Notes on Thick Brown Paper: In Tibet • Yu Jian (1994)

L1080735_Yu JIn TIBET

Photograph by Yu Jian

The etymological root of the Tibetan world is “origin”. There is nothing static about this notion of origins, for this world in its vital energies is originary. It is not only a spiritual quality; it is also immediately apparent in the land, in the architecture, in the way of life. For someone who comes from a world of which the etymological root is “progress”, it is simply not possible to make use of the word “backward” in the case of Tibet. Tibet rejects the outlook of Darwin’s theory of evolution so widespread in our world. Everything in this world takes place in an untrammelled time-space, an integrated whole, a powerful consciousness of life and history. Here you might gain an immediate sense of what is known as “eternal life”. When you discover that the time shown on your watch is totally out of sync with that of the Buddhist elders seated on the stone slab at the Jokhang Temple, you begin to suspect that the time of your “progress” is in fact regressing this moment in the direction of death.

In no sense is Tibet a place where spiritual beings are ethereal like the wind. This is pure conjecture on the part of atheists living in the world of “progress”. In Tibet, a spirit is something you can meet with on the road. They are not insubstantial air: they are tangible and have all the intense reality of stone. They are things capable of inflicting injury on the wind and its ilk.

A materialist visiting Tibet who did not become—if only for a split second—a mystic would, I believe, have to be devoid of any feeling.

I do not like discussing the supernatural. Nor am I fond of poets given to liberally sprinkling their works with the word “soul”. I am certain that there is no spirit to speak of in those places where the word “soul” is spoken of with such gusto. I didn’t hear the word once during my stay in Tibet, nor did intellectuals there debate its loss. But the spirit was everywhere.

Prior to my trip to Tibet, an avant-garde friend back from New York told me that he found it surprising that there were people still wanting to go there. Surely such behaviour was well and truly passé? I didn’t quite know what he meant. Could the progress of time mean that places such as Tibet were out of date? To which parts of the globe would future ages travel? No, I felt hopelessly out of step with fashion—I had always imagined the Tibets of this world to be timeless.

In Tibet I was culturally deaf, dumb and blind. I knew nothing. Only such honesty enabled me to see it.

In Lhasa, I experienced several different worlds in a single day. In the imposing hills around the Drepung Monastery, I watched the public display of a thangka (picture) of the Buddha in a crowd numbering thousands. Beneath the dazzling sunlight, several dozen monks unfurled an enormous, resplendent Buddha from the top of a slope. In an empty part of the monastery I came across a hundred dogs; they turned in unison to stare at me. I promptly withdrew, scared out of my wits. In another part of the city, I attended a meeting. Those present were neatly dressed in clean clothes. A serious mood prevailed. The leader made a speech which lasted 30 minutes. This was followed by a reading of three articles, each of which was 30 minutes’ long. Then the leader declared the meeting over, a formality which took another 10 minutes. In a small, unlit shop in Barkhor Street, I drank yak-butter tea with Tibetan-speaking mountain people, my nostrils stabbed by the drink’s bizarre smell. The furs worn by the clientele, even their knives and jewellery, all looked to me as if they had been smeared with the stuff. Outside another shop in the same street, my nostrils were assaulted by the scent of imported French perfume, the bottles arranged in the manner of some third-rate Western bar. The store was full of white people jabbering away in English.

Outside a modest shop I saw a dark, fluffy-haired man with a sheep-skin bag slung over his shoulder. The bag was enormous; it was nearly large enough to hold a sturdy ram. The wear and tear of the bag, its patchy shininess, creases, holes, straps and smell immediately struck you as being extraordinary. At a glance it transformed into a metaphor, a symbol that instantly called to mind the words “true grit”, “prairie”, “the Wild West”, “range”, “cowboy”. It became a tactile poem more intense than that poetry divided into lines.

In teahouses across Lhasa they were screening the film Journey to the West. It was shown day after day, and the same audiences watched it over and over again with undiminished enthusiasm.

In a certain spot on Barkhor Street, groups of Khampa men do business by thrusting a hand into the sleeve of their trading-partner and moving it around inside. They look as if they’re putting on some kind of play with hand-puppets. An expert on local affairs told me that this was how they haggled. They bargain with their fingers in their sleeves, communicating prices by means of gesture.

A brawny man with long braids coiled on the crown of his head came up to me, blocking my way. I saw the gleaming knife hanging from his belt. He pulled back the fold of his robe to reveal a shiny bronze Buddha perched smilingly on his belly. He said I could have it for 350 yuan. I told him I wasn’t interested. At once, he closed the fold of his robe and the Buddha vanished. I found out later there were many such exquisitely wrought statues in Tibet where a whole spectrum of art-forms derived from religion exists: the popular, the practical, the extemporaneous, the mundane, the professional. Back in the Interior [i.e. China], religion means history, myths, exhibition halls, something done in one’s spare-time. In Tibet, religion is the pots and pans of daily living, a way of life.

During the day in Barkhor Street there are stalls everywhere selling handicrafts. It’s a paradise for women: everywhere you look there are necklaces, bracelets, rings, perfumes . . . From India, Nepal, the upper reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo River . . . A multitude of glittering objects. Tibetan women positively chime as the move around like living musical instruments. Chinese women from the Interior express surprise at the low cost of the jewellery.

Everywhere you go in Lhasa you meet with people looking through the viewfinders of their cameras. I certainly enlarged my knowledge of extraordinary photographic equipment. But such cameras generally capture this extraordinary world on mediocre film. An extraordinary world cannot turn ordinary men and women into extraordinary beings. Their beginning is their end. Common sense is very important to people. Those who come to Tibet to look from the angle of common sense are better able to perceive its extraordinary aspects. Many poets and painters are under the impression that a trip to Tibet is all they need to produce something out of the ordinary. In fact, their visit renders them even more mediocre. Unfortunately, this has already become something of a fad in creative circles in China. Even those who do not make the journey seek to invent a subject to rival the enigma of Tibet whenever they sit down to work.

In certain parts of Lhasa one finds windy, ethereal-looking Chinese men and women who grow their hair long, wear big leather boots and dress in the uniform of hippies. They all call themselves artists or “freelance writers”. They look like something straight out of a cartoon by E. O. Plauen.

On the stone slab in front of the Jokhang Temple, an ageing mother has been performing full-length prostrations since early morning. She has even gone to the trouble of making her own special gear: a pair of hand-pads cut from the inner tubes of car tyres. Because she will spend the whole day repeating this movement, the pads will prevent her from injuring her hands. This activity has already become her speciality.

A woman who had come to burn incense at the temple asked me for some money. I gave her ten mao. She returned nine.

Someone tried to sell me a lump of rock. He said it was a cat’s eye. I’ve read in books about the legends connected with this kind of stone. It’s a part and parcel of the paraphernalia of mysticism. He wanted a 1000 yuan for it. I couldn’t afford it. I am destined, it seems, never to rub shoulders with the ineffable.

At any time you were bound to see men urinating up against walls without the slightest compunction. Caught out by the workings of my own bladder, I learnt on the spot to do the same. A surprisingly uncomplicated affair, after all.

Less than ten kilometres out of Lhasa you came to an age-old wilderness. While wandering alone over ground strewn with white stones, I felt sure that I had an appointment with Moses.

Dusty-yellow villages. White villages. Every single window-frame a black border. Clear lines, stark contrasts, and yet plain, uncomplicated, solidly three-dimensional and almost monochromatic. This world belongs to Cézanne. Gaugin would be hard pressed to find a pigment on his palette for this.

Certain parts of the mountain range could suddenly flare up a yellow-gold. Their natural colour was ash grey. Rembrandt’s light.

The mountain peaks: like traces scratched out by the fingers of gods. Or the hems of their flowing robes.

Spinning bits of cloud scattered in all directions like a madman’s hair. In their midst, the sun—a hole. Or a screamer’s gaping mouth.

On the day I arrived in Lhasa, the sun I saw looked particularly strange. It sat directly in the middle of a circular patch of haze, the outer circumference of which was ringed with a line of darkness. It wasn’t an eclipse because everything else was still light. I have a photograph to prove it. I was left feeling like a mystic for several days afterwards.

I bought an object cast in bronze, a sort of trough shaped like the petal of a lotus flower. It was an antique, mottled with dark spots and very heavy. I liked its shape and bought it for its beauty. I had no idea what it was used for. It didn’t really matter, did it? Nevertheless, when a Tibetan woman by the name of Zhuoga told me that it was a yak-butter lamp, I lit up inside.

There wasn’t a single tree on the hills. Not a blade of grass. Stones everywhere, round and white like the heads of monks. You look at a group of stones. Then, at single stones. Then at the stones growing out of other stones.

The clouds looked like great bolls of cotton growing on the mountaintops. But with the constant transformations of yin and yang, they also resembled immense primitive animals.

I didn’t see a plant on these hills in the course of my journey. There, suddenly, was a solitary tree planted amidst the jumble of rocks. Only the hands of a god could have planted a tree on a hill like that.

At the monastery I noticed that the demons trampled underfoot by the gods all had the faces of human beings. The gods, however, looked exactly how I’d imagined the demons to be.

It was only after I happened to read a book by the Austrian writer René Nebesky-Wojkowitz entitled Oracles and Demons of Tibet that I realized how concrete such beings were in that country. The particular duties for which each was responsible—as well their clothing, headgear and weaponry—is all stipulated right down to the last detail. There is a passage on this world of gods and demons that describes the realm of supernatural beings as a shadowy curtain which is only partially visible, or a semi-transparent shade that lies beyond the reality of this universe. It can only be seen through the eyes of religious belief; it can only be brought under control by means of such techniques as meditation, strict codes of conduct and complex religious ritual. What else does Nebesky-Wojkowitz say in his book? He says that religion is game, and that it has a set of rules that can be manipulated. A mysticism that relies on the manipulations of reason? Behold the paradox of Tibet.

The Potala looks like no other palace I’ve ever seen. Inside, it looks more like a labyrinth: various mysterious passageways appear and disappear again in the enigmatic gloom as they lead you to rooms in which you never expected to find yourself. I was blindly following in the direction others took when I heard someone say This is the bedroom of the Dalai Lama. And there I was. Next thing I knew, someone announced that we’re standing in the uppermost room in the Palace. As I made my way around, there was absolutely nothing to indicate that I was about to come across a room of particular importance: there were none of the signs you inevitably encounter in Chinese palaces. None at all. Not only did all the rooms look more or less the same, even the main gate of the Potala Palace looked very much like any other large gate. The only extraordinary thing about the Potala Palace was its overall configuration.

But climbing the stone steps leading up to the Potala, I did in fact experience something sublime.

The Potala Palace is a place where you can actually touch things. None of the distances dictated by sightseeing have been placed between it and humanity. Thus my long deprived hands were able to stroke the gold and precious stones set in a spirit throne. I caressed a diamond as big as a tennis ball. It could have come from the Ganges River, from a deep, secluded cave in the Kangkar Tesi Mountains, or from the hand of a monarch, and it could have been drenched in the blood of several individuals. What I do know for a fact is that it was the coldest stone I ever touched.

Beneath the Potala Palace, I saw an old man with a dog. He looked as if he had been walking for ever. He was covered from head to foot in yellow dust. The dog too was yellow. I thought he must have come all the way from India.

I had the good fortune to be present at a public display of a large thangka of the Buddha at the Potala Palace. The last ceremony of its kind had taken place forty years ago. In Lhasa, any vantage point from which the Palace could be seen was jammed with spectators. I saw many mountain people of modest physical stature waiting in places where even a glimpse of the image would have been impossible. Nevertheless, they stood there facing in its direction, weeping in silence. This was so different from my own perspective (for me it would have been a complete waste of time if I hadn’t seen the image). Later I understood that it was I who had not seen the Buddha.

On the day of the public display, tens of thousands of people circled the Potala Palace on foot in a clockwise direction. They walked in a cloud of dust. Tibetans, Chinese, Westerners, monks, common people . . . The aged were supported and children were led by the hand as if taking part in one of the great migrations of history. But this was no progress. It was a form of stationary displacement.

The Lhasa River. Smoothly it flows past smooth sand bars and smooth fields of grass. One has no difficulty walking right onto its banks. There are no raging waters, no spectacular falls. A river of silence. And in the distance there are quiet, black hills. Soundless cattlehide rafts. It is a river of high altitudes, in a land of beginnings.

Tibet is remote. Even when I was there I still felt this to be so. Remote means that it is forever out of reach. Remote means that one never “arrives”. Remote means to be in mid-journey, for eternity. Yunnan is one of the remotenesses of my life; Tibet is another. I will never reach either of them. But the remote also belongs to the present. It can only be apprehended and experienced on the spot, in the process of movement.

In Tibet, most women incline forward as they walk, slightly bowed as if carrying something on their backs. Could it be that remoteness they shoulder?

Metaphors in Chinese such as “willowy”, “cherry-lipped” or “rosy” cannot be applied to Tibetan women. For a start, these plants do not exist in Tibet. Secondly, a woman such as this could never exist in a place like Tibet. Tibetan women have a beauty of their own, although I have no idea how to describe it. My vocabulary on the subject of women is rendered invalid here. In fact, I am convinced that the entirety of my language loses its validity when it comes to speaking of this world. This however gives me the courage to say whatever I think. When a speaker knowingly speaks nonsense, his words become a work of art.

The red Tashilhunpo Monastery is of an incomparable splendour. As a piece of architecture, it has acquired an unforgettable life of its own—it is eternal. It terrified me. My strongest emotion here was one of intense fear: I didn’t dare pray. All the monasteries I had ever seen before coming to Tibet were false.

The light of Tibet is astonishing. Here is a light that issues directly from light, the light of immense altitude that turns the world transparent. That does not hide it from view.

I asked a Tibetan man rich in a particular presence whether I could take his picture. He came to an abrupt halt and gazed at me, unruffled, waiting. There was something so direct about his gaze that my hands began to tremble, my self-confidence demolished at a stroke. Could I really match this penetrating sincerity in transferring him onto film? I had a vague idea that there was nothing in the slightest bit honest about the intention which lay behind my recent confident request for a photo. I was hunting for novelty; he was my prey. He of course knew nothing of my deliberations.

In August, the waters of the Yarlung Zangbo River are grey. The road to Shigatse unfolds beside it. Under a similarly grey sky, I could see no other people; there were no buildings. All I saw were soaring crows.

There are many things in Tibet which cannot be put into words. Everyone has this feeling, but still they believe that they have something worth saying. As I thought this, I realized that I have already gone on for far too long. I thereby conclude my notes at this point.

Translated by Simon Patton

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