Xihte (pronounced She a hey)
(Aug 11,2015) An entire region bottled into a town. Temples and Han Chinese to the southern blocks. Central, Muslims and their minarets. And to the north Tibetans and their grand Labrang monastery. Home to 3000 burgundy clad monks. Protected by walls of prayer wheels. Which are spun by the pious completing their clockwise 3 km circumambulation. The spin spirals the prayer upwards to those that listen. The particularly devout can take days to loop. Their forward progress restricted by a bodily prayer. It’s brutal physiology basically, standing with hands clasped above head, to the knees and then a forward belly slide. Repeat. The length of their body trunk measures their progress. Shredded clothes witness to the effort.
We stayed in the Tibetan section. Their hospitality is well-known to me. And they cater to that quirky Western habit of a separate meal for breakfast. An omelette to break up our consecutive noodles for breakfast streak.
Labrang Monastery is set in a narrow river valley. Significant temperature swings accompany the suns restricted presence. The river itself is not picturesque. Tamed by concrete edging and polluted by the Chinese habit of throwing trash where it pleases. Averting one’s eyes from the river though brings nothing but beauty. Yaks dot the hillsides. Goats wander the streets. All is peaceful.
But not always. Tibetans here have not been impressed with past Chinese policies in greater Tibet. There have been riots. Monks have immolated themselves. For years at a time the town and region have been closed to tourism. A classic carrot and stick economic approach to unrest. As well the government has restricted the number of monks allowed to study at the monastery. Though others claim it is the monastery itself that limits numbers as they would be unable to feed their waiting list. Regardless, it was time to have a look.
The monastery offered an English tour. We were the only takers. Our tour guide was a 26-year-old man named Torchin. There was something about him. Just one of those people whose personality is well-suited to the world. He had become a monk at 12 years old, though seven is the youngest age of admission. Torchin was a monk for life. No smoking, drinking or sex during that life. A one-shot deal. Blow it or walk away and the door to monkhood closed. It can never be reopened. Torchin’s path seemed devoid of doors.
We followed him to the college of Tibetan medicine. There novice monks learned what herb attacked what disease. Students were tasked with memorizing 150 ancient books of medical knowledge. The books resembled collapsed accordions covered in bright silk. The memorization process apparently took years. Torchin found great humor in their struggle. I asked him his field of study. “Philosophy. Much, much harder than medicine. I will need a lifetime.”
Onward to the main temple. Torchin led with a continual Batman cape maneuver with his settling robe. Chinese tourists sought him out as we crossed the grounds. One asked about how to deal with altitude. Others just wanted a photo with him. He had time for everyone. All children we passed received a touch on the cheek with a murmured blessing. There was something about him. All noticed it.
At the main temple Torchin explained the brown band around every Tibetan temple. Branches laid horizontally, ends protruding and greatly compressed. “Tibetan air-conditioning. Air comes in cool in the summer, warm in winter”. Ambience for the 1500 monks whose prayer day commenced at 5:30 AM. “Where did you learn your English?” “I taught me.” Which completely cracked him up. When he had no answer. “OK, I don’t know”. More laughter at the elusiveness of knowledge. From Fumiko. “Do you have a phone?” “I have an iPhone. We Tibetans love iPhones. They are the only ones that download the Tibetan language.”
And then our time was over. We had seen all Torchin had to show us. He smiled and said “I go now.” With that he turned and walked away. Our time too brief. I wanted to prolong our time together. I won’t say he was holy. I never met a human being who truly was. I will say that he took the teachings of his religion and personified them more than any other I’ve met. Humility, detachment, compassion, openness, humor and presence. All were there. It’s not often you meet someone who shows you a way by example.