As I walked up the main road through the Labrang Monastery, I had trouble finding the main square and the tour office. On my first try, I passed through an ornate gate and into a large courtyard surrounded by individual living quarters. I wandered around the courtyard for a few minutes, still thinking the main entrance might be nearby.
I peeked into a couple of empty communal areas, but couldn’t find any clues as to my whereabouts. As I was about to retreat, a Tibetan monk opened his door and invited me into his living quarters. I happily accepted.
The monk had a sturdy build, buzz haircut, and spoke little English. He offered me some coffee. That sounded great, coffee is not a common beverage in China and I needed a break from tea. It was mid-December, and even though it was a sunny day, it was cold.
The monk pulled out a Tibetan-Chinese-English dictionary and we tried to communicate. At the monastic school, he taught Tibetan (the language) and Buddhist “theory.” In the dictionary, he pointed to world “philosophy,” but preferred the word “theory.”
I asked about taking photographs. He agreed, and while I was putting film in my camera, he carefully adjusted his colorful robe. The multi-toned garment was maroon-colored underneath, red in the middle, and vermillion on the outside.
He smiled a lot. His pleasant demeanor and patient personality put me at ease. Even though I’m normally uncomfortable in first-contact situations, I felt relaxed. The warm room and the hot coffee added to the affect.
Younger teenage monks started arriving at the door. The instructor needed to sign off on their homework assignments. The students were very differential and respectful. They provided their mentor with pen and ink to approve their studies. My presence seemed only a slight distraction.
I examined the lessor books and watched the teacher ink notes. The lessons were written in Tibetan, and the calligraphy was exaggerated, but beautiful. In one work book, the teacher put long dramatic tails on the letters. I wondered if that was for my benefit?
I finished by coffee and prepared to excuse myself. It was nearly noon. The monk asked if I would send him copies of the photographs?
Today, it is not that difficult to get to Xiahe, home of the Labrang Monastery. From Beijing, I had taken an overnight train to Lanzhou, a modern industrial city in central China. From Lanzhou, I traveled for 6 hours on small commuter buses, first to Linxia and then to Xiahe. On the 3-hour climb to the latter, we progressed from towns with mosques to villages with white-washed stupas.
As late as the 1930’s, the Xiahe are was considered a remote corner of the world. Its isolation is vividly described in the recently published Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations (Snow Lion). The book tells the adventures, some harrowing, of Christian missionaries who lived in the area for 27 years starting in 1922. There were no roads to Labrang until the 1940’s.
Because Tibet has historically been inaccessible, westerners have developed an overly utopian feeling about the country. To some, it has come to represent our yearnings for a simpler world; one that has managed to remain apart from the depression of our frequently overwrought existence. No place can live up to those expectations.
The Labrang Monastery, located on the periphery of the Tibetan Plateau and situated at the crossroads of four Asian civilization–Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, and Muslim–was established 300 years ago. Besides being a prestigious learning institution and a gathering point for numerous annual religious festivals, Labrang has supported a busy market where Chinese artisans mingled with Muslim merchants and nomadic Tibetan and Mongolian highlanders.
It was also the seat of a Tibetan power base that tried to maintain regional autonomy through shifting alliances. This political tight-rope act ended with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. Labrang with damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but survived the destruction which decimated so many other religious structures. While the monastery still seems vital, you get the impression that its fortunes are down, and that concessions have been made to the Chinese.
I eventually found the main entrance to the monastery. The tour office was closed for the noon hour. I walked to the nearby massive Prayer Hall of the Institute of Esoteric Buddhism. Inside the building, on the courtyard steps, several Tibetans were going through prostration rituals. Others were stocking sacrificial pyres in a giant white-washed oven.
I walked up the steps of the Prayer Hall; not right up the center, but skirting along the side. There were three young monks sitting on the steps, feeding sparrows. I motioned, seeking permission to proceed. They seemed to answer “yes,” so I walked up to the main entrance.
Prayer Hall at the Labrang Monastery
In the dark Prayer Hall, there was a large assemblage of monks seated on long rows of low pads. There was a deep guttural sound emanating from the Hall; monks praying for the welfare of all sentient beings. There was money on the floor. I added a small sum to the pile.
The Tibetan world is steeped in tradition. I felt transported, if not to a higher level of consciousness, at least to a wider world view. Perhaps it is this otherworldliness, heavily steeped in ritual, which explains some of America’ fascination with Buddhism, and particularly anything Tibetan.
It has been written that many Tibetans have become skeptical of Western infatuation with their culture. But these infatuations seem largely harmless. America could use a dose of Buddhism’s nonviolence, compassion toward all sentient beings, and belief in the interdependence of all life.
After intruding on the courtyard of the Prayer Hall, I backtracked. While leaving the main monastery entrance, I ran across a monk who spoke English. He explained that he was a tour guide and that I should come back at 3 pm. I asked if it was okay to follow the nearby pilgrim’s route; I particularly wanted to spin the prayer wheels. He indicated that the circuit was open to everyone.
The devotional route is a 3-kilometer (2-mile) path around the circumference of the monastery and, according to a guidebook, contains 284 prayer wheels. But in retrospect, it seemed that there were more than that.
I walked to the edge of the monastery and started the circumnavigation. At the first structure, I was a little uncertain as to how to proceed. A small Tibetan woman nudged me aside and scooted by. I decided to follow her for a while. The first structure contained a large prayer wheel, with 2 smaller wheels on the entrance path and 2 more on the exit. After the initial structure, there was a long row of smaller wheels leading to the Daxia He (river).
Tibetan prayer wheels come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. The majority of the wheels at Labrang are five-sided boxes mounted vertically on rods; they are red/orange decorated with folk characters, and equipped with handles. Every prayer wheel contains a sacred verse. Each turning of the wheel is equivalent to a recitation of the prayer.
Prayer Wheels that Surround Labrang Monastery
On the river side of the monastery, the long rows of prayer wheels continued. Half way down the river straightaway, I stopped and sat on a rock next to an aging monk. I tried to tell him (in Chinese): “I’m an American” and he seemed to understand. His face was wrinkled and cracked, undoubtedly weathered by bitter winters and the power of the sun on the high Tibetan Plateau. He was missing teeth; but his smile was beguiling.
In front of us, two women were going through a ritual which ended in prostration. According to Mattheu Ricard, a former French scientist who is now a Buddhist monk living in Nepal, prostration rituals are more than just mechanical movement. “When you touch the ground with your two hands, two knees, and forehead, making five points, you aspire to purify the poisons–hatred, desire, ignorance, pride, and jealousy–by transforming them into the corresponding aspects of faith.”
I continued my walk, gently pushing the handle of each wheel. The repetitious sounds of the spinning wheels were hypnotic; the cranking and squeaking seemed a natural part of the high-mountain environment.
My pilgrimage was slow and I frequently had to step aside so faster-moving pilgrims could pass. The Tibetans handled by intrusion with either humor or by just ignoring me as they hurried along on their personal journey of renewal. I was the only Westerner making the circuit.
A small, older woman fondling prayer beads and I kept pace with each other. First, she let me pass and then I let her go by. I much preferred to follow her. As the pilgrimage path moved away from the river, there was a white stupa, a Buddhism shrine topped with a spire.
Stupa at the Labrang Monastery
There was definitely a fixed routine for the pilgrimage. Everybody moved in a clockwise direction. According to Ricard, “Since the right-hand side of the body is considered the place of honor, they (Tibetans) express their respect toward Buddha . . . by keeping the stupas to their right as they walk around it–in other words, as they walk, their minds turn toward the Buddha and therefore toward what he taught.”
On the back stretch, away from the river, there were few prayer wheels. The pilgrim’s path follows the wall separating the monastery from the mountains above. Occasionally pilgrim would stop and pray along the monastery wall. On the mountainside, above the path, Tibetans were eating lunch and enjoying the sun.
This stretch was easy walking, with nice vistas over the top of the monastic buildings and the valley below. From the roof tops and courtyards, the purifying smoke of juniper rose as an offering to Buddhist deities. The holy haze place a dream-like pall over the valley. The Labrang Monastery sits in a narrow valley, situated 8,400 feet above sea level. It was late Fall, and the mostly treeless mountains were brown.
After walking along the mountain base for about a kilometer, it was back to the prayer wheels. The first 3 groups were in small, newly constructed buildings. Then it was clockwise around another white-washed stupa and into the home stretch, one last row of wheels. After I completed the circuit, I headed to the monastery and the organized tour.
I passed under the monastery entrance at 2:30 pm. I wanted to be early so I could be sure and get an English-speaking guide. As I lingered, the guides invited me into their waiting room behind the ticket office.
My attempts to talk about Buddhism were only moderately successful. The guide, who spoke English reasonably well, seemed preoccupied. Maybe it was the distracted look you wear from being a guide for too long. He said the monastery had a lot of visitors in the summer, but not so many in winter.
He had the sniffles and said he disliked the cold. That seemed strange for a Tibetan monk. It was not yet winter.
The first stop on our tour was the Institute of Medicine. Inside I asked if I could light a candle, and the custodial monk for the Institute agreed and retreated to find one. I lit the candle in front of a giant statue of Buddha, and then lit an incense stick.
The high walls of the Institute of Medicine were covered with bookshelves and dusty old tomes. I had heard stories of Tibetan crawling underneath shelves hoping to absorb the wisdom of Buddhist texts without having to actually read them. But there were no literary patrons at the Institute on this day.
The monastery’s museum was closed and the guide could not find the custodian. So we bypassed the museum. We then went to examine the yak-butter sculptures. These large, intricate, and brightly colored works were being stored, awaiting the next religious holiday. This was the only place on the tour that I was permitted to take photographs.
Colorful Yak-Butter Sculpture
Eventually we passed through the main Prayer Hall. It had recently been rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1985. The Prayer Hall had enough space for 4,000 monks, although the guide stated that there were only 1,500 currently in residence.
We moved deeper and deeper into the Main Hall, through a succession of chapels. Finally we arrived at the ashes of five early Lamas. I asked about lighting another candle.
We retreated to the shrine of the Future Buddha. As I started to light the candle, my guide put his head on the altar and uttered a short prayer. “While you’re lighting the fire, you make a wish that all negative emotions might be burnt up.” After I lit the candle and the incense stick, I asked if I could pray; both my guide and the custodian said “Yes.” So I bent over, put my head on the altar, and prayed silently. This gesture made the 2 monks chuckled briefly. It didn’t seem like a derisive laugh, more relief from a awkward moment. I was hoping that they didn’t feel like I was mocking their religious beliefs. For me, superficially participating in their religion seemed strangely therapeutic.
I suppose my behavior at Labrang smacked of syncretism, and to some syncretism is a bad word. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as the “attempted union of diverse or opposite tenets or practices,” the stewing of bits borrowed here and there from different religions.
Ricard discusses syncretism with his father, one of France’s leading philosopher and political journalists, in their book: The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (Schocken). Ricard states that “syncretism can only make the traditions it tries to mix insipid, or distort them.” The Dali has emphasized that it’s quite useless trying to “stick a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.”
Was I trying to mix by own “doubting-Thomas” Christianity with Tibetan monasticism, if only for a brief moment? Sure, but the intellectual objections hardly seemed relevant to my superficial efforts
We returned to the main square and continued our conversation. Behind the guide, a monk of obvious importance (wearing an elaborate decorated with a Mohawk-like yellow fringe) was crossing the entrance square. I asked who he was, but the guide didn’t understand the question. Finally, he turned around, panicked, and ducked into the nearby ticket booth. After a few minutes, he returned. When I asked about his behavior, he muttered something about his unworthiness. He invited me back to the waiting room behind the ticket booth.
A fellow monk poured water from a ceremonial pitcher into the guide’s hand. He drank the water and then patted his damp hand across his face.
The same monk then poured water into my hand. I tried to duplicate the routine. The guide indicated that it was a ritual to bring health. I had been a fascinating day.
The next morning, I headed back to the prayer wheels and made another complete circuit. I then decided to take a walk in the surrounding countryside. I followed the main road higher into the mountains. The sunny day was disappearing, and threatening clouds were rolling in.
There was some traffic on the road, but not a lot. Above me, in the mountains, I could see goat herders and an occasional yak. Several of the ridges and peaks were decorated with prayer flags. The temperature was dropping and there were snow flurries.
The small communities I passed were as brown as the mountains. The Tibetans were friendly but not overbearing. All the ingredients for a pleasant walk in the country.
As I walked, going nowhere in particular, the lyrics for a Beatles’ song kept flowing through by consciousness: “Doesn’t have a point of view/Knows not where he’s going to/Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
And as I perused the surrounding countryside and the monastery in the distance, the lyrics kept flowing: “He’s as blind as he can be/Just sees what he wants to see/Nowhere man can you see me at all?”
I had come all this way only to wonder. I didn’t have an answer, but at least I asked the question. And hopefully all my personal circles will be clockwise.