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週三, 28 十二月 2011 17:45

Shiqu, the birthplace of King Gesar

 

The district of Shiqu (Serxu in Tibetan) is located on the border of the Ganze Tibetan Prefecture (Sichuan) where it belongs, the region of Tibet proper and Qinghai province. More than a thousand kilometers away from Chengdu, at an average altitude of 4.526 meters, and twenty-five thousand square kilometers large, the district harbors a population of seventy thousand people, almost all farmers, surviving a severe climate (an average of 1.6 degrees below zero, and record cold dropping to 46 degrees below zero). The miracle is that this area is the one where began to be composed the epic of King Gesar, considered the longest poem in the world. The district also claims to be the birthplace of this legendary Tibetan king. It also keeps the longest wall of Mani stones, and a "city" dedicated to the souls of dead heroes.

 

The photographs gathered here gives testimony to a world with no equivalent. The Barge wall, 53 kilometers away from the district township, is located between a mountain and the sacred waters from which emerges the Yalong River. Started in 1640, repeatedly repaired and expanded since then, the wall now extends over a length of 1.7 kilometer, and its height ranges between two and three meters. The majority of stones that adorn the building are Mani stones (or simply "manis"), which are so called because they are carved with the famous mantra “om ma ni padme hum” ("the mantra of the six syllables" or “drug yi ge pa” in Tibetan). But the Barge wall also comprises more than three thousand stones decorated with representations of Buddhist deities, and about seven thousand stones inlaid with various sutras.

As to the "funeral city" of Songge, it is composed of a wall nine feet high surrounding an accumulation of stupas, through which the visitor circulates as in a maze after having entered through a back door. Its wall (which extends 73 meters from west to east and 47 meters from north to south) is also composed of Mani stones, sutras carved in stone and a sacred iconography, among which the few scholars who have been able to come there are able to identify representations of King Gesar and thirty-General of the State of Ling of which he was the overlord. At the very center of this construction stands a well, the depth of which has not been probed. The construction of this "city" began around the eleventh or twelfth century. It is probably a kind of memorial for the heroes fallen during the wars fought by King Gesar. The epic sings the repentance finally shown by the uncle of King Gesar, his hardened opponent, after he had killed several heroes. The funeral city would then have been built as a sign of atonement.

Nomadic tribes still live in the area. They bring along with them sacred vessels and erect a “portable temple” in a tent wherever they have decided to camp. The whole region is marked by such extremes of hardship, poetry and faith…

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週三, 28 十二月 2011 17:23

Muli, an ethnic frontier

Muli is a tiny multi-ethnic county at the southwest corner of Sichuan province, nearby Yunnan province. On its west, lies the Ganze Tibetan autonomous prefecture. Muli itself is officially called a “Tibetan autonomous county”, though it is located within the “Yi Prefecture” of Liangshan, the Yi being another important ethnic group of Southwest China.

In this multi ethnic county, and contrarily to their neighbors, the Tibetan population is little prone to migrations, as tourism prospects are opening up (although much more timidly than in adjacent Yunnan province) with the re-assertion of the Tibetan character and culture of the area. Overall, one third of Muli’s population is Tibetan, around 28 per cent is Yi, 22 per cent Han, with a number of other minorities completing the census. Tibetans in Muli take advantage of this cultural trend and of the investments that go with: rebuilding of the main three Tibetan temples of Muli County, stupas and other Tibetan artifacts constructed near the mountain lakes… Other minorities, especially Yi people, are prone to leave the area in search for job, especially since state industries have been closed. If the mountain landscape is stupendous indeed, Muli township looks to the passer-by as a sad little place, cut off from the outside world during the rainy season from mid July till end of September.

kangwu_temple_az_011

Before 1949, Muli’s Grand Lama was the main political power in the area, a fact attested by Western travelers such as J. Rock and A. David-Neel. Muli housed three major Tibetan temples. In late July 2007, I went to one of these temples, Kangwu (Kulu in Tibetan language), and discovered the ruins of an imposing building burned down during the Cultural Revolution. Before this period, up to 550 monks were staying there. In the eighties, a small temple was built nearby, and 16 monks were living there at the time of my visit. They were in charge of supervising the rebirth a new, imposing Kangwu temple… This was the beginning of the second year of this large-scale endeavor. Tibetan craftsmen from neighboring Daocheng county had recently arrived. The structural work having been completed, it was now the turn of sculptors and painters to enter into action.

On this particular afternoon, the current Grand Lama of Muli was supervising the work.  I had the feeling of being at a special moment in time, standing between past and future, taken between the shadow of a temple existing no more and the mirage of a new one slowly coming to existence… These pictures testify to this enlightenment, to my sudden grasp of the impermanence of things.

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All pictures taken in July 2007


週二, 28 九月 2010 17:46

Wetlands, education and water schools

Behind the building sites and the mountains half eaten by the mechanical diggers, we discover the large wetlands. Traditional houses, stacked like the teeth on corn on the cob, sit imposingly in the middle of multicolored flowerbeds and amongst huge racks used to dry crops. A bit further on, there is the seasonal lake Napa, now almost dry, refuge of a rare ecosystem and of lots of birds. Wende Gomba sets out in the 4x4 to the Shangri-la Institute. Sitting up on the front passenger seat, a cow-boy hat glued on his head, a sparsely grown moustache and goatee underlining his thin mouth, he turns to us and speaks in fluent English about the wetlands. “The rapid industrialization and urbanization of the area threatens the ecosystem and the livelihood of the surrounding villages. The new hostels and restaurants throw out their waste water directly into the wetlands.” Some time ago, in cooperation with students from several “Water Schools”, they organized a day to clean up the rivers because “it's the only thing that works. Endless debate and just waiting for something to happen would have been fruitless. (...) We also asked the villagers around the lake to participate. It was extremely dirty. We were all covered with black and putrid mud up to our knees. (...) The people of the city do not care at all about this form of activism. They think it's useless. However, having observed the results of the clean up, I feel that the residents are more aware of the need for these kinds of activities.”

The Shangri-La County in Yunnan province is predominantly lama(1). We are on the Tibetan plateau, rich in ecology and culture. From the plateau flow three rivers, one that turns into the Salween that flows on to Myanmar, another becomes the Mekong that irrigates southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and South Vietnam and finally the Yangtze, the longest river in China. UNESCO has declared this area a protected region of nearly two million hectares, where those three rivers flow in parallel from north to south. It is “the richest region of the world in biodiversity and an epicenter of biodiversity in China.”(2)  The lives of millions of people depend on the resources of the plateau. “Demographic pressure and rapid economic development cause an increase in pollution, threatening ecosystems and communities that depend on the Yangtze River for their survival. Current statistics indicate that the Yangtze contributes to nearly 60% of the total pollution in China and is the largest source of marine pollution in the Pacific Ocean.”(3)

But as Gomba reminds us, the development and the maintenance of a society which is sustainable ecologically, economically and socially will work only with the active participation of its citizens. Everything starts at the grassroots level.

Wende Gomba is a hard worker. He is sick of the time, energy and money devoted to the management of large international organizations to the detriment of direct benefit for targeted populations. Thus, enriched by long years of experience within conservation and community development projects, together with some colleagues, he established the “Shangri-la Institute for Sustainable Communities” (SISC), funded by international donors, (香格里拉可持續社區學會).

hist_recyclables_Shangri-La-Institutes-flowery-grassland5 years ago, the Institute launched “community education for sustainable development on the Tibetan plateau”. Nothing is imposed on the villagers; there are long preliminary stage discussions with 80 villages surrounding the lake. Discussions revolve around resources, such as logging, which is a major source of income, but timber is increasingly rare. Timber is used for heating and in construction. With regards to water quality, elders have noticed the extinction of some species ... and the ever growing dependence of villagers on depleted natural resources. Through Community Learning Centers, the Institute wants to strengthen the role of communities in environmental protection, to enrich their cultural heritage and to improve their livelihood. Classes are held on ecotourism, cooking, bird watching, Thangka painting(4), embroidery... Awareness campaigns on renewable energy are regularly organized. People involved in the respective industries that are involved with natural resources and local actors are involved, as well as monasteries, schools, NGOs and government bodies. Thanks to everyone's participation, a few villages have managed to equip themselves with solar water heaters (that save 5 tons of wood per year), as well as biogas technology (2-3 tons of wood)... Gomba explains that gradually the villagers appropriated this initiative for themselves, because they realized the benefits to their own community that would result. They began construction of the Centre of the Institute, independently. As for the satellite Community Centers, these became forums for discussion within the villages. They hold their meetings, ceremonies and festivals with the requisite dances and songs that are so important in their culture. These places and these initiatives managed by the communities are replicable models. This is one of the biggest hopes of the Institute.

Gomba guides us around the Institute. It is surrounded by a large garden full of flowers, where we hear the hum of bees and other bug life. The timber they used was purchased from those who were renovating their houses in town. Rainwater is collected in gutters filling tanks. The water from these tanks is then used for the garden or the shower. In the garden itself, the gutters are made of PVC which may purge water of toxic materials. The showers are made of polyethylene, more expensive, but whose composition is very stable and non-polluting and dry toilets provide compost for the garden. As for shower and kitchen water, it is drained to an infiltration trench. On the ground floor a cozy lounge welcomes members of the Institute, teachers, students and guests. Upstairs is the resource center, a rich library of books in Chinese, Tibetan and English, dealing with the environment, local cultures, painting and religion ... Other rooms are dedicated to Tibetan, English and Thangka classes ... Six rooms can house visiting experts, volunteers and other visitors. Gompa is still working on an intelligent way to heat the house. This is in line with his emphasis on coherence between philosophy and behavior. As well as the need for a replicable model ...

hist_recyclables_Shangri-La-Institutes-libraryThe SISC is also working on children’s education for a living Yangtze. These projects are called “Water Schools” financed by the fantastically wealthy Swarovski Crystal Society. The philosophy of these schools is to teach young children between the ages of eight and thirteen years the importance of water and how to preserve it. They have opened schools in Europe, in Africa along the Nile and in China along the Yangtze River. There are nearly thirty Water Schools along the river including nine in Shangri-la. “Children are not empty vessels to be simply filled” whispers our guide. This initiative creates a platform for children where they can think and understand by themselves, through the innovative and participatory learning practices students engage in during classes, and the field trips they can take part in... Their teachers receive training every two years on the latest water and teaching methods. Student exchanges between schools are regularly undertaken. The Ministry of Education of China is involved in these educational programs and approves their content. Gomba hopes to highlight the participatory nature of the educational schemes, which can easily be replicated elsewhere. The county has also established these special “Water Schools” in monasteries. The monks are trained as teachers. In the monastery, the faithful show so much respect that monks cannot interact with them, thus, holy men participate in meetings and discussions in the Community Centers where everyone feels more comfortable, sitting down to a coffee on the ground floor of the Institute.

We exchanged notes on our respective projects. As Gomba has a rendezvous in a monastery, there is no time to eat lunch together. In silence, we return to the 4 x 4 that brings us back to the old town of Shangri-la. It is hard not to be slightly in awe of this man, both for his project and his tenacity. The strengths of the Institute are the communities that are themselves the guardians of natural resources. We think back to long days during which we saw “Water School” signs hanging here and there, without being able to find their offices. Nobody in town had been able to help us. The impact of the activities of SISC on the living conditions of rural populations and their environment is indisputable. But the sheer amount of tourism in the old town hints at a lengthy combat in years to come.

www.shangrilainstitute.org

A special thank to Gomba’s colleagues who welcomes us at the Centre: Suonam Jiangtu and Suolang Gyatso from Lhasa.
Photos by H.R.

 


(1)Tibetan Buddhist
(2)Source “UNESCO World Heritage”
(3)Source “Water school for a living Yangtze” Swarovski Waterschools
(4)A Thangka is a painting on canvas, a feature of Tibetan culture

 


週五, 24 九月 2010 19:24

A New Age for China

The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.

 


週二, 09 二月 2010 19:48

The Jonangpas are still alive!

No more then 20 years ago the Jonang School was studied and described as "a now defunct Tibetan Buddhist school".

The lineage was born at the end of the 13th century, when Kun spangs Thugs rje Brtson ‘grus , a Kalacakra pratictioner, settled in the valley of Jomonang. Focusing on the Kalacakratantra teachings and with a particular vision of emptiness, this man and his further disciples were the first jonangpas.

The valley of Jomonang became their main centre, so that those who adhere to the practices that were preserved and transmitted in that place were later called Jonangpa.

The lineage continued in central Tibet until the second half of the 17th century, when the uler of central Tibet and of the Gelugpa school, the 5th Dalai Lama, substained by the Mongol Army began the reunification of the country. Taking control of the places under the Jonangpa influence, the 5Th Dalai Lama also converted their temples and monasteries into Gelugpa, sealing their texts and banning their teachings. However, since the end of the 14th century, the tradition began to spread into eastern Tibet: the areas of Kham and Amdo, corresponding today to big parts of Sichuan and Qinghai.

Thanks to the fact that Gelugpa political and military power did not reach also these places, too far from central Tibet, the Jonangpa temples and masters were safe, free to maintain the transmission of their teachings and tantric practices. Their tradition was strong enough to survive not only the 17th century persecution, but also the chinese cultural revolution. In that rough period the Jonangpa lineage was kept alive by masters and disciples gathering secretly and practicing as yogis in the countryside of Amdo and Kham.

Jonangpas_Filippo_Brambilla_010

This being the subject of my specialist degree, I spent the year in Chengdu doing some bibliographical research, then June and July travelling and interviewing in Sichuan and Qinghai, mainly around the areas of Ma’erkang, Rangtang, Aba, Banma and Jiuzhi. These places are wonderful, with a medium altitude of 3500 metres above the sea level the air is thin and the nature is stunning, the people are quite poor but friendly and happy to share with you what they have. However, travelling is not so easy, because the massive presence of Chinese police and the constant controls you are subject to. I came unprepared, unsure what I was going to do and how to reach them but as soon as I arrived in Dzamthang (壤塘), the biggest and most important Jonangpa monasteries are found today, I found the monks were interested in my presence as much as I was in their lives and traditions. Thus it wasn’t hard to find people willing to talk about themselves, especially when, chatting together, they became aware that I knew something about them and that this was the reason of my visit. Almost everywhere I’ve been, the monks have been happy to help with my research, always allowing me to visit their monasteries and meet their most relevant figures.

The Jonangpa areas in Sichuan are a little bit different, as are their inhabitants, from those in Qinghai. The people in this part of Sichuan generally live in houses built with rock and wood and grow barley. Although the area is quite poor, the government is actuating a Chinese-style modernisation: entering a town you can often see a sign illustrating the new urban plan, with huge white buildings mimicking the traditional Tibetan architecture. As you get nearer to Qinghai, the landscape changes, until you find yourself on the plateau, where there are more ‘black yak wool tents’ than mud houses and a big part of the population is still nomad, moving from a pasture to another with yak herds. Even if, with people mainly speaking Tibetan languages, my poor Chinese sometimes became useless, I’ve always found some milk tea, barely flour and an extreme quantity of butter ready to be mixed in my honour.

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週一, 13 十一月 2006 20:22

Amdo : Northern Tibet

A few pictures from Amdo (the traditional name of Northern Tibet, Qinghai province)

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