Book Excerpt: Vanished Kingdoms

From the market one turns in through the city of lamas. Low mud-walled dwellings hide the view on either side. One comes at last to a big, open space, on which face the massive buildings, which are the heart of Labrang [see page 151]. First among these is a great gold-roofed chanting hall. Outside it is an imposing Tibetan structure, with a pillared courtyard, golden hinds on the roof, and richly painted doorways. Inside a glowing blaze of softened light plays on red wood pillars, silken streamers, and yellow patterned cushions for five thousand crouching lamas. The light streams in from the windows on a gallery above, and underneath this gallery, in almost total shadow, stands a row of golden images, each with its burning butter lamps and other signs of worship.

Next to the great chanting hall are the kitchens, with copper kettles ten feet across for the lamas' tea. The cooking arrangements are those of a Tibetan house, but magnified in size; wooden lidded cauldrons of copper, half-round on the bottom, are let into an oven of brick, stone or clay, where the fire is built. Like all Chinese, Mongols or Tibetans, these lamas are famous consumers of tea, and carry their taste so far that they even drink it at services.

They make it in the Tibetan style with milk, that is none too fresh, and may perfect the brew by adding large lumps of rancid butter. This buttered tea, with barley meal, is the principal food of the northern Tibetans. One mixes the meal into the liquid with one's fingers, kneads a brown lump, and swallows it. This is the famous "tsamba," a nourishing food, and a good one if the materials happen to be clean.

Every temple of some standing has a Living Buddha of its own, and Labrang is no exception. The transmigration of souls is a cardinal doctrine of northern Buddhism. The Living Buddha is a monk, but one of great sanctity, for in him the spirit of Buddha is supposed to dwell. When he shuffles off his mortal coil, he is said not to die, but to transmigrate, and his new incarnation is looked for among children conceived at the time of his last transmigration.

The child is recognized by its ability to pick out the late Buddha's possessions from a great heap of similar objects, when five or six years old. Then it is escorted, with state and pomp, to the monastery, there, through his lifetime to incarnate the Divine. Practical affairs are dealt with through advisors, old experienced monks, who surround the little Buddha. It has been noted that these incarnations rarely remain very long in one body, as a rule. In fact, the little Buddha transmigrates at eighteen or twenty, when his personal character might begin to assert itself to the cost of those who surround him?

At Labrang the present incarnation is nine years old. On State occasions, he appears in public. We asked whether he had been to Peking, and was told, "Oh yes, before he died the last time." West of the great Chanting Hall and the kitchen lies a paved open space with a high platform where the Living Buddha sometimes sits enthroned. Next comes the house where he dwells. There are many more temples at Labrang, all of the same general type: Tibetan exterior, carved doorways and capitols, sacred images on silk or gold, and little lamps of shining brass filled with melted butter.

One building contains statuettes of the Gods in glass cases, another, sacred books.

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