The New York Times


November 15, 2001

A Holy Quest in Tibet: Prostrate, and Miles to Go

LHASA, Tibet The snows had scarcely melted last June when 24- year-old Joama and her three male cousins, yak herders in the remote mountains of northern Tibet, embarked on the most sublime journey of their lives. Their departure was not marked by any ceremony. "We just started out," she recalled. The four began mumbling mantras and raised their hands to heaven. They dropped to their knees and flung their bodies forward, fully prone against the damp earth. Then they stood up, took three small steps, and repeated the sequence.

For more than five months now they have prostrated themselves this way, all day every day, inch-worming their way to Lhasa and its holy sites. They slowly made their way through more than 100 miles of some of the world's harshest terrain, starting from above 14,000 feet, then followed a highway 200 more miles into Lhasa. They reached the city in early November. These days, they are inching their way along busy sidewalks as they follow the three hallowed circuits around the Jokhang Temple, the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism, in advance of praying at its inner shrines.

Only here, it seems safe to say, could such a roadside spectacle attract little notice. Thousands of Tibetans undertake similar pilgrimages each year, not to mention the far greater numbers who reach holy sites by bus, tractor or ordinary treks of weeks or months.

While Buddhist devotion may be fading among younger, urban residents, it remains a resilient source of joy for most Tibetans out on the grasslands and the mountains, persisting through the temple-burning of Mao's Cultural Revolution, the controls on the staffing and activities of monasteries, the Chinese Communists' condemnation of the exiled Dalai Lama and the growing incursions of modern culture.

"This has been our lifelong dream," said Joama, who spoke on the sidewalk as she paused for tea. "I'm not married yet, so I was able to free up the time." Joama and her companions said that once they finish at the Jokhang in late November, they will circle then pray inside the nearby Potala palace. There they will join the throngs who bow before the tombs of former Dalai Lamas successive incarnations of Tibetan Buddhism's most revered leader who lived and worked for centuries in this imposing building on a hill.

In the Potala, as other pilgrims do, they will surely press their foreheads on an unlabeled chair that was used by the 14th Dalai Lama before he fled China in 1959, as Chinese troops cracked down on a popular uprising. The 14th Dalai Lama may have been gone more than 40 years, but he remains an almost palpable presence, his continued adoration only spotlighted by the government's campaign to eliminate his image.

"Can you give me a picture of the Dalai?" whispered a shopkeeper in the town of Nagqu, 200 miles north of Lhasa and a stopover for many pilgrims. "I have one but I need another one," she said, adding that many neighbors had got rid of theirs, fearing trouble with the police.

The lama pictures that are on public display in Lhasa and elsewhere betray a continuing test of wills between devout Tibetans and the authorities. Officials insist that Tibetans enjoy freedom of worship so long as it does not involve loyalty to the Dalai, described as a deceitful "separatist." Today, in part as a proxy for the forbidden Dalai, many temples, shops and homes in Tibet display pictures of the 10th Panchen Lama, who occupied the second highest position in Tibetan Buddhism. The Panchen was deeply respected by the people but he has also been dead for 12 years.

By featuring the late Panchen, people are also stating their resentment of the government's effort to control his succession. Angered in 1995 when the Dalai announced, from exile, that a new incarnation of the Panchen had been discovered, Chinese officials put that boy under house arrest, where he remains. They forced resident leaders to select another candidate, whom few Tibetans have accepted as valid and whose picture is virtually nowhere to be seen.

Some pilgrims carry secret pictures of the Dalai, but whatever their inner loyalties, their laborious travels are not intended to score political points. They look more sad than angry when they touch the Dalai's empty chair. Rather, their quest is for an inner harmony that can be approached by giving up one's pride and prostration is an ultimate symbol of submission.

"This is the best way to make a pilgrimage," said Tserenduba, 41, who was camped with nine other men and women beside the highway some 150 miles north of Lhasa, resting after 40 days of travel by prostration. The group, also from a distant mountain village, estimated it might take them 90 more days, well into the icy winter, to reach the capital. "When we move this way, it shows our complete dedication," the man said, squinting from sunlight reflected off an overnight snowfall. "At the end of a day, our whole bodies are in pain. But we'll feel great joy when we reach Lhasa and pray in the temples."

In a common arrangement, seven of his group, ranging in age from 18 to 60, are prostrating while three accompany them in support, pulling a cart with tents and provisions. Other groups carry backpacks and subsist mostly on alms as they go. As Tserenduba's group prepared to start again, the seven lucky ones strapped on protective leather aprons to save their knees and put thick mitts on their hands.

Like many pilgrims, Tserenduba is not versed in the depths of Buddhist theory. He knows what he believes and feels. Asked why he was making such an arduous trip he shrugged and said, "We're doing this so our future can be better." When they finish their religious duties in Lhasa, he said, they will look for a truck so they can hitch a ride. "We'll just go home," he said.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company