Sunday, May 13, 2012

Last seen in Lhasa

I like to think I’m hardy.

Not in a brawny or burly manner. Perhaps not even in an entirely able-bodied fashion. My flailing eyesight, flagging endurance and spindly limbs, discounts me from passing myself off as the robust sort.

But I always thought I have a tenacious temperament, brimming with fortitude and generally mental mucilaginous.

Then I read ‘Last Seen in Lhasa’ by Claire Scobie and realized that I am in no way hardy. Especially compared to Ani, a Tibetan nun. The memoir charts the unlikely friendship that develops between English journalist Scobie and Ani.

I’m the sort that hates to spend too much time alone and generally feel compelled to colour in silences with idle chitchat. Whereas Ani retreats into mountain top caves, for months of silent meditation. I doubt I would physically or mentally last a day.

Scobie initially travels to Tibet, as part of an expedition in search of a rare red lily. Ani is invited as a spiritual guide, as the region they are travelling through is a sacred site for pilgrims "Pemako was a nebulous place…a spiritualscape where legend merged with truth."

This expedition is cut short due to political bureaucracy, Scobie returns a few months later to find the flower. During this second visit Scobie becomes eager to learn more about the mysterious nun.

Ani is a yogini  a woman who undertakes physically and psychologically demanding practices”. Including Chod:

“way to sever emotions such as hatred, desire and ignorance to...limit one's attachment to the physical body and the inherent fear of dying.... 'chod is a short path to enlightenment,' writes Phillip Dawson, 'a vivid enactment of self-sacrifice.' It involves visualizing one's body and brain 'being totally dismembered, smashed, crushed and herded to a bloody pulp' before calling upon the spirits or hungry ghosts to devour it.'”

Ani is an extraordinarily resilient physically and mentally, it's no wonder Scobie becomes consumed with thoughts of her and revisits her several times.

'Over the years Ani, in my mind, had become whatever I imagined her to be - my teacher, my soul mate, spirit sister, cho-drok or pilgrim friend - my heroine no less.'

Not only apt in describing the metaphysical, Scobie deftly captures the tremendous physicality of Tibet, its unique sights, smells and sounds.

'The sounds of prayers rising, the smell of unwashed bodies and saccharine aroma from the butter lamps contributed to the heady atmosphere.'

Reading this instantly transported back to the temples we explored, moving through the dark labyrinth of corridors in clockwise fashion. At the time I was only aware that this was protocol. Scobie describes this protocol as Kora, a moving meditation, which earns the practitioner Spiritual power otherwise known as Wang.

I now understand the bullrush in temples, as nomads pushed and scrambled past us to get through the narrow doorways. Racing up and down ladders, they completed the clockwise circuit as quickly as possible so they could repeat it again and again.

Scobie visits to Tibet coincide with great political turmoil in the region. Scobie weaves fact, history, context and emotion into the narrative. Through her friendships, Scobie access into Tibetan society and how it was changing as a result of the presence of the Chinese. This insight is something outsiders are rarely privy to, especially given the heavy military control and surveillance present

"I asked ani if she ever felt hatred towards the Chinese for what they had done in Tibet.
'It’s Tibetans' bad karma - including my own - from previous lives that has lead to the present situation.'

Not only informative, its strong narrative thread makes it highly readable. In fact I thought I seen enough of Tibet when I was there last year, but after reading this I am itching to go back and explore some more.

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