What follows is a prose poem written while visiting Labrangsi monastery, in the town of Xiahe, China. It’s a Yellow Hat sect, but the monastery is in Gansu Province, outside of Tibet. I’ve kept the posting in its format when originally published in 1998 on my online travelogue, The eJournal, as The Nomadic Spirit was then named.
“Baihailou Binguan” means “Baihailou Hotel”.
Subject: Prayer Wheels
Date: Fri, 07 Aug 1998 08:31:26 -0700
Clockwise. Always clockwise. Clockwise round. Walking, spinning. Always clockwise. The wheels turn, continue turning, after they pass. Some turn and turn and turn while others fight against the inertia. Pilgrims, bright and tattered, or bright, or tattered. Some of these too will turn and turn, always clockwise, round the cluster of buildings capped in gold and brass at Labrangsi.
I will not count them: the prayer wheels, the meters, the pilgrims, the steps, the number of times I will feel the smooth patina of wood against my palm. I say to Emma: “I want to do this.” She assents.
I look for someone to lead, an unwitting guide, a pilgrim who will set a comfortable pace. At the far western corner, I begin behind a small group.
A meter long vertical octagonal cyclinder capped top and bottom by wider disks. Along the inside edge of the disks six evenly spaced wooden bars join top and bottom. Enough space for a hand to grip, or push. I push and the wheel grudgingly rotates. Clockwise, always clockwise. I like it. Another step, another wheel. I push. It rotates. Clockwise. Another. Step. Push. Clockwise. Turn the corner. Push, step, push, step, push. Clockwise. Stepping, pushing. Stepping and pushing. Turning. Clockwise, always clockwise.
A cluster of three square buildings to start. Rooves hipped. Prayer wheels line four doorless walls shaded by wide eaves. Clockwise around each once. Walk to the next. Stepping and pushing. Wheels turning. Feel the patina. Four corners clockwise around. Clockwise, always clockwise. Walk to the next.
My leader emerges. An old Tibetan woman. White shirt, brightly trimmed long jacket slung around hips, long sleeves woven to stay snug. Charcoal grey–almost black–are boots and jacket, but for the bright trim and belt. A pair of long salt and pepper braids emerge from a black straw fedora, disappear into the woven jacket sleeves. One white glove, soiled with time, grips a post and pulls a prayer wheel round. Then onto the next. A low chant repeated at every third wheel. She walks clockwise. Around the four corners, and onto the next. Glimpses of her face reveal deep lines and, once, deep dark illuminated eyes, a smile for me.
In her wake the wheels turn and turn, some slowing, some stop. Gauge each wheel. See it turning or not. Find the one post; the turning emergent bar will come to your hand, then push.
Find the rhythm. I pick up my riding mantra from yesterday’s rainy climb. An instrumental piece from Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams. A melody endlessly repeated. I imagine it turning like the wheels, like my steps round and round, always clockwise. Turn the last corner and onto the next. Clockwise round.
A rust-red stucco building stands apart. Double-tiered flat roof, brown-stained sticks or stalks on edge below the roofline, a band of texture punctuated above and below by linear circles of white in a narrow field of black. Walk round it, clockwise, and enter. Two wheels in the entranceway, set them turning. Step over the lintel and inside, a giant. Three meters tall, a meter in diameter, posts from young trees. Take a post and walk round the wheel. Around twice, clockwise. Always clockwise. Then exit, turning the two prayer wheels. Clockwise around to the next building.
Two more of these. Notice the Buddhas, Bodhissatvas and deities gaily painted on interior walls, illuminated only by the sunshine sneaking through the entrance.. In one building the giant prayer wheel strikes a small bell on every rotation. In the other the giant wheel spins and spins, twice a walker’s pace. Find the one bar and push. Find it again, walking round the spinning wheel. Clockwise, always clockwise.
A white bottle pagoda, like a clay pot upside down atop a square pedestal, stucco lions at its four corners draped in prayer scarves. A spire stretches for the sky. Around and around, keep stride behind the old woman. On the third time round, place hand to pedestal, then head to hand. Do this twice on opposite sides. A dozen or more pilgrims and monks all circling, circling. Each at their own pace. Five times around.
A woman stands upright, arms stretched to the sky. She bends at the waist, gathers her woolen skirts at the hem, lowers to hands and knees. Wooden palettes protect her hands, clattering against concrete. She stretches prone, forehead to the earth, toes and fingers elongated. A moment. A pause. Then gathers herself forward again to hands and knees, stands upright, a meter further. Round and round, clockwise round. A meter at a time. She will be here still when I return. Round and round, clockwise round. She will be here tomorrow too. And perhaps the day after. Round and round, clockwise round. Clockwise, always clockwise.
And old man, crooked legs, creaky crutches. Crouched and gathered. Four awkward wobbly supports. One at a time, always on the edge of collapse. Clockwise round, always clockwise.
All day round the white bottle pagoda. Grey black sooty patinas where pilgrims stop, touching forehead to stucco. Prayer silent or mumbled. But my old woman goes round and round, clockwise round five times, touching only three times, the final on the final round, lingering. I follow with my hand on the greasy smooth. A moment, lingering, and something runs up my arm. A chill. A tingling. A contact. Startling. Confounding. Thrilling.
I turn from the stupa, to the outter wall of Labrangsi. A tiled, arching roof, like a verandah, protects a long line of prayer wheels. At nearly every break in the wall, a giant prayer wheel enclosed. Turn the two entrance wheels clockwise, round the giant wheel twice, two wheels round clockwise to exit into sunshine.
Under the enclosed wall. Find the rhythm again. Find the post and push. Text wheels through my vision, clockwise, always clockwise. Unreadable text, Tibetan text, lines flowing, curving magnificently. A chant, a prayer? Always the same text. Creaking and groaning round and round.
Colours. Red, green, blue, orange, yellow. Vibrant colours. Worn and chipped. Patinaed. Primary. Moving. A celebration, an aesthetic gesticulation. A shout. Images of bounty. Clockwise round, always clockwise.
Let the speeding men pass. Step aside, then join the line. The men in slacks and shirts. One gloved hand giving a forceful spin. Old men and young. Or simply tapping the posts or base. Every pilgrim and monk a little different.
At a wide street the wall ends. Pilgrims cross with purpose. “I think there’s more,” I say to Emma. “I know,” she replies. I follow the stream, stay in the flow, while Emma, the observer, sidles along the edge.
Across the street and pickup the wall again. A long row. An old woman sizes up the lone white face in a stream of Tibetans. Thumbs up. Approval. And falls in behind me. Turning the prayer wheels clockwise, always clockwise.
Right arm tires. Shoulder aches. Try the other pilgrim’s methods. Pull with dragging arm: too awkward. Tap the bar: not satisfying. Push the base: rough on hand. So, find the emergent bar and push. Forget the ache. Forget the weariness. Push the bar and the wheel will spin clockwise, always clockwise. Find the emergent bar and push. It will call to you: push me. A whir of bars spinning clockwise and one will solidify from the blur. Push me. Push it and the wheel will spin clockwise.
A rhythm emerges. A Steve Miller melody patterns the breathing, the stepping, the pushing, the flow from wheel to wheel. A long bank of prayer wheels. The stream of pilgrims and monks. Bunching behind the slower paced. Standing aside for the speed demons. Always changing and always the same. And all moving from foreground to background. Caught in dual flows of the internal and external. Activity centred on the clockwise spinning and walking; awareness expanding to the world about.
A river splashes and jostles down the valley. Green slopes rise to the low valley’s peaks. White pilgrim’s tents painted with patterns of blue, dot, dot, dot. Beauty. Perfection. A tear. Outside wriggles in. Harmony. Peace. Devotion. Centredness. All here. Welling eyes. The unsubsiding ache nonetheless lost. Insignificant. So much insignificance.
At a break in the wall, Emma comes alongside. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” I mumble an assent. I am in a different place. Inside the beauty. The perfection remains ungraspable, though I sense it, know that it is there to be grasped. But the beauty I know. The beauty I am inside. The harmony. The peace. These are in what I am doing. Perhaps the centredness is here too. Perhaps the perfection worthy of devotion.
And then a “Ho!” breaks the spell. I know it is for me. The “Ho!” reserved for the outsider. A pagoda. A ticket office. A ticket. The pilgrims and monks stream through, unmolested. I pay the five yuan. Chagrined. Momentarily lost. Walking counter-clockwise, trying to find the starting place. My leaders gone, or soon to depart. A gentle hand reminds me; a gentle old woman not part of my old stream redirects me: clockwise, always clockwise. No beginning, no ending. Clockwise round. Follow the flow. Round the pagoda base, clockwise and clockwise again. Spinning the wheels, brass now, smaller, text in bas relief, four wooden handles protruding from base and crown. Turn them, turn them, clockwise round. Clockwise, always clockwise.
A monk emerges from a curtained doorway, breaking my flow, motioning me inside. “Teekat, teekat,” he says. Deep in pockets, which pocket? Change, and bills and other tickets. There. A brown arm emerges from purple robes, sweeps me toward wooden stairs. Beginning to climb a gentle tug holds me back. Another old woman, motioning, “clockwise round the base first.” I know she has watched me, and the monk has not. He chides her, the silly old woman, “no, he is to go upstairs.” She chides him back, with gentle emphasis, “no, he must go clockwise, clockwise round, follow the flow.” The monk waves me up the stairs again, but I descend, motioning with an arching hand, “no, clockwise, always clockwise, clockwise round.”
The old women. They know something, know it innately, perfectly. There is a flow to them, a purpose, a devotion. Many monks study all their lives never to acquire. I think a discovery of motherhood. Beauty and perfection seem to be no mystery to them. I think the experience of a complete and unselfish connection to another human being guides them. They know.
I follow her, clockwise round the inner dais, my hand touching the posts where she touched her head. Inside the pagoda external walls painted brightly. Her chant, “Oh Mane Padme Hum,” resounds off them. Steve Miller ripples under my breath. Around the first corner, a brass Buddha, Sakyamuni, five meters tall, sits upright and cross-legged on a lotus flower. One hand upraised, the other reaches to earth for the connection to harmony which dispels evil thoughts. She stops and turns to face me. Raises an open, supplicating hand to the Buddha, bows her head, turns aside. Yes, reverence. To this Buddha we must give reverence. I nod my understanding, my agreement.
She bends her head to the shrine beneath the image. Once, twice. And walks off again, clockwise, clockwise round. I touch where her head touched and, again, a shock. A wave rolls through me. Reverence. Something alive and tingling. Awe. All in a flash. And I am walking again. Clockwise round. Another corner, my hand touches the post and the greasy smooth patina there. Alive.
She waits for me. Another shrine. Another Buddha, this one reclining. Porcelain. Smooth, milky, gleaming. Golden accents. She points to the Buddha. Thumbs up. Nods her head. Me, nodding agreement, an appreciative smile. “Yes, beautiful.”
Another corner, clockwise round, and she motions to the stairs. Gently. “Now, you may go up.” I nod a thank-you and, as she disappears out the curtain, I climb the stairs.
Doing so, I leave the flow, become again the observer, not the participant. But I am a little different now. I remain inside the beauty. I can call it up, restore it. The flow is neither broken nor dispelled.
Four flights of stairs climb the four tiered pagoda. Around each tier I walk clockwise, clockwise once. At the top, magnificence. The brass peaked temples of Labrangsi stretch out across the green valley’s floor. On the sun-coated mountain slopes, white tents of the Tibetan pilgrims. I linger, touched again, activated, connected. Eyes well up. Nose pinches. Skin tightens, tingles. I carry the feeling back down the stairs, out through the curtain and past the bemused monk.
Spin the prayer wheel; glinting brass goes clockwise round. Back in the flow. Twice clockwise round the pagoda’s base. All the familiar faces gone. Outside the gate and clockwise round the wall. The road through the monastery grounds interrupts again, and on the other side only a hundred meters of prayer wheels to the southwestern stupa. I fall in behind an old man, walking briskly in slacks and shoes, a taupe fedora and wide round dark glasses. His white-gloved hand drives the prayer wheels round and round, clockwise round. And his white-gloved hand tugs me along, motioning, “this way, up these steps, round this stupa, down this corridor.” We are on the home stretch.
Along the long back wall, there is no long series of prayer wheels. The old man leads us into a few minor temples. Once around each. Clockwise. A few wheels to turn. Clockwise round. He passes by the greasy smooth patinas where women touch their heads. This last bit becomes a stroll. But I carry the flow with me. I remain inside the beauty. Eyes watering, chest tight, arms tingling.
Another moment of intensity sweeps through me. Beyond the low wall, Labrangsi drops away in a gentle curve. Temple buildings rise out, colourful and brass capped. A monk stands atop a low-roofed dwelling, robes flowing purple in a wide sea of earthen rooves. Emma can’t see the tear streaming down the cheek opposite her. I try to explain what is happening to me, what has happened, but stumble on the words. I cannot explain, only evoke. Explanations diminish. We walk along, pacing behind the old man who periodically checks our progress. Emma’s own experience is grand, beautiful, memorable. We both are moved, differently.
We reach my starting point and the old man begins turning wheels. He watches me walk past. I circle my finger clockwise, once clockwise, clockwise round: “my circuit is complete.”
I linger with Emma for a bit by the stupa, the white bottle pagoda. Clockwise, clockwise round walk the pilgrims. Now and again, one will stop at the large grey patina, lean their head to it, then either circle again or move on to the line of prayer wheels. The crooked old man is still here, determinedly moving clockwise one step and crutch at a time. The young woman stretches skyward, crouches, lies prone, pulls herself forward. A dot of dust adorns her forehead where every cycle it touches the ground.
All round and round the stupa, clockwise, always clockwise round, the other faces change. Five times round. Or two times or once, clockwise round. Then down the line of prayer wheels, always spinning, spinning, turning, turning. Always clockwise, clockwise round. Always changing and always the same. Always clockwise, clockwise round.
Smaller than an electron,
it contains uncountable galaxies.
If powerful men and women
could remain centered in the Tao,
all things would be in harmony.
The world would become a paradise.
All people would be at peace,
and the law would be written in their hearts.
When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.
All things end in the Tao
as rivers flow into the sea.
The Tao Te Ching
trans. Stephen Mitchell