The Land of Tibet

The following is an extract from the Tibet chapter of "Karmapa":

The land of Tibet, with its unique cultural and religious heritage, is almost as large as India. Yet it remains little known to the modern western world, to which it is an anecdote—a mythical Shangri-la; the abode of the abominable snow man, or yeti. Some will only know it as a place where elaborately-clad lamas play deafening music on outlandish instruments. That is the image TV documentarists inevitably pick, for its vivid audiovisual impact. Whenever they visit Tibetans, they feel duty-bound to film the monks blowing the long horns (ra-dong), invariably shot by a cameraman prostrate on the carpet, wide-angling on the open end of the horn and then shifting focus to the pouting cheeks of the instrumentalist. Yet Tibet is so much more than these anecdotes and image-bytes.

Traditional Tibet made a striking contrast to our modern world. Before 1950, the radical differences between the two were only apparent to the few explorers and mystics who ventured into Tibet's isolated fastness. Since then, it has struck the many thousands of people now in close contact with Tibetan lamas, following the latter's diaspora throughout the world. They left their homeland due to the progressive annexation of Tibet by China in the 1950s and the subsequent total suppression of its religion up to and during the Cultural Revolution.

What contrast? — that between spiritual and material advancement. Tibet's colourfully vivid land of vibrant earth and sky was mostly peopled by unwashed nomads living an almost Bronze Age life in hide tents under extremes of climate one wouldexpect on the "roof of the world", or else by farmers and villagers living in a neo-feudal society, many aspects of which we would associate with the Middle Ages. But in amongst these rude physical conditions there also existed, in monasteries and hermitages, one of the finest flowers of human thought and contemplation; refined, subtle, codified by centuries of intellectual reflection and masterly meditation, and centred in a vision of compassionate love for all life and of living in harmony with the natural world and the elements upon which life itself depends. This vision of life influenced everything in Tibet and coloured every Tibetan's daily round. Within the seemingly primitive, there existed one of humankind's most advanced and gentlest approaches to existence.

This is so different to our seemingly advanced, highly technological, cleaned-daily modern world, in which, for all its material advantages, the life-glow of inner wisdom, natural happiness, care for others and care for nature seem often to diminish decade by decade. Within "advanced" 20th-century society, one often encounters the violent and the primitive. I do not mean to say the Tibetans are all right and the modern world all wrong. We simply all have a lot to learn from each other when it comes to working out what "progress" really signifies. The Tibetan heritage is one of the many messengers of light to have entered the global forum in recent times. Let us hope that it may be a factor of help in the shaping of a better future for generations to come.

... To be more precise, Tibet is the world's highest land mass, covering some 3.8 million square kilometres (1.5 m square miles), i.e. more than seven times the size of France or Texas. Most of this is a plateau, the valleys of which start higher than Mont Blanc or Mt Whitney, while its own famous peaks, soaring up to 8,000 metres (24,000 feet), are the highest in the world. Its natural borders are formed by the Himalaya to the south, the Taklamakan desert to the west and north-west, the alpine desert, steppe and Kunlun mountains to the north and the natural fall-off of the plateau in the east, towards Chengdu in China.

Tibetans live mainly along the southern belt and in the eastern region of Tibet, in the lower valleys at altitudes of between 3 and 4,000 metres, with passes between valleys often at 5,000 metres. Although this high altitude gives an immediate impression of great cold and Tibet is famous as "the Land of Snows", one must aslo bear in mind the fact that Tibet is in the same latitudes as Algeria ...

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Last Updated: 24 August 1996