Celebrating Exile II: Our religion and the struggle

Many of my non-Tibetan friends get quite disappointed when I say that I don’t do prayers, prostrations and other rituals. They wanted me, not only me, all Tibetans to be staunchly Buddhists; wearing a rosary around our neck, saying prayers all the time and meditating in the mornings and evenings. I don’t do all these and yet I boldly claim that I am a Buddhist.

Much of these expectations and images of Tibetans are mostly our own making and partly their imagining. It is interesting to note that some Tibetans seem to describe the Tibetan people as non-violent, traditionalist and compassionate to the core — just as the way westerners do. Such reverse education and insistence of identity!

That’s why the reality disappoints them: Tibetans in jeans, enjoying discos, monks on motorbikes, doing the things they do in their lives. Their imagined glass idol is broken. For me kindness and sincerity are guiding principles of Buddhism in life. One’s service in action for society is true worship.

This is my last article for this column called Semshook. For the past one year, every month, in this one-page column I have tried to raise my concerns and share my opinions on different issues relating to our freedom struggle and also on our community in transition. In this article, continuing to talk on reasons to celebrate our exile, I would like to discuss our religious perspectives, old customs and new habits, our ideas and their implications on our freedom movement.

In exile Tibetan schools, children do their regular prayers as per the school curriculum, sitting in the neat lines in the school hall, singing sacred lines set to poetry in praise of hundred thousand deities that us children never really understood. In school we were quite religious, making prostrations every night before going to bed. Later in college, these habits slowly wore out after the first year.

What remained with us is this spiritual strength, which helped us in the most difficult psychologically and morally challenging situations. In the years of loneliness, being the only Tibetan in a sea of foreigners, our Buddhist spiritual upbringing helped us, took care of us, guided us.

Religion, if not taken with a spade of scepticism, could become quite a dictated routine. During the public rituals initiated by monasteries like the Kalachakra or the boomtsok, why do people fight, physically, rushing over each other’s shoulders to grapple for the blessed string sungdue and sweet ball tseril. If people’s lives would be longer or healthier just by relishing these trivias, then where is Karma, the basic philosophy of Buddhism?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama repeatedly advises us to understand and know the meanings of what we do as religious practice. Much of our rituals are done without any contemplation on the significance of these religious acts. It has been centuries since there have been attempts to separate rituals from pure religion.

In the past ten years, exile community has been seeing monasteries mushrooming with all grandeur becoming more like museums for tourist attraction and show of monastic power, than any place of worship.

Big monasteries with no monks,
lot of monks with no discipline

So goes the casual public talk. This not an unfounded public tongue. Yes, still these days there are hundreds of monks and nuns who are strict disciplinarians, devout and exemplary followers of the Buddha, but it is those few of them who roam the streets in this brash manner and bring bad names to all red-robed. This is one reason why there are only a few takers among the youngsters when it comes to “rinpoches” and their big mansions, foreign trips, rich lives sodden with controversies.

I am a staunch believer in Non-Violence. In Violence, the tension lasts temporarily causing harm to the self, the other and the surrounding. For example in an outburst of Violence involving a killing, one dies but only once. In Non-Violence however, there is no at-a-go shot to take. It is a process, in prevailing the Truth, and while on the journey, the practitioner suffers, dying every day. This is a difficult path, and there is no shortcut available. That is why when people give up they take up Violence as a last resort.

But the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of Non-Violence is extreme. Tse-med-shiwa literally could be translated as “non-harming Non-Violence” — even for a new tree to grow, the seed must die, from the heart of that dying seed grows the new shoot.

Such a conceptual creation of Non-Violence may be for those who have renounced the world and are seeking Buddhahood, but in our exile community this definition of Non-Violence is the basic principle of our Exile Government. One of my teachers in critique of it says so succinctly: “We look for freedom IN the world and not freedom FROM the world.”

Seeking Buddhahood is one thing and freedom for a country is another. “Chosi-Sung-Drel”, the dual policy of Tibet — a harmony of Spiritual and Temporal principles — may sound wonderful but is it working? It might have worked in that isolated “independent” Government of Tibet before 1949. The Spiritual has mainly meant Buddhism; does it then provide secularism that the charter of the Exile Government promises?

And yet, I love the Lhabsol, the ancient ritual where after a public prayer we throw tsampa in the air and shout: Lhagyal lo! Victory to gods! I love the bright colours of the prayer flags, the poetic act of sending prayers in the wind on windhorses — Lungta, the folk songs and dances, so rich and colourful; my eyes well up in tears when I watch such cultural performances. And our Buddhist culture, which we have carefully studied and nurtured for the past 14 centuries, is so incredibly profound. All this gives us a cultural identity, a sense of belonging, even though as refugees every evening we return to our rented houses, and have no home to live in.

It’s a matter of great celebration that even though we lost our land to foreign invasion and suffered catastrophic destruction, we never gave up. With the care and leadership of His Holiness we have rebuilt our community and culture in exile. Our resilience gave us the strength and we survived the Cultural Revolution, while it proved catastrophic in China. Today, with the new spiritual awakening, as the new generations of Chinese look for their cultural roots, do they find much in the morally corrupted and capitalistic country that China is today, being run by the CCP in the name of communism.

For the past two months I have been simultaneously working with seven writers and poets in Dharamsala translating a long poem “Secret Tibet”, originally written by a Tibetan woman poet Woeser in Chinese, into Tibetan and English. I look at her act of writing the poem as an effort to reach to the common Chinese people to make them understand how much the Tibetan people suffer under their occupation.

Next month, the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao is scheduled to visit India. Here is another opportunity for us to make the Chinese know of our earnest desire for freedom and how much we are ready for it. The Chinese are very conscious of their newfound image as the fastest developing nation in the world. And this time when their Prime Minister comes to India to talk business and border, we must remind him that he has been eating out of Tibet, and raise the issue that China cannot dance on our backs and yet shake hands with India. This is not only a duty but also our right. This will make the Chinese ask themselves “Why do the Tibetans shame us?” Just as the Americans asked after 9/11 “Why do they hate us?”

One thought on “Celebrating Exile II: Our religion and the struggle”

  1. Dear Tencho-la, thank you for your interest and suvoprtipe comments. Please keep visiting and share your thoughts or any related information that you may have. For example, if you know the English names for some of the other flowers mentioned above, or any wonderful stories about these flowers, please share. Thanks again, and all the best.

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