John Vincent Bellezza
From Menyak and Trehor on the eastern fringes of the Tibetan Plateau to its very heart at Lhasa, this month’s Flight of the Khyung arcs across the roof of the world. There is always more to see and more to explore. The human being bereft of its own coat of fur was destined to keep moving, his or her curiosity being the engine of that movement.
Where is the Mind?
Curiosity, as human a trait as any, is a product of our mind, that most primal and enigmatic of entities. Straitjacket the senses and the mind will generate its own sights, sounds and smells in order to keep itself active. Even when experiencing trauma, extreme emotion or intoxication the mind still asserts itself as a sovereign force. What is this self-aware thing at the center of consciousness: a spontaneously generated phantom, a concrete persona, or a divine being? Throughout history individuals and societies have sought answers to this most of basic questions: ‘who am I’?
Religions have furnished a plethora of answers to this essential question, ranging from orthodox understandings to the extravagantly speculative and mystical. It is generally agreed upon by those who take a rational approach that the answers arrived at by religion, by their very nature, are inconclusive. That is not to say that they are wrong, but just that they remain scientifically unverifiable. This was eloquently affirmed by the Roman emperor Marcus Aureleus some 1700 years ago in his seminal work Meditations. He came to the conclusion that as wondrous as the organ of reason is, the ultimate nature of the universe and human beings must remain open to question and analysis.
Indic religions have tended to seek out answers to the question of the nature of self utilizing a regimen of physical, moral and introspective exercises. In this regard, the adepts of Indic religions are among our greatest explorers. The most renowned of all psychonauts was the Buddha. He came to the realization that there is no inherently existent self at the center of the mind; rather the self or ego is in state of constant flux, from lifetime to lifetime, in an unending cycle of transmigration. For the Buddhists, there is nothing truly existent in the universe except the absolute emptiness of all phenomena.
While most modern neuroscientists are convinced that the brain generates and harbors consciousness and the concomitant sense of self, many ancient peoples held very different views. Frequently, the heart was seen to be the center of the mind. The mind could be placed even farther afield from the brain. Take the Tibetans and their native concept of lanay (bla-gnas), which holds that the soul, or that aspect of the mind that is conscious of itself, can exist outside the human being to whom it belongs. For the Tibetan, the soul need not be confined to the body; it can exist on many different planes. It is believed that pieces of the multifaceted soul can migrate to inhabit precious stones and pristine mountains, lakes and trees. The largest and holiest of mountains and lakes, such as Mount Tise and Lake Nam Tsho, are seen as repositories for the souls of the entire Tibetan nation. These physical emblems of the individual soul or the collective body of souls are held in great reverence by Tibetans.
The philosophical notion of ‘man and nature’ propagated in the West since the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and by many other modern secularist societies, is predicated upon an existential or phenomenological divide between human beings and other living things. How different the Tibetan concept of lanay, whereby the conscious essence of an individual is spread across the very ecological fabric of the countryside. The bigger and more important the person, the longer the reach of his or her soul. A corollary ancient Tibetan idea holds that divinities, animals and humans can appear in each other’s forms, expanding the matrix of inter-being consciousness to the very bounds of existence.
It does not appear that such beliefs eroded the ancient Tibetan’s sense of individuality, for the individual was held to a very strict and austere code of honor with its rewards and punishments. Rather, beliefs concerning the transposition of consciousness worked to place the individual into a much wider and ramified ontological context. No existentialist angst here, a condition whereby the individual reaches the precipice of self-knowledge, for the borders of the individual consciousness could not be delineated in such stark and unyielding terms.
The soul as an essential persona is, of course, inimical to Buddhist philosophical notions of impermanence and emptiness. While Tibetans have shorn themselves of a belief in an afterlife, a parallel realm where departed souls abide, they could not dispense with the concept and perception of a soul. I speak at length about these subjects in my book Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet.
On June 18 of this year, I discovered the highest residential structure known to date in Upper Tibet. This find was made on an expedition sponsored by the International Ashtapad Research Foundation. In the lap of Mount Tise, above the Gyangdrak amphitheatre, an all-stone corbelled residence was located at 5470 m above sea level. This ruin may well represent the highest permanent habitation built anywhere in the world. In any case, it is a testament to the stamina and vigor of the ancient Tibetans, a people superbly adapted to high elevation conditions. This residential structure belonged to a network of analogously constructed domiciles founded sometime after circa 500 BCE. These all-stone corbelled structures or dokhang, were the architectural hallmark of the archaic Upper Tibetan or Zhang Zhung civilization.
UW-XIX, the highest residential structure discovered in Upper Tibet
The newly discovered dokhang has been designated UW-XIX. It is one of 19 such edifices on the Upper West ridge of the Gyangdrak amphitheatre. UW-XIX is perched on a rocky shelf 70 m to 80 m higher than any of the other dokhang of Gyangdrak. Despite its height, UW-XIX is well protected from northern winds and exposure, an extremely important environmental consideration. Fabulous views of both Lake La-ngak and Lake Ma-pang are had from this lofty location. This humble edifice measures only 7.5 m x 4 m, and its ruined walls reach a maximum height of 1.5 m. UW-XIX consisted of three tiers of tiny, windowless cells. The lower or forward tier has been largely destroyed. It may have supported two or three cells. The middle tier contains just one cell. There are still some stone corbels in place on top of its walls. The upper tier also consists of just one room. A portion of its roof is still in situ. This roof is of typical dokhang construction: oversailing corbels support bridging stones on which stone sheathing was laid.
Who lived in UW-XIX? This is still a mystery. The Bon religion, which has preserved many stories and legends about Zhang Zhung, indicates that such structures were inhabited by religious adepts. This seems to make sense, because it is difficult to see how the very young or more vulnerable members of ancient society could have lived at such a height. Perhaps the dokhang at lower elevations hosted a wider cross-section of Zhang Zhung society, but those above 5000 m or 5100 m appear to have had a specialized function.
From Bon literary accounts, we know that Gyangdrak was probably Zhang Zhung’s first capital (see my Antiquities of Upper Tibet for more information). Located right in the heart of western Tibet’s most sacred mountain, this is a site invested with tremendous geomantic power. I theorize that deteriorating climatic conditions may have forced the abandonment of Gyangdrak as the Zhang Zhung capital for the lower elevation Khyunglung Ngulkhar, located some 70 km to the northwest. The climate at Khyunglung Ngulkhar (now known as Khardong) is certainly much milder that at Gyangdrak. Khyunglung Ngulkhar is poised at the gateway to the badlands regions of Guge with its myriad canyons and mesas. This may have also been a factor in the establishment of Khyunglung Ngulkhar. Trade routes to and from the Tibetan highlands could be controlled from here.
I have written about the environmental and spatial characteristics of Gyangdrak, Khyunglung Ngulkhar and other major Zhang Zhung sites in a paper entitled Territorial Characteristics of the Pre-Buddhist Zhang-zhung Paleocultural Entity: A Comparative Analysis of Archaeological Evidence and Popular Bon Literary Sources. This paper was delivered at the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Oxford, in 2002. It and a number of other Bon-related papers from that conference are still languishing unpublished due to a number of administrative snafus. I am assured by the editors that my paper will be published soon. Seven years is a long time to wait, but I suppose it could be worse. Many papers delivered at the 1998 IATS conference in Bloomington, Indiana, were never published by the editors originally entrusted with that work. After so long, most Bloomington authors have found alternative avenues for the publication of their papers. I find this a curious state of affairs in an age of high speed computers, when the proceedings of previous IATS conferences, works that had to be typeset the old-fashioned way, generally saw the light of day much more quickly.
One of the biggest news stories buzzing around the streets of Lhasa these days concerns the arrival of blood-sucking mosquitoes. This is supposed to be the first time that mosquitoes that bite people have reached Tibet’s capital city. This event is ascribed to climate change by more thoughtful commentators. Having mosquitoes in one’s room is certainly a novel experience in Lhasa, and may well be a harbinger of more changes in the natural environment to come.
Miniature red apples grown in Lhasa
Tibetan woman selling local produce can be found just off the Barkor circuit. Right now miniature red apples from Lhasa and the surrounding countryside are available. Although they are tiny, these apples are very sweet and fragrant. Miniature peaches from the Yarlung valley are also for sale. They are best eaten dried when they assume a sweeter and fuller flavor. Walnuts from the Yarlung valley are also being picked right now. Fresh walnuts are moist and have a milder and creamier taste than their dried counterparts. Sersha, a golden-colored mushroom with a delicate flavor that hints of almonds, are very popular nowadays. This hardy mushroom grows even on the Changthang to a height of 5000 m. While this is the season for fresh chives, they are sold dried year round. This wild-crafted vegetable adds zest to any thukpa or stew. I like to use them in Indian curries too.