Sitting in Silence in the Jokhang


The entrance to the Jokhang, the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism

You don’t come to this place like many of the Tibetans do. All over the countryside, all over the town, you see people in dirty chupas (robes lined with yak fur) and jeans, with wooden blocks on their hands and cushions on their knees. You see them raise their hands above their heads in prayer, touch their forehead, their mouths, their hearts, and then fully prostrate themselves on the ground, only to rise up and begin the process all over again. Over and over, day in and day out, moving slowly mile by mile until they arrive. Where are they going? To the Jokhang, of couse. The center of Lhasa, the center of Tibet. The holy of holies. A place of great antiquity and mystery. In fact its first name was “The House of Mysteries.” For me, it is where I learned to sit in silence for hours, content just to be. Here I learned stillness and connection, really for the first time in my life, a lesson that I have carried forward and never forgotten.

Walking the Barkhor

To enter this temple, you must first walk a circumnambulation of the Barkhor, preferably several times. You walk the circumference of the temple as an act of reverence, pushing the ancient wooden prayer wheels as you go, clockwise, following the crowd. Each rotation around the khora (or route) washes away your sins, as do the prayers you say in the process.The people are sometimes festive, dressed in their best, wanting to be seen by their community. Others have been prostrating their way here for months and are at the final leg of the journey, at a place of reverence, the edge of admission to what is undoubtably the highest point in their lives. You walk, meeting the smiles with smiles, the hellos with hellos, the questions with answers. And you walk and walk in reverence. When it is time, you enter the ancient enormous wooden doors, original to the 8th century AD, and over the threshold into a courtyard filled with monks doing chores and tasks aimed at devotion. Many more people are in the courtyard doing prostrations, and the courtyard is worn smooth from the untold millions of people who have done these prostrations here over the last fourteen-hundred years. Small children sit with their mothers, some people sleep in the corners and probably have no where else to go. There aren’t many tourists. It is smoky with incense.


Thousands upon thousands of candles light the inside of the temple.

When you enter the temple proper, the smell of juniper and rancid yak butter is strong, tempered by the additional smells of candle wax and ancient wood. The entire room is filled with incense smoke as well, colorful paintings and sculpture are crammed into every available space, katas (silk scarves of offering) are placed on every image, and low seats are situated along the outside wall. You walk clock-wise in here too, and every few yards, another room springs off to your left, a chapel dedicated to this king, or that saint, this Buddha or that Tara. These chapels are unique and intricate, exquisite and wonderful, but the big, dark, smoky main room draws you back and around. Butter lamps by the thousands burn on tables where you can offer candles to the dead, to wishes and prayers, to business plans, or trips to be taken. You can place a candle in prayer for your crops or the health of your family, or the enlightenment of all human kind. The temple has seen them all. You are asked at one table to take a piece of paper and write the name of a beloved on it to offer at the main sculpture. This I do.

In my pocket is the a kata for offering to the Jowo, the sacred sculpture that is the focus of everyone’s attention in the room. A thousand years old, this sculpture was cut in half in 1966 by the Red Guard, part of it removed to Beijing and part of it thrown into garbage dump outside of Lhasa. The parts have since been reunited and the sculpture restored, one of the many great shames on the Chinese government’s list of atrocities committed against the Tibetan people. The sculpture is the most highly revered object in Tibetan Buddhism, and is the focus of so much intense emotional energy that you can feel it, almost like static electricity, when you are in this room. Surprisingly, the line isn’t long. You don’t wait forever to place your offering on Jowo’s lap. And once there, the temptation is to stay and be with this image. It is so beautiful. It feels alive, as if the wishes of the people around it could come true – that the Buddha could become human and wipe their suffering away. But the crowd of Tibetan grandmothers and eager young men, clothes stained from their prostration pilgrimage, wait as well. You know you must move on.

I found a quiet place to sit to watch people move past me and think about their lives. There were not many tourists in Lhasa when we were there, so most of these people lived lives very different from my own: shepherds, merchants, farmers, monks. Some were dressed traditionally, some dressed in cheap chinese clothing, an imitation of western slacks and a jacket. The smell of juniper and yak-butter tea was so strong here, near the altar, that I almost felt high from its smoke. I closed my eyes.

Ancient paintings cover every surface

I remembered a place, suddenly, from my childhood – a place I had not thought of in eons. I used to ride my horses to this place, a rock outcropping in a nearby field. The rock held a spring that seeped year round and provided good drinking water. Moss grew in abundance on the granite around the seep, and here on the moss I would lay on the warm stone while my horse grazed nearby. I would watch birds and animals here, listen to silence, relish the quiet that was so rare in my life. I felt completely at home when I visited this spring. In fact, this was the only time I found peace at all. Nearby, at the end of the forest, was a path leading from this place into a grove of trees with ferns. Here, deer slept and the cows came to rest. I saw nesting birds and other animals here from time to time. I rode often in these quiet, dark woods and relished the beauty here. The image stayed with me for a long time, and I relished in its memory, remembering not only the place, but the child I once was, the feelings I felt for life and nature, the awe it invoked in me.

Why, in this remote place, in this beautiful temple so unlike anything I’ve ever experience in my life, was this image coming to me now?

As I sat in this room, my eyes closed, still despite the whirl of people moving around me at their devotions, I felt a wash of happiness move over me – a wash of connection to people in the room, to the child I once was, to the parent I hoped I would be some day, to the old woman who I would become. I saw visions of all three ages, saw myself age and regress. I felt deeply the connection that my life had to all other women in the world, their hopes and fears, aspirations and joys. The presence of my past/present/future self and its connection to others was so profound, I was moved almost to tears. I reckoned it as a moment unlike all the others I had had in my life up to that point. But now, twelve years on, I realize that it was merely my first such moment. There were more to come, with different faces but always the same lesson.

I spent hours inside the Jokhang that day, and when I exited the afternoon had begun to settle in. Wood smoke from kitchen fires settled over the old city promising tea and dinner. I exited the courtyard and threshold and walked the circumnambulation again and again, touching the dense wood prayer wheels as I passed. In the old ladies’ eyes, I now saw myself. The image of the mothers with babies slung to their backs as they walked helped me feel the snuggled weight of my as-yet-to-be-born children on my back, seeking comfort and rest in the arms of their mother. The curious glances of the teenaged girls, decked out in their best clothes and jewels, looking to meet husbands and see friends…in them too I saw myself and felt their excitement, joy, and interest. My heart had opened up, and I began to see that I too belonged here, was at home here. I too was connected here. My joy at this knowledge was immeasurable.


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The Jokhang: Lhasa, Tibet

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The Jokhang: Lhasa, Tibet 29.650237, 91.133861 (Directions)
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