Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Magazine article The Spectator

Low Life: Jeremy Clarke

Article excerpt

Last week in Ladakh I went panting from one Buddhist monastery to another. Culturally, racially and historically, Ladakh is Tibetan, and the type of Buddhism practised there is Tibetan Buddhism. With a knowledgable local guide we visited the great Ladakhi monasteries at Basgo, Likir, Thikse, Alchi and Lamayuru. At each one we climbed the steps, took off our shoes and paid our respects in the inner temples. Once our eyes had become accustomed to the dark, we examined the carved, gaudily painted statues of Buddhas, deities, personifications, guardian spirits, Bodhisattvas and whatnot that we found within.

The guide conscientiously explained these representations' various functions and positions within the Buddhist cosmology. It was all very fascinating and I tried hard to commit the essentials to memory. But the complicated iconography strained my powers of comprehension to the limit. The thin air didn't help, and every day I was distracted, perhaps for the same reason, by the insistent promptings of chronic flatulence. There are at least five Buddhist denominations, if I might put it like that, which can be divided for simplicity's sake into 'red hats' or 'yellow hats'. This useful fact I managed to retain. (His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a yellow hat.) But what interested me more than anything else were the many hideous representations in these temples of malign spirits.

Before Buddhism came to Ladakh and Tibet, everybody adhered to the Bon religion, which was essentially devil worship. Later, a Buddhist missionary called Padmasambhava personally subjugated these demons and set them to work in the service of the Buddha. After that they became known as 'the Guardians of the Law'. There are nine principal demons: Yama, Yamantaka, Kubera, Hayagriva, Brahma, Begtse, Mahakali and Palden Lhamo.

Take Palden Lhamo, for example. She killed her son, the story goes, then skinned him, drank his blood from his skull, ate the flesh, then rode away on a horse using her son's flayed skin as a saddle. Reborn in hell, she stole a sword and a bag of diseases and fought her way back to earth, where the Lord Buddha forgave her and gave her the job of protecting the polity of Tibet. Given communist China's suppression of Buddhism in Tibet since 1962, Palden Lhamo, I would suggest, seriously needs to have a word with herself and step up to the plate.

One afternoon, instead of us visiting a monastery, a Buddhist monk came to the house for a cup of tea and a chat. …

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