By Andrew Matheson
Tibet takes your breath away, and not only because of the high altitudes that travellers reach. Sure, you know before you go that it’s a Buddhist region, but nothing prepares you for how widespread and intense people’s devotion is.
This was impossible to miss when we first arrived in the capital Lhasa on our tour of China’s borderlands. Buddhists show veneration for sacred places by walking around them clockwise, an echo of the imperative to keep Buddha’s teachings at the centre of their lives. The holiest place in Tibetan Buddhism is Jokhang Temple in the centre of Lhasa, a Buddhist site since the 7th century. People walk round and round this temple on circuits of different sizes, including past the entrance to our old town hotel. Walking or standing among them you hear the quiet chants and padding of feet, and watch the prayer wheels spin around. Old, young, men, women — everyone is there.
It’s the same around the majestic Potala Palace in Lhasa. Thousands of pilgrims stream round and round the base of the hill this impressive building surmounts. They chant mantras quietly, spin hand-held prayer wheels (clockwise of course), or spin the hundreds of larger prayer wheels mounted on a wall. It’s a mesmerising scene.
And then there’s the prostration. Pilgrims have different ways to fulfil their religious observances, and this is the most extreme. Walking the ‘kora’ involves making a pilgrimage by continually prostrating on the ground, earning merit and purifying sins. I’ve seen people heading in this way for the Jokhang Temple from way out in the countryside 20 or 30 km from Lhasa. People circumambulate with prostration around the holy mountain Kailash in Tibet, a journey of more than 50 km, and in extreme cases can take a year to travel vast distances to Lhasa.
Pilgrims out in the countryside, remote stupas, prayer flags draped on distant and windswept hills. We saw the signs of Buddhist devotion everywhere in Tibet.
Our local guide, although declaring he wasn’t a practising Buddhist, had a rich knowledge of this religion and culture, and was deeply steeped in its ways. He taught us a lot. But as we marvelled at the almost ubiquitous devotion all around us, he articulated a simple statement that instantly that resonated with us all. It explained how what we were seeing was the key to Tibet’s past, present and future. “This is what keeps Tibet alive”.