Monday 5 January 2015

Day 196: Lhasa - A shrinking monastic family

Sera Monastery
Sera monastery sprouts from a hillside outside Lhasa.  The complex looks like it could hold a village full of monks.  "There were two thousand here," we were told.  "Now there are three hundred."

"Are there any monks in your family?" we asked.

The man who had spoken shook his head.  "It's very hard to become a monk now.  The Chinese restrict entry to the monasteries.  If you want to be a monk, you have to go to a Chinese school first."

Red figures still weave their way around the monastery but many rooms are empty.  We were shown the kitchen with its huge vats for rice and vegetables.

"They don't use those pots anymore," we were told.  "They are too big for the remaining monks.  Here are some smaller ones."


But the number of visitors does not seem to have diminished, however the monastic population may have dropped.  The labyrinth of rooms felt crowded with gold buddhas, yellow hats, statues of lamas, and flesh-and-blood devotees - I do not know which were the most plentiful.  It must be hard to be a worshipper here.  You do not have the Catholic luxury of bowing to the Virgin Mary and praying at the altar, then departing the church, for there are many many lamas, many buddhas, so many golden statues requiring devotion.  You may walk through the monastery leaving a trail of one yuan notes behind you, one at each shrine, until even the thickest of pocket books lies empty.  There is no shirking; each icon awaits devotion.  Wide pots replete with the wicks of burning candles stand in front of each golden form and visiting women feed the flames with yak butter until the monastery overflows with it.

What happens to the spare butter?
"What happens to all the spare butter?" we asked.

"It goes to rural monasteries that do not receive so many visitors."

So there are arteries of yak butter pulsing from Lhasa all around the country.

The heart of the monastery was the audience room - a wide space with row on row of cushioned benches in red and gold.  To one side, a door led to a shrine with statues of the seven spiritual sons of Buddha, several times the height of any human son.  More gold.  More turquoise.  More red.  I liked the way the Buddha had adapted to the Tibetan climate.  In Sri Lanka, the Buddha sits with his manly chest bare and a cloth wrapped around his waist; in Tibet, layers of material enfold his upper body to keep him warm against the Himalayan winter.  But this is not the only difference.  Tibetan Buddhism looks like a turbulent religion, full of demons wielding skulls.  They take offerings of beer and chang; I counted one hundred and sixty-eight cans of beer in front of one icon - surely sufficient to stave off (or invoke?!) any number of evil spirits.  The paintings on the walls show turbulent scenes as often as peaceful ones.  Something dark stalks the layers of gold.

There were even touches of humour but these were not intentional.  We could not help chuckling at the words written over the entrance to one anteroom: "please do not come in woman in this temple".  Even as a devout atheist, I thought this went without saying in a religious place.

Sera Monastery
We could not take many photographs (with a charge of 20 yuan or £2 per room, photographers must be selective) but once we were in the open air again we photographed the prayer flags fluttering on the hillside with monks in the foreground, clad in crimson and chatting incongruously on their mobile phones.

When we finally left Sera monastery, our day's quota of golden buddhas was not yet complete; the Jokhang temple remained to be visited.  This is the centre of pilgrimage to Lhasa - the holy temple around which so many worshippers prostrate themselves.  As we entered, we gazed at the bright fabrics hanging from the ceiling and the wooden pillars, the wall paintings and row on row of gold statues.  Every so often I came across one that I thought depicted a woman, only to find that it was a statue of a man after all.  Buddha, it seems, looks somewhat effeminate, but his soft facial features are the closest thing to a woman we encountered.  Amongst hundreds of golden statues, I had seen only men, a fact that grated ever more severely.  Increasingly, the Buddhist temples and monasteries began to impress on me the idea that Tibetan Buddhism's central teaching is that you must be male to be wise.  Women may only be followers.  If that is not the case, the iconography does nothing to help counter the impression.

What were gender roles like in Lhasa before the Chinese invasion, I wondered?  What are they like now?  I thought back to Chengdu with its many women in public life and wondered if there were women with IQs of two hundred who were slowly going mad in their homes in the 'free Tibet' before 1959, or female children who were brighter than their brothers but given less intellectual roles in adult life.  Perhaps.  But perhaps few Tibetan women would harbour that thought.

Lhasa from the temple roof (the Potala Palace in the background)
We stepped up onto the temple roof to look out over the city - to the square lined with its beautiful white houses, its shops of turquoise jewellery, its inhabitants spinning prayer wheels and women wearing the striped apron which shows they are married, hanging over a long dark skirt.  Then we looked further outwards to the high-rise city beyond.  It has encroached a little on the temple square: the brash facade of the Chinese chain restaurant 'Dicos' eyeballs the white houses and the words 'WC' ooze red neon light.

I wonder how Tibet would have developed since 1959 if the Chinese had not invaded?  Surely it would not have continued to consist only of peasant villages and the white central streets of Lhasa?  A modernising world, even under the Dalai Lama's rule, would not have remained entirely outside the gates, would it?  When we look at Lhasa, do we look to find an exact replica of 1959, like a museum piece, sculpted in unbreakable stone?  If there was ever a place for 'then' and 'now' photos, it is this one, but even without an invasion, 'then' and 'now' presumably would not look quite the same.

Facemasks are almost obligatory
As are hair-extensions!
'What ifs', I suppose, are useless.  There is a Chinese majority in Lhasa these days so even a free and fair vote presumably would not help the cause of a free Tibet.  China is here to stay.  (You could say it has been here for a long time; China has owned Tibet for hundreds of years, albeit with greater local autonomy before 1959, and the right to secession is not a given.)  Is it permitted to say that Chinese imports must include useful elements of modernity as well as destructive ones - perhaps some freedom from the oppression of a patriarchal society mingling with the onset of cultural and political oppression?  I wonder how today's health care, sanitation, or transport compare to those before the invasion?  (I have no idea, as yet, of the answers.  I am speculating - like many first visitors to Lhasa no doubt - from a point of utter ignorance.)  But then, modernity does not have to arrive on a tank; it can arrive by other means.  There are more benign ways of bringing rail transport and modern economics to a country than by invasion.  Passing through the police checkpoints once again, the guns remain accusatory, the x-ray machines invasive.

Enjoying tea, Lhasa style!
I went for a final walk through the white streets then into the modern city, with its well-kept riverside path that I would be happy to find in central London, and its immense market where live fish swim around water tanks until they receive the knock-out blow on their heads, which I would absolutely prefer not to see in London!  In another half an hour, I was back among the white streets for the last time.  Tomorrow we head into rural Tibet.  Lhasa farewell.

Books at Sera Monastery
Autumn comes to Sera
Multiple Buddhas
It's auspicious to walk underneath this giant Thanka, back-bent!
The audience room at Sera
Stand 2 metres away from the wall, close your eyes, put a finger out and walk forwards.
It's considered lucky if your finger finds this hole in the wall!
Ancient and modern prostrating at Jokhang. Is there an app for that?
Courtyard at Jokhang
Susan and Chris taking tea
Prostration is everywhere
Even the Chinese military find Lhasa photogenic
More ancient and modern contrasts in Lhasa
Beautiful jewellery and head-ware
Prayers in Lhasa
Lhasa by night

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