Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘tibetan buddhism

Have you seen him?

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‘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.

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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

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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

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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.
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Tibetans releasing fish in the river, Lhasa

Book editing Tibetan style

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My blog posts have been a bit intermittent in March because I was very busy with getting the book ‘Freeing the Fish’ ready for print. And that has proven a lot more work then I thought it would be. I used to think that the way Tibetan books were traditionally printed was a bit inefficient and time consuming, I am reconsidering my views on this now; I have not been doing much better.

But one thing is very similar to all book making, endlessly going through texts to edit, re-edit and after that still find another typo to correct. The traditional Tibetan woodblock printing requires careful checking of the woodblocks. Not just when the blocks are just carved, they also get damaged by being used, which might change the meaning of the words. So in the winter, when it is too cold to print as the ink will not dry, the wood blocks are checked. Each page printed, carefully read and mistakes marked in red and then the woodblocks can be corrected or repaired to be used again in the warmer season. Even printing used to have a seasonal aspect to it in the old days.
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I went into this workshop on a freezing cold day in January, it was very quiet in the room with everybody reading. It was very nice, no-one really took much notice of me and I could work undisturbed and quietly on my pictures. The men were a bit surprised by my fumbling with cameras, film and tripod. The shutter release cord was handed down the room in amazement, but apart from that they were just concentrating on the text. The release cord always attracts a bit attention, I once visited a temple where some monks thought it was a device to clean the ears. I guess they had seen all the weird tools the Chinese use for cleaning ears, so I had to stop them when they started to try out my release cord.

In this room it was freezing cold, it would be warmer to sit outside in the sun. I guess drinking liters of hot tea helps a little, they all have multiple flasks, but I would not like to sit still on the cold damp floor hour after hour. Apart from that it seemed a nice enough job and at least they did not have to read the same self written text over and over again, like I did in the last few weeks
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Dangerous roads

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Roads in Tibet can be bad and slippery with mudslides or rocks falling down and the slopes very steep. Most of the time the local people seem to be totally at ease with this and the drivers confident and skillful. But when my Tibetan driver got very tense, and I saw Tibetans leaving the bus in front of us preferring to walk, I got a bit nervous.

Late winter the pass between Manigango and Dege was still covered with meters of snow. In the morning the traffic from Dege to Manigango was let through, from 14.00 onwards the traffic in the opposite direction was allowed to enter the pass. It was clear why: it would be impossible to pass an approaching car. A few unlucky cars broke down and it took hours to overtake those.

As we went up my Tibetan driver was suffering from the altitude, a headache and nausea. Apparently the difference between the 3000 meters he was used to and the 5051 meters (according to the sign) at the pass was too much of a difference. Maybe he spent too much time at the low altitude of Chengdu. He kept popping pills. I have no idea what kind of pills, as they came out of a non-descript white paper bag. He offered me some as well, but I was fine just a bit exhilarated from the lack of oxygen the cold and the clean air, but that was not unpleasant and I did not have to drive.

I never really considered the possibility of a Tibetan suffering from altitude sickness and this was worrying because the slope next to the road was pretty much vertical and going down hundreds of meters, the road was narrow and slippery from the mud and sludge so the wheels lost grip all the time. It was often not possible to look over the snow piles moved to the side of the road, which gave a misplaced sense of safety: where the water was seeping through I could see the slope going straight.

At the pass it was very cold and windy. Still most people got out of their cars to throw the colourful little papers with the wind horses (lungta) , which can bought everywhere in large piles for a few Yuan, in the air. Many of the colourful papers were flying around, each little paper representing a prayer that flies with the wind to the skies.

It is part of Tibetan Buddhism, but here it also felt like everybody was relieved to at least have made it to top and the colourful papers looked like a sort of celebration. It was gorgeous at that highest point, mountains all around, the snow,  the prayer flags and the sky so close it could almost be touched. I threw my wind horses as well and offered my driver a pile, but he was just cold and miserable huddled in his car seat. It seemed wise to get down as quickly as possible.

We again saw cars and busses that had fallen of the road, hundreds of meters down. I asked my driver what happened with the people, if he knew how many people died here. The answer was as simple as it was disturbing: many accident happen on this road and those people either died immediately or if they were unlucky it would take a while, as it would be impossible at this circumstances to reach them and rescue them. Bodies would be collected in springtime.

On the way back I gladly made a 3-day detour to avoid that pass.
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Tibet Travel log 18: Bring a wire stripper

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Why do nomads need electricity? When a Chinese tourist asked me, I was dumbfounded for a moment. First I wanted to say: ‘What do you need electricity for’, but then I realised many Han Chinese only ever see the ‘traditional Tibet’ in the magazines and on TV (very much like most people in the ‘West’). Tibet pictured as a the giant open air museum with high snowy mountains, clean air and nomads in traditional dress living a romantic life on green grasslands enjoying the sun and wild flowers with a black tents in perfect harmony with the surroundings. Taking that into account the question seemed a little less odd.

All that traditional stuff is still there, but in the eastern parts of the Tibet it is increasingly hard to find a black tent, people quite often prefer the factory made tents that are more waterproof, and they often have solar panels outside their tents for electricity. I have seen TV sets powered up with these, but mostly it is used for a few light bulbs and to charge the mobile phones.

In Eastern Tibet there are only few families left that lead a nomadic life the whole year round. Most families have their winter homes in the lower valleys where the yaks graze in the cold months and many valleys now have electricity. Some families still prefer the solar panels as it is a lot cheaper than the metered power but power from the grid also allows for a fridge, and sometimes even and electrical stove and some electrical appliances like a mixer for making butter-tea.

Thus the concrete electricity poles are everywhere. Some tourists (Chinese and westerners alike) complain they are ugly and destroy the beauty of the landscape, the Tibetans say there are so many and that they are spaced so closely together because the pole manufacturer is a family member of the party official deciding over the project funds. Sichuan is known for corruption on infrastructure projects so that could be true.

That electricity is wide-spread does not mean everybody has gotten used to it, I will never forget the old lady that tried to burn some waste on an electrical stove: I now know incense still works and smells nice, but plastic just stinks. And there are all the warning and instruction posters attached to the walls picturing how to avoid dangerous situations, situations quite clearly present in the next room which made me chuckle but also left me slightly worried when I had to sleep in such a room. Especially as it seemed that the wiring in the houses is under perpetual repair and there is always the strange burning plastic smell if another piece of wire has to be burned clean to be reconnected to another piece of wire.

I have already been told by some friends to bring a wire stripper next time, apparently these are hard to find.
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Written by Marieke ten Wolde

February 21, 2013 at 13:22

Tibet Travel log 14: Traditional Tibetan medicine

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The farmacy at Kirti monastery clinic in Ngaba (Aba)

In large parts of Tibet it is still the monks and the monasteries that practise the traditional Tibetan medicine, that oversee the collection of the raw ingredients and take care of the preparation of the pills and powders.

Not as large-scale and modern as the pharmaceutical factory in Lhasa but also in these smaller factories modern machines are used to increase production.

The factory in the photos below is located in Peyul (Sichuan). It took me quite some effort to find it, communicating with hand and feet and my three words of Chinese and Tibetan as my translator decided to sleep in that morning. People in the streets were quite happy to help but had no idea what I wanted. I was the only foreigner in town and I would probably be the only big-nose foreigner for months to come as well. Even if there were others they would probably not try to visit the factory and not be out and about at 5 in the morning.
So they kept offering me tea, food, a place at the fire and tried to send me in the direction of the huge monastery overlooking the town.

But once I had found the factory, it did not help it didn’t look like a factory at all, I was made very welcome. The monk in charge was still performing his early morning prayers and the factory closed. While waiting the old lady taking care of the place saw it as her duty to feed me as much butter tea as humanly possible. I tried to limit the intake, an hours walk from my hotel through the city I feared that need for (and lack of) privacy that man and Tibetan woman in long dresses can more easily solve…

Once the factory opened I got the full tour. From the storage room, to the office, to the production rooms onto the roof where the brown medicine balls were laid out in the sun to dry. With a staff of only 5 they produce quite a large amount of pills which once packaged in the shiny metallic sachets are distributed and sold in little ‘medical’ shops around town.

I really liked this insight into the practise of Tibetan medicine production and was especially happy to get to meet the monk in charge who radiated calmness and wisdom and put me totally at ease after the mad search for the factory!

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First 4 photos above: the medicine factory in Peyul, last photo a traditional doctors office in Gandze