Friday, October 28, 2011

Common Misconceptions: The Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama's Rebirth

On this blog, we usually address actions by non-Tibetans that harm Tibetans. For many of these actions, the cause is ignorance. Today, rather than talking about behaviors, I want to try and clear up a very common misconception shared by many, if not most, foreign supporters.

It is the role of the Panchen Lama in the discovery of the Dalai Lamas.

Let us pretend for a moment that this is one of those tricky college exams:

True or False: It is the duty of the Panchen Lama, exclusively, to recognize the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama?

Most people, including myself up until a few years ago, would answer "True." However, they would be wrong.

The Tibetan system of reincarnation is very complex, and so in general conversation, it is boiled down to its simplest terms. And in those simplest terms, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama have a joint relationship whereby one recognizes the other. And, in those simplest terms, it brings up the uncomfortable question that the Tibetan community is currently faced with: Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama recognized by HH the 14th Dalai Lama, has been missing since May 17th, 1995. He was only 6 years old when Chinese security forces disappeared him and his family. Without the Panchen Lama, who will recognize the 15th Dalai Lama when the current Dalai Lama passes?

Based on this belief, many fear that if Tibet is not free prior to the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet will, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. This belief creates a false sense of urgency, whereby there is an extremely limited amount of time to solve the Tibet problem. Many people faced with this misconception urge forms of sudden-death compromise. Although I fully believe that the situation in Tibet must be remedied as soon as possible, I have to ask: is this deadline real?

Let's put the situation into western terms.

In the United States government, we have a Vice President. In the simplest terms the Vice President's duty is to take over the roll of president in the case that the president dies or is otherwise incapacitated. In doing so, a smooth government continues and upheaval is prevented.

However, let us take instead the possibility that the President and Vice President are travelling together and there is some sort of accident: Both are incapacitated. If we were only looking at the simplest terms, then the country would be in very big trouble! However, an entire hierarchy exists within the US government which would cause a series of shifts, thus providing a new president and guaranteeing a smooth continuance of government and prevention of major upheaval.

This safety net provides two functions: Firstly, it guarantees that if something were to happen to both the President and Vice President, someone would still be running the country. However, secondly and far more relevant to our case, it guarantees that enemies of the current political regime cannot overtake the government through assassinating or kidnapping the President, Vice President or other political leaders.

Likewise, the Tibetan political and religious systems have had such failsafes for years. In the case that the Panchen Lama is unavailable, other qualified lamas can recognize the new Dalai Lama. In fact, recent history shows that the system can work perfectly smoothly, even when the Panchen Lama is unavailable.

For readers who have seen the Martin Scorcese film, Kundun, think back and try and remember the role the Panchen Lama served in the film. You may recall that he was not even mentioned! Why? Because in the case of the current Dalai Lama, The Panchen Lama was unavailable!

How is that? The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, passed away in 1933. The 9th Panchen Lama, Thubten Choekyi Nyima, passed away four years later in 1937. The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935. The search for and recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama commenced in 1937 after the Panchen Lama had died. To put it simply, after the death of Panchen Lama there was neither a Panchen Lama available to recognize the Dalai Lama nor a Dalai Lama available to recognize the Panchen Lama. While the system of mutual recognition works perfectly when there is an age gap of at least 15 years, it fails when the deaths and births fall within about ten years of each other.

Being that Buddhism teaches impermanence, the Lamas who worked within this system were painfully aware that you could not conveniently schedule death and there needed to be a back-up system in the case of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama dying or being born at around the same time.

In the case of the 14th Dalai Lama, he was recognized by another high lama: Reting Rinpoche. As we can see when we now look at HH 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and recipient of the 2006 congressional Gold Medal, the system seems to have worked just fine.

The disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama was one of the greatest and most tragic blows to Tibetans in their recent history. As long as he is missing, it will remain an open wound and I do not mean to dismiss that in any way. However, it is important that we remember that Tibetans and the Tibetan institution have an emergency plan, set up and practiced, for a situation in which the Panchen Lama is not available to recognize the Dalai Lama.

Why did I feel that this detail of Tibetan Buddhism and politics was so important that it deserved its own post? In Tibet's current non-violent struggle, the two main weapons are truth and hope. Without truth, there is no reliability or legitimacy to the cause. Without hope, it is too easy to give up and in doing so abandon the Tibetans inside of Tibet who's lives rely on not giving up. While we must always struggle to move as quickly as possible, we cannot afford to create a false deadline whereby we can declare the struggle "dead." For Tibetans inside of Tibet, as long as they remain oppressed, the struggle continues. If we declare it hopeless, we withdraw our support, and that is the greatest disservice we can provide.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The "Radical" Dalai Lama

The media. We haven't concentrated much on them here because, to be honest, media representation of Tibet is such a can of worms that it's overwhelming to try and cover all of the ways the media disempowers Tibet and Tibetans. Therefore, I ask of readers that you be patient with us as we cover each issue individually over time. What I want to talk about today is far from the only issue or the biggest issue of media coverage of Tibetan issues. It is just the one I saw most recently.

While doing my daily BBC browse, I came upon this headline on the front page for Asia-Pacific news.

"China attack." I was shocked and interested. HH Dalai Lama has spent the past several decades attempting to negotiate with China. It had been several years since HH Dalai Lama had made any strongly worded statements critical of China. If my memory serves me right, it's been since the protests and crackdown of 2008. However, even those could barely be termed "attacks." Perhaps, with his official retirement from political power and instatement of the new Kalon Tripa, he had decided to be more vocal?

The small blurb underneath was limited to saying he "criticises China," and so I decided to read the article.

The moment I clicked the link I was faced with a far tamer headline:

And an article even tamer yet:

This supposed attack, according to the BBC, was such things as the Dalai Lama maintaining that he, himself, made China uncomfortable for talking about the truth. "Made China uncomfortable?" If that's an attack, then tickling someone with a feather is felony assault!

He continues by mentioning that "Some Chinese officials describe me as a demon so naturally they fear...the demon." Here, the Dalai Lama is referencing widely publicized incidences where major Chinese officials have called him names and then showing understanding for the Chinese officials by justifying that they are just scared and having a fear reaction.

The so-called attack continues with (as the BBC puts it)

"He said that 'hypocrisy' has become part of the fabric of the 'communist' system and said that those who spoke the truth made China uncomfortable."
Okay, I can understand the use of the word hypocrisy in quotes, but communist? While communist and socialist may be used as an accusation and insult by American conservatives, this hardly applies in the case of China which describes itself as and is, according to its own constitution and ruling party, a communist nation!

This supposed "attack" is nothing more than observations that can be backed up by any reading of the news, and a few statements that are clearly from the Dalai Lama's point of view as a representative of Tibet. Unlike China, which calls the Dalai Lama a "Wolf in sheep's clothing" or a "demon," statements which could be termed attacks, how can statements such as "Naturally they fear [me]" or the stronger statement that the truth "makes China uncomfortable" be termed an "attack"?

This sensationalist headline, which is all that many readers will see, functions to falsely even the playing field. It makes it seem as though not only is China the rhetoric flinging, aggressive, attacking party with a total unwillingness to negotiate, but look: Even the Dalai Lama is on the attack!

I know, it's the media. Sensationalist headlines is what they do. But is this even a story?

Friday, October 21, 2011

On the recent crisis in Ngawa:

Tibet has been in the news a lot lately due to the recent crisis in Ngawa: As of the time of this writing, 8 young men and women had self immolated in protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet during a span of roughly 2 weeks.

This tragedy has sparked a lot of discussion from many people, including many non-Tibetans. We, here at Overlooking Tibet, wanted to share this article written for the Lhakar Diaries by a young Tibetan in New York: How About Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T? I think this article perfectly articulates the fact that we should hesitate to criticize before walking a mile in someone's shoes. It also breaks down some of the common criticisms of the protests in Tibet, many of which are based on misconceptions, privilege, egocentrism and blatant misunderstandings of what drives the Tibetan cause.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but in such a volatile situation we first must strongly and accurately consider the situation of the people who want their voices heard.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Language and the Private/Public Sphere

There are two types of people involved in Tibetan Issues: those who, through their involvement, make personal connections inside of Tibetan communities and those who do not. While people might automatically condemn those without personal connections, based on my own experience (as can be seen in previous posts) those with personal connections often do a great deal of damage as well. Likewise, there are many people doing a great job of spreading information and other activities despite being in a situation where personal interaction with Tibetans is near impossible. This is not to say one is better or worse than the other, there are good people and bad people on both sides, but there is a divide. What I really want to talk about is something that I see among people in the second group: we who make personal connections, outside of our work, study, journalism, dharma or activism, with the Tibetan community.

By doing so, we enter their space. We remove ourselves from the public forum in which we conduct our other interactions. This might be physical interactions or, in this modern day and age of iphones, the world of social networking. We have moved from public business discussions into the world of friendship; the world of the private. This puts us on radically different footing.

I was browsing Facebook the other day when I came upon a picture posted by a Tibetan man living in India. Most of his Facebook friends, not to mention real-life friends, are Tibetans and his primary language is Tibetan. The picture was from a recent Tibetan event and he captioned it in Tibetan. Most of his friends likewise responded in Tibetan. However, one of the early responses came from a foreign Tibet supporter and read "English, please, so that others can understand."

I was immediately taken aback. He was not posting on a public, international forum or on an English language website: he was posting on the wall of his personal Facebook page. Not only that, but the primary readers of his page, his Facebook "friends" are Tibetans. What right do we, as foreigners and friends, have to demand the use of English in Tibetan personal space? Even in the case that we are invited into that personal space, it makes us no better than tourists who go to a foreign country and demand the use of English.

This is not to say that I do not have sympathy for the English poster. Several of my friends on Facebook write in very high level, scholarly Tibetan which can leave me in the dust. However, there is a difference between asking for help and demanding the use of my language, which in this private space is the minority language. Why not say "Hi! I don't understand the caption. Could some one help me with it?" thereby requesting assistance while respecting the space and people around as opposed to demanding that the Tibetan-speaking majority in Tibetan-speaking space conform to one's own English speaking whims.

We, as Americans, are famous and notorious for demanding foreign visitors and immigrants to our shores learn English if they are going to live here. How would we feel if a Pashto speaker, for example, marched into our home and demanded that we speak Pashto so that others could understand--within the privacy of our own space? Tibetan language is an important part of Tibetan identity. If we are claiming to support Tibet, we should then encourage the use of the language. We are so used to the privilege of having everyone speak English, of believing ourselves to be welcome everywhere. Supporting Tibet means respecting Tibetans, respecting their language, and respecting their space. The option always exists to learn Tibetan or respectfully ask for assistance, rather than demand that our English-speaking needs be met

Saturday, October 8, 2011

k but u rong doe

"I get that you're trying to set a mood, but why are you using Tibetan throat singing in a documentary about the Spartans, PBS?"

- one of my friends

Sunday, October 2, 2011

When the Apocalypse Comes, Only Tibet Will Be Left

This post was sparked by the following post, which I came across on tumblr:

title: “shangri-la”
i always look at the world for how beautiful it is, which can be found everywhere and anywhere as long as you look for it. but one day, man will destroy all that is left of that; and when i’ve had enough and want to make the whole world disappear, i will walk into tibet and lose myself in the himalayas.
Tibet is the perfect example of the Brown Space That Is Stuck in a By-Gone Age of Meditation And/Or Flying Monks Who Live Forever and Other Peaceful Spiritual Things. Assuming that the answer to human survival will lie in the Himalayas, while the rest of the world is in flames, is ridiculous. (Makers of the film 2012: I’m looking at you.) It assumes that Tibet, in its current state, is peaceful and happy and doing perfectly fine by itself—which, of course, is far from the truth. Believing this kind of tripe completely erases the last fifty years of Tibet’s history. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd to you that while Tibetans are fleeing into Nepal and India, risking limbs and life to seek freedom of religion, a good education, the chance to learn and use Tibetan in their public lives, the (usually) White Person is flying to Tibet and proclaiming it a magical place that not only can cure cancer but is Happiness and Peace made geographical?

The saddest part about the original quote is that this individual has gone to Tibet and still walked away with this view. I guess some ignorance is hard to break, especially when it’s being subtly and blatantly enforced by the oppressors. The Chinese government is notorious for paying students to show up at big functions (such as the arrival of Chinese delegates in foreign countries) if but to give some fodder to the media that shows that people love China and it’s just a rag-tag group of “splittists” who feel a different way. The Chinese government also coerces Tibetans into lying to the media, donning traditional dress and attending festivals and holidays that they were previously boycotting (knowing that it would piss China off if they refused to be puppets for China’s lie that We Keep the Tibetans Very Happy and Liberated, Yes), among many other things.

We of the West are still ignorant. We refuse to let go of the belief that Tibet is a space to be put on a pedestal and worshipped—but only while we’re taking the food off of their altars for our own private consumption. The end result of this thinking is almost always invasion, of both bodies and mind. We fear, so we invade to “liberate”; we lust after, so we appropriate. It’s been centuries and we have yet to change our outlook; we’ve just substituted our weapons—guns and Bibles when we’re entering countries of Adults and toys for when we’re entering countries of Children.

So when the apocalypse comes and you go walking into the Himalayas, I think you’ll find that not a single mountaintop has snow (thanks to global climate change), and not a single person will be there to guide you. I hope when you finally spot Lhasa and gravitate to the sparkling object in the distance, when you arrive there, you’ll find the golden arches of a McDonald’s.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tibet is Not a “Cultural Experience”

The following guest post is by "Chiwa," a western woman who hopefully will become a regular contributor.

In college classrooms around the country, professors and administrators insist that Tibetan organizations (like their particular branches of Students for a Free Tibet) are not "aggressive" or "hostile", that they focus on "spreading awareness of the issues" and Tibetan culture rather than Tibetan politics.

Of course, it's really difficult to paint an accurate picture of what the "issues" are in Tibet when focusing on things like prayer flags, moos and the smiling, friendly face of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The word “Tibet” is, at its very nature, a polarizing word. “Tibet,” as the People’s Republic of China allows it to exist, is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The TAR was created in 1965.

The word "Tibet" is, at its very nature, a polarized word. "Tibet," as the People's Republic of China allows it to exist, is known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region, or TAR. The TAR was created in 1965.

In this illustration by the BBC, the Tibetan Autonomous Region is the very light beige area. The green line, extending into the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and parts of Gansu and Yunnan, is often referred to as “historical” Tibet. In these areas, the vast majority of people are “ethnically” Tibetan.

In this illustration, the Chinese provinces are given alternate (and rightful) names— a majority of what is known as Qinghai is actually the Tibetan province of Amdo, and the Tibetan province of Kham exists in the Chinese province of Sichuan.

When the Yushu earthquake occurred in 2010 (om mani padme hum), there were many facts that were wrongly reported by the Western media—including the mislabeling of the victims as "Chinese."

The earthquake originated in what is known as the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where, according to the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Statistics Bureau in 2005, 97.25% of the population is Tibetan, with the next largest ethnic group being Han at 2.56%. The vast majority of the victims were not Chinese—they were Tibetan (Khampa).

It’s hard to claim that you’re “spreading awareness about the issues” when the issues aren’t even being discussed. Another year passes and “Seven Years in Tibet” is screened again instead of more revolutionary material, such as Dhondup Wangchen’s film “Leaving Fear Behind”, for which he is still imprisoned.

Violently splitting Tibetan culture from Tibetan politics and the history of the Chinese invasion in order to make the truth taste a little sweeter, the tragedy a little less brutal, is an injustice. Maybe we think that if we don’t aggressively pursue the issue, we are more likely to arouse new supporters—and I will buy this to a certain extent, because the issues of Tibet are vast. The crimes committed against the Tibetan people are not merely religious or political in nature; their lifestyles are being forcibly changed, their land is being destroyed, and in exile they face numerous issues ranging from health issues to language and cultural barriers.

I’m not interested in a “cultural experience.” Stop trying to raise awareness about the culture, stop trying to keep the Tibetan culture alive—if you’re not a Tibetan, it is not your culture to save. We should be working with them, rather than touting their culture as something unique and on the verge of extinction so we should hurry up and see it while it lasts.

Painting Tibet as a “cultural experience” is serious erasure. The image of Tibet may never recover, if college administrators (and others) do everything in their power to deny the fact that “Tibet” is a political issue at its very heart.

“Twenty years ago, when the public didn’t know the first thing about Tibet, we used to pray and dream that somehow Tibet would become a household word. If people knew the truth, we believed, they would come forth and intervene. Tibet would be saved. Now Tibet was indeed a household word, but China had imposed its will, transformed it. Beyond our worst nightmares.” (one of the women in Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History by Canyon Sam)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

When Suffering is Not Enough

I've been struggling with this post for a long time. I hope that I'll be able to express myself properly on such a sensitive topic.

We've all heard the stories. Tibetans are imprisoned, brutally tortured, killed, all for peaceful expression of their religious, political or cultural desires. Yes, this is all true. This is what we tell people when we want them to understand how bad the situation is in Tibet. We name prisoners: Dondrup Wangchen, Rungye Adak, Tulku Tenzin Delek. We share the testimonies of brutal tortures experienced by the nuns of Drapchi prison, by Palden Gyatso, by Ama Adhe. And these stories are horrible. They are fodder for nightmares, tortures so brutal that it seems nearly impossible that human beings could willingly carry them out.

All of it is true. None of that is an exaggeration. However, it isn't the full story either. Suffering in Tibet is not limited to torture cells in prison.

I remember a few foreigners who've turned to me in shock when finding out that many Tibetans leave Tibet not fleeing torture or death, but for the sake of a better education. Their lives are not in danger, but they want the freedom to worship or speak their language as they please. I vividly recall one or two people who felt as though their trust had been betrayed. All of a sudden they felt that the situation in Tibet was not as bad as they had been led to believe. These people didn't really need to leave Tibet. Why were they asking for our help?

I was literally stunned into silence by that reaction. Why is their suffering not enough?

In Tibetan conversation, when someone mentions detention or imprisonment, one of the first questions asked is "Did the beat you?" It is not assumed. Many people are not beaten. Does that make their suffering worthless? I met a young woman recently from Yushu. She told me she lived down by GuChuSum, the Tibetan Political Prisoner's association in Dharamsala. I asked if she'd spent time in prison and she answered that she had spent one month. I asked if she'd been beaten. She said no, she hadn't been beaten. She had, however, spent an entire month in iron shackles. She had been underfed, to the point of starvation.

Other acquaintances were not held in prisons during their detentions, just in hotel rooms. None the less, they were under constant surveillance and denied sleep.

When Tibet supporters look at this as "not that bad" they are forgetting that we are talking about people being arrested for the most basic expression of their rights, or often for no reason at all except the suspicions of a paranoid government. They are denied access to people who can help them, and put into a position of constant fear. How is this not suffering?

A 2007 study, published by the journal The Archives of General Psychology found that mental torture and physical torture have the same psychological effects in the long run. Included in their definitions of psychological torture: sleep deprivation, threats of rape, and threats of family members being violently harmed. While the first two occur most commonly in detention situations, the last occurs in daily life for Tibetans who live in constant fear and under constant threat of the detention and abuse of their friends or family members.

And what of the majority of Tibetans who will never spend a substantial period (by which I mean more than 2 weeks) in detention? They still live in constant fear of when a detention might come, whether for a reason or not. They still cannot express their views, educate their children as they please, control their politics or even their economy. They have no rights.

By over-emphasizing the situation of Tibetan torture victims, we immunize ourselves and other potential activists against the horrific, yet less acute, forms of suffering endured by the general population.

It is time that we, supporters, stop thinking only about the minority who will suffer extreme brutality in prison, and pay attention to the vast majority of Tibetans who live with a constant level of suffering based on fear and a complete lack of freedoms. Their suffering is enough.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Perils of Translation: Part 1

Translation and Tibetan language study seem to go hand in hand. In fact, I cannot seem to think of any other modern spoken language that if one chooses to study it, one will automatically be asked "Oh! So you are [or are planning to become] a translator!" In fact, the association between Tibetan language study and translation (of Buddhist texts in particular) is so strong that those of us who choose to pursue modern Tibetan are frequently hit with outright antagonism for our choice!

Us non-Dharma Tibetan students are frequently encouraged to do translation, which as Pongu noted in a previous post, seems to only mean Dharma translation. Strangely enough, work on translating modern texts, or using one's studies to write in Tibetan are considered worthless, but we'll talk about that another time (hence the "part 1.")

I have a problem with this. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate a good translation and the hard work that went into it, but I really don't like the ideas surrounding it. Why should anyone studying Tibetan automatically be assumed to be a translator? Well, statistically, there's a pretty good chance that they are. To me, that brings up a big issue. Tibetan is a living, modern language with more than eight millions speakers world wide, if one includes related dialects such as Balti and Ladakhi. Yet the modern spoken aspect of Tibetan is systematically ignored by many, if not most, people interested in learning Tibetan. Only the Dharma language is seen as worthwhile. It completely disregards modern Tibetan language, and with it, much of modern Tibetan culture.

What of modern Tibetan literature? Songs? Blogs? Autobiographies? When I mention translation of any of these, the idea is generally tossed aside as worthless.

I seriously ask the commenters here. Can you think of another language with millions of speakers and a vivid modern culture and literature scene where the modern language is outright ignored? Where only the classical language is considered worthwhile? I am really trying to think of one and I can't.

The second issue was pointed out be a commenter as well as several Tibetans I've spoken to. That's qualification for translation.

Virtually all of the primary texts in Buddhism have been translated already. That means the texts yet to be translated are either very new or very rare or very advanced. In short, if you've reached the level where you should be studying these texts (which, from a traditional study standpoint would probably include a minimum of 10 years in a shedra) then I certainly hope you would have picked up some Tibetan along the way.

This isn't to say all Tibetan Buddhists should learn Tibetan. By no means! But it means that if you are going to be studying these extremely advanced esoteric texts, you should have taken the many years necessary to study all of the primary texts, primary practices and so forth. Don't start decorating a house before you've built the foundation, as a friend of mine likes to say. If you are studying these texts, you should be under the guidance of a teacher, and if you are doing the years upon years of intensive study, then you are probably in a monastic environment, in which case, yes. You should learn Tibetan.

But it's more than just the linguistic knowledge of Tibetan. These texts are advanced. Throughout Tibetan history they would have been translated by khenpos, geshes, lamas who had studied Buddhism for most likely a bare minimum of 20 years of intensive study inside of a monastery or shedra. They would have learned all the primary texts and practices and likely studied and practiced this text before translating it.

Linguistic knowledge is not enough! In order to express the actual meaning of a complex Buddhist text, one needs to have a deep understanding of the Buddhist context. To paraphrase one person: "How do these kids who've studied for five years think that they can accurately translate the texts we take a lifetime to master?"

As another Tibetan friend expressed, it is cheapening the profound teachings and culture of Tibet.

And that's not helping anybody.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Setting a Low Bar

Tibet is a topic about which most Americans, and presumably most people world wide, are extremely ignorant. A recent religion poll showed that less than half of Americans knew what religion the Dalai Lama, who is currently in Washington DC, is. I've met American private school seniors who asked me whether Tibet was in Europe or Africa. I think it's safe to say that many, if not most, Americans could not find Tibet on an unmarked map or explain what "Free Tibet" means.

You won't find the invasion and occupation of Tibet in a high school World History textbook and, even at a large university, you will be lucky to find even one class about Tibet (although a Buddhism course will surely cover at least a little bit.) The resulting ignorance creates a glut of issues. From an information standpoint, the biggest issue is that the majority of non-Dharma Tibetan resources available to non-Tibetans (who do not speak Tibetan) are written by a very small number of people. The intentions of some of those people is enough for another post entirely, so I'll save it for later.

This wide spread ignorance has set the bar for knowledge incredibly low. Almost anyone who knows the basics of the Tibetan situation, or I should say almost anyone who seems to know the basics of the Tibetan situation, is practically an expert and can play themselves off as one.

However, many have spent very little time in Tibetan communities, can't speak Tibetan, and only have a knowledge based on hearsay or a bit of reading, and a good deal of misunderstanding.

I know because I was one. I hope I'm not any more, but I definitely was one just like this in the beginning. It's embarrassing for me to think back on it and the misunderstanding I propagated in others by saying things that I thought, based on my comparative knowledge, were true.

I don't think it's done out of bad intention or a desire to misrepresent, but just because the bar is set so low that almost anyone can be an "expert."

People with the best intentions, but very little knowledge, then try to educate the outside world about Tibet. I am the first to encourage telling your friends, co-workers and other acquaintances about Tibet, but a few people want to go far beyond that seeking to widely publish themselves.

I remember one book by a well intentioned, but poorly informed westerner which showed a photograph of a group of Tibetans walking past a mani pile (a pile of stones with prayers carved on them) but the author had labeled it as "a group of Tibetans walking past what are likely the ruins of a monastery." Many publish photographs or books with incorrect captions which sensationalize the issue. The Tibetan issue is serious enough as is, hyperbole is completely unnecessary. Beyond being unnecessary, it is detrimental to the Tibetan cause. When we use hyperbole, the Chinese authorities can accurately claim that we are quoting false "facts" and it is simply propaganda. Are these mistaken, exagerated "facts" closer to the truth than Chinese propaganda? It depends on the statement, but usually yes. But the world will not care, and will just look at it as those Free Tibet Hippies spouting bullshit. See? The Chinese are right, and they can prove it!

Another particularly memorable error I found in one of the few available Tibetan "resources" stated that the reincarnation system was created after a Tibetan king decided to become a monk, thus celibate and ending the royal lineage. In fact the reincarnation system was founded by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, a monk, roughly 900 years ago as a way to carry on his religious teachings after his death. The Tibetan royal lineage is still alive and the current king, a direct descendent of Songtsan Gampo, is a teenager living in India.

No one has publicly called out this author. To make matters worse, since these self declared experts usually write based on sympathy towards the Tibetan cause, it adds a patina of disreputableness to any publication that sympathises with Tibetan people.

A good number of people decide that, with their newly found, limited, and often incorrect knowledge of the Tibetan issue, gained from a few weeks or months in India and a few books, they will make a documentary, publish a book, write a news article, or do something similar. Some write about their own experiences, in which case it is usually an accurate representation of what they saw, and I cannot complain. However, many decide that they want to expose the world to the Tibet issue, despite their lack of an understanding of Tibet themselves. They are blind leading the blind.

Many of these people may have spent years in refugee settlements in places like Dharamsala, but spend all their time around westerners or frequenting internet cafes instead of actually interacting with local people. Very few are willing to actually get their hands dirty or exit their comfort zones.

Am I missing something? I want to be told, if I am. But I just can't imagine that people who've never been to Darfur or spent copious amounts of time in a refugee camp, or at least worked for years with refugees and done a lot of research would decide to make a movie about Darfur to wake up the world. Am I wrong? Am I just expecting too much? I don't know.

I keep feeling like it's just another version of people who want to be white saviours, heroes, but as usual don't want to make any real commitment.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Frozen in Time

Frequently, during political discussions about Tibet, scholars especially will condemn the independent Tibetan government prior to 1959 as backwards and feudal. They may condemn current Chinese actions in Tibet, but will then follow that up by saying "If Tibet were still independent, they would be living in a feudal system, peasants controlled by landlords, and have no modern amenities or technologies. The Chinese government may be brutal, but they've brought Tibet into the 20th century! Look at the train, look at the roads." A similar argument comes from western Buddhists. A Tibetan commenter on "Incident at Gyuto" gave us a great example: While visiting Bodh Gaya, a western Buddhist nun, with a complete disregard for the feelings of the Tibetans around her, commented that it was good that Tibet was occupied, because otherwise Tibetan Buddhism would never have spread to the outside world.

Although seemingly different, these two ideas stem from the same viewpoint: Were it not for the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tibet would have remained isolated. Nothing would have ever changed.

Before I begin my rant, I want to note that it is impossible to know what truly would have happened had the occupation never occurred. The best we can make are educated guesses.

That said, I think this view point is completely false. Why on earth should we assume that nothing would change over the course of 50-plus years? Tibet was already on the brink of change when the occupation started. The young Dalai Lama, rapidly approaching majority (the age at which he would take full political power), was interested in contacting the outside world. He wanted to bring democracy to his country. He had frequent contact with some of the foreigners residing in Lhasa, petitioned to statesmen abroad and had a great interest in the world outside of Tibet. It is safe to assume that, had Tibet retained independence and the Dalai Lama been allowed to attain majority as head of the Tibetan government, he would have pushed for a more open, democratic Tibet. In fact, when the Dalai Lama did attain majority and move the Tibetan government, one of his first moves was to declare the Tibetan National Government the only valid government of the people of Tibet and that this government was now a democracy.

In addition, with the British invasion of Tibet in 1911, the Chinese (even before the communist party) invading and encroaching on numerous areas of Eastern Tibet, the Russians sending in spies, India gaining independence and virtually every neighboring country shifting governments, it is unimaginable that Tibet would have been able to retain isolation.

Let's look at other countries. Prior to the mid 20th century, many countries around the world were in semi or complete isolation. For some, the isolation was due to a political choice, but for many others it was due to location or a lack of technology. Honestly, how many of these countries remain isolated now, in the 21st century? Even North Korea, the most self isolated, totalitarian and closed country in the world, has advanced technologically by leaps and bounds in the past 50 years. Remember, North Korea, unlike Tibet, is a country that desperately wants to remain isolated and is perfectly happy to oppress its own people.

How can we reasonably believe that Tibet would have remained the one exception in the entire world? The one country that, as all nations were swept forward in the technological and communication advances of the 20th century, would have remained stagnant in time? To believe that is to believe that Tibetans were too backwards to look towards the future.

As for the Buddhism comments, prior to 1959, the Dalai Lama had already travelled abroad to India at the invitation of the Indian government to go on pilgrimage and to celebrate the Buddha's birthday. He knew that there were Buddhists all over the world and many great masters of the past had travelled widely. I am sure that someone with as much drive as he had at such a young age, and still has at the age of 76, would have made every effort to travel abroad. Tibetan Buddhism, which had already been partially disseminated in the rest of the world prior to 1959, would have continued its spread when the Dalai Lama travelled. To believe that he would have been content to reside in the Potala for the rest of his life pays no attention to the kind of young man he was even before the Chinese ever came.

Cultures like Tibet are not quaint showcases in museums, perpetually remaining in one moment in time for others to ponder and exoticize. All cultures, Tibet included, live, change and grow. To assume otherwise is to disempower the people of those cultures.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Reckless Endangerment

A lot of people come to me, before traveling to Tibet, asking for advice. I speak Tibetan, I've been to Tibet several times, and I've traveled during politically sensitive times, so they usually come to me not asking so much for tourist advice as safety precautions.

My advice is usually pretty straightforward. As with all travel to sensitive or potentially dangerous areas, register in advance with your country's embassy. I usually give them a list of safety tips as well. But the most important tips that I give to everyone are:

1) Do not distribute anything widely.
2) Do not put yourself in the middle of a crowd.

The second tip is for personal safety measures. If something bad happens, you always want to be towards the edge of the crowd so you don't get swept up into it.

The first tip, however, is for everyone's safety.

A lot of people want to distribute photographs of the Dalai Lama, teachings from Lamas in India and so forth in Tibet. Yes, Tibetans do want these things, but the problem is that in that large group of Tibetans there is likely to be a bare minimum of one spy. In addition, if you are being trailed or watched, spies are likely far more interested in which Tibetans are accepting contraband, rather than the foolish tourist distributing it.

Nonetheless, every year, I see dozens of tourists proudly telling me how they were able to distribute so many photographs of the Dalai Lama and so forth inside of Tibet.

Some people go so far as to arrange video viewings in their hotel rooms of teachings from India. Many of these are from Lamas that are not officially blacklisted, but it's still something from India and arranging for a large group of Tibetans to come to your hotel room is probably not a good idea!

I remember one person proudly boasting how they had managed to destribute so many DVDs of a semi-black listed lama, and how people were so happy, and even Chinese came to take some! I had to wonder if, in all of this person's asking my advice about safety, they ever thought that maybe some of the people coming for the DVD might be just spying to see who was accepting it?

I think the motivation for many of these people, aside from sheer ignorance, is to be a hero. They never stop and think about the consequences that widely, openly, distributing something clearly illegal or dangerous poses to Tibetans around them.

As a tourist, we can go home after your few weeks in Tibet are up. After we are no longer watching, how many people will go to jail?