The Heart of Tibet This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

   I sit on the floor in theJokung Temple, the holiest place in all of Tibet, and watch the pilgrims andworshippers as they pass. I breathe in deeply, trying to distinguish the minglingsmells of butter, incense, age and humanity. The floor beneath me undulates insmooth ripples from innumerable prostrations, the devotion of thousands slowlywearing away the stone. Children chase each other lightheartedly around thecourtyard, splashing water and laughing.

At the front of the temple,hundreds of butter lamps burn, tended by Tibetan volunteers. The constantflickering light is a testimony to the tenacity with which the lamps are tended.As I watch, people walk past, chanting, "Ohm mani padme ohm" whiletwirling prayer wheels.

I watch an old woman, bent double, hobble past;in one hand she carries her prayer beads, in the other, her prayer wheel. As Iwatch people of all ages worship in the holy temple, I am astounded at howTibetan culture, threatened by Chinese domination, can sustain itself. I realizethat I am witnessing the glue holding life together in Tibet - Buddhism. Buddhismunifies and strengthens the Tibetan people in such a visible way that I amcaptivated by its power.

I feel compelled to say a prayer, and slowlystart ticking off my prayers on the string of prayer beads in my hand. Two youngnuns, or anis, sit beside me. One notices what I am doing and puts out her handfor my beads. I give them to her, wondering what I have done wrong. She examinesthem and then raises them to her forehead and, slowly rocking back and forth,says a prayer. She opens her eyes, smiles at me, and hands them back. I tryspeaking to her in my broken Tibetan, but she and her friend laugh at my attemptsand stand to leave. I look at the beads; her blessing makes them emanate a newpower.

A middle-aged Tibetan woman sits down next to me and asks to seemy beads. She too holds them to her head and says a blessing. Then she takes myhand and gestures that I should walk kora with her. I do so, following behind mynew friend as she runs her fingers along the large prayer wheels in the walls.The handles are wooden and worn smooth from countless devout hands. When I lookat my hands they are shiny with grease. Curious, I look up at an old mancarefully applying lubricant to the metal joints at the base of the wheels. I amagain struck by the constant charity Buddhist worshippers display. Each person'ssmall contribution keeps the temple running smoothly.

Now I too ammuttering "Ohm mani padme ohm," my lips barely moving. I feel as thoughI have put my finger on the aorta of Tibetan life and am savoring the vibrantpulsing. After many circumambulations around the inner shrine of the Jokung, Igesture to my friend that I am going to sit.

For many hours I watchreligious life in the Jokung, astounded at the number of people always occupiedin prayer. The temple functions as more than a place of worship; it is a place ofgossip, friendship and joy. Sange, a monk I know, approaches. He asks in Englishif I would like to return the following night to enter the inner shrine. Iimmediately accept, knowing well that foreigners are rarely allowed inside theshrine, especially after the Jokung is closed.

As I thank him and start toleave, I remember that tomorrow is the Dalai Lama's birthday. Under normalcircumstances, this is celebrated as one of the most important days of the year.But, with the Chinese closely watching all activity, the Tibetans do not darehave an open display of loyalty to the person now labeled "public enemynumber one" by Chinese officials. I am excited at the prospect of beinginside the heart of religious Tibet on this momentous day.

The followingevening, I arrive at the Jokung and ask for Sange. He hurries to meet me andushers me inside. My eyes adjust to the dimness of the shrine; the only source oflight is the flickering butter lamps that line the walls and railings. In thecenter, monks chant rhythmically. I examine the beautiful murals and recognizesome of Tibet's many gods.

As we make our way forward, I notice how manypeople patiently stand in the shrine. A long line waits for something I cannotsee. My friend guides me to the front, where an old man offers me a spot in frontof him. As I thank him he smiles and bows, happy I am there. I never thought Iwould feel so at home in a remote part of Asia, but this man's kind smile makesme wish the entire world were this accepting. I file past the statue of SakymuniBuddha, gently touching my forehead to his feet three times, and place anoffering at the base. I then kneel by the rail to listen to the monks chanting.Spellbound, I let the tones wash over me, cleansing me. I no longer have myfinger on the aorta of Tibetan culture - I am kneeling at its heart.

Myeyes fill with tears as I think about how the Tibetan people have suffered.Malnourished and badly treated by the occupying Chinese forces, the Tibetansfight bravely to retain their culture. Many of the most prominent leaders, likethe Dalai Lama, have fled or been exiled, and Tibetans are holding on for dearlife to their culture. As I look around, the power of the temple and the faith ofthe worshippers reassure me that the Tibetans have a shield to protect them fromharsh realities. Buddhism is the guiding light in a land devastated by an enemyTibet has no outward power to combat.

As I rise to leave, Sange leads meoutside. "I wanted you, an American student, to see this," he says,waving his hand in the direction of the shrine, "so that you can understandthat the Tibetans will never give up, but that we need help from you. Bring thisstory back to your country and make your countrymen understand how importanttheir support is." I smile and promise I will.

As I leave the templeI glance back and see the butter lamps flickering at the front of the courtyard.I know that the Tibetans will persevere and these courageous people have chosenthe most powerful weapon - faith. I am confident that their faith in Buddhism andthe Dalai Lama will see them through their troubles; they will emerge strongerfor the struggle.

I know, too, that their struggle will live on in myheart. Tibetan Buddhism is no longer an unfamiliar religion; it lightens my soul,intertwining with my existing beliefs, melding, shaping and changing me.

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This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the October 2002 Teen Ink Travel Contest.

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