Sunday, June 27, 2010

Incident at Gyuto

After my post about living in a Refugee camp, I ran into a few perfect examples of what I was talking about. Both from the side this being a refugee camp and from the side of inappropriate behavior from "Supporters." This also goes a bit into Pongu's post about doing everything in English.

Yesterday was His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa's birthday. Since I don't live far from Gyuto monastery, where he resides, I headed over to Gyuto for the day to take part in the celebrations. Overall, it was a wonderful day with prayers in the morning, a chance to meet HH Karmapa, free lunch, a talk in the afternoon, a "Cake" made out of Tsampa (Barley this case mixed with butter, sugar, cashews and raisins!), and a performance by the Tibetan Institute of Performing arts. It was hot, it was VERY crowded, but overall, it was a wonderful day and His Holiness seemed happy with the celebration as well.

But one incident really riled me up.

First I should note the demographic at Gyuto. I would say about 85% of people were Tibetan, the remaining 15% being westerners, Taiwanese, Chinese and Koreans with a small smattering of others. Of those Tibetans, the vast majority were new arrivals from Tibet. I met a lot of people from Sokor Loptra (TTS, the Tibetan Transit school) which is only for people who have arrived from Tibet within the past 5 years. I also saw a lot of people from the New Arrival Center, who had arrived from Tibet within the past 2 months. The Karmapa, as a younger Lama who only escaped from Tibet in 2000, has a much greater following among Tibetans inside of Tibet or immediately from Tibet than from Tibetans in India. So the vast majority of Tibetans present were new arrivals from Tibet and very obviously so. Please read Living in a Refugee Camp for a better understanding of the situation of New arrival Tibetans.

I was sitting with some of my friends outside of the Gyuto store. We were drinking soda and eating chips and just enjoying ourselves. At the next table over, an American Buddhist nun was doing the same as us. There were lots of people and definitely not enough chairs. She was holding a seat for a friend by placing her backpack on the seat next to her.

A young Tibetan man who had arrived from Amdo only a couple of years before and speaks mediocre English came over and asked if he could take the chair. The nun, with her mouth full, responded in English that she was holding the chair. Since she did not make any hand gestures, and since her speech was muffled, the young man assumed compliance and started to take the chair. The nun then started yelling at him.

Nun: "I told you, you can't take that chair!"

Man: "But, no one is sitting there!"

Nun: "No one is sitting there now, but my friend is coming!"

Man: "I didn't know"

Nun: "Well, I was telling you, but I was eating!"

The young man apologized and went away. The nun continued to, loudly, complain about how rude these young Tibetans were.

I was shocked. I almost went up and confronted her, and in retrospect, I should have and I am ashamed of myself for not doing it. Here she, a woman who has been living in India for nearly 10 years as a Buddhist nun, has made no effort whatsoever to learn spoken Tibetan, or apparently, even simple Tibetan cultural hand gestures. She clearly has no understanding of the fact that most of the people there were new arrivals who speak poor (if any) English and might not understand a muffled comment. And I suppose I should note that while she was complaining about his rudeness, she was the one talking with her mouth full!

Here she is, living as an ordained nun in Tibetan society in India, very publically promoting her own charitable activities for Tibetans, but clearly taking no time whatsoever to understand the situation of those around her or even, during the ten years of her residence, learning the language of her host society!

I wonder if she ever interacts with Tibetans, because I find it hard to believe that she never would have learned even the simple hand gestures that mean "wait a minute" or "No" if she had spent more than five minutes with Tibetan people.

The other incident was actually very beautiful, albeit very sad and I think illustrates the mindset of this place as a refugee camp.

A friend of mine, visiting from Sikkim, held a place for me inside the temple for His Holiness' afternoon talk. She is Tibetan, born and raised in India. She has never seen Tibet.

We love hanging out and gossiping with each other, just like girls anywhere in the world, and always try to sit together at teachings.

At the end of His Holiness' address (In Tibetan, English, Chinese and KOREAN!!! With no translators. Can I just note how impressed I am???) members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts stood up to sing a song for His Holiness. Their piece was a stunningly beautiful song with lyrics and music composed by His Holiness immediately prior to his escape from Tibet. It's one of my favorite traditional style songs. The style and words are beautiful and absolutely classical. When listening to this song it's very easy to imagine oneself back in Tibet

My friend leaned over, as the song started and said, "Whenever I hear this song, all I can think is 'here we are, in the presence of His Holiness Karmapa, in our Chupas [traditional dress] listening to our music, and we aren't in our country, we can't go to our country. We don't have a country'" And she just started repeating "We don't have a country, we don't have a country."

As we listened to this elegant melody, she kept reaching up and wiping away tears. And trying to laugh off how embarrassed she was to cry in public. She continued silently crying throughout the whole song.

This is really what it means to live in a refugee camp.


  1. Where was the head disciplinary nun? Sounds like somebody needed a good spanking..

  2. One detail I almost overlooked:

    The young man apologized and went away. The nun continued to, loudly, complain about how rude these young Tibetans were.

    Regardless of whether her assessment of this young man as rude had any basis, jumping directly from there to a general statement about Tibetan youth is blatantly racist.

  3. It sounds as though this woman, as it seems is so often the case with foreigners, is in love with the idea of Tibet, and the idea of Tibetans.

    In my experience, these people who act to save an image, that is live in a sort of fantasy realm, are the ones who act the harshest when their dream is impeded upon by reality.

    In other words, she seems to have some issues with dissonance between the people she thinks she is trying to help and the reality of the people...

  4. The nun reminds me about another American Buddhist nun I met two years ago in Bodh Gaya. Two German film-maker friends of mine and I, a Tibetan, were discussing the film they were working on, when she stopped by and joined our conversation. Of course, it was a bad move. Her take on the Tibetan plight was this: Thanks to the collective good karma of westerners, Tibet was forcefully occupied by the Chinese, the Dalai Lama forced to take refuge in exile, thus, allowing for the Buddha Dharma to travel so far to the west. While this argument in itself may be acceptable to any like-minded Buddhists, what set her comments apart were the callousness with which she said, "It is good Tibetans lost their country."
    I wish people could be a lot more sensitive to our emotions and our situation, just as I wish the nun at Gyutoe monastery had allowed the Amdo guy to use the chair until the person she was saving the chair for arrived.

  5. Wow. She actually said that? That is disgusting. Don't Buddhist teachings say that, even if someone's bad situation is due to their karma,we should still try to help them, have compassion for the, and I'm pretty sure NOT CELEBRATE THEIR MISFORTUNE! That's just sickening. Seriously.

    As for the chair, I don't really care that she didn't let him use the chair. Her friend came back only a minute later, it was her intense rudeness towards him, followed by her sweeping racist generalization of "these young Tibetans are so rude" that bothers me.

    I get saving a chair...I just don't get how anyone, especially not a nun, can justify such aggressive and racist behavior.

    Back to your nun (I'm not thinking in order) this also goes back to the stupid idea that Tibetans are backwards, isolated, naive, innocent barbarians. She should think about it, HH Dalai Lama was already planning on reforms and modernizations for Tibet that would have brought Tibet into full contact with the outside world (on Tibet's own terms, however) prior to the invasion! If China had not invaded, would the Dharma have spread to the west? Well, BEFORE the invasion, there were already some western Tibetan Buddhists. But even ignoring those, yeah, it would have! Tibet was GOING to open up, on its own terms. When it did that, HH Dalai Lama would have become a leading world Buddhist figure ANYWAY.

    Maybe it wouldn't have happened as fast, and most definitely not in the same way, but it would have happened.

    I just can't understand how western Buddhists can celebrate the occupation of Tibet. Don't they realize that the occupation resulted in the massive DESTRUCTION of monasteries, texts and teachers? Many of which were irreplaceable.

    But hey, they got access to HH Dalai Lama slightly earlier than they would have otherwise, so yay, let's celebrate the ongoing destruction of a country, its religion and culture, not to mention the slaughter of 1.2 million people....I guess that whole thing about "compassion" in Buddhism doesn't really matter to them. And people wonder why I'm occasionally embarrassed to call myself Buddhist here.

    Sorry, that was quite a rant on my part.

  6. Pema, I think one way of paraphrasing that woman's comment is "Western privilege is a result of Western virtue." Pretty damn absurd.

  7. I think we, Tibetans, have learned to accept everything, including public humiliation by some of our western friends, with a humility only we're capable of. Of course, this is stupid on our part, but I believe such reactions, rather the lack of them, are what is commonly expected of us. The nun I met was appalled almost that I had an opinion. Incidents like the one I wrote about, or the one at Gyutoe are only too common, and while it is sad, depressing almost that there are people who belittle the very people they say they support, I appreciate the fact that there are others like you who have recognized this problem, and have found your own way of saying you're not one of them. So, thank you!

  8. I think people like the nun you describe, Pema, are doing exactly what Joseph described, having an IDEA of Tibetans, not the real Tibetans...and ideas don't have opinions that go against their own, so when you had an opinion you *gasp* became a person, and shattered her idea of what Tibetans should be.

    I'm really glad you like the blog. I hope you continue to comment, especially with situations that illustrate these sorts of problems.

    And I think part of the reason Pongu and I write this isn't because we aren't that sort of people, but because we, ourselves, have done screwed up stuff like this in the past and are trying to learn to recognize it to prevent ourselves (and hopefully others) from doing it in the future. I know that I personally continue my excellent habit of screwing up rather frequently :-P


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