MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Sunday, November 19, 2023

My surprise date with the Panchen Lama


I’ve been to a few interesting places since I took to the road again, even if many of these places are repeat visits. A good destination, for me, is like a good book or movie. Every time I reread the book or rewatch the movie or revisit the destination, I find something new, in beauty or depth or genius, that I missed the first time, and which brings me much new joy.

Not for me are the “bucket lists” that some people have about places they want to visit before they “kick the bucket”. Granted, bucket lists certainly help you to be focused with your ambitions and increase the chances of success, and they certainly work for some people.

But these lists come with a big downside. They assume the world has an inherent order of excellence on things, hence meriting their positions on this or that bucket list. Anything not on them is obviously, by this very definition, not quite worth the effort.

Creating bucket lists of places to go has become very popular, especially in the age of the internet. Try googling bucket lists, and you would get bucketloads of them.

By the way, bucket lists are very much a thing of young, or younger, people. It’s ironic that those statistically furthest away from kicking the proverbial bucket tend to be the ones most obsessed about the bucket!

You would have figured out by now the fact I mentioned “the age of the internet” outed me as an old fogey. The young ones have never lived under any other age to know or care about that distinction.

Anyway, I find bucket lists limiting. They tend to close your mind against the accidental, the serendipitous, the unplanned and certainly the unpublicised. They may mitigate the risks that come with travelling without planning, but they also put a hard ceiling on its upsides.

Another downside of bucket lists is that they almost always focus on the exotic and the far-away and the glamorous. Not many have bucket lists that are merely local, such as diving off Sipadan or climbing Gunung Tahan or bamboo-rafting down Sungai Perak (ahem…this old fogey has ticked these off…).

Bucket lists seem a reflection of the longing in our heart of wanting to be significant and remarkable, to join the club of the elites. “I’ve been to the Grand Canyon” certainly sounds more significant than “I’ve been to Pulau Langkawi”. It’s more “branded”, something that seems to count a lot in the social-media conscious world of today.

My trip to Tibet

Anyway, back to my travels. I was recently in Shigatse in Tibet, a city south of Lhasa and the usual launching point for visits to Tibet’s Everest base camp on the border between Tibet and Nepal.

Shigatse is a lovely city in late autumn: cold but dry, and at close to 4,000 meters of elevation, can be a handful for those not fully acclimatised to its high altitude. I doubt it’s on many bucket lists, though it should.

Shigatse is home to the Tashilhunpo monastery, the second most important one in Tibet, behind only the Potala Palace in Lhasa. It’s the base for the Panchen Lama, who is second only to the Dalai Lama in importance to Tibetan Buddhists.

Given that the Dalai Lama is in exile in India, and not likely to return to Tibet, this makes the Panchen Lama the most important Tibetan leader. While his official residence is in Shigatse, he’s more often in Beijing though.

You can, and should, do some research on the Panchen Lamas, and you’ll find some interesting stories of intrigue and geopolitics mixed with religion and statecraft regarding the current Lama. I won’t spoil your pleasure by telling you too much.

Anyway, the day we visited the monastery the Panchen Lama happened to be “in residence” there. While in a queue to enter the monastery, we saw a cavalcade of big 4x4s going in, with the leading car carrying a monk in saffron who smiled and waved at the crowd. That was the Panchen Lama, though I didn’t know it then.

The queue was long but orderly. There were serious-looking men and women, some in uniform and some not, managing the crowd. Everything was peaceful, though I could see that these people were prepared to handle anything that might breach the peace and embarrass the authorities.

Special treatment

It was a cold day, but not an unpleasant one. I thought we would be in line for some security checks or perhaps registration or tickets before we could roam around the monastery grounds. After almost two hours of queueing, suddenly I and a few others from my group were asked to cut the line and move ahead.

Entering a door, I saw the Panchen Lama himself, seated and blessing the long line of people who queued past him in a single file.

I was certainly the most un-Tibetan looking person in that queue. When I got in front, he smiled and actually asked in English, “Where are you from”? I replied I was from Malaysia, and was with some friends visiting Tibet.

We exchanged smiles and then I was out of the room. But suddenly a few officious looking people in robes as well as some in civilian clothes called our group back into the room. They wanted to take a group photo of us with the Panchen Lama! We dutifully did, standing or squatting while many cameras clicked, including my own in the hand of a monk. I had the chance to exchange smiles with the Panchen Lama again, and then off we went.

Apparently, the authorities noticed we were a group of foreigners and wanted to make a special deal out of it. Hence the special efforts to speed us through the line, and the ultra-special opportunity to take a group photo with the Panchen Lama himself.

That consideration aside, it didn’t prevent the occasion from being a super special one for myself and my friends. I’ll remember this for a long time indeed.

I doubt anybody can have a bucket list that includes meeting a world-famous personality under such an auspicious situation. I’ll add this to my own list of “what a cool, unexpected surprise”, one that could only happen because I choose to go with the flow and savour whatever fate or luck has in store for me.

In my quest to “grow old disgracefully”, I keep coming across efforts by the universe to thwart me from achieving that ambition. Perhaps the universe keeps a bucket list for me without my permission or knowledge. If that is indeed the case, I’m happy to go along and savour the surprises as they come. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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