It is especially interesting to us as students of history to witness the proverbial repetition of human history. It can be sad, and perhaps disheartening. It is usually not due to malice of an intentional variety. Rather, it is usually, and in this case, due to the realities of human societies as they struggle to thrive in the face of opposition. We struggle against each other in a competition that sometimes makes little sense to those outside the struggle.
Corinne organized a train trip from Beijing to Lhasa. This is a long train ride at 40 hours and 40 minutes. The train trip was an experience. We shared a cabin and spent the long hours reading and taking pictures of the passing countryside. We ate in the dining car, although Patrick in particular could not muster enthusiasm for the food choices. This was the origin story for his declared intention to host weight loss trips to China. In all seriousness, there were many amazing meals, but this train was not on the list.
The landscape, however, was amazing. As we traveled across the width of China and south to the Himalayas, we saw terraced hillsides, stopped at train stations large and small, and moved upward into moonscapes of barren land at altitudes that challenged plant life.
As we rolled into Tibet we encountered Corinne’s favorite of the trip, the Tibetan yak. This began the developing countryside as we saw increasing signs of population, agriculture, and civilization. This culminates in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. Lhasa was first established in 637 CE when Songtsen Gampo became leader of the Tibetan Empire and began the first buildings of what would become the Potala Palace.
We started our touring with the Jokhang Temple. Such a beautiful plaza. Our guide was most distressed that we were wandering about unescorted. Touring in Tibet in 2007 required that you were always accompanied by a licensed and approved tour guide. We were fortunate to have Dorje, as we were to learn, because he was a native Tibetan. Most of the licensed tour guides were Han Chinese.
As we moved to view the Potala Palace, we would repeatedly ask questions. Now, as some of you will know, no one is better at asking questions than Patrick. Inevitably, Patrick would ask about the Tibetans and the Chinese and Dorje would find himself looking uncomfortable. Dorje’s English was good, but he was clearly struggling.
Patrick said, “Is this a question for the van?”
Dorje’s face lit up, “Yes. Yes. This is a van question.”
The Potala Palace is amazing. It was completed in 1649 by the 5th Dalai Lama and was the winter palace of the Dalai Lamas until the 1959 exile of the current and 14th Dalai Lama. There is much of interest here, but one of the aspects that was particularly interesting, I thought, was the creation of the floors and the velvet-looking upper levels. The floors are created through pounding the clay into a hard cement-like state. The pounding is done by people in a form of dancing. The velvety texture of the upper red levels is accomplished with bundled wood that is tightly packed.
Near the Potala Palace is the Johkang Temple. It was originally begun in 652 CE and was expanded and changed until 1610 with a deep renovation project in the 1970s. I’ve mentioned the beautiful plaza, but something that really struck me while we were visiting all these temples was the similarity between the Tibetan Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the Catholic cult of the saints. There is the use of symbolic dress and iconography to communicate the stories of these figures that is combined with the ritualistic positioning of the statues and their use in ritual. All of it made me feel I was returning to Rome.
We visited several other temples, but of particular interest was the visit to Sera Monastery. This was remarkable for their willingness to share their debate form of learning. This method was reminiscent of the argument structures of the medieval European Scholastics. It has a formal question and objections that must have a response. Likewise, with scholasticism, “a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, oppositional responses are given, a counterproposal is argued, and oppositional arguments rebutted.” Of particular interest for the continuous tradition of the Tibetan school, we see dramatic and ritual gestures to enhance the debate.
Our time in Tibet was remarkable. It was sad on one front that we felt we were witnessing the oppression of a people, much as we have the first peoples in our own country. There is reason to hope, of course, and we hope that a better equilibrium can be found there. Our visit ended with a drive to the not-nearby airport. Along the way, we did have to stop and visit with one of Corinne’s yak friends. From there, we traveled to Xian.
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