Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Posts Tagged ‘buddhism

Have you seen him?

leave a comment »


‘Have you see him?’, an urgent whisper, ‘Did you see him’? Or rather Him with capital letter: Him, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I got this question so often from Tibetans in Tibet: ‘Did I see him, did I meet him, did I go to India’, because I could, if only I would take the effort, and they can’t. The Tibetans asking me would do virtually anything to be able to see him. For me it would be relatively easy, and I never did. They certainly would not understand, in stead they just reassure me that one day I might be lucky. And I have to admit that after I while I did not understand myself either, why did I never go to hear the Dalai Lama speak?

So a little over a week ago that lucky day came, the Dalai Lama was in the Netherlands and I went to his lectures. I tried to take it in, I laughed about the mischief with the hats, wondered about the shoes under the chair, did all the things those other 11,000 people who were there did as well. It was inspiring: a 79-year-old man in red robes sitting on a chair speaking a mix of Tibetan and English for an audience relying on a translator for both languages. Without a show, without special effects, he held us all captive for many hours. Amazing.

I had heard what it would be like and even most of what he taught I had read numerous times already. Still it was special. So I am very glad I could be there.

And I was sad, as I thought of all those people who would so much like to meet him and can’t. Also because it is unlikely this will happen in the foreseeable future; if the Dalai Lama is able to sell out a sports stadium in the Netherlands with 11,000 people, imagine what would happen if he visited Tibet or even Hong Kong. Crowd control would be impossible and I would be very surprised if the authorities would even consider to take that risk. Of course the politicised context around the Dalai lama does not help either.

But there are more lamas, very popular lamas living in Tibet with sometimes hundreds of thousand followers. Yesterday I stumbled upon an article about Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche a lama from Larung Gar (a very large monastic settlement in the Kham/Tibet) in People Weekly.

china weekly2

Although he also taught in the US, Germany etc, most ‘westerners’ will not have heard of him, but in China he has 1.5 million Weibo followers.  Most of the communication is in Chinese but there is a nice English language website and even a Facebook account.

It is lamas like Sodargye Rinpoche that keep Tibetan Buddhism alive inside Tibet and spread it beyond Tibet into China. And it is good to see that there is an interest and appreciation for their work in China, as this article shows clearly. Something the Dalai Lama himself mentioned a few times to the Dutch reporters asking him about the repression of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet.


Written by Marieke ten Wolde

May 21, 2014 at 21:16

Mixed Messages and Photos of the Dalai Lama

with 3 comments

Two weeks ago there was all of a sudden the happy news that Tibetans could own and show photos of the Dalai Lama (see here), that Tibetans would be allowed to display these publicly and revere the Dalai Lama.
Although this was not confirmed from official sites it was a hopeful sign. But only 2 weeks later Tibetans celebrating the birthday of the Dalai Lama in Tawu (Sichuan) were shot at.
Then 3 days later the news came out that China might be loosening grip on Tibet and maybe even reopen conversations with the Dalai Lama, a change in policy which was welcomed in many publications but then immediately denied by authorities in China.

I am confused by this, and I am even more confused by all the interpretations of these news events in the press. For a few days it felt like the Kremlin watchers from the cold war had turned their interest towards Tibet. Still I am happy with every sliver of good news and any indication of a change.

With regards to photos of the Dalai Lama there seems to be a big divide between the official policy and what has been happening. Even Kumbum monastery, frequented by thousands of tourists each year and generally considered quite tightly monitored, had a photo of the Dalai Lama openly on display. The photo was of a very young Dalai Lama and therefore hardly recognizable for me (I am ashamed to admit I had to ask the monk in charge), but still many people came to show their respect despite the many CCTV cameras pointed at the photo.

I took the above picture in Gandze in 2010. There is not just one picture of the Dalai Lama, and not just a very young Dalai Lama, but the whole temple was covered with them. I also visited this temple in 2001, at that time it was empty without any visitors and the monks told disillusioned stories about the Cultural Revolution when the temple was used as a granary. But in 2010 the temple was very busy with a constant stream of people filling the butter lamps and leaving donations.

Not all had improved the monks had become a lot less talkative, when I tried to ask them about the photos, my questions just made them very nervous, like my camera did. But, although they did not want to admit it, I am sure that the newfound popularity of this temple had one very obvious reason. The cynic in me thought it was a rather risky marketing strategy, the optimist in me saw some change for the better.

Thinking about it a bit more I also start to understand why the authorities in China are so cautious around any statements with regards to allowing these photos. The eagerness of the Tibetans to resume public devotion of the Dalai Lama and other high lama’s, even after all those years since they left, could easily surprise them.

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

July 19, 2013 at 11:00

Tibetan Sushi

with 3 comments

freeing the fish

Last week when I delivered a couple of my books to a store in Amsterdam with all sorts of things Tibetan, there was a Tibetan man, tall impressive, long hair in a fashionable bun. He was chatting with the shopkeeper about preparing food, actually preparing the fish from the tank at the shop keepers home into sushi. First jokingly then more seriously as it turned out he was running a sushi restaurant and he noticed the title of my book ‘Freeing the Fish’.
‘Freeing the Fish’ refers to the first story in my book and the practise in Lhasa for Tibetans to buy live fish in market to set them free in the river to save lives and gain merit.

We had a laugh about this coincidence and joked about his business. But the conversation turned more serious when the man who was even addressed as Rinpoche (a reincarnated Lama), explained that he would donate a lot of the money he earned with the restaurant. He indicated how fat the pile of banknotes would be that he would hand to monasteries and charity for blind people in Nepal. I have no idea why he chose to run this particular restaurant, he might have very good and valid reasons, but still there was an apparent sense of guilt. Luckily it seems possible to counterbalance at least some of the bad karma from running a Sushi restaurant by donating to monasteries. The principle of setting off good deeds against bad apparently is very common, at least it sounded very familiar to me.

I have met  Tibetans that eat fish, not so many years ago some (relatively) well to do Tibetans quite enjoyed the fish restaurants in the Chinese parts of Lhasa. They only stopped going there after the Dalai Lama had made some statements about eating fish. Some even ventilated their displeasure with the fact they could not eat fish anymore.

Maybe this is when the whole ‘Freeing the Fish’ practise really took on the scale it has now. I found this very interesting video on youtube showing how Tibetan businessmen donate a lot of money for buying the fish and make it into a special day to release the fish. Trucks filled with water and fish drive to the river where the fish is released from boats flying the Chinese flag.

I wonder if running up to Saga Dawa (Buddhist celebrations, remembering the birth of the historical Buddha), which is considered an auspicious time for releasing fish, the fisherman work over time to be able to fulfill the demand. Like eggs at Easter or turkey at Christmas. If the Tibetans are really opposed to fishing, and freeing fish is not just a way to gather good karma during festive days, maybe it would be better to not buy fish.

After deliberating on the freeing the fish practice for a couple of days, I still only know one thing for sure; Freak coincidences do occur in real life.
freeing the fish_2
Tibetans releasing fish in the river, Lhasa

Speedy woodblock printing

with 6 comments

Derge (Dege) has in the past 15 years turned into a largely modern town with a lot of concrete high-rise. Only up the hill a small traditional neighbourhood is left. And there is the Derge Parkhang. The building is the main center for Tibetan woodblock printing, it also has fancy names like the Derge Sutra Printing Temple. though it is not really a temple, people are circling the building in reverence to the woodblocks with the Buddhist scriptures held inside.

After the rather ugly city with the strange mix of modern concrete and Tibetan elements entering the Parkhang is like going centuries back in time. It is dark and cool and the only sound is of inking the woodblocks and some rustling of paper. That is until the first Chinese tour group comes in and the cameras start clicking. But tour groups are always in a hurry and I have time, so they come and go and the quietness returns.

I watch in amazement how quickly the men work, page after page after page by hand. The men work in couples sitting opposite each other; one will put the paper on the woodblock, the other applies the ink, the first one will remove the paper and put it on the pile where the ink can dry. They do this faster than the eyes can see, or my camera can capture in the low light. A modern printing press must be faster and more efficient but here they have centuries of experience and that shows.
Not only the printing but also putting the strips of paper into the right order, bundling the paper into books, they have the process down to a fine art. Even the (inevitable) continuous flow of tea for the workers is part of the smooth process. There is no bookbinding though, Tibetan books traditionally have loose pages between two wooden boards and wrapped in cloth.

Back outside I realise that the whole experience will hardly translate into photos, moving images and sound will be required to give a feeling of the speed at which the books are printed. So next week when I am at a (modern) printing press for my own book printing I might just try filming.

(all photos are taken in the Derge Parkhang)

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

May 3, 2013 at 22:18

Merry Christmas!

with one comment

merry xmas 2
Reting monastery (TAR, April 2012)

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

December 25, 2012 at 11:04

As long as there is Internet I can meditate anywhere

with 2 comments

In Ganze province (Tibet) I met a local young Tibetan monk who had traveled all around Asia; Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Malaysia and even Australia, to teach to Chinese followers. When I met him he was sitting in the porch of a derelict old monastery in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful but cold, dirty and very rough: a nice place to visit, not a place to stay.

When I said to the monk the surroundings were beautiful with the green fields below and the rugged snowy peaks behind, he shrugged his shoulders. When I said it was nice and quiet, there was not even a road to this place, he looked at me like I was crazy. So it seemed I could ask him what he was doing out there.

Well, he was going to show me. Behind the old temple just below the ridge in new concrete buildings, bare but functional, were his pupils studying. In another building the monks dwellings were located, nicely furnished, cosy, warm, lots of books, sweets and in his personal room quite some electronic gadgets.
Then he pulled out his laptop. He showed me pictures of all his teachers, interesting websites, e-books, recorded chanting etc. And he said with a smile: ‘As long as there is Internet I can meditate anywhere’.

(note: the monk in the pictures is a different monk)


In memoriam …

with 3 comments

In memoriam… luckily this has nothing to do with anything serious.

It’s my personal computer, yesterday it has officially been declared dead by the repair shop. No computer also means no access to my photos, Photoshop or my texts for this week’s blog… All is backed-up, but to use a back-up one needs a computer, and the new one will only be ready this afternoon, hopefully.

But there are good things about not having a computer, yesterday I spent the afternoon cleaning out my book shelves and I found my photo album from my very first trip to Tibet in 1998, an album I had completely forgotten about. When flipping through it I realised once more how much has changed.

The wooden rooftops are now hard to find, they are largely replaced by corrugated iron. Those nomad women in front of the Yokhang? This year, due to the ongoing unrest, they probably will not even be allowed into Lhasa and if they are, they will not be allowed to sit down or gather in groups of more then 3 people. A man with a horse carriage? Now mostly replaced by tractors and that road has been paved many years ago.

(All pictures are made by me and reproduced with the camera on my mobile phone from the yellowish photo album)



Tibet Travel log 10: The Home of the Hermit

leave a comment »

In the Dzochen valley in Tibet, past the village, the monasteries and the retreat centers, all the way up at the end of the valley, where the paths stop and you have to find your way by trial and error, you can find the meditation caves where the hermits stay. Pilgrims visit the lower caves, the caves higher up are left alone. The place and the nature are pristine.

It is truly  ‘the Home of the Hermit’, as the nature, the prayer flags and the orange footsteps of his predecessors are all in perfect tune with his breathing.

In this tranquil, timeless place away from the world important Tibetan Buddhist books have been written and lama’s meditated for years on end.

All pictures: Dzochen, Sichuan Tibet, May 2011.




Written by Marieke ten Wolde

September 21, 2012 at 08:51

Photos of the Dalai Lama

with 5 comments

Road side prayer wheel in small temple in Gandze Prefecture (Sichuan)


Farmers house in Gandze prefecture (Sichuan)

Imagine thousands of people gathering in the streets of a remote Tibetan town, the woman beautifully dressed  in their chuba’s (long coats), the old people spinning their prayer wheels and the young man fierce in their leather jackets and sunglasses, on their adorned motor cycles carrying large pictures of the Dalai Lama.

Does it sound like a dream? It is not!

A couple of days ago I found this very nice story on the internet (check it out here) about the installation of a new Tulku (lama) in a monastery near Batang (Gandze prefecture, Sichuan). Thousands of Tibetans took part in the ceremony and many displayed large photos of the Dalai Lama.

In that area photos of the Dalai Lama can be found everywhere in houses, temples and monasteries, but I never saw them openly displayed in the streets. Maybe that is forbidden, I do not know, but I am sure that in Sichuan it is not forbidden to own pictures of the Dalai Lama, like it is in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

It is important to realise that Tibet is more than just the Tibet Autonomous Region (with Lhasa as the capital), the Tibetan area is spread over 5 Chinese provinces: the TAR, a large part of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu and in the north-western part of Yunnan. The TAR is the most strictly monitored, such large crowds gathered to celebrate their Buddhist belief would never be allowed and photos of the Dalai Lama are strictly forbidden.

In the other Tibetan areas though, the situation is slightly more relaxed and it is quite easy to buy photos of the Dalai Lama. But seeing them shown so openly in such a large display of devotion, is very rare and it must have been a magnificent sight.

I wish I could have been there.

Tent near Yushu (Qinghai)

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

September 14, 2012 at 08:30

Tibet Travel log 7, Bloody dogs and rabies shots

leave a comment »


The result of my karma, the Tibetan way of thinking, or bad luck, my take, was a dog bite. It was no more than some minor scratches (see previous blog) and an enormous bruise that took three weeks to disappear, but since the skin was broken, I had to find Rabies booster shots. There are no Rabies shots available in Tagong, because these need to be cooled and with the intermittent power supply, the local clinic is not allowed to store the vaccine.

Therefore I went to the next large town with reliable power supply (Kangding) to the vaccination office where dog bites and rabies vaccinations are a standard procedure and taken very seriously!

It was decided I needed to have four shots: two were immediately administered, one I would have to get in a few days time and one two weeks after that. The nurses also very carefully pointed out that the vaccine had to be cooled, but not frozen. The remaining two bottles of vaccine were packed in newspaper and ice and they insisted that I put them as quickly as possible in the fridge in the Tagong clinic.

Ha, nice challenge, I did not tell them I was not staying in Tagong but backpacking through a freezing Tibet where at the same time temperature would reach 30 degrees in the sun. I will spare you tales of fridges, frozen bottles of water, power cuts, locked storage rooms, local clinics, quality of Chinese syringes etc that I dealt with in the weeks after.

But I managed, so, if you think these blogs stay coherent, you might conclude those Rabies shots worked.

(If you still doubt about getting your rabies vaccinations before heading for Tibet, please check up Wikipedia on the subject)

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

July 20, 2012 at 08:53