Walking in the Dali Lama's Garden
© Copyright 2016 by June Calender
I walk. It’s my exercise and it’s often my transportation. I lived in New York City and had a dozen or more routes I could walk home from work. For a woman of a certain age, walking in New York City, even in the daytime (especially in Central Park where I walked a lot) was not a time to put your mind in idle. I am alert, I watch, I assess. When I travel to other countries, free time is walking time, preferably by myself, away from whatever group or guide I am with. So when I walked out of the gate of the Holiday Inn in Lhasa, I noticed, as I had not when in a van with others, that, in fact, the entire property of the Holiday Inn was fenced and probably the gate was locked at night. To keep us in? To keep others out? Lhasa was, and still is, an occupied city.
I was free that afternoon to walk through the gate. I shook my head ‘no’ to the bicycle-rickshaw men and also to the “Looky-Looky,” women who had spread cloths on the sidewalk to display an assortment of trinkets, jewelry, possible antiques. I had been told our group would not visit Norbulinka, the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas because it had not been cared for. No longer were monks allowed to tend the desecrated shrines and residential buildings. Norbulinka was open to the public but hardly any public cared to visit.
I wanted to visit, especially since it was an easy walk from the only western style hotel in the city in the mid-‘90s. The street was a major one into the city and part of the traditional lingkor, the three-mile circle path around the city, where pious Tibetans used to circumambulate every morning turning their hand-held prayer wheels and counting their mumbled mantras on their108-bead malas. The tradition was no longer allowed just as owning a photo of the Dalai Lama was no longer permissible. A small uprising had occurred six weeks ago. In the center of the city, near the most holy sites, brown uniformed soldiers loitered, their duty simply watching. Our guide had said a tourist caught slipping a picture of the Dalai Lama to a Tibetan would be taken to jail and he wasn’t sure if he could get anyone out of jail.
This June afternoon was sunny with a particular brightness and clarity of almost unpolluted air containing 25% less oxygen than at sea level. Such clarity distorted my perception of distance to the surrounding mountains. I didn’t realize until I returned home that the oxygen deprivation, which made some people dangerously ill, released endrophins in my brain causing perceptual acuity and mild ecstasy. My side of the street had mechanics shops, repairing bicycles and buses. The other side of the street was an undeveloped strip mall with restaurants, a night club with loitering pretty girls (Chinese, not Tibeta, dress shops, businesses with signs only in Chinese.
After three or four minutes a little boy, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, ran up to me from one of the shops. His eyes were bright, his black hair was straight and shaggly. “Wazatem.” He said. Was that his name? I make an I-don’t-understand gesture. He said again, “Wazatem.” He pointed to my wristwatch.
“Oh. One-thirty,” I said showing him the dial. He looked a while. I repeated slowly, “One. Thirty.” I wondered if he wanted me to give him the watch. I did not intend to although it was an inexpensive that had considered trading for a bone mala with bits of turquoise and coral. The boy turned and ran back toward a building. I walked on, thinking of how the Han Chinese are being encouraged to settle in Lhasa and that soon the once “forbidden city,” will become a Chinese city with ugly Soviet style skyscraper apartment houses – in the city where the Tibetans believe no building should ever be higher than the Potala Palace on its high rocky prominence near the heart of the city.
Norbulinka was only a mile west of the Potala but the experience for a Dalai Lama was entirely different. From a three-room apartment at the top of the Potala, looking down on all of Lhasa valley, to a garden complex in a wooded, somewhat marshy area with flower gardens, koi ponds, individual shrines and a small zoo of animals sent by India and Nepal as gifts. Tigers, elephants and monkeys were surely pleasant relief from the hundreds of lamas that filled the Potala. Guidebooks described beautifully tiled stables for horses, the most elegant and cleanest stables in all of central Asia.
The garden retreat had been the idea of the 6th Dalai Lama, as a young man something of a teen rebel against the austerity and grandeur of the Great 5th who masterminded the building of the Potala, making it the highest and grandest palace in the world with over 1000 rooms. The 6th chose to live almost entirely at Norbulinka. He also chose the prettiest young women in Tibet to live with him. He wrote poetry that was set to music extoling physical love, not monkish celibacy. He was scandalous, he was beloved and still is. He died young (possibly poisoned). His poems are still repeated and sung in Tibet. I did serious homework to understand this country’s remarkable culture and history. Of course I needed to visit Norbulinka even though the sumptuous shrines had been destroyed. The gold covered statues I would most like to have seen had been destroyed. I read of them in the diary of an American visitor. Twin statues: one of Cheresig, the thousand armed Buddha of compassion and one of the 13th Dalai Lama, his avatar on earth.
Soon I found myself at the gate of the garden. A ticket seller sat in a small booth; I gave him the fee. I was not given a ticket or any printed material. No one else was around, a gaudily painted fu-dog that looked like he belonged on a carousel stood just outside the gate. I had not brought my camera, the guide had advised we take photos only when he said it was allowed. Our guide was obviously nervous about being here so soon after an uprising. I had not told anyone where I was going to walk. As a not very young woman alone here in a little-visited, formerly holy place, I was a bit nervous too but I also had learned that gray haired women who act as if they know what they’re doing are almost invisible to much of the population.
I knew that this “front” entrance, the one used when the Dalai Lamas arrived from the Potala, was not the most important one. The gate at the other end of the garden used to have a Tibetan army barracks just outside it. It was the gate used by the 19-year old 14th Dalai Lama when he escaped the invading Chinese and fled with a small body guard and a few trusted advisors to the exile he was still enduring nearly fifty years later.
Only a few steps inside the garden, on a narrow road that had been graveled but now was mostly dirt and seemed rarely used. I had the same acute alertness I always had in the Ramble, the wooded area in the center of Central Park. I was never quite sure who I would meet or disturb. It had a dangerous reputation in the pre-Giuliani days when I first moved to New York City, I felt none of the safe the solitude in the untended woods I used to wander through on my father’s farm in Indiana. That woods was cool, quiet, green and brambly, underbrush was undisturbed, unused.
I followed the road straight road that I surmised led to the far side which was where I knew the important buildings were, whatever remained of them. I had not walked far when I saw a small building. Two men stood near its door. I had no idea what kind of building it might be, one for caretaker’s implements, an inside guard house? They had seen me and I had paid my entry fee. I walked up to the building and nodded to the men with a smile as if this were something as civil and polite as Kew Gardens in London.
“English?” asked one. My language or my nationality? I wondered.
“American,” I said.
“I show you?” The man gestured at the doorway. The silent one glanced at both of us and said nothing. I sensed a shrug although he actually didn’t move. They both seemed to be Tibetan but I couldn’t tell.
“Yes, please,” I said. My mind was busy with possibilities. My right hand tightened where it habitually rested on my purse with its long strap across my body so as not to be snatched. I could easily be robbed although they would get only a few yuan. But my passport was in the purse, I would fight not to lose it.
The man stepped into the building. I discovered it was a small shrine, I was partly blinded by going into darkness from the clear sunlight. I could see a couple of flames flickering at the farther end of the little building, butter lamps burning beneath a painted form on the wall.
The man clicked on a flashlight with a weak beam. He glanced at the other man in the door and nodded. Why? Was that a signal? The other man stepped away from the door, back where he had been standing. He had been blocking some of the light from the doorway. Everything about the darkness said danger, I took a couple steps behind the man as he moved the beam of light over a painted, standing buddhsatva similar to ones I had seen in many shrines where they were often free standing statues dressed in brocade. This tiny shrine was a sort of token shrine, it seemed. The man told me the Buddhasatva’s names, four on the wall. His voice was fairly loud. He would say a name and then “You know?” “You understand?” I said “Yes,” although all I knew what that they were traditional. I suppose I had heard then names but they were not differentiated in my attempt to grasp the complex iconography of Tibetan art.
The man’s voice dropped as we moved in. “I Tibeti. He Chinese,” he said nodding toward the door. “I Buddhist; he not. Understand?”
“Yes, I understand.” He said a few more things in an accented voice that I did not understand. It seemed to be about the Chinese. We moved toward the butter lamps with their distinctive rancid smell that perfumed all shrine rooms. The room grew a little darker, we saw that the Chinese man was again in the doorway, watching us.
“This Mahakala,” the Tibetian man said loudly, shining the light on the fierce demon-god astride a furious horse that trampled on a nearly naked man. The god wore a necklace of skulls. I had learned that the fierce and frightful pictures like this were good beings that hated evil and were angrily fighting all that was evil. They were protectors. The light played over the god’s fierce face with his bulging eyes, over the horse seeming to scream, over the twisted being beneath the horse’s hooves. “He protector. Kill evil, see skulls.” His voice was loud and the shadow in the doorway moved away, letting light come into the small room.
The man began speaking rapidly in his almost impossible English. I understood he was talking about the recent uprising. Perhaps he mentioned prison. Saying Tibetans are not free. He wants to be free, to escape but he cannot. Do I understand? I understood that much. Will you tell Americans Tibetans want freedom, want to worship Dalai Lama -- he whispered the words. “I know,” I said.
“Promise to tell Americans. We will fight to be free.” He said more, I did not understand it. He showed me the other wall with its Budddhasatvas and told me their names. He took my hand for just a moment, holding it tightly, “You will tell?”
“I will tell.” We went out into the light. I quickly put on my sunglasses. I looked at the Tibetan man for a moment, he looked like many others I had seen. “Thank you,” I said. “Tashidaley.”
The Chinese man was smoking he looked at us without much interest. I walked on down the path. I knew the woods were so quiet -- not a bird, not an insect -- partly because it was midday but also because a few years earlier the Chinese had instituted a rule for all Tibetan children in school: they must fight the Four Pests. Tibetans do not take life, they do not kill animals or birds, or even insects. School children were given quotas: they must bring, weekly, a certain number of dead pests: flies, frogs, rodents and birds. Tibetans had not been free for over thirty years, since before the man in the shrine was born, I thought.
I walked the derelict drive and came to a path that went into the silent woods. I took it, I had lost interest in seeing the tiled stables and the emptied koi ponds. I would find more Chinese guards near whatever buildings remained.
I walked in the woods. I have a good sense of direction, I took other paths that led back toward the gate I had entered. I exited past the gaudy fu-dog and the bored ticket seller. I walked on down the road to the Chichu River where there was a grassy embankment where I sat feeling powerless and sad. I would tell about this Tibetan man as often as I could. It would make no difference. Rather, to me it would make a difference, it would be a promise kept. As I sat, an elderly, bent Tibetan couple, their hands busy with prayer wheels, came along the embankment. As they reached me the man whispered, holding out his hand, “Dalai Lama”. He wanted a picture. I could only show him my empty hands.
I walked along the embankment until I came to another broad street that I surmised would lead to the Potala. It did. Tomorrow our group would go into that grand building, we would see the Dalai Lama’s apartment, we would stand on the roof and look over the once forbidden city and see many places where modern buildings stood, and scaffolding showed building construction where little enclaves of Tibetans had lived in the Chinese manner with several buildings for an extended family around a central courtyard.
On the street beside the Potala Palace I found a good vantage point and stood staring up at the Great Fifth’s structure. A young woman on a bicycle stopped beside me. “’merica?” I nodded yes. She pointed up toward the roof. “Dalai Lama,” she whispered. She had tears in her eyes. to
I were not afraid -- but I was, perhaps I could get her in trouble –
I would have hugged her. “Dalai Lama,” I said and blinked
away my own tears.