This is the last one I want to show you. For me it’s an image that somehow sums up the whole trip. We were in a taxi in Lhasa, going down a wide and busy street in a new part of town. We came to a halt at some lights, at a busy intersection, with cars and lorries roaring across in front of us. Then, in the middle of the engine noise my ears caught another, unmistakeable sound. Turning to my right I saw this old Tibetan woman. She was just sitting on the pavement, near the traffic lights. In her right hand she held a large double-sided drum, in her left a vajra bell, and she was chanting. I knew at once, from the deep beat of the drum and the penetrating sound of the bell, that she was practising Chöd, a tantric practice in which you give up attachment to the body by meditatively transforming it into blissful nectar, which you then offer to all beings.
Somehow the image of this old woman practising Chöd has stayed with me. She wasn’t in the Tibetan part of town. She wasn’t in some wild place in the mountains. She was sitting on the new pavement with the traffic roaring past. But mentally she was in another world, offering the nectar of liberation to all beings: Tibetans, Chinese, everyone. For me she symbolises the spirit of Tibetan Buddhism. The land may have been taken over, may be being turned into something unrecognizable, yet still something of the altruistic spirit of the bodhisattva survives there, transcending all the suffering and difficulties.
So if you have a chance, do go. Go before it is totally swamped with tourists. If possible, go soon, before the inevitable build-up of tension to 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of the Chinese takeover and the Dalai Lama’s exile. I didn’t find the altitude easy. I slept usually four hours a night or less, and I came back with a souvenir chest infection that lasted for two months. But I’m very glad I went. And I’m deeply grateful to Dagyab Rinpoche, Elke and Puntsok, for making it possible, and to all my travelling companions, for making it such a rich and fulfilling experience.