Friday, October 2, 2009

Who Will Be Our Next Prime Minister?

We clearly missed the opportunity for political reform in the November meeting in Dharamsala last year. Now we are getting ready to elect a new Prime Minister in 2011 under the same outdated system Tibet has had for centuries, which does not distinguish between the secular and the religious.

Leaving aside the essential question of how effective a Prime or any Minister can be in such a system, people are all getting worked up about the profile of the new Prime Minister: The new person should be “young”, should be “a woman”, should be “educated” and what not.

I’m struck though that the primary criteria people seemed to look for in a candidate, was knowledge of how to deal with the West in order to promote the Tibetan cause.

I couldn’t disagree more here.

The main concentration of our political work in the last 50 years was exactly on lobbying the Western countries to pressure China for concessions on Tibet. This strategy has not worked the way we would have liked to see. We should learn from this and adapt. We should go about solving our problems more directly, without relying too much on third party involvement.

It doesn’t mean we should stop lobbying the West, but it’s a strategic mistake to continue to put all our eggs in one basket.

Our problem is with China. So first and foremost we need a PM who can deal with China. We need someone who is intimately familiar with China and has the focus on China with everything else flowing from there. It should be someone who is at ease in the Chinese presence, confident enough to deal with them eye-to-eye. China-fit should be our killer criterion.

Technically, the PM should be someone who, while firmly rooted in Tibetan culture and with the ability to directly communicate with the people both in- and outside of Tibet, at the same time, has an affinity for Chinese culture, speaks that language with ease and is familiar with that system. In other words, it has to be a person that is perceived by both the Tibetans and the Chinese government as “one of us”.

Just in case this sounds extreme, it really shouldn’t.

Because that’s what the middle path boils down to, if we implement it. The middle path says, internally we’re autonomous, externally we’re under China. Fact is more than 75 % of the exile voting populace backed the middle path. So we’d better start to walk the talk and get used to think of ourselves as PRC citizens – Tibetan by ethnicity, but PRC citizens nevertheless.

In addition to being “China-fit”, our candidate should also be superior in stature to those no names from the United Front which His Holiness’ envoys have been fobbed off with for the longest time. For there to be real progress, we need to elect someone the Chinese government can take seriously.

The people whose names are in discussion as candidates in the phayul forum or on will do their best and have the sincerest intentions, no shadow of a doubt. But to tell you the truth: No amount of dedication and commitment will replace what has got to be our killer criterion: “China-fit”.

You can be the best driver in the whole world. You still won’t win the Monaco Grand Prix if what you’re riding is a truck.

So “China-fit” must be our killer criterion.

This requirement already disqualifies a lot of the potential candidates whose names are now circulating.

For one, it can’t be a member of the Sangha. Looking at it from Chinese side, Lamas are their number one concept of the enemy. Looking at it from the Tibetan side, politics is not a Lama-job either. There is no good reason on either side to appoint a Lama.

Next, any of the old boys and girls from the exile establishment: Lodi Gyari, Kelsang Gyaltsen, Dolma Gyari, Bhuchung K. Tsering. Kasur-this-and-that, former Reps etc, are not the right fit either. They live up to the expectations of a large part of the exile-Tibetan constituency (“experienced”, “cultured”, “loyal”, “woman”), but in the Chinese context, they are too much “the Dalai Lama’s messengers”. They don’t have an independent profile or the stature it takes to shape policy and handle China. And, most of all, they all lack the killer criterion as they were brought up too far away from Chinese culture.

Even the Harvard lawyer, Dr Lobsang Sangay, won’t do. His work is important and we need good lawyers. But our problem is not legal, it’s political. It cannot be resolved in a court of law. It can only be resolved in the political arena with China and within Chinese law. In the world of Realpolitik, the international legal case is little more than a side-argument. But more important, would this person fulfil the killer criterion? From what I’ve seen and heard, he’s not our man either.

Then we have an interesting group of new, younger leaders such as Lhadon Tethong of SFT. I would love to see someone like her as the Tibetan ambassador to North America. She would project a modern, young, gender-neutral, progressive, secular, and open image of our exile administration. If I were Dharamsala I would offer her the job as the Head of the Office of Tibet in that region, and give her the formal authority to boost her excellent PR work. But she’s not the right fit for the PM job. Remember the killer criterion.

So who’s left? Don’t we have any China-fit PM candidates who are reminiscent of Sino-Tibetan cultural hybrids like Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal or Gyalo Thondup, but who are not in the wrong camp, not related to the Dalai Lama, and not on the verge of senile decay?

At the very least, the new PM should have a higher profile than the incumbent Samdong Tulku. It’s still been the Dalai Lama doing all the touring, meeting all the government leaders and politicians. I bet you nobody even remembers our Prime Minister’s name, let alone is aware we have one.

Maybe it’s because the Dalai Lama’s Private Office wants to control everything as Jamyang Norbu suggests in an article. Or it’s because Samdong Rinpoche is a traditional guy who wants the Dalai Lama to control everything. Who knows? Whatever the reason, the political result is a disaster.

The question is: Do we want the distribution of power and the working relationship between Dalai Lama and Silön to resemble that of the British Queen and her Prime Minister, or that of Putin and Medvedev? You agree we’re not only way closer to the Russians on this one, but we surpass them by far.

I don’t know, have all the Silöns in Tibetan history been limited to managing the Kalons and warming up messages from the Dalai Lama? Have you also wondered what is expected from a contemporary Tibetan Prime Minister? Has anyone seen a job description for the position somewhere? Does the post have any foreign policy relevance at all?

When I heard “panel discussion” about the new PM, I thought there would be several people discussing rather than two automats delivering incoherent one-way messages. In the “panel discussion” on from 20 June 2009, half of the time is wasted with lecturing the people about the difficult situation in Tibet - as if we didn’t know!

The other half is used to explain what the Prime Minister’s job is. But what they failed to do is connect the two parts: No explanation how doing the PM job would improve the difficult situation in Tibet. All the while, Samdong Tulku is wiping his face with a huge orange cloth, looking like he either just got out of or is preparing to go to bed. Sorry, did I just intrude here?

Actually the incumbent PM shouldn’t have to say anything about his successor in the first place, but what all these discussions among the expats about the new PM show is not only the alarming shortage of capable leaders in our midst. It’s also showing the fundamental problem in our political system and that is – we all know it inside out - the mix of religion and politics.

So in this context, it’s unfair to expect the Prime Minister to fix our problems, when a) there’s someone overpowering at the top who has very clear ideas of where Tibet should go, and b) we have the ingrained habit of looking for implicit approval and endorsement from the top. That’s the way we function.

Our biggest problem, even bigger than getting back Tibetan independence, is that we are incapable of emancipating ourselves from divine rule. We just can’t let go of the Dalai Lama, we love him too much. We probably think a terrible karmic revenge would befall us if we politely asked him to withdraw from politics.

But as long as we are unable to separate the religious sphere from the secular, it won’t make a difference who we choose as our next Prime Minister, they will all be the same: Ineffective automats with no relevance to the outside world.

Look at China: This month they are celebrating 60 years since the foundation of the new China. Whatever faults there are with their system, and the world knows there a lot, but at least they were strong enough to leave the old ways behind and walk new paths as a people. The world including the Tibetans can accuse China of many wrong-doings, but not for inactivity.

When was the last time that we, the Tibetan people, took destiny into our own hands?

I’m afraid we have to go back over a thousand years to find something of similar magnitude in our history: During Langdarma’s reign when Buddhism was almost annihilated in the central areas, it was only due to enormous efforts of the Guge kings Yeshi and Jangchub Ö that a Buddhist renaissance could take place. Where would Tibetan Buddhism be today if the two had not sacrificed so much to get the Indian Atisha Dipamkara to come to Tibet and fix things? We owe these guys big time.

Something of this magnitude must now happen on the political level and in our times. Nothing less will do to save us from decline. Whether we get what we want or end up getting what we deserve, will depend on whether we can replicate the boldness, fearlessness, and farsightedness of our forefathers.

Long live Tibet!
Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

Plain Vanilla: Our Summer In Tibet

It was a bit rushed, but we still managed to catch up with most friends and relatives. Some were up higher in the summer pastures, but they came down one by one as word spread that we had returned. How did the word pass so fast you may wonder?

Plain and simple: cell phones.

Everyone seems to own a cell phone there. During a courtesy visit to the resident Lama of our monastery, mine started to ring. I was so embarrassed, mumbled an apology and stepped out to turn it off. When I went back in to rejoin the conversation, the thing went off again. Didn’t I just…? - Huh! It was someone else’s going off: Even our venerable Lama had a cell phone tucked away in his Amba!

Gosh, I’m getting old here because I’m about to exclaim: “How times have changed!”

When I first came to Tibet in 1993, our relatives only knew by accident that we were coming. Someone found the letter my dad had sent them. It was lying around in the grasslands. The postman must have lost it on one of his delivery tours.

That year, while we desperately tried to figure out how to transfer from the point of entry in China on to the Tibetan highlands, our relatives waited in the Dzong (county seat) for days and days not knowing whether we would be coming at all.

But that’s long ago and seems like a dream now.

After last year’s downturn, visitors were now gradually coming back. The hordes of Chinese tourists “polluting” the air with their smelly incense at the splendidly restored monastery were back, just as the Christian missionary families camouflaged as English teachers and gastronomes. Had to think of the Griebenows in Labrang of pre-Communist times, when I saw some of those families accompanied by what seemed to be half a dozen kids.

The laidback atmosphere in the Old Town reminded me a bit of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala with its cafes, shops and visitors from all over the globe. It looked like the global recession had not hit the local economy so strong. Tourism was picking up. The wild mushrooms’ season was also at its peak, although prices were reportedly not as good as in previous years.

We also saw no more trace of the huge army camp that the newspapers reported was set up right in front of the entrance to the Old Town during last year’s political unrest. We found the usual car park there. There were no soldiers patrolling through the city, not even near the monastery. It seemed like normality had returned - plain vanilla.

One of the many memorable experiences during this trip was our first day when we hung out with all the kids in the grassland.

Then we took them for Pizza made by the local girl-friend of an Italian expat, who owns a restaurant in town; followed by a treat to delicious ice-cream at a Taiwanese fast-food chain. To wrap a great day up, we took the children to a small amusement park where they hopped around on bounce castle, drove little cars, and painted pictures. It was great to see how the children, all from differing backgrounds, got along with each other. It was borig phunda shatrak jig gyi mi if you know what I mean.

I am grateful to have experienced a piece of normality in Tibet. I am keen to see more of that normality return. There has to be some normality for folks to function in that kind of politically repressive environment.

We returned safely, happy, with a bag full of photographs and beautiful memories.

But as I’m blogging, the sad news has reached us that army trucks and soldiers were sent to our hometown again. We don’t know whether there has been an incident or whether they were sent as a precaution for the 50-year PRC anniversary celebration.

I only hope there won’t be any clashes. Direct confrontation is suicide.

And oh, I haven’t even mentioned my other big problem: How to relate to my kids what is happening? It’s one thing to tell children about Tibet from afar without ever going there. It’s quite another if your kids know Tibet through direct experience. You have to be much more careful and balanced. So that’s my big problem, not exactly plain vanilla.

If anyone out there has an idea, let me know.

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Friday, June 5, 2009

Enter The Dragon

Yes! After weeks of uncertainty, the China visa is finally stuck in my passport! Now there’s nothing that could possibly keep me from boarding that plane taking me and my two little ones towards Tibet this summer. Unless one of us unexpectedly dies, I will drag each and everyone of us onto that plane, come what may, serious!

They don’t say for nothing that you can take a person out of his phayul but you can’t take the phayul out of the person. I tell you I’ve been so homesick.

My eyes hurt from longing to gaze at those snow-capped mountains around my parents’ hometown; my nose is so eager to smell the aroma from the local farmers’ market in the middle of town; my ears want to hear the antique Tibetan dialect spoken; my lungs want to breathe the clear mountain air. I’ve been starving with all my senses and now it’s going to happen.

I’m so happy.

I’m so happy I completely forget the humiliating trips to the Chinese embassy it usually takes in the forefront.

Although I’m a bona fide citizen of this country, I can’t line up with the regular folks at the visa counter of the Chinese embassy. I need to call in advance and make an appointment with that specific guy who is in charge of handling visa requests from Tibetan expats.

Visa applications by regular folks get handled at the counter by clerks from the Foreign Affairs Office. It normally takes four days to issue a regular tourist visa. If you pay an express fee, you get it the same day.

Visa applications by Tibetan expats get handled by a bureaucrat from the Tongzhanbu, somewhere in the back office of the embassy. In my case, the United Front bureaucrat is not even an ethnic Chinese; he’s one of us, probably the saddest part in this whole thing.

So I called the guy up and fixed the appointment. Then I went to the embassy on the agreed day, to apply to be allowed to apply for a permit.

I handed in my application forms plus the sheet providing exact details where I would go, where I would stay, who I would visit, how I was related to them and the telephone numbers to contact.

I asked him when I could expect his call that I could come for the visa application.

“Well, that is not possible to say in advance”, the bureaucrat tells me without looking up from his paperwork.

My head is going: “Don’t mess with me, wannabe.”

But my mouth says: “Oh, just tell me roughly based on your long experience, Gen-la.”

“20 days”, he says again without looking up from the paperwork.

I know he has to refer my application back to the Tongzhanbu headquarter, and the headquarter would refer it to the Tongzhanbu regional office, and the regional office would refer it to the local office, and all the way down the ladder, until it lands on the Tongzhanbu desk of my parents’ hometown. That’s the procedure. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s the way it is.

Let me tell you what is wrong.

The guy is a pervert. He loves to be intransparent, enjoys keeping people in uncertainty and, worst of all, is corrupt.

Two years ago, when I went through the same procedure he said I could only get a visa if I bought the air ticket from him. That would be the new procedure.

I innocently asked why it was considered necessary to introduce a new procedure.

Don’t fall off your chairs.

He said a lot of Tibetans would either not return or not arrive properly, that’s why they introduced this new rule with everyone having to fly with a Chinese airline.

I bet you the Chinese ambassador had no clue what our little zangbao was doing right under his nose. Abuse of authority in its purest form.

Luckily I could talk myself out of the situation by telling him I needed to travel a certain route which would not be covered by “his” ticket. He grudgingly said, ok for this time, but next time, don’t do it like that.

Well, when I went back this time, there was no mentioning of the air ticket. I trust he realised it’s wiser not to engage in irregular activities.

Once when I was living in Tibet, I was summoned by the police.

They came into my classroom in the middle of a lesson. No idea what the students thought when the teacher was taken away by Public Security people.

There were three of them Gong An’s behind a huge desk in that office and I was by myself seated on the opposite side of the desk. I got a severe scolding in Chinese from the fat boss and his two side-kicks for working on a tourist visa. How come I did that? His fist came smashing down on the table. For sure I must know that’s against the law?

Actually the school had told me they would sort the visa thing out when they hired me. But obviously they had not done it at that point. That’s all I could try to say to the police and ask them to speak to the school principal.

Thinking back it could have been a stereotype scene straight from a Bollywood movie, making the police look really shabby: Three of them ganging up on a somewhat naïve young woman who couldn’t even speak well enough to explain herself. The story only got sorted out because a knight-in-shining-armour came to my rescue and managed to explain the whole “case”.

And believe it or not, the villain in my story, the fat police guy, got stabbed in the stomach a few weeks later during a fight in a night club. Bollywood again!

Meanwhile, a few months later, the knight and I got married. Bollywood all over:--)

But at the time though it wasn’t funny. It was scary. The surreal thing remains the utter loss of countenance of these people in that police office and the uneasy feeling that no one seemed to be able control these guys.

Years later, I ran into one of them by accident. He greeted me as if we were old pals, so cordially: “Oh hello, hi, it’s you! When did you come back? We’ve met, remember?”

That stinking rat.

Yet I forced myself to smile back: “Oh yes! I remember! You are so and so. How have you been?”

I hated myself for doing that. It sounded as if I was selling my soul.

But in effect, I was calculating in cold blood: You may need his help sometime down the road. He may know someone whose help you may need to get something done. Even if he doesn’t have any useful connections, he could still harm your projects or people connected to you, so you’d better not give him any reason. It would be unwise to jeopardise chances in the heat of the moment.

I would have loved to just beat him up, but one thing you learn when you enter the dragon is to never allow yourself to get irritated by its raw demeanor. That can completely backfire, so don’t be like Bruce Lee, be a tough cookie.

Be like Sunzi in The Art of War.

Beat them with their own weapons. Use people like the police guys or the embassy guy a thousand times in return. The worse they act, the more focused you become.

There are a lot of them, all members of the much discussed new aristocracy who are complicating the political situation with their vested interest and their feudal mindsets. They thrive in this situation of intransparency and unaccountability.

What they don’t know is that they can’t win. Tibet will always be bigger than all of them combined.

As our Lamas say:

"The sword of hatred is ornamented with the handle of invasion,
A red star has imprisoned the sun and moon,
The high snow-peaked mountains are cloaked in the darkness of a poisonous wind;
The peaceful valleys have been shattered by the sound of artillery.
But the dignity of the Tibetan people competes with the glory of the sky."

Chogyam Trungpa

I only hope I can vaguely remember these lines when I enter the dragon this summer.

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

You Name It!

One of my friends, Dolma from the strawberry story, is expecting her first child.

By now she moved in with Daniel and, yes, they got married! Her parents, who boycotted the wedding, still have grudgingly accepted the fact. Meanwhile Dolma is searching for suitable baby names.

My partner and I loved the baby name search when we were pregnant. We created a list with new Tibetan baby names, some with an Indo-Sanskritic touch, others inspired by places in the Himalayas we had visited, again others picked from history, old travelogues, poetry. We really got a kick out of it and came up with, what we felt, exquisitly beautiful, contemporary Tibetan names,meaningful, and easy to pronounce for both Eastern and Western tongues.

Since I consider Dolma a friend, I shared our precious list with her, basically allowing her to pick from our creations or at least get some inspiration.

But to my disappointment, my friend only shook her head at the list and said:

Bhodpa’i ming drabo mindu” – these don’t sound like Tibetan names.

“Aha,” I thought, “so too unconventional.” Okay, no problem, after all, it wasn’t going to be my baby.

Instead, Dolma decided to follow tradition and requested a name from her root Lama, the Sakya Trizin in India or, as she referred to him, the “Sakya emperor” (Sakya gongma).

In her village in Tibet where she grew up, parents would only request a name from the Sakya Trizin if the child was male, Dolma said. For girls, parents would usually go to a local Lama.

Although that smacks a bit of slighting baby-girls, my hope is that maybe the local Lamas had a bigger names repertoire than the Sakya Trizin: Three of my cousins (all boys) were named by him and two of them have Ngawang as the first name which means something like “powerfully eloquent”.

Surprise, surprise! Dolma received that name for her unborn child too. It’s a good name, don’t get me wrong. And it’s practical too since it’s one of those gender-neutral names which seem to be a Tibetan specialty (Dolma doesn’t know whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl).

Personally, it’s a mystery how something as intimate as naming your child can be delegated to a third person, and you accept the result just like the lottery. Well, my parents also did it with me but that was a different generation. This Guru devotion part in the naming game is kind of difficult to follow.

Dolma patiently explained it means good luck for the child to receive – whatever - name from a holy man. Not requesting one - or even worse requesting one and then not using it – would mean bad luck for the child.

But what about more practical concerns like how the name sounds to the external environment? Have you ever heard a Westerner pronounce Ngawang properly? The closest they can get is “newang” with the accent on the second syllable. And I bet you the kid always has to spell his name, what a drag!

Lamas may have no clue that the names they give are potential tongue-twisters and make the kids life hard, but the parents should be aware?

For example, if you live in a Chinese-speaking environment, you may reconsider naming your child Nyima (“sun”). I personally love the sound and meaning of that name, but for a Chinese speaker, it sounds awfully similar to “go f* yourself".

If you happen to look for a good baby name, you may want to be proactive and study this funny list of all kinds of no-go’s I found in the internet - or better even: Send that list to your Lama along with your name request. It may enlighten him!

Well, at least Dolma didn’t turn to the Dalai Lama for a name. We already have a Tenzin inflation abroad. I wonder whether anyone thinks about the meaning of the name at all? “Defender of the faith” has such a martial taste to it, don’t you think so? Somehow always reminds me of Mujahedin. And besides, the Dalai Lama really has more important things to do than finding names for our babies? Can’t we even get that done without involving him?

But let’s watch out. No matter how carefully we proceed in choosing names for our babies, sometimes you just can’t help it.

Like this funny story about Chinese tourists in Tibet, my cousin told me.

One of the most popular Tibetan names for boys is Lobsang, after the 14th-century reformer Je Tsongkhapa Lobsang Drakpa. And Dolma for girls, after the female deity Jetsun Dolma.

Since these names are so frequent, my cousin told me, Chinese visitors to his area seem to believe Lobsang is Tibetan for “waiter”, and Dolma means “waitress”.

Can’t beat a greenhorn:--)
Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Making It Through The Next Round

For the Tibetans at home and abroad, 10 March symbolises one of the saddest events in recent history. On 10 March 1959 the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule failed. Subsequently, the young Dalai Lama and the ruling elite went into exile to India. This year we are commemorating our defeat for the 50th time – half a century!

The Chinese government, on the other hand, in a euphemistic move reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, declared a “Serf Emancipation Day”, and ordered the Tibetans to be happy and celebrate it.

I can hear you say “this is sick and they have no shame” - as if we don’t know already.

When the Chinese invaded our country half a century ago, they hit the perplexed Tibetans on one cheek. And when the Tibetans offered them the other cheek by accepting Chinese sovereignty in exchange for local autonomy, the Chinese hit the other cheek too.

Still, we keep bouncing back, because if there is one thing in this unequal fight that we are better at than them, I’d say it’s stubbornness.

Under Mao, the Tibetans had to be as quiet as a mouse, the only goal being the naked survival of the race. Still over a million are said to have died as a result of the political craze. After Mao came Deng, who declared many of the previous policies as too extreme; there was a careful rapprochement between both sides with Dharamsala sending three “fact-finding missions” to Tibet. For a short time, there was a glimmer of hope for a bilaterally satisfying solution.

But then Deng died before anything tangible on Tibetan issue could evolve and his most promising successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, disappeared faster than we could say Tashi Deleg.

Jiang, who emerged as the prime leader, didn’t intend to carry on his predecessor’s Tibet work, and today with Hu as the prime minister, the Tibet hardliners are back in charge. As far as this leadership is concerned, there’s nothing to talk about. We could be talking to a wall, the result would be the same, it’s “the long and winding road”.

So after fifty years of struggle, we find ourselves badly wounded and without any political progress worth mentioning. Yet to us, what counts is that we’re still standing, and that we’re still determined to give them hell because we have no doubt that our stubbornness will outlast their rigidity.

Hopefully, we’re also growing smarter after each round?

If so, we should be asking ourselves what to expect in the next round after Hu and how to prepare, rather than gloating over sideshows, which have been a repetitive hang-up since the days I can remember.

Don’t know what I mean?

A recent sideshow was pressuring each other into not celebrating the Tibetan new year.

It makes perfect sense not to celebrate if you are on Tibetan soil, because it gives a clear message to those in power in our land. But we folks abroad overdid it with our solidarity with the most extreme ones among us discouraging others from baking Khabsé (new year cookies) or sending ridiculous “no Losar” greeting cards to each other.

Wasn’t it agreed not to hold lavish festivities out of respect for the compatriots who suffered directly or indirectly as a result of the crack-down last year? What’s lavish about a stupid Khabsé? Why do some of us always permit themselves to miss the point?

Another sideshow, albeit of monumental proportions, has been the surreal move to eradicate “demon worshippers” in our midst. It’s been an evergreen since the mid-1990 with the gruesome prospect of continued intensity.
A sideshow of the 1980s I vaguely remember is the “Taiwan payroll” fuss which culminated in inciting each other to mob those compatriots, institutions, and organisations who were alleged “Taiwan salary receivers” (Taiwan phok zakhen). Only after relations with Taiwan normalised with a representative office of the Dalai Lama opening in Taipeh, the witch-hunt subsided.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the 1970s and 1960s also had their share of sideshows. I’m probably just not old enough to remember.

Looks to me like sideshows have been a favourite hang-out of the Tibetans abroad.

Too bad for us though, they always seem to aim against something - usually ourselves - and almost always unfold as a compulsory exercise taking on a self-destructive dimension. The political impact of these supposedly “patriotic” actions vis-à-vis China has always been zero.

Makes me think of what the old days in Tibet must have been like when one part of the ruling elite was consumed with getting mentally ready for life beyond this one, and the other half spent most of their time picnicking and intriguing.

We paid a high price for not getting our national priorities right. We should always remember that the failure was colossal: It made the Chinese grab possible in the very first place.

Since then, the following generations - folks like you and me - have been desperately trying to mitigate the damage. The last thing I’d want is for my kids to blame me for not having done enough to win our country back because I was engrossed in “no Losar” battles and the likes.

That’s exactly why on this 50th anniversary of Tibet being run by a foreign power, those among us who are seriously committed to political progress, must renew their focus on developing long-term plans on how to cope with that challenge. That’s the big picture. Everything should flow from here. Whoever is seriously pursuing the long-term goals won’t have time left for senseless distractions in some self-lacerating sideshow.

There are a number of ways in which regular people like us can contribute to political progress in a strategic way. We must not wait for Dharamsala and Beijing. We are free to act on a personal level - the guerilla way.

The one crucial area we have been neglecting in the past is Chinese public opinion. A lot has been achieved in influencing Western public opinion, but the ones who make the difference for us are the Chinese. Only they can change themselves. No one else can make them change. That’s the lesson learned from 50 years of lobbying the West to pressure China into cooperation. That doesn’t mean we have to stop lobbying the West. That work must continue. But we must increase our efforts to systematically lobby the enemy and turn him into a friend. carried a story published in the The Times Online on 18 March 2009 about young Tibetans blogging in Chinese social networking sites with the aim to change Chinese attitudes. That’s an excellent example of a guerrilla tactic in the age of the internet.

Another superb way to influence Chinese public opinion is indirectly via the Buddha Dharma. By now, we have so many Dharma centres all over the Chinese-speaking world: Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong. These serve as discrete cultural change agents. The Lamas heading these centres don’t have to do anything different from what they already do. No hidden agenda. No politics. Just keep on with the pure Dharma as you have. That will work wonders on the Chinese mindset.

We can already observe spill-over effects into the mainland today: My monk-cousin from Tibet regularly visits students and benefactors in Shenzhen and other Chinese cities. He keeps telling me these rgya (Chinese) really appreciate the Buddha Dharma and by extension also Tibetan culture and that they do a lot on an individual level to help Tibetans by funding schools and donating to monasteries.

Also, remember Larung Gar? A lot of those students were from the mainland. The government destroyed their quarters and chased them away, but they are there still in China, and they are for sure remembering the kindness of their Lama and waiting for a better time to become supportive again.

What we as individuals can do to facilitate the beneficial political side-effect of the Dharma centres is to help organise financial support, or if you are spiritually inclined, join one and help with the management to support their work.

It’s only a matter of time until the Chinese mainstream will realise that our Lamas are not “sucking the blood of the people” as the government wants them to believe. Those obsessed chauvinist folks who pester internet forums with their hatred do not represent the average opinion in China, I am convinced. Normal people don’t hang out in internet forums. Normal people tackle problems in real life.

In Tibet proper, the civil rights or disobedience movement has enormous potential. Woeser is a good example. She is one courageous woman. Many more like her will be emerging all over the highlands. What we can do from here to support people like Woeser is to help spread reports about her activities by using modern information technology.

The more she is known abroad and in China proper, the better she is protected from arbitrary treatment by the authorities. To this day, they have not dared to harm her although she has been extraordinarily outspoken. They restrict her movement, but that’s been about it unlike some of those desperate and unfortunate no-name rural protestors in Lithang or Ganzi of late.

Also powerful are grass roots movements such as the farming boycott reported in Lithang and Dartsedo/Kangding lately. Those must be a real embarrassment to the Chinese authorities who claim that the majority of the former “serfs” are very happy under China.

Or imagine folks deciding to boycott industrially processed salt from the Chinese and instead, decide to walk to the Changthang to get their own Tibetan salt, like Gandhi. Imagine the power of the symbolism. This is not just my crazy idea. It could really happen. First only a few families would travel to the Northern Plains, but more would follow. Eventually, it would become a movement, just like the farming boycott.

The more we talk about these campaigns, the more people will learn about them and apply similar techniques also in other areas. Over time, people’s civil rights consciousness becomes stronger. People will get a clearer idea of how far they can go without putting their heads on the line. This type of resistance is also very much in line with the Tibetan core value of non-violence. It’s our turf. It’s guerilla warfare based on our preference.

Another important area to work on for a direct impact is ourselves. Because we don’t know how long the next round is going to last, we’d better prepare ourselves to endure. So any measure to strengthen the Tibetan identity counts.

While we study hard and work tirelessly to successfully integrate into the culture of our host-country or the larger culture, at the same time, we must systematically strive to keep our Tibetan identity alive, strengthen and innovate it. That’s valid for all of us, whether we live abroad or in Tibet among the Chinese.

We must also intensify communication between those abroad and those at home. We can engage in many projects by circumventing the politics and focusing on what is of immediate relevance: Decent jobs, a good education for the children, adequate housing, language, religion, environment, and civil rights. Tons of non-confrontational project ideas with a direct impact on our folks!

What we need are bold and creative folks who are not frightened off by government bureaucracy and arbitrariness or get discouraged because everyone around you speaks Chinese. All those who don’t just want to sit there and wait for Dharamsala and Beijing to sort it out, this is our battlefield.

While “guerrilla warfare” prepares ourselves to cope with the worst, at the same time, we must stay alert for the unexpected.

Our dream could suddenly become true - sooner than we may think - with things going out of control in China and a new, more receptive type of political leadership emerging. For this we should be prepared. Dharamsala should be prepared. That’s when the big players come back into the picture.

I hope they have scenarios worked out and how to push our agenda. It’s going to be a crucial point in our country’s relationship with China. Maybe the chance of a life-time.

The worst thing that could happen to us then? - Dharamsala caught unprepared because they’ve been hung up on some sideshows that are going on.

We, the Tibetan people, must proactively prevent that by boycotting them altogether and asking those who are supposed to represent our common interest to focus on the beef.

Stubborn greeetings:-)
Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Hairdresser, A Nun, A Humble Little Boy, And A Hunk

I went for a haircut the other day to look my best for the upcoming Tibetan New Year, Losar, which falls on 25 February 2009. Although there are fancier hairdressers around, I always go to Nathalie. She knows how my hair falls and always makes me walk out of that salon feeling like a goddess.

Nathalie’s hair is very long, very blond - bleached of course - but still looking very natural. She has the prettiest face, blue eyes, a sweet smile, all topped off by a warm personality. Going to see her, is almost like going to see a therapist.

So there I sat waiting for her magic to begin, when she asked me: “Have you heard of that Tibetan nun? I went to her concert the other day and was so moved by her singing, I cried all the time!”

She couldn’t remember the name of the singing nun, but obviously meant Ani Choying Dolma, whom I had seen on Youtube performing “Amazing Grace” before a huge crowd. I thought she was extraordinary.

“The funny thing though was that there was only one Tibetan in the audience, apart from him, only Westerners,” Nathalie said.

“We normally associate nuns and monks with chanting prayers in a monastery. Singing is quite something else. I just don’t think a nun singing on a stage is something most Tibetans would go out to see for entertainment,” I told her.

Nathalie, sweetheart, you have no clue who our real stars are!

Tibetans would flock to the concert hall, when an international nobody like Phurbu T. Namgyal is in town. If you want to see a Tibetan crowd, go to his concert, baby!

One of my mom’s friends calls the US-based singer Bhutee Namgyal and declared him to be her favourite singer. That’s funny for two reasons: First, she doesn’t seem to notice that something can’t be right with the way she got her favourite singer’s name, because “Bhutee” is clearly a girl’s name; second, someone her age falling for this type of music would be like my 60-year old neighbour Gerdie saying her favourite band is the Backstreet Boys. You know what I mean? There’s just a huge disconnect here.

Believe it or not, Phurbu T. Namgyal’s popularity reaches all the way into Tibet. When I was in Lhasa in the summer of 2007, they played his song Lhasa’i Barkhor nangla in the Barkhor, day in and out, and reportedly, his song Nga yuk ney (“Leaving me” or literally “Throwing me away”) is melting plenty of hearts all over the place. Oh dear, to tell you the truth, I find that song so pitiful. I am perplexed that even some of our business partners – mature, grown-up folks - are also enamoured with these songs.

Is it just me? Something wrong with my senses?

The guy sounds like a kid with speech impairment. Tune-wise, most songs are so simplistic; don’t they remind you of nursery rhymes? The same goes for most of the lyrics with the same silly lines repeated ad nauseam; doesn’t that make the songs sound as if they were composed for the retarded? Think of Chim Chim Lhamu and the likes. And what does the “T” in his name stand for anyway - Tintin? Twerp?

By far the worst thing though is that he refers to himself in his songs as bhuchung (“little boy”), or worse even bhuchung nyamchung (“humble little boy”). Please, someone tell me: What self-respecting girl would take a second look at a guy like that? All my reflexes say: “Bhutee, go home to your Amala, quick!”

But hey, a big girl like me shouldn’t take him apart like that. Doesn’t make me look good bashing a humble little boy…

My friend Pema from the Tibetan for kids’ story thinks the best Tibetan singer is Yadong. She says his music has depth and character, his voice is expressive and powerful. Even if you don’t get the lyrics because he has a thick eastern Tibetan accent or sings in Chinese, she insists the emotions still run through.

She must know, she’s a sanjor (recent arrival from Tibet) and understands everything the man is singing about.

Another friend, Lhakpa, wanted to get Yadong over for a famous open air concert in her region. I sent her all the CDs and VCDs I had so she could pass them on to the organisers for an impression Yadong’s versatile music. Alas, in the end, they didn’t invite him - they weren’t sure he could move large Western audiences.

Every now and then you hear a rumour that Yadong, the self-proclaimed Khampa hanzi (“hunk from Kham”), got into trouble with the authorities for a politically sensitive song. But he always bounces back, has basically been around forever in this short-lived industry where singers pop in and out everyday and disappear into oblivion shortly thereafter. Not him.

Let’s see what’s next. A recent visitor from Kham told us Yadong just did a film in which he acts and sings. Right now he’s said to struggle with the censors to get it out into the public. Let me tell you one thing, that’s what makes the guy hot in my eyes: That deeply felt bond to Tibet, the art to put that into his music without instrumentalising his work, and the guts to look the occupying force in the eye.

Well Pema, I guess you got me on board as far as Yadong is concerned.

I have a suspicion that even Nathalie may like his music. He also has long hair. That helps. Nathalie has a weakness for men with long hair. I must bring her a CD next time.

Happy Losar!

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent. 

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Throwing Gold In The Dustbin

There is this Tibetan monastery a couple of hours drive from where we live. A few times a year, I take the children along to reconnect with our cultural roots.

Especially in times like these, when we all feel the economic downturn and the pressure at work, the monastery is a real sanctuary to get away from it all and refocus.

While the children laugh and play on the monastery compound, I try to listen to a Buddhist teaching in the temple. But somehow I’m never able to relate to the topics. Or if I could make sense of something, I would find myself unable to recall anything useful a little while later.

I can’t remember a single one of “The Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva”, nor am I in a position to summarise - even in the most basic terms - what the “Tara Initiation” is about, although I sat through half of the three-day programme. Not to mention the Kalachakra teaching: I went all the way to India for it and what have I retained? You’re right, nothing !

I also have a problem with the whole convention, that merely sitting there and hearing what Lamas say - without necessarily understanding anything - has any merit at all. C’mon, that’s a trick some Lama invented to prevent people from walking out on him!

And as if all this weren’t bad enough, I'm constantly looking for ways to invalidate the little I believe I did understand. No wonder I mostly end up in the monastery kitchen and not the temple.

One day, an elderly Geshe (professor) appeared in the kitchen, and someone introduced me as being “of the same fatherland” (phayul jigpa). Even though the “fatherland” they meant was a place in Tibet where my paternal great-grandparents had lived five generations ago – and which I barely knew - it was still such a matter of fact for everyone in that kitchen that we were “of the same fatherland”.

Surprisingly enough, I immediately bonded.

Some look down on regional affiliation as a petty sentiment eroding Tibetan national identity. But in that kitchen, regional affiliation expressed itself more like extended family; there was something warm and familiar about it.

Geshe Thupten’s features also reminded me of my late Pola, a great-granduncle, who happened to be a Buddhist monk just like him. He also spoke high Tibetan with that same peculiar accent.

He said his role in the West was to promote Buddhism, to make people aware of its value and remind them how it can help them in their daily lives. I said: “Why do you have to promote it? If people don’t come by themselves, why take the trouble and go after them? Wouldn’t it be better just to let them be?”

“Well, then there is the danger that the Buddha’s teaching would gradually be forgotten”, Geshe-la explained. I couldn’t resist: “That wouldn’t be the end of the world”, I said, “If everything is impermanent, so must be the Buddha’s teaching, why try to convince people of something if they are happy without it?”

Now you are someone who throws gold in the dustbin!” Geshe Thupten exclaimed in shock.

For a moment, I was afraid I had gone too far, but luckily, Geshe-la wasn’t mad. And after a while, it felt like we just spoke our minds. He was cool. Yo, we’re phayul jigpa after all, I almost forgot!

Geshe-la spoke about the broad appeal of Buddhism to foreigners, and therefore, I too, as a Tibetan, should care. I joked again: “Right, how can people not be attracted? After all, we do have something for everybody: Nyingma for creative souls looking for instant enlightenment; Gelug for tech-savvy nerds who follow a step-by-step approach; and Kagyud for the illiterates who rely on oral transmission.”

Cheeky me.

I would have continued in this way, had I not come across a book called “What makes you not a Buddhist”. Many will remember the author, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, as the director of “The Cup", a film about some soccer-crazy monks in a Tibetan monastery in India.

This book contains lot of clear thinking and straight forward answers to skeptical remarks. It completely deconstructed my fuzzy ideas of Buddhism. In essence, a Buddhist was defined simply as someone with a deep insight of impermanence, and an awareness and control of his or her own emotions. Khyentse says if that’s the mindset you strive for, the you are a Buddhist, whether you label yourself as such or not.

Wow, it was Buddhism naked, it was beautiful and it was making sense.

Normally there is so much fuss about bodhicitta (“strive for enlightenment for the sake of others”) that I would get scared away right then and there. To me, someone with bodhicitta always sounded like the opposite extreme of an egocentric jerk.

By contrast, the Khyentse book established a clear structure between Buddhist essentials and add-ons. It helped me see that I had got all worked up about something which I’ve never truly understood as an idea.

So for now, let’s forget about bodhisattva vows, initiations and tantric stuff and focus on the basics.

By the way, my children have no idea about their mother’s spiritual struggles. They think the monastery is all about a good time in good company, a bit of sitting still and learning prayers, while wearing a Tibetan outfit.

Soon they will reach an age when they’ll start questioning. When that happens, we will see whether l will have been able to retain anything useful this time.

Mountain Phoenix

All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.