In part 2 of a journey through the Kandze region of Kham, Carol Brighton, artist and longtime Tibet traveler, explores unexpected spiritual art on the road to Pelyul, and a genuine cultural treasure in Derge.
If you missed part 1 of the series, Kham: The Road to Derge (Dege), you can find it here >>
Barshok (Xinlong) to Pelyul (Baiyu)
We are in the Nyarong region, a day or two out of Derge, and up at altitude — 12 to 13,000 feet or so – approaching a high pass. It’s been a long morning drive and the afternoon came on with fatigue. I dozed off and woke up suddenly, startled. My mom’s voice spoke. What? Here? All the way out here … I get to this remote place so high, so far from home and now you want to talk? I laughed – the driver looked over at me and smiled. The sky is such deep cerulean – and clear. And out of the blue mom checks in – “I just came to say hi – just to say everything is OK.”
Mom died about this time four years ago. I was with her when she died. She was as big as life and in charge to the last breath. Now she’s one with the Great Mother.
View a video slideshow with more images from the Derge journey:
The Changwo monastery is half way between Barshok and Pelyul. There’s a prayer flag house of white prayer flags and a gold roof monastery.
There are installations of tent-shaped prayer flags – like art installations, in the fields and by rivers. They’re constructed by stringing hundreds of round rows on rows of prayer flags, in grey and sometimes faded red, they sway in the wind. They are gathered and tied and added to over the seasons. Intense bright light breaks into the interior spaces, between the rows shades of grey form dark folds and curves of their own.
The flag tents, white cloth and printed in black or red, are now, even faded in this high altitude sun, stunning. Crawling underneath the outside rows it’s possible to get inside and see how they are strung layer upon layer in a wide circle and raised on a central wooden pole. As the wind blows the rows open, intense sunlight flows in and blue sky appears between dancing, rippling edges. Most of the flags are the Padmasambhava mantra — om ah hung — benza guru pema siddhi hung — a song of clear light, calling to mind a great teacher, a Buddha, and an awakened mind, repeated ad infinitum.
These installations — from the printing process through the day they were hung, and afterwards as pilgrims walk around them — are intended for the well being of all of us. The mantra calls a great teacher to be with us, and calls up that quality in each of us, for the benefit of all. It is inspiring and has so much spiritual energy — benevolence, compassion and caring for those close to us and for unknown multitudes. The prayer flags are a generous gift.
After lunch in Changko, we cross the 4800 meter/over 15,000 ft. pass — sick and irritable — felt better after a descent to lower altitude.
This is a green, green valley, so beautiful with lots of standing prayer flags. We have passed such beautiful stupas.
We arrive in Pelyul after dark. There are lots of police around, and parked on the corner outside our guest house. Looking out the second floor window of my room I saw a man standing in the dark by the telephone pole across the street…a watcher. We heard there were road blocks at both ends of the road to a monastery where a monk had self immolated.
This is a horror; a Tibetan, a fellow human being, has died in a desperate act of protest. By the time of this posting, many more have died this way – giving up life calling for freedom for their people. It’s a sad, deep sorrow.
May their deaths be enough — may they serve the cause of freedom. May all beings be free.
The occupation of Tibet is a heartbreaking catastrophe.
The Derge parkhang — printing house — Wow. It is all that could be expected. The main prayer hall is on the ground floor, the printing house and library are up on the top floors.
Upstairs the printing creates its own rhythm. Tengyur teachings are being printed today – commentaries written on the Buddha’s words — teachings for the common man. They are using an expensive red ink, tsol rinpoche, a precious pigment costing 400 yuan per kilo. It’s rare – probably mercury based. They crush it into a dry red powder and slowly mix in water to make a paste.
Of course these printers are expert. There’s a synergetic relationship between the inker who applies the ink with a short bristle brush – and the printer who lays pre-dampened paper on the inked block and prints the text with a thick handmade roller. It’s all very lickety-split, in efficient movements. Brushing ink, slapping down paper, rolling to print, lifting and placing aside to dry — both printers in a creative flow. Here is the beating heart, in this steady, accurate rhythm, printing dharma teachings.
There are stacks after stacks of woodblocks – some 800 years old, some even older – they say there are 300,000 blocks. This is a library of Tibetan Buddhism.
The printing house is a quiet oasis here. All around the building there is a murmuring life. The Tibetans circumambulate the kora clockwise – keeping the sacred on the right. Walking swiftly, saying rounds of prayers on their malas. Talking with each other or walking solo, some very old, and some carrying young babies, they share the circular route.
Inside the building there are water offerings at the foot of the great golden Buddha. A monk is drumming in a nearby protector’s chapel. Mostly it’s quiet since the monks have already left after morning prayers.
On the third floor there is a small room where one monk sits chanting Tara mantras — om Tare tu tare ture soha — in a low, steady baritone. Twenty one gold Tara statues line the walls, keeping him company.
The surrounding rooftop views towards the hills. Brown houses stacked up the hill with decorated window glass and marigolds in boxes butted against each other. Prayer flags drape up where it’s too steep to build, reaching toward the top of the mountain, and clouds hide the high horizon.
Up here in the mountains – the air is so clear the sky so blue.
High altitude dreaming. A woman told me the axis of the earth has shifted. Stepping backwards into thin air, I didn’t fall.
Thoughts have weight. The mind creates. The first work is the work of the mind – what’s going on in there — in the free zone? Empty like the sky, full like the earth.
View more of the Kham: Notes from a Mountain Journal series:
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- Kandze (Chinese Garze, Ganzi, Garzi or Garzin), is also called Garnze, Karze or Kardze, and is in the Sichuan part of Kham, outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (T.A.R.)
- Dartsendo (Chinese Kangding) is also called Dardo, Darstedo, and Darzêdo.