10 Days in Tibet

For nearly a year I have been wearing a pendant embossed with the face of a man I’ve never met - a man, bald and brightly robed, who my mother's father calls Lama Kharwang. My grandfather has made Tibetan pilgrimages for years to receive teachings from this man, and to rebuild Buddhist monasteries from their Chinese-inflicted state of ruin. The pendant, a token from his travels, is said to be blessed, bearing the image of the Lama who is believed to be the human manifestation of a Buddha disciple.

While the question of reincarnation lingers, imbued and throbbing in my mind, the beauty of the pendant remains uncontested, and even though tucking it beneath my clothes has become a vital component to my morning ritual, I never thought I would be wearing it in its birthplace – this impossible place where blistering heat and torrential hail exist in the same hour, where the air is saturated with the heady vapors of incense and dust kicked up by yaks peppering the fields. Impossible, I think. It’s impossible that I'm here, holding hands with a Rinpoche in Gandhi-esque glasses as we ascend a lichen-frosted pathway along the ledge of Dugong Mountain, one of Tibet’s holiest sites. Accompanied by my grandparents and a handful of crimson-cloaked monks, we are lead to the mouth of Gektor Cave, a tiny, south-facing cavern strewn with kamala blossoms, paintings of the Buddha, and a huge photograph of the Dalai Lama, all illuminated by the sputtering flames of at least a dozen butter lamps. I bite my lip, feeling awkward and out of place with my electric blue nails and my over-sized Frankie Says Relax t-shirt, juxtaposing harshly against the craggy, cobweb-adorned cave walls. Although, before I'm able to feel any real discomfort, we are greeted by a Converse-wearing Yogi who begins to chant in the low, almost musical drawl of an alien language. I watch the holy men around me, drinking in the chant with the serene countenances of irrefutable faith – something that I’ve never been able to say I’ve had.

In my family, any belief system falls victim to a patriarchal war between my mother's father, an environmentalist, socialist, and Buddhist activist – the first person who dared me to interpret Kandinsky's abstractions – and my father's father, a stunt man, Tea Party member, and fervent Lutheran, with whom I share a love for athletic competition. I've learned that to both of my grandfathers, "going for ice cream," is actually a secret code for their separate attempts to convert me at Baskin Robbins. To my unending frustration, these incidents only reveal a sardonic truth: that these extremist, stubborn men may never realize how much they actually have in common. Marred by my own idealism, by my belief that I can discover universal truth in any one religion or political ideology, I often find my fragile hope dissolving under this impossibility, under the flaws I find in each. Still, I strive to keep from spinning about myself the alluring cocoon of cynicism, to cultivate – when my mind is besmirched by faithlessness – a glimmer of belief in something, even if it’s simply a higher version of myself. Consequently, I find myself on an endless quest to discover what it is that I actually want to believe in, becoming a kleptomaniac for color and custom, falling each week into an irrevocable love affair with a new culture: I've been a Hindu who conducts morning ablutions in my bathtub, a Lao Tzu-quoting Taoist, and a Christian whose salvation was synonymous with the Son of God. During my experiments, my attempts to make sense of the world, I often find myself extracting ideas from my elementary education at the Waldorf School – a school whose curriculum pulled from Greek and Norse mythology, Zoroastrianism, the Old Testament, throwing javelins, and spinning yarn. Through my attempts to pick through the dark plumage of ever-conflicting belief systems, I’ve been able to mete out a few bright feathers: my love of art across space and time. The Strokes, Artie Shaw, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gustav Klimt, and Mel Brooks are just a few of my favorites, and when I'm not traversing the pages of an atlas with my fingertips or beautifying my cul-de-sac with street chalk, I'm usually researching the catacombs of some subculture in San Francisco or Harajuku, injecting my life with elements of each. It isn't difficult to spot me on my school campus, traipsing about with my scarlet-colored hair, a headscarf that Ginsberg would fully approve, and a self-embellished leather jacket.

However, in my searches, as I walk through the realms of culture, I can't help but discover the ideologies that rear oppression, sexism, and racism – the things that ignite the riot of my blood and drive my ardent desire to somehow make a change. I believe that educating women across the world will be the beginning, something that will not only give women autonomy from societies that stress their inferiority, but will empower women to make their own changes, to snuff out inequality on every level.

My dream is to build schools for girls in places where women do not traditionally receive an education, and after expressing my hopes to my mother's father, he has decided to sponsor the project through his non-profit organization, Bodhicitta Inc., previously dedicated to rebuilding orphanages and monasteries throughout Asia. As secretary of this organization, I hope to build the first school here in Tibet, in the seven- hundred year-old mud-brick village of Namda; a village that continually triggers a feeling of wonder as I meet people who have been able to find joy in the face of political oppression and the devastating snares of poverty, who spend their hours etching holy texts into slabs of stone, festooning the atmosphere with the tender tremors of mantras, and spinning prayer wheels with the intention that the prayers will pierce the cosmos and somehow reach all living creatures. As we explore the town, my grandparents and I are persistently asked by monks if they can pray for us while a truck headed for the slaughterhouse passes, piled with cages of cramped, live chickens. The Tibetans around me instantly begin murmuring prayers, explaining after that all life – human or nonhuman – is equally sacred. It had never occurred to me before to pray for a chicken.

After returning to the home of the nomad family we are staying with, I walk to the room I share with a nineteen year-old Tibetan girl – a girl only two years older than I am. I attempt to fix my hair, searching the room for a mirror that I never find before I turn to my roommate, inviting her to accompany me to the public showers, the only place in the village with running water. She quickly refuses, explaining that she would have no idea what to do. She had never bathed before in her life.

It isn’t until this moment that I fully come to understand this girl, a girl who spends her days drying yak dung, but who is still able to rear an unfading happiness when she returns home to her family – a happiness far more potent than my own, even in my comfortable life where showering is considered to be a necessity. With a sharp pulsation of guilt, I think of how my entire day is ruined if I forget my cell phone, or how I spend my hours drowned in a constant worry about myself. I think of the Tibetans I've met here, the people whose joy stems from doing anything to help another, and how, while these people live without freedom of speech or air quality regulations – things I consider to be basic human rights – their beautiful bronze complexions are only tarnished by the wrinkles of their perpetual smiles, smiles that reflect their liberation from the things that plague my own life: familial dysfunction, the pressure to conform to someone else's idea of beautiful, and the unending anxiety impelled by deadlines and the need to saturate every moment with activity. My realizations stay with me, seared into my mind as I follow my grandfather to the home of the man I've been keeping around my neck for the last few months. As I kneel at the feet of this great Lama, a man who has attained enlightenment, I ask how I can possibly forsake my worries when I return to California, a place that seems to breed self-interest and propel the daily stresses of school and life. His response to my question spills from his eighty-seven year-old lips, suffused with a hushed brilliance: he instructs me simply to "watch my mind" during my daily activities, to – before a test or while I am painting – ask myself why I'm doing these things, to examine my motivation. Lost in a harrowing tangle of homework and test preparation, I had forgotten my love of learning for the sake of broadening my perspective of the world; I had replaced the reason behind my activities with the numbing stupor of worry, forgetting that I did everything that I do in the hopes of becoming a painter and a writer, of bettering the education of women around the world.

Coming here, to this place where I thought I could somehow make a discernable change, has marked me forever with the profound simplicity of the Lama’s words, and while I envy my grandfathers, their pride, their imperishable faith – the things that I fear I’ll never be able to surrender myself to – I’ve been able to cultivate the bloom of a quiet, internal understanding: my life will be lived through the prism of culture, through the multifaceted beliefs refracted like colored light throughout the world.

I know now, after my time here in Tibet, the vitality of experiencing innumerable ways of life, and just how crucial it is to preserve them in our increasingly homogenized world, a world where the omnipotent adoption of Western ideology has lead to a cavity in the place of cross-cultural dialogue. My hope is that building this school will not only provide girls with the educational opportunities they would otherwise never have, but will also help to keep alive the Tibetan language – the driving force behind Tibetan Buddhism and the nomadic way of life. After meeting with Lama Aote, the headmaster of the Tibetan boys' school in Namda, we've established a budget, a blueprint, and the hopes of beginning construction of the girls' school next spring. However, my excitement is quickly tainted with the news I receive the next day: successions of protests have broken out across the Tibetan provinces after rumors that the Chinese will soon make teaching Tibetan illegal in public schools, leaving private schools as the only means of preserving the Tibetan language. It's only now that I understand the importance of building this school as quickly as we can. It may be one of the only ways to save this culture from total extermination. This fragile hope lives in me as my grandfather and I follow Lama Ayote to Mahakala Temple, an ancient structure built into the face of a mountain. Trembling as I climb the rungs of an antique ladder (the only way to reach the gold-sheathed temple roof), I can see a vacant plot of land in the near distance, the place that will soon be occupied by the girls' school. On the glittering roof, Lama Aote turns to me, giving me my Tibetan name: Tashi Lhamo, "The Goddess of Good Luck." He explains that he will need me, that we will need luck if we are to accomplish what we have set out to do. My brain is alive with thoughts, with my desire to transform our plans into reality, with my hope of flooding every facet of my life with what I've come to learn in Tibet – thoughts that remain at the forefront of my mind as I gaze out into the all- encompassing, infinite sky.