Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, March 16th

Lhasa so far

The next day I headed up a very dodgy ladder onto the roof of the hostel, where I was rewarded by an amazing view of the Potala in the sunrise. On first impressions, I don't think even the most cynical person would fail to be affected by this city. If not for the devotional aspect of the people, then at least for the clear air and pure sunlight that sharpens the edges of everything one sees, the bright colours of the buildings, the deep blue sky, the wispy clouds, the towering mountains, the uncomplicated architecture.

I often wonder why the west gives such leeway to Buddhism. The history of Tibetan Buddhism isn't at all the innocent Shangri-La that many are led to believe. It's one of war, deceit, feudalism, corruption, and imperialism. True, what the Chinese did here was unforgiveable, but that doesn't detract from the necessity for reform at the time they invaded. Why aren't the prayer flags that cover the hillsides considered litter? Why aren't the acts of devotion and self-deprivation scoffed at as similar acts in the Muslim and Christian world are by the secular or non-fundamentalist?

Despite the parallels between seemingly superstitious and illogical practices and beliefs of other religions, Buddhism is revered by many in the west. Perhaps it's the non-proselytising nature of the religion, or the non-violence that is preached (although not always practiced) by its adherents. Tibetan Buddhism isn't even really Buddhism in its pure form - or at least the form Buddhism is understood in the west, particularly not in the parts adopted by the pick-and-choose patchwork of New Age practitioners. It's a mish-mash of Buddhist teachings that have been combined with the old Tibetan pantheistic Bön religion, as well as stealing various avatars from Hinduism, with Sakyamuni Buddha merely the god sitting at the top of the pantheon.

Despite this, the spirituality here is undeniably fascinating and affecting. The pilgrims we joined in their clockwise circumnavigation of the Jokhang Temple complex - the most holy place in Tibetan Buddhism - were a devoted, but jolly, bunch. Most, though they'd travelled from the very far flung reaches of Tibet and even beyond, had no trace of the severe reverence one might find in monotheistic religions: chatting, spitting, laughing, all the time spinning prayer wheels - little hand-held cylinders containing scrolls with prayers written on them that they whizz round with the help of a little weight on a chain; each revolution sends those prayers up to heaven. The same applies to prayer flags: each flap sends a prayer. The more devoted were saying their Buddhist rosary, while some were prostrating themselves on the ground, then standing, moving their prayer mat forward, then prostrating themselves again. In this way they approached the temple, very, very slowly and presumably incredibly painfully.

And because they come from far and wide, some from as far away as Mongolia, they were dressed in a myriad of traditional costumes. I only wish I knew more about it so I could tell where they were from. Some in deep purple robes, tied with a sash and a large bustle; some in simple smocks and tunics; monks and nuns in the robes of various different orders; one guy I saw was dressed all in black, with a fierce moustache, his long sleek hair in a braid that swept round over the top of the back of his head, that was pinned on one side with large silver jewels, the whole effect giving him the air of a musketeer.

My travels in other cities and countries of this sort have occasionally given me a touch of the heebie-jeebies. In both Nepal and India, the profusion of colours, noises, and the sheer otherness of every single thing one saw gave me a mild form of agoraphobia - like someone had peeled my skull back and was rubbing my brain with salt - that caused me to feel very freaked out for a few hours or days. It's not just me this happens to: I believe if this happens to you in Florence it's known as Stendhal's Syndrome. But in Lhasa, even though it's a similar experience, I'm getting none of this. It's bizarre and otherworldly, but there's a humour and friendliness that seems to have left my psyche intact this time round. I'm really enjoying it here so far.

We're still taking it easy, which I'm now finding a bit frustrating. M still getting breathless any time we move too far or uphill too fast - but she's getting better all the time; I personally feel fit as a fiddle now. Can't wait to visit the Potala, but I think we'd better leave it until tomorrow as it's pretty steep. How many other 20-storey mediæval buildings are there in the world?

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