Outside Magazine, October 1998
I am sitting on a high hill above the dusty passageways of Ganden Monastery in Tibet. The sky is a head-clearing shock of blue, the day blustery. No sound comes up from the winding road far below, and way, way down among the maze of broken walls, I can see almost nothing but a few robed forms, going about their rites and gathering, now and then, around mugs of tea on a rooftop.
I woke up this morning to the blue-black skies and silence of my dust-and-straw guesthouse in Lhasa. Outside, only the thousand windows of the Potala, up above, and snowcaps in the distance. Then the barking of dogs from the alleyways, a splash of chill water from a basin in the courtyard. A silent walk through the ghosted city, the tents of nomads in the far-off emptiness, a scattering of lights.
After the fading of the stars, a bus ride through the coming light out onto the plains. A scuffle of red-cheeked Tibetan peasants and nervous Chinese soldiers, the arrival in Ganden, once among the busiest monastic centers in the world. No chants now, few statues, no ritual debates or 6,000 monks: only a handful of huddled figures trying to keep a small flame alight.
The silence of the hill where I sit is that of a graveyard, of course, and almost every penny I spend will go to the government that helped fill it with Tibetan bodies. Such monks as are allowed to practice are probably endured only for the benefit of tourists like myself. Yet coming here seems to me the best way to honor the thousands of monasteries destroyed and the millions killed by Chinese troops — by serving as eyes and ears to the ones still here, and reminding them that they have a voice in the world outside. The original message of these buildings was that reality has its base in suffering. And even among their ruins, I am taken so far out of myself, and the world I know, that I feel I am on the rooftop of my being.
That was more than a dozen years ago. Getting to Tibet in those days meant red tape and closed faces and wobbly planes. Yet as soon as I arrived, I was so silenced — by the flower boxes, the red and golden temples, the bright smiles — that I threw all expectation away. Blue-sky mornings in the haunted monasteries, watching the dogs in front of the prayer halls, watching small monks play tag in courtyards of light and shadow. Nights under sharpened stars, and a suspension of time till days turned into nights turned into days again.
It sounds like such a threadbare clich‰ to find elevation in Tibet — the stuff of the Shangri-La movies made just down the street from where I live in southern California. In any other place, I would write off talk of epiphanies and transports to jet lag intensified by culture shock and the light-headedness of 12,000 feet.
But on that faraway hill, the workings of the skeptical mind seemed as distant as the wheezing buses far below. I was in some place beyond the reach of quibbles — a place of trustful calm that seemed to rise from the deepest part of me, and that only silence and high solitude can awaken. That moment in Tibet is still, years later and half a world away, as close as the hand that writes this.
I sat on the top of the high green hill and looked at emptiness and ruins. I listened to a few prayer flags snapping in the wind and watched the monks go about the ceremonies of impermanence in the midst of crumbling buildings.
Then, scrambling down the slope with the dying of the light, I took my leave of them, and waited for the day's only bus to Lhasa. Then back to China, and a world less real.
Pico Iyer is the author of Video Night in Kathmandu and Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions.
Illustration by Brian Cronin