Saturday, December 1, 2012

An Old Flame Never Dies

I should have declined. But he was a friend and so I agreed to take three watches and deliver them to his brother. "It's just watches, easy to pack, no weight", so I thought to myself. When he actually handed the watches over though, they came in expensive-looking, bulky boxes and it was too late to retract.

Maybe it's best to get into the habit of leaving for Tibet quietly without telling anyone because there´s always this risk to become inundated with letters, gifts and cash, people want you to hand carry on their behalf. It's one of these peculiar Tibetan traits: Even in the age of superfast postal services, e-banking and Western Union, some still prefer sending stuff the archaic way via people. And for all snying-rje or compassion that we consider a national trait, it doesn't seem to cross our minds that asking someone with limited time to carry and deliver goods could perhaps be burdensome.

My partner looked at me with a frown when I came home with the boxes. After taking a closer look he informed me those were not "just watches" but Rolexes - luxury items worth almost USD 10,000 each.

Gulp. What if they got stolen? What if they drew the attention of the Chinese customs or they confiscated them?

I knew of a wealthy Chinese businesswoman from Chengdu who returned from a trip abroad wearing a ten thousand-dollar Omega and hand carrying seven more ordered by office mates. Everything got confiscated at customs. A fraction was returned to her later, it was said. - Scary!

"Okay don't be afraid," my partner calmed me down, "technically you're a foreigner so all you have to do is declare them."

Luckily that's exactly how it went. There were no problems at the customs but I was nervous throughout the flight. The real headache though was still before me: After I reached Tibetan soil, it took days to get hold of the brother. And then it took days until the brother got a third person to come by and pick up the precious goods on his behalf because he was away from station. All the while, whenever I left my place I had to worry that the watches would get stolen.

My relatives always warn me to be careful with cash and belongings as there were many thieves these days: "Keema mooma doray!"      

On another visit, a lady of an American NGO had her bag stolen during a visit to the monastery: Passport, mobile phone, cash – everything gone. We were so afraid one of the monks could be the thief. Politically suspect per se, turning into criminals would make their reputation even worse. There was a sense of relief when, after a long day and night of searching, they found the thief to be a Chinese construction worker. He was obtuse enough to answer the call when the police rang the number of the stolen cellphone. The police caught the signal and hunted him down in no time.

Remembering my partner's instruction, I insisted on a written confirmation when handing over the watches. You never knew. When I innocently asked who wears such expensive watches, the man replied: "Rich merchants", adding that they preferred to order from overseas as the Rolex watches on sale in China were all counterfeit.

In the old days trade caravans brought in watches across the Himalayas. There was less choice in terms of models but I guess the few you got were genuine. These days, visitors like me functioned as couriers, because with the huge counterfeit industry in China, not even famous brand items could be trusted.

When I think about it, the Tibetans have something like a historical relationship with expensive watches and particularly so with the Rolex.

I first learned about the Tibetan weakness for expensive watches from an old monk about fifteen years ago back in my dad's hometown. His name was Dragkar Amnye ("White Rock Granpa"). As a youngster he worked as a Tshongpon or chief merchant for the monastery making the three-month arduous journey to Lhasa and continueing to India on mules several times. He allowed me to stay at his place while we were doing some reconstruction in the vicinity.

In the evenings we would gather around the fireplace in his kitchen and have supper together: Mostly Tsampa, rice, Tibetan tea, sometimes a hearty soup with chunks of greasy pork, horseradish and leafy vegetables. Then Dragkar Amnye would tell stories of the old days. The one that really caught my attention was where all of a sudden modern brand names came out of his old, wrinkled Tibetan mouth: "Omega, Rolex".

There we were huddled in a dark, smoky kitchen full of draft in some remote corner of the highlands at the end of the world. It could have been in the 19th century judging from the infrastructure - or should I say lack of infrastructure - and we were discussing Omegas and Rolexes, epitomes of consumer decadence in modern times. 

But Omega and Rolex have been household names in Tibet for ages. When I asked the old man why those watches were so popular he said: "Back then all the watches we and other traders bought in India for resale in Tibet would stop when we crossed the mountain passes, all except for the Rolex. It was the only watch that would continue working. That's why the Rolex has become so popular in Tibet."

How poetic! If I were Rolex I would make a commercial out of this piece of information!

Imagine rustic Tibetan traders in Chupa with the stereotypical red tassel in their hair on their ascent over the Himalayas with their pack animals carrying precious goods. A glimpse of those old-fashioned boxes discloses their content: Colourful textiles, canned food, expensive cigars and cigarettes that were in fashion back then such as the "555". The subtitle reads: "Himalayas, 1940". The leader of the caravan calls the others to camp for the night – all in local language with English subtitles. They pitch up their tents and light a fire. The subtitle shows the altitude: “5,500 meters above sea level”. Then close-up of the leader sitting by the campfire – darkness all around - the audience spots the traditional earring with corals and turquoises, shiny white teeth and maybe a golden tooth flashes. Then he says: "Hey pals, let's see how the watches are withstanding the altitude." One of his caravan buddies passes on the box with the precious content. The leader opens it - all watches have come to a stand-still except one – close-up: The trader nods tellingly and a voice says: "Rolex – dares to go where no other watch dares to go" – or something to that effect, ha, ha!

Mountain road through southern Kham near Lithang, summer 2011

Here is another story about Tibetans and their infatuation with the Rolex: My dad and his older brother fled Lhasa under the thunder of cannons reaching India exhausted and broke. The bag of Tsampa and butter the two youngsters had hastily packed before their escape were used up, all their money too. The brother then sold his Rolex so they could carry on. When Tibet fell, the Rolex became their lifesaver.

My uncle is not into pomp nor does he feel the urge to impress others with expensive objects but many years after my dad's passing we decided to pool in money and buy him a Rolex as a gift for his 70th birthday - not nearly as extravagant as the ones I hand carried to Tibet, but a Rolex nevertheless. It was a symbolic gesture that all the hardship he and my dad had to go through and the loss of the family's material possessions were a thing of the past. The handover of a Rolex underlined that they were back on track. Over fifty years of a family's history summed up by means of a watch. That's the power of the Rolex.

Before I ham it up too much: I would never wear a Rolex. The design is old-fashioned, oversized and overdone for my taste and comes at a ridiculously excessive price. When I think of the typical Rolex clientele, outrageously wealthy, fake-blond former Eastern bloc ladies come to mind, wrapped in fur head to toe, killing time in some posh European mountain resort. But that's Mountain Phoenix hypothesizing and not that she has the problem of being stuck with a Rolex :--)

In Tibet it seems to be a guy thing with the Rolex standing for values such as fortitude and authenticity in a time when trust in authentic brands is low and forgery is something like a national pastime. I heard fathers usually pass their Rolex on to their sons as an heirloom. Values and feelings associated with the Rolex are perhaps a bit like what early ads of the Marlboro man convey - of course without the health hazard: Freedom, male-bonding, solitude, simplicity and inner peace. And while not every Tibetan Rolex-wearer falls for the romantic, adventurous and legendary appeal of this watch, but simply wears it as a status symbol like wealthy Chinese or my Eastern bloc ladies, its appeal endures through personal family stories and the common misfortune that befell the Tibetans.

So wanting to own an expensive Rolex brought in from faraway lands is perhaps also a yearning for the good old days when things were under control and manageable? 

To Tibetans with their traditional weakness for chunky jewellery the Rolex is perhaps just the must-have even when most don't dwell in Himalayan heights any longer where perfectly calibrated watches become crucial. 

Often we don't have too many good stories left to tell each other these days. For this reason alone Tibet's historical love story with the Rolex deserves to be remembered and retold.  An old flame never dies.

Nostalgic greetings!
Mountan Phoenix

All written content on this blog is copyrighted. Please do not repost without seeking my prior written consent. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reality Bites

"Mami, zidang!" Our 10-year old exclaimed all of a sudden. I turned my head: "La nga'i norbu? Kharé dug?" The kid pointed to a photo of children in the school we visited in Tibet last summer. Together with pictures of Guilin and the Great Wall it hung under the header "China".

Continueing in Tibetan, our child said: "Why did they put the picture under China?"

"You should ask Joanna why she put it up under China", her dad chuckled back in Tibetan.

Joanna was a young, enormously energetic and talented colleague from work who had just returned from a six-month leave where she traveled several Asian countries. Among her destinations was the small Tibetan school we helped support. Joanna spent two weeks there working with the pupils and left an exemplarily positive impression on teachers and students alike. Now she was organising an "I'm back" party in the form of a fund-raising dinner to help the school. She had her travel pictures and memorabilia neatly arranged by travel country: Thailand, Indonesia, India and China.

On the whole, the time we spent at the event was worthwhile: At the end of the evening, there was a nice amount of money for the school and we also made one or two interesting contacts which could be useful for further projects.

After the kids went to sleep that night though, we parents had to come back to our 10-year old's "China incident". It pointed to a basic dilemma our children eventually had to learn to reconcile: To us Tibet was separate from China. It would never cross our minds to consider ourselves "Chinese". Tibet is Bod and China is Rgya. To us, the two are as separate – and as equal - as France and England. But how to cope with the external world for which there sometimes was no difference due to the political reality?

When my partner went to Tibet with his mother the first time in the early 1980s, China had just begun to open up. All his relatives came to meet them at the entry point. On their journey to the Tibetan areas, they had to cross Chinese territory in a multiple-day train ride during which he boycotted the food served leaving his mom amused and the relatives in Mao suits puzzled at the kid from abroad. They didn't understand that this was a political statement by a young, patriotic Tibetan: "I'd rather starve than eat Rgya-mi Khala – food from the enemy!"

He wasn’t keen on seeing places of worship razed to the ground, children indoctrinated, forests cut down, rivers diverted, mineral deposits exploited and his culture suffocated by swamps of reckless outsiders. Among his peers who went to Tibet, some returned so heart-broken they never recovered. But he was lucky to manage: He worked his way out of the initial shock and the aversion, got himself enrolled in a Chinese university and acquainted himself with their language and their culture to the extent where he was able to live and work in a country he called his own but that was controlled by the Chinese. Every day was full of challenges.

Though outwardly, he had arranged himself with the overlords to perfection, he never changed on the inside. By the time we met, he was a person with multiple identities. To a Tibetan born in the West like myself he appeared like "one of us". But at the same time when the situation required it, he maneuvered smoothly like a local Tibetan using the same speech, the same specific expressions complete with a personal network, seamlessly fitting in as if he had never lived anywhere else.

I'm thinking maybe the adaptation process he underwent was similarly as defining as the experience made by earlier Tibetans from the frontier like Gedun Choephel in the old days.

Gedun Choephel said Tibetans from border areas like his native Amdo, were more patriotic by nature than the ones in the central areas because the former lived face to face with "the other" whereas the latter in those days probably never had met a Chinese person to begin with.

According to Gedun Choephel, the sense of identity was more pronounced in frontier Tibetans because of daily interaction and confrontation with the other: You begin to think harder about your origins, your history and what sets you apart. It's probably not said for nothing that the motor for his famous book on Tibetan history was his nationalism. In any event, over the years it really appeared as if the more my partner adapted to Chinese customs on the outside, the stronger his Tibetan core became on the inside.

Once when we were queuing up at a fast-food chain for lunch, a lady asked him where he got his "really cool" shoulder bag from. Quick like a shot I heard him say: 

"From Delhi!"

"Why did you say Delhi?" I was there in Beijing when he got it.

"She may think we're Chinese," he said apologetically, adding with a chuckle: "I hate being mistaken for a Rgya-mi!"

Still the same kid on the inside refusing food from "the enemy":--)

Yeah, if we must choose between China and India, the latter seems like the lesser evil. The Dalai Lama even says: "India has more right to claim Tibet than China."

Doesn't that sound like servile flattery?

No country has any right to claim Tibet, full-stop.

During a Buddhist teaching to Indians earlier this year he also said: "India is the teacher, Tibet is the student." 

It's another statement that mentally subordinates our country.

Tibet owes India in many ways, that's true. As the Holy Land where the Buddha Dharma originated and by the kindness they have shown in granting safe asylum to our people in their hour of need, India will always be special to the Tibetans. But does that mean it's required to ingratiate ourselves with India? Where's our sense of national self-esteem? 

Maybe it's just me but I'm under the impression the Dalai Lama is saying more weird things lately. Like the other day, in front of a group of Chinese students, where said he is partly a "Marxist". In the past, he used to say he is a "Buddho-Marxist".

I have often wondered whether the Dalai Lama has advisors. Marxism and its practical outgrowth communism have social justice and the equal distribution of wealth as their goal, which is good. But the method to achieve this goal is rooted in animosity: Hate-filled "class struggle" killed millions and in Tibet today, the communists sometimes still act as red as they were in their reddest day under Mao. As a Tibetan, I find it disturbing to hear our leader happily label himself a Marxist when tens of thousands of our people were killed under the communist regime and many continue to suffer mistreatment.

The Dalai Lama flirting with Marxism is also troubling from a Buddhist perspective: The Buddhist ideal, and especially so the Mahayana form that Tibetans practice, is the peaceful Bodhisattva who works his way up to serve others based on improving oneself. The Communist ideal is an equal society created through violence based on destroying others. Superficially there are shared commonalities but fundamentally Buddhism and Communism are radically different. For a great Buddhist leader like the Dalai Lama, who is also revered as a Bodhisattva, to say he is partly a Marxist is extremely bizarre.

Now I don't know how the remark came across to those Chinese students and maybe all the Dalai Lama wanted was be on good terms with them - just like with the Indians. But again, it's unnecessary that the leader of the Tibetans cozies up to either Indians or Chinese. We do struggle with a lot of problems, homegrown as well as externally imposed, but there is no need to dpal las bshad anyone. We should just be ourselves.

Nobody wore Mao suits anymore by the time my siblings and I saw Tibet the first time in the early 1990s. But a bunch of Mafiosi-like United Front officials with dark sunglasses kept following us around wherever we went. In the end, they invited us for a meal. While our parents thought it would be wise to accept, we kids thought that's totally unworthy. We were not going to be "bought by the Chinese". When our parents insisted, we deliberately smoked throughout the whole meal so that we would not have to touch their rotten Rgyami Khala while these guys helped themselves to a free meal.

We were so angry at "the Chinese" that towards the end of the trip, we brought all our garbage carefully collected in order not to pollute the environment in Tibet, back to the entry-point in China where we stuffed it into one of the closets in our hotel room exclaiming: "Take this, shameless imperialists!"

Today I can relate to the experience as a funny anecdote but back then everything was serious and nobody laughed. I remember being angry most of the time: Angry at the Chinese for being there uninvited, angry at the Tibetans for mixing Chinese words into the Tibetan language, angry at the Tibetans working for the Chinese government - there was so much anger in me it overshadowed the entire experience putting me in a bad mood most of the time unable to appreciate much. When people back home asked whether I had a good time in Tibet, I didn't know what to say. If I said yes, people could think I was happy with Chinese rule. If I said no, people could think I was a spoilt kid estranged from her roots who couldn't handle the poverty there.

I was under shock, unable to gather a coherent thought. The Tibet picture in my head and the real Tibet I encountered were worlds apart. I went there thinking I was prepared for the worst but the reality was beyond my imagination.

After many months, I could somehow recollect myself: I had only been there for a few weeks as a visitor, I told myself. Tourists who visit a country for a short time don't return with the impression either that they now got a complete picture of the place. My impression had to be incomplete. The conclusion was that I needed to go back and live there for some time in order to get a better picture.

Call it the desperate human attempt not to lose hope in the face of hopelessness. Whatever the psychological explanation, the insight saved me from going into a depression and so I went back over the years with the new awareness that when I expect to see failure, destruction and despair, I would and more than I prefer. The way we regard something influences the way we feel about it, this much I know today.

Letting my anger overtake my whole being hasn't change the Chinese after all while it totally harmed myself: Subconsciously looking for a confirmation of Chinese suppression wherever I went and the chronic complaining made me sick. The negativity spread inside me like a cancer and disrupted any learning, attention or judgment.

I still can't stand the Chinese in Tibet, no use to pretend. The aversion sits so deep it will take a whole lot of well-intended Tonglen "exchanging-self-for-others" meditation sessions to even start changing that. But with time I also realised that my resentment is entirely my problem because the Chinese couldn't care less!

When I gradually managed to broaden my focus, I began to notice that there were a few groups and individuals in Tibet who, operating under the same constraints as everyone else somehow prevailed. I was beginning to see something like light at the end of the tunnel.

There were people who did not succumb to the widespread gambling and drinking, cheating, corrupting and chasing after quick money. A small group was doing things differently and better. They protected their positive outlook, their enthusiasm for good work, their respectful manners and their faith in the Dharma no matter what was going on around them. They raised their children based on these values. They are teachers, farmers, sales people, nomads, clerics and even government workers. Their strength was the determination to accept the challenge, play by the rules of the Chinese, beat them at their game without compromising their Tibetan core, and in the course, reinvent themselves. Those were the people who became our role models. On an individual level, the way these people led their lives to us appeared like the ultimate symbol of Tibetan defiance.

We grew up in the politicized environment of exiles and had this inflated view that you sometimes have when you learn about something only from hearsay. With no direct contact to Tibet, it was psychologically enormously important to gain some sort of certainty about where we were headed. For us, the Tibetan community abroad and Dharamsala provided that certainty and the only dimension we were able to perceive was political.

But when you live in Lhasa or Chamdo, you have to cooperate with the Chinese-dominated system out of tactical necessity. People's views were coined by pragmatism and their decisions based upon what would bring a direct advantage to their daily lives: Issues of primary concern were decent housing, satisfactory jobs and a good education for their children – things which the Tibetans abroad were unable to influence. The latter exposed real problems in Tibet which was important, but there was little they could do about them. Seeing the impotence now was deeply unsatisfactory and going back to our old lives felt awkward. The expat gatherings that functioned as Tibet surrogate during our youth began to feel alien and contentwise stuck in time.

It was just as unpleasant for us parents to see the Tibetan school listed under "China" at that fundraising dinner, but while we adults had learned from experience to do the difficult balancing act and bear the tension, the children stood at the beginning. They had to learn to deal with the reality.

So we have been careful when speaking about China and the Chinese around them. We explain to them that the Chinese believe Tibet is a part of their country and that they believe they helped the Tibetans out of poverty. It doesn't mean we accept the Chinese position, but it's crucial not to deny it.

The children know very well from their visits to Tibet that the Chinese are forcing themselves on the Tibetans who have to put up with the situation because they are weaker. The children also know it's not right without us needing to tell them a whole lot about how the Chinese stole our country and chased away its rightful ruler. The kids know.

They are learning at home and in school to help each other out, that the stronger ones should help the weaker ones, the older guide the younger, they have things like "peacemaker days" in school where they learn to solve their disagreements via dialogue and mediation. So it's brutal on kids to discover that the political reality in the world of the grownups can be the pure contrary: not the rule of law but the rule of force with the mightier controlling reality.

But at the same time, might is not automatically right: We know Tibet was an independent country. We should have done more to protect our sovereignty while we had the chance, true. Now we are faced with the bitter reality that we lost control. But we deal with the situation outwardly while knowing inwardly that a lie does not become truer even when repeated a million times.

In this regard, the physical encounters with Tibet and the people there seem to have given our kids an unprecedented boost. During a parents-teacher meeting once, the kindergarten teacher told us that our child made a huge step in development after the summer holidays. The kid seemed more at ease, more assertive and outgoing than before. The teacher's observation came as a confirmation that the carefully orchestrated exposure to Tibet was good for the children.

Tibet makes you become grounded, makes you take up your natural space by giving you all its power where you become confident, forward-looking and certain that opportunities will come your way. It is very powerful. It's not like life is without problems all of a sudden but you begin to take control rather than feeling powerless.

It kind of works on us parents, so we hope it will somehow work on the kids too.

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is copyrighted. Please do not repost without seeking my prior written consent.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Taking The Essence

To a child it looked like the grownups were building sandcastles in the sandbox: Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers used to play this game every morning in their homes: "Om Vajra Bhumi Ah Hung...," sprinkle rice grains here, "Om Vajra Rekhe Ah Hung…," sprinkle rice grains there. Then rub the vessel, rub, rub, rub with your right ell, sprinkle rice grains on the vessel, stack a ring, fill it completely up with rice, stack the next, smaller concentric ring, again filling that up with rice grains, all the while solemnly mumbling important-sounding words until the whole tower culminated in a conical construct that was to be destroyed at the end - just like a sandcastle.

It seemed like the Tibetan version of the Sisyphean task - the same thing over and over without a visible result. But while Sisyphus was condemned to roll the rock up the hill only to see it roll down again shortly before reaching the peak, my grandfathers offered and destroyed Mandalas voluntarily and enthusiastically until the end of their days.

Little did I know that the Mandala offering was an integral part of many people's regular Buddhist practice and that it could contain the entire Buddhist path all the way up to enlightenment in one go. It had a deep meaning.

I was reminded of the Mandral because my aunt asked me to come over a while ago. Whether I could donate my grandfather’s religious belongings to a monastery in Tibet? My Somola had no special affinity for Buddhism but was thoughtful enough to look for a suitable solution for the sacred objects lying around the house collecting dust.

Symbolising the Mandala offerings
Upon taking a closer look, I discovered my Pola's old Mandral. After half my lifetime was spent in Dharma oblivion, I somehow became interested after all and - funny enough - one of the first things I had learned was the Mandral using my hands as Mudra to symbolize the offerings. So when my aunt allowed me to keep my grandfather's Mandala set saying she was happy it remained in the family, I felt elated: Now I could practice with "the real thing" just like the others, that was my first thought. I didn’t anticipate the new significance that was to grow out of the inherited Mandala set.

Initially attracted by the Buddhist message of how the three poisons – ignorance, greed and anger - influence our actions and keep us rotating through Samsara, and how through systematically developing strong ethics, wisdom and compassion we could save us from ourselves, the Mandral gave me a first taste of the backbreaking work the implementation of these ideas into one's life could actually become.

In public, Mandalas are usually offered at the beginning of a Buddhist teaching to the Lama who is going to give it. At home, the Mandral would be offered to your personal Lama under whose guidance you normally practice and whose blessings or inspiration you sought to make progress. In the prayer, all kinds of things were given away as a gift to the Lama in exchange for the teaching or the blessings. You basically offered the whole universe. I was under the impression that the Mandala was a method to make us less attached to things and become more generous, although at the back of my head I had some doubt about the effectiveness because after all, we were offering fantasy things we didn’t own. Even though I had learned that in Buddhism things were never just what they seemed, I was unable to connect that insight to my Mandala situation at the time.

I don't know how my grandfathers went about learning it but I began by trying to draw all the objects that appeared in the prayer: The holy ground, the fence, the king of mountains in the centre and all the other components, arranging everything in the correct sequence. When I was half way through, having a tougher and tougher time to draw elements like "automatically growing fields", I began to suspect that I was trying to reinvent the wheel: Someone somewhere must have made a better drawing already. I can't possibly be the only person on the planet wanting to learn the Mandala offering? Bingo! I found a very helpful illustration.
This picture then served as a visual crutch to memorise the prayer. To intensify the exercise, I downloaded it from the internet and recited along in the evenings when walking the dog. After a few weeks, I got it. Next time in Buddhism class, when everyone was offering Mandalas to request the teaching, I had caught up with the others: I knew my offering by heart and inside out.

But now that I had my own Mandrel set, again I needed to learn the ritual or procedure. The mental picture and the words were there but where and when to place the heaps of rice grains, the rings, when does the rubbing come in et cetera?

So I found myself a video in the internet of a Mandala offering to which I practiced simultaneously rewinding as many times as necessary – basically many, many times. Eventually I did master the ritual - only to realize a while later that I still wasn’t there: I had merely got on top of the mechanics that were visible from the outside. The real work hadn’t even begun!

In order to make the Mandala offering effective, you had to try and understand the deeper meaning: So what did "the ground" represent? What was the meaning of "the fence" and all the other things that appeared in the prayer? And why did we offer objects like the minister, the elephant, the horse, the general, the queen, the treasure vase and so on, when they didn't belong to us?

What looked trivial like building sandcastles turned out as a highly sophisticated method to induce a change to our habitual thinking pattern. All the outer, ritual action was there to trigger an inner, mental transformation. Whether it was the Mandala, the water offering or the prostrations – they were all a means to an end. The end was to get to a higher or broader, more aware or deeper level of mind.

Looking up and down the Internet and in bookshops or talking to friends was a good start but at one point, I realised, nothing can replace the wisdom of a good Lama. There are things that are not available “out there” that you can only hope to catch if you find a qualified Lama and stick around for long enough. In my case, this meant continueing to attend Buddhism courses and offering Mandrels with good intention but without really understanding the deeper meaning for almost three years until I accidentally heard the Lama explain it more as an aside:

"The ground" was your mind and the offerings represented the positive mental attributes you were determined to develop and for which you requested the teacher's inspiration and blessing. The minister, for example, stood for flexibility, the horse for concentration, the general was equanimity, the queen joy and the treasure vase symbolized the power of memory. I guess the destruction at the end is to teach you that you shouldn't get all uptight about reaching these qualities. They are fundamental but if you get hung up you lost before you started.

The Lama also spoke of inner, outer, secrete and ultimate Mandala and depending on the level of understanding, an offered object could have several meanings. The Mandala was one of the many tools the Buddha gave people so they could achieve a mental transformation according to their individual ability and determination. You could custom-build your Mandala: As a beginner you would offer it with a mindset to accumulate wholesome and reduce negative Karma and aim for a good rebirth. As a moderate student you offer it with the intention to develop your mind to the level where you can overcome cyclic existence or rebirth altogether, and as an advanced practitioner you would offer the Mandral with the inner attitude to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all.

Offering a Mandala was something so basic in Tibetan Buddhism yet it could also become very elaborate containing the whole Buddhist path with the bulk of the action happening invisibly for external observers. Tampering with the Mandala set was merely assistive equipment for the work on the inside, that’s what the Lama’s comments made me realise.

The good news out of this long Mandala learning story is that I don't need to learn a whole lot more other techniques such as reciting 100,000 mantras or going on long retreats. With the Mandala, it is possible to achieve more than I could hope to handle. It’s like a one-size-fits-all garment perfect for any need.

But something else happened when I used my grandpa's Mandral gear the first time and noticed that the Tog for crowning the Mandala was missing.

Neither my aunt nor my mom remembered where the Tog could be. The only thing my mom knew was that it was made of noble metal. Maybe it was in the safe at the bank? I was barely able to hold the full Mandala with my two hands it was that heavy already. I wasn't keen on adding more weight with a fancy silver or golden Tog.

Just around that time my cousin, a Buddhist monk in Tibet, came to visit. It was a Herculean task to obtain a tourist visa because the authorities suspected he would seek political asylum in this country. I never had a doubt he would not return. Once when we were in Tibet discussing his Buddhist education, the option to flee to India came up. It is generally accepted that the Buddhist training one received in the Tibetan monasteries in India is superior to the one in the homeland. But my cousin replied: "Aché, I can't leave. What would happen to Tibet if all the good people left? A few decent ones must stay back."

When he noticed that my Mandral was missing the Tog, he made me one out recycled cardboard without further ado. It reminded me more of a Roman Catholic bishop's hat but it did the job at no additional weight.  

Mountain Phoenix' Mandala set 
Altogether my Mandral had now become very personal: It came from my maternal grandfather who grew up in Tibet before the arrival of the Chinese, it was being used by me, who was born in a democratic, occidental setting, and it was crowned by my paternal cousin, a Buddhist monk in Tibet born after the Cultural Revolution. It is said that the Mandala symbolizes the universe and amazingly my Mandral really did contain my little world!

Now I was fully equipped but offering a Mandala remains a difficult task. The visualised offerings don't take shape fast enough. The pictures in my head often lag behind the recitation which goes on rhythmically. The Lama said with Dharma practice it’s like with weight training: You build your strength step by step. The more you exercise, the easier it becomes.

Meanwhile I also discovered a trick: Sometimes when I imagine my Pola and I are doing the Mandala offering together, sitting in front of the altar side by side, mumbling the words together, doing the visualisations together and dedicating whatever positive vibes come out of the exercise to the benefit of everybody including ourselves, that's when the visualisations are a little less difficult.

I also remember my dad and my grandma and there is a sense of continuation. Through the Mandral I feel close to them and when I add the Tog to crown my Mandala, my brave cousin comes to mind in his monastery in Tibet upholding the teaching and providing guidance to the community. In my eyes, he stands for all the brave Tibetans who decide to remain in Tibet come what may.

Through the Mandala I finally also understood that the central role accorded to Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism is justified. Lamas are not the heroes of Tibetan culture for no good reason. If our Buddha potential was the seed, a qualified Lama could make the seed sprout so we develop strong roots. Their work was unparalleled and indispensable.

For the longest time I used to have an aversion against Buddhism because I held it responsible for the loss of our country. I was unfairly politicizing Buddhism which was never meant as a form of government to start with. Buddhism has always been about the sentient beings and how to improve their situation with complete disregard for worldly concepts like “country” or “government”.

Who would have thought that I become a person that offers Mandalas? Lamas did not figure in my set of acquaintances either. But there is a common Tibetan saying: "As people get older, they remember their roots; as birds get older they stay on the tree" or in Tibetan:
Mi rgas dus rang-yul; bya rgas dus shing ‘go
How many times have I heard the saying and it never struck a chord?

Now it rings true.

It looks like I have been taking many things way too literal. With the circular Mandala I have come full circle too. Things fall into place and I feel good about it. I feel like old wine in new skins. 

Mandala is khyil khor in Tibetan, which means "turning from the middle" or "taking the essence". It boils down to offering all our positive, wholesome potential of the past, the present and the future to our own enlightenment and to the enlightenment of all beings. It's a huge, ambitious task but I decided to try to take the essence just like my grandparents before me, my cousin in Tibet, and loads of other people around the world whom I don’t know.

May everyone find their source of inspiration!

Mountain Phoenix

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