

The days are blurring together but we arrived in the Newgrange/County Meath area on the Friday evening, then spent Saturday and part of Sunday bopping about before we went north. I can’t remember if we did Trim on Sunday or if it was one of the last things on Saturday. The time of day and that the castle was nearly closed when we hit it makes me think that the cathedral was the last place on Saturday.

We then wandered back to Slaine (that we never did get pictures of nor see the castle because it was booked for weddings). We ate at “the Old Post Office” but had drinks at the pub across the street first until they had space for us. There was a guy playing music but it was 80s tunes. Alas, N.A. rock made its mark everywhere, when we wanted Irish traditional.

So on Sunday, after saying so long to Irene of the Roughgrange B&B right near Newgrange (she was lovely and very friendly) we moved on to Old Mellifont Abbey, a cistercian monastery first founded in 1142 AD by St. Malachy. Of course, it was constructed and expanded over centuries and there were even ruins of one of the old houses on the hill. The rain spittered and spattered but never did more than that.

The detail in the columns were amazing and the sense of age was powerful. I got in trouble at the visitor center for saying we have such little history in Canada. I amended it to say architectural and civic history, because we do have history. But the artifacts of the first Nations were mostly of wood and leather and just as all the places no longer have their roofs in Ireland, we have very little (especially in western Canada) that goes back more than two centuries at most.

The sense of people living, adapting, changing through all those years is stunning. Nature is amazing and what humans have done, both good and bad, awe inspiring too.

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The Stones of Ireland: II

Continued from the previous day’s post.

Kinbane CastleWe travelled to the Cliffs of Moher in northwestern Ireland, the tallest in Europe. Rugged and impressive, they remained formidable to drive up and to look down. The sheer audacity of Kinbane castle in Northern Ireland built down a very steep hill right on the promontory of the North Sea kept it impenetrable for years. Out near Kinvara and in the Burren were the Ailwee Caves, great underground caverns carved millennia ago by a subterranean river, fossils and minerals sparkling like the realm of Hades. Cool, pitch black except when they turned on the lights, and a den for extinct European brown bears, their might was in their endurance and solidity.

The Burren was as impressive in its way as the Giants Causeway. At some point in the ancient past a mountain or volcano erupted, spewing tons of flowing mud down mountain and hill. Eventually it solidified into grey rock but still has that look of a mud flow. Smooth in spots, rippled in others, there are dips that are treacherous to walk over but where wind and rain have blown deposits of soil over the centuries. There in those protected trenches are a myriad of plant life, some uniqe to that area.

The Burren

The Burren butts up to a rugged shoreline near Kinvara, but on the higher hills it is barren stone, short shrubs and the tiny plants that grow in their coves. Everywhere through this area are stone walls and hill forts that were stacked by hand centuries ago. In fact the stone walls are abundant throughout Ireland but rule supreme in the Burren. The stones might be stacked on their edges, resting against each other, placed flat on top of each other, or made with their widest sides facing out. Some are mortared, and they are ageless. They could have been built a week ago or a thousand years ago. They were used as natural boundaries, pens for cattle and sheep and as fortifications. I’ve been told that they now work at protecting species of flora and fauna throughout the emerald isle, working as borders where invasive species don’t encroach.

Upon the Burren with its hard, alien looking surface, unable to really support any crop, somehow people eked out a life, for centuries. And topping it was Poulnabrone Dolmen, a passage tomb made of four giant slabs of stone with a fifth resting atop them like a table. You can look through beneath the table stone, from one world perhaps to the next. It has stood for over 5,000 years, a part of every person’s life who lived upon the Burren.

All lands have stone in one form or another. Rock is the foundation of our world from its magma core to the volcanic eruptions and tectonic shifts that show our planet is alive. From sand and pebble to rock and boulder, stones have always been there to support and shelter. The Irish reuse the stones from any old building torn down, reworking it into something new.

The strong sense of the history of the stones, from the monasteries and castles to the cemetery tombs and headstones, to the walls and hill forts, they all spoke of a true Irish intimacy with stone. There is history, life and death. There is art, utilitarian purpose and mystery. And most of all, there is community; thousand of years of life with each person using what had come before, the ruins or the dead not forgotten but integrated into continuing family rituals. Ireland truly taught me the endurance of time and of stories shown in its stone, its very foundation. stone walls

The picture at the top of my blog is taken from the top of Blarney castle. All pictures are copyrighted.

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The Stones of Ireland: I

Giants Causeway In October, 2007 I travelled to Ireland, a place I had wanted to visit for years. I’m not sure why exactly as there is no Irish in my blood and other countries have more and bigger castles. It was more the sense of rolling green hills and the land of faery, a romantic notion perhaps.

We circumnavigated Ireland in two weeks, going north, then west, then south and east, starting and ending in Dublin. There were some key sites we wanted to see but then let ourselves be guided by road signs and guide books.

This was a mostly outdoor expedition involving trips to old castles and monasteries and some cemeteries, as well as driving through the changing landscape. The history of the architecture and how it had changed over time was fascinating, small enclosures and Viking settlements built over with increasingly sophisticated fortifications or ecclesiastical buildings.

Newgrange and Knowth were amazing in that these structures were built over 5,000 years ago and are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some of the passage tombs fell apart or were scavenged for stones for other buildings and roads. Many of these barrows have a corridor or an interior built with slabs of stone, then dirt is mounded over. Newgrange’s corbeled stone roof has never leaked in 5,000 years. The hummocked hills gave rise to the tales of the homes of the sidhe and the Tuatha de Danan.

Knowth BarrowsOther barrows were built over with time, dirt being added, and villages or cattle settling upon them. Some of their original use is a mystery but some contain bones or human ashes. Others may have been ceremonial or religious structures. Newgrange is the most impressive as it was built upon a hill and the outer wall lined with white quartz (this was rebuilt in more recent times and there is argument as to how it may actually have been placed), which would be striking in the bright sun and visible for miles around.

Giants Causeway on the north coat of Northern Ireland was a natural structure of basalt rock that had been rapidly heated and cooled millennia ago causing large octagonal pillars to form. They break apart in slabs, maintaining their structure and can be walked over like steps. Some form natural seats or chairs. There is a section called the organ because it looks like a giant pipe organ in the hill. There seems to only be that one area in Ireland that has such unique stones.

The castles and monasteries abounded as well as the very old cemetery of Monasterboice with the millennium old tower (imagine Rapunzel) that they believe was used for storage, sanctuary and to watch for marauders. Some of the carvings on pillars still showed wonderful detail; leaves, faces both animal and human, various designs. Some of the blocks of stone seemed to have been placed with a sense of tone, dark and light stones alternating, or smaller pebbles placed in the mortar between larger stones.

Over the centuries many of these castles and churches fell into ruin but they were not abandoned. Tombs and graves pepper every place. The oldest monastery floors are nothing but tomb after tomb. There is nothing to do but walk over the bones of the past. Even walls have been taken over, a person interred into the very foundation and a plaque sealing them in. The oldest readable stones go to the 1700s. Older than that, the words become too worn away, by feet and weather. There are graves dating over a thousand years in some cases, right up to months of the current date.

Some graveyards have been held by the ruling families or clans and there might be dozens of McDonnells buried in one area such as Ballycastle. Other graves are family plots and in the more modern ones, configured by a low fence, a bar, about six inches from the ground. These more modern plots have pebbled glass or stone in different combinations of color, and some flowers, real or not. Some are very individual. Headstones often denote many generations entombed in the plot, going back a century or more. At one Benedictine monastery there was a family of four cleaning and smoothing the stones of their family’s plot on a sunny day.

Continued tomorrow

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