Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Tibetan Christmas

Every year around this time I get asked by neighbours and colleagues: "Do you celebrate Christmas?" And every year my answer is: "Yes, yes, we celebrate!" We bake cookies, decorate the tree together with the children, secretly put wrapped gifts underneath, and enjoy a home-cooked meal with family and friends on Christmas Eve. We do the whole hoo-ha including advent carols because we've been around for a while and can totally identify with this joyous occasion.

Looking at the homes in the neighbourhood during the Christmas season with their windows decorated and brimming with warm lights my grandma used to say: "Isn't it wonderful, even they know kunchog."

She also loved the wood-carved representations of the birth of the Christ Child in the stable of Bethlehem with the various crib figurines. To her that was the equivalent of the altar she had at home containing images of the Buddha. Symbols of religiosity created something like a common bond between her and the inhabitants of her newly found home in the West.

She lit candles too and placed them on the window sill of her home because time-wise Christmas collides with the Buddhist festival Gaden Ngamchoe when Tibetans commemorate Lama Tsongkhapa's entrance into Parinirvana with light offerings and prayers. My Mola's offerings were always meant as much for this important Tibetan Lama as for Jesus Christ. For her the two embodied the same spiritual nature.

Orthodox views on either side were alien to my granny. She would consistently refer to Christ as "Buddha". Every Easter when the ancient black-and-white films about Christ's life and work were on show culminating in his crucifixion, she would relate them to me the next day exclaiming: "Did you see what they did to the Buddha? Wodzi-la! How can they mistreat him like that? He is a Buddha!"

She seemed to forget that according to the transmission it was the Buddha's own cousin, Devadatta, who tried to kill him because for people like Devadatta the Buddha was an impostor just as Jesus was in the eyes of the Roman rulers of his time.

For my granny there was Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha Maitreya, Buddha Amithaba, Buddha Tara and there was also "Buddha Jesus" - Yishu Sangye in her words. Jesus taught people how to find peace through brotherly love and forgiveness and he worked selflessly for the wellbeing of others. Who could contradict my sweet Mola? These are undisputedly also the core precepts of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Of course there are fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity and there is a limit to what one can have in common. Even though we wholeheartedly embrace the spirit of Christmas no member of the family converted in four generations. But then Christmas is not the time to dwell on what sets people aside. My dad used to be very clear about it. When in Rome do as the Romans - but don't forget who you are and where you are from.

Extract of from our traditional three-generational Christmas cookie-baking afternoon.
Still I catch myself wondering how much of external influences my Tibetan heritage can stomach without losing its individual core over time. Have Tibetans not by default looked upon the outside world as more or less "hostile"? If you look at the history there has always been a subliminal fear that Tibetan culture degenerates under the influence of the external world. Why else would a government reject all interactions and categorically shut the door to the world if they weren't afraid that engaging with it would "ruin" its culture?

The Chinese attack came suddenly for a self-absorbed people. The ensuing destruction and killings followed by large-scale immigration only intensified the subliminal fear. The worst nightmare was to come true. The current political stalemate further exacerbates the situation and the lingering fears now turn into paranoia that Tibetans as a group are doomed.

A frequent response has been to seek refuge in increased cultural isolation, preserve, protect and keep all external influences out as much as possible even though it is precisely this defensive mindset that is responsible for putting us in the situation we are in now.

The only way to stop the spiral is to change our mentality by turning the misfortune into opportunities for renewal.

No clash of the cultures, no assimilation, no fear but mutual enrichment from one culture to the other, from equal to equal. When firmly in the saddle there is no need to shy away from contact and exchange. A crucial lesson I have learned from our history is deciding with self-confidence which external aspects I want to adopt to move on.

Ensuring a future for Tibetan culture then becomes a continuous balancing act. The more I practice this skill, the better I become allowing me to share and pass it on so it can serve the needs of my children. Hopefully that's what it means to do as the Romans and still remember who you are.

Merry Christmas, merry Gaden Ngamchoe and happy holidays!

Mountain Phoenix

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tibetan Dialects And Accents: Storm In A (Butter) Tea Cup

Time stood still at this fundraiser for the Tibetan Children's Village. Alumni performed one Rangzen Shonu song from the 80s after another. Then a young man who looked like a new arrival from Tibet picked up the microphone during a break and began speaking about the self-immolations. He made an ardent appeal to the audience to mobilise the government and the UN for help, urging us since we were in a safe country, to do all we could to support the people in Tibet.

That's when one of my companions, a girl from Lhasa married to a TCV alumnus, said to me in syrupy Tibetan: "I can't understand a word, he is speaking khams skad. Can you understand?"

What the young man said was not in Kham dialect at all. He made an effort to speak Ud skad, the language of Lhasa - albeit with a Kham accent but that was really it.

My companion gave me an incredulous look, "No way, that's not Ukay"! 

I didn't know her that well. Was she just acting snobbish or was her Tibetan really that narrow? What we heard was Tibetan pronounced with an accent. Speaking with an accent and speaking in a dialect are two different animals. An accent is merely pronouncing regular words a bit differently. Instead of "house" pronounced khangpa for example, some say khompa and also khumpa but from the context both are still recognisable as variations of ཁང་པ་ .

A dialect on the other hand has a separate vocabulary, and sometimes also a different grammar. It becomes evident when we think of the little Tsang dialect many Tibetans know and sometimes also make fun of: Ba, ma(m)-ba? Nooks  ! - Believe me now, Olo?

On a trip I accompanied as an interpreter I was lectured by the Chinese hosts in Toe Ngari that the locals spoke "not the same" Tibetan as in Lhasa and that it would be difficult to communicate. Amazing how the Chinese, who often spend an entire lifetime in Tibet without ever caring to speak the language, believe they must enlighten a native speaker. Tactful is different. But I noticed it is one of the things our colonisers are most fond of emphasizing: How the Tibetan language has so many varying dialects and how they are all mutually unintelligible.

The sinister intention is clear: Undermine our understanding that we are a nation united by a common tongue. Divide et impera. We got you so figured out Tonghzi, comprende?

But as irritating as they are, the Chinese have a point. Seriously: How can we say we are united when we have trouble understanding what the brother in front of our nose is saying? I hate to admit but it's basically an absurd situation with the Chinese wisenheimers annoyingly all confirmed. Therefore on our side, we cannot leave it at that.

So what can we do to improve intra-Tibetan communication and understanding?

In this respect the Tibetan-language news programmes aired by the Voice of America and the Radio Free Asia play a successful forerunner role because they are presented by speakers from a variety of backgrounds and with all kinds of accents. Whatever it is they are speaking, when we pay attention we will notice that it's based on literary Tibetan and not some "dialect". While the VOA Tibetan programme rightly doesn't make any distinction, the RFA news editions are labelled "Amkay", "Khamkay" and also "Ukay", which I find misleading.

Unlike Ukay which is a homogenous dialect spoken in and around Lhasa, Kham Tibetan or Khamkay feels more like an umbrella term. A whole range of dialects, sub-dialects and sub-subdialects are grouped under it almost in an infinite sequence. So we really can't speak of one Kham dialect spoken by all Dotoe people. Similarly there can be no single grand Amdo dialect either because a native of southern Amdo such as Ngaba speaks different Amkay from a person up north in say Labrang.

Dialects, sub-dialects, sub-sub-dialects almost
in an infinite sequence - "Matrioshka-style :--)

So if the news were really aired in a dialect, it would not only be difficult to reach large segments of the population but it would also put the makers of the programme in the politically sensitive situation of having to select one dialect over another. All this can be avoided by using the written language as the basis. And actually that's also exactly what is practiced by RFA Tibetan programme: Their speakers have regional accents but for sure none presents the news in a dialect. Therefore having separate editions such as "Amkay" and "Khamkay" really doesn't make sense: There is no value in differentiating Tibetan according to accents. 

Furthermore, it could confuse people and create artificial barriers because Ukay speakers like my acquaintance may not listen to those programmes thinking they are in a "dialect". So there shouldn't be any distinction at all. Everyone should be encouraged to listen to all editions indiscriminately. It will help us understand better the morphology of our tongue and improve our listening skills.

Amidst this linguistic mixture one of my eastern Tibetan buddies said to my utter surprise that we should just all speak Ukay, it would make communication easier. ­- I am not convinced. Having everyone speak uniformed Lhasan would be culturally impoverishing. It would be like all Anglophones the world over would be expected to speak British English. Where is the local flavor? We are not amused :--)

To push Lhasan as the standard may have been acceptable during the early years of exile when the institutions were dominated by the same crowd who was already in charge in Lhasa. I hear in those days it was common that Dokham folks would have their pronunciation scorned upon or "corrected". But these days with the social demographics in exile tilting towards Easterners pushing Lhasan too hard can become problematic.

When we get down to the linguistics, Ukay is another Tibetan dialect, no more, no less. Expecting everyone to sound like a person from the capital is not only unnatural or culturally impoverishing; if we truly believe in the premise of the equality of the Cholkhas, Lhasan superiority is simply unacceptable. We must meet somewhere in the middle and the effort should be equal for all. This is my opinion.

So the solution to improving intra-Tibetan communication and understanding and reinforcing our common linguistic heritage cannot be to level out dialects or try to eradicate accents. What would really help is to raise the level of education in literary Tibetan so it does not fall behind the vernacular; and we need to increase exposure to all kinds of accents and dialects because the more variations we hear, the smarter we get at recognising the similarities.

The way I see it, fundamentally the Tibetan language situation is diglossia, a special form of bilingualism. While traditional bilingualism describes the simultaneity of two complete languages fit to function for all purposes, diglossia describes the simultaneity of two mutually complementing forms of one language each of which performs a specified function which the other lacks.

In the Tibetan case, diglossia neatly describes the co-existence of oral dialects with the literary language. We have the clear distinction typical of diglossia: Dialect is used in the homes; it's private and related to one's hometown; that's what we speak with our buddies aka phayul jigpa. The literary language by contrast, is used at work and in school; it's public and related to the national level. We use this type of Tibetan when dealing with authorities, in the media or when speaking to Tibetans from other areas.

In public, Dokham folks generally make an effort to sound more Ukay where the pronunciation is closer to the written language. What the lad at the TCV fundraiser did was exactly that. There is this functional specialization of the Tibetan language which is typical for diglossia. No Tibetan would speak dialect in public unless he's a complete country bumpkin who has never left his valley and as a result never had interactions with other Tibetan speakers.

In practice it may be difficult to recognise Tibet's diglossia. Literacy rates are low one reason being that written Tibetan must compete with Mandarin pushed as the standard language by the Chinese state at regular intervals. The result is that we have Tibetan dialect speakers who revert to Chinese instead of literary Tibetan when communicating with Tibetans from other areas. 

Nevertheless, we should not misjudge the issue based on the distortion resulting from the spread of Mandarin. Treating the Tibetan language situation fundamentally as one of diglossia has helped me better understand the nature of our linguistic challenge. Consciously acknowledging Tibet's diglossia can help us concentrate on the content of what's being said rather than getting distracted by the form how it's being said. We will clearly recognise the common ground, the literary language, and not be confused by things that set us apart - a dialect, an accent or a funny intonation. As a result, our idea of the Tibetan language becomes democratic and egalitarian because we apply ourselves to respect it in all its dialectical and accentuated variations.

Looking at the Tibetan language situation as diglossia may also give us a perspective because we realise we are not the only people who face the challenge of a diverging written and spoken language: There is diglossia in many places. Take South Tyrol as an example, which the Dalai Lama visited earlier this year: Locals speak a German dialect but switch to High German when speaking to people from outside the region. In addition, South Tyrolians must also learn Italian as the official language – just like Tibetans have to learn Chinese.

Treating our language situation as diglossia, improving our written Tibetan and become better listeners could also help take Tibetan to the next level above mere sustenance, so the language is fit for the requirements of the time and we don't easily succumb to the dominant language be that Chinese, English or another tongue.

Not understanding another speaker of Tibetan probably happens all the time. If we leave it at that however and don't make an effort to change it, we also inadvertently reinforce the Chinese perception of the Tibetan language: That it's so diverse that it's mutually unintelligible. If that's what they believe let them, dilettantes. But we should know better. We mustn't fall for what in essence is a storm in a tea cup: All Tibetans share the same written language. Not understanding one another is ridiculous. These are things we have in our hands. Not doing anything would be negligent.

Mountain Phoenix

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tulku Inflation

I came across an article in Tricycle Magazine about Steven Seagal visiting Russia and Chechnya to promote arms sales and hang out with shady potentates. Usually I wouldn't pay attention but when the author concluded based on Seagal's behaviour that the Tulku system was "deeply flawed" – ah, my Tibetan heart hurt!

Don't we have a hard enough time to be taken seriously by the world around us? Why must we ridicule our religion by declaring an ageing American action-movie star with an off-screen, multiple identity fad into a Tibetan Tulku? Rama Lama Ding Dong! Enough crazy wisdom! Please, can we have Tulkus who behave like normal people?

People have said there is "Tulku inflation" in the Tibetan diaspora: The number of reincarnated Buddhist masters is skyrocketing while the quality goes through the floor. Stories like these only reinforce the bad impression.

Just for the record: Tibetans believe every living creature has a mental continuum, a subtle stream of mind, which leaves the physical body after death and looks for a new body in which to be reborn. Yes, really. But while ordinary folks with untrained minds get thrown into their next existence through the force of their karma which is said to be imprinted on that subtle stream of consciousness, people with trained minds are capable of deliberately targeting their rebirth. We call the latter "Tulkus".

Ideal Tulkus are skillful surfers of the samsaric waves: They come back again and again in whatever form it takes – human, animal, formless, Deva – and for as long as it takes until the last creature is freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth. That is their Bodhisattva pledge. Their whole raison d'être is to help others make it out of cyclic existence. Moreover, Tulkus are also said to be the only form in which ordinary mortals with their meditatively unrefined senses have a chance of perceiving the presence of an enlightened being. That's how the story goes.

In reality we see all kinds of Tulkus: There are fake ones who squeeze money out of naïve followers. In Tibet these impostors are known as rgya blama ("Chinese Lama") but they probably thrive everywhere. Then we see failed Tulkus who quit their religious education and hang around being of no benefit to anyone. Another group are the dormant Tulkus who lead private lives as family people and don't act upon their vocation to teach the Dharma. Then we have Tulkus who do teach Dharma but are themselves “work in progress” and therefore not totally reliable.

Nevertheless, in principle Tibetans wholeheartedly believe in the existence of Tulkus par excellence, who are attained Buddhist masters free from mundane concerns, having overcome cyclic existence and developed boundless compassion. The most famous Tulku is of course the Dalai Lama, but there are many, many others.

Is Steven Seagal one of them?

I wish we could say the man is a gaffe to clear it up for good, but, alas, with Tulkus it's not like with the obese where anyone can see them out. With Tulkus, it's tricky because their level of attainment is invisible to the ordinary eye. Tulkus have always been discovered by Tulkus, who in return were confirmed by Tulkus – almost ad infinitum all the way back to the Buddha.  

In the case of Seagal - to close what looks like the last loophole – we must concede from what is known that his recognition process appears at least formally correct. But then precisely because the reasoning cannot be tracked by normally intelligent people with normally developed senses, it opens the door for interpretation and misuse. We could be told anything, what would we know at our level of mind?  

I only know Tulkus are not born perfect. It’s a long process up to enlightenment. A lot can happen on the way. That’s why Tibetans prefer to catch their Tulkus young and treat them rough. Those recognised late in life like Seagal hardly stand a chance to acquire or reactivate the knowledge and wisdom necessary to do the work of a Tulku. The title remains a nominal decoration.

If we are mainly concerned with our current existence and don't think about rebirth we can shrug the whole Tulku business off at this point. We could get rid of Tulkus altogether as has been suggested elsewhere. Most people wouldn't miss them anyway. 

But once people start thinking about rebirth more, especially with regard to some of the things that are said to be going on during the process of dying, rebirth may actually become intellectually comprehensible and we may also get a glimpse of the potential vastness of existence. From then onwards, that's my guess, only a spiritually attained Tulku will do. 


I'm continuing my metaphysical speculations: Let's say someone, after having listened to teachings, contemplated and meditated for years, at one point believes he experiences "Emptiness" in meditation. How can that person be sure that it is really Shunyata and not something else? A reincarnated Buddhist master will be more likely to tell and give guidance because what is required goes beyond intellectual knowledge into direct experience and insight. No one else is up to the job, not a learned monk, not a good Dharma teacher. For that it takes a full-fledged Tulku.

Sounds fantastic but that's how I imagine it must be. For people who want to put the Buddhist teaching into practice beyond leading an ethical life, into developing the mind and changing one's outlook beyond this life, a qualified Tulku who teaches the Dharma in the form of a Lama, retains an enormous importance. That’s also why Lamas, i. e. Dharma-teaching Tulkus, play such a central role in Tibetan Buddhism.

All prayers are based on generating correct faith and reliance on one’s Lama. From the basic Refuge Prayer Skyabs'gro sems bskyed which many of us learn as children and where the very first line says "I go for refuge to the Lama", all the way up to the highest tantric practices the fundament is always correct reliance upon one's spiritual guide who is considered the embodiment of the Three Jewels and the source of all one's achievements.

In his famous "The Words Of My Perfect Teacher", where 19th century Tulku Patrul Rinpoché relates to us the teaching of his precious Lama, Tulku Jigme Gyalwa'i Nyugu, he too writes: "The devotional practice of Guru Yoga is the only way to awaken within you the realization of the uncontrived natural state. No other method can bring such realization."

And to crown it all: Even the Buddhas relied on the Guru devotion method to achieve their enlightenment because their images often show another small Buddha, aka their teacher, peeping down from their heads! So when the Lama is the undisputed alpha and the omega to get anywhere on the Buddhist path, how would people continue their practice if we got rid of the Tulku system?

Refuge Tree of the Nyingma order with
Guru Padmasambhava at the center
Each Tibetan Buddhist order has its tsogs zhing or Refuge Tree where the most important masters or “lineage Lamas” are represented. This lineage of knowledge and insight started with the Buddha and was imparted to his disciples who then handed it from one enlightened master to the next. 

Technically, these are all Tulkus who ensure the authenticity of the Dharma taught. Who would populate the Refuge Trees, which serve as practitioners' inspiration, if we got rid of Tulkus?

My personal conclusion from all this is that for believers the Tulku system is too big to fail. An authentic Tulku who teaches Dharma in the form of a Lama and ensures the correct transmission of the Buddhist teaching is priceless. It must be like meeting the Buddha in person. Tabula rasa would axe the rare gems along with the junk, this much is clear.

Does that mean we just have to put up with Tulku Seagal and the likes? I don't think so. Students can do something as individuals. A practical way would be to ignore Tulkus that we perceive as inflationary. Let them run out of steam. You can't fool all the people all the time. Even more so when a Tulku falls foul with the law or our inner voice tells us there is something weird about this person. A lot of harm can also be avoided by thoroughly checking the teacher outThe whole Guru devotion part mentioned earlier doesn't set in until after having put a Lama to the acid test.

Then it is also said that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas arise according to the needs of the sentient beings; when people don't appreciate or forget the rarity and preciousness of such beings, they withdraw their physical forms. - Now this one is really clever. It could mean we get the type of Tulkus we deserve. Tulku inflation would be a reflection of society at large. It takes the external focus away from Tulkus and forces us to look inward and we would have to pose ourselves the awkward question: Are we critics any better material on our side? Have we accumulated the causes of encountering a true Lama whose words pierce marrow and bone?

For the lucky ones who found their perfect teachers and worry they may not encounter them again in their next life: Once during a Q&A a person expressed exactly this worry of not encountering her spiritual guide again in the next life and what she could do to ensure their paths would cross again. The Lama calmed her down, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to go around trying to find the Guru, the Guru will find you.”

Lama khyenno!

Mountain Phoenix

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Worm Wars

Yartsa Gunbu - Caterpillar fungus
Earlier this summer, reports emerged about intra-Tibetan clashes in Rebkong over caterpillar fungus. Photos showed people armed with a dagger and Chinese police intervening. Subsequently the Dalai Lama and the Sakya Trizin, appealed directly to these communities, asking them to stop the fighting. On separate occasions, the two religious leaders vehemently invoked the Buddhist concept of las 'bras, or the law of cause and effect, to bring the quarreling parties back to their senses. They reminded the Tibetans that they create heavy negative karma, which will eventually fall back on them.

Although both appeals stopped short of offering more practical guidance on what people should do rather than just urging them what not to do, listening to their messages made me realise that on a deeper level these "worm wars" speak volumes about a core challenge the Tibetans are facing as they come head to head with Chinese-style modernisation. They are slowly forgetting the fundamental Buddhist teaching I assumed all Tibetans sucked up as babies with their mother's milk and which over the centuries became part of our national DNA: That you reap what you sow.

When we go to the bottom of what specifically makes us Tibetan, it's probably this acceptance, this natural and whole-hearted belief in the law of cause and effect. The insight has helped us put our problems, big and small, into perspective. It has prevented us from committing the worst errors, sensitised us for the needs of others and kept us motivated to work through our troubles in a positive spirit – always as a means to improve future situations.

I used to believe language, culture and biology are our most distinctive features but actually these are rather superficial when we try to penetrate what makes us Tibetan. My conclusion boils down to this belief in las 'bras appropriated over generations. That’s what distinguishes us in addition to language, culture and biology. That's what lies at the heart of our Tibetanness. A separate language and ethnicity become meaningless without content. When we think about it properly, living our lives in accordance with the law of cause and effect – whether consciously or automatically - has really been our distinct way of relating to the world and the universe around us.

If some now don’t give a damn about las’bras any longer what is there to give them their humanity? What is there to preserve as "Tibetan heritage"? Once the mentality becomes alien we can totally forget about issues like safe-guarding language or striving for a political solution because we will have become just like them: Reckless materialists whose thoughts and actions are fueled by the three Samsaric poisons rooted in ignorance and driven by greed and hatred. There is nothing distinctive left to cherish.

The reasons for the worm wars are well known: Essentially they are clashes over access to the mountains where these prized worms are found. Without any education, the options for traditional Tibetan farmers and nomads to earn cash and participate in the fast-paced mainstream economy are limited. Possessing no professional qualifications, more and more rural Tibetans go after these worms leading to increased competition. We only have to ask around a bit to notice that stories of violent clashes involving shooting, stabbing and thrashing abound.

Caterpillar fungus or Ophiocordyceps Sinensis is of course not a "worm". It's a larva of some moth that is eaten up alive by a fungus and mummified in the process. I don't know whether that makes it any better. The proper Tibetan designation, Yar-tsa Gun-bu, is a contraction standing for "in the summer it’s a plant, in the winter it’s an insect". But in my hometown people simply call the thing bu – or exactly as I say: Worm.

Spring is the main season for the worm harvest. As soon as the Tibetan New Year is over, the craze starts. The market crashed a few years ago but now it's back. To get a sense, 100 grams are currently worth around USD 1,500. The rule of thumb is, the smaller the worms that make up a batch, the higher the price it fetches. At these pecuniary prospects, it doesn't matter anymore whether it looks pathetic or is stultifying: A grown person can spend entire days in prone position over a two or three square-meter surface, microscopically searching the soil millimeter for millimeter for caterpillar fungi.

No one lost a contact lense; not a collective fit of high altitude sickness either. Merely looking for you-know-what.

The target market for the worms is the superstitious Chinese who see it is an aphrodisiac. They use it as medicine; sell it bottled and soaked in Arrak; sprinkle it over their stir fry; toss it into their soup or simply enjoy the worms à la nature: Once I received a handful, light as a feather, for a gift. When the visitors realised I didn't know what to do with them, they said, "Oh, you can eat it just like this, it's very good for your health!” and there you have it, one of them popped a maggot-mummy into his mouth as if it were a potato chip.

The cash earned from selling handpicked worms however, is usually not invested in the education of the next generation, as we would hope. Rather it is spent on short-lived consumer goods such as a car, motorcycles, fancy TV-sets and the like.

The other lucrative trade for rural Tibetans - illegal and carried out in secret by entire communities - is timber. Logging in Eastern Tibet has been banned since the occurrence of severe flooding further down in China, but it's an open secret that there is a black market with Tibetans on the ground fully drawn to the business. Suffice it to say: People invent all kinds of tricks in order to outsmart the system. In my hometown, villagers are allowed to cut trees in the communally owned forests for self-consumption. Now some build themselves a new house every other year just so they can pull down the old one and sell the wood used for its construction. Miraculously, houses also tend to become bigger each time, while traditional family size is shrinking.

Running after worms, timber and also seasonal gourmet mushrooms have become a top priority for some rural Tibetans. Thinking neither left nor right to the extent where their minds are so deluded that they are capable of killing one another, communal and family lives based on farming and herding often come to a standstill. Positive Buddhist values such as ethical behaviour, consideration and non-attachment which have held communities together for centuries, are threatening to fall apart over short-term material gains.

There is the bride, whose parents are not present at their daughter's big day because lured by cash they prefer to go worm-digging; there is the empty monastery during worm season with no monks to be found for funeral rites - don't ask me what business a Buddhist monk has, digging around in the earth on all fours; and there is the valley, where little children roam around all day without supervision and sometimes get run over by cars because parents and grandparents are all in the mountains digging for you-know-what.

The real problem is that Tibetans in some regions have been spoilt rotten by easy money made from Mother Nature. They may vaguely remember that there is something called las 'bras, which they fear will eventually take care of everything. But their negative habits are stronger. They have become lazy. They don't study and don't learn even when there are schools. The Tibetan language may not be taught in all of them, which sometimes serves as excuse to keep children from receiving an education. But what's the point of being a "pure" Tibetan, when the options for a livelihood are limited to fighting over stupid worms?  

An education in a foreign language is still a thousand times better than no education at all. Our schooling in the West is not in Tibetan either but it works. We also face issues of language and identity loss but we deal with them and somehow we muddle through. There is no reason why people in Tibet cannot do the same especially when they have home-turf advantage.

It's not sufficient to be able to speak only your own language, just as it's hardly enough to only be able to do basic math. Rural Tibetans should leave the evolutionary stage of hunters and gatherers to which they have been degraded. How else can they expect to contribute to social progress? How can they defy the Chinese mainstream that looks down on them as culturally and intellectually inferior citizens? Education is the root of a civilisation. If we don't know how to cherish that, will there be a noteworthy future for our people?

China’s large scale destruction of Tibetan nature by studding it with mines, hydropower plants, damming rivers, cutting down all the trees and polluting the soil or forcibly resettling people, is well documented. But it's more on the quiet that at the grassroots level, Tibetans themselves are contributing to environmental degradation by imitating the materialistic Chinese style with their predatory exploitation of nature. Actually it’s not surprising: When you’re so consumed by greed that you are capable of killing your neigbour, you couldn’t care less about what’s happening in the process to something as ridiculous as “the environment”.

Tibetans are victims of the Chinese but to be honest they are also perpetrators. They have become accomplices as they get engulfed with barbarous greed coming from the Chinese mentality that surrounds them. Through this materialistic, alien habit some Tibetans have become capable of betraying their own valued traditions. In a shortsighted Faustian twist of fate they even betray themselves doubly: First accelerating their own demise by destroying each other and their environment and second by selling the yield to the very people who menace their culture. Oh the sarcasm! Pecunia non olet.

From this point of view, the persistent calls for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama suddenly look perplexing. How can people invite the person revered all over the country as the personification of Buddha Avalokitesvara, the purest being, to come to them, when they don’t make an effort to keep their livelihoods and minds pure? Can this work as ground for the Dalai Lama’s vision of Tibet as a zone of peace?

It is sometimes forgotten that Tibetans living under China are not completely powerless. Generally speaking rural communities do have power over communally owned lands. They are important guardians of our civilisation. In the face of the rapid pace of development in China, which is eroding people’s ethical fundament, they are perhaps also the most vulnerable. The way to go is to remind people to think long-term through the lens of las’bras and also to urge them to start sending children to school without exception. We must help each other to the best of our abilities.

These worm wars are symptomatic for a monumentally larger and existential battle the Tibetans are waging. We are put before the choice between an ethical life in accordance with the Buddhadharma based on personal effort and learning, and a shortsighted mundane life based on an insatiably greedy culture that knows no tomorrow. All Lamas who we look up to as our traditional leaders and basically anyone with influence should be at the forefront to help our people make the right decision. How we respond to the socio-economic pressure on the communal and individual levels may well determine the future of our civilisation.

There are only two options: The easy way or the right way.

Mountain Phoenix

Monday, July 1, 2013

Prisoners Of Gratitude

There are some expressions in colloquial Tibetan that make my hair stand on end every time I hear someone invoke them. One is the adverbial phrase thugsrje bka'drin which translates something like "by the gracious benevolence of". Another is the verb drinlen bsabspa or "to repay the kindness of". Both are part of our long-established, autochthonous vocabulary and reinforce a certain way of thinking. My impression is they are increasingly used in both the media and society these days. The supposed humility, however, always comes across as sycophantic.

Maybe I'm not listening properly. But maybe there is something to it?

I am not referring to normal gratitude, the kind, where we say "thank you" because someone opened the door for us, showed us the way or offered us a seat. Expressing that kind of gratitude is something you have to do and can also expect from others because it is not merely good manners and helps to keep human interactions smooth, but more importantly, it is an expression of our basic civility and our consideration and respect for others.

What I mean is a different kind of gratitude contained in these two Tibetan expressions. A typical sentence would be: "By the gracious benevolence of my parents I was able to attend such a good school", and, "My biggest wish is to repay the kindness of my parents". Both phrases cry out for the recipient to give something in return - almost like a debt they are expected to repay. They go beyond expressing appreciation for what others have done for us: They involve a great deal of social pressure and personal guilt.

The mindset echoed is paradoxical because as parents we know we shouldn't expect gratitude from our children for the things we have done for them. Gratitude becomes difficult when there is the expectation to receive something in return. The guilt caused is more of a burden and most definitely doesn't create feelings of gratitude. Gratitude obtained through subtle pressure or implicit expectation is worth nothing at all. It's emotional fraud.

True gratitude comes from remembering and appreciating acts of kindness with no strings attached. When children discover that parents have done things for them out of selflessness and pure, unconditional love – just like an altruistic Bodhisattva does what needs to be done without wasting a thought on what he may get in return. Expressions like "by the gracious benevolence of my parents" and "to repay the kindness of my parents" are the pure contrary. They are like putting a gun to a child's head.

I believe this kind of emotional blackmail often unfolding in Tibetan families - sometimes subtle, sometimes gross as illustrated in Blind Brides Or Strawberries From The North Pole?, where Dolma is threatened to be thrown out of the house if she goes on to marry Daniel - is also mirrored in larger society: Here, segments of the population disagreeing with the views of the establishment are often charged of "disloyalty" and "ingratitude".

While in the family, children who disappoint their parents often have to live with the guilt of having troubled their peace of mind, people who insist on diverging views in society have to live with the reproach that they are responsible for creating disunity, disturbing social peace, and sometimes also for – Buddha forbid – upsetting the Dalai Lama. 

Phrases like thugsrje bka'drin and drinlen bsabspa chain people up emotionally, make them dependent and keep them small. There is something intrinsically wrong when these expressions are overused in society like a Mantra. To me they feel like an obstinate linguistic relic of our feudal past:  Even though we left the old society behind, many of us have internalised its values.

I am not calling for a rebellion against our parents or against authority. I am a parent myself. Instilling guilt, rebuking each other, using coercion and psychological warfare only poisons relationships and drains our energies for nothing. As a family and as a society, we can only move forward by accepting diverging opinions without bias no matter who expresses them.

Children who automatically follow their parents' wishes may lull themselves into a false sense of security and turn into adults who follow the mainstream without a second thought. People, who speak up, while they can be more challenging to handle, actually display a quality much sought-after: Courage to express their own opinion and the determination to stand up to them.

Given the tremendous internal and external challenges Tibetans face, should we not encourage people in our midst who are courageous, innovative and fearless? We know we can't produce them if we limit ourselves to raising people who repay our kindness - because where usually do fresh ideas and inspiration, the ability to create new things, come from? Exactly! From mavericks, dissenters, border crossers and bridge builders, in short the unconventional folks who think independently and talk openly. It's their creativity that is the main motor for social progress.

There is a quote by Mark Twain on gratitude which fits the two Tibetan expressions I am discussing: "…gratitude is a debt which usually goes on accumulating like blackmail; the more you pay, the more is exacted. In time, you are made to realize that the kindness done you is become a curse and you wish it had not happened."

We should not let it come to that. We love our parents and naturally want to see them happy. I also believe that every one of us - whether socialized in the West, China-educated, India-educated or coming out of the exile-Tibetan system, whatever political or religious creed – every one of us is a Tibetan patriot at heart. But this precious sense of solidarity cannot be enforced by autocratic tactics in the name of loyalty or some kind of diffuse special thanks "owed".

Gratitude, it is said, is the sign of noble souls. Remembering the kindness of others and a respectful tone are very important values be it for children, parents, the people or leaders. But none of us can live our lives to the fullest, and no one is served, if we manipulate it and turn ourselves and others into prisoners of gratitude.

Mountain Phoenix 

Photo: Cheryl Wolfberg, Tibetan Woman, oil on canvas 16 x 20''

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