Friday, February 27, 2009

Secret American Empire - Ch.11

Don't Become a Buddhist

Tibet is famous as the homeland of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader who represents, perhaps more than any other living person, a commitment to nonviolence. However, Tibet has not always enjoyed such a reputation. Between 609 and 649 AD, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo formed alliances among warring chieftains intent on conquering neighboring fiefdoms. As a result, the king was able to forge a vast empire. Later the region was invaded by Genghis Khan. It became part of an empire that has gone down in history as the epitome of brutality.

In June 2004 I led a group of thirty-four people to Tibet.

Driving through the countryside twoard our first stop, the city of Tsedang, it became obvious that one of our female guides knew little about Tibet and barely spoke its language – in fact, it appeared that “Suzie's” awkward English was better than her Tibetan. Word quickly spread that she was a Chinese spy and we should be careful of what we said. Our Nepalese guide quietly confirmed this to several of us and asked us to spread the word. One time, when Suzie got off the bus at a rest stop, he told us that we should always assume that we were being listened to by someone.

Even in the monasteries and temples?” a woman asked.

Especially in those places,” he replied.

Tsedang sits on a Tibetan plateau. Overshadowed by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, it is one of this land's most ancient centers of civilization. We checked into a sterile Chinese hotel. I deposited my bags in my room and headed out. I felt the need to get away from the group for a spell, adjust to the altitude, walk off my jet lag, and experience Tibet. However, as I wandered around in the late afternoon, I was appalled to discover that had I been deposited on Tsedang's streets by a magic carpet, I would never have guessed that I had arrived in old Tibet; instead, I would have thought I had landed in a Chinese military base.

Uniformed soldiers hustled along the newly cemented sidewalks. Open-air markets and small shops sold Chinese produce. Sidewalk vendors hawked garishly colored plastic utensils, pails, and toys. While a few ancient buildings remained, many had been replaced by military gray concrete structures. The Tibetan people stood out in their traditional clothes. Like museum oddities in fifteenth-century fur hats, boots, and coats, they were apparent strangers in their own land. The soldiers regarded them with disdain, as they might treat deranged beggars. Tension rippled through the thin Himalayan air.

As I walked on, I was burdened by a fatigue that grew more severe with each step. At first I blamed it solely on the altitude, similar to the Andes and Kashmir. Fatigue soon turned to dizziness. I felt nauseated. I made my way to a cement bench and sat down. The slogan “Free Tibet” rang in my ears and I realized that I was suffering emotionally as well as physiologically. I forced myself to focus on my surroundings. People scurried past. The many Chinese and the few Tibetans appeared not to notice me. I felt visible and vulnerable, yet apparently no one saw me sitting there. I too could have been a deranged beggar.

When I began to recover, I remembered the photo of the Dalai Lama I carried in my pockeet. I reached for it cautiously, aware that merely possessing it could land me in prison; photos of this man are illegal in modern Tibet, despite the fact that millions there still consider him their leader. I had smuggled it past the Chinese security guards at the airport partly out of defiance, partly because I thought I might gift it to one of his followers, but mostly to honor the time I had spent with His Holiness nearly five years earlier.

The organizer of this trip, Sheena Singh, had also arranged that 1999 trip. We had journeyed into the Indian protectorate of Ladakh in the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India, which today is populated by thousands of Tibetan refugees who are determined to carry on the traditions forbidden by the Chinese in their homeland. As fate would have it, the Dalai Lama was in Ladakh that same week. Sheena knew of his interest in indigenous cultures; she sent one of my books on the subject to him, along with a note requesting a private audience for our group. A day later, several of his staff arrived at our hotel with a gracious reply explaining that his calendar was full; they presented us with a box of his autographed books.

On our last morning in Tibet, as we waited to board our flight to northern India, we were surprised to see the Aalai Lama and his entourage sweep into the tiny airport. Sheena immediately approached his secretary. The boarding process began. Before I realized what had happened, I found myself being hustled up the steps of the plane, prepped by our Indian guide that protocol dictated kissing one of the Dalai Lama's shoes, and led to the front row of the Boeing 737. the Dalai Lama smiled up at me and patted the seat beside him. The idea of kissing a shoe seemed rather odd, but having learned long ago the importance of respecting local traditions, I awkwardly started to lean over the seat toward his foot.

The Dalai Lama gave a little laugh and, placing a hand beneath my chin, gently lifted my head. “Not necessary,” he said in that softly chuckling voice that the world has come to love. He patted the seat again. “Please sit.” He tapped the edge of a book he was holding on his lap. “Wonderful,” he said, turning the front cover of my book toward me. “I'd like to learn more.”

We talked extensively about indigenous people and their commitment to balance. I told him that the reason the Shuar of the Amazon became headhunters and went to war was, according to their own mythology, because they had allowed their populations to grow out of control and that the resulting imbalances threatened to destroy many life-forms; consequently, a god ordered them to take responsibility even if that required “weeding your own garden” (killing other men).

This story seemed to strike a chord with the Dalai Lama. He observed that while he did not condone violence, peace arrives only when humans show true compassion for all sentient beings and when we take individual and collective responsibility for good stewardship of the planet. He pointed out that economic development usually destroys other life-forms and creates disequilibrium, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. We discussed at length the importance of taking actions to make this a compassionate world, not simply talking about it or praying for it.

After that flight, the Dalai Lama invited our group to his home in Dharmasala, India. Following a cordial greeting, he said something that seemed most unusual, given his position as a leader of a spiritual movement. “Don't become a Buddhist. The world doesn't need more Buddhists. Do practice compassion. The world needs more compassion.”

Those words echoed in my mind as I sat on the bench in Tsedang, cupping that photo in my hands. I could not imagine hearing such advice from the Pope. Nor from China's head of state. Nor from the president of the United States. It was a direct refutation of proselytizing and of all forms of imperialism. Staring at the Dalai Lama's photo, contemplating his insistence that his people not enter a cycle of violence that would taint future generations, I felt my own inadequacy. I was furious at China. Here in this city that epitomized the brutality of colonial empires I felt the inappropriateness of my own anger.

I made a vow then and there that I would devote the rest of my life to turning things around. I would write and speak out about the dangers of a world based on exploitation, fear, and violence. I would search for real solutions and try to inspire people to take concrete actions. At the same time, I understood that I had to work on my own attitudes. I realized that it was not enough to exchange one empire for another, to fight fear with more fear. We had to break that cycle.

- pages 62-65, The Secret History of the American Empire

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