While few experiences earn the distinction of being unforgettable, my time spent in Tibet--interacting with the locals, visiting sacred spaces, and documenting shrines--made a permanent, lasting and completely unshakable impression on me. I will carry the memories with me for the rest of my life, and they will continue to influence and inspire decisions I make. Before this summer, I had never strayed from the norm and never experienced a place, a culture and an environment this drastically outside of my comfort zone, and yet I loved every second and would return at the drop of a hat. The journey began with a week in Kham--a region culturally Tibetan, but located outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR)--and concluded with two weeks research around central Tibet--inside the TAR. Despite their geographic proximity, interconnected histories and cultural overlap, the differences between inside of the TAR and outside of the TAR were startling and disturbing.
While we visited a handful of places in Kham and had the privilege of interacting with and photographing locals, the highlight of our time there was the trip to a local nunnery. When we looked out the car window and saw practitioners circumambulating (walking in a clockwise direction) the Buddhist monument, we knew we would have an opportunity to see people practicing their religious tradition without too many hindrances and restrictions, as was the case in the TAR. As soon as our feet hit the ground, serendipity took the wheel, and our Tibetan adventures began. Despite our obvious foreignness, when Professor Kerin, Betsy Cribb (another undergraduate researcher on our team), and I descended the stairs and joined the people circumambulating the mani structure, the locals greeted us with their ruddy cheeks, smiling eyes, and friendly waves. As they made their kora (circumambulation or pilgrimage route), they carried their mala (prayer) beads, mumbled om mani padme hum (a Tibetan Buddhist prayer), and rotated the massive prayer wheels that lined the perimeter of the monument. Later, we hiked up to a cave shrine that had caught our attention, and were we in for an unexpected treat! When we stepped through the doorway and across an invisible, yet discernible threshold, we entered into the small, dark cave room. The warmth and aroma from the glowing butter lamps swallowed us whole, and we kneeled down on the panel floor to listen to the caretaker of the cave shrine--a local ani (nun)--tell us the story of the Buddhist teacher to whom this cave shrine was dedicated. Each element of the shrine was carefully, purposefully and symbolically placed in the shrine; pictures of local lamas (teachers)--past and present--hung on the walls, butter lamps burned in brass lanterns along the altars, a layer of soot and dust covered every exposed surface, and a yak wool offering was tacked to the front door--a promise that this yak will never be killed. This dimly lit, yet lively cave shrine personified and paralleled the vitality and pulse of the Tibetans in Kham and provided a critical point of comparison between the health of Tibetan culture outside of the TAR and inside of the TAR.
Since the 2008 uprisings, the Chinese government has cracked down on travel within the TAR. Because of the tight constrictions, we were restricted to predetermined, government-approved routes and were forbidden from wandering on our own. As a result, our travelling experience within central Tibet--inside the TAR--was radically different than Kham. We did not have the same fortune of interacting with locals or freedom to visit sites on the fly because police checkpoints peppered the highways, surveillance cameras sat atop every corner, and metal detectors greeted us at the entryways to monasteries. This power dynamic created by the Chinese government has choked out the life and energy of the once thriving Tibetan culture and was particularly evident in shrine activity. Our research centered around documenting, analyzing and unraveling the tension between shrine activity inside the TAR and outside the TAR and understanding the significance of the changes. Even with these changes enforced by the government, Tibetans continue to engage their devotional rituals through kora and offerings at temples. At any moment in time--day or night--one can find Tibetans completing their kora around the Jokhang--the sacred heart for Tibetan Buddhism situated in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Their devotion and incredible religious tenacity transcends any and all oppositions imposed by the Chinese, and as a result, they keep me hopeful for a brighter future.