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Saga Dawa at Mt Kailash, Tibet

Today you can see this photo I took of Robert Thurman standing in front of Mt. Kailash in the San Francisco Chronicle, accompanying a great interview with Robert by David Ian Miller, “Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman on Why the Dalai Lama Matters,” about his new book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters.

In the picture, Robert stands near the Tarboche flagpole at the outset of our kora (circumambulation) around Mt Kailash. Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and B̦n traditions all revere Mt Kailash as the axis mundi Рthe center of the world. From it flows 4 major rivers that feed Asia: the Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Karnali. Thousands of pilgrims arrive each May and June, but this year China has delayed the pilgrimage season and limited the number of participants, restricting all foreign visitors during the Olympic torch relay in that region.

After four days trekking around the mountain and reaching an altitude of 18,600 ft, we arrived back here in time for the Saga Dawa festival, celebrating the birth and enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha.

Raising the Tarboche Flag Pole at Saga Dawa

On this occasion, the flag pole, wrapped in prayer flags, is raised by poles, ropes and trucks.


A perfectly upright flagpole signifies a good year for Tibet.

upright flagpole at tarboche

Musicians play throughout the festival. Thermoses of yak butter tea keep throats in singing and horn-blowing condition at dry high-altitudes on the Tibetan plateau.

musicians at saga dawa festival

Then, at the moment the flagpole is raised, thousands of windhorses (colorful squares of paper printed with prayers for happiness) fill the air and fly towards the peak.


Saga Dawa occurs each year on the 15th day of the fourth lunar month. This year, Tibetans will celebrate Saga Dawa on June 18, 2008 — may the pole stand upright and usher in a good year for Tibet!

An excerpt from the SF Chronicle interview:

The news from Tibet has been pretty grim lately, but you remain optimistic that the situation will improve … that the Tibetans will one day be able to live there freely and practice their religion. What gives you hope that will happen?

I base my hope — as the Dalai Lama bases his — on what is realistic. And I believe reality dictates that the Tibetans are the ones who can live sustainably in Tibet. They’re the ones who can restore and maintain the Tibetan plateau, their ancestral home, as they have for thousands of years. And it has to be healthy in order to be of benefit to its neighboring regions. It’s the water tower of Asia — it’s where everybody’s water comes from, India, China, Southeast Asia. It’s also the source of the wind — the jet stream that rises up out of the plateau, affecting the weather all around the planet. So if Tibet is messed up then the world gets messed up. This is why Tibet should matter to everybody.

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