Sky BurialThe path behind Ganden
cuts through a clutch
of wild flowers, continues
beneath a flutter of prayer
flags and rises to the crown
of a hill. We walk towards
a large, flat stone where
the body was divided
from itself. Instruments lie
scattered like a toolbox emptied
in a slaughterhouse: rusted
machetes, axes, a blood-stained
rope. To the side a fire pit
cradles jigsaw pieces of charred
bone in its ashen basket: a skull
plate, a jaw missing teeth, broken
chunks of spine. Ochre stained
tsampa, soaked with blood, is left
for the vultures to clean. Beyond
this cutting board the valley rolls
out its tongue, licks the sky blue.
A gust of wind tosses up a maroon
coloured cloth, spins it in the air
like a monk rising as the birds circle
above. On the drive back to Lhasa
we pass a lamb still breathing,
its eyes flaring as blood
spills from its mouth.
The poem is based on a trip Yuko and I took to the Ganden Monastery, about an hour's drive outside of Lhasa, Tibet. Ganden, meaning "joyful paradise", was once a huge university that was home to 3,300 monks. It was desecrated and razed before and during the Cultural Revolution. It was nothing more than a blackened shell until the early 1990s when the Chinese authorities allowed restoration work to begin. Today, much of it has been rebuilt. Rather than apologize for past atrocities, it seems the Chinese authorities have allowed such projects to go ahead to make up for the damage once inflicted.
Ganden straddles Wangbur mountain and overlooks a sprawling valley. Dating from 1409, it has been a centre for the "yellow hat" Buddhist sect and its founder, Tsongkapa. It's of significance to the current Dalai Lama, who originates from the same sect. Tensions have erupted within the past few years between the Dalai Lama and a small group of monks at Ganden. The Dalai Lama issued a decree banning the worship of a controversial figure here, and some monks refused to accept it. Small clashes have broken out.
Our guide tried to discourage us from visiting but eventually agreed after saying some prayers to protect himself from any bad karma. Once at the top, we began walking the kora with stunning views of the surrounding hills and valleys. A kora is a core ritual for Tibetans that involves a clockwise circumambulation around a holy site or sacred object. Believed to bestow blessings on those who complete it, most monasteries have one. It includes prayer wheels and colourful flags known as "wind horses", which most Tibetans believe deliver prayers across the sky to the gods.
Ganden is one of the few sites to hold sky burials, a Tibetan ritual for disposing of the dead. Tibetan Buddhists believe the material body represents nothing at death and that all meaning resides in the soul. A sky burial entails cutting the body into pieces and burning the bones. No ceremonies were planned for the day we visited, but a large flat stone and tools stained with blood suggested that one took place within the last day or two. As we gathered at the site, vultures were circling overhead.