LAST SEEN IN LHASA Claire Scobie
In search of a rare red lily in the Tibetan Himalayas, Claire Scobie meets Ani, a Tibetan nun, in Pemako, where the myth of Shangri-la was born. Together, in a culture where freedom of expression is forbidden, risking arrest, they forge an abiding friendship based on intuition and deep respect. Through seven journeys in Tibet, Claire chronicles a rapidly changing world. Evoking the luminous landscape of snow peaks and wild alpine gardens, Last Seen in Lhasa captures the paradoxes of contemporary Tibet: a land steeped in religion, struggling against oppression and galloping towards modernity. A unique story of insight and adventure, about an extraordinary friendship in modern Tibet.
252pp, 134mm x 214mm, Paperback, 2006
The Essence of Flowers
The predicted rains had not come and as we continued south towards the Indian border, the sultrier it became. The sky, soft and spacious, deepened from buttermilk to cerulean; the sun cast a peachy-gold tint over the valleys. Ani and I often walked in silence, only broken by the sound of her muttering under her breath. I noticed how effortlessly she seemed to fall into this still quiet pool. She was clearly comfortable traversing her interior landscape; I could only tiptoe around my own.
Some days a sense of dream superseded reality; others an exhausted torpor set in and with it I found ferocious emotions would bubble up from mowhere, and then, just as quickly, subside. Physically gruelling, I had to draw upon every fibre in my body to cope with the rough terrain. But the sheer effort - up and down, down and up - had a cleansing effect and my usual meaningless mental chatter would subside. Occasionally I slipped into an empty, weightless and blissful space, until I tripped over a tree root or found yet another leech crawling down my neck. After picking off a dozen in one hour, I gave up counting.
Peak after peak appeared - Gyala Pelri, a dome of ice behind a puff of cloud, and then the glining pinnacle of Namcha Barwa, known as the 'blazing meteorite'. One night camping on the edge of a village I was kep awake by rustling, only to find, the following morning, that our groundsheet resembled a sieve: we'd set up camp above a killer ants' nest. They had devoured our tent like butter.
When boredom set in, I focused on my immediate world - and what an extraordinary one it was. Polka-dot butterflies as large as bats fluttered above furry centipedes. Giant olive-brown stick insects swooped low and shimmering emerald stag beetles, the size of a toy car, hauled themselves up tree trunks. Everything whispered and everywhere was green, a deep dizzying green. I would imagine that each step was on sacred ground, reminding myself that this was a revered place of pilgrimage and, with time, this engendered a new reverence and an immense respect for the effortless beauty around me; for the calligraphy of a flower, the divinity in a leaf.
The aromas were always changing: sweet-smelling grass, sticky rotting vegetation, freshly cut hay which transported me instantly back to England on a hot summer's day. It seemed like I'd been walking along this trail forever, yet it was barely a fortnight. Cut off from the rest of the world, with few reference points to my former life, sometimes I would need to remember home, as if to remember myself. I cast my mind back to the previous year, trying to piece together the journey that had led me to Pemako and to Ani.
It was when I was working as a journalist in London that a feeling of spiritual aridity, an aching emptiness inside, began to preoccupy me. I wanted to be successful but not at the expense of my dreams, of my deeper intuition. I started to feel distinctly uncomfortable in my own skin: I felt a fake. I took up yoga, looked for answers on the burgeoning shelves of the self-help industry, tried aromatherapy massage courses and studied the chakras - the seven energy centres in the body.
Then one day I remember having to look up the word 'compassion' in a dictionary. I wondered why I'd never used it - only to realise with a sinking heart that I'd genuinely never felt it, not true compassion, the selfless sort described in Buddhist teachings. Only later would I realise that this small moment would have far-reaching consequences on my own pilgrimage. 'First there is the personal restlessness... Then there is the need to feel something deeper than the surface glare of things,' writes Joan Marler, dancer and mythologist. 'For many women, going on a sacred journey means getting back in touch with what is sacred in the earth.'
From time to time Ani and I stumbled across a profusion of scarlet-orange and hot-pink orchids. Delicately plucking a flower, she showed me how to suck the nectar from the stamen, then she fastened whorls of blossoms on her hair, swaying along the path like a Hawaiian beach girl. When the silence began to crowd in, and the path became dull, I played Pulp or the Chemical Brothers on my Walkman. Ani wanted to listen too, frowning at the hard plastic earphones before mimicking my dancing - her ebony dreadlocks spiralling, her arms flailing - and then for no reason we skipped, until we fell into the shade and fanned each other with palm leaves.
Together with Sonam, as we wound our way up to the county 'capital' of Metok - which means flowers in Tibetan - Ani told me about a rare practice she'd undertaken on the advice of a Khampa lama when staying in her hermitage.
Pemako is famous for its effusion of flowers and considered an especially potent place to perform metok chulen - literally extracting the quintessence of flowers - which refines one's subtle body (the network of invisible channels and centres through which energy passes), through prayer, visualisations, yoga and ritual. This is the first of several practices where the adept gradually reduces their intake of solid food until they are sustained purely by the essence, aiming to sever attachment to physical nourishment. The more advanced practitioner will live only on mineral and water essences, and eventually on air alone.
The miraculous qualities of the flowers in the valleys are described in detail in Padmasambhava's text, 'A Clear Mirror for Identifying the Five Special Plants'. Their properties include the gift of immortality and the ability to fly; their perfumed scent gives rise to feelings of bliss, purifying the body and heightening one's meditation.
Before beginning metok chulen, Ani made a vow not to eat any food, barely drink a glass of water a day, and for three weeks to remain in silence. She collected flowers, grinding them with water into a small tablet. 'Over the weeks I became very thin and weak, my skin hanging loose, empty. In the end I couldn't sit because my ribs poked in my tummy,' she recalled. 'My whole body hurt, as if it was being squashed under a building. Even my mouth stuck together.' She clamped her teeth tightly for emphasis. 'The ground swayed beneath me and my whole body became light.'
Ani then went on to describe the visions she had - 'of beautiful trees, fruits and flowers in many different colours' - both within her mind and with her eyes open.
I asked if it was like paradise.
'Yes. Except there were three stages to it. The first twenty-one days I felt happy like a young girl. Then at the end when I began to eat a little tsampa gruel - I couldn't eat much or else my intestines would break and I could die - I felt suffering through the body like I was feeling the suffering of all people. This lasted for fifteen days.' She leaned on her gnarled staff. 'Then I started to be like normal, except my body felt very old, heavy and it was hard to move.'
'Do you think it helped you?'
'Yes, undoubtedly,' she replied. 'Metok chulen is a way of purifying the mind. You see, Drolma, outward appearances aren't so important, it's the mind within that's precious.'
'Is that because the body isn't as solid as it appears?'
'The body's like a rainbow.' She prodded my arm. 'It's ephemeral.'
My confusion must have been obvious.
'Think of it like this,' she said patiently. 'The body is the guest of the land. It's like a temporary shelter to house the mind. When you die the bone does into the earth, blood into water, the warmth of the body into fire and breath into air. But the mind isn't finished and will come again and again in different incarnations. This is what you must respect and why it's important to practise religion and prepare for the next life.'
From Last Seen In Lhasa, ?2006 by Claire Scobie, published by Rider.