A radio tower overlooks Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, occupying a hilltop that was once the site of the Tibetan Medicine College. This centuries-old seat of knowledge, was destroyed by the Chinese Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution which occurred approximately from 1966 to 1976.
Traveling to Tibet had long been a dream on mine. Hollywood’s Shangri-La, depicted in Frank Capra’s film Lost Horizon, supplied my earliest images of Tibet. As a teenager in the ‘60s, the consciousness expansion movement fascinated me. Alan Watts’ radio broadcasts were also an important influence (he was my door to Zen). There was yoga, meditation, chanting, sensory deprivation tanks — you name it. I hopscotched through Eastern traditions, sampling various philosophies.
Growing up in New Mexico, I learned to appreciate many different cultures. That was when I began to notice the subtle similarities between the Navajos and the Tibetans. Both are grounded in the earth and share a reverence for nature. Both cultures have intricate sand paintings and turquoise jewelry, and so on. Naturally, the more I became aware of Tibet, the more I wanted to see it firsthand.
Before mapping our itinerary, my partner, Terry Rich, and I had the good fortune of meeting Jose Cabezon, a Buddhist scholar and former monk who has translated for HH The Dalai Lama in Spanish-speaking countries. Jose also was planning a trip to Tibet, so we met up in Kathmandu before flying to Lhasa together.
Our flight to Lhasa took us over the Himalayas where we gawked at the beauty and majesty of Mt. Everest and K2 from windows in our old Air China Boeing 707.
Upon our arrival, a couple of the soldiers proceeded to search our bags. I kept hoping our forbidden photos of the Dalai Lama would not be confiscated. Giving a picture of the Dalai Lama to a Tibetan is similar to giving a winning lottery ticket to an American.
Our party of four was assigned to stay at the Lhasa Holiday Inn, a Holiday Inn unlike any you might find elsewhere on our planet. Despite the dark stairwells and musty ambience, the clean sheets beckoned as our bodies adjusted to the 12,000 foot elevation.
For the next seven days, we set out to take in the legendary city of Lhasa, including the two residences of the Dalai Lama before he was exiled to India: The Potala Palace and the summer residence of Norbulinka. We joined the crowds of native Tibetan pilgrims and citizens of Lhasa at the Barkhor bazaar, the Jokhang temple, and several of the surrounding monasteries including Sera, Drepung and Ganden.
In Tibet, monasteries are similar to universities. They are centers of knowledge from all fields of learning, seen through the prism of Buddhism: Science, literature, mathematics, philosophy, and the arts. The Chinese occupation of Tibet began in 1949. By 1959, the chaos and destruction caused by the occupying army led to a peaceful uprising Lhasa, the Capital, in March, 1959. The Chinese authorities responded with unprecedented force that led to the killing, arrests and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Tibetans. In the following months and years, nearly a hundred thousand Tibetans fled into exile. In Tibet, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were killed because of the Chinese government’s repressive and violent campaigns. More than 6,000 monasteries and their contents were destroyed.
I shot dozens of photos of the destruction. They were painful to view. It is gut-wrenching to see the devastation that occurred at the hands of the Communist Red Guard during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Mortar shells toppled the walls of building after building, shattering centuries-old icons and religious artwork. Paintings had been defaced or destroyed. Precious jewels and gold were stripped from ancient religious statues.
And yet, as you can see from the photographs posted here, the people we encountered were smiling and cheerful.
Visiting the Potala Palace was a high point. It is a spectacular structure dating back to the seventh century. The Potala appears to be growing out of a mountain, sitting like a crown atop Marpori peak. Frank Lloyd Wright kept a photo of this architectural wonder on the wall of his study as inspiration.
Tibet is about the size of Western Europe. The average elevation is 14,000 feet. If you think you feel the effects of altitude while skiing in Colorado, try ascending the stairs in the Lhasa Holiday Inn.
The impact of Chinese occupation on the Tibetan people and their culture, and the plus the imprisonment and torture of her people, are of utmost concern to Amnesty International and the world community at large. But there is more. China covets Tibet for its natural resources. Mining and logging have been particularly destructive to the Tibetan environment. Few safeguards have been imposed on strip mining operations with the result that lakes, rivers, groundwater and soil have been contaminated. Logging has caused soil erosion that threatens major river systems, threatens the long-term fertility of the land, and may even be contributing to climate change (source: Tibet Justice Organization).
A hallmark of Tibetan culture and a goal of Tibetan Buddhism is the cultivation of an open heart and a calm, clear mind. My seven days in Tibet helped instill in my heart the value of these values and an deep appreciation of the Tibetan people’s spirit.