After studying Soto zen for a year at a sub-temple of Ehei-ji and teaching at Fukui University, I left Japan in the fall of 1986. I spent several weeks traveling around China, a major highlight of which was my visit to Zhenru Temple, a Chinese zen monastery where I interviewed the Abbot Yi Chen, later published in various Buddhist journals.
I next left China for Tibet, my best trip ever, outranking a spectacular journey over the Karakorum from Kashgar in China to Gilgit in Pakistan, about which more at another time.
It was a perfect time to visit Tibet. Because China had opened to tourism only in 1979, little had been done to provide an infrastructure for visitors, so that you could mix freely with the Tibetans and stay at the Tibetan-run Snowlands hotel in Lhasa for a dollar a night, join in with the pilgrims circumambulating the Jokhang Temple, drink your chang and eat your momo’s at an outdoor Tibetan food stand, etc.
There was minimal attention paid to visitors by the authorities; and you could travel inside the country virtually wherever you wanted if you could find a way to get there This usually meant bribing a Chinese truckdriver or creating an ad hoc expedition by joining up with other backpackers and hiring a mini-van and driver from the Chinese tourist agency—a preferable practice since it didn’t cost much and it could get really cold in the back of a Chinese army truck.
There were only two obstacles to impede the intrepid Western tourist: nobody spoke English, so the best you could do was vibe with folks, and then you had to deal also with the Tibetan sanitation standards, which were nothing short of catastrophic.
The lack of governmental supervision disappeared a couple years later and the P.R.C. started getting uptight about backpackers, who of course did not drop enough bucks to make their presence profitable, and who handed out deeply-appreciated pictures of the Dalai Lama to the locals and were consequently suspected of inciting same to riot and rebellion.
I feel hugely fortunate to have visited Tibet in this period, and I have never forgotten those distant mountains, plains and rivers in the Buddhist kingdom (theocracy) so close to the sky.
|Potala from the Chakpuri|
|Coracle taxi on the Kyichu|
|Temple in Lhasa|
|Chinese restaurant in downtown Lhasa|
|The Southern Temple at Sakya|
|Sakya prayer wheels|