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. "

dancing shoes

Potala Palace, Tibet ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Kicks, limou, skates, clodhoppers, earth pads, sneakers, reefcreepers, PF Fliers, clogs, cockroach killers, espadrilles, brogue, mule, platform, oxford, plimsoll, trainer, wingtip, Church Pews...even a monk has to wear shoes. 

Child safety and bicycle seats

Gyantse, Tibet ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Here's another "child safety in the Third World" posting. This Tibetan mom is on her way to the fields to harvest barley. A bicycle seat is probably not high on her list of priorities but getting there in one piece seems to be on her mind. Her two year old is sitting on the bike frame, sucking on a sugary drink and the basket on her back contains a thermos of butter tea and food for the day. Makes me think of overprotective Swedish parents (mostly moms) with all their car seat paraphernalia, bicycle leg guards, children's bike helmets etc. We did have a bicycle seat in Sweden but we've got two kids. My husband used to put our daughter in the front basket and our son in the seat in the back. He was yelled at several times by passersby, chastising him harshly for being a terrible parent.  As I've said before, I'm amazed that these kids sit still!

Tigers and Tibetan wall paintings

Tashilhunpo Monastery, Shigatse, Tibet ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

It's not all Buddhas and bodhisattvas in Tibet. Couldn't resist the color.

Tibetan tea, tea cups and blenders

©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

While working on some Tibet articles today I came across this colorful image of lidded teacups, which I took in a village home between Gyantse and Shigatse. Tibetans love their tea as much as the English do and a good cuppa is always offered to any guest. Butter tea is called po cha or cha süma in Tibetan ("churned tea") and su you cha in standard Chinese. It's customary to flick into the air a little tea gathered on your fingertip before drinking. In this way you honor both the gods and your host. 

Two fallacies that many people think are true about Tibetans:

1) "That they prefer their tea with rancid yak butter." Not at all. They prefer fresh butter of the best quality if they can afford it. On the other hand, yak butter has a naturally "gamey" taste to it so bland Lurpak it definitely is not.

2) "That they drink up to 60 or 80 cups of tea per day." Tibetans do drink a lot of tea, but they CANNOT possibly drink 60 - 80 cups of tea a day as some travel writers like to say. Each cup is 2 dl of very filling, thick buttery liquid. Do the math and see that this is just physically impossible. It would mean drinking 12 to 16 liters of liquid a day and a cup of tea every 16 minutes in a 16 hour waking day.  80 healthy sips is more like it, as most Tibetans take a sip then set the cup down, whereupon it is immediately topped up by the ever vigilant host. 

Interesting fact: Most modern Tibetans who have access to electricity churn their butter tea in electric blenders and not in the traditional churns that the nomads use. For large gatherings even a washing machine might be used solely for the purpose of making large quantities of tea! (I've heard that many rural Chinese use their washing machines to wash vegetables.)

And to all you business school smarty-pants out there, the above mentioned blender is the in-thing among Tibetans, a much coveted household object that both rich and poor alike own or want to own. On my street here in the Tibetan section of Chengdu, several shops sell a very basic model and I have seen blenders in every Tibetan home I have visited in recent years. (For some reason all of them seem to be yellow in color.) Some genius saw and interpreted this basic need and marketed it: very smart. This, along with the cheap, common, large thermos - which I will stick my neck out and say is one of the greatest contributions the Chinese have made to Tibetan society as a whole - are consumer goods that obviously made it straight to the heart and needs of the Tibetan people. I also love it when someone figures out a simple, affordable solution that alleviates the daily chores that usually fall on the women of the world.