Origins of the Sacred

29 Sep

High above the Mekong on a wild and cascading stream in a narrow, green valley, lies a Tibetan village.  Above the village to the east, looking over the narrow, green valley, stands a broad series of brown and gray stone mountains. One of these, Jala Chumi, is home to the village’s mother deity. Directly across the Mekong gorge lies another sacred mountain, Khawa Karpo, home to a sacred union between the masculine and feminine. From these sacred peaks fall enormous gray and white glaciers, and from these glaciers, trickles turn to raging torrents. These raging torrents spill from their sacred origins down cliff faces and through narrow gorges into the mighty river we call the Mekong.

The Mekong — Tsa Chu in Tibetan, Lancang Jiang in Chinese — finds its origins both in myth and some of the earth’s most foreboding terrain. Its headwaters form in the vast marshes and lakes of a high plateau in Qinghai, Tibet, and tributaries spill in from eastern Tibet’s great mountains. Most notable of these great mountains is Khawa Karpo, the peak currently shrouded in storm clouds across the river gorge from this village.

The source of this particular village’s stream lies in the sacred lakes of Bai Ma Shan, the smaller but nonetheless breathtaking mountain across the valley from Khawa Karpo. From Bai Ma Shan, two streams, one named the White, the other the Black, merge as one and continue down the valley, eventually spilling their sacredness into the Mekong.

This village, a refuge for walnut, peach, and pear trees in a formidable mountainscape, gains its aesthetic value from its vineyards, terraced fields of corn, lettuce, and other greens, and the massive white and maroon Tibetan compounds that each stand solitary amid the irrigated greenery. Behind this superficial view is a complex network of tight irrigation ditches, water mills, and small concrete reservoirs. Water, and the human system developed to manage it, has allowed this village to produce food across the narrow swath of relatively flat land lying between the steep slopes of Jala Chumi’s shoulders.

Tashi, my friend who grew up in this village (and has since moved to a bigger town eight hours east), explains that residents consider the water to be on the same level as their parents. It is a deep, familial respect that goes to the substance that has enabled their plentiful harvest. She continues by explaining that they must manage the water like an aging parent – that it takes care, love, and skillful thought to be sure that the water source stays healthy and full. The village offspring of this water-parent has been divided into seven sections, each of which has their own mill and small reservoir. Members of each village section discuss, debate, and eventually agree on when and how each household (and its adjoining croplands) will receive water from the reservoir.

In fact, it seems that much of communication throughout the village revolves around water. “We are beating walnuts from the trees and don’t want them to fall into the gushing ditches. Would you please close the irrigation gate for the morning?” “We need just a few minutes of water this afternoon to fill our household water tank. May we open the gate to our ditch before you flood your fields?” “Hello!!! We are opening the third gate now!!!” And so on. Tashi elaborates that they do not pee or defecate in the water, that they make their best efforts to not pollute the water in any way.

The irony of our experience in this remote settlement is that we are, according to most official records, not here. While this village has electricity (as of ten years ago) and an elaborate and adequate water infrastructure, it is protected by its status as a “closed” village – that is, a village which, by government decree, is not open to tourists or, in theory, overnight visitors of any sort. By “protected,” I imply the possible fate that many villages as visually stunning and tranquil as this one have already suffered: gawking travelers, rows of guesthouses, narrow-road traffic jams, obnoxious easterners (from China’s big cities), and ignorant westerners (we recently ran into a traveler who asked, after several weeks in these parts, where he could find “the real Tibetans”). While the government may have various reasons for keeping this village “closed,” I have my reasons for supporting it. There is nothing wrong with slow, thoughtful, well-informed development processes.

This is not to say that we should cordon off places that we – the visitors – find fascinating. It is to say that every human community has the right to develop itself with a wealth of information. I have no illusions that a community cut off from the world’s communication and transportation infrastructure is better off, but I do hold the ideal that a community’s self-determination is valuable and only truly possible when it has access to information, decision-making power, and time to experiment before the swell of outside development comes crashing in.

The questions arise: Is sacredness timeless? Or is it a human construct to be washed over by a new, modern devotion void of spiritual value? Can we be connected throughout the world via fiberoptics and smooth roads and still slow our lives enough to deepen our souls with the rhythms provided by mountains, streams, and rivers? Can we have both?

Down below, the Mekong meanders and roars. Up above, Khawa Karpo and Jala Chumi watch from their glaciers. In between, Tibetan villagers waver between the sacred and the progress. Perhaps, like the White River and Black River of this village, the sacred and the progress will one day merge as one, uniting our spiritual power with our worldly ways, opening our vision to a new way, a new map for living and adapting to our ever changing circumstances.

-Max Woodfin, 24 September 2011

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