Just Back: Tibet’s sacred mantra

Tibetans prostrating before the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet.

Tibetans prostrating before the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet. Photographer unknown

By Lisa Lermon | The Telegraph

ON THE WEB, 30 June 2014

I stood facing the whitewashed walls of Lhasa’s Jokhang temple, Tibet’s most venerated site. Large incense burners were billowing thick clouds of juniper smoke to the heavens. Tibetan pilgrims surrounded me, their eyes transfixed on the Jokhang.

One elderly woman captivated me most, her face weather-beaten and wrinkled. As she quietly muttered prayers, she performed prostrations by holding her palms together and raising them above her head, before lowering them again to her forehead and then chest.

She got on to her padded knees and, with wooden boards tied to her hands, stretched her body out on the ground and placed her forehead on the earth, before standing up and repeating the gruelling cycle again and again. The paving stones were worn smooth: no doubt eroded by centuries of devotion by pilgrims.

I went inside to join the line of shuffling Tibetans encircling the inner sanctum. I knew that some had walked for months over arduous terrain to get here. Some were crawling on their hands and knees or lying flat. The air rang with whispers of the sacred mantra, “om mani padme hum”, and the clicking of prayer wheels — devices inscribed with prayers and spun in a clockwise direction in the hands of each pilgrim, every rotation representing a rendering of the prayer inside. The more prayers they said — or spun — the more merit they earned for a higher reincarnation in the next life.

It was dusty and dark, but the flickering flames of yak butter lamps let me see my way, the smell of the hot butter rising rancid and sweet and, unfortunately for me, being unused to such high altitude, further depleting the already thin air of oxygen. I staggered around the temple until I reached the image that we had been waiting for: the statue of Jowo Shakyamuni, Tibet’s most holy relic.

It is said that all Tibetans must travel to Lhasa at least once to view this “Wish-Fulfilling Jewel”, for it is known for its ability to grant one’s deepest wishes. At 5ft tall, its golden form was adorned with rubies, coral, turquoise and other precious gems, and, to me, appeared redolent with mystery.

I made a wish, then hauled my wearied body up the steps to the gilded rooftop and was rewarded by views of Lhasa and beyond. Snow-capped mountains and wide vistas welcomed me, and there, as a speck below me, I spotted the elderly Tibetan woman enshrouded in devotion, still doing her prostrations.

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