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Bathing in Buddha's glory
( 2003-11-11 08:47) (China Daily)

Every morning before preparing ghee tea, tsamba and cheese for the family's breakfast, 60-year-old Yamzhoin first changes the water in the silver decanters in front of statues of Sakyamuni (founder of Buddhism) and Zongkapa (founder of the Gelug, or the Yellow sect of Tibetan Buddhism) at her home.

A lama walks past a vast portait of Sakyamuni on display. [File photo]
Then she lights a butter lamp, clasps her hands and prays silently.

Around 9 o'clock, after her children have all gone to work, Yamzhoin begins to take ritual walks three times along the Bakor Street of the Jokhang Monastery.

With a prayer wheel turning in her right hand and the Buddha beads twisted in her left hand, she recites the Six-Prayer Words repeatedly.

Noon has almost arrived when she finishes the ritual walks. She then buys some beef and vegetables for lunch at the Chongsaikang Grocery Market and goes home to prepare lunch.

Through rain, wind or even during the coldest days of the year, Jokhang Monastery and Potala Palace are always encircled by elderly Buddhist devotees like Yamzhoin, who pray and kowtow along the walk, wishing for happiness and health for themselves and others.

For Tibetans, Buddhism is part of their lives.

The festivals

There are more than 150 festivals within a year in Tibet. There are several major religious days every month. All of these festivals are intertwined with the devoutly religious culture.

The fourth month of the Tibetan calendar is called the Sagya Dawa Festival by Buddhists. The 15th day of the month commemorates Sakyamuni's birth, Nirvana and becoming Buddha.

An elderly pilgrim turns a prayer wheel while taking a rest at a street in Lhasa.
On that day every year, all of Lhasa is permeated with the scented smoke of burnt joss sticks. Before the first light of morning reaches the Potala Palace, groups of Buddhists from all over the region have already prostrated themselves at the foot of the Potala Palace.

They also take ritual walks along the Lingkor Roads of Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Ramoche Monastery and other famous monasteries.

Monasteries are not the only places where the pilgrims visit.

Sacred mountains and lakes are also musts for these devout worshippers.

For instance, the 6,714-metre-tall Kangrenboqe is the highest peak of the Gangdese cordillera, located in Buran County of Tibet's Ngari Prefecture, over 1,700 kilometres away from Lhasa.

It is considered a holy mountain not only by Tibetan Buddhism, but also by followers of the Bon and Hindu religions as well as Jainism.

Legend has it that Sakyamuni and an eminent Tibetan monk named Milha Riba once visited the mountain. Throughout history, many dignitaries used to cultivate themselves and lecture on Buddhist doctrine there.

Pilgrims believe the stories with such conviction that circling this mountain once can clear out and purify the sins of one's entire life.

Despite such a far journey, pious Buddhists flock to the mountain, both young and old.

Walking one circle around the holy mountain is a 52-kilometre trek around the rugged mountain path and a climb over a 6,000-metre-high hill strip. However, pious disciples, including old people with walking sticks, stagger and persist till the end. Some pious disciples walk around the mountain, kowtowing and prostrating themselves on the ground of the rugged pathway.

Namco Lake in Damxung of northern Tibet is one of the holy lakes for the pilgrims. In June of this year, the lake witnessed a grand ceremony for the Tibetan Year of the Sheep, held once every 12 years. Namco Lake, meaning heavenly lake in Tibetan, is the lake with the highest altitude in the world. Its total area is 1,920 square kilometres.

As winter arrives, monks and nuns from the major monasteries in Lhasa - the Gandain, the Zhaibung, the Sera and the Jokhang - are now preparing for the Grand Summons Ceremony, which is held once a year in a small monastery named Jamg Monastery in Lhasa's suburban Quxui County. Over 30 kilometres away from Lhasa, the Jamg Monastery is surrounded by hills on three sides.

This ceremony is said to have been established in the year of 1205 by Zongkapa and has continued until today. Its tenet is to carry forward Buddhism, and benefit every living thing.

While testing their wills in the face of the coldest weather of the year, the young lamas also present their many years of cultivation achievements at the Grand Summons Ceremony.

It is more or less a grandiose debate session as the monks sit down on the sand, and begin debating among the monasteries.

The testing contents all concern philosophical Buddhist issues. If a lama answers beside the point, the other monks on the scene sneer at him, and the examinee would feel too ashamed to show his face.

Story of the monks

According to the statistics of Tibet's regional management department, the total number of Tibetan monks and nuns is 46,300, including 4,300 nuns, who cultivate themselves in their own monarchal monasteries, or go to other monasteries for acts of pilgrimage.

They also hold small-scale Buddhist activities among the population at the invitation of disciples.

Young monks have many different stories about how they chose the celestial life.

Dainzin, 21, was born in a peasant family in Zhangdo Township, Dagze County, with the name Dawa. At the age of six, he swam and played with children from the neighborhood in a sewage pool in front of his home. Several days later, he developed a painful stomach ache. Doctors at the Lhasa First People's Hospital found that he suffered from thoracal empyema, which might be caused by the pathogenic bacteria in the sewage.

"He could hardly endure the ache, and screamed all day and all night. At that time, I thought that he would never get over it," recalled his mother, Zholgar.

A month later, the doctors had managed to save the life of young Dawa, and his mother kowtowed continuously to the doctors.

The child left hospital and recovered, while his father was sent to hospital because of cardiopathy. So Zholgar decided to ask a lama to practice divination. The result said that only when the child becomes a lama in a monastery could the disaster be eliminated.

On the day in 1988 when he formally became a lama, Dawa, who had never left his parents, cried. He joined the Gandain Monastery, about 10 kilometres away from his village. The Sutra Teacher of the monastery gave Dama the name Dainzin, meaning to protect the power of Buddha.

Now, Dainzin has grown into a young man. Over the past 15 years, he has become one of the outstanding lamas of the Gandain Monastery.

However, he still has secular concerns.

He said that when his father died, his four sisters were still young, so his mother had to shoulder the burden of the whole family.

He tried his best to give a helping hand. Whenever the monastery gave them leave, Dainzin would go home and help with the farming.

Research from the local department concerned shows that among the over 40,000 lamas in the region at present, young lamas amount for the majority, all with different experiences. Some have turned to the monasteries because of financial difficulties in their families, some because of their poor academic achievements and failure to enter higher levels of schooling, some because of marital frustrations. A great number of lamas were influenced by their family members, who are pious devotees.

"The experience, scope and knowledge level of this young generation of lama is different from those of us when we were young. The difference is the difference between heaven and earth," said Chilai Ragyi, head of the Democratic Management Committee of Gandain Monastery. "Most of them abide by our monastery disciplines, and study the doctrine devotedly under the instruction of their masters after they came to the monastery."

Of course, he said, some lamas left the monastery after a few years simply because those young monks do not want to live a life that "purges one's mind of desires and ambitions."

A few have also been expelled because they violated the code of the Gandain Monastery, Chilai Ragyi said.

Old and new

As the economy booms and life changes, the young and old do have differences over how to run their own religious lives.

After one day's Buddhist activity, the 25-year-old lama Ngawang took off his claret kasaya and rode on a bicycle to buy some daily commodities in Lhasa, some 4 kilometres away from the monastery.

His Sutra Teacher Qoidain is not very happy with that.

"You can go out of the monastery for your own business, but you cannot ride a bicycle," he chides. "Since the ancient time, was there any lama breaking the propriety for the sake of convenience?"

But Ngawang retorts: "Master, each time it took more than a half day for you to go into the city, and you were extremely tired, streaming with sweat, while it only takes one hour round trip by bike. "Among the so many conventions of Tibetan Buddhism, is there any item saying lama is not allowed to ride a bicycle? Moreover, when the eminent lamas of the ancient times went out on a mission, the horse was their necessary means of transport. Riding a horse does not violate the doctrine of not abusing living things, let alone that bicycle is made of non-living iron."

The elderly Tibetan lamas have spent the best part of their lives worshipping ancient Buddha and cleaning and lighting lamps.

But today, especially because the monasteries now make more money, young lamas, who have more pocket money, have developed interests in modern gadgets, such as watches, mobile phones, televisions, bicycles and motorcycles.

In the established monasteries with a long history, whether lamas can use modern phones, watch TV, ride bicycles or use motorcycles becomes a frequent dispute between the young and the senior lamas.

Senior monastery managing lama monks are coping with the changes of time.

Chilai Ragyi said that, among the over 300 lamas at Gandain Monastery, 70 per cent are young. Some 30 young lamas have bought motors.

Most of them are from counties and townships in the neighbourhood. In the busy season (spring and autumn) of farming, when the monastery gives a leave, they will ride bicycles or motorcycles to go home and help with the farming.

"It is completely understandable," he said. "But they leave their motorcycles in the care of villages far away from the monastery, for fear of disturbing the silence in the monastery."

Pinglha, deputy director of the standing committee of the democratic management committee of the Tashilhungpo Monastery in Xigaze, said that Tashilhungpo Monastery allowed the young monks to watch TV, so that "they can learn knowledge, learn about home and abroad," he said.

But programmes with violence and eroticism are forbidden.

"In the past, lamas in the monastery followed their schedule according to the rise and set of the sun, or by knocking the gong and beating the drum," Pinglha said. "Today, beating the drum is only a style, all lamas, including senior ones, follow the time of the day by their watches.

"In the past, the sutra books were printed with clumsy woodcarving plates made by hand. Today, they are printed with advanced computer typeset. Both the speed and the quality are 100 times better."

The story first appeared on the 4th issue of China's Tibet magazine.

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