People in the West have a very romantic view of Tibetan Buddhism. And why not? Brightly colored prayer flags on a hillside, crimson-robed monks chanting, and shining monasteries nestled in the mountains give off the impression of a vibrant, spiritual culture.
Before being properly exposed to Tibetan culture, this was my feeling as well. Mere days after landing in my new city, this perspective shifted. The monks that I saw walking around town had obviously never missed a meal. On their feet were shiny new Air Jordans. And in their hands was the newest model iPhone, released only weeks before. New to the culture, I thought that these might be isolated incidents.
But soon, I began to see and learn other troubling things about living in the monasteries. I heard about monasteries giving the “blessing” of a monetary loan to locals, charging exorbitant interest rates. I saw monks driving expensive, imported trucks, paid for by the alms of poor families. I stayed with a Tibetan family over Losar, their lunar new year. This family’s six-year-old son, now a monk at the local monastery, was home visiting, and he showed thinly veiled disdain for his family’s “dirty” home and meager meals. The more I learned about monastic life, the more my heart grew cold towards anyone wearing red robes.
My perspective began to change once more, however, as I experienced the daily life of the Tibetan people. Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism is shown by spinning prayer wheels, placing prayer flags, thumbing beads, offering sacrifices, and walking circuits around holy sites. In one town that I visited, thousands of locals and pilgrims would begin their day by walking koras around the Mani Stone Piles. These piles have been formed by hundreds of years of pilgrims placing stones inscribed with the mantra “om mani padme hum”. It was then that I saw these people as they were — lost. All of these solemn faces working so hard every day to balance out their karma, not knowing which way the scales might tip when they die. I remembered how Jesus felt in Matthew:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:36–38)