300 year Manuscript with Bullet Hole

SYNOPSIS:  Blessed four times in a day!  About monks and monasteries in Tibet.  About the wounds of the cultural revolution and the effects of 60 years of Chinese liberation (that’s what the period since 1959 is called, officially).

You can always pay to receive a blessing from any of the monks at any of the monasteries.  You can also pay for having things blessed.  Somehow, that goes against my grain, especially since I do not see monasteries in Tibet taking on any of the charity functions that I am so used to associating with religious institutions, at least in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Monasteries here, exist by the grace of the Chinese government, which restricts the number of monks each monastery is allowed to have.  The number of monks nationwide used to be much, much higher than it currently is.  During the Cultural Revolution most of the monasteries and monastic institutions were destroyed and outlawed.  That changed, about 20 years later.  Now, there is a high degree of Chinese government oversight of monasteries.  Under the watchful Chinese eyes and ears, monastic schools have reopened, and monks can once again receive degrees in their traditional fields of studies (Buddhist theology, tantrism, philosophy and medicine). 

Monasteries cover a lot of their day-to-day expenditure through a devout population that deposits thousands of RMG or Yuan at important images and shrines daily.  Only  the monastery in Shigatse operates differently; entirely government sponsored (and government dependent, I would assume).  Some of the most important monasteries have been rebuilt in part or in their entirety, with government subsidies.

Nowhere was that more obvious as at Ganden Monastery.  I have a historical photograph, from the late 1990’s that shows a forest of ruined “stumps” and broken adobe walls, amidst approximately ten intact buildings.  When we approached Ganden, a site that is perched high upon a mountain rim, I exclaimed:  Oh, it has been rebuilt!

Tenzin, my local guide, had a day of altitude training today.  He had sent his friend Sonam instead, to fill in for him.  No, nothing has been rebuilt, he responded.  This is an old monastery.  I knew better, but kept my mouth shut.  I would look for more evidence, but except for one broken wall, there was nothing to point to that would indicate the horrors, or the extent of the destruction, the Red Guard caused while rampaging and pillaging the entire country in the late 1950’s.  About 50 buildings made up the monastery and all of them were there.

Ganden is one of the most important monasteries, as it was founded by “the master” himself.  That would be Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa Sect in the 14th century, who died at Ganden, in 1419.   The throne on which he died (or didn’t) has been rebuilt.  Devotees line up to enter a shrine in which his hat, as well as the shoes of the 13th Dalai Lama, are kept.  A monk had just taken them out and blessed each person with a slap of these objects on the head and the back.  Since I was in line, I bowed, and received my double blessing, too. 

Shortly thereafter, Sonam and I entered a chapel dedicated to a variety of deities, among them, my favorite:  Manjusri, the Buddha of wisdom, teaching, and cutting through ignorance.  Sonam pointed him out to me as the Wisdom Buddha, and I added:  Yes, it’s Manjusri.  No, it’s not Manjusri, Sonam replied.  But it is, I countered.  An older, dwarfed monk stood nearby with a big smile, pointed to me and said:  Manjusri, yes!   He thought it was so funny that I knew this deity, that on the spot he blessed me and wrapped one of the white, votive scarfs around my neck.  That was three blessings in one day and all free!

We continued to the burial stupa of Tsongkhapa, the most venerated object of the monastery.  It is attached to the dining room for the monks, and to a small room with sacred objects.  Three 500+ year old, beautifully illustrated Buddhist manuscripts were on display, written with gold-on-black paper.  I had not seen anything comparable at any other place so far.  I examined them for a long time and came back to them three times.  At that point, the attendant monk gave me permission to take a picture (not worth much since it is so very dark!), but he also pulled out another manuscript, about 300 years old, that had a bullet hole in it!   That’s what they did to our books, he pointed out. 

Objects like these are sacred to the locals, and three Tibetan visitors asked for a blessing with the book.  They knelt and the monk lifted the not unsubstantial book and touched their heads with it.  Since I had come that far with blessings today, I asked for one of those, too.  Four blessings — more than I could ask for and more than I had received in nearly a month — all in one day!   But even more interesting for me was to be able to see and touch a book with a bullet hole.  That said it all…

Drak Yerpa was our next stop for the day.  It is a small monastery only a few kilometers outside of Lhasa that has developed around a few ancient and famous meditation caves.  It has fallen victim to destruction several times, and finally, I could point out some ruins to Sonam that surely were caused by the Cultural Revolution.  He did not believe me.  In fact, when he complained to me about the current state of affairs in Tibet, I pointed out that under the Cultural Revolution it had been much worse.  His response:  I don’t know that much history.  I was absolutely stunned.  His response was a kudos to the now 60-year-long Chinese presence in Tibet, during which nothing is taught about the Cultural Revolution, its goals, the destruction, or the mistakes that were made.  Talking about it is illegal.  Sonam was a fine product of this whitewashing tactic. 

I finally approached a monk in residence, pointed to some of the ruins, and asked what happened.  He pulled out his smartphone and showed us dozens of pre-revolution photos.  Finally, Sonam had some sort of an awakening.  He was most puzzled over how I knew this by just looking at the ruins.  I hope he understands how much there is to learn for him unless he is content to be a product of the liberation period as he knows it.

Ignorance is bliss!  Or is it?

6 comments so far

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  1. Your professor saw a special spark in you that she lit and now it burns so brightly as you pass on some of its glow of history that has been lost in the dark. Keep the torch burning!

  2. Hello Elisabeth,
    They is where I start my adventure with you, the day of Four Blessings. Your Professor and old friend at University of Michigan must be very happy in the hereafter. Seeing you take on her work of documenting all the richness of culture that can be destroyed in minutes and forgotten in 30 years.
    I’m having a confusing time posting here. So forgive me if this is the third post on the same subject.
    Spring is in its full glory here, the peonies are out and the scent is in the air.
    Take care dear friend,

  3. Also, that incredible meditation cave immediately brought to mind Cave Hira. Hmmmm….

    • I think there has been a rich tradition in various cultures to go into a retreat to meditate. What better place than caves?

      • Muhammad started his notorious career in a cave, too.

  4. Lovely…that scarf will be with you all your “born days”.