Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Human inch worms and the arduous task of long-distance prostration

Potala Palace khora, Tibet ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

You'll see these people anywhere in the Tibetan buddhist world. When you understand what they are doing you will most likely be both immensely impressed and deeply chocked. They are long-distance prostrators and they will probably have been doing this for hundreds if not thousands of kilometers. They are on pilgrimage and show their devotion in this physically demanding way. Like human inch worms they measure their body length meter by meter slowing advancing towards their destination. They are often accompanied by a friend or other devotee that drags their provisions in a cart. Every millimeter of the road is experienced either with hands up in the air in a prayer or with their nose and forehead pressed to the ground. Every day is a superhuman effort. The Holy City of Lhasa is a common goal and it can take years to get there. Extreme devotees prostrate sideways instead, measuring the width of their body and not the length. When you see pilgrims in Lhasa after finally making it to the destination of their dreams and faith many are illuminated with joy and radiate perfection in their smiles. The inch wormers are often another case entirely. Still fanatically intent on their purpose, their foreheads and arms are dirty and calloused with uncountable prostrations. They wear special aprons and knee guards to project their clothes and on their hands handmade clogs or more recently plastic bathroom slippers to protect their hands. Many seem not to have found inner peace at all but rather have lost their wits completely.

As A. Tom Grunfeld says in The Making of Modern Tibet: "Another curious manifestation of the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism was the belief in the merit of quantity over quality in religious practices. "

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