In the wealthy world, the pervasive sense of lack drives people to worship at the oddest shrines, and to seek a solution to their formless malaise in bogus shamanism, crystal therapy, hands-free massage, rebirthing, sun salutations, flotation and pesticide-free food. Some people abandon the search for a transcendent explanation quickly, settling on materialism as an alternative, while others continue it for a lifetime. The process of being born and raised within the rituals of an established religion, which has been automatic for most people through the whole of human history, becomes rarer with each year that passes. For many people in rich countries, the certainties of earlier generations now seem implausible, especially the theories and dogmas of revealed religions.
For me, Tibetan Buddhism was a workable approach. Leaving the Roman Catholic faith of my childhood was not hard. It had long seemed less than credible, although its rituals could be reassuring and I liked the emphasis on moral inquiry. But the creator god, the conjuring of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the ban on contraception, the promotion of Christ’s sexless mother as an example to women, the harassment of dissident clergy, the thought that ex cathedra pronouncements by the Pope should be taken seriously—all of these things had pushed me away from my inherited faith.
Buddhism appeared to create contentment among its followers, and reincarnation seemed a fair explanation of what happened to the spirit after death. So my admiration was partially utilitarian: it felt good to be around Tibetans, and if their religion brought good to them, it was worth pursuing. The outward aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the celibate male hierarchy running the show, were what I found least appealing, although I still respected the Dalai Lama. It was the Buddhist explanation of life, the universe and everything that drew me, rather than the ritual or the theology.
I was also drawn by the central principle that suffering is universal and pleasure is transient. In secular Western thought, an expectation of permanent satisfaction has become deeply ingrained, and is an important cause of the prevailing discontent. People believe that they can expect fair treatment from life. The idea that loss, death and suffering are to be expected has become obsolete, and a relatively minor trauma can provoke great emotional upset. The Buddha taught in the First of the Four Noble Truths that “discontentment, unhappiness and disappointment are universal … all the things we desire and cherish, not least our own lives, must eventually come to an end.” The Second Noble Truth states that suffering is caused by desire, and that the immediate satisfaction of desire brings only illusory, passing pleasure. By surrendering the self and attempting to break down the delusions of desire, ignorance and hatred, it is possible to find freedom from suffering, and to attain a state of liberation. This free state of mind should be our aspiration. The Dalai Lama has gone as far as to say that “the very purpose of our life is happiness.”
Daily Archives: 31 July 2006
In the town of Sakya, dung patties were stacked along every wall, covered with brushwood to keep off the rain. There was an empty official building flying China’s national flag, topped by a satellite dish. I found a place to stay. Outside, an aluminium-coated scoop focused the sun to a point on a stand, boiling a kettle with solar power. An outdoor pool table stood nearby, being used by monks with chunky watches and more hair than monks are meant to have. Nearby there were sheds containing a disjointed generator, and drums of oil. In the evening, after several false starts and lots of black smoke and cacophonous noise, lights came on, so dim that you could see only the outlines of things and people. But it was electricity, for three hours. The weather became very cold that night.
I was the only foreigner in town. The next day a wizened old man in a baseball cap saying BOY LONDON came to stare at me. Four young men, with braided hair and trilbies, were flaying sheep by the grain depot, smoking cigarettes while they worked. They peeled off the fleeces easily, like peeling the skin off an orange, using a pair of daggers, one short, one long. The sheep flailed as if they were alive. There was a metal tub filled with blood, and the air was filled with the smell of the blood. Children dressed in rags, with tousled hair and speckled cheeks, played in the puddles. One girl wore shoes made out of a biscuit packet. A slaughtered cow was hanging from a hook, for sale. Before long, only the head was left.
Old men with turquoise earrings and high leather boots circled the monastery, holding rotating prayer wheels. The walls of the monastery were grey, marked with red and white stripes in the Sakya tradition. Prayer flags flew from sticks at the corners of the building. The central part of the monastery had high ochre walls, and behind it across the river were hundreds of derelict buildings from the days of destruction, the Cultural Revolution.
Inside the monastery, I went up a steep metal ladder to a tiny, dark chapel, with an uneven floor and low wooden beams, where monks were chanting and young boys were carrying butter and tubs of tsampa. Rice and banknotes were stuck to the deities. An old monk sat cross-legged on a cushion reciting page after page of scriptures, a low, constant, soothing chant, a torch and a thermos by his side. An opening in the thick wall, like an archer’s slit, let in a bar of light, enabling him to read. In the darkness I could make out katags, thangkas, ferocious masks and butter sculptures, all crammed together. There was a sense in the little chapel of something timeless, that had kept Sakya going for centuries, regardless of the violent intermissions. I felt that this was a remote, independent place, a place that was used to running its own affairs and did not want outside assistance.