Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Temple Fatigue

If you ever decide you're going to visit Tibet, there's something you should know about: Temple Fatigue.  It will come on you unexpectedly, without any warning.
On the first day of your trip, you'll be fine.  Everything will be bright and colorful and wonderful.  You'll be too busy taking pictures to worry about the possible of consequences of going to temples several hours a day.
The second day will go alright as well.  The beautiful ceremonies and symbols will captivate your imagination. 
By the third day, maybe you'll try something new, a nunnery perhaps.  On the other hand, maybe you studied Asian art history in college while your classmates were taking African/Pacific/Native American (largely considered the easy option), and you already know a few things about Buddhist art.  In that case, you might begin to be bored of your guide's explanations of which Buddha is which, and want her to leave you in peace so you can focus on taking cool pictures.  But you'll probably be too afraid of offending her and let her just keep going on.
On the fourth day, if you're lucky, maybe you'll see some different Buddhas.  Maybe you'll see ones that were imported from India, or that are made out of wood, or both.  Maybe your guide will start quizzing you on the different Buddhas, since she's told you enough about them.
A visit to the protector gods' chapel will help.  Scary and gruesome - that will break up the monotony for sure!
And then your guide will take you up the stupa at Kumbum monastery where there are SEVENTY-SEVEN separate chapels.  And you will look at Buddha after Boddhisatva after Tara.  And after one level of beautiful art it will all blur together and you will decide to just skip to the top, which is a shame, but really all for the best, because you'll feel even worse if you get cranky with the people you are hoping to benefit by being in Tibet.
On the fourth day, you might just lose it, particularly if you find yourself in Shigatse and it's a busy day at Tashilhunpo Monastery.  At first you may be excited to see MONGOLIANS (if you've been living there at any rate - they do not have quite the same sentimental attachment for you that Koreans have, but to see them in their finest deels so far from where you usually see them will thrill you nonetheless and you won't be able to resist a happy, "Sain bain nuu!")  Then you will start seeing the monastery.  Or rather, start being pushed and shoved through the monastery.  At this point, you won't want to play "Past, Present, or Future?" with your guide anymore, although you will be happy when you get to trade your pen with one left by an earlier supplicant for a creative blessing in the chapel of the Maitreya Buddha.  You won't be able to distract yourself by taking photos because the camera fee for the chapels will be exorbitant (150 kuai was the cheapest one I can remember).  After being separated from your guide by people who DON'T KNOW HOW TO FORM A DAMN QUEUE and have almost pushed you down the stairs, you will give up.  Not even the hope of seeing the chapel built where the sky burials used to be (the closest you'll get to sky burials on this trip, in spite of how gruesomely fascinating you find them) will lure you onward.  You'll say screw it, and go shopping, where people will pat your ass and laugh at how big you are, but at least you'll have room to breathe what little oxygen is in the air.
At this point, it is best for you and your guide that you just say NO to more temples and monasteries.  You may be tempted by Rongbu Monastery, up next to Everest Base Camp (the highest elevated monastery in the world).  Maybe you'll pull it together for one last monastery.  Or maybe you'll have a helluva night in your tent and want nothing more than to get to a lower elevation and smoother roads. 

If you decide to visit Tibet, learn from my fail.  Do a little more advance planning, and figure out what else you could be doing besides seeing temples...I could have seen the horse racing festival in Gyantse if I'd planned my trip so that I got there on the 20th of July.  Or else plan to see things that are happening at the monasteries.  For example, Sera and Drepung have debating monks during the weeks (sadly, I was only in Lhasa during the weekend).  Kumbum and Tashilhunpo monasteries both have huge thangkas (religious paintings) that they display at certain times of the year.  One of my huge regrets was that I didn't get to see sand painting; I just taught mandalas to my students and would have been thrilled to be able to see the process in action.

But my most essential piece of advice: suck it up, bitch.  Temple Fatigue is a first world problem.  Thank your lucky stars, your Heavenly Father, or whatever else you might believe in that you were born into the auspicious circumstances that led you to be able to visit Tibet.  And remember that the next week will bring you an all NEW set of temples and gods and goddesses, because variety IS the spice of life.

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