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.