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Friday, August 28, 2009

Tibet: A Journey to Simplicity, Beauty and the Divine

Several months ago I received an invitation to meet a “Living Buddha” in Tibet and I realized a life-long dream of mine was about to come true. This adventure was organized by my dear friend Pearl Lam with whom I have taken several other extraordinary journeys, all of them trips that I could never have navigated on my own. I knew it would be both memorable and difficult; however I had no clue just how challenging getting to our destination would be. The roads were in much worse condition than I could ever have imagined. For hours without relief, we bounced up and down, our heads actually hitting the roof of the car. However, it was the altitude sickness that proved to be the real problem. As we climbed toward 5,000 feet, the headaches grew worse, the nausea increased, and the lack of physical strength took its toll. By the morning of the second day on the road we had lost four of our fellow travelers, and that was half of our group. Weakened and debilitated, they were forced to turn around and go back to civilization.

I was fortunate that my headaches only appeared briefly in the morning and my stomach took the position that it would not give me any trouble if I would just agree not to put anything in it that I didn’t recognize at first glance (not an easy request to fulfill on this kind of trip). And so I said no to dried Yak meat on long rib bones, chicken feet in weird sauces, unidentifiable vegetables and soups with floating colors and objects that I still haven’t recognized or named. And so I just focused on the rice that kept me feeling full and safe. The real nightmare, however, was the famous Yak tea that made most of us weak at the knees as soon as we smelled its aroma. We tried to appear polite as we shook our heads to indicate “no thank you.” This strange but common beverage I believe was enhanced with rancid Yak butter.

The lack of physical nourishment was easily overshadowed by the immense beauty of the land and the purity of its people. In their presence it was easy to reconnect to the basics of life and revisit what it means to be just happy. The lower mountains were like velvet, covered with green undulating grass that fed the plentiful herds of Yaks that roamed everywhere. The owners lived in tents, dressed in splendid shades of purple, fuchsia, and maroon held together with small silver belts, swords and purses often adorned with chunks of turquoise. Their faces were eternally aglow with big, genuine smiles. Their secret, I believe, was their acceptance of the harshness of their lives and the creative genius of nature that offered its prize creations to the simplest of souls. Living among the majesty of nature reminds you every moment of our humanness and from that place the divine within is easily felt. In a land meant for the Gods, life is lived as it was centuries ago, minus the occasional cell phone or motorcycle that now runs with the dogs keeping the herds of Yaks moving and together. It was easy to see how spoiled we all were as we were forced to forego our civilized conveniences and let our spirits lead the way. For no matter how hard we resisted, we could not keep out the stark, lonely beauty that invaded our emotional walls and helped us connect to a place of fear within ourselves – our private sense of lonliness and isolation that is part of everyone’s soul.

The master (he didn’t speak English) was an inspiring example as he sat in the front seat of our SUV, bouncing away without stress or anxiety. I had to pinch myself occasionally at the vision of what was happening -- I was going to a temple in Tibet with a “Living Buddha” right by my side. And what a kind, generous, and innocent divine being he was. When he learned I was an astrologer he asked me a question no one else had ever put quite the same way -- “What are my weaknesses,” he inquired, “so that I may strengthen them and improve myself?” That question made him instantly human to me, but human without the burden of an ego, and so he immediately felt divine. So simple, so real, so committed to becoming a better person so that he may help others cope with their lives. This beautiful soul was chosen at seven years old by a council who was seeking the reincarnation of the last Master. Before a Living Buddha” dies he writes down the date of his rebirth and the name of his future mother and father and then it is up to the council to find him. When they do, he is presented with artifacts from his last life and if he identifies them in some way, he is accepted and schooled to continue his teachings. Our Buddha had only taken charge of his legacy six or seven years ago. The challenge before him is not an easy one, for there is little or no money available to keep his temple in working order. He gives his blessings in a leaky tent, while the buildings are slowly falling apart around him. That is why he came to Shanghai, to raise money, but of course he couldn’t speak of money and so the Gods led him to my friend Pearl’s apartment. Talk about extreme environments; he must have wondered if he had landed on Mars as he looked around at the contemporary Chinese art and unique d├ęcor of my friend’s not so humble home. Pearl has vowed to help him and this trip was the first of her ventures to bring awareness of his plight to those who are capable and willing to help in some way. The most immediate crisis they face is the chanting room where the monks must enter and chant for three years, three months, three days and three hours. It is leaking and falling apart; the monks can’t leave and they don’t have the funds to fix it. With winter approaching this is a crisis indeed.

The morning of our trip up the mountain to the temple turned out to be a beautiful day. Apparently the Buddha had asked everyone to pray for good weather so that we might truly enjoy the journey. As we arrived at a tent where the “Living Buddha” would change into a golden robe with a red sash, we encountered a long row of people waiting for a glimpse of their Master. The people had not seen him for three months and so they were anxious for his blessings. The love that was felt that morning was transformational – it flowed from the crowds to the Buddha and back to their hearts. Tears welled up in my eyes for the feeling of pure love is not a common encounter. This moment was experienced over and over again as my horse followed the procession up the mountain to the temple. Hundreds of people had climbed the steep sides of the mountain to greet him on his journey upward. With so much devotion and love, the difficulties of the last two days easily faded into pure joy.

We were the first foreigners to visit the area. They were as curious about us as we were about them. When you tried to communicate with them, their giggles, and smiles where so genuine that they stole your heart. The men hugged each other easily and held hands, no shame in showing feelings of any kind. Apparently the women are once again the workers and foundation of the families. They walked and the men rode the horses; they earned the money for their children and family, and men keep the money they earn for themselves. If their union ends in divorce it is her family that will take care of her and her children. Young couples don’t waste time when they like each other -- they marry immediately. Often this happens after only one conversation or encounter. Our driver, a sexy Scorpio, was getting married to a woman he had met only three times!

I am sure that this journey will continue to work on my spirit for many months and years to come. There is nothing more enlightening than to meet people who are different from you, and yet so very much the same. The experience is that we all share the same desires for love and inspiration; we all seek to share our feelings and happiness with those we care about. It seems that the less you have, the easier this is to accomplish – so who really wins in life – those of us with comfort and money, or those with love and community as a natural part of life? It shouldn’t have to be a choice, but so often luxury clouds our spirit and keeps us from being real. After returning home, what has stayed the strongest in my psyche are two things: the beauty and magnificence of the mountains and nature and the simple power of a warm and loving smile. Beauty and love are truly the gifts of life that keep on giving.