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TIBETAN CULTURAL RITUALS DAWN TO DUSK
The richness of Tibetan culture
stems from the dedication and spiritual faithfulness of it's
people. The depth of Tibetan traditions is rooted by
thousand of years of cultural commitment to their system of
astounding heritage, so easily discarded among other tribes
and peoples around the world, has not been forsaken by
convenience, political pressure or personal gain. The wisdom
of the ages begins in Tibet, where for centuries earnest
monks and lamas studied the mind, many meditating in the
solitude of rock caves with no human contact for years. What
they learned about the workings of the mind, the spirit and
existence endowed them with the gift of compassion and love
for all sentient beings. This tolerance of others, peace of
heart, and ingrained compassion shows in Tibetan faces.
Their simplicity of life is a choice. Their focus is not on
obtain and possess, but rather living with joy and doing the
right thing. This alpine region offers many surprises and
thrills, but what makes Tibet such a choice and life
changing experience are it's people.
Let's examine the habits,
rituals and customs that make the Tibetan culture so
you are greeted by Tibetans in their homes or when they know they
are going to meet you for the first time, they will present you with
a hada, placing it around your neck as they welcome you. Hada is a
long (between 1/2 to 4 meters) piece of loosely weaved silk, usually
white, some plain others with patterns. White signifies purity and
good luck. In Lhasa, many street stalls sell hadas of varies quality
and colors. The most special hada is five colors and is thought of
as the clothing of Buddha so it can only be presented at very
special occasions or to the Buddha in worship. They also present
hada when worshipping at the temple or monastery, placing it around
or near Buddha statues or other important manifestations before
worshipping. They often leave a hada scarf when leaving, either on
their seat or elsewhere to show that although they are gone, their
Tibetan even send mini hada scarves
in letters of correspondence to send good wishes. Tibetans usually
carry several hadas with them when they go out just in case they
meet some friends or relatives. Presented during the New Year or
other festival, presenting hada is a wish for a good year or happy
holiday and a happy life. At a wedding, the meaning is a little
different. It becomes a wish for eternal love and happiness. It also
is a wish for Buddha blessings for the receiver. At funerals, people
give hada to express condolences and comfort. One thing to remember
for a funeral, never say Tashi Delek, which means "long life".
Tashi Delek is a very common greeting in Tibet, it's in bad taste
customarily at a funeral.
Hada is also used to say farewell to
guests. In presenting it to others it is a way to show respect,
faithfulness, loyalty and love. Whenever a hada is presented, it
should be received with both hands.
Ghost Dance Ritual During the last day of a year
by the Tibetan calendar, monasteries hold a meeting of
dharma (religious doctrine). Many lamas (a monk who has
meditated in a cave in solitude for many years in order to
understand the mind and to use the energy) wear
colorful ancient costumes and masks, disguising themselves
as ghosts. In groups they come out to the square center
usually in the monastery) and dance to the accompaniment of
drums, conch and cymbals. While they dance, they cry out
with strange sounds in the hope of driving ghosts away. This
is a time for long and serious prayer. During the ritual
people often pray for happiness, health and world peace.
According to Tibetan tradition, especially in the Lhasa
Tibetan areas, people who
do this ritual at home will hold it after supper. The ritual
originates from the totem worship in ancient time. It is
called “Guduo” in Tibetan language. On this day, people prepare a special
feast called “Gutu”.
For the meal people usually eat congee of barley or soup of Zanba. The
special dinner “Gutu” consists of nine foodstuffs, barley flakes,
peas, dough ball soup, radish and butter tea. To add to the festivity of
the scene, people select some symbolic things and stuff them into
the wheat paste balls. The stuffed paste balls and the dough balls
are cooked together in a pottery pot and made into a delicious soup. Before
they eat Gutu soup, everybody rubs some parts of his body with a wet
paste ball uttering symbolic words such as, “Ah, the sufferings, pains and
diseases all go away from me.” Then they drop the paste ball into the
pot. When the balls are all cooked, the hostess will distribute the soup
for everyone with a cooking spoon. You can imagine the fun! When someone
discovers the symbolized
food which looks like the sun, the moon, books or statues in their
bowls, others will stop eating and raise the cups for his good luck
and happiness. When someone has the paste balls stuffed with sheep
hair, stone or dairy products in their bowls, people will say he
should be as gentle as the sheep hair, as strong-willed as the stone
and as pure as milk. When someone has the paste balls stuffed with
salt, pepper, porcelain piece or charcoal, people will say that he
should not be lazy, should not be unforgiving and should not be
cruel, and request him to sing a song as punishment. Herein lies the
most enjoyment, listening to song while enjoying this
interesting soup. When a young
girl has the paste ball stuffed with something resembling a naughty
kid, people will laugh loudly and advise her to keep purity. If
someone is not lucky enough to have the paste ball stuffed with a
thorny fruit called Simare, other people will tell him to get along
with people well and he has to drink wine and imitate the dog
barking as punishment. Imagine! Barking at the table while everyone
laughs! In the end, people will pour the leftovers of
the Gutu soup into the broken cooking pot, and wish it to carry the
bad luck away by saying: “take all the bad luck away and never
return. In this way, the extraordinary ghost supper comes to end.
GIFT GIVING IN TIBETAN
Tibet, when visiting relatives, the visitor usually carries a basket
on his/her back, filled with gifts. Baskets are covered with a
cloth, so no one can see what’s inside. In addition, the visitor
always takes a thermos flask of buttered tea and a plastic bucket of
barley beer. These two are indispensable.
When a guest arrives, the host and
hostess are very pleased. Their first words will be “ah, you’re
they will begin to talk to each other on some easy topics, while
drinking the tea and barley beer that the guest brought. After two
or three hours’ chat, the guest will ask the host to accept the
gifts in the basket. The host
won’t take all the gifts, but will leave something like food or eggs
in the basket, for the guest to take back. (Taking all the gifts
would spoil a person’s good name). What’s more, the host will put
something in the basket in return, some inexpensive things like
fresh cabbage, fresh fruits or clothes for the children. The host
will remember what’s been received, so that gifts of the similar
value can be taken on a return visit some days later.
PROSTRATING & PRAYER
the occupation of Tibet, every family sent at least one son
to the monastery to become a monk. Not only was this a great
honor, it kept families and the clergy connected in a real
sense. Monks were needed for many facets of life and most
especially for the passing of the dead. Monks and
monasteries were supported by the people, not because they
were forced, but because the system worked for them given
their belief system. In those days, life was simply, but
days were happily lived and no one starved in their
Tibetan Buddhists believe they must recite or chant Buddhist
scriptures very often, many times during the day. Rural
people or others who don't know the scriptures by heart, can
put these scriptures out by turning prayer wheels which have
scriptures inside. Turning the prayer wheel is equivalent to
chanting scriptures and praying. This way thousands of
prayers can be put out into the universe each day to pray
for peace. Tibetans spend a great deal of time worshipping
by doing koras, turning prayer wheels and doing
prostrations. Most Tibetans have portable prayer wheels at
home. Prayer wheels are of different sizes and quality. The
smallest have a thousand prayers, the largest fifty thousand
neatly tucked inside the wheel that turns. The followers of
Yellow sect turn the wheel clockwise, while followers of
Black sect turn it anticlockwise
part of their worship, Tibetan Buddhists do prostrations. A
prostration is performed with your hands first over your head in the
prayer position. You touch you hands to your forehead, take a step
forward as you lower your hands in front of your face, then take
another step, then lower your hands to your chest, separate your
hands, then bend down on you knees, place hands on the ground, and
lower your body to the ground for a full prostration, touching the
ground with your forehead. Stand up again and repeat.
On the roads to Lhasa, from time to time you
will see Tibetan Buddhists
prostrating. From their homes all over Tibet, pilgrim walk to Lhasa,
prostrating every three steps the entire route. They often wear a
protective leather garment on the upper body along with some sort of
protection for their hands, like a rock tied on, or a piece of wood
tied on each hand. Along with kneepads, they carry Tsampa (roasted
barley with yak butter) for sustenance.
Usually their faces are covered with
dust as they slowly amble toward their "mecca" with solid
determination, praying the entire way. For many, this process to get
to the holy city of Lhasa may take months or years. You can
see both groups and single people along the roads. It's truly a
sight to behold. With few provisions, these dedicated pilgrims often
must ask for assistance of food or water along the way.
Pilgrims also prostrate at
monasteries, in front of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, in front of
the Potala Palace and during koras around holy sites, such at Mt.
Kailash or mani stone sites.
WALKING KORAS Tibetan pilgrims believe it is
important to walk around (clockwise ONLY) sacred and holy sites and
buildings. For instance, in Lhasa there are multiple koras; several
around the Potala Palace, plus the Barkor (traces the outskirts of
the Jokhang temple), Lingkhor (Encompasses entirety of the Tibetan
old city, passing painting and temples en route), Nangkhor
(encircles inner precincts of the Jokhang Temple). As they walk,
they finger their prayer beads, each bead and chant representing
some form of the prayer "O mani peni hum" meaning, "may all sentient
beings have happiness and avoid suffering".
and simple, every Tibetan can sing and dance, it just goes
with being Tibetan. Of course, some are much better than
others for a variety of reasons, but even the children sing
and dance from a very young age. It's one of the favorite
pastimes in the many Tibetan orphanages, as well as in homes
and for festivals. Uniquely, Tibetan music has not been much
influenced by the west. Their music and their style of
singing from right at throat level, are very Tibetan. At
times their songs and more so, their dances, can remind
Americans of American Indian tribes, which supports the
conjecture of their connected roots from centuries earlier.
Both Tibetans and some American Indian tribes believe
Tibetans left Tibet and migrated to America, but there is no
solid evidence. These beliefs are based on oral histories
passed down through generations. Most Tibetan song and dance
is related to worship, reverberating the influence of
Tibetan Buddhism passed down generation to generation.
Dances like Guoxie, Duixie (Tibetan Tap dance) and Quamo
dance create the vibrancy of every cultural event in Tibet.
Enjoy modern Tibetan dance during the summer at the local
parks, but be certain to find a festival or two to witness
the stirring of the spirit. Tibet music online,
The most visible form of Tibetan religion, besides the
pilgrims prostrating themselves, is the their lovely art.
Whether it is on the walls of monasteries or painted
on what they call Thangka paintings, Tibetan art is
extremely details and colorful. In fact, everything about
Tibetan life is colorful, from their many varied costumes to
the walls of their homes, to their religious buildings,
color, bright color is seen everywhere. Their inspiration is
found in their deep faith in Tibetan Buddhism and, less, the
Bon Religion. Aside from current difficulties, they are a
happy people, always smiling, always believing life will be
better, if not this one, certainly the next. This deep
seeded hope can be found in their beautiful art.
Even look at the hills along the roads, rocks behind
monasteries, Tibetans paint, in vivid color their gods,
their beloved saints, and Buddhas. Many such wall paintings
have survived from prehistoric times. Tibetans are a people
who will not allow their faith to be shaken or bruised or
killed. And as long as they exist as a culture, they will
continue to believe, hope, improve themselves and pray for
the peace and happiness of all sentient beings in the world.
To witness this faith in action or in a painting is to gain
something eternal, mystical, other-worldly. Visit this place
before it fades into rewritten history.
ODD CUSTOMS & ANNOYING FACTS
quite normal in Tibetan and Chinese lands, the following
behaviors can be an adjustment for the proper westerner.
It's probably better to be prepared so you can avoid the
look of shock and abhorrence on your face when you cross one
of these strange-to-us behaviors.
Tibetan or Chinese Hotels:
Unless you are staying at a Hilton, the Chinese/Tibetan
second or third class hotels usually don't have shower
curtains. Yes, the water goes all over the bathroom and it
is tile. Yes, you slip and slide unless you use a towel on
the floor. Try rolling up a couple hand towels to block the
water from going everywhere. Also toilet paper in China is
akin to rice paper or very thin paper towels = rough. Hotels
give you a tiny roll good for about a day. The reason is the
same as why there is no toilet paper provided in public
establishments. Like in Mexico, it disappears. BRING YOUR
OWN TOILET PAPER EVERYWHERE.
Beds! Humm, there should be
a name for the thing called a bed in most hotels and
hostels, other than 5 star, of course. It's a sheet of
plywood with a thin matt on top, then covered with a lovely
white comforter. This is when your sleeping bag comes in
handy, for padding!
Hot water is like gold. If
you find any, feel rich.
Also, you will here yelling
in the hall on a regular basis. Something like "Quia,
Quia!" Whenever you want something from the maid,
simply go outside your door and begin yelling Quia! Quia!. A
maid will appear and assist you.
Here's how you get
electricity to work in your hotel room. Use the key card
in the slot by the door. Whenever you leave the room and
take the key card the electricity will stop working. So if
you want to charge batteries, be sure to leave something in
that slot or your charging won't happen!
Heating units are only
operational in most rural area hotels from October-March. If
it is cold any other month, you're plum out of luck. Bring a
light down jacket - this will save you. Also, fill empty
water bottles with hot water and tuck between the sheets.
This is a life saver.
Customarily Tibetans burn incense in the mornings to ward
off evil spirits and "clean" the air. In an enclosed
compound or hotel lobby there is twenty minutes or so of
pure smoke so let it fade before smoke inhalation gets to
you. At least the air is clean?????????
Finding a western toilet may be the highlight of your
Tibetan areas your options include stepping around the
corner of a building, hiding behind a rock or bush, or
finding a "bathroom" which is a big or little PUBLIC,
emphasis on the PUBLIC, wooden shed with a few oblong holes
to squat over. A neck scarf could provide something to cover
your nose and mouth with, otherwise you may think you have
the flu:) Seriously, it is bad. BRING TOILET PAPER! Don't be
surprised to seeing men doing their thing anywhere, even
busloads of them doing it together alongside the road!
Happy, chatting, no mind!
Men spit on the street, on the sidewalk, even in the
restaurant. Hacking this spit up may kill your appetite, and
you might not get used to it, but its part of the adventure.
Smoking is done everywhere, inside, outside, in cars, taxis,
etc. Speak up and politely ask a taxi driver not to smoke,
that is if you can speak Chinese, because they don't usually
speak Tibetan or English.
Very odd to foreigners, but Tibetan men leave one fingernail
long for convenience. No, they are not gay. This is a
practical way to have a picking tool when needed for
Old Sour Fat
In smaller or remote Tibetan towns be aware that frying is
often done on coal stoves in old sour fat. When chilies are
fried in these woks, it can cause a choking or coughing fit.
If you feel a tickle in your throat, a sudden cough, or
notice a repulsive smell, simply don't eat there. Apologize,
but go find a place you can eat in comfort. Be sure you take
good wholesome food bars in the case these foods don't agree
It's a big risk to buy food off the street. There are no
food hygiene regulations enforced. EAT AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Bring Imodium and antibiotics, such as docycycline. No
matter how careful you are, you are likely to get a touch of
something if your wondering around Tibet or China.
items are wrapped in newspaper when you buy them. Wash
fruits and vegetables as they are likely coated with fumes,
pollution, etc. BTW, bland Tibetan bread is a good way to
fill the stomach. Drinks
Hot water is served everywhere. A few places offer tea bags
or tea. You can buy butter tea or sweet tea. It is advisable
to bring your own tea bags.
Pollution is a huge problem in Chinese cities. Bring an
inhaler and dusk mask. Many local people wear them to
prevent the dust and smog from coating their lungs. Plan to
spend most of your time in the rural areas where the air is
clean and the beauty astounding.
TIBETAN CULTURAL TABOOS & COMMON SENSE ETIQUETTE
Shorts, bare arms and exposed cleavage is shocking to
Tibetans. Please dress appropriately.
SOME BASIC TIBETAN MANNERS AND TABOOS
Remember not to step on threshold when entering
a monastery, tent or house.
Fold hands as in prayer and bow to show
respect to monks or lamas.
When presented with butter tea or alcohol it
is customary to drink 3 cups, if you only drink one cup it is considered an
insult. If you drink 3 cups you are consider a friend.
Add "la" behind the name to express
respect when addressing a Tibetan person.
If you are asked to sit down on the floor, cross your legs, do not stretch your
legs forward and face your sole to others.
Accept things like tea and gifts with both hands. While presenting
a gift you
should bend your body forward and hold the gift higher than your head with
both hands. While offering tea, wine or cigarette, you should offer them with
both hands. DO NOT touch the inside of the bowl.
Do not touch, walk over or sit on any religious texts, objects or prayer
flags in monasteries. Avoid touching ancient things to help preservation
When the host presents you a cup of wine, you should dip your ring finger
in the wine and flick the wine into the sky, in the air and to the ground
respectively to express your respects to the heaven, the earth and the
ancestors before sipping the wine. The host will fill the cup, and you take a
sip of the wine again. After the host fills your cup again, you have to bottom
Tibetan people do not eat horse, dog and donkey meat and also do not eat
fish in some areas, so please respect their diet habits.
Tibetan people stretch out their tongue to
greet you (usually only older people these days). It can be a sign of honor or
it can have an opposite meaning, depending on the hand placement. They will
also honor you by holding their hands in front of their chest with the palms
toward you. It is nice to greet them with their own way if you can.
Do not smoke in monasteries. Please walk clockwise
in monasteries, Mani stone piles and kora routes. Walking counter-clockwise is
degrading their religion. (not in the Bon temples).
All animals and insects should be respected.
Please do not kill anything as this hurts the heart of the loving Tibetans,
who do not kill animals or insects, except the few yak that are eaten (done
only by local butcher) Tibetans believe insects and animals may be relatives
in past lives. Please honor their belief system.
Eagles are the sacred birds in the eyes of the Tibetan people. You should
not drive them away or injure them. On the outskirts, you could not drive or
disturb the sheep or cows by wearing red, green or yellow clothing .
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