In spite of having studied Tibetan Language and religion for nearly a decade, I never really thought of going to Tibet.
Living in an area of Kathmandu that houses many refugees, I was painfully aware of the suppression of the Tibetan people. I had heard their heartbreaking stories and I had witnessed the Chinese authority’s attempts to control Tibetans even inside Nepal.
Meanwhile, I had studied Tibetan art and architecture, and I had seen the bright blue skies and rolling hills of the motherland in the music videos my Tibetan friends love to watch. I had also read the fascinating history of Buddhism’s introduction to Tibet from India: how the Dharma kings, Indian pundits and the legendary tantric master Padmasambhava succeeded in turning an unruly mountain people towards a religion that emphasizes compassion and nonviolence.
But until the opportunity came to go on a pilgrimage with one of my spiritual teachers, I never thought I would see these places in real life. And even when I decided to go, I had no real expectations except those of finding a broken people and scattered temples.
The plan was to fly into Lhasa, cross over to west Tibet, and circumambulate Mt Kailash for three days before returning to Lhasa. On the way we would visit legendary monasteries, picnic under the blue skies and bathe in turquoise lakes.
We would cross several 5000 meter high passes and pass through grass lands full of grazing yaks and nomad tent camps.
As we landed in Lhasa, the first thing that struck me was the feeling of arriving in a place unlike any I had seen before. We spent most of our time at an altitude of 3500 meters – an environment in which only few people can live and work, and where life unfolds under extreme conditions.
Making our way into Lhasa, I was struck by the faith of the Tibetan people – so palpable and omnipresent wherever I looked. Pilgrims were everywhere: whole families travelling on sacred missions, filling the temples, chanting prayers, lighting butter lamps or performing hundreds of prostrations in the temple courtyards.
As we reached Mt Kailash the expressions of faith became still more intense and visible, with pilgrims making full body prostrations all around Mt. Kailash, mothers carrying their babies all over the 5700 meter pass, and hundreds, thousands of carved stones carrying the mantra of Avalokitesvara, Om mani padme hum.
We were both steeped in and swept away by the powerful energy of intense spiritual practice, the aspiration to free others and oneself of suffering that forms the core of Tibetan Buddhism. I always knew that Tibetans were dedicated practitioners of their faith, but to experience the harsh conditions in which they exist - the airiness of the altitude, the vastness of the landscape, the wild mountain weather and the scarcity of resources provides a sobering context for their devotion. An incredible strength of character seems inherent to the Tibetan people, allowing goodness to blossom even under the most challenging conditions.
As for the monasteries, although they were mostly rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution, they still exist as magnificent examples of local architecture filled with exquisite art and craftwork. Though they are no longer thriving centers for study and practice, they still bear witnesses to a glorious past. This is where thousands of monks lived, where the sharpest minds of the country challenged each other in logic debates, where political alliances were made and where incredible material and spiritual wealth was gathered and exchanged.
In the end, a journey consists mostly of encounters, and what I will remember most poignantly from this experience are the people: the heart-full owners of a tea house on the Kailash route, a handsome couple proudly dressed in traditional clothes, making me tea and keeping me company. I will also forever remember the three brothers we kept bumping into on the route. One of them could hardly walk and the two others lovingly hauled him along the trail, visiting all of the sacred spots along the way with joy written all over their faces.
Learning that we were on a pilgrimage, and even spoke Tibetan, doors were opened for us. At times we found ourselves alone after hours in the most sacred of places, like when we were let in after closing time to meditate in Guru Rinpoche’s own cave above lake Manasarovar or when the caretaker let us into the fabulous protector deity room in the Sakya Monastery - empty of tourists.
Did my travel support an oppressive regime? Economically: most likely yes. However, I believe that travelling to Tibet supports the local population as well. It sends the signal that people from the outside care to learn their language, study their history and share their faith. It’s a reminder that Tibetan heritage lives on in exile communities, monasteries and learning institutions all over the world from Nepal to Europe and the USA.
So, to answer my own question in the heading: yes you should visit Tibet. You should see this magnificent land, meet its people and let their faith affect you while it is still there to be experienced!
If you are called to visit this mystical land, join Ellen Johannesen on a fascinating 20 Day Meditation Pilgrimage to Mt Kailash, through Nepal & Tibet.
Dates: September 14-October 3, 2020