Tibet / In the land of the Dalai Lama
By Amir Ben-David
Wednesday, October 03, 2001
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Amir Ben-David is an editor at Ha'aretz.