Stars sparkled over Lhasa as we boarded the bus for Ganden Monastery. At 5:30am we had left our guesthouse and headed down the street to catch the bus at Bakhor Square. When we got there it was already full except for one seat and a bench in the front next to the gearshift. Zami, our 62 year-old Israeli friend who we had been traveling with for the last ten days, took the seat and we squeezed our way up to the front bench. After a few minutes the bus plunged forward into the darkness. My arm was pressed up against the windshield and I could feel goose bumps forming under my many layers of clothing. The seats around us were filled with old women in long thick skirts and warm wool sweaters each one holding a string of prayer beads. Over the grumbling of the engine you could hear the steady murmur of their mantras as thumbs pushed prayer beads quickly along. While Justin fell asleep on my shoulder I pulled out my own set of prayer beads, the one I bought a week earlier at Drepung Monastery on my 26th birthday, and added my voice to the low hum of prayers.
The road ahead was illuminated by the headlights of our giant bus. The Sichuan restaurants and new department stores were closed. The florescent signs above Chinese apothecary shops and karaoke bars were dark. The city was quiet except for the shuffle of those en route to the Johkang. Young women with turquoise and coral in their hair were prostrating. As we passed I caught glimpses of them throwing their robust bodies against the hard asphalt, then standing up taking a few steps forward and doing it again. Old men in long sheepskin cloaks hobbled along spinning hand held prayer wheels. Children with bright-sunburned cheeks trailed behind families of pilgrims walking toward the city center. In fact, it seemed all Lhasa’s streets were lined with pilgrims suggesting that before dawn Tibet belongs to the Tibetans.
It was a blessing to see Lhasa from this bus with these pilgrims. It was the first time we were allowed on a public bus in Tibet. As foreigners our travel had been heavily restricted requiring stacks of permits, government approved guides and expensive Land Cruiser tours. Boarding this bus felt almost rebellious, an opportunity to escape the constant monitoring of our movements. It was also the first time in two months of travel that we were approaching a sacred site appropriately, the way my mother had taught me, with intention and prayer.
I was happy I got out of bed that morning. I almost hadn't. Earlier when Zami knocked on our door to wake us up I groaned and hid my head deep under the massive stack of blankets that kept us warm through the night. I was exhausted and firmly decided there was no way I was getting up. Justin had gone to answer the door. Through the thick walls of my blanket cave I could hear a muffled version of their brief conversation. Justin was asking if everything was okay. Zami asking if we were ready to go. Justin explaining that it was only 2am. Zami apologizing, his watch had malfunctioned. Relieved, I fell deep into a dream about the civil rights movement. It was Mississippi and we were singing songs of freedom. Everyone I knew was there. In real life I never sing in public, but in the dream my voice was strong and beautiful. Maybe that’s why I was less afraid to mumble my mantras out loud on the bus.
When we arrived at Ganden Monastery, located high on one of the few mountain passes around Lhasa, everyone poured off the bus. Surprisingly, rather than heading to the cluster of temples they scrambled up a steep dirt path. Zami, Justin and I stood in the crisp biting air a little confused about which direction to go. It was too cold to stand around for long so soon I too was scrambling up the hill. When I got to the top I was alone surrounded by thousands of prayer flags snapping and whipping in the wind. Where did everyone go? Maybe instinctively, maybe because it was the only option, I turned to the wall of prayer flags. I reached down to the ground and with frozen fingers gathered up the brightly colored fabric. I lifted it above my head and burrowed into the tunnel of flapping prayers.
On the other side I stopped short to steady my footing and catch my breath. I was standing on the edge of a steep cliff looking out at endless valleys, braided rivers and the mountains of Tibet. The sun was peaking over a jagged horizon, its warm rays encouraging the world to shimmer. To my right I saw people walking along a path I hadn't noticed. It was the same path I was standing on. In Tibet, before one enters a monastery they walk around it in a clockwise direction on a path called a kora. In the past we had followed such paths around buildings but the Ganden kora took us around the peak of a mountain. Justin and Zami emerged behind me and we followed the path together, in the direction of the pilgrims, for the ritual circumambulation of the holy site.
We caught up with the group ahead and walked with them through the morning. They stopped often at particular trees or caves to bow and prostrate. Some lit small candles on altars carved into stone. Many carried beautifully woven bags filled with incense and tsampa (barley flour) for offerings. They were quiet, reverent, and earnest in their worship. I was acutely aware of the fact that we were the only foreigners and was a little concerned we might be intruding. However no one seemed to mind. They were intensely focused on their prayers. When people did respond to us it was with disarming smiles and nods.
One of the kora stops was a giant smooth boulder that everyone crowed around. The mood had changed significantly as laughter and chatter filled the air. A hundred glowing faces, deep wrinkles around toothy smiles, rough hands clapping loudly in celebration. I was shocked to see that people were taking turns sliding headfirst down the boulder. I watched an old woman giggle while a group gently helped her lie on her back at the top of the boulder. Her soft gray braids scattered on the darker gray stone. She put her hands in prayer position and squealed as she slid and was caught by another group at the bottom. Justin whispered that he read about this in our guidebook. It was a ritual reenactment of birth in preparation for reincarnation.
We watched for a while before I was overcome with the desire to join the ritual, to be a participant rather than an observer. Suddenly I found myself standing at the top of the boulder ready to slide. A dozen approving voices surrounded me kindly explaining in Tibetan how this was done. Somehow I understood. My heart was pounding. The cold air pumping loudly through my lungs. I lay back on the slope looking up at the cloudless blue sky. I put my hands together in front of my heart and began to slide down. A sea of dancing fingers guided me gently through my rebirth. As their voices merged with the wind, I felt the coldness of the stone and the warmth of faith. My mind was quiet.
Several people helped me down off the boulder while the next pilgrim got ready to slide. I was shaking with excitement. Maybe it was all the blood rushing to my head. Maybe it was something more profound. I felt like I broke through some barriers. Sometimes I feel like I have a self-imposed “traveler barrier” keeping me from deeply connecting. This ritual helped release that fear…let if fly away. It also felt important to put my body into this ritual, breaking some barrier between theory and experience. Transforming theory into experience. Ritual can be so powerful. I felt these Buddhist ideas about the metaphysical in a physical way. I am still trying to understand it.
Justin held my hand as we continued to walk along the kora. He told me the next stop, the one he was most interested in, was the sky burial ground. The sky burial site was just far enough away that you could not hear the rejoicing around the rebirth stone. I had heard so much about sky burials where, after death, your loved ones bring your decaying body to the top of a mountain and chop it up for birds to eat. It is a profound practice of letting go in the Buddhist tradition of non-attachment. A compassionate gift of ones body to other sentient beings. An act of admitting that the soul moves on. Here on this ridge, there was a circle of white stones around a large plot of sand where the sky burials take place. Outside the circle there was a small pile of things left behind by the dead. It included a photo ID of a young man in an olive green jacket. His hair was ruffled and his face stern. There was a ragged string of prayer beads, scraps of clothing, bits of hair and some silver. These things were so real. My eyes fixed on them with a kind tunnel vision until a hawk flew by and I looked up. The sky was so open. So wide open. Calm. Expansive. Liberating. I sat in the grass nearby, closed my eyes and tried to listen. Maybe for the voices of the dead? I don't know how long I sat before I heard the song. A single woman's voice souring. It was fierce and sad and brave and beautiful. I opened my eyes and saw three sisters in the circle of white stones. One was singing while the other two took turns pretending to cut eachother’s flesh with a small dull blade. They were practicing, familiarizing themselves with the reality of death.
When they finished I got up quietly. The sky burial song was echoing in me. I walked to at the last stop on the kora, a giant outdoor oven filled with incense. Justin and Zami were there watching a worker from the monastery hand out bowls of incense to throw in the fire. The air was thick with the smell of sweet sage. I stood near the fire and let the bellowing clouds of smoke surround me, flow through me, cleanse me.
We spent the rest of the day wandering through the temples of the monastery. We read about Ganden’s political importance and association with the Dalai Lama. How it was destroyed in 1959 during China’s violent Cultural Revolution and about its slow ongoing reconstruction. At 2:30pm we boarded the bus for Lhasa. The old women near us beamed and friendly chatter bubbled all around. When the women realized we could not speak Tibetan they started to feed us. Oranges, chocolate, biscuits and raisins flowed our way. Later that night we ate dinner with Zami, who the next day would be beginning his journey home to Israel. He too beamed with satisfaction. “My last day in Tibet and I finally meet Tibet”.