“Buddha Doesn’t Want To See Your Legs”

We spent much of our time in Tibet visiting Buddhist monasteries and temples. Their beauty and spirituality was offset with the sadness of knowing that so few of them remain. After the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, unrest among the Tibetan people escalated and culminated in the Tibetan Uprising of 1959. Many Tibetans, including the 14th Dalai Lama, sought asylum in India. In the years following 1959, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, there was wholesale destruction of Tibetan religious buildings and artifacts by the Chinese. All but a few dozen of more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed.

Drepung Monastery monastery — home of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Dalai Lamas — is one that survived. About 10 kilometers from Lhasa, Drepung was built in 1416 and was home to over 10,000 monks before what the Chinese euphemistically call the “Liberation” of Tibet. Here we saw our first prayer wheels, which people set in motion as they walk in circles around the building in a clockwise direction as a form of prayer or meditation. Our big American feet had a hard time climbing the ladders built for little Tibetan monk feet.

Since it was a hot day, I removed the leg bottoms from convertible pants. Our guide Dolma told me to put them back on before going into any of the chapels because “Buddha doesn’t want to see your legs.” We quickly learned that we’d need to pay a smallish fee (20 yuan = about $3.20 US) to take photographs inside the chapels. It was well worth it the price. The large candle below is actually made from yak butter, which people bring to the chapels as an offering.

We couldn’t get into a few of the chapels …

… so we did some souvenir shopping …

… and had lunch at the on-site restaurant, where the decor shifted from Buddha to NBA all stars.

We next visited the Sera Monastery. Founded in 1416, Sera is home of the Gelukpa Order (the Dalai Lama’s sect). Here, as at Drepung, many of the monks renounced their vows to take up arms during the Tibetan Uprising. We arrived in time to witness the action in the Debating Courtyard, where each afternoon monks debate  the teachings of Buddha and Buddhist philosophy. Monks sitting on the ground are questioned by monks standing over them. The standing monks clap their hands together for emphasis, palms together if they agree with what the seated monk has said and right palm up if they disagree. It was a blast to watch them discuss issues with so much energy.

I asked Dolma about this painting at our hotel in Lhasa. She said that Tibet is in the shape of a dragon lying on the ground. At the heart of the dragon is the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred site in Tibet.

Jokhang Temple was built in 642 by King Songsten Gumpo, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Pilgrims walk for days or weeks to visit Jokhang and see the face of the Compassion Buddha inside. (Photos were not allowed.) Outside the temple, people do hundreds of sun-salutation type of movements as a form of prayer. I bought flowers from one of the many flower sellers to lay in front of the Compassion Buddha. (Note that my legs are covered.) The courtyard area adjacent to Johkang Temple houses several beautifully ornate thrones of the Dalai Lama.

Our next stop was Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Located in the heart of Lhasa, Potala Palace is a popular site for circumambulation (fancy word for walking around a sacred object). Parts of the palace date back to 637. The “newer” portions were built by the Fifth Dalai Lama in the mid to late 1600s. The hike up the front steps gets your heart rate going, especially at Lhasa’s altitude of 12,000 feet. Pictures inside the temples weren’t permitted, but the views from outside were wonderful as well. My troll (Aurora) was happy to find a troll-sized rock with the inscription Om Mani Padme Hum, a mantra commonly used by Tibetan Buddhists to invoke compassion.

From Lhasa, we took a long bus ride to Gyantse to visit the Pelkor Chode Monastery and Kumbum Stupa. The large white wall on the hillside in the first photo below is for hanging thangkas (huge paintings of Buddha) on special occasions. Kumbum — Tibetan for “100,000 holy images” — is aptly named, with 108 art-filled chapels scattering its multiple floors. We even found a Cell Phone Buddha (fifth photo below), and Aurora rode on a dragon. (You know how trolls are: she had to outdo my yak ride.)

Our final stop was the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. Founded in 1447 by the First Dalai Lama, Tashi Lhunpo is the main seat of the Panchen Lama, the traditional teacher of the Dalai Lama. Dolma explained that the circumambulating pilgrims at Tashi Lhumpo walk as many circles as their age, using “rock calculators” (pictured below) to keep track.

In the village outside Tashi Lhunpo, we saw that young monks are like teenage boys all over the world, hanging out on street corners with their friends, enjoying a beautiful sunny day. I hope for their sake, and ours, that Tibet’s future is much brighter than its recent past.

If you’d like to learn more about Tibet and the fight for its freedom, visit FreeTibet.org.

Tashi Delek, Tibet!

Arriving at the airport in Lhasa, Tibet, our travel group (including my troll, Aurora) was welcomed by our guide with the traditional Tibetan greeting of “tashi delek”, which means good fortune. We were also “greeted” by Chinese security, who searched our bags for anything relating to the Dalai Lama and took my passport into a separate room for a while without explanation. You get no stamp on your passport indicating that you’ve been to Tibet. If you ask, they will — begrudgingly — give you a China stamp. Our experience at the airport set the tone for our six-day stay in Tibet: a surreal mix of the spirituality and warmth of the Tibetan people and culture, and the constant dark presence of Chinese security forces that have had a stranglehold on Tibet since the 1950s.

It wasn’t long before we saw our first yak, the official animal of Tibet. About 85 percent of the world’s yak population lives in Tibet. That’s about 10 million yaks. We ate yak burgers (not bad). Check out the brown circles stacked on top of the homes in the last photo below. They’re 8-inch circles of dried yak dung, which Tibetan villagers use to heat their homes.

The breathtaking Tibetan landscape is dominated by the Himalayas. Our drive through the countryside took us to altitudes in excess of 17,000 feet. (FYI: 5,248 meters = 17,217 feet.) Thank god for Diamox!

Tibetans string prayer flags and white scarves throughout the countryside and peaks in the Himalayas to bring blessings. Traditionally, prayer flags come in five colors, arranged from left to right in specific order: blue, white, red, green and yellow. Blue symbolizes the sky, white symbolizes water, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes air, and yellow symbolizes earth.

The Tibetan people are gracious and beautiful, with their black hair, ready smiles and flushed cheeks. Our guide Dolma (with Aurora below) left Tibet at the age of 15, walking over the Himalayas and through Nepal to reach India, where she attended school. A death in her family 10 years ago made her return to Tibet, once again walking home. Maria von Trapp has nothing on Dolma!

Chinese security was enforcing the “no photographs” rule at the border crossing, but I managed to sneak a quick pic of one of the many Sherpas (most of whom were women). I will never again complain about carrying a few bags of groceries.

Next post: “Buddha Doesn’t Want To See Your Legs” (our tour of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet).

The Air We Breathe

I returned from Kathmandu late last night. More on my other-worldly experiences there and in India and Tibet to follow. Today, I want to share the news that my Peace Corps odyssey has come to an end. I debated whether to write a post about it. I don’t want to discourage anyone who’s currently in, or thinking about joining, Peace Corps. And I’d be a liar if I said I don’t care about being judged for backing out of something I had planned to do. Those concerns are outweighed by my desire to put my genuine self – the good, the bad and the ugly – into my posts, in the hope of helping someone who’s going through a similar experience. So here goes.

When I decided to apply for Peace Corps, I pictured myself living in a village or small city in South America, habla-ing Espanol, and helping people improve their skills and education to make their lives better. I put South America as my preference on my Peace Corps application and started investigating places to brush up on my Spanish skills. During my Peace Corps interview, I was told they only send people to South America who are already fluent in Spanish.

I was nominated to teach English at a university in China. Anxious to learn more about what that experience would be like, I searched for books about volunteering for Peace Corps in China. I hit the jackpot with Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, by Michael Levy (the “Kosher” part referring to the fact that Levy is Jewish). Levy liked his experience in China. The intent of his book is not to discourage people from joining Peace Corps.

But Levy wrote about things that were news to me. Did you know that sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China? That nearly 200 Chinese cities fail to meet minimal air quality standards? And that fifty percent of China’s rivers and lakes are so polluted that they’re not even fit for industrial usage, and ninety percent of China’s urban groundwater is contaminated?

Levy describes his airplane’s “slow descent into a brown soup of pollution” and an “industrial nightmare” in Chengdu (the capital city of the Sichuan province and Peace Corp’s headquarters in China):

“I imagined the capillary veins in my lungs recoiling in horror as breath after contracted breath dumped carcinogenic particulate matter into my previously healthy chest cavity. It wouldn’t be long before my Chinese teacher would tell me that smoking cigarettes was actually healthy because it prepared one’s lungs for Chinese air. The tobacco, she insisted, served as a vaccine against the smog. This seemed far-fetched to me, though I reconsidered my convictions after the Peace Corp nurse advised us to cease all exercise. An increased heart rate, she warned us, would lead to deeper breathing which, in Chengdu, meant a more profoundly damaged cardiovascular system. Best to sit and smoke, perhaps.”

This seemed far-fetched to me, too. How could any country, especially a world power like China, be in such horrendous environmental condition in 2012? Then the Universe handed me a gift. I went for my annual physical at Northwestern and my regular doctor was on vacation. I saw another doctor who recently returned from several years of living in China.

She confirmed the dangers of breathing Chinese air. After living in China for two years, a CT scan of my lungs would look like that of a life-long smoker. Knowing that I’m on Synthroid (a prescription thyroid medication), she also told me about her mistake of getting a prescription filled in China. Many commonly used U.S. medications aren’t available in China, or don’t contain the same ingredients, or are counterfeit. She became seriously ill from the prescription medication and had to return to the U.S. for several months of detox.

Not exercising or taking my thyroid meds for two years would be compounded by what Levy describes as the “oil heavy” Chinese diet, consisting of “fried dough for breakfast every morning and piles of greasy meats for lunch and dinner” (something  I experienced first hand during my week in Tibet, which is officially — albeit very, very sadly — part of China). And the meat frequently comes from man’s best friend. Lassie. Rover. Toto. Levy describes walking past the “Dog Meat King” every day on his way to his classroom: “Its name – as well as the carcasses that dangled in its windows – made me pretty sure they weren’t serving chicken.”

Not. What. I. Bargained. For.

Sometimes that thing you’re pursuing with all of your energy turns out not to be the right thing for you. But if you’re lucky, and if you’re open to it, you learn from the journey. You learn about yourself, the world, and what truly matters in life. In this case, I learned that while I was willing to sacrifice my material possessions, I’m not willing to sacrifice my health. I also learned how lucky we are to find ourselves living in a place where we can step outside and breathe the air without worrying about what our CT scans will look like as a result.

I still have visions of going to South America for volunteer work. Only this time I plan to go to Guatemala in 2013 to help build schools from recycled materials with an organization called Save The World Today (featured in an article in the September 2012 edition of Oprah’s “O” magazine). Did I mention they don’t eat dogs in Guatemala?

In Search of Shangri La

I’m taking a hiatus from blogging to travel through the Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet. Having never been to that part of the world and needing to literally get away from it all, I couldn’t be more excited. Watching Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon” one too many times has lodged an illogical hope in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, we’ll stumble upon Shangri La. Or maybe we’ll have an Indiana-Jones type of adventure in Kathmandu. Even if that doesn’t happen, we’ll learn about the Nepalese and Tibetan people and cultures, and have up close and personal views of some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth.

In preparation for the trip, our group leaders gave us the following warning:

“Do NOT carry any pictures of the Dalai Lama, Free Tibet posters or T-shirts, Tibetan flags, any political magazines or books, etc. The Chinese government is very strict about this and may not allow you into the country or may deport you from the country if you possess any such material. Furthermore, your local Tibetan guide is highly regulated with regards to what he can and cannot discuss about Tibet, its politics, its religion, and/or its history. You may ask your guide questions but should he not want to discuss it, PLEASE do NOT push him as (like it or not) his livelihood depends on his following prescribed rules.”

Just last week, we were informed that the Chinese government has unexpectedly, without reason, declared that no foreign tourists will be allowed to visit Tibet from October 1st and beyond. Also, no tourists are allowed to visit the Mount Everest base camp, which was going to be a highlight of our trip.

My natural inclination is to be angry with the Chinese government. How can you not like the Dalai Lama? It’s like not liking chocolate-chip cookies fresh from the oven. And why are you blocking foreign tourists from visiting Tibet?

But since I’ve read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, I know better than to react with anger. As the Dalai Lama emphasizes, it’s important to avoid negative emotions such as anger and hatred and focus on cultivating positive emotions:

“For example, so far as our own dealings with China are concerned, even if there is a likelihood of some feeling of hatred arising, we deliberately check ourselves and try to reduce that, try to consciously develop a feeling of compassion toward the Chinese. I think countermeasures can ultimately be more effective without feelings of anger or hatred.”

“If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.”

I may not be able to bring the Dalai Lama’s books into Tibet, but I will bring what I’ve learned from him about compassion, kindness and love. And that is its own kind of Shangri La.