Pilgrim's Progress

Pieces of tyre tread the rocky ground where no wheel could pass! A Tibetan pilgrim has tied the pieces of old tyre on to protect his knees and hands. He appears a strange apparition, covered in dust, as he rhythmically progresses over the stony path, high in the mountains. He stands and raises his weary arms, then knees and lays prostrate his full length stretched along the path. His padded jacket and denim trousers are torn from repeating the process for miles along the sacred path. Here are boulders embedded in sand, behind him lie painful slopes of shingle, chilling frozen streams, narrow tracks between the cliff where fat pilgrims get stuck. ‘They get stuck because of their sins!’ the man laughs to himself.

‘All because of my karma’ he thinks, his whole body aching as he gets up yet again. All his life he has breathed an atmosphere of the non-stop seeking of merit. As a baby, while his mother had held him with one hand, he had been conscious of her muttering prayers and the gentle swaying of her body as the other hand turned her prayer wheel.

The Tibetan nomad’s life is hard and monotonous, but his yak herd had made them prosperous. The Chinese in the village are jealous. The gods of the landscape had smiled on his family; they had not lost many sheep in the blizzards last winter, like other nomads in the north-east. He had driven his yaks around the stupas, the pawn shaped holy pillars, to get a blessing. He had left his scarf and some of his hair in sacred places to remind the gods to help him. The wind had fluttered his prayer flags to shreds. Surely the gods had heard him?

Sin is killing animals. He made the most of the few animals he had had killed. Blood for sausages, milk, butter cheese and fat, wool, skin and meat, and dung for fuel. He slaughtered sparingly, muttering special prayers of forgiveness, for Buddhist there is no greater sin than killing another creature. Along the path he had been careful not to tread on the ants. He had cheated the Rongpa, the Valley People, in trade for barley to make tsamba and to buy tea, but that was not a sin, he thought, just a good deal!

‘Go on pilgrimage, to Lhasa, or better to Mount Kailash’, his mother had said. ‘It is the abode of the gods and where the blessed Buddha descended from heaven after a visit to his glorified mother.’ Merit is by making a circuit of the stupas or the holy city of Lhasa. To prostrate oneself along the ground gains more merit.

But the holy Mount Kailash was best of all. It was in the remote west of the country, where the traditions tell that Tibet began and the hero King Geser had lived. For over a week he had been making his way around the 32 miles. Aching in body and dazed in mind he just wondered, ‘Will this gain me a better reincarnation?’

Our friend’s brother had carried their camp gear ahead; he was not going for the merit this time. ‘To help a pilgrim is merit anyway they say.’ He always found a good spot for camping, with a good sight of the mountain. Its white domed top gleams against the sky, majestic with sheer slopes and cliffs permanently powered in snow. He thought, a mighty outward form representing what he knew as the real world of holy men and women who had attained nirvana, and the good gods and other beings. The rest of the moon-like landscape was populated by both Drokpa and their herds and also dragons, demons and lesser beings that one must appease to prosper.

A friendly visitor with good news

The pilgrim collapses down exhausted, as his brother prepares the simple meal of roast barley or tsampa. His brother has company. He normally is cheerfully calling out to other pilgrims and teasing the girls. The stranger is a foreigner. The pilgrim had seen quite a few along the path. Many are sick with the altitude. They either came with cameras, or starry eyed wanting to benefit from the ancient wisdom.

This man spoke reasonable Tibetan, ‘I was telling your brother about a Man.’

‘But I’m want to hear about the Buddha and get help from the gods,’ the tired and breathless pilgrim replied.

‘God became a man.’

‘That’s not new! Most gods behave like men, surely?’

‘This divine Man was a pilgrim too. He told people: ‘Follow (constantly) Me!’

‘Ha! You mean He had a lot of merit?’

‘He did not need merit, but lived a perfect life to benefit everyone else. His whole life was a journey to help people, but also to demonstrate His commitment to die in the place of others.

‘Yes no one can arrive at perfection without suffering’, the pilgrim said, as he offered the stranger some tsamba and tea. He had already been careful to flick some away as an offering to the gods.

‘But because He is the Highest of Gods, higher than the Buddha, he gives his merit and the forgiveness as a gift'

‘Hey, if he was already divine, why did he come down to suffer and die?’

‘To give the merit of His death to those who trust Him!’

‘You mean for nothing? All the effort of prayer wheels, prostrations, offerings’ count for nothing? No one can be sure of that. How can I be Tibetan without seeking merit? I cannot conceive of Tibet without the Lord Buddha, The Scriptures, The Monks? How can a Tibetan follow this god-man Jesus? Pah! His Bible fits in your pocket! Why the Buddhist Scriptures fill whole libraries - the holy monks read this wisdom every day!’

‘This God Man is both the Good Shepherd to follow and the Way to pilgrim on.’

Long ago the Apostle Paul asked: ‘How are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? How are they to hear without a preacher? How are they to preach unless they are sent?

Who will explain the real God and Saviour to the Tibetan Drokpa or nomads?

One third of all Tibetans are nomadic herders of sheep, yaks and horses. They move regularly according to the seasons, with their herds to find pasture. This is the only use that the high plateaux can be used for. After a very difficult time when Communist dogma was imposed, they are again allowed to own and develop their herds successfully. Many have lost herds in heavy snowfalls and have been helped by foreign aid agencies. They are also free to be Buddhists again, but both monks and government are opposed to Christianity. Their faith is preoccupied with gaining merit and placating the various spirits and ‘gods’.

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