Back in 2005 I was living in Nelson, a small lifestyle town on the northern coast of the South Island of New Zealand—said to have the best weather in all of New Zealand. Clear sunny skies and in winter to the west you could see the towering snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps. I was living in the house of my friend, Keith Rowan who worked as a building designer. We were both looking after a young refugee Tibetan lama, Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche, while he learned English so that he could share his dharma knowledge with New Zealanders and in the process undergo the long process of gaining New Zealand residency and citizenship.
Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche, the fifth in his line, is the reigning tulku of Ju Mohor Monastery, a small Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Junyong in Dzachuka, which lies at 4,500 metres in the high nomadic grasslands of the headwaters of the Yalung River, a tributary of the Yangtse. Here you see a photo I took of Rinpoche with his Ju Mohor monastery behind on the hillside. Beside him is one of the nuns of the Ju Mohor community, and beside him is one of his little nephews studying at the Monastery.
For thousands of years the Tibetans of this high plateau have lived, and still do so today within the rapidly modernising culture of China, in an interpenetrating world of the sacred, imaginal and worldly. There are remarkable similarities between this and the world of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, glimpses of which have been revealed to us in the wealth of paintings that record their Dreaming, paintings that date back over 40,000 years to their cave art, older by far than those discovered in France.
Tibet is a land of mountain gods who guard the high passes from one valley to another, passes where fierce hail and snow storms can freeze a traveller in their tracks. A chorten of stones adorned with prayer flags marks all mountain passes. Every Tibetan places a stone on such chortens, offers paper prayer flags to the elements and their mystical inner nature, and sings out ‘la gyal lo’, ‘victory to the gods’, as they cross over a pass. Tibetan Buddhism is imbued with the pre-Buddhist culture of the Tibetans that celebrated and paid homage to these elemental forces of nature. It is continued in the idea of sacred vision and spiritual pilgrimage, revealed in mythopoetic language rather than the prosaic forms of modern materialist culture. To go on a spiritual pilgrimage to sacred sites requires one to develop sacred vision. As one of Tibet’s greatest seers, Jamgön Kongtrul explains:
To those of aberrant minds, this place is just earth, stone, water and trees. To mistaken intellects, it appears as solid, inanimate objects. To practitioners, appearances have no intrinsic nature. To those of pure vision, it is a celestial palace full of deities. To those with realisation, it is the radiant luminosity of innate awareness. In the all-pervasive body and pure land of the Buddha Ever-Excellent, the all-inclusive expanse is primordially pure.
One week in August, 2005, Keith, Rinpoche and I went over to the wild west coast, south of Greymouth, to spend a week in a small cabin that was entirely off the grid. Keith and Rinpoche were doing a retreat based on a 24 hour mantra recitation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. I was doing my Vajrasattva practice, which is part of the Ngöndro, the preliminary practices one undertakes before entering the higher yoga tantric Buddhist path. They were both upstairs where there was a small bedroom, a little living space with an open fireplace and a small kitchen and off that a shower and toilet. I was downstairs where I had a kerosene heater. It was winter. Outside the winds blew and the ocean constantly roared with waves throwing up white foam scattering in the wind.
Across all religions and spiritual traditions, people undertaking spiritual retreats have sought out wild places—mountains, deserts, hidden valleys, lonely beaches. In such places we can slough off the scales of ‘civilisation’ and all its worries and demands, and come home to ourselves, opening our hearts and minds to the world around us. In the quiet we can hear the wind whisper and allow our minds to soar with the brilliant display of the distant stars of the night sky. We can feel at one with the elements.
In such a place dream visions have a power. On the fourth day of our retreat, Rinpoche awoke from one such dream vision. Over our brief breakfast session he explained: “Last night big dream, back in Tibet. Two monks fighting. One killed the other. Big trouble. I must ring Tibet.” After a cup of tea, Keith drove Rinpoche over to a nearby house where there was a phone. When he rang his brother who lives near the monastery, he discovered that events had unfolded just as he had dreamt them. Rinpoche said we must pack up and drive back to Nelson. Arriving in Nelson some two hours later, this young 32 year old refugee lama, the same age as my youngest son, would spend the next 48 hours on the phone to distant Tibet managing the affairs of his monastery. He knew that if a death such as this at his monastery were taken to the Chinese authorities, it would have serious consequences for the entire monastery and local Junyong Tibetan community.
Months later, after I returned to live in Australia, I fainted in my bathroom in the middle of the night, cracking my head on the vanity basin. As I was lying in bed, early next morning I suddenly received a phone call from Rinpoche in New Zealand. He asked: “What happened last night?” Somehow he knew. I told him, and he advised me to see a doctor and told me to take care of myself. I witnessed this same ability to somehow know across time and space in my Aboriginal elder friend, Tjilpi Bob Randall. For me it is a sign of someone that truly lives in a world of inter-being.
Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche exuded an extraordinary sense of this inter-being in so many ways and a sort of fearless dynamic courage that has enabled him to meet some of the challenges that life had thrown at him. He eventually got his New Zealand citizenship, but he is back in China now. Called back to help his community at Junyong meet the many challenges that face them as they are integrated into the rapidly modernising Chinese world. Internet cafes now exist in distant village outposts across the Tibetan plateau. Mandarin Chinese has become the lingua franca of their world, just as English is the lingua franca for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens of Australia. Like our indigenous peoples, Tibetans too suffer from racism and assumptions of cultural superiority by the dominant and ruling Han Chinese culture.
Like Australia, China also struggles with how to develop harmonious relationships in a multicultural society rent by vast differences in wealth, cultural values, religion, identity and opportunity. And as for the country and sacred sites of Australia’s indigenous peoples, Tibet has also become a centre of internal Chinese tourism as its people seek to escape the crowded cities and the manic competitiveness for survival of modern capitalist culture, in search of an ephemeral taste of the wild. I remember when I visited Tibet with Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche in 2004, Keith and I, and a couple of friends, hired a car with driver to take the road south over the border to Kathmandu. At the border we met a young Chinese engineer who had thrown in his job and had cycled from Shanghai across the Tibetan plateau, and was now on his way down to Kathmandu. Down and down we plunged on winding, precipitous roads besides cascading waterfalls and lush green jungle—such a marked contrast to the arid landscape of the mountain pass where we too called out ‘la gyal lo’, victory to the gods, as we farewelled Tibet.