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Stepping Into a Sacred and Political Place

Ancient Kumbum monastery has rich intrigue behind its rebuilt walls

July 14, 2002|MIKE MEYER

HUANGZHONG, China — The white, laser-printed piece of paper said little yet announced so much. As Kumbum monastery rose to activity at sunrise, I wandered its cobblestone paths watching a silent parade of crimson robes and shaved heads enter its temples. Soon the monks' collective, guttural chants echoed in Tibetan through the complex, drawing me to their source.

At the entrance to the Great Hall of Meditation, a note affixed to an ancient wood archway shone in the day's first light. Its four Chinese characters said, "Tourists, please come in."

Many do, to the delight of China's tourism officials. Kumbum is one of Tibetan Buddhism's holiest sites. The monastery, called Ta'ersi in Chinese, is a favorite attraction for China's burgeoning domestic tourism industry.

Tucked into a mountainous cleft in central Qinghai Province, the monastery's region has spawned two Buddhist luminaries: the current Dalai Lama and, five centuries ago, the founder of his Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, sect, Tsongkhapa.

The original temple was built in 1560 on the site of Tsongkhapa's birthplace, beside a tree that, according to legend, sprouted from drops of blood that fell from his umbilical cord, with each of its thousand leaves bearing the face of the Buddha.

Kumbum today is hemmed in by more than lush, rolling hills. It also straddles a sensitive divide between two cultures, two histories and the contradicting aims of piety and profit. On the pilgrim circuit, Kumbum ranks behind only the monasteries of Jokhang, Drepung and Sera in Lhasa. I had seen those three on a previous trip to Tibet (as a tourist, not a penitent) and was curious to compare the Buddhist pilgrim culture within Tibet to that just outside its current border, especially since the redrawing of China's map after 1950. This part of Qinghai was historically a part of Tibet's Amdo Province.

I had come here last summer for a break from Xining, a railhead 15 miles to the northeast and the capital of Qinghai. Having just finished grad school at Berkeley, I was on a six-week overland trek across the width of China from the Afghan border all the way to Shanghai.

Xining was an intoxicating mixture of Han, Hui (Muslim), Salar and Tibetan traders, perched at 6,700 feet on the Tibetan plateau in northwest China and rimmed by dusty, treeless cliffs. A boomtown infamous for reform camps that use prisoners to manufacture goods, Xining was also the staging point for construction of the train line to Tibet, and it bustled with a frontier air.

Chinese in search of work pushed their bedrolls past performers holding monkeys on chains, touts searching for travelers bound for Lhasa by 60-hour bus ride, and pilgrims to one of China's largest mosques--and to Kumbum.

At the bus stop for Kumbum, packed vehicles departed every 10 minutes for the monastery, bearing shutterbugs and seekers. The 20-minute ride along a new highway breezed us past fields glowing yellow with rapeseed in bloom. We passed a billboard whose peeling paint showed a rakish couple with a little girl and the caption, "Only having one child is good." Farther up the road, Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin waved over a mixture of China's 56 ethnicities in headdresses. The three leaders had been united by computerized photo manipulation, and their images had a faint glow about them. This scene bore the words, "Hold high the banner of great national unity. Defend the motherland's integrity. Combat against splitting the nation."

It was still early morning when the bus dropped us at Kumbum's entrance, an imposing stone gate crowned with three tiled towers whose eaves curled skyward. They overlooked Huang- zhong's large market square, staffed by Han and Hui merchants selling rosaries, jewelry and swords. Their chants of "looky, looky" were drowned out by the calls of tour group leaders and coordinated shouts that roared from the new military base adjacent to Kumbum's eastern wall.

I stopped for a bowl of noodles and wandered about the stalls. One sold cloth shoes large enough to cover my enormous Western-size feet. Shopping beside me was a young monk wearing old loafers two sizes too large. Buddhism teaches that life can be a sea of suffering, and I could think of no better illustration of it than making a long pilgrimage in ill-fitting shoes.

I told the saleswoman to put a new pair for him on my tab. To my surprise, the vendors also openly pitched pendants and photographs of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, who until recently was second in spiritual command to the Dalai Lama. The images captured them as young men--laughing on a couch next to an uneasy Mao Tse-tung during a meeting in Beijing--and as elders, sitting in the lotus position in an imagined scene in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Even before I had set foot inside Kumbum, I was face to face with its current controversy, involving living Buddhas and the Chinese government.

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