Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mandalas, Pots and a White Yak

Dangzhulin Monastery
The Tibetan Mandala is a sacred thing of beauty and the highest of Tantric meditation. Although the world thinks anything that's a circle is a mandala, that's a long ways from the origins and purpose of the real Mandala and for the first time in all my travels through Buddhist cultures (Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India), I saw 4 real sacred three-dimensional Mandalas in the very remote Lama Monastery, Dongzhulin Monastery, a good two hour drive up and down mountains away from Shangri-la. This Monastery built in 1667 near Benzilan, a small mountain community, is set on a bluff at about 10,000 feet altitude. It has been residence of over 700 lamas of the Gelugpa sect since the 19th century. This temple too suffered the destructive measures of Mao Zedong's washing away of all things holy. But has been restored and is the center of many ceremonial celebrations and dances through the year.

Religious Yak Butter offerings
Inside the major temple which was filled with praying and chanting monks (they sounded like a group speaking in tongues) I saw the most incredible colorful yak butter art I've ever seen. The chrysanthemums were so real you thought you could pick one. There were scenes and assistants to the buddhas depicted in yak butter, surely mixed with sugar since there was a glitter to it all. No one is allowed to photograph these or the interiors of this temple, but we were given permission for one photo. These sculptures are offerings to Buddha and follow certain forms and rules, since there is no self-expression in Tibetan art.

A 3-D Mandela City
What took the cake was, after climbing up three floors of narrow steps, we reached the Mandala room. A Mandala is a city with many floors representing the pathway to teaching which allows the dedicated to travel into the imaginative world through meditation. Four enormous ornate gold structures that looked like the White House gone wild. It is bordered by people animals and objects of clay representing temptations. But the primary part is the steps to the holy area which the monks and lamas must take through study and meditation to reach emptiness, the highest spiritual home, and then paradise or enlightenment. When you see a mandala created out of sand - always according to certain guidelines - these are temporary and are used for focus and meditation. But the golden mandalas are the real thing and they are impressive, complicated and very very ornate.

Old woman toting Yak food
Out guide Miman is a devout Buddhist who tried his best to explain the power of the Mandala in the constant pilgrimage of the monk deciples to reach enlightenment. It takes at least 21 years for the most dedicated scholars to be trained by their teachers. Teachers are the Lamas who have spent their lives interpreting the 108 books of Buddhism and translating them to students who are taught how to debate the issues and questions. During their studies, there are constant debates. This is a skill that must be learned. It would be like studying a chapter in the Bible, for instance, and then debating it with fellow students in a round-table moment. It doesn't change anything, but it takes the teachings to a higher level.

Tibetan Tsampa Bowls made from 
Rhododendron root
The goal is to become a teacher as well. The highest level is the Rimpoche, and there are many Rimpoches in the Buddhist realm. I've met and been blessed by a number of them in my travels. They are happy, welcoming men (women do study but do not reach the same levels) who are good examples of the Buddha ideal. The order of rank is "senga" or disciple, Darma (way of teaching), earth Buddha (re-incarnated forms of Buddha) , then Teacher, the highest level.

Each student has a certain path he takes once he has identified what he believes his task on earth is - wisdom, compassion, mercy, powers, strength, are some of them. This would be his focus. (For instance the 14th Dalai Lama focuses on compassion and wisdom). Once a student discovers this essence in himself, he employs that as the stimulus for study and pathway toward enlightenment.

Black pottery from special kiln
If this sounds complicated, it is. Because through it all the lamas and monks aim to completely empty themselves so they carry no baggage with them that would prevent them from passing through hell into the world to which they belong. Emptiness is forgetting about self, throwing away all that is habitual and distracting about self. The more empty you become, the higher your level of place in the afterlife. There is the Wheel of Death which shows the pathway through the six stages of hell to reach the best of the best. These too are usually found painted on the walls of temples sort of to remind the holy ones what is to come, like our resurrection scenes in the Christian church art and often seen in typanums over the entrances to churches.

Street sweeper in Shangri-la
On the way to the temple, on a cloudy rainy day that awakened the sun by afternoon, we stopped at two villages which specialize in making products Buddhist use, particularly those in Llasha, Tibet. At the Naxi village where houses are rammed earth architecture, stomped into shape using mud, and always in a trapezoid shape, a Khampa Tibet village, is the center of black pottery, popular for hotpots and also tea pots often decorated with broken pieces of white china.

 The second stop was at Gongzhou Village, near the river by that name, with a unique microclimate at 6000 ft., and this area is known for wooden 'tsampa' bowls which are prized for traveling, so you have your own bowl when you eat. But a highlight of the day was I sat on a rare white yak posing for a foto in Shangri-la.

White Yak moment

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Audrey,
We don't understand Mandalas and the Buddhist culture, but we've heard about Shangri-la for years and have seen depicted in the movies as a breathtakingly beautiful paradise. We didn't know it really existed.
Since Shangri-la is supposed to be a magical place, it is probably the only place one can find a White Yak.
We knew you would find some exotic animal to ride, but this time you may have outdone yourself. By the way, did you happen to notice the long pointed horns on the White Yak? Pretty scary!
No contact with the Court, since I left there on August 29th. I am having lunch with Joy on Wednesday.
Please be careful on the White Yak. We continue to pray that God will hold you in His loving arms and protect you.
Lots and lots of love to you,
Geraldean and Judge