For the week of October 7 thru October 13, 1998  

The stone tablet of Rongbuk

In the zendo (meditation hall) of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in California is a 15-foot-high carved wooden statue of Avalokiteshvara, representing the Buddhist concept of a transcendent Bodhisattva of compassion. It is an imposing and lovely representation dominating the zendo.

On the back of Avalokiteshvara, resting on a metal holder and the first thing one sees on entering the zendo, is a stone tablet about a foot high by eight inches across. It is about an inch thick. On it is a carved depiction of a Tibetan blacksmith hard at work with the tools of his trade: anvil, bellows and forge. It is meant to symbolize the effort, intention, attention and craft of spiritual work, not that of the material realm, though in a perfect world or a perfect person they are the same.

This engraving was done with great care, devotion and workmanship by an unknown Tibetan artist sometime in the (probably) last three or four hundred years. I call it "The Stone Tablet of Rongbuk" because it came from the ruins of Tibet’s Rongbuk Monastery in the Rongbuk Valley beneath the North Face of Mt. Everest.

Rongbuk means "Valley of Caves," and long before Buddhism came to Tibet from India in the eighth century the Rongbuk Valley was a place where followers of the more ancient Bon religion found solitude in those caves for their meditative practice.

Once Buddhism arrived in Tibet it quickly merged with and replaced the Bon religion. Rongbuk continued to be a holy place. A Buddhist monastery was built there, and it grew in size to accommodate some 300 monks, nuns and visitors. At 16,500 feet above sea level, it was the highest monastery on earth. It sat in an unrivaled setting.

Photographs taken by the first British climbing expeditions to Mt. Everest in the 1920s show the Rongbuk Monastery to be an active, bustling community.

George Leigh Mallory was a member of those early expeditions. He vanished near the summit of Everest in 1927, and there is some speculation that he may have actually reached the summit. Mallory is remembered for his terse reply that spoke volumes to the inane, incessant question of why some people want to climb Everest: "Because it’s there," he said.

In 1950 the military of the People’s Republic of China invaded and occupied Tibet. Since that time, approximately 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese. Many Tibetans have been forced into exile, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Since the invasion, the Chinese have systematically attempted to destroy the Tibetan people and their culture. This has included but not been limited to brutality in many forms (murder, torture, rape, imprisonment and enforced involuntary sterilization and abortion) and the immigration of Han Chinese in such numbers that Tibetans are now a minority in their own country.

The ecological integrity of the environment has been shattered by, among other things, extensive deforestation and open dumping of nuclear waste. The Chinese also attended to the destruction of more than 6,000 monasteries throughout Tibet. Most of these were leveled by Chinese artillery during the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Such was the fate of the Rongbuk Monastery.

In 1981 I led one of the first two groups of Americans to ever visit the Valley of Caves with its unmatched vista of the North Face of Mt. Everest rising more than 12,000 feet above the valley floor. It was an unforgettable trip during which I gained a deep and lasting affection, admiration, respect and sympathy for the people of Tibet.

We camped in the ruins of the Rongbuk Monastery, surrounded by the remnants of icons, the deteriorating beauty of the monastery’s religious art work exposed to the elements by Chinese artillery, and hundreds of artistically engraved stone tablets as well as granite boulders with the Tibetan form of OM MANI PADMI HUM (an expression of the basic attitude of compassion associated with Avalokiteshvara) carved into them. Each had been left in the Valley of Caves over hundreds of years by individual worshipers of Buddhism. Many but not all of these offerings were smashed.

Our Chinese hosts in a land they had stolen charged us a small fortune to visit the occupied country of the Tibetan people.

We went for Everest. We left with that and much more, primarily the memory and example of a lovely and gracious people whose strength and peaceful confidence allowed them to create a rich and beautiful culture while living difficult but meaningful and independent lives in a harsh and resplendent landscape.

The Chinese forbade taking any artifact (or, really, anything not bought from an official PRC store at a price specially inflated for foreigners) out of Tibet. However, a British Tibetologist had advised me that any artifact removed from Tibet was safer with me than in Chinese-occupied Tibet. This was a self-evident truth that anyone with a pair of eyes could verify.

I managed to smuggle the Stone Tablet of Rongbuk and a few other items out of Tibet and then out of China. It was a political, not spiritual act on my part, though in a perfect world and a perfect person they are the same.

The Stone Tablet of Rongbuk is a symbol, and symbols are important. They maintain hope.

In November 1996 I gave the tablet to Jakusho Kwong Roshi, the Abbott of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, to keep there.

It is my sincere hope that in due time, when China has left Tibet and the Tibetan people are once again in control of their own country, and when the Rongbuk Monastery has been re-built, that the Stone Tablet of Rongbuk will be returned to the Valley of the Caves.

I would like to live long enough to be the one to return it.


To paraphrase Mallory, because it needs to be there.


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