Journal of a Sabbatical

China Trip 2000

jokhang temple

Today's Reading: The Story of the Stone (a.k.a. Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xuequin


Sacred Sites

Lhasa: Jokhang Temple from China Guides

Lhasa: Jokhang Temple from

In contrast with the Potala the Jokhang Temple bustles with life. People are actually praying and prostrating and pilgrimming. The Jokhang Temple was built in the seventh century by King Songtsen Gampo. The story according to George (and the guidebook) is that Songtsen Gampo threw his ring into the air, promising to build a temple wherever it dropped. The ring fell into a lake and struck a rock where a white stupa miraculously appeared. There is a white stupa here that is alleged to be it, but I believe that a lot less than I believed the cypress tree at Du Fu's cottage in Chengdu. Anyway, the original structure built in the lake (they filled part of the lake with rocks - kind of like the Back Bay in Boston - it's not a floating temple) has been added onto and enlarged eight times between the seventh century and 1660.

The very first sight we saw was pilgrims doing prostrations. We approached the temple from the Barkhor market through a long gallery of prayer wheels. The prayer wheels have wooden handles at the bottom to turn them by. I tried to make sure I turned every single one. Some of the pilgrims were turning those prayer wheels with one hand while they twirled portable prayer wheels with the other. Some of those portable prayer wheels were pretty big and the pilgrims braced them against their bodies in kind of a sling like the kind of thing flag bearers use to steady the flag in a parade.

You enter the Main Hall through a corridor with guardian statues on either side - fierce on the left, benign on the right. Like the Potala, the Jokhang Temple is chock full of Buddhist art treasures. Murals depicting Princess Wen Cheng arriving in Tibet, huge images of Padmasambhava and Sakyamuni, a particularly beautiful Goddess (God?) of Compassion, are all sort of preparation for the most holy statue. The whole reason the temple was built was to house the statue of Sakyamuni Buddha at 12.

Butter lamps flickered everywhere and there were whole crews of monks, pilgrims, and people who evidently work at the temple, dedicated to keeping the butter lamps going. A combination of the altitude (this is only my second day here still) and the smell of the butter lamps (rancid) made me very nauseous. I kept fighting the urge to throw up. Carol happened to have a barf bag from the airplane in her camera bag, so gave it to me. I toured most of the temple with the barf bag poised in front of my face. Finally I was truly afraid I would throw up in the Holy of Holies so ran outside into the courtyard.

In one corner of the courtyard people sat on the ground cleaning butter lamps with a rag. They'd wipe out the butter residue and polish the lamp then a little boy about 3 or 4 years old would run across the courtyard to where two old women refilled the lamp with butter from a huge bag. The boy was quite energetic and industrious running back and forth over and over again. He showed no interest in begging, which seems to be the main occupation of children who hang out at the temple. "Goochi, goochi", which translates to "Please, please" is their constant refrain.

There's a hierarchy of beggars, it seems, in terms of how much merit you accumulate by giving to each type. As far as I can tell, beggars come in three categories: monks, musicians, and street people. Monks are worth the most points in the karmic merit game. I'm not sure where musicians stack up compared to the street people. Musicians are not necessarily buskers the way we are used to them in the west. A lot of them are just poor hungry people who carry around musical instruments and beg, they don't necessarily perform for you. Neither monks nor musicians bothered us at the temple. Just kids and mothers. Some of the kids were hard to get rid of. They followed us begging constantly. They did not understand Chinese so repeating "mei you" had no effect. We finally asked George how to say mei you in Tibetan, which as I write this I have totally forgotten. It didn't help anyway.

Although I didn't barf in the courtyard, I continued to feel very sick. I sat down on an old wooden wagon near where the women were filling butter lamps. Beggars approached me and I sent them away with a confused look and nonsensical Chinese phrases. I figured maybe they'd think I was insane. An old woman sat down next to me, so wrinkled I thought she must be at least 100 years old. It took me a while to realize that she was probably my age. She pulled a small vial of snuff out of her robe and offered me some, miming to me what it was and how to take it. From her gestures it seemed she thought it would help me with the altitude sickness. I couldn't communicate to her that what I really had was butter lamp sickness. I politely refused the snuff, thinking it would send me totally over the edge and I would barf all over this nice woman. We sat companionably for awhile then she wandered off twirling her prayer wheel.

I recovered enough to wander back into the temple for a glimpse of the 12-year old Sakyamuni Buddha between the shoulders of a crowd of Chinese tourists (egad, I am the shortest person in the world - the average Chinese is taller than me) before I was overcome with the rancid butter smoke again. I made a mental note to tell my friend Joan-west, who is studying to be a certified teacher of Tibetan Buddhism (under the auspices of FPMT), that I cannot possibly practice a religion that involves this many butter lamps.

The other interesting phenomenon I encountered while hanging out in the courtyard waiting for Carol, Rosalie, and George was the number of people who wanted to touch my belly for luck. Apparently a large belly is very lucky in Tibet. Funny, in Beijing the men thought I was sexy and here the men and women and children think I'm lucky. I let people touch me and I wished them tashi, but I did feel funny about it. When the beggars wanted to touch me I wished I knew how to ask them to pay me for the privilege.

Certainly my most vivid memories of the Jokhang will always be of the bright sunny courtyard and the nauseating smell of butter lamps, but I did manage to absorb some of the spiritual essence of the place. A monk in the Lama Tsong Khapa (which really sounds like John Denver whenever George says it) chapel placed a white ceremonial scarf around my neck and asked me where I was from. I did all the things I was told would bring me good luck. So it wasn't like the entire afternoon was only about being sick.

Our visit to Jokhang and Barkhor took place on the second day in Lhasa, in the afternoon after we'd visited the Potala. Add the fatigue from that to the butter lamp sickness and the altitude sickness and you get a picture of how wiped out I was. The beauty and holiness of the temple got through to me despite all that, but the visual splendor of the marketplace really didn't, so on our last full day in Lhasa I went back to photograph the Barkhor market again. The photos of dried fruits, pretty girls, and thermoses are from that day. I can see why people have to keep coming back. I could have spent an entire day just photographing the market, not buying anything or even visiting the temple.

The Jokhang is surrounded by the Barkhor market. Stalls sell everything from dried fruits and nuts to blenders and other appliances and everything in between. Essential pilgrim supplies like giant bags of yak butter, ceremonial scarves, and prayer wheels mix with stalls selling the ubiquitous Chinese thermoses (the one essential of Chinese life is a thermos of hot water), tin boxes, cookware, anything and everything. Somehow it was both everything I'd imagined and nothing I'd imagined.


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Copyright © 2000, Janet I. Egan