An encounter with silence

A visit to Tibet in 1986

An encounter with silence

During a brief period in summer 1986, it was possible to visit Tibet from Nepal without a fixed and guided program, without a detailed schedule and supervision. We used this opportunity to explore the mystery of Tibet.

We found spectacular landscapes, impressive mountains, the snow-covered Himalayas to the south and the endless stone desert to the North. We saw nomads living in the traditional way in their yurts, herding yaks and accompanied by keen dogs. A Chinese driver took us to wherever we wanted to go and despite the language barrier, we managed to reach all our places of interest.


Our first involuntary stop was at the village of Nyamlam: a bridge had been washed away and we could not cross a river. We stayed overnight, and locals told us about the nearby cave, where, according to local lore, Milarepa (a 11th century mystic) had been meditating for many years. 


The cave turned out to be only a short stroll away from the main road. However, entering it was like a transit into a different world. The serene atmosphere, the silence, the absence of murmuring monks – only silence and peace. We were the only visitors and a reticent monk showed us the way. We were touched by the serene atmosphere and harmony all around us. Immersed in the moment, oblivious to our environment, we didn’t speak, trying to stay in this special moment.


It was almost as if we could hear the famous songs of Milarepa, reverberating through time. Was this the “Voice of the Silence”?


We continued our travels, crossing some mountain passes that were more than 5.000m high. During our trip, we visited a number of monasteries in Shigatse, Gyangtse, Lhasa, and the main temple in Lhasa – the Jokhan Temple during which the powerful atmosphere of the Milarepa cave stayed in our minds all the time. The murmur of the monks, the beating of drums and the flutes and trumpets were but an external noise which could not touch us internally. We felt the contrast within one culture, the past and the present, similar yet vastly different.


In Lhasa, we heard about the “Valley of the Kings”, situated to the south of the city and also considered a special place. Despite never having been in the area because tourists did not care to go there, we could convince our driver to take us there. Arriving at the Valley of Kings we beheld a number of simple mounds which our travel guidebook told us were the graveyards of kings. These kings had ruled Tibet before the Dalai Lama dynasty was installed. According to history three kings invited a knowledgeable Buddhist teacher from India. They introduced and supported the spread of Buddhism in Tibet and were revered as God-Kings.


On top of another mound behind the parking lot we discovered a small building, a simple gompa, which stood in stark contrast with the splendour and riches of the Lamaist monasteries and gompas we had seen so far. We walked up the hill and entered the gompa. During the ascent, we felt the calm and serene vibration, similar to the one we had experienced in the Milarepa cave.


In the gompa there was a simple statue of the great king Somtsang Gampo with his two wives, one from Nepal and one from Tibet. It is believed that Somtsang Gampo was the first king to bring Buddhism to Tibet. Through his wives he built and maintained relationships with China and Nepal, which not only led to peace and stability, but also to an exchange of art and science.


As we were contemplating the history and the simplicity of the statue, other visitors entered the gompa. They were Tibetans living in New Delhi. They bowed before the statue in great devotion and were also touched by the special atmosphere of the place and its surroundings.


After some time, we all went out again. We were asked in very low voices what kind of place this was, who the persons depicted by the statues were,  what this special place was, what the origin of such an intense vibration and serene silence might be.  With the help of my guide book I tried to answer the factual side of the questions – but a lot remained which I could not explain….


We did not feel this special atmosphere, the silence, this nearly unearthly vibration in any other monastery  – so, what was it?


As I am writing these lines some 30 years later, the search for an answer and the remembrance of this special place still remains with me.

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Date: December 18, 2017
Author: Horst Matthäus (Nepal)
Photo: ph

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