November 9, 2004
A Swedish man wrote in today and asked me today if I had any images of holy places in Amdo. The simple answer is yes of course, I have lots of images of monasteries, temples, and specific holy sites around the region, but the truer answer is that people who live there have a very broad sense of what is a holy place. This is one of the most isolated corners of Tibet. There are large swaths of unbroken plateau. Nomads tend to move around in small family groups gathering together only occasionally for festivals and trade. There are cities, but these are few and far between. Up in the mountains you will still find pockets of pre-Buddhist animists (the Bon). For the nomads who live in a world of such utter emptiness, the mountains, the rivers, the grass, the wind, and even the yaks all have some spiritual significance. For the most part these are not literate people... their faith is expressed simply and organically. A man on horseback will remove his hat when crossing a pass even when he is alone. Women will often circle a spring before collecting water. Children will often say a small prayer before venturing into a cave. In the mountains the traveler will encounter mounds of stones arranged into stupas often near key geological or natural features. This might not sound like much but if you have been walking for hours over featureless brown plains, seeing that simple marker near a patch of wildflowers can be a profound experience. Caves and springs are often marked with bits of cloth. Praying is expressed by circumambulating whether it be a stone stupa, a cave, or an entire mountain. So the holy sites often look like nothing special in pictures, a pass marked by rocks, a slight trickle of water — the mouth of a stream, or a small patch of hillside
People ask why I keep going back... hard to say exactly, but perhaps this slightly bastardized quote from H.G. Wells explains something of it:
"Most people in this world seem to live "in character"; they have a beginning, a middle and an end... They have a class, they have a place, they know what is becoming in them. But there is also another kind of life that is not so much living as a miscellaneous tasting of life. One gets hit by some unusual transverse force, one is jerked out of one's stratum and lives crosswise for the rest of the time"