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The Utmost Sincerity: temples in Lhasa

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The Utmost Sincerity: Temples and Monasteries in Lhasa

Original 2017-03-07 Fu Rao 观览中国

Potala Palace

Situated at the zenith of central Lhasa, Potala Palace is prestigiously iconic for its typical Tibetan architecture and rich Buddhism infusions. However, technically, Potala is not a temple. As its name ‘palace’ indicates, Potala is an old political centre consisting of fully-functioning administration departments, assembly hall, offices, libraries, kitchens, bedrooms, yards and jails. To announce his reign of Tibetan land, Songsan Gampo built Potala and set Lhasa as the capital after he united several tribes, and declared himself the first King of united Tibet in 7th Century.

Potala used to be the political centre, not the religious one, despite Tibetan culture and Buddhism converging and intertwining in later centuries. 

Gampo’s successors continued to expand the palace, but its function and appearance are far from what it is today. The ‘modern palace’ was not constructed until the 5th Dalai Lama established himself as the religious-political leader and took over it in 1642. It took another three centuries to form today’s shape, after several expansions and refurbishments.

Today Potala is the icon of Lhasa. It’s advertised in tour guide books, postcards and TV programs. It’s also become a museum that keeps numerous priceless religious statues and objects. It remians a brilliant must-visit site of your Tibet journey. However, the palace, is not the actual religious centre of Lhasa. The unparalleled spiritual manor for pilgrims, is Jokhang temple. 

Jokhang Temple

Jokhang temple has been called the “spiritual heart of Lhasa”, and is the most sacred site for Tibetan Buddhism worshippers. Geographically it marks the centre point, with other ancient temples spread around. It also operates as a focal point for commerce in the city, with bustling streets encircling the main buildings. Barkhor(八廓街) is the main orbiting path, originally designed with eight sides as an extension of the spiritual centre - it takes about 20 minutes to complete a circuit.

A Tibetan I bumped into told me that December and January are the peak times for pilgrims. Though Lhasa is very cold at this time, and temperatures usually drop to negative figures, their determination to travel for spiritual advancement isn’t deterred by the weather. Even the elderly Tibetan crutch and ramble to complete the journey they believe would bring them merits. In addition, another advantage to travelling in Tibet during the off-peak winter is the cheaper prices of the hotels. 

Walking the streets under the sunny clear sky, breathing the clean, crisp but chilling air, I do feel refreshed seeing numerous Tibetan-clothed worshippers rhythmically reciting ong-ma-ni-bey-mei-hong and shaking their prayer wheels in unison.

Worshippers circle the walkway clockwise, a practise they called circumambulation. According to Gautama Buddha, the more circles they accomplish, they high merits they gain. They are concentrated, mumbling words I cannot understand, meanwhile twirling Buddha beads or prayer wheels to count the lines of religious texts they recite. January is the busiest time for Tibetans to travel for pilgrimage, so the path surrounded Jokhang is always crowded during the day. 

Only in the night is the walkway vacated, leaving space for some worshippers practicing a more serious ritual: kowtows around the sacred Jokhang. They put down their knees first, then they lie flat and make their whole body touch the ground to convey their utmost sincerity. It’s such an energy-intense action I can hear a ‘bang’ sound when they fall to the stone floor. That was the moment the power of spiritual faith strikes me. 

Later a guide told me that Tibetans believe this practice of Kowtow help people maintain their health, since the motion demands a lot on synergy of one’s whole body. That could still be painful, I think. Thus, in a compromised and safer way, many people kowtow on a body-length cushion instead to buffer the bumps.

Jokhang temple was first built in AD 700 to hold a statue of 8-year-old Skyamuni Buddha which was brought by the Princess of Nepal, Bhrikuti, who married the King of Tibet Songsan Gampo for political union. After Gampo‘s, another political marriage with the Chinese princess WenCheng brought a statue of 12-year-old Skyamuni Buddha to Lhasa. Among the only three recognised Skyamuni Buddha statues in the world, this one is the most ornate. It is painted with gold, filled with emeralds and decorated by pearl Buddha beads. The 12-year-old Skyamuni Buddha was later transferred to Jokhang, and thus it’s the most sacred place for pilgrims.

While Tibetans are busy praying and gaining merits, some residing around the temple look idle, and just enjoy sunbathing all day. 

At the doorways, the temple squares and the walkways, it’s easy to spot sunbathing dogs. Poised in a relaxed side-lying position with their eyes closed, they look as if there’s nothing in the world to worry about.