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Journey to the Sacred Land of Tibet

Relaxing Into the Spaciousness of the Land

When traveling across the Tibetan Plateau the line between tourist and pilgrim naturally fades. Here, we are not referring to being a pilgrim in a religious sense. We are speaking of something much larger. When standing in the middle of a vast, endless landscape where you feel so tiny and so small the tight grip of relating to ourselves as such and such naturally loses its importance – it is such a relief! You can allow yourself to let go and to merge your mind with that spaciousness that is so naturally available in this vast Himalayan region.

The endless and vast Tibetan Plateau

Tibet, From Seabed to the ‘Roof of the World’

We are traveling across the Tibetan Plateau – the highest altitude desert in the world – and it’s slowly getting easier for our bodies and lungs to catch up with the decrease of oxygen available up here on these high plains. Some 1 million years ago Tibet used to be covered by seawater and today it is popularly referred to as ‘roof of the world’, literally a roof as it forms the highest landscape of our planet.

Farmer on the Tibetan Plateau

The Earth-bound Groundedness of the People of the Land

The sky is as blue as can be and the air feels crisp and thin. Up here, you feel so far away from the speediness of the world we know from back home. Up here, it is as if you have more direct access to your heart and to the natural clarity of mind, in spite of the physical hardship of the high altitude.

When we encounter the local people, they smile at us with their big smiles and greet us heartily on our way. There is a certain distinct groundedness in the Tibetan people we meet across the plateau, an ‘earth-like’ quality of being so in tuned with the surrounding land that is so mighty and so vast. I have experienced this similar sense of connection between the land and the people living there when traveling in Australia with the Aboriginal people or with the native people of Central America. It calms down my nervous system so much being amidst ‘people of the land’ and it makes me realise just how much we have lost touch with this sense of ‘being’ in our busy and urban lives.

Monks at the Tashilungpo Monastery in Shigatse, Tibet

The ‘Other-Wordly’ and Mysterious Tibet

When traveling across Tibet we pass incredible monasteries, temples and sacred pilgrimage sites in breathtaking high altitude scenery. That mysterious and ‘other worldly’ component that Tibet is so often associated with in literature and in art we are suddenly able to fully grasp.

One of my favourite spots in all of Tibet is the Jorkhang in Lhasa. The Jorkhang is the spiritual heart of Lhasa and is surrounded by the old, Tibetan neighbourhood of the Barkhor. Once you have found your way to the Jorkhang, through the small and narrow streets of Barkhor, you suddenly find yourself joining the stream of Tibetans – pilgrims as well as people just getting off work – as they circumambulate the sacred temple of the Jowo.

Then you know that you have landed right in the middle of one of the most sacred and most amazing places of our planet.

The Jorkhang Temple in Lhasa

Lhasa, the land of Gods

Jowo (the word Jorkhang – house of the Jowo) refers to the sacred Buddha Shakyamuni statue that was gifted to Lhasa by the Chinese wife of the great 8thcentury king, Songtsen Gampo. Songtsen Gampo is said to be the first Dharma king of Tibet and was pivotal in unifying Tibet as we know it today and to have introduced Buddhism as the national religion with the help of his friend Guru Rinpoche (also referred to as Padmasambhava – the ‘Lotus Born’). Lhasa was made capital city of Tibet in the 8thcentury and during the reign of Songtsen Gampo many of the most sacred temples of Lhasa and Tibet were built, including the foundation of what we today know as the Potala Palace, home to the Dalai Lamas since the 5thDalai Lama.

Whispers of prayers, especially the Om Mani Padme Hung mantra, the smell of butterlamps lit as offering to the Jowo, the sound of wooden blocks hitting the ground as people prostrate around the sacred temple all constitute the atmosphere here. It is an ‘other worldly’ fairy-tale, yet not in a far off land, but right here in our world.

The Gyantse Kumbum, one of the most spectacular Stupas of Tibet

Waves of Generosity

What actually makes a place sacred and blessed? The word ‘blessing’ in Tibetan is ‘chinlab’, which literally translates to ‘waves of generosity’. According to the Buddhist practice and path, it is said that when positive prayers with the intention of being of benefit to all living beings and to relieve them of suffering are uttered and cultivated it creates immense blessings in the natural environment. And when you visit these places, you really feel it. For no apparent reason, you feel moved. It is experiences such as this that makes journeying across the Tibetan Plateau so unique and so precious. You will keep this journey with you forever.

 

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Meditation and Pilgrimage

There is nothing religious about the practice of meditation or in visiting sacred places. In fact, there is nothing even Buddhist about it!

The idea of pilgrimage here is that when one travels to explore sacred sites, one does so with a unique intention. This intention is different from the usual tourist’s reasons to travel. Actually, there is a parallel between the reasons why one would want to meditate, and why one would go on a pilgrimage.

In short – this intention is to want to know the truth, to be happier, and to suffer less.

Buddha Shakyamuni, meditation posture
Dordenma Buddha, overlooking the Thimphu Valley, Bhutan

The reasoning behind meditating or wanting a different kind of travel experience, such as a pilgrimage, stems from the appreciation that there is a connection between our internal selves (who we think we are) and our external environment. Through our actions this connection creates the experience of either well-being or suffering. To be able to connect with what is, we need to have access to the present moment of whatever is happening inside and outside of us. Luckily, our present situation is always accessible, but our minds aren’t always at our command. Deep-seeded habitual patterns cause our minds to wander, so the practice of ‘calm abiding’ shamata meditation is a necessary practice in order to calm and relax the mind. Creating a more calm and relaxed mind is the first step on the path of meditation and is a result of practice.

With mental stability it is possible to cultivate noble qualities such as compassion and wisdom, and to be of benefit to others. Having a mind that is malleable we could even create the conditions in which we can discover real lasting happiness and to cut the root of suffering once and for all.

Meditation

Going on a pilgrimage will not take away all our causes of suffering, but by visiting these birth places of ‘mindfulness’, paying homage to sacred sites where great yogis and yoginis have tirelessly practiced and as a result realized the nature of their minds, we can go with the intention that we want the same for ourselves – to realize the truth, to be happy, and to be free from suffering.

We find that an authentic pilgrimage actually combines travel to sacred sites with our very own ‘mind-training’ practice. Exploring caves, monasteries, shrines, and the vast landscapes of the Himalayas while investigating our minds with the ‘tried, tested and true’ contemplative process called meditation, we can make a sincere connection to these places which may deeply inspire our lives and our practice.

Meditation

The practice of meditation is simply a tool to bring your mind back to a place of naked awareness, to a place of basic space with yourself and the environment. It is simply a technique with which to uncover all the layers of hope, fear, grasping, and judgement that are all such strong habits which cloud the mind. With the practice of meditation we can learn to come back to ourselves, to become familiar with the groundless, unfabricated, and raw quality of who we are and what is real. Perhaps the notion of our ‘self’ isn’t as solid or as permanent as it seems to be, and perhaps this is good news!