A Story about Image ‘Watching 7 and 8’

(Followed by “The Story of My First Visit to Tibet”)
A few months after I experienced the unforgettable happening. I visited Labelen Monastery in Xiahe for the second time. It was the Tibetan calendar January and according to the custom of Tibetan Buddhism, every year in January, people hold many different religious celebrations: such as the Debate for Buddhist Classic Texts, The Dancing of Demons and Holy Spirits, The Display of Treasures, The Greeting of the Sun and The Party of Butter Flowers Lights, (these are flowers carved out of butter and containing candles). During this period, Tibetans from Ganshou, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces gather at the Labelen Monastery.

They come from faraway, some of them taking long-distance buses, some travel on trucks, some ride horses and some even walk in the extreme cold weather for days and months to go to Labelen Monastery to participate in these religious celebrations. These celebrations just like a symphony contain many movements and the finale is The Greeting the Sun. This ceremony is held on 12th January in the Tibetan calendar.

North-West China is a dry and cold high plateau. From middle October until the following March is the winter season. January and February is the coldest period. We have a Chinese idiom which says “one drop of water instantly becomes ice”. If there is no heavy snow to block up the roads in the mountains, or there is no flood damage to the roads, every morning a long distance bus departs from Lanzhuo ( the capital city od Gansho Provience, China) to Xiahe returning in the afternoon in the 80’s. The buses are very old being built in the early 50’s. The bus has hard wooden seats. The people’s baggage is put on the top of the outside of the bus. On my second trip to Labelan Monastery, I took this kind of bus. The long-distance bus departed from the station called Little West Lake. This beautiful name recalls my early memory about my home town Hang Zhou and its famous beautiful West Lake. But in fact, the area of the bus station was so dry there was not a drop of water! I don’t know why the station had such poetic name.

On January mornings about six o’clock, it is still very dark. In the Little West Lake bus station, the only bus was just boarding for departure Maybe it was Chinese Spring Holiday time, people travelling to visit relatives from local towns and country areas to the city, for the bus station was busy, people pushing and squeezing each other when they boarded the bus to take a good seat and secure more room for their baggage. Following the chaos of boarding, the bus rocked away from the bus station in the dim yellow light. After a short distance driven on the city streets, the bus made a turn and drove along the winding small roads in the mountains. Because it was still so dark, I could see nothing outside. The inside of the bus was also dark. The excitement and the heat created from struggling to board the bus was abating and calmness began to prevail. The piercing cold air came through the bus windows and the gaps in the wooden floor of the bus. Because of the cold and the crowd in the bus, my hands and feet became numb. Somewhere in the dark bus, someone struck a match and the weak red light flashed for a second, and then the strong smoke created from cheap tobacco leaf drifted towards me from the direction of the hand-rolled cigarette. The smoke mixing with the strong smell of bodies, garlic and alcohol pervaded the air inside the bus. I moved my face to the slightly opened window and greedily breathed in cold, yet fresh air from the outside. I held my large camera bag tightly on my lap; just like a worshiper holding his prayer wheel going on pilgrimage. Under my feet was a smaller backpack with my photographic daily log.

The jolting of the bus made me semi-asleep and my mind reflected on the crowded city scape…… the busy daily business….. The praying Buddhists in the heavy snow…..the warm light from the black tent on the green meadows …..the hot buttered tea ….the long-lighting butter lamps in the temple hall ……the huge Buddha’s portrait on the hills…….

The location of the Greeting of the Sun was at the foot of the hill beside a river, opposite the Labelen Monastery. At sundown the Tibetans were gathering from the four winds. The individual groups gradually became a large sea of people and the road from the monastery to the river valley was blocked by the crowd. There were some peddlers selling yellow and white scarfs (in Tibetan called Khada) and there were police wearing green uniform in the crowd. They forced their way into the crowd looking for their targets. In the bare river valley, tens of thousands of Tibetans were gathered in silence. Their dark wrinkly faces lined with the scars from their battle with nature, their eyes reflected their expectation, fervent hope and the perplexity, of restraint and suffering.

The gathering of tens of thousands of people in silence was both eerie and awe inspiring. I could feel the potential power beneath the calm surface. There is no doubt that when tens of thousands of hearts are desirous of the same goal, this produces an unaccountable spiritual force.

Suddenly, the calm atmosphere was broken because the crowd near the Monastery became restless as hundreds of monks wearing red robes, emerged carrying a huge roll of Thangka on their shoulders. (Thangkas are Tibetan votive painting on a cloth scroll depicting deities, sacred beings, or saints. They are used in worship and meditation) In the front of the red procession, there was a huge spirit monster in red and black. The monster which looked like a tiger or dragon opened a path through the crowd. The procession of monks moved slowly and heavily towards the hills, like an icebreaker cutting through thick ice, the opening immediately closing behind them. The red procession and the seething crowd all disappeared in the rising grey and yellow dust.

The Thangka finally reached the top of the hill. It was unrolled on the hill-face. In the centre of the river valley, facing the huge Buddha’s portrait, there was a holy yellow umbrella surrounded by many monks. Under that yellow umbrella, the master monk was sitting on an old holy seat. When the monks started to read from the Buddhist scriptures, the noisy and excited crowd quietened down. The monks’ deep and peaceful voices were flowing over the heads of the believers. People gazed fixedly at the Buddha’s portrait and bowed down with their heads and hands touching the rough cold ground. In their eyes could be seen relieved resolution and strength. An invisible great power was sensed once again.

When the ceremony concluded, the monks started to roll up the Budda’s colourful portrait. The crowd began roaring again. They moved towards the hill wanting to touch the sacrament and see it closely. The running crowd of believers raised the yellow dust into the air and made the sky dim. The pale sunlight passed through the dust clouds, lighting up the colourful Budda’s portrait and the red monks and the grey praying masses, as if the gates of heaven had slightly opened. In that moment, I felt that heaven was so close to us and that God really existed.

The Thangka was taken away, followed by tens of thousands of eyes, full of love and adoration. Eventually, even the red procession disappeared into the old temple. The dust fell on everyone’s heads, faces and clothing in the river valley. Everything was covered by thick yellow-grey dust. People started to leave, their expression of expectation, fervent hope and perplexity of restraint and suffering had disappeared, and returned to normal unconcernedness. But you could see that they were satisfied and released because they had achieved their life-long ambition. It was just as though the people had satisfied their desires and were suddenly reassured, happy, and could see the light in their life, although slightly tinged with a little melancholy.

I respect deeply those people who have devoted faith. In the 1980’s in China, the Culture Revolution had just gradually finished. Almost all the religious and traditional cultures were destroyed. But in this remote Tibetan village, the poor material life coupled with a strong spirit world created a vivid image for me. I was really touched in my inner heart. Since then I have been unable to resist going to Tibet again and again and every time I have had a deeper understanding.

A Story about Image ‘Watching 7 and 8’

jiashu xu

Adelaide, Australia

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