Rediscovering My Tibet

Sun temple – Buddhist shrine in the Himalayas

This winter, I came across a Youtube feed with a charming young Tibetan man. What captured my initial interest was the confidence and even joy with which he introduced himself. But as I sat back to watch my new favorite YouTuber, he took me on a tour that started from Chengdu and drove right across Sichuan, or the erstwhile Tibetan province of Kham. 

He was enthusiastic about his videos, had a great team that captured the landscape and imagery in breathtaking high definition, and, frankly, it was beautiful. I had to flee Tibet when I was only a young child — with no real memories of Tibet. My father was a born storyteller who would regale me with stories of our nomadic clan. I would mentally paint images, and everything got blurred. I couldn’t tell if I remembered a landscape or remembered a mental image I had created or imagined after listening to one of my dad’s stories! 

Our young friend Jamyang Tsering and Youtube brought Tibet back to me in high definition! The landscape in Kham was pretty much as I always imagined it – breathtakingly beautiful, but not unlike Montana, where I’ve been privileged to live for all these years. What surprised me was the amount of development. That was an eye-opener. Bigger cities like Chamdo had paved streets lined with tall buildings, neon lights, night clubs and all the trappings of modernity! 


But more than anything else, the videos on Tibet drove home the incredible spiritual nature of the whole country. As our young YouTuber went across the expanse of Kham, mile after mile, in seemingly desolate places, there was always some spiritual imagery. Even after all the wanton destruction of monasteries and cultural relics during the Chinese cultural revolution, the whole of Tibet is filled with visuals of our spiritual heritage. At almost every town, big or small, the central showpiece seemed to be a monastery. And then, there were stupas – just an amazing number of them, some tall and splendid in isolation, others clustered or lined up to make a visual feast collectively. 

Mani Stones

In Tibet, people carve sacred mantras or power syllables on stones and rocks. By far, the most popular mantra was Om Mani Padme Hum – the mantra of compassion, so I’m going to call these carvings Mani stones. I’ve known about them from a young age because my father did this. He would use a small chisel and hammer to carve out incredible mantras on stones and rocks of all shapes and sizes. But the vast dimensions of the rocks and the sheer volume of Mani stones just blew my mind. Much later in the video, I came across an interesting difference between my father and the modern-day Mani stone carvers – some of them were using modern drills! 

Prayer flags draped on a hillside

But, perhaps nothing dominated the visuals of the place like the prayer flags. They are simply everywhere – at the top of mountain passes, at every pilgrimage site, at every archway, in the remotest of places, on rooftops of home, in public squares. On some barren slopes, where there was nothing to tie the prayer flags, they lay them on the ground and simply covered the hill itself. It was remarkable! 

Mile after mile, the sheer spiritual visuals of the place just captured our attention and our hearts. There was a dull ache of regret, a sense of loss of something so beautiful and precious. The way the infrastructure was being developed, the way red flags of China flew from so many places, suggested strongly that China would never give back Tibet to the Tibetans. A deep feeling of regret engulfed me – almost as if I had rediscovered a long-lost personal treasure that I could no longer lay my hands on. 

The Dege Printing place houses more than 290,000 unique wooden printing blocks stored in racks, with over 500 million Tibetan words

One of the most powerful testaments to the Tibetan interest and involvement with their religion was the wooden printing press in Dege. I had heard about the incredible wooden blocks used to print Tibetan scriptures, but Youtube opened my eyes even more. The sheer volume of wooden printing blocks was surprising, but the realization that each of these wooden printing blocks was hand-carved was genuinely awe-inspiring. 

Our young friend Jamyang had nothing to show regarding industries, innovations, or inventions by the Tibetans. In sharp contrast, the investment in spirituality was overwhelming. While engineers in New York were constructing the fantastic subway system, monks in Tibet were hand carving immense collections of Buddhist canonical literature on wooden blocks for all posterity. The wooden printing blocks of Dege are a testament to the spiritual devotion of the people. When you juxtapose this work in the general landscape of a place filled with monasteries, stupas, rocks carved with mantras, and whole hills draped in prayer flags, the country’s spiritual culture is sometimes overwhelming! 

Pilgrims near Mt.Kailash

But on this topic of Tibetan spirituality, I’m only just getting started! At most of the places where our young You-tuber journeyed, his constant companions were Tibetan pilgrims. At least from these videos, it seemed a decent percent of the general population are on some spiritual voyage of inner discovery — pilgrims to sacred sites like Mount Kailash or the fabled Mansorover Lake. There were folks from Eastern Tibet walking, yes, walking over a thousand kilometers to reach Mount Kailash. I mean, who walks a thousand kilometers in this day and age? And, if you thought that that was arduous, some of these pilgrims were prostrating their way to the sacred sites. What do I mean by that — well, let me try to describe. So a pilgrim will do a full-body prostration, laying or even throwing oneself full-body onto the ground. He will get up, take a few steps to where the tip of his fingers touched, and then do another prostration from that point. In this challenging way, a pilgrim slowly inches or prostrates his way to holy sites. 

Many of the pilgrims undertaking the prostrations were younger people. Still, their journey is so difficult that some of them were visibly drained — their clothes just a mess of tattered chupas, several of them needing bandages and first aid. Yet, they persevered. As a Tibetan, I so admired their spiritual quest – truly, it was a world apart. 

The Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lama, stands at an angle on a hilltop during a beautiful sunset in Lhasa, Tibet

In a way, more than these images, more than the landscapes of spirituality, it was the spiritual endeavors and daily undertaking of the folks that was truly remarkable. Mind you, this was a travel video. Our host was not trying to capture the fervor of the folks or even focussing on their practice. He was merely trying to capture the sights and sounds of Tibet. So the spiritual pursuits he caught on tape were part of their daily lives, part of the bigger story of Tibet itself.

The Spirituality in Tibet is on a Larger Canvass

Growing up and living in exile in India, I’ve seen pockets of the Tibetan spiritual heritage. In Dharamsala and other Tibetan settlements, prayer flags flutter from rooftops, and almost all Tibetan settlements will have monasteries and stupas. Then in places like Nepal, Sikkim, and Ladakh, the canvass for the Buddhist culture becomes more extensive, as a larger cross-section of people follows this faith. The canvass of spirituality increases manifolds in Tibet. The visuals suggested that the whole nation was focused on one grand endeavor – the pursuit of spirituality.

Longest prayer wheel corridor, Lab-rang Monastery, Tibet

Another video from another source documenting the Lab-rang Monastery in the former Amdo province brought home this theme of spirituality on a bigger canvass in Tibet. I’ve already mentioned the famous kora or circumambulation of the sacred Mount Kailash. During many pilgrimages in India and Nepal, I’ve been fortunate to do hundreds of koras of holy places – including iconic ones around the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya or the Boudhnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal. They are all fabulous places to be – but in the sheer size of a monastery’s kora, I don’t think I’ve come across something quite as spectacular as the one at Lab-rang. The kora around the Lab-rang monastery complex is about 2 miles long! This whole kora path is lined with the longest corridor of prayer wheels worldwide, with over 1,700 scripture wheels. The hexagonal wood cylinders are carved with different scriptures and patterns on each side. The images from Lab-rang again reinforce the sheer scale and the larger canvass on which spirituality is painted in Tibet.

Tibet – the Greatest Spiritual Nation

It then makes perfect sense that this culture produced some incredible spiritual masters like His Holiness The Dalai Lama. To me, it makes no sense that its neighbor invaded this country, and the world was almost complicit by their silence! But we cannot rewind history and cry over spilled milk. Instead, let’s focus on what we can do today. For me, it starts with knowing and realizing what a treasure trove of spirituality Tibet is and, for the potential this culture has to benefit all humanity – yes, all humankind. This fact is something that needs to be driven home – especially in the corridors of power. Perhaps then we can help solve the issues of spiritual freedom in Tibet, starting with a dialogue between the Chinese leadership and HH The Dalai Lama. I see huge potential. I see a way forward because His Holiness had as far back as 1998 proposed the Middle Way – where His Holiness does not even ask for an independent Tibet – instead,  offering a meaningful autonomy for all Tibetans within the framework of the Chinese constitution.

Tinged with Sadness

Not everything I saw filled me with joy. Watching those videos of Tibet evoked huge contrasting emotions. It made me happy to see visible progress – the roads were impressive, and I could not believe how built up the major towns of Kham were. I know that the videos were not an in-depth study of Tibet, that they are for tourist consumption, yet what I saw was excellent and beautiful. Some prosperity was apparent – roads were being built, businesses were up and running, and local people were actively engaged in spiritual pursuits. Still, one could also see an erosion of our culture in the attitude and language of folks there. In one telling scene, Jamyang, our intrepid guide, approached another Tibetan who could not easily understand his Tibetan dialect. They both fell back on Chinese to connect, and that, for me, was ironic and sad. Jamyang spoke to folks at several places, especially the younger ones in Tibetan, and they replied in Chinese. It was clear that Chinese was the dominant language in everyday use. All the business hoardings and signage were again prominently in Chinese. A typical banner would have the Chinese characters in large bold, with a Tibetan version in a much smaller font – almost as an afterthought! 

My concerns about its future temper my exhilaration of watching this massive canvass of spirituality. Can the Tibetan way of life and our spirituality survive communism and the social and economic changes sweeping across our land? Will His Holiness The Dalai Lama be able to return to heal the wounds of Tibet? Can we find a way to balance modernity and economic freedom with a spiritual culture that has the potential to bring about inner peace?

Watching these videos reinforced my core belief that indeed Tibet is a very special and perhaps the most spiritual nation on earth. Its significance to the world is best described in the words of Robert Thurman:

“Tibet may seem a small and insignificant country in the larger scheme of things, but Tibetan civilization at the time of the Chinese invasion in 1950 was the result of 2500 years of the revolutionary development of enlightenment culture. This revolution produced a population of people who were broadly determined to live for positive evolutionary transformation. Tibet is an important example for the world, and its restoration as a region of peace and spirituality is a matter of global significance. Tibet’s unique focus on enlightenment civilization makes that nation crucial to the world’s development of spiritual and social balance”. 

Sharing Tibetan Culture with Karma Tensum 2021