Thursday, April 24, 2014

Holy Rollers

A friend of mine has an odd and amusing hobby of checking the back page of popular Western Buddhist magazines where all of the advertisements are.  He finds it pretty ironic to find a section of a Buddhist magazine solely devoted to "dharma" commercialism.  He recently told me about something he'd seen on the back page of one of the most popular (if not the most popular) Western Buddhist magazines: Prayer wheel stickers for your car.

I thought, he has got to be kidding. This is a joke! Well, I went home and googled "Hub cap Buddhism sticker".  First thing that popped up was the Hubcap Prayer Wheel, their slogan? "Burn Rubber, Burn Karma."

I can't make this stuff up, people.  The website advises you to "Leave yourself at least 15 minutes to apply Hubcap Prayer Wheel so you can do it mindfully and carefully."  Well, I am so glad they are being mindful of decal application, because they sure as hell aren't being mindful of offending the Tibetans from whom they have appropriated and bastardized this cultural practice!

Let's see: we are taking a sacred mantra, known by every Buddhist Tibetan from the time they can talk, which is held and revered as a center of Tibetan culture and they are putting it on a car wheel which will drive though mud and shit and roadkill.  This sacred script will be located low, specifically almost immediately below where people are seated and their feet are resting, so it's under both their butts and their feet (we've already talked about feet and butts in terms of respect).

Oh, and since a prayer wheel is supposed to go clockwise, I really hope these "mindful" and "careful" holier-than-thou drivers are never planning to shift into reverse, ever.

And for anyone who wants to say this is "honoring Tibetans"  I point you to this post about appropriating another culture's religious symbols.  If you think people just need "get over it" because it's cultural and your idea of Dharma is above that?  Take a closer read here and realize that ripping off a sacred cultural artifact and using it in a way that offends the people who created it is probably a really good reason to not do something. It's certainly isn't "mindful" or "careful."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Trekking on a Road of Corpses

Only a few days ago, 16 everest mountain guides, popularly known as "Sherpas" died while helping foreign climbers summit Everest.

The guides were Nepalis, primarily of Nepali-Tibetan ethnic groups that live in the mountainous border between Tibet and Nepal and which has fluctuated between the two.  "Sherpa" itself is the name of one, specific, Nepali group of Tibetan descent, which was appropriated by mountain climbers who decided to call the entire occupation of being a low-paid, high risk, servant by the name of an ethnic group.  I have a lot to say about this, but I don't think right now is the time.

Although there were actual Sherpas among the dead, it was very hard to find this out, because almost no article in the international media actually listed the names of the sixteen victims who were killed in an avalanche while being underpaid to help wealthy foreigners "test their limits" or "find themselves" or "gain spiritual achievement" or just for fun.  I just found one international news source that has listed the names. Whenever a foreign climber dies, we see their name, hometown, photo and probably a list of survivorss.  But when, in a single day, 16 of the people who made it possible for every single foreign climber to reach the top of Everest, hardly a name is mentioned, much less their hometown, tribe, or family.  There could have been Sherpas, Tamangs, Tibetans, and Gurungs. There most definitely were fathers, brothers, sons and husbands, none of whom were named by most media outlets.  All of my Sherpa friends over the age of 40 have school mates who have died carting some other person's goods up everest.

Thanks to the (primarily western) thirst for conquering Everest, we have created an economy whereby it is possible, and even encouraged, to buy human lives.

The job of the "Sherpas" is to carry all the gear, go ahead of the climbers and prepare camp for them, prepare food, and clear the way. They take the hard work and the most dangerous job so that the foreign climbers can reach base camp in time for a hot meal and a cozy tent, and from there just climb to the top with no other responsibilities, take a photo at the summit, dump their trash on a sacred mountain, and declare that they and they alone, by their own power summited the highest mountain in the world. They can get their adrenaline high! But the real risk and effort came from many other people.

This article takes a close look at the value of a Sherpa life, working to survive, in comparison to that of the foreigners climbing for glory.

So to all of you foreign climbers on Everest, who donate to Sherpa schools along the way and give pens to little children, just remember: You are not a savior.  You are not a hero.  You, who probably sign petitions against human trafficking, are purchasing human lives. Because when you pay the pittance of a salary so that "Sherpa" servants will do all the hard work for you, you are paying for the right to risk their lives for your ego.  Their family will get roughly $11,000 for their death from insurance that they themselves must pay.  And you can go home and tell the story of how disappointed you were not to summit Everest.  

In Memory of Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Dorji Sherpa, Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Dorjee Khatri, Then Dorjee Sherpa, Phur Temba Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa and Asman Tamang.  With great concern and hope for the missing: Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Ankaji Sherpa, Pem Tenji Sherpa and Ash Bahadur Gurung.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Robbing the Gonpa

A disturbing phenomenon that I've seen all too often out here is the interaction (*cough*flirtation*cough*) between foreign women and monks.

Before I get into this and make a few people angry, let me explain a little bit about monastic vows.

All over the Buddhist world, monastic vows are not life long vows. They can be, but they don't have to be. Some places are more loose about this than others, but it's an issue of culture, not doctrine. For example, in Thailand, virtually all men will become monks for a short period of time to gain experience and create merit, and then stop being monks. They may resume being monks later in life. It is not considered shameful or embarrassing to be a monk for only a short period of time. A few people remain monks for life.

In Tibet being a monk tends to be more permanent, but this is culture, not doctrine. If a monk decides to no longer be a monk, he only needs to go to his teacher and return his vows. If there is no breaking of vows, there is no sin and no shame. There may be some cultural embarrassment.

Here's a key point, monks vows include no sex. And for those who are curious, this includes ANY orifice. ANY (Nasal sex? Not okay...but that's wrong on SO many different levels.)

I'm pretty sure that just about anyone who comes into Tibetan communities knows that monks are celibate. Westerners really don't have an excuse because monks and nuns in the Christian tradition are also celibate! And yet we still get fishing for monks.

In my experience, there is a disproportionately higher number of females volunteering in Tibetan communities than males, and actually more female converts to Tibetan Buddhists than males. I know this is especially true in the Kagyu school, but that's another discussion for another time.

It is very popular to volunteer as an English teacher to Tibetan monks, in fact it the number of volunteers in monastic institutions is (in my experience) disproportionately high, but again: another discussion for another time.. I have been invited on several times and have occasionally tutored Tibetan monks in English, although it's not most of what I do.

Young women who are aware of the monastic vows should try to respect them, keeping an appropriate distance when working with monks, both physically and emotionally. This can relate to clothing, how one leans over a desk in a classroom, how close you sit to a monk friend, or the topics you talk about. The biggest thing, I've found, is putting up the mental block that says "Monks are off limits." Women should think of monks like their brother. Good friend, fine. But the idea of a monk as a romantic partner should be as abhorrent as the idea of sleeping with your brother.  Would you flash your cleavage at your brother?  I'm not saying wear a black plastic bag over your body, but use common sense about respect in religious places.  You would expect the same sort of behavior when working with conservative Jews or Muslims or Catholic monks etc.

Now, I don't want to put all the responsibility on the ladies here, and good monks will also purposely try to keep their distance. But, the reason I put more responsibility on the women in this one is that many of these monks don't have any close contact with women at all, especially not western women. Rumors about western women abound. And some monks who are less firm in their vows, and the occasional "bad monk" might want to take advantage of this. Yes, that would be their fault, but ladies, let's not encourage!

The real issue isn't the unintentional signals, or cultural differences in ideas of modesty.  The real issue is the number of women who romanticize monks and look for a monk boyfriend. They view the monks as this image of Tibet; this fetishized image of perfect, serene compassion. And heck, who doesn't want a guy who has taken vows of compassion, kindness, and so on? And so they purposely go to work with monks and flirt with them, looking for one to take home. In some people's mind, the monk is the ultimate trophy husband.  I remember one woman telling me that I should find a monk (current, NOT ex-monk) because they make the best boyfriends. They don't consider the immense cultural taboo, or the sheer level of sin from a Buddhist standpoint.

This is one of the ultimate taboos in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the greatest sins is (for a monk) disrobing or (for the woman) causing a monk to disrobe via broken vows. It is causing a person to break a vow that was made to the three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, in the presence of one's lama. To break this sort of vow, or cause someone to, is pretty much the ultimate sin.

The taboo is so great that it can cause complete ostracization from the Tibetan community.

Some people would argue that it's about love or something like that. No, it's not. If two people fall in love, there are steps that can be taken for the relationship to be "kosher" so to speak. This is specifically about people (usually western women) targeting a completely off-limit demographic with no respect whatsoever for the cultural and religious boundaries and repercussions.

It's like a person who specifically follows and flirts only with married people, trying to make them cheat on their spouse. And to make matters worse ONLY flirts with married people BECAUSE they are married. Does that sound wrong? It does to most people.

Why? Because a person has made a vow to remain faithful and not cheat on their spouse and specifically targeting them and trying to get them to break this vow would be wrong.

Shouldn't the same logic apply to monks?

Why are these women going after monks? Do they think some of the holy is going to rub off on them?  They want to fulfill their Tibet fetish by literally sexually fetishizing the orientalist view of Tibetans equaling monks.

Now, let's be clear. What is the proper way of doing things?

First, if a woman is working in a monastery or in close proximity, she tries to keep an appropriate distance. The monks should do the same. Friendship is fine, romance is not.

However, sometimes romance happens. If it does, both members of the couple should consider the vows of the monk. The monk then has a choice; create distance, or if he believes he cannot maintain his vows, go to his teacher and return his vows.

After he has returned his vows, he is a lay person like any other and may pursue romantic relationships as such.

Choosing to return one's vows is part of the rights afforded to a monk. Although there may be cultural embarrassment, there is no shame or sin in this.

But robbing the Gonpa? Stop. Just stop. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Red Robed Charlatans

I was browsing facebook one day, when I came across a link that had been posted or shared by someone on the news feed.  This person was asking others to help support her lama and his charitable projects a posted a link to Feed a Monk.  Well, generally my charitable efforts are aimed at the general populace, not specifically sangha, but I decided to check out the link because hey: feeding the hungry is feeding the hungry!

I spent a long time reading through, trying to figure out which monks were being supported, until I reached the final paragraphs (emphasis added by me):

"But in America, begging monks are often met by police interference.  Luckily, through the convenience of the internet and the safety of paypal, you can improve your Karma and lovingly support this monk by making a cash gift in the amount of your choosing. Your generosity supports my simple, spartan diet and helps me to be of service to others." 
Okay, so basically, it's a self fundraising page parading itself as 'supporting the sangha'. Far from a charitable venture.  I decided to check out more about this guy.  He claims to be a recognized reincarnation, he also acts as a weight loss guru (??)

In his video about prostrations, he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has nothing beyond a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism and obviously no respect for Tibetan culture: pointing the soles of his feet towards the shrine, disregarding all of the symbolism and importance of prostrations and calling them "fun tools to play with" despite them being a serious part of practice for many Tibetans.

But here's what it comes down to:  he is playing lama, claiming a role in a very serious and sacred religious and cultural institution. Not only is he doing this falsely, which is the biggest form of disrespect, but he's also bastardizing Tibetan traditions in order to make a buck and a name for himself!

Worst part yet: he's far from the only one.  There are dozens of "lamas" out there playing dress up, claiming (or bribing for) recognitions, bastardizing and disrespecting Tibetan culture and traditions all to make themselves famous or get some money!  Other examples include a woman who has changed her name multiple times and attempted to delete those histories, whose only "recognition" is from a lama only referred to on her own web page, and who charges $165 for a 6 hour web class, while claiming to be a teacher of a "rare lineage" of Buddhist yogis. Another is an entire so-called lineage of western "Rinpoches" who spend page after page defending their bizarre system and legitimacy without once showing actual, legitimate Tibetan lamas who support and recognize them. There are too many other examples to list here. All of them teach bastardized, offensive practices which cause anyone know actually knows about Tibetan culture and Buddhism to cringe in embarrassment.

Of course, if you call them out on this, they accuse you of being "racist against white people" (Hrmm, have we heard that one before?).  Completely putting aside how problematic the entire accusation of "reverse racism" is: No, that's not what's going on here.  It's appropriating Tibetan culture and sacred faith, completely bastardizing it, defending being offensive either by crying "racist" or by claiming it's a justified sacred practice.  It doesn't matter what your race is: if you are doing this, it's offensive.

You want to practice Buddhism? Fine. Whatever, it's your beliefs.  You want to be a highly respected lama?  Well then you sure as hell better work your butt off to deserve it.  Learn Tibetan, go to Shedra, live in monastery and deal with all the daily life difficulties without getting out of it because you're white, follow the rules and the vows, respect the religion and culture you're working within; and earn, let me say this again earn any title or respect you may reserve.  Don't think it's possible? Talk to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.  Don't you dare think that you deserve it for some reason, or can claim it with no work, no legitimacy and no backing. That's just spitting on Tibetan culture.

And playing tulku?  Claiming to be recognized and a reincarnation?  Don't even get me started.  Yeah, I'm sure it all seems like fun and games: it's not. It's an actual, 900 year old theological system. And whether you think it's real or not, it is part of the religion and culture and don't you go trivializing it just because you want to play god!  Do you walk around claiming to be the pope, saying that you are the one truly ordained by God and that the election of the college of cardinals doesn't count? I don't think so.

This is straight up exploitation of Tibetan culture for the sake of money and fame.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Like Us on Facebook!

We have a Facebook presence!  Check it out. It's a great way to interact, leave comments, post thoughts, and send us messages and ideas.  We look forward to seeing what you have to say!

March 10th: Missing the Point

There are lots of things I could say, but it's easier to let the Facebook poster who actually met this dude speak:

Let's have some fun with this jackass' photo.  First, love the bloody tears. Classy, man. I'm sure you, looking for your parties and using Tibetans for their sob stories, are truly shedding tears of blood.  Stay strong, white tourist, stay strong.

Does he have any idea what the protest is about?  I doubt it.  He made that pretty damn clear when he wanted to know about the party opportunities. (I also trust the original FB poster in that she talked to this guy and he had no clue what the uprising day is all about). So what is it for him? A chance to party, a chance to be noticed with his sign and face paint.  A chance to be the "socially conscious" white hero with a pretend bigger and grander agenda ("Globalize Empathy"?).

Gotta love the dirty looks he's getting from the Tibetans around him.

He's in it for the party and the attention.  And the media gave it to him.

Despite the fact that thousands of Tibetans were gathered there, AP and other news sources chose to concentrate on this guy, a white attention seeker with a sign that has nothing to do with the Tibetan issue, as the central image.  The Tibetans are background. They are the T&A.  As usual, the media would prefer to put a white face as the star. In a way, turning the white face into the image of the simultaneous "victim" and "savior" of the Tibetan struggle, the one here protesting with bloody tears.  I can't even put into words how wrong this is on so many levels.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Happy Losar (Except for you guys)

We from Overlooking Tibet would like to wish everyone a happy Losar.  We had a Losar post, but in Tibetan culture it's bad form to scold during the first 3 days of Losar, so we decided to wait.

Some of you may have noticed that last month, about one day off of Chinese New Year, many Khampa and Amdowa Tibetans posted about their Losar celebrations, as did Tibetan practitioners of the Karma Kagyu school.  Every year this causes a bit of confusion and discussion, especially among Tibetans residing in exile where (except for especially devout practitioners of the Karma Kagyu School and people from Kongpo) Losar is pretty standardized (and even in these two cases, they usually celebrate "standard/phuglug Losar" as well.)

But this year, I got to see this:

Followed not long after by this:

T is the only Tibetan anywhere in this conversation.  Everyone else, most importantly A, the original poster, is a westerner.

I started with annoyance, then moved to disgust at her move of publicly shaming Tibetans in Tibet for celebrating the new year on the timing it is celebrated in their region. I then moved on to rage when she went so far as to call them "collaborators".  For what? For celebrating Losar on a different date?  Then "Chinese Losar in Serta: Some Tibetans celebrated with Chinese army" (emphasis my own.)  Excuse me? Chinese Losar?

First: Brief lesson.  Losar is widely celebrated across different dates in Tibet. Many parts of Eastern Tibet, such as Minyak in Kham and several different areas of Amdo, have historically celebrated Losar one month early, nearly or exactly coinciding with the Chinese New Year.  Is it Chinese new year? No. It coincides.  There are a lot of overlaps between the Tibetan calendar and the Chinese one.  For example, it's the wood horse year all across Asia, not just Tibet. Not just China!  Mongolian new year also falls within a few days of Chinese new year, similar to the Amdo Tibetan new year.  Would she also like to argue that the Mongolians have lost their culture and are collaborators?

Another group that celebrates Losar on a slightly different calendar which usually falls within 2 days of Chinese new year are followers of the Tsurlug calendar.  Even the Official Website of the Tibetan Astrological And Medical Institute, founded in Dharamsala by the Dalai Lama acknowledges the validity of the Tsurlug calendar as one of the "two major traditions of Tibetan astrology." (The other is the more mainstream, and slightly newer Phuglug calendar, which coincides with the Chinese new year every other year anyway).

Kongpo Losar generally falls between October and Decembera nd is widely celebrated by Kongpo Tibetans in Tibet and exile. It is radically different from Phuglug Losar, but since it doesn't fall near Chinese new year ever, it is never a source of controversy.

Second and worst: Who does A think she is to publicly shame and condemn Tibetans?  She reports that last year Lobsang Sangay asked Tibetans not to celebrate Losar, who is she to condemn them for celebrating this year?  There has been no call from inside Tibet that I know of (or in exile for that matter) not to celebrate Losar!  Why should they have to give up their holiday and chance for enjoyment?  Worse yet, she makes herself out as the victim in this scenario "I feel devastated in my desire to help the preservation of Tibetan culture. Looks like they really do not mind."  What?  By celebrating their holiday according to their regional calendar she feels "devastated"?  Who does she think she is? The holder of Tibetan culture?

These photos, she acknowledges, were sent to her by friends on WeChat. I think it's a safe assumption, based on her own comments, that they were sent by Tibetan friends enjoying Losar and wanting to share their enjoyment of the new year with her.  I wonder how her "friends" would feel knowing that she is referring to them as "collaborators"? I wonder how they would react to her using their uncensored photos, sent in conversation of celebration, to publicly shame Tibetans?

Does she really think she's aiding the "unity" of Tibetans by accusing Tibetan celebrants of being collaborators?  By condemning the unique cultural practices that differ across Tibet?

But you know what? It's Losar. So on behalf of us at Overlooking Tibet, whether you celebrate Phuglug Losar now, Tsurlug, Amdo Losar or Tsagaan Sar a month ago, or Kongpo Losar in autumn, Happy Losar.