2017
05.17

THE PROFESSOR

SYNOPSIS:  Off the beaten path with professor Deishe.  But really, who is he?!

I had some time and what better way to spend it but strolling around Lhasa?  I ended up in the Barkhor Shopping Mall and Supermarket.  The modern building in which it was housed, was one of those out-of-style misfits in town, but I had to check it out.  This mall transported me into a cross-breed between Meijer’s and Whole Foods.  There seemed to be everything the heart could desire.  This was obviously a place for wealthy Chinese who fancied imported goods and did not look at the price tag:  imported beers, wines, clothes, foods, were displayed among few local goods.  A Disney-style play area for kids was part of it, filled with noisy, happily screaming children.  After a few minutes, I had my fill.

Just outside the mall, a short, relatively light-skinned, Tibetan man approached me in reasonably good English.   His bad and crooked teeth dominated his big and frequent smiles.  Within minutes he was bad-mouthing current conditions and the store I was at.  Do you have an hour, he asked?   Don’t waste your time here.  I will show you something real Tibetan.  Of course, I had an hour and I am up for anything real Tibetan any time.   But did he not have anything better to do?  And would he not put himself into danger talking politics?  I deliberately avoided the topic with anyone I came in contact with, not for my sake, but for theirs!  Now the tables had turned.  In Turfan, Uighur-man had suspected me for a spy.  Was this perhaps a spy set up to catch “bad” tourists?

He told me that he was a professor teaching tangkha painting at the Tibetan Universitys art department.  He had nothing professor-like about him.  But we bonded over the idea that we were teachers, both connected to the arts.  I will call him Deishe, which means as much as “Hello”.  Within a few more minutes, I had half of Deishe’s life story; real or fabricated, I will never know:  He has six children; four boys, two girls.  He paints tangkhas and his wife makes the fabric borders.  One of his sons works at his store.  His father, a painter and Lama (that means he is considered to be a known re-incarnation), fled in the 50’s with the Dalai Lama and has resided in Indian exile ever since.  His mother and the kids were left behind and had to fend on their own.  No unification of any of them with their father or husband is in sight.  If real, this was a hell of an impressive story!  Was I a fool to believe him?

Before I knew it, I was racing through the narrow alleys of Lhasa, following the professor to an undisclosed destination to experience “real Tibetan life”.   Even after we entered the Barkhor, he would not stop making incriminating remarks.  Didn’t he know that the Barkhor had ears and eyes everywhere?  Why did he not care?

We soon stopped at a small temple in one of the side streets.  I had been there a couple of days ago.  Indeed, something went on there!  First, I had mistaken the area for an overcrowded shopping alley, then I realized that all the people who had piled up on chairs, cushions, the floor, or their backpacks, were pilgrims churning prayer wheels.  They were engaged in some serious religious business and I did not belong.  After a quick glance, I had left.  This time, Deishe in the lead, I entered the compound and found myself in the small courtyard of a monastery.  Chants were broadcast through the compound and there was hardly an inch to walk.  Deishe was greeted by many people with clear respect.  Could his father really have been a lama? 

Come up, meet the special lama, he gestured. What?  Once a year, Deishe explained, a well-known lama from far away is visiting this monastery.  Believers, pilgrims, and locals know about the event and gather in this monastery from 6 AM to 6 PM or for as often and as long as they can, during this three-day period to be in the presence of the lama and to receive his blessings.  You can meet him.  And you can shake his hand!  Now I was completely intimidated, but I kept following Deishe, who took me up to the main shrine and further up to a small room where the lama sat, turning his rosary, ready to receive devotees. 

Shake his hand, Deishe commanded me. Shaking hands is so uncommon around here, I really felt uncomfortable.  I bowed before the lama and finally reached out with both hands to take his.  He smiled.  He had a very kind face.  Most likely he was in his 60’s.  In Deishe’s presence, this was not only OK, but I was allowed to take some pictures of him.  Because of the darkness inside monasteries, they did not quite turn out, but the kindness of this man is apparent even in my bad photos.  Modestly, he looked away when I took his picture. 

Follow me!  Deishe was not done with me.  Up we went even further, looking at some walls of the monastery.  I restored these, Deishe proudly exclaimed.  Wow, could he be for real after all?  The way Deishe was treated in this monastery indicated that he was well known, liked, and respected.  I learned about a hand gesture that was new to me:  Face at least one, or both palms upwards and slightly bend your head when you greet somebody.  Many people greeted him that way.  It is a greeting of high (one hand) or highest (two hands) respect.  No way, would a Chinese spy be greeted that way; but surely the son of a known local lama who fled with the Dalai Lama.  Wow!

How did I deserve to meet such a guy? 

We made a stop at his shop.  Here it comes, I thought.  Now he wants me to buy something.  I do want to buy a tangkha, but good ones now are way out of my price range.  Over the last few years, prices have risen sharply for the painted ones.  Prints are still cheap and are fine souvenirs.  But I had hoped for a real one, one of my favorite Buddhas, the Buddha of wisdom, teaching, cutting through ignorance:  Manjusri.  Perhaps, some day.  Contrary to my fears, Deishe actually wanted to give me a gift!  But I told him, that the only gift I could accept, he had already given me:  The visit to the lama.

Deishe took me to two more places where he restored images at monasteries.  He then showed me an unmarked door, rushed up the stairs, and sat down at a restaurant filled with benches facing tables.  This is the typical Tibetan way.  No foreigners here!  He smiled his big and not very flattering smile.  Do you want some milk tea?  Milk tea is sweet and filling and I love it.  Yes, I would love some tea; but now you brought me here, a foreigner, I replied.  The staff congregated around our table watching me drink tea.  I became their evening attraction.  Deishe would not stop slapping his knees, laughing, after he called his wife and telling me to talk to her.  I said a few sentences, but it was obvious that she spoke no English.  Deishe behaved like a kid who had played a practical joke on his teacher.  After a few more cups of milk tea and couple of selfies, we parted. 

Thanks, Deishe, for a slice of real Tibet!

3 comments so far

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  1. What a surprise this day held for you. What fun to simply follow the professor and even meet the special Lama. I do wish that somehow you could have purchased a tangkha. (Our daughter has a beautiful one) I really thought you would be pressured into buying something but it turned out to be a refreshing, simple friendship.

  2. Yes, indeed it is. It is a very tribal kind of greeting and I as a foreigner should stay far away from doing such a thing, nor would anyone think of greeting me that way. But it’s funny, isn”t it?

  3. I just read an article today which said that it is a Tibetan gesture of greeting and respect to stick your tongue out at someone. Did you run into any of this?