Getting Closer to Enlightenment

Getting Closer to Enlightenment

We have knowingly and unknowingly participated in several pilgrimages on this trip, some involved strenuous uphill hikes, others bone-jarring rides across unpaved roads.  Tibet’s spiritual seekers, however, believe enlightenment can be found by walking in circles.  While this struck me as a much easier route to attaining (in Buddhism) the awareness which frees a person from the cycle of rebirth, than my previous attempts I was skeptical of the ease of their round about path.

Pilgrims carrying prayer beads and prayer wheels walk the famous Barkhor Circuit in Lhasa, Tibet

In our previous spiritual journeys I climbed the holiest mountain in China, made the trip to the Golden Rock in Myanmar and pulled myself out of bed at ungodly hours to see countless sunrises in sacred places, but Tibet trumps them all.  The spiritual pilgrims in Tibet are tough and they are devoted.  They may walk in circles, but they do so while carrying heavy prayer wheels and canisters of yak butter through all weather conditions and regardless of their age or physical well-being.  Below are a collection of pictures giving you a glimpse at Tibet’s spiritual pilgrims.


This pilgrim, despite having only one leg, makes his way around the Barkhor circuit

Worshipers come from as far away as Xinjiang, more than 3,000 miles from Lhasa across mountains that rise to nearly 20,000 feet. Lhasa itself sits in a valley at 12,800 feet.  Just getting to the Barkhor circuit is an act of faith in itself, once they arrive they walk the one kilometer circuit quietly chanting religious incantations under their breath.  I couldn’t resist heading to the Barkhor early in the morning and being swept up in the crowds of pilgrims fingering their prayer beads and steadily making their rounds.  On each occasion I would lose track of the number of circuits I had made and often forget to turn off to head back to the hotel for breakfast before being sucked into another round almost as if I was in a powerful trance.

I have never before witnessed such loyalty and deep seated belief in a higher power than I did in Tibet. Hundreds of pilgrims stand in line, for what can be hours, for the chance to prostrate themselves before one of the Buddha images at Jokhang Temple. As the pilgrims enter the lavishly adorned inner chamber of Jokhang, many fall to the floor before a statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, or a gold-encrusted carving of Maitreya, the future Buddha.

A young boy prostrating on the sidewalk in front of Jokhang Temple

The Barkhor is not only a popular devotional circumabulation for pilgrims and locals; the walk encircles the sacred Jokhang Temple, the former seat of the State Oracle in Lhasa called the Muru Nyingba Monastery. Upon entering the Jokhang Temple or any of the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet you can’t help but feel physically closer to the illusive state of enlightenment.  The overpowering smell of incense, the hoards of pilgrims gathered around the chapels and the faint candlelight that illuminates the assembly hall is magical.  The sense of purpose that the pilgrims come with and the other worldly feel of the sanctuaries is indescribable.

A candle fueled by yak butter brought as an offering by the many pilgrims

Pilgrims along the Barkhor circuit and at each of the temples and monasteries we visited were toting canisters of yak butter to fuel the holy candles.  The dimly candle-lit chapels were part of the atmosphere at each monastery, palace and temple we paid our respects at.  Somehow this romantic light made the experience feel even more sacred.  Never did I get the feeling that Tibet had lost their spiritual focus; however, Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, is struggling to maintain its ancient identity.

This group of worshipers taking a rest, make it hard to believe that the sacred pilgrimage to Potala Palace in Lhasa will ever end.

It seems as if Tibet’s identity is now constrained to the dozen or so remaining monasteries.  Many parts of Lhasa look much like cities across modern China.  But the spiritual epicenter of Tibet is still alive.  Enlightenment seekers won’t be let down in Lhasa and will have no trouble finding pilgrims throughout the Tibetan Plateau, but with the sweeping changes in China it is hard to say how much longer Tibet will be able to hold onto it’s spiritual epicenter considering the most enlightened individual, the Dalai Lama, has been living elsewhere for years.  Don’t miss your chance to get a little closer to enlightenment by being swept up with the crowds of pilgrims in Tibet before they’re gone.

If you would like to see more pictures of Tibet, visit our photo albums by clicking here.

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LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.
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