CHAPTER X THE LAMASERIES

Likiang had five lamaseries which all belonged to the Karamapa (Red) Sect of the Tibetan Lamaism. They were beautifully situated on the hillsides surrounded by forest. Lamaism had been introduced into Likiang about four hundred years ago by the saintly Lama Chuchin Chone, who founded the first lamasery, Chinyunsze, at Lashiba behind the lake. The mystic doctrine of Tantric Buddhism, the colourful rites and the ecclesiastical connection with Lhasa strongly appealed to the Nakhi. Thus the faith, superimposed on their own Shamanism and in strong competition with Chinese Mahayanist Buddhism, spread in the valley. Some of the smaller lamaseries had been subsidized by the Mu King and, with the decline of the dynasty, they were left, so to speak, high and dry. Because they had not been built in strategic places, from the point of view of commerce and pilgrimage, they declined and had only a comparatively few lamas and trapas left to look after their vast but rapidly deteriorating buildings. The original lamasery at Lashiba was still prosperous because it lay on the Likiang-Lhasa caravan road and, in addition, was much revered as the mother of all other lamaseries. The Pouchisze lamasery, the one nearest to the city, was a small but beautifully grouped complex of temples and apartments. It had a saintly Incarnation, Shenlou Hutuktu, now dead, in whose honour a large white stupa still stands in the pine forest behind. I had the privilege of meeting him when I was in Chungking in 1941. This Grand Lama was a very kindly and enlightened man and at that time he had foretold that I should come to Likiang.

The Pouchisze lamasery was as cosy and intimate inside as it was beautiful outside. There were nooks and small courtyards filled with flowers and blossoming vines. A huge Tibetan mastiff guarded the place. He was so old that he tottered as he walked, yet he was still dangerous to intruders and his deep bark reverberated through the corridors like a lion’s roar. The kitchen, adjoining the little flower-filled courtyard and guest hall, was spacious and clean, and was presided over by an old Chinese cook, also a convert to Lamaism. He always provided a delicious meal and a jar of wine for the frequent visitors who came to spend week-ends at this beautiful and restful spot. The lamas and trapas of the lamasery were gentle and courteous. Most of them were natives of a large Nakhi village below. Because of the gentle and learned Shenlou Hutuktu, the lamasery was remembered by the Likiang gentry and by visiting Tibetan merchants, with donations sufficient to keep it going in proper style. Moreover, the lamas had a hope that soon Shenlou Hutuktu might decide to reincarnate in some lucky child’s body and bring the old glory back to his beloved lamasery and to Likiang. The only serious drawback to the lamasery was the lack of water, for the mountainside on which it had been built was dry and water flowed only during the rainy season.

I often went to Pouchisze for week-ends and the lamas were always glad to see me. It was wonderful to relax there with nothing but the rustling trees around, blue sky and the tinkle of a silver bell of a lama in prayer.

My favourite lamasery, however, was Yuenfoungsze or Shangri Moupo gompa. It was the largest and most active lamasery in the Likiang district, and was set half-way up from the plain to the sacred peak of Shangri Moupo, whose 14,000 feet high pyramid dominates the city on the south side. It was very strange that, whilst the great snow peak of Mount Satseto was only of local significance to the Nakhi, the smaller Shangri Moupo occupied a very prominent place in the Tibetan cosmology, being regarded as one of the sacred peaks of Tibet — the dwelling-places of the gods. The Tibetans believe that the gods reside alternately on particular peaks of western and eastern Tibet. High lamas keep a strict record of the cycles of these divine migrations and name the year and month during which the gods move from one to the other. When the gods have reached the Shangri Moupo and the Chicken Foot Mountain across the lake from Tali, which is also sacred, then it is time for the Tibetan pilgrims to turn their steps towards Likiang and Tali, to pay respect to these holy thrones of the gods, and to acquire merit by offering service or donations to the nearby lamaseries and shrines.

The Shangri Moupo lamasery was some eight miles from the city, along a narrow road which, passing fields and villages and crossing deep streams, led in a steep climb through the forest of pines and rhododendrons. The forest belonged to the lamasery, and was therefore a sanctuary for animals; so that the climb, though arduous, was like a progress to paradise. Birds sang from tall, shady trees; crystal streams rushed down in orchestrated cascades; rare flowers pushed up from under bushes, and the air was heavy with the fragrance of blossoms. After the first mani pile, with the stones and slabs engraved with the eternal ‘Aum, mani padme hum!‘ the road wove through a dense spruce forest. Then, suddenly the lamasery was there, lying in a hollow of the mountains like a huge bowl, with a green meadow in front and very old trees dotted around. There was a huge circular fish-pond, fed by mountain streams, and a flight of stone steps leading to an imposing gate, beyond which sat four giant grinning avatars, representing the four manifestations of power or energy; and across a vast courtyard was the great prayer hall itself, reached by two stone stairways. The courtyard was profusely decorated with flowers in pots and stone vases and there were rose bushes and old cassia-trees in the stone-lined tubs.

To the right of the courtyard there was a passage which led to a spacious dining-room decorated with huge mirrors. In front of it was another large courtyard, paved with cobblestones, at the end of which were stables for the horses and the mules, and a huge kitchen. Connected by a veranda to the dining-room was a two-storey wing, in which my good lama friend, the manager or bursar, lived below his trapa clerical staff. He was a convivial fellow, with bright intelligent eyes and a great forehead, and was quite bald. He came from a village not far from ours and, people said, he was happily married and had children. I asked him about it one day and he laughed heartily.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘if nobody gets married, where are the little lamas to come from?’

I had met him at Madame Lee’s bar, where he always went when in town as he was very fond of a cheering cup. He was most hospitable, and often invited me for week-ends. I always brought with me my medical kit and some flowers and vegetable seeds for the lama himself, for, like the other lamas, he was very fond of gardening.

My arrival was usually on a Saturday afternoon. After a drink of the special white wine made by the lamas themselves, the bursar disappeared on business, and I made excursions into the surrounding woods, searching for flowers, particularly the kounpanyas, which are little purple orchids. On my return to the lamasery I called on a few other lamas I knew and offered any medical help that I could give. There was usually an inflamed eye, a touch of a skin disease, a bout of malaria or an attack of indigestion, and they were very grateful for these little tokens of attention. Then the evening came, with the cold of an altitude of about 11,000 feet, and we sat by the brazier awaiting the gong for dinner.

I was always placed at the large round table at which the senior lamas sat. They were very dignified elders, some with white beards, clad in their red togas. All victuals were produced at the lamasery and the meals were very good. There was beef, pork and mutton, sauerkraut, rich potato soup, and everything was helped down with cups of wine. Rice was seldom served, but instead we ate the babas — thick wheat pancakes with butter and ham shavings. Young trapas served at the table and before and after the meals grace was said by the oldest lama.

Afterwards I lay on rich rugs in my lama friend’s cell, with butter lamps nickering before the golden Buddhas on an altar. Outside there was the hooting of owls and screeching of wild animals, and now and then the sound of a bell from some distant shrine. Before dawn there was the noise of a drum, then the mysterious, hollow call of a conch shell. Then there was the dawn service with its murmur of recited sutras, punctuated by bells, conch-shell blasts and the wailing of trumpets. I got up at about six or seven and at nine there was breakfast of butter tea, sauerkraut, hard-boiled eggs and fried pork, accompanied by the inevitable babas. At about ten there was again a call to prayer and I went to the main hall. The lamas entered in a stately procession, each wearing a tall curving yellow hat with fringes. They seated themselves, cross-legged, on low benches and began to recite sutras spread on low tables in front of them, while the blare of trumpets, conch shells, bells and drums punctuated certain passages. Two trapas with long-spouted pots passed from lama to lama filling little white cups with wine. This was always done in rainy or wintry days to protect them from chills and to keep up their strength during long services.

Behind the main hall and dining-room there lay a miniature city sprawling over the hillside. It consisted of one-storey houses with small gardens, all walled in. These were the residences of the high-ranking lamas. Each compound was occupied by one or two lamas and their attendants. Their old parents or male relatives could also stay with them; and a room could always be found for a guest for a few days.

I and my friend Changtehkuan, a Chinese from the Duchy of Bongdzera, often stayed with a close relative of his mother’s, who was a Tibetan. This venerable lama, who was in charge of the sacred music, was not really very old but he had a magnificent long beard, which is a rarity among the Tibetans, of which he was inordinately proud. He shared his apartments with another lama and had his old father staying with him. His house had two wings; one was their living quarters and the other contained a shrine of his favourite deity. The old man loved flowers and in his jewel of a little garden he tended his pots of crooked plum- and cherry-trees: his miniature bamboo grove and his cluster of roses.

Rich merchants and officials from Likiang came to stay with their lama friends for a week or two. I always avoided them as their ideas of relaxation were diametrically opposed to mine, and they either smoked opium all day long or played mahjong. They could never understand my desire to climb the mountains or visit the tribal villages.

Quite high above the lamasery, on a precipitous spur of the mountain, there was a curious shrine, always padlocked and sealed. I climbed to it several times but saw nobody. At last a friend explained to me that this was a hermitage where some thirty-five young lamas had been shut up for meditation and study for a period of three years, three months, three weeks, three days, three hours and three minutes. Guided by a guru, usually an old, saintly and learned lama, these young men chose a sacred word or text to meditate upon. The favourite word, I was informed, was ‘Aum‘, whose mystic meaning could seldom, if ever, be properly understood, but which contained power and enlightenment. Between meditations a regular course of Tantric theology was pursued. On the expiration of the seclusion each man became a lama in his own right and, if he chose, he could go to Lhasa to undergo further training and take examinations for higher initiations. I was told that two years more would be needed before the hermitage could be unsealed in a brilliant ceremony and the young lamas released. In the meantime, they stayed there strictly incommunicado with food passed through a small window by an old caretaker.

I had almost forgotten about the young lamas when later, to my surprise, I was invited by my lama friends to go to the lamasery for the great day of the opening of the hermitage. The news spread quickly and the whole town talked of nothing but the forthcoming event.

I started with my friend Changtehkuan on the eve of the ceremony. The road to the lamasery was crowded with groups of people in their best dress: old gentlemen, in formal Chinese garb, proceeded on horseback, escorted by their sons or attendants: women, in black mitres and silk tunics, carried in their baskets the houkous and all sorts of dainties. Pangchinmei, also with baskets, walked in droves with the local beaux in the rear. The lawn in front of the lamasery was covered with picnicking families sitting on rugs. The overflow of people was such that few expected to find shelter at night within the lamasery or in the lamas’ apartments. We put up with our long-bearded lama, but his house too was crowded and we had to sleep three in one bed. All night long there was singing and dancing outside the lamasery. The invited dignitaries and merchants played mahjong or smoked opium in adjoining houses.

Next day, early in the morning, the service started in the main hall. All the grand lamas, attired in yellow silk jackets and new red tunics, were there chanting the sutras; but, advised by our lama friend to hurry, we started on our way to the hermitage. Had we tarried, we should not have reached it at all so great was the press of the milling multitude.

From the terrace of the hermitage the view was breathtaking in the early morning sunshine. Clouds of incense issued from the lamasery, and the sound of great trumpets, the throb of a huge drum, the wail of conch shells and the tinkling of bells reverberated in the narrow valley. At last the great procession to the hermitage started. Senior lamas walked first, gold chalices in their hands sparkling like flames, followed by richly attired dignitaries and a vast crowd. The scene was indescribable in its splendour and beauty, with Mt Satseto sparkling in the background, deep blue sky and green pines and rhododendrons in bloom forming a vast stage setting for the glittering conclave. There was a short service before the sealed gate. Then the Grand Lama sprinkled it with holy water, dipping a bunch of the sacred kusa grass into the gold kumba (chalice). In the presence of the Pacification Commissioner and elders of the city, a gold key was inserted into the padlock, seals removed and the gate was flung open.

I thought the hermitage would be a mean, crowded place with a row of cells, like cages, along a narrow corridor, without light or air. It was nothing of the kind. Instead, I saw a vast oblong courtyard with age-old shady trees and masses of flowers. In the centre there was a tall and spacious prayer hall with a brightly polished floor. It was here that the lectures were delivered to the neophytes. All around the courtyard there were single-storey buildings divided into light and comfortable rooms. These were the students’ private apartments. In front of each room, in the courtyard, there stood a small kiosk with a golden Buddha and dozens of brightly burning butter lamps. A stall in front of each kiosk was heaped with sweet meats and there was a row of small cups filled with wine. Each graduate stood by his kiosk welcoming friends and acquaintances with a bow. Expecting a group of ascetic and emaciated young men worn down by lack of food and the severity of their mystic exercises, I was confronted with bright-eyed, well-fed men in resplendent vestments who laughed and chatted and pressed us to eat and to drink, while themselves setting a good example.

Tables were produced in no time, and food, brought by the parents and relatives, was spread. The houkous, in the centre of each table, spewed smoke and flames like miniature volcanoes and a joyous feast was soon in progress. I was led to a terrace where several tables were prepared for the dignitaries, and was seated with the jovial Pacification Commissioner and the high lamas. The food was superb and the wine still better, and by the time we got up it was late afternoon.

The meadow in front of the lamasery was crowded with richly caparisoned mules and crowds of relatives in preparation for the triumphal send-off of the newly made lamas. Each young lama was affectionately assisted into the saddle and led off with infinite care by his admiring folk, some of whom cried unashamedly with joy and unutterable happiness. It was the culmination of a cherished ambition, and an unparalleled honour not only to the family concerned but to the whole district from which the young lama came. Not all the graduates came from the Likiang district. Some were from Tongwa and Hsiangchen, from Bongdzera and Lotien and other little-known regions. They were Tibetans and Nakhi and members of other tribes who had adopted Lamaism, and were now to be the torches of the light of truth, going to dispel the darkness of avidya (ignorance) in their barbaric lands and to be the shining, priceless jewel of faith.

Nature itself smiled on the men during this felicitous day. The air was warm and scented, the sky so cloudless and blue; the Snow Mountain waved a long white plume, as if in greeting, from the glittering crown of its summit. The city was en fete and there were delirious celebrations in many houses that evening before the departure of holy caravans on the morrow.

It will be several years before this glorious festival is repeated. It takes a long time to find and prepare a group of serious-minded and ardent neophytes willing to endure such a long seclusion for the sake of faith and spiritual glory. Perseverance in studies and intellectual honesty are required. The full implication of solitude, obedience to guru, renunciation of worldy desires and tastes is not easy to inculcate and still harder to practise. The wise High Lamas have to exercise an infinite care not to include in the group any undesirable person. Any debauchery, or the scandal of escaping inmates, would destroy for ever the high repute of this holy and famed hermitage. The comparative comfort of existence, similar to some Taoistic hermitages in China, presents greater temptations than the life in certain Tibetan and Christian retreats, where the emphasis is on the mortification of the flesh. The problem of man was understood better at this hermitage. Man is not only a spirit: he has his physical nature as well. It is not with the destruction of one aspect of his being by the other that he fulfils his existence. It is by a harmony of the two that he becomes perfect. Jesus, Gautama and Gandhi emphasized this balance between the two extremes and it was for this reason that they were able to render their great services to humanity. Mortification, carried to excess, is no good either to man himself or to humanity. The greater victories come to the man who does not concentrate on murdering his body but utilizes its strength and energy in developing his spiritual gifts. A withered tree bears no fruit.

The sacred peak of Shangri Moupo was not of significance to the Tibetans only. At its back, in front of an immense sheer white cliff called Loupaper, there was a huge stony platform on which the Nakhi Shamans, called dtombas, held a conclave once in ten years. This was preceded by much feasting and drinking in tents and then the dtombas arranged a series of shamanistic dances representing various felicity ceremonies such as the Longevity ceremony. They were attired in Chinese figured mandarin robes and wore five-petal diadems on their heads. The dance was a slow one, always turning on one leg and swaying; it was monotonous but strangely rhythmic and, to me, very hypnotic. In one hand they held a magic sword and in another a ndseler. A ndseler is a cymbal, made of an alloy of gold, silver and brass, to which, as a striker, a small brass weight is attached on a string. The sound of it is most beautiful and quite unlike anything produced by a triangle or a similar orchestral instrument of the West.

There is little doubt that the dtomba practices were closely affiliated to those of the Mongolian Shamans. They had originated in the remote past long before the great religions made their appearance in the world. There is a close affinity between the Dtombas and Bonists, that is to say, the adherents of the ‘Bon’ or Black Church of Tibet. The Bon Church was the dominant cult of Tibet before the establishment of Buddhism. It is founded entirely on the practice of black magic and communication with evil spirits through necromancy and other morbid and macabre rites. The cups, made of human skulls, and flutes of human bone are used freely in certain religious services. There are a number of Bon lamaseries in Kham, where these practices take place, and it was occurrences such as these that helped to make Tibet known as a land of horrible occult rites and other unspeakable mysteries.

It cannot be said that the dtombas represented an established church like Lamaism. They worked independently, the art passing from father to son. They had a loose association, but it was by no means a recognized institution or club. They knew each other and, when occasion offered, they combined together for large ceremonies, and they were needed for the exorcising, during special ceremonies, of the demons of suicide and other calamities. As such occurrences were frequent, their trade was quite lucrative. They claimed control over spirits both bad and good, and as their performances always produced a trance or semi-trance they were a somewhat unbalanced people and were very heavy drinkers.

I believe that the Chinese Taoist cult of Changtienssu, established during the Han dynasty, borrowed many of its magic practices from the Bon lamas. It was this Taoist Church, the lowest of all, that encouraged the unwarranted and contemptuous opinion in the West about Taoism. Europe and America still have not realized that the true Taoist Church of China are the Lungmen Church with its sublime teaching of Lao Tzu, practised in all its purity, and the second church of Cheng-I Taoism which specializes in the knowledge of nature and man’s relation with the world of spirits. Much of what is best in Chinese civilization and the character of the Chinese people is entirely due to the philosophy and teaching of these two churches.

The higher Taoism buttressed by the written teachings of Lao Tzu and Chuan Tzu, conceives the Universe as a product of Tao, which means the Universal Mind, independent of the being itself, of space and of time: in other words a conception of God. Lao Tzu advisedly did not use the word ‘God’ because the Chinese language does not possess such an all-embracing and all-inclusive term. Immediately the word ‘God’ is used in the Orient it conjures up in the human mind a vision of a glorious, effulgent Man sitting on a flaming throne somewhere in immeasurable space. The teachers of Christianity in the Orient have always been handicapped by this all-important definition, and the Bible, provided for the different churches and sects implanted by the missionaries in China, has never been given by its translators a unifying term for God.

Lao Tzu, in his teaching, does not specifically mention Earth or its affairs: he simply and unequivocally states that the Universe is the product of Tao (Great Mind) which, by the Power of its Will, brought forms out of the formless, differentiated them by the flow of numbers and series, and activated life by the eternal rhythm of Yang and Ying which made all things and events in space and time relative to each other.

Therefore, since both the visible and invisible worlds are the creation of one and the same Mind, their difference is only relative and it becomes understandable that an interplay between them is possible and natural.



1 The author leaving on a tour of inspection of remote co-operatives


2 Author’s friend Hokuoto. A typical mountain Nakhi peasant from Lashiba


3 Akounya. The Minkia girl at whose house the author always stayed when travelling by caravan to Hsiakwan


4 Likiang. Author’s house. Front gate and main street of Wuto village


5 View of Mount Satseto (alias Snow Peak, Snow Mountain, or Yulungshan) from Likiang hill near the author’s house


6 Mme Lee at her shop in the morning, facing the bar at which her customers sit


7 Caravan from Hsiakwan to Likiang. Author’s baggage has just been delivered to the author’s courtyard by the caravan leader (standing)


8 A Tibetan buying pottery at Mme Yang’s shop inside the gate


9 Likiang street scene. A lama shopping


10 A Tibetan at Likiang Market


11 Likiang market-place. A Hsiangchen Tibetan woman shopping


12 Ahouha—one of the pangchinmei (girls) of Likiang in formal everyday wear


13 Likiang market square. Mme Yang’s daughter Afousya sits at her own stall on the left selling cakes and cigarettes. Mme Yang’s shop is opposite


14 Likiang Park


15 The Yangtze River at the Copper Mining Co-operative


16 The Yangtze River is entering the 11,000-ft-deep gorge Atsanko. The road through the gorge is on the left bank


17 Yuenfoungsze Lamasery (Shangri Moupo gompa). Lama dance


18 The Yuenfoungsze (Shangri Moupo gompa) Lamasery sacred orchestra playing during lama dances


19 Yuenfoungsze Lamasery


20 Yuenfoungsze Lamasery (Shangri Moupo gompa). The venerable lama


21 Shangri Moupo Lamasery. Senior lamas with the lama Manager on the right


22 The author’s friend Wuhan with his first-born son, old mother, and wife — all formally dressed


23 Mme Lee’s husband and grandson in front of an ancestral tomb


24 Old Nakhi villagers, formally attired


25 The main street of Likiang with some Khamba Tibetans passing through


26 Likiang. Leather-tanning and Shoe-making Co-operative


27 Wool-spinning Co-operative


28 Path inside Atsanko gorge 11,000 ft deep where the Yangtze River flows


29 A view of Likiang plain and Shwowo village from a lamasery

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