Our hosting of a monthly interfaith prayer group, lead by Mazher Ahmed, a Muslim woman, continued on the first Friday of May. This mutual sharing, praying, and socializing among people of many faiths demonstrates one of the fundamental purposes of the Society.
Three of our end of the spring season programs featured members: John Algeo shared thoughts concerning the Jeweled Lotus and the Rosy Cross for White lotus Day; Linda Disney brought the art and reminiscences of renowned Theosophical artist, Burton Callicott; and Tim Boyd reminded us of the sacred nature of each moment of life in this world.
Auditors graced our campus for several weeks in May, checking to see that we are complying with the continually more stringent accounting requirements for non-profits. We are doing well, but have had to take several heavy write-downs on the value of old publications in our warehouse and listed as assets on our books. Although necessary, these adjustments put added strain on our publishing staff who are trying most conscientiously to improve their bottom line.
In preparation for our travel to Tibet, a number of meetings with our lawyer were sandwiched in between our shopping and packing activities. Not that David and I had excessive trepidation concerning our Tibetan trek, but we set a goal of updating wills and power of attorney before embarking on our adventure.
The remainder of my diary will reflect the activities of this awesome trip. Forty-three, members and non-members alike, met expectantly on May 24 at the airport in Beijing, China. During the few days assigned to adjust to the time difference, we experienced Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Chinese opera, the Lamasery of Beijing, a shopping frenzy at the jade factory, and a strenuous climb (a portent of things to come) on the Great Wall of China. At the Great Wall, we encountered a long chain with hundreds of locks hanging from it. The locks were placed there by young couples, who, when they married, threw the keys over the edge, to signify their eternal bond. Love is the same everywhere!
On May 27 we arrived in Lhasa, Tibet, for a series of bumpy roads, strenuous climbs in thin air, ancient monasteries, and inspiring meditations. After about a 300 foot climb at the Yambhu Lagang Temple, which dates back to 400 BCE, we hung our prayer flags with signatures and messages on them, and threw to the winds the packs of small square prayer papers. We were assured that we were not littering because the goats consider them a delicacy. At a nunnery we listened meditatively as the nuns chanted, and then squeamishly sampled the yak butter tea that they so hospitably offered. One of the nuns was fascinated with my hat, but because of the language barrier, I will never know why. If it had not been my only protection from our hours in the sun, I would have given it to her.
A smooth ride up the Brahmaputra River to the Samye Monastery provided a one-way reprieve from our exciting ride over the potholes. We remembered that boat ride fondly as we bounced along on our five hour drive to Shigatse the next day. By this time, we had pretty much bonded as a group with our shared experiences of demanding exercise, invigorating rides, primitive outdoor toileting, and our restaurant fare which was more often than not, stir fry with rice.
We arrived in Shigatse on May 31 in time for an afternoon visit and brief meditation at Tashi Lhunpo, the monastery built by the First Dalai Lama in 1447 and associated with HPB’s personal teachers. It was the residence of the Panchen Lama whom she sometimes referred to as the Tashi Lama because of the name of his residence.
Because the official full moon occurred on June 1, at 8:56 a.m. local time, we held a special meditation on the roof of our hotel. It began with a chime sounding three times and then ended with the chanting of Om three times. From there we went back to Tashi Lhunpo for further meditation in the courtyard—recognizing that this place was so closely connected with our founders.
All of this meditation must have borne fruit because in a magical spontaneous moment, Glenn Mullin, our leader and guide, was able to negotiate a special visit into the Panchen Lama’s private quarters for himself, Steve Schweitzer as photographer, and me, with David as my husbandly moral chaperone. We slipped into these historic quarters with the door closing fast behind us. We had the privilege of experiencing this charged atmosphere, still decorated with the throne and its coverings which are unchanged since before the Eighth Panchen Lama of HPB’s time. The impact on each of us of prostrating ourselves and actually touching our foreheads to the very spot before the throne where HPB and her teachers most likely did exactly the same in honor and obeisance was palpable. The reality of those who had been there before us touched us deeply. The guardian lama there honored the occasion by placing a small red cotta on each of us as we were ushered out.
After this experience, everything else seemed almost anticlimactic—a kaleidoscope of monasteries, steep climbs, caves, meditations, picnics, more prayer flags and shopping forays—although each was important in its own way to build the total experience of Tibet. The trip ended in Lhasa with a tour of the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lamas. Another highlight was a special audience with the eighty-two year old Ngak Chang Rinpoche, one of Tibet’s most respected lamas, who gave us individual blessings.
Fittingly, after we felt so enriched with the gifts of Tibet, we briefly were able to visit two orphanages. Although we were almost denied the opportunity, we were able to distribute some collective gifts from the group, including shoes for all the children in the Chu Shuul Orphanage, which we visited on the way to the airport as we were leaving for Beijing.
Here the group split into several directions, with thirteen of us continuing to Mongolia. There we encountered even rougher roads—and sometimes drove over fields with no roads at all—as we traveled to round gher tents, teepees, monasteries, and museums. In this more intimate tour we met a number of Mongolians and ended up having the company of Baasan Lama for a portion of the way. The highlight was a festival at our last gher camp, at which we experienced traditional music, throat singing, Mongolian style wrestling, horse racing, knuckle-bone thumping, archery, and a camel ride or two.
Unfortunately, at our next to the last stop, Doss McDavid rolled his ankle and cracked a bone on the lower part of his leg during one of our adventuresome mountain walks. Glenn and our drivers were able to transport him back down the steep slope in order to get the needed medical attention. From that point on, Doss good naturedly dealt with being carried around until we could reach the luxury of civilization and a wheel chair. Even then, everything was a challenge as the term “handicapped accessible” does not apply to Mongolia.
Our return home did not end the trip. Our fellow pilgrims Brian Marshall and John Besse became stranded in the Chicago area due to car trouble, and spent a couple of nights at our home. Finally, during our first week back, Enkhee, the chef and owner of the Silk Road Restaurant in Ulaanbaatar, with whom we had become friends, visited us at Olcott and cooked a meal for our staff. His visit was videotaped and will be included as part of a previously scheduled a circuit of a half dozen US cities filming cooking shows for his program on Mongolian television. Olcott will air on Mongolian National Television sometime during September. We brought back many fond memories from Mongolia, and are delighted that we can visit again so soon, even if only as a digital television image.
I end with my observation about pilgrimage, which this trip certainly was. Pilgrimage is undertaken, not just for oneself, but also for one’s community by bringing back the experience to share and inspire those who remained behind. This trip was definitely a pilgrimage for all who participated, inspiring and deepening our spiritual practice and commitment. It brought us closer to the reality of our founders, strengthened the bond of spiritual fellowship, and provided a treasure trove of intercultural understanding that we did not have before.
Through our pictures and stories, I hope that you will be able to catch glimpses of the magic of this trip. And I also hope that a deeper spirit of commitment will permeate and grow within our Society.