Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap: Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu

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Most of the road workers you see across the plateau are women! Up until the Chinese invasion many Tibetan farming villages practised polyandry. When a woman married the eldest son of a family she also married his younger brothers providing they did not become monks. The children of such marriages referred to all the brothers as their father. The practice was aimed at easing the inheritance of family property mainly the farming land and avoiding the break-up of small plots.

In fact the years it took Tibetans to change their genes is considered the fastest genetic change ever observed in humans. You never stood a chance. Tourism has already affected many areas in Tibet. Most children will automatically stick their hand out for a sweet, a pen or anything. In some regions, locals have become frustrated at seeing a stream of rich tourist groups but few tangible economic results.

Please try to bear the following in mind as you travel through Tibet:. Sky burials are funeral services and, naturally, Tibetans are often very unhappy about camera-toting foreigners heading up to sky-burial sites. The Chinese authorities do not like it either and may fine foreigners who attend a burial.

You should never pay to see a sky burial and you should never take photos. Even if Tibetans offer to take you up to a sky-burial site, it is unlikely that other Tibetans present will be very happy about it. In Tibet there are countless sacred destinations, ranging from lakes and mountains to monasteries and caves that once served as meditation retreats for important yogis.

Specific pilgrimages are often prescribed for specific ills; certain mountains, for example, expiate certain sins. A circumambulation of Mt Kailash offers the possibility of liberation within three lifetimes, while a circuit of Lake Manasarovar can result in spontaneous buddhahood. Pilgrimage is also more powerful in certain auspicious months and years.

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Breaking Out of the Poverty Trap:Case Studies from the Tibetan Plateau in Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu

Pilgrims often organise themselves into large groups, hire a truck and travel around the country visiting all the major sacred places in one go. Such guides even specify locations where you can urinate or fart without offending local spirits and probably your fellow pilgrims.

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Making a pilgrimage is not just a matter of walking to a sacred place and then going home. There are a number of activities that help focus the concentration of the pilgrim. The act of kora circumambulating the object of devotion is chief among these. Circuits of three, 13 or koras are especially auspicious, with sunrise and sunset the most auspicious hours. The particularly devout prostrate their way along entire pilgrimages, stepping forward the length of their body after each prostration and starting all over again. The hardcore even do their koras sideways, advancing one side-step at a time!

Most pilgrims make offerings during the course of a pilgrimage. Kathaks white ceremonial scarves are offered to lamas or holy statues as a token of respect and then often returned by the lama as a blessing. Offerings of yak butter or oil, fruit, tsampa , seeds and money are all left at altars, and bottles of chang barley beer and rice wine are donated to protector chapels. Outside chapels, at holy mountain peaks, passes and bridges, you will see pilgrims throwing offerings of tsampa or printed prayers into the air. Other activities in this spiritual assault course include adding stones to cairns, rubbing special healing rocks, and squeezing through narrow gaps in rocks as a method of sin detection.

Koras usually include stops that are of particular spiritual significance, such as rock-carved syllables or painted buddha images. Other pilgrimages are carried out to visit a renowned holy man or teacher. Blessings or tsering rilbu long-life pills from holy men, trulkus reincarnated lamas or rinpoche s highly esteemed lamas are particularly valued, as are the possessions of famous holy men.

According to Keith Dowman in his book The Sacred Life of Tibet, the underpants of one revered lama were cut up and then distributed amongst his eager followers! Most of those who have made the crossing in the last decade or so have come as educational refugees, travelling to Dharamsala to get a traditional education, learn Tibetan and English language and to study Tibetan arts and history.

In recent years the flow of refugees has slowed to a trickle, as China has tightened its patrol of the borders. The great monasteries of Tibet have also relocated, many to the sweltering heat of South India, where you can find replicas of the Sera, Ganden and Drepung Monasteries. Being a devout Buddhist region, Tibet has a long tradition of begging for alms. Tibetans often gesture with their lips to indicate a direction, so if a member of the opposite sex pouts at you, they are just showing you where to go. If a road worker starts blowing you kisses, he probably just wants a cigarette.

Tibetan babies are considered to be one year old at the time of birth, since reincarnation took place nine months previously upon conception. Torma or towa are small offerings made of yak butter and tsampa adorned with coloured medallions of butter. They probably developed as a Buddhist substitute for animal sacrifice. Popular names such as Sonam merit and Tashi good fortune carry religious connotations. Older country folk may stick out their tongue when they meet you, a very traditional form of respect that greeted the very first travellers to Tibet centuries ago.


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A basic understanding of Buddhism is essential to getting beneath the skin of things in Tibet. Exploring the monasteries and temples of Tibet and mixing with its people, yet knowing nothing of Buddhism, is like visiting the Vatican and knowing nothing of Roman Catholicism. To be sure, it's an awe-inspiring experience, but much will remain hidden and indecipherable. A little studying here will give you a far deeper connection to Tibet and its people.

For those who already know something of Zen Buddhism, Tibet can seem baffling. The grandeur of the temples, the worship of images and the bloodthirsty protective deities that stand in doorways all seem to belie the basic tenets of an ascetic faith that is basically about renouncing the self and following a path of moderation. This animist or shamanistic faith — which encompassed gods and spirits, exorcism, spells, talismans, ritual drumming, sacrifices and the cult of dead kings, among other things — had a major influence on the direction Buddhism took in Tibet.


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Grafted onto these have been the scholastic tradition of the Indian Buddhist universities and the ascetic, meditative traditions of the Himalayan religion. Yet for all its confusing iconography and philosophy, the basic tenets of Buddhism are very much rooted in daily experience.

Even high lamas and monks come across as surprisingly down-to-earth. Buddhism originated in the northeast of India around the 5th century BC, at a time when the local religion was Brahmanism. Some Brahman, in preparation for presiding over offerings to their gods, partook of an asceticism that transported them to remote places where they fasted, meditated and practised yogic techniques. Many of the fundamental concepts of Buddhism find their origin in the Brahman society of this time.

The Buddha c — BC , born Siddhartha Gautama, was one of many wandering ascetics whose teachings led to the establishment of rival religious schools. Jainism was one of these schools; Buddhism was another. Little is known about the life of Siddhartha. It was probably not until some years after his death that biographies were compiled, and by that time many of the circumstances of his life had merged with legend. It is known that he was born in Lumbini modern-day Nepal of a noble family and that he married and had a son before renouncing a life of privilege and embarking on a quest to make sense of the suffering in the world.

After studying with many of the masters of his day he embarked on a course of intense ascetism, before concluding that such a path was too extreme. Finally, in the place that is now known as Bodhgaya in India, Siddhartha meditated beneath a bo pipal tree. At the break of dawn at the end of his third night of meditation he became a buddha awakened one.

Buddhism is not based on any revealed prophecy or divine revelation but rather is firmly rooted in human experience.


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The later Mahayana school to which Tibetan Buddhism belongs diverged from these early teachings in some respects, but not in its fundamentals. The Buddha commenced his teachings by explaining that there was a Middle Way that steered a course between sensual indulgence and ascetic self-torment — a way of moderation rather than renunciation. The philosophical underpinnings of this path were the Four Noble Truths, which addressed the problems of karma and rebirth.

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These basic concepts are the kernel of early Buddhist thought. In modern terms, Buddhist thought stresses nonviolence, compassion, equanimity evenness of mind , mindfulness awareness of the present moment and non-attachment. Life is a cycle of endless rebirths. There are six levels of rebirth or realms of existence, as depicted in the Wheel of Life.

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It is important to accumulate enough merit to avoid the three lower realms, although in the long cycle of rebirth, all beings pass through them at some point. All beings are fated to tread this wheel continuously until they make a commitment to enlightenment. All beings pass through the same cycle of rebirths.