Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

Traveling by Jeep and Horseback: Across Tibet’s Grasslands

After a false start working as a lab technician, Ivan Cooper spent several years kicking around Asia, including long journeys through Pakistan, China and India. In the following years teaching jobs in Taiwan and Korea sparked an enduring, if love-hate, relationship with oriental languages.

Growing fascinated with Tibet after visiting Buddhist regions of China and India, Ivan made his home for ten years in Dharamsala—the Indian headquarters of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, where he studied Tibetan, Sanskrit and Buddhist Philosophy. After moving back to England in 2009, Ivan divides his time between looking after his young son and instructing youngsters in the art of sushi making. Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage is about a journey through the rural parts of the country.

About the Book

Inspired by the work of Ippolito Desideri, a pioneering, eighteenth-century Jesuit who wrote the first detailed account of Tibet, Ivan Cooper travels by clapped-out jeep and on horseback across the remote grasslands of eastern Tibet. In the company of an itinerant painter of deities who serves as guide and mediator he encounters, amongst others, Lama Sonam, a living Buddha held in reverence by the surrounding nomads, who summarily condemns him to rebirth in one of the Buddhist hells.

In a chaotic monastic shanty town that has been illegally constructed around the residence of a living saint he narrowly avoids arrest. Alone and isolated in a land where few foreigners have set foot he is forced to re-evaluate both who he is and the fixed certainties of the culture in which he grew up.

Nomad child in TIbet. photo by Ivan Cooper.
Nomad child in TIbet. photo by Ivan Cooper.

On reaching the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, he attempts to locate a bell ransacked from an eighteenth-century Capuchin Mission. Soon after, participation in a sky burial, the traditional form of Tibetan funeral—corpses are disembowelled by specialist monks before being fed to the vultures—shocks him into a profound affirmation of his own identity while also reconciling him to the faith and piety of life on the Tibetan plateau.

Excerpt from Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

The Birds

The monastery of Drigung Thil clings limpet-like to the slopes of a broad, fertile valley. Founded in the twelfth century, it has a long and prominent history as a centre of learning. Today, however, its monks are probably best known for their skill in disposing of the dead. After a night spent in the monastery guest house I am invited to witness a funeral.

A dirt track leads past a cluster of disused buildings and up the steep, grassy slope beyond. Close to the top I begin to encounter tangled masses of prayer flags — their original colours, once strikingly vivid, now bleached by the elements to a uniform shade of grey. A line of tall wooden poles rears up against the skyline; looking like so many ships’ masts, their long, narrow flags billow and roll in the wind like sails.

Like most of us, I suppose, I’ve preferred to picture my own existence stretching without end towards an ever-receding horizon. Until today the only human corpses I’ve seen have been on the cinema screen: I’ve never even been to a funeral before. Yet, what I’ve just witnessed has left this smug illusion of security in tatters.

A deaf-mute from a village near Darong.
A deaf-mute from a village near Darong.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest I felt horror, disgust, or even much fear. What lingers is the sheer, soul-crushing beauty of the occasion — the terrible finality of death over life.

From the smallest blade of grass to the mightiest tree, all will soon be gone, sucked up in the merciless whirlpool of time. And, for just a fraction of a second the world in all its tragic beauty, its ecstasy and its terrible pain seems to stand revealed before me. What follows is the most tremendous feeling of release, my return to the monastery an effortless glissade through sunlight and pure air.

Ivan Cooper lives and writes in Leeds, England. This is his first book.
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