Every novice Buddhist knows that the journey is long and difficult, but no less important than the final destination. Indeed, the difficult path to the Potala Palace only serves to heighten the experience of the initial encounter with it. Sitting at the top of the hill stretching above Lhasa, Tibet's capital, it greets those arriving, short-breathed, with the romantic scent of mystery exuded by everything Tibetan. The site is surrounded by an aura that comes from a unique combination of decades of international strife, centuries of isolation, thousands of Yellow Hat Lamas (monks) and, of course, the indisputable majesty of the unique architecture.
Although the current homeowner - one Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom), known as the Dalai Lama - has lived in exile for decades in India, the Potala Palace remains a spectacular building and is well-preserved. The Chinese conquerors have devastated every fine corner of Tibet, destroying thousands of monasteries and nearly wiping out an entire culture, but they realized that Potala should be spared. They also understood that there are things in the world that even Mao Zedong should not destroy.
The land route from Nepal to Lhasa is opened and closed according to the whims of decision makers in Beijing. The entry point is located at Kodari, a Nepalese border town some 11 kilometers from the Chinese border at Bzengmu, where Tibet begins. It's a narrow dirt road that snakes up the hill, above an angry river adorned with makeshift shrines bearing colorful prayer flags.
In order to reach the Chinese border point, we boarded an open truck with a group of excited Western tourists, hoping the driver would keep tight hold on his karma - and the brakes. The truck began to make its way up the hill and our hearts began to race in fear of the threatening abyss along the side of the narrow dirt road, which was covered by a slick coat of frost. But we were also excited - after all, this was not just any road.
This was the legendary trail from Kathmandu, Nepal to Tibet. This was the route followed in 1904 by the British expedition led by Colonel Francis Younghusband, who blazed the trail to Lhasa, sending dozens of Tibetan souls to their next incarnation on the way. It was from here that the bold French mystic Alexandra David-Neel penetrated Tibet, offering the West the first glimpse of Tibetan culture in "Magic and Mystery in Tibet," a book first published in 1931. The Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer appeared here in 1937, his Nazi party membership card in his back pocket. The seven years he spent in Tibet in the court of the young Dalai Lama were documented in his autobiography and in the film based on his book starring Brad Pitt. Thousands of the Dalai Lama's faithful fled via this route in 1959 following the failed Tibetan revolt against the Chinese occupation.
While we anxiously eyed the steep terrain, our bodies began to adjust to the rapid change in the amount of oxygen. Our blood marrow began to struggle under the increasing demands for red blood cells. Back in Kathmandu, we had heard frightening tales of travelers who couldn't take it and collapsed after being struck by altitude sickness. For someone who has never tested his ability to withstand the thin oxygen at high altitudes, a climb to 5,000 meters in a single day is considered very dramatic. Luckily, and happily, this adventure concluded with only a moderate headache and mild nausea.
After five days in a wilderness dotted with mysterious shrines, in a trek through both physical space and time - from the present to the Middle Ages and back again, we arrived at the capital of the Tibetan kingdom.
Lhasa is no longer the forbidden city that Heinrich Harrer slipped into, his ethnic background disguised by a dark coat of yak butter. For years, the Chinese have been administering a program ironically called "The Final Solution," which encourages Chinese citizens to settle in Tibet. The Chinese "forget" to mention this program when protesting criticism from the West. Their main contention, which will be sounded often prior to the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in China, is that most Tibetans are not at all interested in independence and do not support the Dalai Lama and his government in exile. The problem is that the Chinese define who is Tibetan.
Today, there are more Chinese living in Lhasa than Tibetans. The city has undergone an aggressive modernization process and the remaining Tibetans have been pushed into crowded neighborhoods around the Potala Palace. The Chinese are still very suspicious of Western visitors. The palace itself is open to tourists, but entrance to many of its wings is prohibited for unknown reasons. Tough-looking Chinese policemen scrutinize each visitor as if he were a CIA secret agent.
Karma, the Tibetan guide who accompanied us, warned about hidden video cameras and microphones that are planted everywhere. It may be that his paranoia was a bit exaggerated, but considering his life story, we forgave him. In 1990, in the midst of the upheaval that shook Tibet following the Tiananmen Square incidents and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, Karma headed toward the Nepalese border with a group of friends. They traveled during the night, hid during the day, and managed to cross the border after considerable trials and tribulations. They were then apprehended by Nepalese soldiers and expelled to India, just as they had planned. He lived for six years near Dharamsala, studied English and pondered what to do with his life. A meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1996 brought him back home. "The Tibetan people need serious, educated persons like yourself," said the leader whose wisdom is not questioned. "Go back home and teach the people to read and write. That's what you need to do now," the Dalai Lama told him.
Karma obeyed and returned to Lhasa. He was arrested by the Chinese. He contends that he was interrogated and brutally tortured for six months. After his interrogators were convinced that he wasn't sent on an espionage or terrorist mission, they released him and even permitted him to work as a guide for Western tourists.
Karma led us through Potala. The palace, which is the largest monument in Tibet, stands atop Marpo Ri (The Red Mountain) 130 meters above the Lhasa Valley, rising to a height of 170 meters. Ancient legend says that the Bodhisattva Chenresig, the bearer of the white lotus, once lived in a cave on top of the hill.
According to Tibetan tradition, Chenresig - the Tibetan version of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion - attained enlightenment and could free himself from the bonds of incarnations and forever release himself from the sufferings of this world, but instead chose to give up this privilege and returned in order to serve the Tibetan people and humanity. In every generation, his spirit returned to the body of an infant who is deemed worthy of passing on the message. The Tibetans call him "Kundun" - The Presence.
The current Dalai Lama, born on July 6, 1935 in the small village of Taktser in the Amdo region of Tibet, was identified at age two as the 14th incarnation of Chenresig. A delegation comprising Tibet's senior spiritual leaders found him by following a series of signs left by the 13th Dalai Lama. These signs pointed toward the village, the home and the bed where the boy bearing his reincarnated spirit would be found. He was taken from his family to Lhasa and educated at Potala by the top teachers of his day. He began to actually lead Tibet at age 15.
Even the most skeptical Westerner, for whom the concepts of Tibetan Buddhism sound like so much Eastern mumbo jumbo, can hardly help from being amazed at the surprising end of this story: This small toddler, plucked from a distant village after being selected through mystical signs known only to the wise, developed into a prominent leader, who has an open door to the leaders of the world. He was able to lead his people wisely through the most severe crisis Tibet has ever known, has saved his culture from utter collapse, and has spread his message throughout the world.
Fifty-two years after being identified by his people as the Buddha of Compassion, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award cited, among other things, that "the Dalai Lama, in his struggle for the liberation of Tibet, consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people."
Potala Palace, the house where the Dalai Lama was raised and educated, was first built by Songtsen Gampo, the ruler of Tibet in the 7th century. In 637, he built for himself a small structure on the top of the hill that was intended for solitude and meditation. Some 1,000 years later, in the early 1600s, the earlier building was integrated into the foundations of an ambitious palace that the fifth Dalai Lama began to construct in order to fortify his stature as the religious ruler and political leader of his people.
In 1648, the lower part of the palace was completed. This Potrang Karpo - White Palace - served as the home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government up until the Chinese conquest. The upper part - Potrang Marpo, the Red Palace - was built between the years 1690-1694. More than 7,000 laborers and 1,500 artisans participated in this project. In 1922, the 13th Dalai Lama made massive renovations to the palace and added two floors, giving the structure its current appearance.
The Potala Palace suffered little damage during Tibet's uprising against Chinese occupation in 1959. Unlike most of the palaces and temples in Tibet, it was not sacked by the Red Guards during the 1960s and 1970s, apparently thanks to the personal intervention of Chou En Lai. Thus, the prayer and confession halls, adorned with many works of art, have been preserved in excellent condition.
Touring the palace is a dizzying experience. A giant labyrinth of long corridors lead from one hall to another. The palace encompasses 13 square kilometers replete with the finest handiwork, rich in detail and precision, created by the best artisans in Tibet during the past 1,300 years, with all of the common Tibetan symbols: the wheel of dharma symbolizing the unity of all things; lotus flowers blossoming in the mud as Nirvana grows from suffering; the infinite loop that demonstrates the misleading nature of time; the swastika that doesn't symbolize Nazi evil, but rather the blessing and plenty of enlightenment; the energetic horse of spirits; and the innocent gold fish. The smells include juniper, incense of sandalwood, and candles of burning yak butter.
Since the palace was built to serve various and sundry functions, religious and secular, it reflects the diverse facets of the Tibetan elite during the period prior to the Chinese invasion. The central purpose of the Potala Palace was to service as a home for the Dalai Lama and his staff of advisers and aides. But beyond this, the palace was also the seat of the government of Tibet, a central site for the kingdom's official ceremonies, a school for advanced religious studies for outstanding monks, and an office building for the senior bureaucracy. Since the graves of eight Dalai Lamas are also here, it was and still is one of the most important pilgrimage spots in Tibet.
There are more than 1,000 rooms in the Potala Palace. The two most sacred chapels - Phakpa Lhakhang and Chogyal Drubphuk - are in the White Palace. They were built in the 7th century and are considered the oldest surviving structures on the hill. More than 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues are spread throughout the compound. The most sacred statue, Arya Lokeshvara, is in the Phakpa Lhakhang and attracts thousands of Tibetan pilgrims every day.
Pilgrims enter the palace with great reverence and move from altar to altar, statue to statue, turning the wheels of prayer in order to spread the spirit of prayer inscribed upon them for the benefit of mankind. As they walk, always clockwise, they mumble the mantra of compassion: "Om mani padme hum." This mantra embodies in its syllables the light that Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, shines upon the world.
There are many legends about this mantra, as there are about most things in Tibet. One of these legends, which appears in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, tells that long ago 1,000 princes vowed to reach enlightenment and release their souls from the cycle of death and reincarnation. The most famous of these princes, Siddhartha Gautama, became a buddha. Avalokiteshvara vowed that he wouldn't attain enlightenment until all of the princes also turn into buddhas. Then, in his limitless compassion, he decided to work toward freeing all suffering creatures. He raised a prayer and made a vow: "Let me help all creatures and if I ever become tired of this important work, let my body be broken into a thousand pieces."
First, the legend says, he descended to the depths of hell and then gradually ascended through the level of starving spirits up until the realm of the gods. He then by chance glanced back down and was horrified to see that although he had saved countless creatures from hell, many others were still falling into it. An unbearable sadness overcame him. For a moment, he nearly lost his faith in the noble vow he had made. He was tired of his work and the destructive clause in his vow was activated: His body was torn into a thousand pieces.
Desperately, he called upon all of the buddhas for help and they rushed to assist him from all corners of the universe "like light rain on snowflakes," as one of the writings says. With their enormous power, the buddhas made him complete again. From that day, Avalokiteshvara has 11,000 heads and 1,000 arms. In every palm, he has an eye, symbolizing the unity of wisdom and skill, the sign of true compassion. In his new form, his ability to help all creatures grew immensely. His compassion became stronger and he repeated again and again his vow before the buddhas: "Let me not reach the last level of buddha until all creatures reach enlightenment."
In the Mahayana Sutra, it is written that Avalokiteshvara gave his mantra to the Buddha himself and in return the Buddha gave him the special and noble mission of helping all creatures in the universe attain the level of buddha. At this moment, the gods showered down a rain of flowers, the ground moved and the air resonated to the sounds of "om mani padme hum."
According to Tibetan belief, each one of the six syllables of the mantra - om ma ni pad me hum - has a magical impact affecting various levels of the world. The six syllables are supposed to purify the six poisonous feelings that cause man to act in a negative way with their bodies, in their speech and in their consciousness. These six bad feelings, which are responsible for suffering in the world, are: pride, jealousy, lust, ignorance, greed and anger. When you concentrate on reciting the mantra om mani padme hum, you purify yourself from these poisonous feelings and bring to completion the six perfections, the paramitas, which are at the heart of the enlightened consciousness: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom.
And thus - purified of all pride, jealousy, lust, ignorance, greed and anger - we moved on in generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom, from room to room, chapel to chapel, stupa to stupa, altar to altar, always moving clockwise, dizzy from the richness, colors, gold, aromas, caught up in the contagious excitement of the pilgrims around us, spinning the large prayer wheels and disseminating the spirit of prayers to end human suffering - prayers that unfortunately have yet to be fully answered.
From the hall in which the government of Tibet once met to discuss matters of state, we climbed up to the roof of the palace, which offers the best view of Lhasa. The roof is decorated with splendid ornaments of gold, among the most beautiful in Tibet. Here the young Dalai Lama would stand for many hours in the 1940s, using a telescope to observe the life of his people, wondering what it would be like to be down there among the simple folk. The view from the roof is still marvelous, but the simple folk have changed - they are now Chinese.
The Dalai Lama's bedroom, located on the eastern side of the roof, remains almost unchanged since the day he was forced to flee. The yellow iron bed he slept on during his youth is still there, as well as several personal items, including a watch that has stopped working and a 1959 calendar.
It's hard to believe that the current Dalai Lama will ever have the chance to return here and rewind his watch. He himself doesn't believe this will happen. The task will apparently await his successor.
The Dalai Lama has said on several occasions that he believes his successor will be born in one of the countries of the West. It might therefore pay to work hard on your karma and devotedly murmur the mantra. According to the selection rules, the happy winner will not only be released from the bonds of reincarnation, he'll also receive as a bonus a palace with 1,000 rooms in good condition, with breezes blowing in from all four directions, and a breathtaking view.
Amir Ben-David is an editor at Ha'aretz.
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