There are places we travel to in our mind wishing with all our might that we might one day arrive at this “in-our-dream” destination. There are spots we travel to and remember every sight, sound, smell and voice that we heard. There are places we visit that forever remain stuck in our soul try as we might to pry them out. Tibet is that place for me.
It was a hard journey. Two airplane flights totaling 18 hours and altitude sickness that brought the youngest members of our small group of seven to their knees. Luckily, being a tough old broad, I adjusted quickly except for the times I would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like there was an elephant sitting on my chest. Shivering in our freezing cold hotel room, I would quell my panic by counting sheep and meditating to slow my breathing as I tried to gulp the thin air like a person who suddenly comprehends that they are drowning at sea.
I could see my breath in my hotel room between the hours of 8 p.m.-9 a.m. which is when it finally warmed enough to remove all traces of “morning breath” haze exiting my mouth. All my past medical training threatened to overwhelm me with anxiety as I checked everyone’s nail beds for signs of cyanosis. The constant dull headaches, sinus “pops” and lack of energy taking its toll on some in the group. That is what 11,975 ft/3650 meters does to you. It makes you temporarily miserable and somewhat nuts while time slows down to a crawl as you wait for your body to acclimate. But then I visited Jokhang Temple and suddenly everything slipped into its proper perspective.
Imagine rounding a corner and being swept away into the mass of religious pilgrims forever circling clockwise around the large outdoor square surrounding the temple. Colorful prayer wheels whirling, canes of the ancients clacking on the stone, babies crying and old men chanting as you are pulled into something deeper than yourself and what you momentarily comprehend as a “life force” which sweeps you all together for a greater purpose. Imagine the pungent smell of incense catering to believers and non-believers seeping like coal dust into your pores and pouring into your soul. And imagine in all your disbelief and mesmerization almost tripping over a pilgrim who is two years into his journey and only 1,000 ft away from his goal of achieving a better future for himself and his family; this accomplished by devoting himself and his life for those years to the Buddha. You watch as his scraped and dirty hands first clasp together at his head (to think of the teachings of the Buddha) then at his mouth (to listen to the teachings of the Buddha) then his hands moving to his heart (to feel the love and compassion of the Buddha). And then, I watch with morbid fascination as the man soars like a bound eagle just a few meager feet forward until he crashes prostrate on the ground. The only thing moving now are his charcoal black bare feet which twitch in anticipation of rising once more so that he may move ahead only as far as his body length to start the entire process over…day after day, week after week and year after year. Truly, if he can show this sort of dedication I can surely see that my slight “suffering” is nothing compared to his. Suddenly this cold ache I have been feeling since I arrived never felt quite so alive and warm.
Dinner is yak. Yak milk tea (yuck!), yak cheese soup (double yuck!) and hot right-out-of-the-oven pastry stuffed with yak (mighty tasty). I think of the faithful outside of the temple wondering if they will have anything warm to fill their bellies tonight as they circle the temple three times to complete their journey. And I finally comprehend the importance of alms in this era of “ME, MONEY and MORE” as I think back upon the times I could have showed greater compassion. Because in the end (according to the Buddha) in order to alleviate suffering (both our own and the immense suffering within the world) compassion must be practiced. And for compassion to develop we must be willing to open our eyes.
So here I am Tibet…my eyes are open…show me what I need to see, teach me what I need to know, and let me experience those things that will shake me to the core. Thuk-je zig.