A year ago this week, I joined an international expedition of twenty to travel to Western Tibet for over three weeks and participate in a 31-mile circumambulation around Mt. Kailash, one of the most sacred mountains in the world. The powerful journey was part of a larger creative project I’m working on now, so to honor this one-year “revolution,” I’d like to share a short excerpt along with some additional photos. The scene is set at Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple on my last night.
An oversized prayer wheel stands alone and it does not spin. Mani khorlo, they are called in Tibetan. Mani—jewel. Khorlo—circle or cycle. A wheel of jeweled prayer. They are used in Tibet and around the world as ritual, like kora, to gain merit, symbolic of an ever-revolving cosmos. Often lining monasteries and temples, each wheel is usually covered in sheet metal and embossed with Sanskrit prayer. Passing devotees spin these small wooden barrels, skewered upright on an axle like rotisserie. To lubricate them, monks pour warm rapeseed oil down the shaft, leaving a dark pool at its base.
It can sometimes look like blood.
But this one prayer wheel, this outlier, is different. At over three feet tall, the Sanskrit-inscribed cylinder is bolted to a storefront wall, too high for a person to spin, even if the wheel were free. Decorative trim shines beet-red and new.
I stand at the entrance to the Jokhang Temple while the passing of dusk triggers familiar wafts of sage. Three Tibetan elder women pass through the checkpoint before entering the Jokhang to start their evening orbits, their quiet revolutions. Satchels and handheld prayer wheels pass through the x-ray. The Chinese soldiers barely move. Scarecrows. Their uniforms are too big for their bodies. One officer holds a semiautomatic in one arm and a “butterfly catcher” in the other. This tool is a hoop fixed to a long metal pole, used to catch self-immolators, protesting Tibetans who decided to light themselves on fire. The contraption reminds me of the clothes hanger hoops I made with my father growing up. We would untwist wire hangers, make hoops, then dip them into soapy water and wave them in the air to create giant bubbles. Each floating blob would appear green-purple, like the breast of a starling. Or spilled oil.
There have been reports of over 130 self-immolations in Tibet and China since 2009, two of which happened right here on the path where I walk. In 2013, two Tibetan men went up in flames in front of the Jokhang’s entrance. One was reduced to bone and ash, while the other was caught. First stop, hospital. Second stop, jail. The whole scene was erased from the streets in fifteen minutes. The last three requests left by a recent young Tibetan self-immolator to his family were:
Study Tibetan culture.
On fire I burn.
The streets of the Barkhor neighborhood glisten from an afternoon rain that tried washing filth from these streets. The old women walk around the temple crouched and quiet. Mantra escapes from chapped mouths as the alleys fall silent. Their cadence is fast and bobs right to left, right to left like a buoy. Prayer beads dangle from their left hands, each pea-sized bead rubbed then passed along by the thumb in circuitous motion. In the right hand, a handheld mani khorlo spins with great force, clockwise like kora, like the way of the sun. One of the elders is wearing a pair of cream-white Nike tennis shoes, which squeak at every step. A Tibetan boy splits between them in a hurried jog. His black Misfits shirt and pot-leaf ball cap contrast the colorful weave of each women’s aprons.
The surrounding Barkhor neighborhood sleeps. Becoming entranced in kora, I try to give myself to each footstep and eventually find myself alone. I am left alone to orbit this mystery with a heart cleaved open, for all of its horror and beauty, its prisons and wilds, its sheer mountain faces and its shopping malls. I continue circling and circling for hours. Thirteen revolutions, 108 minutes exactly.
And that lone prayer wheel sits. It stares. It stares because inside the bowels of this wheel rests not divine emptiness or germinating prayer or any perpetuation of karmic merit or cosmic order. Inside this prayer wheel there is a camera, cold and black and humming with footage from the streets below, of that sacred circuit providing orientation to so many Tibetans. The machine blinks its red eye every fifteen seconds, a feature hardly noticeable against the backdrop of its freshly painted red trim.