From Rochester to China and Tibet and Back: Where compassion is revealed

I went on a bike trip to China in 1982. I felt that China was so familiar to me—as if I knew it from a past life—that I became a tour manager in order to return to China. Tibet was included in my tours in 1993. After working for Chinese tour companies, graduate school coursework for East Asian studies and immersion in Chinese culture and language, I began organizing my own tours in 1997. In addition, I lived in Shanghai for two months in 1999 and spent 19 days in Tibet in 2007, on “kora” (pilgrimage) to Mount Kailash in central Tibet with additional travel to western Tibet—both times on my own.  


My last trip was in 2012, and I thought I had retired from organizing tours. After long consideration and inspired by my commitment to my Buddhist life and study and my work with our initiative declaring Rochester a Compassionate City, I organized a different kind of trip for the end of October 2018. 


I made arrangements for my specified itinerary of two days in Shanghai, two days in Xian and nine days in Tibet. A challenge was receiving a “Tibet group permit” because of increasingly restricted travel there for Westerners. Fortunately, we obtained the permit mere weeks before our departure.


From the airport, we were given instructions to notice a camera and recording device in our bus. We were also advised not to take photos of police, military, the army, checkpoints, security checks or vehicles in front of the hotel and tourist sites.

Flying into Lhasa, Tibet, with an altitude of 12,000 feet, meant we needed to adjust to the altitude by drinking plenty of liquids, making slow movements and getting lots of rest. Our food was freshly cooked Chinese vegetarian. We ate at a Nepali restaurant that served curries, pizza and naan bread. In the mornings, we found space to meditate, sometimes in the hotel lobby, often with a kitten on my lap.


In Lhasa, we went into the magnificent Potala Palace (home of past Dalai Lamas), Drepung and Sera Monastery where we witnessed debating monks. We also visited Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace. 

Our beautiful hotel was half a block to the Barkhor market surrounding the holy Jokhang Temple. We went through a security check to join those who circle the temple clockwise in meditation, spinning prayer wheels or reciting “om mani padme hum” with a string of 108 prayer beads. We carefully stepped around those performing full prostrations amid the prayers. 

There were two other all-day sites for pilgrimage in Lhasa: the Potala and the Lingkor (the old city), which can take many hours. I reflect on the challenges of keeping the centuries of Tibetan culture alive, while facing the realities of change demanded by the overwhelming Chinese presence.


Traveling three days outside of Lhasa, we traveled through a 15,000-foot mountain pass covered in prayer flags. The banners support prayers carried on the winds. 

We exclaimed with spontaneous delight when we rounded a mountain road to the expanse of the holy Yamdrok Lake, with the snow-capped glaciers of the Himalayas far in the distance. At a rest stop, we encountered herders who have given work to their Tibetan mastiffs, which was a photo opportunity for US $1.50 per person. The herders have been moved off the plateau into multi-floor housing to be nearer the road. Moving the herders is a way to confiscate their land, vast areas of which are now being mined. Some of their yaks have an earring indicating they have been purchased and set free to roam, a gift of mercy.

Tibetan “thangkas” (paintings) are complex mandalas (symbols) of the Buddhist story—heaven and hell, life and death, buddhas, colors, guides, dangers, spirits and humans.  Thangkas are everywhere—the temples, the market—our hotel in Lhasa was even named the Thangka Hotel. Tibet is described as a living mandala.

I contemplate what is seen and what is unseen. Entering the complexity of a Buddhist thangka to explore an unknown work, we try to define it by what is known, and so often we are left to gaze upward into the deep blue of a vast sky, abandoning the struggle, asking a question, being silent in the answer. 

We were on a journey to discover how compassion is revealed in the complex relationship between China and Tibet. We also reflected on how this relates to our own lives, in our own communities, and in our familiar and challenging world.


Since returning from our journey, I have recognized a shift in my way of being. Judgment and anger have lessened as I saw all beings in Tibet wanting happiness. I have made a connection to the challenge of finding how compassion for those who cause pain and suffering can begin to dismantle the boundaries that have too long divided us.

Compassion has no hierarchy of worthy and unworthy suffering; It makes no distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving. Wherever there is suffering, there is a need for compassion. Finding compassion for those who are the cause of pain is a difficult journey, but the path of bitterness and division is far more painful. I have found a new way to open my eyes and heart in all the places where I had been previously blinded by fear or anger. May we all travel to a height of 12,000 feet to gain a much more expanded view of the world.



Catherine Ashton teaches Buddhism and mindfulness meditation at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. She spearheaded Rochester joining the worldwide Charter for Compassion as a Compassionate City in 2017.