Mortality and the Gift of the Moment A sound engineer continues his pilgrimage around a sacred mountain in China revered by Tibetan Buddhists, and finds a powerful force guiding his path: an awareness of mortality.
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Mortality and the Gift of the Moment

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Mortality and the Gift of the Moment

Mortality and the Gift of the Moment

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In this second report on Tibet you will not hear the voices of many Tibetans. It's not safe for many to speak openly with western journalists. You will hear astonishing sounds captured by NPR's Bill McQuay. This National Geographic radio expedition resumes at 14,000 feet.

BILL MCQUAY: We follow our animals through the Pass. I ask Kayson about the hundreds of stone objects we see along the trail. The 2-foot high structures resemble miniature houses.

KAYSON: After we've die, we believe that 49 days after, is roaming around. So during the 49 days we don't have any house to stay in. And that time we live, you can stay inside that house.

MCQUAY: We trek over mountain passes covered with prayer flags, piles of barley flower and bowls of yak butter. These are offerings left by pilgrims, who chant prayers to the mountain god, Kawakarpo.


MCQUAY: For six days we've trekked the narrow trails that snake around the mountain god's abode. We arrive at a small temple on an island surrounded by tributaries of the Salween River. Inside, a bell rings with each turn of a large prayer wheel. The red, 8-foot tall cylinder is covered with letters of gold. I ask Kayson what they mean.

KAYSON: It's written Om Mani Padme Hum.

MCQUAY: UNIDENTIFIED MAN (Speaking in Tibetan)

MCQUAY: It wasn't until I had a chance to speak with someone who had been on the pilgrimage before that it began to make sense.

KATIA BUFFATRIA: For many people, Tibet is Buddhist. But I think that it's important to note that Buddhism came in Tibet only in the 7th Century.

MCQUAY: For ten years, Katia Buffatria(ph) studied Tibetan pilgrimage. An anthropologist at the Sorbonne, in Paris, she's trekked the 150 mile Kawakarpa pilgrimage three times.

BUFFATRIA: Before Buddhism came, among other deities, you had a territorial god, which was called Ula. It's a mountain deity. Kawakarpo is a Ula, and like all the Ula is represented as a war god. It is regarded as the ancestor of the population living in his territory. In each pilgrimage, you can see a lot of ritual, which belonged to the non-Buddhist tradition, and a lot of ritual which belonged to the Buddhist tradition.

MCQUAY: Unidentified Man: These are very good prayer flags.

MCQUAY: We hang our prayer flags. It marks the end of our pilgrimage, and for Tibetan Buddhists, a cleansing of past misdeeds. So much of what I've seen and heard during this long journey seems only concerned with the future, the seemingly endless cycle of rebirth and death stretching ever onward. But now, surrounded by prayerful flags, the lighting and the sound of the animals' bells, and relishing the time I've spent with friendly and gentle Tibetans, I'm not concerned with either death or rebirth. It's what is happening in this moment that seems most important. Tibetan scholar and author, Thupten Jinpa.

THUPTEN JINPA: People outside the Buddhist world get the impression that the main objective for a Buddhist believer is to find a good rebirth. In some sense that is true, but on another level, it really is thought for the sake of something higher. So, as part of this, on a daily basis, Buddhist practitioners remind themselves of their mortality, or finitude. And this is to really to impress upon the individual the preciousness of the every moment of one's life, so that one feels the weight of responsibility to use that moment in a most responsible and constructive manner.


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