10 Things I Learned in Tibet

I never thought a vacation could have such a powerful influence on me.  All I knew when I hopped on the plane was that it is in China and some people have “Free Tibet” bumper stickers on their car.

I grew up on my trip to Tibet. Actually, that isn’t quite accurate. Growing up implies progress in a set direction. I grew sideways. Lopsided. I hung a bit to the left. Tibet changed my path. I was heading in a direction of perpetual discontent and destruction. Learning about Buddhism and being around Tibetan nuns made me realize that in many ways, I suck. And Im workin’ on it.

I learned more in Tibet than I probably did in grade school. Here are the highlights…

1. There is no such thing as a mere “military presence.”

What I mean is that if an area is being occupied by a country, there is not just a military presence. That phrase implies that there are a few soldiers standing about not really doing anything. A more accurate thing to say is that there is an active oppressive force at work. There is evidence of the Chinese oppression all over Tibet. In the last three weeks, I witnessed…

Snipers perched atop buildings watching everyone, dressed in full riot gear

Soldiers marching through the streets, breaking up any crowd of more than 5 people

Signs at public computers stating that “no religious, political, or pornographic material may be accessed”

Numerous checkpoints for proper permits and paperwork along roads

Fake plastic policemen holding real video cameras along the roads

Tibetan nuns brought to tears when the Chinese military is brought up, because they were tortured

The Dalai Lama (the highest Buddhist religious figure) is not allowed into the country

The Tibetans are not allowed to have photos of the Dalai lama

Teachers, monks, and nuns must sign contracts saying they are Communist

Videos cameras watching the monks in monasteries

The Chinese government gives incentives for Chinese people to move into Tibet, like no taxes for 5 years

A gaurd smashed a tourists camera because he took a photo of him

Fake tourist attractions with false historical information created by the Chinese

The Tibetan flag is banned

Some hotels are required to post pictures of the Chinese government

2. We are all products of our education.

The vast majority of the Chinese do not know the truth about their invasion of Tibet. They learn from a very young age that China freed the Tibetans from the oppressive Dalai Lama and monks. They are taught that the people were enslaved by them and that the monks took advantage of the people. They have no idea that the Tibetans did not want to be “freed” and they loved Dalai Lama. They do not know that the Chinese invaded Tibet in order to strip the land of its resources and utilize its rivers for their waning water supply. The Chinese know the Invasion of Tibet as the Liberation of Tibet, a joke to both Tibetans and foreigners.

Monks in a temple

3. Buddhism is not a religion.

I always thought that Buddhism was a religion, like Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It is actually simply a way of living and being. One can be both Buddhist and Christian or any religion, if they so desire. It seems to me that the fundamental concept of Buddhism is living in a way that best serves others. Buddhists seek to improve themselves not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all people. Instead of praying and asking a god for favors, Buddhists pray to be aided in their self improvement for the betterment of others. For example, I often prayed for aid in being more positive and more tranquil, so that I can be a better girlfriend, daughter, and friend. I often struggle with depression and anxiety, and it negatively impacts my relationships with others.

Buddhism also does not have a supreme being or God. There are deities, but these are basically just inspirational figures to help one become better. Instead having a list of things that Buddhists must do (like in Catholicism), Buddhists meditate. Meditation helps bring clarity and opens the mind to help one be more conscious in their daily life. More consciousness leads to better thought out decisions, actions, and words.

Buddhists prostrating in front of a famous temple

4. Traditional burials are a waste of space.

The amount of undeveloped land is constantly shrinking. Traditional burials with a full sized coffin and tombstone seem almost vulgar now. Who am I to say that my dead body is worthy of taking up space where trees and greenery could live? Tibetans have a beautiful ceremony called a sky burial for the dead. I had the honor of watching a sky burial on a mountain top in Terdrom. Three days post mortem, the body is taken up towards the top of a mountain. First, there is a ritual to separate the soul from the body. Once the ritual is completed, it is time for the body to be recycled back into the earth. The bodies are cut and the skin is removed. While this is happening, hundreds of vultures are flying overhead and congregating around the area. The family and anyone who wishes to watch surround the body in a semi circle about 40 feet away. When the body/bodies are done being prepared, the vultures storm the bodies and proceed to eat the flesh. After 20 minutes or so, nothing is left but the bones. The bones are then taken into a pot and boiled until soft, where they are then mixed with tsampa (ground barley) to make into an edible paste. This paste is also fed to the birds.

Vultures feeding on bodies at a sky burial

It may sound gory and “uncivilized,” but trust me when I tell you it is beautiful. The birds fly away and one knows that the honored person’s flesh will assimilate into the bird. A sky burial is the continuance of the cycle of life where as a traditional burial is an abrupt halt.

Though, to be honest, if I was going to have a sky burial for myself, I would prefer a bird other than a vulture…

5. No amount of Buddhist teachings, mantras, or meditation will ever make constipation OK.

Traveling in a bus for 22 hours and eating crappy Chinese food really messed with my system. I was tired after doing nothing. I felt mentally fuzzy. And I was pissed as hell because I was so damn constipated. Another woman on the trip, Bronwyn, was in the same bloat boat as me. We couldn’t talk about anything else.

“Lauren, would you like some noodles?”  “No. I am the antithesis of hungry. I am constipated.”

Lauren, wanna go on a walk?”   “Are you kidding?  I can hardly waddle. I’m constipated.”

“Lauren, we’re going to do some yoga, wanna join?”   “I can’t bend or move when I am full of sh*t.”

Our issues did make for a great dinner conversation though. Bronwyn brought up how bad it is that our mental wellbeing is so tied to our physical bodies. We should be able to be content and even happy even when our bodies are not in prime condition. We should be able to separate the mental from the physical. Most people let themselves feel horrible and guilty if they miss a workout, eat something “bad,” are constipated, or have physical pain. On the flip side, people also abuse their physical bodies to combat their mental state. For example, people over-exercise, binge eat, and take drugs in order to bring about a different mental state.

6. The ultimate test of one’s philosophy or religion is not in what they do but how they live.

This applies to both Buddhism, a philosophy, and all religions. With Buddhism, many practitioners and monks meditate in caves for days, months, and years. I met a monk who had recently finished meditating in a cave for 30 years! But if you are living in a cave, being selfless, positive, and open is not very difficult. There are no people to be rude or annoy the crap out of you, no chores to complete, and no stress. The true test of ones philosophy is being your ideal self during your daily, hectic life. Personally, I found it fairly easy to be tranquil and positive while I was in Tibet. I was constantly inspired by the most well-intentioned people. the Tibetans. But when I came home, I wasn’t very calm when some bourgeois asshole in a Bentley cut me off on the interstate, nearly sending me flying over the barrier. Or when the lovely Officer Mendoza wrote me a ticket for not signaling while pulling onto my street. Sigh. Today is a a new day.

The monk on the left meditated in a cave for 30 years, the woman is a nomad

7. Americans have the luxury of eating to reach a goal.

Bodybuilders and frat boys alike can chug whey protein shakes in order to get swoll! Vegetarians and vegans can munch on local veggies and feel good about not partaking in the slaughter of animals! Mamas can buy their babies organic baby food and BPA free bottles to protect them from harmful chemicals! Baby boomers can feed on antioxidant rich smoothies, take resveratrol supplements, and eat kale like its their job!

If you tried to do any of these things in Tibet, you would be met with a quizzical look and perhaps a giggle or two. Most Tibetans live on yak butter tea, tsampa, yak yogurt, yak cheese, yak meat, and noodle veggie soup. Tsampa is toasted barley that has been ground into a fine powder. They add yak butter tea (yes, tea with yak butter and salt mixed in) and knead it into a dough. This is eaten for 1 to 3 meals a day, depending on where the person lives and what their economic situation is. In Tibet, not eating meat just doesn’t make sense. Yaks are abundant and local. Importing vegetables to more remote parts of Tibet would be more harmful to animals and the environment then just eating yak products. Unfortunately, many of the imported fruits and veggies come from China, where they are heavily sprayed with pesticides.

Tsampa

Tibetans don’t eat to live longer or stronger, they eat to live.

8. Letting it all hang out is not sexy.

Tibetan women wear long dresses with sleeves called chupas. They are uber functional. You can store whatever you like in the many folds, like munchies, prayer beads, tissues, or even little gifts that funny American tourists give you. Tibetan men typically wear pants with nice shirts while monks wear special robes.

The one hour that I wore shorts, I was out in the middle of nowhere. We had been trekking all day though the mountains, sweating and heaving at 18,000 feet. When we got to camp, all I wanted was to let my legs feel the loving caress of the wind. So, I put on a pair of shorts and went for a short walk. I came across a two tiny little homes with a family outside. An older woman who appeared to be the grandmother saw me and got this horrified look on her face. She shooed me away with the flick of her wrists and a scowl. I usually take great pains to blend into whatever country I am visiting. I don’t want to offend. But, I had no idea that my knees would cause such a stir in the boonies. You would have thought I was wearing a leather teddy. Or was Lady Gaga.

Monks in their daily robes

9. Western medicine is like a prostitute. Eastern medicine is like a lady in waiting.

American’s want it fast. Gimme now! Fast food, fast service, fast results. Western medicine is expensive, but it works… fast. Got an infection? Cipro will clear that up in 2 days. Got the flu? A Z-pac and you’ll be fine. If you got the money, you don’t need the time.

Chinese medicine is more delicate. You have to take your time with it. Give it a little lovin’, a little willin’. The herbs are often taken as a tea. Morning, noon, and night you must crush your herb capsules and drink them down. You need to focus on getting better and will your body to comply. They are more gentle on the body and don’t pose the risks that Western medicines usually do.

Annie-la showing us which flowers to eat to cure certain ailments

But with constipation, go Western. 😉

10. Tibetans are sweeties.

This is probably because they are almost all Buddhist. My first encounter that made me think that Tibetans are the kindest people on the planet was when I was ridiculously lost and frantically trying to find my hotel. I asked for help and just pointed to a piece of paper with my hotel’s name in Tibetan. If they didn’t know, they would grab my hand and take me to someone that they thought might be able to help me. It took 6 Tibetans, but in the end one woman walked with me for 40 minutes to get me to my destination. My second sweetie pie encounter was when this small, poor family invited me into their one room home and offered me all that they had to eat. And tea, lots of yak butter tea. Until I was ill and burping yak. My third encounter was on our group’s 5 day trek. I sitting in the grass, taking a break, and trying to make myself a crown of flowers. One of our sherpas (mountain men who accompanied us on the trek) walked over to me and took the pathetic crown from my hands. He began to expertly weave flowers into it until it was perfectly round and the flowers pointed straight up. Awwww.

The flower crown

The one room Tibetan home

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34 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned in Tibet

  1. I was genuinely filled with inspiration in reading about your journey. It’s incredible how much you can glean from experiences like this and how self-awakening it can be. beautiful post 🙂

  2. Wow!! Glad that you had such a great trip and a powerful life changing experience. Most travel is great in that it lends a new perspective. The newness of the experience can re-awaken the senses, bring us fully into the present moment , and remove the autopilot mentality that accompanies everyday life. Removing the familiar always makes us feel more alive. That is why adrenaline junkies love to travel-it helps them get their dopamine boost naturally. HOpefully many more people will begin to understand the plight of the Tibetan people. I am so glad you were lucky enough to experience the real Tibet before it is crushed by the Chinese and diluted by Chinese settlers paid to come and live in the area for the express purpose of diluting the culture. Interesting that it was prophesized in the eight century:
    “When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red faced people”

    (Padma Sambhava, eighth-century Indian guru and founder of the first Tibetan monastry)

    This is possibly referring to planes and trains and I believe the “red faced people” are the stressed individuals of the Western world. So perhaps even though the Chinese influence is oppressive, it is as it should be and that as the beauty of the Tibetan culture spreads, all people will benefit from their spirit and their selfless ways. There is always a silver lining in every tragedy and this helps us accept the fate that comes to us as individuals however difficult it may be.
    K

  3. Seriously awesome. I’m glad you’re back though! I’ve missed you! I read allll of this post and a. I’m jealous of your awesome cultural experience and b. I’m glad you shared so much of what you learned there. I had no idea that Tibet was even in China!! So sad of me, but true.

  4. WOW im quite amazed how involved you go in the culture. sometimes people tend to avoid fully immersing themselves when travelling and tend to be more of a bystander whereas you got to know the locals and get right into understanding the people and traditions!!

    you look GORGEOUS in your flower crown! ❤

    i still cant believe you went to Tibet, so exciting!!

  5. wow this was so awesome!!! thanks for sharing…i learned so much from reading this and the pictures are cool too! i’m glad you had a great time! 🙂

  6. You are awesome. You should have your own travel television show. I would watch it. I would DVR it. Just sayin’.

  7. All this makes me want to jump on the next plane to go to Tibet! Sucks that I have school starting soon! You seemed to have grown alot, physically, mentally, and spiritually! You’re right, Buddhism is more like a philosophy. Buddhists don’t discriminate those who are not “followers” of Buddhism, and Buddhism doesn’t require strict regimen like some other religions do. All it asks is to be kind to yourself, to others, and to all things around you. That SHOULD be a common sense, especially for the Westerners who call themselves “civilized.” But it seems like the more “civilized” a country is, the further it is away from being kind to itself.

    Out of curiosity, did you go with a tour group?

  8. Wow. I’m kind of speechless right now because your post made such an impact. This was so inspiring. Sounds like an experience there really makes you connect with your soul and the world around you in such a simple but profound way that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. Sounds amazing!

  9. I have learned so much about Tibet and China in this post than I ever would have learned from school. And I live in China. God, I feel ignorant. I’m glad you had this opportunity though and that you shared it with us!

    1. Wei wei you precious little gem, dont feel ignorant! The same thing happens to American school kids! Instead of learning that we raped and murdered the Indians until we were able to conquer them, we learned that we had a lovely little peaceful dinner called Thanksgiving! And when we learn about our Constitution they dont mention that it endorses slavery in 4 places and they hardly teach us about slavery and the Civil Rights movement. Its really sad. We just have to educate ourselves! But its harder in countries were your media access and book access is censored..

  10. I loved reading this. Seriously, I feel so enlightened! The sky burial does seem kind of gory at first, but when you think about it…it’s how humans *should* leave this earth.

    I had to study Buddhism last year in one of my classes and I learned a lot (and you’re right, it’s not really a ‘religion’ per se). I can imagine everyone you met was really nice.

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

    1. Danielle, I literally was right in the middle of catching up on alll your posts when you commented! I had just read how you were sorry for not commenting much in blogworld.. hehe. When I get back from workout, Im reading the rest. And then I will tell you what it is that I have been realizing over time makes you a pure genius….

  11. This is amazing. I’m so proud of you and of course insanely jealous haha. You’ll have to fill me in and everything. This was very inspirational and I hope it stays with you forever. Love you tons and miss you lots!

  12. Oh goodness, how lucky you were to partake in such a journey! I’m glad you were able to share your new-found wisdom with us. I would LOVE to tour another country to learn the heritage and tradition,

  13. l baby doll!

    welcome to my china paradigm! i cant wait to give you this awesome national geographic on china and tibet

    this trip looks insanely transformative and stunning.

    thanks for sharing your heart.

  14. oh my goodness – this recap of your time in Tibet is amazing. I’m sort of speechless and think I’ll have to come back and read it again. Sounds like a life-changing experience for sure.

  15. Hi! I just found your blog and WOW, I think your trip changed my life just reading about it. I can’t imagine how amazing it must have been to experience that! Did you just plan a trip on your own or was it something organized?
    I have my own travel blog and I think we share a lot of interests so I’m really excited to keep perusing your site now! I’m also really nearby in Houston! Great to *online* meet you 🙂

    1. Nice to meet you too!! I actually traveled through my family friends travel business. Christy and Ian lead trips together and they are amazing. Their company is called Rare Journeys, I totally recommend it.

  16. Wow and woah. I’m not even sure where to begin on this one. All I know is that we do have it easy here. I am so glad you shared so much of your trip and what you learned with us- the culture, food, traditions, police enforcement.. it’s amazing, sad, wonderful, crazy.

    It really makes one stop and re-evaluate one’s life- or in my case- mine. I feel like we are very similar in how we get upset over little things and let that hurt or hinder growing in other relationships- maybe even the one with ourselves.. I want to practice Buddhism now.

    And I just have to say, you’re so pretty. 🙂

  17. lauren
    what insightful and interesting commentary. INdeed we are blessed. Thank you for sharing, literally and figuratively. steve/dad

  18. You were very fortunate to travel to Tibet. And from your post I can see you really learned alot. And witnessing a sky burial – WOW…how amazing that must have been! Thanks for such a great article.

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