One of the most interesting things I witnessed in Tibet occurred at the Sera Monastery. Sera sits just outside of the city of Lhasa. It is considered to be one of the three great monasteries of the Gelug University Monasteries in the country. Founded in 1419 it was once a huge complex at which over 6,000 monks resided but during the 1959 revolt much of it was destroyed and hundreds of monks were killed.
One of the things that this particular monastery is well-known for is the monk debates. The debates occur between the monks and their teachers with a prescribed set of rules. The defender(student) is asked a question regarding Buddhist philosophy by the teacher. His job is make and defend his argument. Meanwhile, the teachers attempt to trap a student into following the wrong line of the argument by creating places in the argument which can confuse the defender. The students sit on the ground, wrapped in their red robes, while asked question after question for hours. The brain power that has to be used is immense and it drained my few working brain cells rather quickly.
This is a startling place because when a question is asked of the student a loud clap is made with the teacher striking his left palm with that of his right. When the question is answered correctly the teachers brings his right hand to his left palm while sliding it down with a slap. With an incorrect answer the palm goes down and slides into the air near the student encouraging him to try again. And all of this isn’t done in a stagnant manner. The teachers arch, sway, jump and make grand body movements as they question the student in an attempt to rattle him. The noise is incredible with the slapping sounds reverberating against the walls of the courtyard and the gravel crunching under kicking feet.
Here are my favorite pictures of our afternoon spent at Sera. This is one of those times that I think I should upgrade so I could show the video I made of this amazing debate. It was one of those once in a lifetime events that makes you happily question the meaning of life for yourself while being thankful that there is no one intimidating you by the slap of a hand.
When we were in Tibet two months ago I was concerned by the lack of snow throughout the country. For a place that is SUPPOSE to be a land of snow capped mountains there was very little snow and the country looked as dry as Arizona. It makes me wonder how this will effect the many sacred lakes in the country. Yamdrok is one of these mystical/sacred places.
Yamdrok Lake is one of the three largest fresh water sacred lakes in Tibet. It is said that lake came about by the transformation of a goddess. Lakes and mountains in this nation are believed to be the dwelling places of deities that protect individuals and as such they are given spiritual powers too. People make pilgrimages to these holy lakes and mountains to pray and receive good karma from them and the gods that inhabit them. Tibetans believe that if this lake runs dry it Tibet will cease to exist because it will no longer be habitable. Given that the glacier above the lake has receded at such an alarming rate and that there is very little snow in the area it is likely that this may come about.
While we were there we walked down to the lake and on the way visited with this magnificent Tibetan Mastiff. He was regal and gentle as a lamb. Back in the day his job was to guard and protect the sheep from wolves, leopards and other large wold predators and in some places you can still find them roaming the Himalayans with their herds.
Once we reached the lake Dave took his newly acquired necklace and immersed it in it’s sparkling cold sacred waters for good luck. I don’t know if it worked but I can tell you that no harm has befallen us since. You can make your own conclusions about that.
I just arrived home from Tibet last month and I am still trying to process the whole global warming “thing” in light of what I saw in this beautiful country. While I once thought of Tibet as the snow-bound land of the Yeti, Miche or Migoi (depending on who you ask); I now think it looks like the road between Cedar City, Utan and Las Vegas, Nevada. It is desolate, rocky, and barren. Even Mt. Everest, which we visited, looks bare in places.
The Kharola Glacier is found along the scenic road between Lhasa and Shigatse. With splendid views of Mt. Kalurong and Mt. Nojin Kangsang it is a great place to stop and stretch a bit. The glacier sits at the 17,060 ft level in a place that used to be covered in snow pretty much year round. It isn’t anymore. In fact, the glacier has receded 30-50% depending on who you ask in the past 10 years.
The day of our visit was beautiful. The sun reflecting off the glacier threw multiple shades of white and gray blue along its ridges. The air felt crisp and clean. Prayer flags whispered and shouted into the air depending upon where you stood.
One of the things I learned while at Kharola was that the Tibetan Buddhists believe that the flapping of the flags are in fact a chant or prayer that will be blown by the wind spreading compassion and good will. Traditional prayer flags are arranged left to right in a precise order: blue, white, red, green and yellow. These five colors represent the five elements of our world. Blue symbolizes the sky, white the wind and air, red represents fire, green is associated with water and yellow symbolizes the earth. The Tibetans believe that when these five elements are in balance that health and harmony are the result. Obviously, balance has not been achieved.
The sad part of it all is that we can see global warming with our two eyes just by looking at the Tibetan landscape and it now mimics the arid high desert of the Southwest in the United States. Yet, with all the changes that are glaringly obvious we do little to try and stop them. I guess people forget that in this area of the world that without snow there is less water in the rivers. Less water for irrigation equals less food that is available which means more chemicals are used to try to boost production. Less water for the people results in mass migration. It is a concern for all of us…except the yak. I expect when the glacier soon disappears he will still be standing there…the only thing that is left of interest on the pass.