They lunged, red robes flying and prayer beads swinging. They clapped hands loudly in the faces of their partners. Forefingers shook in front of noses and voices were raised. This sea of red-robed monks were gathered in a courtyard of Sera Monastery for a daily ritual known as the Tibetan monastic debate.
They worked in pairs, one standing and the other seated on the ground. The standing monk hurled a question at his seated partner, challenging him to dig deep into Buddhist philosophy for an answer. At times the seated monks, unable to produce satisfactory answers, seemed frustrated or even angry. Certainly, they were arguing, and some looked more than a little unhappy. I was flabbergasted! This was very un-monk-like behavior.
The tradition of the Tibetan monastic debate can be traced back to the Historical Buddha, whom we know as Shakyamuni. In the beginning, the Buddha taught only those who were interested in his doctrine of non-attachment. He shied away from criticism of other belief systems. In latter years, however, Read More
I take great pride in saying that I have personally taken almost every photo that is featured in this blog. Though it’s uncommon for me to include the work of another photographer, I’m making a rare exception in this case, with good reason. During my recent tour of Tibet, I had the great good fortune to travel with Jeff Overs, a BBC News stills photographer. For years, Jeff has taken still shots of world leaders, news events, and gorgeous landscapes around the world. Though he is semi-retired, he continues to provide material for the BBC stills library.
Imagine my surprise when Jeff sent me this shot he captured of me snapping Mount Everest and its surrounding peaks at the 16,568-foot high Geu La Pass. Read More
One of my most indelible memories from India is of cows wandering the streets with impunity, protected by their holy status. Likewise, in Pokhara, Nepal, I was alarmed the first time I shared a sidewalk with a herd of buffalo. But humans are an adaptable species. After many visits to India and Nepal, freely wandering cows and buffalo seemed commonplace to me. In fact, I thought such cultural differences no longer had an ability to surprise me. Until I came face-to-face with unique species of Tibetan animals on a recent overland journey through the high Tibetan plateau.
It began on the drive from Lhasa airport to the city center. Just as we reached the outskirts, a herd of shaggy black beasts sauntered in front of my car and stopped traffic on the highway. “What are they?” I squealed. “Those are just yaks,” my driver replied. I scrambled for my camera but couldn’t get to it in time. However I soon learned that this wouldn’t be my last opportunity to see yaks.
Perhaps more than any other Tibetan animals, yaks define the culture of Tibet. Products from yaks are used to feed, clothe, and provide shelter typical Tibetan families. Their skulls and horns are carved into combs and pipes. Coarse hair from their backs is woven into tents that block out the chill winds of the high plateau. The finer hair found lower on the yak’s body is woven into Read More
I didn’t notice him at first. But as my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the Assembly Hall at Pelkor Chode Monastery, I caught a movement. A maroon-robed monk stood at the base of the massive bronze statue of Shakyamuni. He moved serenely, refilling flickering oil lamps set between delicate yak butter sculptures. It wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t noticed him. The monk was Lilliputian compared to the 26-foot high bronze of the Historical Buddha.
Built during the early 15th century, Pelkor Chode is an ancient walled monastic complex in Gyantse, Tibet. Buddhist monasteries are almost always affiliated with one specific sect of Buddhism, however Pelkor Chode Monastery is unique in this respect. From the very beginning it was home to universities representing three different sects: Gelugpas, Sakya, and Gedang. Read More
Never one to follow the crowds, I wandered away from busy Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet. I had completed an obligatory Kora (clockwise circuit) of the Jokhang Temple, dodging prostrating pilgrims and crowds of tourists, but now the back streets beckoned. Just a block from the temple the teeming crowds dissipated and I was the only foreigner in sight. Tibetan women in traditional striped aprons sat on stoops, twirling prayer wheels and muttering mantras. Toddlers with sagging diapers waddled after stray cats. Workers towed bulging hemp sacks down the gray flagstone pavement on wooden dollies.
The lanes grew narrower as I penetrated deeper into the traditional neighborhood. A pyramid of yellow plastic containers dominated one shop in Old Lhasa. The sweet, slightly rancid scent gave them away as tubs of yak butter for altar lamps. A postage-stamp sized cafe advertised Read More
Tibetans believe that lakes are the abodes of protective deities and therefore invested with special spiritual powers. Yamdrok Lake, located approximately between the capital of Lhasa and the town of Gyantse, is considered one of the most sacred bodies of water in Tibet.
Local folklore relates that a fairy maiden was concerned that nine small lakes were in danger of drying up. Worried that creatures in the lakes would die, she threw 350 grams of gold into the air, recited a mantra, and merged all the small lakes into the one large one we see today.
However the sacred nature of Yamdrok Lake has to do with its role in discovering the newly reincarnated Dalai Lama after the present one passes into parinirvana (dies). Following the death of a of Dalai Lama, Read More