On Pilgrimage in Tibet and China, 1993
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
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Part 2 [17 min]: Download
Part 3 [16 min]: Download
A group of Singaporeans kindly invited me to
join them on a three-week pilgrimage to Tibet and China in September
and October, 1993. In all my years of traveling, I had never gone
on an organized tour, so this was a new experience. The luxury of
hotels with hot showers, the convenience of a mini-bus that could
take us to hard-to-get-to places, and the restrictions of being
with a tour guide were all new to me. So was the landscape: although
I had been in Tibet in 1987, Amdo (incorporated into Qinghai Province)
and China proper were unfamiliar.
Since we were on pilgrimage, most of our time
was spent in the countryside. We flew to Xining and visited Kumbum
Monastery; drove the bus through stupendous gorges to Xiahe, the
site of Labrang Monastery (these are both in eastern Tibet, in Qinghai
and Gansu Province respectively). Leaving Lanzhou to land in Jiayuguan,
in the Gobi Desert, and driving to Dunhuang, the site of ancient
Buddhist caves, put us in oasis towns along the Silk Road. Datong,
an over-night train ride west of Beijing in Shanxi Province, was
a coal-town with caves and huge Buddhas carved in the mountainside.
The ride to Wutaishan, the Five-Terraced Peaks of Manjushri, took
us past the Hanging Temple (which literally hangs on the side of
a cliff), and an ancient pagoda used centuries ago both as a military
outlook and a religious site with huge Buddha statues on each level.
Of course, there were the usual tourist sites in Beijing, but at
the end of the tour I excused myself from them in favor of spending
time with some Chinese Buddhist friends.
Inspiring and sad -- I used those two adjectives
to describe my 1987 trip to central Tibet -- and they apply to eastern
Tibet and China as well. The Buddhist sites were inspiring. Not
only was the artwork delicate and moving, but the devotion of those,
who over so many centuries created it as their lives' work, left
me in awe. In the Dunhuang caves, the statues and wall-murals were
created with the viewer incorporated into the scene. That is, you
don't feel like you're watching a picture of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas,
you feel like you're there in that place with them. In Datong, the
ceiling of the caves were crowded with carved Buddhas, so you didn't
need to visualize Buddhas falling into you like snowflakes. Just
standing there left you with the impression that they actually were.
But the places were sad too. So much has been
destroyed, either by the elements and time, or by humans in previous
dynasties or in the last few decades. Many towns in formerly Buddhist
areas don't have a single functioning temple. Datong, a city of
two and a half million, was fortunate. It had one functioning temple,
the others being taken over by the government and converted to museums.
The Chinese government is putting money into restoring temples and
monasteries, but the reason is to draw tourists. The work of most
monastics is to collect tickets and to ring a gong when tourists
bow at the shrine. Even Kumbum, the birthplace of Je Rinpoche, seemed
desolate. More monks were in the bazaar than in the temples and
the sounds of active Dharma study were absent.
Happily, Labrang, was more alive, with the sound
of young monks memorizing, older monks debating, and all of them
doing puja. Wutaishan had several functioning monasteries (even
a nunnery with nuns studying and practicing, and an additional eighteen
nuns in three-year retreat), and we were able to join in prayer
services with them. The abbot of one temple told me, "Buddhism
has been damaged in China. It's wonderful that people in other countries
are practicing. We are all of one family, we are all Buddha's children,
no matter what our race or country."
Inspiring and sad -- this describes my contact
with some Chinese Buddhist friends. Through some karmic-quirk, two
young Buddhists in China had gotten my address and we had been corresponding
for some months. We finally met in China -- they took two over-night
trains without sleeping to find us in Datong. Why? Because they
were starved for teachings. During our days in Datong and Wutaishan,
we spent almost every spare moment in Dharma discussion, with part
of a conversation on the bus, another part walking somewhere, another
part during a meal. In the evenings we went over the "Eight
Verses of Thought Training" and other lamrim subjects, and
they asked many intelligent and thoughtful questions about sutra
and tantra. Their interest, eagerness, and devotion to the Dharma
made my heart sing. The Singaporeans were similarly impressed.
"The boys," as we came to call them,
told us how difficult it was to receive teachings. It's difficult
to find teachers and when one does, the teachers may not be qualified
or if they are, they are often busy with administrative work. I
thought of how often in the West we take the presence of our teachers
for granted. We're too busy to attend teachings, and fall asleep
or are distracted when we do.
The boys took me to meet two of their
teachers, an elderly couple who were disciples of Ven. Fa Zun (a
Chinese monk who translated many Tibetan works, including
into Chinese). This couple told us stories of the Cultural Revolution.
They tacked Buddhist texts under tables and buried statues in the
ground to keep the Red Guards from finding them. Doing their daily
practices at night, under quilts, with the lights out, they never
missed a day. Nor was there a break in doing tsog twice a month,
even though it was done under similar conditions. The Red Guard
broke into their house several times, and they regularly faced danger.
When I asked them what gave them the strength to keep up their Dharma
commitments under such conditions, they responded that it was due
to faith in the Triple Gem and in the Vajrayana. Now circumstances
are more relaxed and they are in charge of a lay Buddhist organization,
but the government imposes restrictions on Buddhist activities and
they still face a variety of difficulties.
The boys' sincere interest in the Dharma touched
me deeply. At the end of the trip, my departing flight left for
the States many hours before the Singaporeans' flight home. Thus,
my young Chinese friends, not the tour guide, accompanied me to
the airport. They asked if I could stay longer because they wanted
more teachings. At the airport, we were able to change my reservation
to two days later, and we spent the next days at their flat, meditating
and having teachings.
One of the most inspiring experiences was visiting
a cave in Wutaishan, called "The Buddha's Mother's Womb."
I don't know the story exactly, but a practitioner once sought shelter
in this cave, and because he was protected from harm there, he promised
to make a Chenresig (Kuan Yin) shrine. It was far up the side of
a mountain -- walking there in the spacious countryside made my
heart joyful. There are two caves -- one in front and a smaller
womb-like one behind. They are connected by a small channel, like
a birth canal, which you have to squeeze through. You put one hand
up, the other by your side, put the top part of your body in the
channel and have a friend push your feet until your hands can feel
the bottom of the inside cave. You have to go out feet first, with
someone outside pulling your feet which is quite a trick in monastic
robes. It's said many people feel reborn after this experience.
The cave has a small Kuan Yin statue and a single candle. Having
been in Tibet, I knew that one should look for self-arisen figures
of Buddhas in such a place, and sure enough, there were some. (Alternatively,
you could simply say I have a lively imagination.) Sitting alone
in the cave, chanting Chenresig's mantra -- a moment of silence
in a life largely overwhelmed by distractions.
Another heartfelt place was a cave/temple
in a village at the base of the Qillian Mountains near Jiuquan,
in the Gobi. We were told there was nothing much there, but hearing
that it was a Manjushri temple, we decided to go anyway. What a
surprise to find a Tibetan temple at the site where the Dalai Lama
III had had a vision of Manjushri!! The old, toothless monk who
was the caretaker was likewise surprised by our visit. The cave
and small temple were largely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution
-- we could see the blackened, scratched out remains of what must
have been lovely murals. Recently new statues have been installed
and murals painted in the outer room. Reading the Heart
Sutra and Praise
to Manjushri, I began to cry --
the place where Manjushri appeared to the third Dalai Lama, the
destruction of the temples and harm of practitioners, the indestructibility
of the real Dharma, the kindness of the present Dalai Lama -- can
we ever say clearly why tears fill our eyes?
There was lots of humor in our pilgrimage too.
The older Singaporean women sang old lovesongs on the bus to Lake
Kokonor. But they excelled in the Perfection of Shopping. I was
host to this secret and sacred practice, passed on in a direct lineage
from those who had clear vision while on pilgrimage. To practice
this seventh, and most valuable, of the bodhisattvas' perfections,
one must first generate a good motivation: "Since beginningless
time, I and others have been circling in cyclic existence due to
not accumulating merit and wisdom from the practice of the Perfection
of Shopping. Having attained a precious human life endowed with
two special qualities 1) enough money to spend, and 2) many shops
around me, I will not waste this precious opportunity. Therefore,
to lead all sentient beings to full enlightenment, I will engage
in the perfection of shopping."
You must practice this perfection together with
the other six perfections. The generosity of the perfection of shopping
is to shop in order to give things to your friends and relatives,
whether they need these things or not. The ethics of the perfection
of shopping is to pay all overweight charges on the airline, and
to avoid stepping on others' toes in line, flirting with the salesperson
to obtain a lower price, bargaining him/her down unreasonably, or
slandering him/her to other shoppers. The patience of the perfection
of shopping is to wait patiently for shops to open or for salespeople
to attend to you, to shop whether you feel well or not, to carry
your packages, no matter how large or clumsy, without complaining;
in short to patiently bear all the burdens of shopping. The joyous
effort of the perfection of shopping is to shop as much as possible,
day and night without laziness. The concentration of the perfection
of shopping is to not get distracted by useless activities while
shopping, but to remain fully concentrated in the present shop.
And the wisdom of the perfection of shopping is to get as many deals
as you possibly can! Although I was with perfect gurus who had mastered
this practice, I, a lazy nun, did miserably, and left China with
the same number of bags I entered with.
The first day in China, we visited the Lama
Temple in Beijing. I talked with people there and gave them small
pictures of the Buddha and some mani pills. Maybe eight or nine
people were standing with me when the plainclothes police came,
took the things away, and asked me to follow him. One Singaporean
woman who translated for me came too, and instead of seeing the
temple, we spent most of the morning in the office. The police told
me that they have a regulation about giving out religious items
in public (apparently some Taiwanese tourists do it too). They wrote
a confession in Chinese, which I had to sign, although they assured
me nothing would happen. Our guide didn't know that tourists weren't
supposed to give religious items out in temples and thought what
the police did was strange.
Everywhere we visited, people were interested
and happy to see a Western nun. While visiting a temple in Lanzhou,
one woman came up, bowed to me (I always feel it should be me bowing
to other people) and with a joyful face, gave me her malla "to
make the karmic connection." At the same time, another woman
came and said "om mani padme hum" again and again and
wanted me to say it with her. Both of them had such incredible faith
in the Triple Gem that I chanced it and gave them Buddha pictures.
Later, the second woman, who may have been mentally unbalanced (or
a dakini), appeared by the bus. Surrounded by a group of children,
she held the picture up high and sang out "om mani padme hum."
One woman in our group, who wasn't a Buddhist, got angry and told
me I was stupid to endanger all of them by giving her a picture
of the Buddha. Later, our guide said, "Do you have photos or
books of the Dalai Lama? Do you have any letters with important
information from him to other people?" She was worried that
I might be carrying news from His Holiness to the Tibetans about
when to have another demonstration. Could a science fiction writer
dream up anything stranger?
Her complaint reminded me of the Cultural Revolution,
with its ridiculous suspicions and unfounded accusations. When I
thought about it, however, it was a compliment of sorts -- my faith
in His Holiness was apparent enough that someone could fantasize
that I could be that close and important to him!!! A few days later,
while we were at the Ming Tombs, I had a small Buddhist trinket
in my pocket, which I had planned to give to the guide. It accidentally
fell out and a member of our group handed it to me. The guide asked,
"What's that?" and I said, "It's something for you,
but this is a public place, and maybe the police will come if I
give it to you here." She and I both laughed at this, but that
same woman in our group got upset again. Pilgrimage isn't just going
to holy places; it's practicing with all the stuff that comes up
while you're trying to get there.
A Tibetan friend in India told me about a particular
Rinpoche in Amdo, who was a good lama, and wrote a letter of introduction.
At Labrang, we found his place, but he had left for Beijing. His
disciples showed us the newly reconstruction stupa there -- a special
place indeed. In addition to new statues, they had many old scriptures
written in gold. The gold doesn't impress me so much as the devotion
of the people who copied the scriptures and those who hid them so
they wouldn't be destroyed. The lama's disciples gave us an address
in Lanzhou where people could give us his Beijing address. But in
Lanzhou, the guide said that the address was on a small street that
no one knew, and there were no maps of Lanzhou containing all the
small streets. A few obstacles, no? Later, we learned the Rinpoche
was attending a meeting of the Chinese Buddhist Association in Beijing.
We went the hotel in the evening to meet him, unannounced. He had
quite a presence, and I asked him to say something which would help
our minds in the Dharma. He responded, "This isn't a good circumstance
to talk. I'm close to HHDL, so are you. People could see us together
and talk, and it could be dangerous for me and for you." Nevertheless,
he gave us the oral transmission of the Manjushri mantra and a short
verse. All over Beijing, there are signs, "A More Open China
Awaits the 2000 Olympics." It's enough to make you think you're
We arrived in Beijing on the overnight train
very early in the morning and our guide took us to Tianamen Square
to see the raising of the national flag. While others watched, I
walked around the square, doing Chenresig visualization and mantra
(inconspicuously), to purify the place. So much sorrow.
On the trip, we met many people in their late
twenties, who were born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
They don't remember it, although they have heard stories of their
parents' suffering and may remember the poverty. They want to get
on with life, but I still need to digest the quantity of suffering
people in Tibet and China have gone through since the communist
Some of the Singaporeans had visited China in
the 1970s or 80s and remarked at the change. Previously men and
women alike dressed in dark, plain colors and behaved stiffly with
foreigners. Buildings were run-down. Now brightly colored clothes
light up the drab towns, people are more relaxed, and construction
However, despite the improvement of living conditions
and greater economic freedom, people lack freedom as we know it
in the West. I returned to the States with a much deeper appreciation
for the gift we have here of being able to think, say, and do what
we wish. For people who want to practice the Dharma, such freedom
to listen to teachings and to practice is essential. Small things
I used to take for granted -- listening to a tape of His Holiness
the Dalai Lama, visiting lamas and talking freely, being in a temple
free of police observation -- have new meaning for me.
I pray that we who have worldly freedom use
it to attain the real freedom of enlightenment and that those who
live in constricted places may be free of such obstacles and able
to delight in the Dharma as they wish.