For them, there is no time to sit around and debate about the socio-cultural phenomenon of Tibet’s popularity while their relatives are dying.
I remember clearly the first time I saw a Tibetan. I was thirteen years old, and my parents and I were travelling abroad for a year. My parents were Buddhists at the time, so they were visiting sacred Buddhist sites and doing extensive meditation retreats at various ashrams and spiritual centers in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
It was at the end of one of those endless Indian train rides, and I was tired, dirty and dreaming of a nice hot shower and a clean bed. We stumbled out into the Varanasi train station, which reeked of sickly sweet incense and cowshit. Homeless people in rags slept on every available inch of floor space, and the walls were covered with red splatters of betel spit.
Every traveller in India has one of those days, when they reach the end of their rope and are about to go totally nuts. I’ve seen it many times: a British woman reduced to tears after trying for four hours to buy train tickets. A German tourist lunging at an Indian bank teller who refused to cash his traveller’s checks but wouldn’t tell him why. As I stepped out onto the platform, I felt it about to happen to me. The heat and crowds and flies and cowshit and noise were too much. I was going to lose it.
Just then I saw two old women walking towards me. They were rosy cheeked, smiling, and wearing the aprons that Tibetan women wear. They were spinning prayer wheels, talking with each other, and seemed totally unaffected by the madness around them.
I asked my mother who they were.
“They’re Tibetan,” she replied.
Did these women have some secret source of inner calm that I was not privy to? Probably not. Were they any more spiritual or enlightened than the rest of us? I don’t think so. But still, I remember the experience. It was this, and subsequently meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, that started my fifteen year relationship with Tibet, its religion and its people.
In that time, awareness of Tibet has grown and grown. In the early eighties, when I and a handful of friends were the only Buddhist vegetarians within a five-hundred mile radius, Tibet was barely known in mainstream America. Then more Tibetan teachers began making their way into the West and more travellers were allowed into Tibet. Resettlement projects brought more Westerners into contact with Tibetan culture, as did the Dalai Lama’s constant speaking and campaigning on behalf of his people. In the last few years, with more and more grassroots and celebrity support, awareness of Tibet, its culture, its people and its political situation has skyrocketed.
Now hundreds of thousands of Americans know about Tibet. The Dalai Lama has made his way onto billboards for Apple computers; Tibetan monks are being used to sell Airwalks. Steven Seagal has been recognized as a reincarnate lama, and Time magazine calls Buddhism the fastest growing religion in America.
Yes, awareness of Tibet has reached a fever pitch. So much so that scholars have begun debating about why Tibet is so popular and writing complete volumes on the subject. Critics are analyzing the entire phenomenon. Essays and editorials with titles like: “Demystifying Shangri-la” have appeared. Tibet scholars are on NPR, speaking at length on subjects like “the historical evolution of Western perspectives on Tibet.”
So why is Tibet so popular? For some it is the religion-a fascination with the colorful deities and elaborate rituals. For others it is the fact that in spite of all the pain and torture the Tibetans have endured, their political struggle has been nonviolent. Jesse Helms likes Tibet because he sympathizes with any country that’s been overrun by godless communists. Right-to-lifers have befriended Tibet because they are shocked and dismayed by the Chinese government’s policy of forced abortions. Tibet has touched the lives of people in all parts of society, from all walks of life.
At this point Tibet has the support of an almost comically diverse band of politicians, musicians, activists, actors and dharma practitioners, but I believe that to try to analyze why all these different people find Tibet so appealing is really unnecessary. Every one of these people has a different reason for supporting Tibet, and while critics may gripe that these people are not supporting Tibet for the right reasons, the fact is that Tibet has our support. We have all befriended Tibet, and our reasons for doing so are as many as there are faces of Tibet.
Over the years I have seen many Tibets. After that first glimpse of those Tibetans in the Varanasi train station, I became interested in Tibet from a purely religious and cultural perspective. At that time I saw the idyllic Tibet, the one that Hollywood embraces and scholars feel perpetually obliged to demystify for us: the Tibet of the tranquil monks in high mountains ringing bells and meditating on the impermanence of life.
Later, when I went to Tibet, I saw a brutalized land whose people were being tortured and killed. I have seen a fierce Tibet as well: a land of Khampa warriors, wild horsemen and bandits who would just as soon cut your nose off as talk about nonviolence. Over the years, I have been frustrated by Tibet, loved it, hated it, wanted to never hear the word Tibet again, and then been moved to tears by the beauty of its culture and the strength of its people.
I have watched Tibet’s increasing popularity and also have participated in bringing it about. All the while, I have considered the ramifications of Tibet being so popular. I have thought about the strange phenomenon of bringing such a culture into contact with modern America and how, inevitably, something gets lost in the translation. At times I have felt sad, longing for the Tibet that in earlier years was more “mine.” A secret, hidden place of such beauty that only I, out of all the people I knew, had seen. At other times I have felt incredible joy, seeing first hand the sheer number of people that now know of Tibet.
But never once have I had to ask myself why I support Tibet. I just do, as one friend supports another. Tibet is part of my life. I do not pretend that Tibet was ever a perfect place, nor do I care. In the same way that I don’t expect perfection from my own friends, or ask them why they’re my friends.
If we are to truly support Tibet, then we must treat it as we would our closest friend. We do not have friendships because we want to “get” something out of our friends. Likewise, we don’t sit around and analyze why we have befriended someone. It is simply that our lives are enriched by that person’s presence. Tibet and its people have the same effect. They enrich the lives of many people; those of us who’ve been enriched by Tibet feel obliged to give something back.
If we choose to, we could probably discover much about ourselves in searching for why we are attracted to Tibet, its culture, its people and its cause. We could discover much about our own projections, our fascination with the distant and remote, our idealism, our motivations, and much more. But perhaps that is not what Tibet asks of us. Tibet and its people do not ask: why do you care about us? They do not ask us to see Tibet as either a Shangri-la or as a land of feudal serfs. They also do not insist that our motivations in supporting them be absolutely pure. They are simply asking for our help, and they are glad that we do care, that we do help. Because for them, time is running out. For them, there is no time to sit around and debate about the socio-cultural phenomenon of Tibet’s popularity while their relatives are dying.
As Westerners we have the luxury of being able to sit back and analyze political struggles, causes, and social phenomena occurring all around the world. As we do so, we inevitably find truths and we inevitably find hypocrisies. Through all this, we tend to forget a simple fact. Right now, amidst all the hype surrounding Tibet, amidst the endless discussions and debates on whether Tibet was ever really a blissful land of enlightened beings, amidst the congressional speeches and the concerts and the films and the analyses and resolutions and dissertations, a sixteen-year-old Tibetan nun lies on the floor of Drapchi prison beaten half to death by Chinese soldiers. Her body is scarred with cigarette burns and she is weak from being tortured with electric cattle prods.
Now tell me. Why should we help her? Or perhaps that is not the right question. Perhaps the right question is, will we help her before it’s too late?