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Encounter with a Living Buddha


Tibetan prayer flags flutter. Copyright: Lucy Moss.On the roof of the world, amid the unforgiving landscape of the Tibetan highlands, lies an ancient temple of great holiness. Hidden in a rugged valley, 4,500 meters above sea level, Tsurphu Monastery has been the destination of countless pilgrims for over 800 years. For here are enshrined not golden idols, but a deity of flesh and blood: the Karmapa, one of the fabled Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism. The 17th reincarnation of the monastery's 12th-century founder, he was born in 1985 and is thus still a child: a teenage god.

 

Since his ordination at the tender age of 8, the Karmapa has attracted a great deal of notice, from the awed reverence of devout Tibetan pilgrims to the attentions of the highest Chinese politicians. He has also attracted the curiosity of a trickle of foreign travelers, some practicing Buddhists, others like myself drawn by the mystery and holiness of this tradition that stretches back through the mists of time.

The Tsurphu monastery is situated in a fittingly beautiful - and remote - locale. Copyright: Lucy Moss.The monastery's buildings, backed up against the valley's craggy cliffs, form a composition in shades of brown. Massive sienna- painted walls slope up to pinnacled golden roofs, which flash and sparkle in the bright sunlight. The complex is entered through a large courtyard. Pilgrims lounge in shady alcoves and preoccupied monks hurry about their tasks. To one side, long white ceremonial scarves called khatas are on sale, billowing gently in the breeze. Suddenly there is a flurry of activity: a stream of little boys, clad in the maroon robes of monks, spills out into the courtyard. Released from their studies for a while, they play tag in the sunlight, teasing a pet goat, while others lug giant kettles over to the well. Spotting the foreign visitors, they offer infectious smiles and shout, "Hello! Hello"! We smile and gesticulate and snap photos of these lively little monks, but soon they lose interest and run off. They've seen foreigners before.

An elderly monk hawks bowls of sweet black tea from a dark storeroom, heavy with the pungent smell of yak butter and incense. He is more intrigued by us than the children were. After looking us up and down, he giggles, then summons his friends to inspect us. All are fascinated by our pale skins, our tallness and the size of our feet. We inquire about the possibility of an audience with the Karmapa and are told to return tomorrow at one o'clock when we may join the Tibetan pilgrims to receive a blessing.

Monks on break from their studies. Copyright: Lucy Moss.At dusk we return to the courtyard, now deserted and swaddled in shadows and silence. The temple doors are firmly shut and we imagine the little monks safely tucked up in their dormitory beds. Do they cry for their mothers? Are they playfellows of the child Buddha? Suddenly an otherworldly chant echoes out from within the temple walls, rising and falling, but otherwise unchanging. Then as abruptly as the eerie liturgy started the sound dies away and nothing more is heard. The heavy appliqué hangings across the temple entrance snap back and forth in the breeze. A lone dog scrabbles in the shadows. Standing in the empty courtyard we feel like aliens; interlopers from another reality, permitted to observe but understanding nothing.

I awake the next morning in a foul mood. I have been struggling against altitude sickness since leaving Lhasa almost 1,500 meters below. During a restless night, it got the upper hand and has left me with a formidable headache and a general feeling of malaise. Quite irrationally I begin to feel hostile towards Tibet, Tsurphu, and in particular the holy child whom we are soon to meet. Nevertheless, I arrive at the temple just before one o'clock and grudgingly purchase the ceremonial khata scarf that each petitioner must present to the Karmapa as an offering and sign of respect. My negative attitude really kicks in as I join the long queue of pilgrims which snakes across the courtyard. Many have traveled on foot for weeks or even months, enduring great hardships for this opportunity.

A blast on a conch shell pierces the air and we are ushered into the audience hall by a stocky, unsmiling monk. It is a spacious chamber of painted beams, heavy brocade fringes and streamers, every surface decorated with wall hangings and murals of deities. Holy statues are swathed in ceremonial scarves. Spirals of incense coil up through the heavy air. Butter lamps burn in neat rows, illuminating dark corners, and shafts of sunlight filtering down from high windows pick out the slow dance of particles of ancient dust. On an ornate dais at the far side of this fabulous room sits the Karmapa, clad in robes of magenta and saffron. I am startled by the intensity of his stare. He is a boy with the eyes of a hawk, missing nothing, and possessed of more solemn dignity than seems possible for his 13 years. It is suddenly not difficult to believe that we are indeed in the presence of an enlightened being.

A mural on a temple wall. Copyright: Lucy Moss.The queue moves forward as, one by one, the pilgrims reverently receive their blessing, with expressions of joy on their faces. Still I feel defiance and resentment and a sudden urge to turn back and escape this stuffy chamber. But it is my turn and I am pushed forward into the presence of the child Buddha. He stares at me, unblinking, seeing right through me, and for a moment I am paralyzed. "Step forward," a monk hisses, and I do, automatically adding my khata offering to the bulging pile. Leaning forward, the Karmapa presses a ritual implement to my forehead in blessing, an attendant monk hands me an auspicious red thread and I am quickly ushered back out into the harsh sunlight of the courtyard. The audience is over.A knot of foreigners quickly forms in the courtyard, eager to exchange impressions. They talk of having glimpsed great compassion, serenity and love and are surprised at my non-committal attitude. Imitating the Tibetan pilgrims, they knot the red threads around their necks and wrists, where they should remain until they eventually disintegrate. I however trudge a little way up the valley to a prayer wall, a tumble of stones inscribed with the eternal mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum." I secure the thread under one of these prayer stones, hoping that this will not offend.

The following day we head back down the valley and, as the altitude decreases, I rapidly feel better. I reflect on my brief audience with the Karmapa and it occurs to me that perhaps he sensed the hostility in my soul, magnified it and reflected it back to me like a mirror. It may be that those who approach in a spirit of humility and love encounter great love and compassion in return, while those wrapped up in their troubles receive a stark reminder that the path to enlightenment lies in the renunciation of the self and the conquering of the ego.

Stopping for lunch we entertain a group of curious local children with songs and games, then follow them on a steep climb to another, smaller monastery. We are greeted graciously by the monks and invited to receive a blessing from the Pawo Rinpoche. We step into the audience hall and are presented to a gorgeous, chubby little boy of about 3 years of age, ensconced among plump silken cushions. He dispenses his duties with great solemnity and concentration, then reaches out to an aged monk who gathers him up in his arms with enormous affection. We are each handed an auspicious red thread. I tie mine around my wrist and wear it until it falls apart.

Local children, clearly delighted. Copyright: Lucy Moss. Epilogue:

Later I learn that I may have been among the last to visit the Karmapa in Tibet.

On Jan. 5, 2000, the Karmapa arrived in India after a daring escape from Tsurphu. His motive is believed to have been his great distress at the lack of religious freedom permitted to Tibetans under Chinese rule. He is now residing with the Dalai Lama at the site of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dharamsala, India. The Pawo Rimpoche remains at Nenang Monastery in Tibet, facing an uncertain future.

When You Go:

Tibet is not a particularly easy place to visit, but with persistence and a little advanced planning it is quite possible.

Transport: There are several overland routes into Tibet, however most travelers choose to fly into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, usually from Chengdu on China Southwest Airlines: www.catmando.com/cswa-ktm/index.html. Chengdu, in China's Sichuan Province, can be reached from Hong Kong on Dragon Air: www.dragonair.com.

Visas and permits: Most visitors will need a visa to visit China, plus a further permit to travel to Tibet. All travelers to Tibet must join a tour group, which can be arranged by a large number of travel agencies, both in China and abroad. The rules are ever changing and you are advised to consult your nearest Chinese Embassy for up-to-date information.

See also: www.china-embassy.org/Visa/Visa.htm and www.tibetinfo.net/tibet-file/visas.htm. Accommodation: There are numerous budget hotels and hostels catering to foreign travelers in Lhasa. For those who would like a little more comfort, the Lhasa Hotel (formerly the Holiday Inn) is the best hotel in Tibet, though nothing special by Western standards. There is a small guesthouse at Tsurphu Monastery, but this may now be closed to foreign visitors. It may also be possible to rough camp in the vicinity of the monastery.

Monks gather on the monastery's steps. Copyright: Lucy Moss.

Currency: The local currency is the Chinese Yuan. For current exchange rates check: www.oanda.com/converter/classic. U.S. dollars may also be used for some transactions.

Altitude Sickness: Many travelers in Tibet will suffer from some symptoms of altitude sickness. In very rare cases it can be fatal. It is highly recommended that you spend at least three days in Lhasa to acclimatize before going up to Tsurphu. The only certain way to treat altitude sickness is to descend to lower altitudes.

Recommended Reading:
Tibet: a travel survival kit (1999) Lonely Planet.
Tibet Handbook, with Bhutan, by Gyurme Dorje (1996) Passport Books.
Tibet Handbook – a pilgrimage guide, by Victor Chan (1994) Moon Handbooks.
Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer (1996) Tarcher/Putman, New York.

Tsurphu Monastery and the Karmapa: Tsurphu Monastery is located 26 kilometers from the nearest paved road, approximately 70 kilometers northwest of Lhasa. The journey from Lhasa to Tsurphu takes approximately half a day in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Prior to the Karmapa's flight to India, minibuses ran this route daily; however, this may no longer be the case. There appears to have been a crackdown on religious activities last year and it is possible that Tsurphu is now off-limits to visitors.

Tsurphu Monastery, seat of the Karmapa, was founded in 1187 by Dusum Khenypa, the originator of the Karma Kagyupa suborder of Tibetan Buddhism and instigator of the system of reincarnation whereby incarnate lamas are reborn within a lineage. This practice has since been adopted by such lineages as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

Urgen Thinley Dorji, born in 1985 to a nomadic Tibetan family, was enthroned at Tsurphu as the 17th Karmapa in September 1992. The Chinese Government officially recognized the enthronement – the first time this had occurred. However, despite the young Karmapa's favored status with Beijing, he encountered numerous frustrations and conflicts, which eventually led to his dramatic flight to India. The Chinese authorities claim that the Karmapa will soon be returning to Tibet, however this appears extremely unlikely.

For more information on the Karmapa and his North American monastic seat in the Catskill Mountains, see: www.kagyu.org or www.nalandabodhi.org

Monks on break from their studies. Copyright: Lucy Moss.At dusk we return to the courtyard, now deserted and swaddled in shadows and silence. The temple doors are firmly shut and we imagine the little monks safely tucked up in their dormitory beds. Do they cry for their mothers? Are they playfellows of the child Buddha? Suddenly an otherworldly chant echoes out from within the temple walls, rising and falling, but otherwise unchanging. Then as abruptly as the eerie liturgy started the sound dies away and nothing more is heard. The heavy appliqué hangings across the temple entrance snap back and forth in the breeze. A lone dog scrabbles in the shadows. Standing in the empty courtyard we feel like aliens; interlopers from another reality, permitted to observe but understanding nothing.

I awake the next morning in a foul mood. I have been struggling against altitude sickness since leaving Lhasa almost 1,500 meters below. During a restless night, it got the upper hand and has left me with a formidable headache and a general feeling of malaise. Quite irrationally I begin to feel hostile towards Tibet, Tsurphu, and in particular the holy child whom we are soon to meet. Nevertheless, I arrive at the temple just before one o'clock and grudgingly purchase the ceremonial khata scarf that each petitioner must present to the Karmapa as an offering and sign of respect. My negative attitude really kicks in as I join the long queue of pilgrims which snakes across the courtyard. Many have traveled on foot for weeks or even months, enduring great hardships for this opportunity.

A blast on a conch shell pierces the air and we are ushered into the audience hall by a stocky, unsmiling monk. It is a spacious chamber of painted beams, heavy brocade fringes and streamers, every surface decorated with wall hangings and murals of deities. Holy statues are swathed in ceremonial scarves. Spirals of incense coil up through the heavy air. Butter lamps burn in neat rows, illuminating dark corners, and shafts of sunlight filtering down from high windows pick out the slow dance of particles of ancient dust. On an ornate dais at the far side of this fabulous room sits the Karmapa, clad in robes of magenta and saffron. I am startled by the intensity of his stare. He is a boy with the eyes of a hawk, missing nothing, and possessed of more solemn dignity than seems possible for his 13 years. It is suddenly not difficult to believe that we are indeed in the presence of an enlightened being.

A mural on a temple wall. Copyright: Lucy Moss.The queue moves forward as, one by one, the pilgrims reverently receive their blessing, with expressions of joy on their faces. Still I feel defiance and resentment and a sudden urge to turn back and escape this stuffy chamber. But it is my turn and I am pushed forward into the presence of the child Buddha. He stares at me, unblinking, seeing right through me, and for a moment I am paralyzed. "Step forward," a monk hisses, and I do, automatically adding my khata offering to the bulging pile. Leaning forward, the Karmapa presses a ritual implement to my forehead in blessing, an attendant monk hands me an auspicious red thread and I am quickly ushered back out into the harsh sunlight of the courtyard. The audience is over.A knot of foreigners quickly forms in the courtyard, eager to exchange impressions. They talk of having glimpsed great compassion, serenity and love and are surprised at my non-committal attitude. Imitating the Tibetan pilgrims, they knot the red threads around their necks and wrists, where they should remain until they eventually disintegrate. I however trudge a little way up the valley to a prayer wall, a tumble of stones inscribed with the eternal mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum." I secure the thread under one of these prayer stones, hoping that this will not offend.

The following day we head back down the valley and, as the altitude decreases, I rapidly feel better. I reflect on my brief audience with the Karmapa and it occurs to me that perhaps he sensed the hostility in my soul, magnified it and reflected it back to me like a mirror. It may be that those who approach in a spirit of humility and love encounter great love and compassion in return, while those wrapped up in their troubles receive a stark reminder that the path to enlightenment lies in the renunciation of the self and the conquering of the ego.

Stopping for lunch we entertain a group of curious local children with songs and games, then follow them on a steep climb to another, smaller monastery. We are greeted graciously by the monks and invited to receive a blessing from the Pawo Rinpoche. We step into the audience hall and are presented to a gorgeous, chubby little boy of about 3 years of age, ensconced among plump silken cushions. He dispenses his duties with great solemnity and concentration, then reaches out to an aged monk who gathers him up in his arms with enormous affection. We are each handed an auspicious red thread. I tie mine around my wrist and wear it until it falls apart.

Local children, clearly delighted. Copyright: Lucy Moss. Epilogue:

Later I learn that I may have been among the last to visit the Karmapa in Tibet.

On Jan. 5, 2000, the Karmapa arrived in India after a daring escape from Tsurphu. His motive is believed to have been his great distress at the lack of religious freedom permitted to Tibetans under Chinese rule. He is now residing with the Dalai Lama at the site of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dharamsala, India. The Pawo Rimpoche remains at Nenang Monastery in Tibet, facing an uncertain future.

When You Go:

Tibet is not a particularly easy place to visit, but with persistence and a little advanced planning it is quite possible.

Transport: There are several overland routes into Tibet, however most travelers choose to fly into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, usually from Chengdu on China Southwest Airlines: www.catmando.com/cswa-ktm/index.html. Chengdu, in China's Sichuan Province, can be reached from Hong Kong on Dragon Air: www.dragonair.com.

Visas and permits: Most visitors will need a visa to visit China, plus a further permit to travel to Tibet. All travelers to Tibet must join a tour group, which can be arranged by a large number of travel agencies, both in China and abroad. The rules are ever changing and you are advised to consult your nearest Chinese Embassy for up-to-date information.

See also: www.china-embassy.org/Visa/Visa.htm and www.tibetinfo.net/tibet-file/visas.htm. Accommodation: There are numerous budget hotels and hostels catering to foreign travelers in Lhasa. For those who would like a little more comfort, the Lhasa Hotel (formerly the Holiday Inn) is the best hotel in Tibet, though nothing special by Western standards. There is a small guesthouse at Tsurphu Monastery, but this may now be closed to foreign visitors. It may also be possible to rough camp in the vicinity of the monastery.

Monks gather on the monastery's steps. Copyright: Lucy Moss.

Currency: The local currency is the Chinese Yuan. For current exchange rates check: www.oanda.com/converter/classic. U.S. dollars may also be used for some transactions.

Altitude Sickness: Many travelers in Tibet will suffer from some symptoms of altitude sickness. In very rare cases it can be fatal. It is highly recommended that you spend at least three days in Lhasa to acclimatize before going up to Tsurphu. The only certain way to treat altitude sickness is to descend to lower altitudes.

Recommended Reading:
Tibet: a travel survival kit (1999) Lonely Planet.
Tibet Handbook, with Bhutan, by Gyurme Dorje (1996) Passport Books.
Tibet Handbook – a pilgrimage guide, by Victor Chan (1994) Moon Handbooks.
Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer (1996) Tarcher/Putman, New York.

Tsurphu Monastery and the Karmapa: Tsurphu Monastery is located 26 kilometers from the nearest paved road, approximately 70 kilometers northwest of Lhasa. The journey from Lhasa to Tsurphu takes approximately half a day in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Prior to the Karmapa's flight to India, minibuses ran this route daily; however, this may no longer be the case. There appears to have been a crackdown on religious activities last year and it is possible that Tsurphu is now off-limits to visitors.

Tsurphu Monastery, seat of the Karmapa, was founded in 1187 by Dusum Khenypa, the originator of the Karma Kagyupa suborder of Tibetan Buddhism and instigator of the system of reincarnation whereby incarnate lamas are reborn within a lineage. This practice has since been adopted by such lineages as the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

Urgen Thinley Dorji, born in 1985 to a nomadic Tibetan family, was enthroned at Tsurphu as the 17th Karmapa in September 1992. The Chinese Government officially recognized the enthronement – the first time this had occurred. However, despite the young Karmapa's favored status with Beijing, he encountered numerous frustrations and conflicts, which eventually led to his dramatic flight to India. The Chinese authorities claim that the Karmapa will soon be returning to Tibet, however this appears extremely unlikely.

For more information on the Karmapa and his North American monastic seat in the Catskill Mountains, see: www.kagyu.org or www.nalandabodhi.org