Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Monk-y-ing Around in Tibet

Day two in Lhasa and we are all feeling a little better– thanks to the medicine and the cans of oxygen provided in the hotel rooms. Visiting Tibet is like being on a movie set. The streets are full of people in every form of clothing, spinning prayer wheels while chanting, fingering prayer beads, walking, talking, praying and prostrating themselves on the street – in a worshiping pilgrimage.

We saw groups of shaven headed monks and nuns in dark red robes walking alongside Tibetans in western style clothes. Many women wear the traditional wrap dress with a blouse and colorful apron (signifies they are married), and the men wear pants and a long cloak (chuba). Sleeves are long – even in hot weather. People dress for warmth and modesty. Yet you will also see Tibetans in jeans and tee shirts.

The colors are vibrant, the air feels electric with energy, and there is always the background hum of chanting, singing, or praying. It’s like no place I’ve ever been.

We visited 2 large monasteries, Sera Monastery and Drepung Monestary. These places were alive with monks praying and working, visitors worshiping, and tourists groups. Built into the side of a mountain, they require lots of climbing, and so we went very slowly. It was fascinating to see the temples, each dedicated to a different Buddha, but my favorite were the huge prayer wheels outside of the temples. These are drums about three feet tall and a foot in diameter, lined up next to each other and mounted on a spindle. They are inscribed with prayers and it was especially interesting to watch the devout spinning the wheels and praying as they made their pilgrimage up to the temples.

In the large (400 ft2) community rooms of the monasteries there are rows of small carpet squares lined neatly across the floor. This is the gathering room for the monks to pray together. Although tourists are not allowed during the official prayer times, occasionally we would see a monk sitting cross-legged in the candlelight, meditating and praying.

My favorite part was at the Sera Monastery where we got to watch the monks “Daily Debate”. The monks and their teachers gather in a tree lined courtyard that is paved in gravel. The students sit on pillows on top of the gravel and their teachers ask philosophical questions of them. The teachers stand in front of the students and take a giant step toward them slapping their palms together in a loud clap to punctuate the end of the question. If the student answers correctly they receive another loud clap. For an incorrect answer the teacher claps with both palms facing upwards. I loved watching my kids take this all in. The movement amidst the hum of the voices punctuated by loud cracking noises was incredible. And watching the faces of the monks and teachers, both intently focused on the learning and teaching was unreal. I really think my kids were as moved as I was – right up until Charlie leaned over and asked if we could get ice cream on the way home.

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