Visiting Tibet is like watching someone drown. They are calling out for help as you stand on shore not knowing how to save them. An elderly Tibetan woman grabs my wife’s hand stares intently in her eyes and sweeps her free hand across the sky, encompassing the mountains and says, “Tibet, Tibet.” A middle aged man in an outdoor market beckons me to sit next to him and for the next fifteen minutes pours out his life story and that of his beleaguered country, all the time anxiously looking out for anyone who may be eaves dropping.
Tibet’s religion, Tibetan Buddhism, is the heart of their culture. What makes their beliefs so unique is that there is no separation between the everyday world and the holy. Religious beliefs form the basis of every facet of Tibetan society. Heaven, or nirvana, is present right now and we are living in it, or at least in the possibility of it. The spiritual world is all around you and infuses everything you say and do. This outlook is so fundamentally different than that of the west that it is hard to put into words.
The fusion of everyday life and religion is present among Tibetans from all strata of society. Many people of the capital city, Lhasa, organize their daily routine around their religious rituals. Each day thousands of Tibetans walk around the perimeter of Potala Palace which was home to the Dalai Lama. All ages and sexes walk the circuit, often dozens of times, spinning prayer wheels while their lips move silently, chanting prayers. They are joined by groups of mainly young devotees prostrating themselves in front of the temples. Many of these pilgrims live miles from the capital and have walked long distances falling on the ground prostrate every three steps. The fervor of their belief is breathtaking for a skeptical westerner.
The Buddhist clergy exemplify the Tibetan religious commitment. A fascinating teaching technique is how students quiz one another regarding Buddhist text. The students are paired up. One stands while the other sits down. The standing one asks his sitting colleague a question and if the answer is wrong the standing student claps his hands loudly right in the other student’s face. This is done in a courtyard with the entire student body. The clamor is unbelievable as hundreds of students are clapping and others are yelling out what they hope are right answers.
There is also no separation between politics and religion. The Dalai Lama is the de facto Tibetan political and religious leader. The current politics of the country is related to the reigns of the different Dalai Lamas, the way English historical eras are identified by the names of the monarchs.
The same interdependence is seen between religion and science. The Tibetan practice of medicine is based on Buddhist principles. A Tibetan medical professor explained their understanding and treatment of diseases: Tibetan biology is based on the presence of three elements, wind, bile and phlegm. It is the imbalance of any of these three elements that causes disease. Like traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetans use acupuncture as one of the main forms of treatment, but it differs in the fact that they use only one spot on top of the head to manipulate with a needle.
Tibet has to be one of the few remaining places where the spiritual continues to provide the organizing principles of every facet of society and offers a reminder as to how most of the world lived at one time. Today, when so many other cultures are looking for meaning, Tibet is a living example of what a society founded on meaning can look like. But, unfortunately, this indigenous society seems doomed.