BBtv World: Ancient hermit monk caves of Drak Yerpa (Tibet)

Today’s edition of Boing Boing tv is a new installment of our ongoing “BBtv WORLD” series, in which we bring you first-person glimpses of life, culture, and human expression from around the planet.

Today, I visit the honeycombed, limestone caves at Drak Yerpa, an ancient religious and historic site near Lhasa, Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhists consider Drak Yerpa (pronounced sort of like “tra-YER-ba”) with its more than eighty meditation caves and temples, to be the “life tree” of Lhasa. In 1959, the Chinese military demolished most of the temples here. Signs of that destruction are etched into walls pockmarked with bullet holes. The few artifacts that saved from that destruction have been hidden for half a century, only recently reemerging for worshippers.

Songsten Gampo, the founder of the Tibetan empire, is believed to have meditated in the very cave we’re walking through in this footage — way back in the 7th century. A hundred years later, the dark assassin-monk Lhalungpa Pelgi Dorje hid here after killing Tibet’s non-Buddhist king with a bow and arrow (he shot the guy in the eye, then he sped off on a horse covered in black soot). The assassin’s black hat was enshrined in a cave here until 1959, when the communist army came in to ransack the site. And Padmasambhava, the holy figure considered “the second Buddha” meditated and practiced tantric yoga with his yogini consort here. She is Yeshe Tsogyal, and devotees refer to her as “the bliss queen.”

The pilgrims who walk praying through these ruins are ethnic Tibetans: citydwellers, tribal nomads, traditional monks and nuns. They come to worship at shrines of historical figures and deities, and they pay homage with donations that help cover upkeep of the shrines and to feed the monks who tend to them.

Traditional religious practice is evident here, but ethnic Tibetans and human rights advocates argue that true religious freedom does not exist in Tibet. Displaying a picture of the Dalai Lama, for instance, is a crime that brings harsh penalties. Tibetans who revere him as a spiritual leader don’t hear news of him on state-run media, unless it’s portraying him as a sort of terrorist.

When we went to these shrines at Drak Yerpa and others throughout Tibet, we were clearly foreigners, and had just come from the part of India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. Monks would often pull us aside into quieter corners and ask in hushed voice, “Dalai Lama, have you seen him?,” motioning to their eyes, asking for word. — XJ


Related episodes of Boing Boing tv:
* BBtv WORLD (Tibet): Inside Lhasa
* Vlog (Xeni): Tibet report – monks forced to participate in staged videos.
* Vlog (Xeni): Tibet’s uprising and the internet
* Beijing: interview with pro-Tibet videobloggers in hiding, in China.

About Xeni Jardin

Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: xeni@boingboing.net.
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