Having visited many monasteries, observed many religious practices, and spoken to a handful of people about Tibetan Buddhism, I come away somewhat disillusioned. I admire Tibetans for their commitment to the Dalai Lama, their belief in his reincarnation and their practice of the ethical tachings of Buddha. Their dedication is immense.
I am dismayed by the focus on rites and rituals, apparent blind religious fervor and lack of commitment to meditation.
The prayer wheel and ultimately, the automatic prayer wheel, highlight my concern. The original Buddha meditated for six years and then started his mission. The teachings of the Buddha and lamas are recorded in Tibetan on parchment know as sutras. The monks read and chant these sutras, presumably for knowledge and inspiration. However, most people are illiterate. Some of them memorize and recite short passages from the sutras. But most, have a written prayer placed inside a prayer wheel. They spin the prayer wheel (clockwise direction only) and believe by spinning it they will attain enlightenment. Some prayer wheels are designed with fins so they spin in the breeze, presumable bestowing benefits to their owners.
Everywhere in Tibet, there are prayer flags, monasteries, temples, prostraters, portraits of the lamas, images and posters of temples and signs of religion. When we were in The Jokhang in Lhasa, we witnessed a mob scene seething to worship a statue.
Prior to Buddhism, Tibetans practiced the Bon religion, a type of Shaminism. Many of these practices have carried over to Tibetan Buddhism.
When I inquired about meditation, I got incomplete responses. The monks apparently spend considerable time chanting sutras, but not meditating. The people spin prayer wheels. Once I was told, to find enlightenment, I must do good works and hope for a better reincarnation in the next life. Some told me that at the higher levels, the lamas have secret mantras and some meditate on these mantras. I had hoped that, like a western church, there would be numerous opportunities to sit in a quiet place in a holy environment with other seekers and meditate. But I did not find that.
As a tourist, Tibetan Buddhism is a wonderful curiousity. Seeing the temples, Buddhas, and sutras and witnessing the religious acts is fascinating. But I did not feel I was a participant nor did I gain in spiritual understanding. Reportedly, the Chinese government is rebuilding the monasteries to serve as tourist attractions. I guess that worked on me.
As economic progress and education continue, as the impact of western fashion, culture, and thinking impact the younger generation, I think the religious fervor and commitment will decline.
I think Tibetans should have every opportunity for self-determination. They seem happy and commited to their way of life. Having said this, their life was and is–by my perspective, a tough life. Tibetan nomads spend their days in manual labor. Sanitation and hygiene are poor. Education is lacking. Many are isolated. The visit to the School for the Blind revealed that the blind are regarded as being punished for misdeeds in previous lives. One blind boy was told he probably was a murderer in his past life. Ignorance and superstition cause poverty and inequity. I cannot say the Chinese were right to “liberate” Tibet. But having done so, they are bringing welcome changes, if only out of their own self-interests.