Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Private Conversation About The Recent Language Protests In Tibet

Students in Chabcha, Qinghai,  2010

My partner came home from his latest trip to Tibet a few days ago. He was aware of the Tsongön language protests although he is stationed in another region. He said the governor of his area summoned all educators and warned them not to get involved and spread information about the recent protest especially via SMS. He called for extreme caution because the language protest had become political and he didn’t want people in his area to become associated with it and get (him?) into trouble.

When I listened to my partner, that governor came across as so negative: Instead of displaying solidarity with the demand to keep Tibetan as medium of instruction in classrooms, which is in the interest of all Tibetan-speaking people all over the highlands, this guy specifically instructs people to restrain themselves and keep quiet. What an irresponsible leader! What a miserable coward! No wonder his area figures among the poorest in terms of Tibetan language proficiency. It’s probably not exaggerated if I say the proficiency level among Tibetan officials there doesn’t rise above the vocab of a 5-year old.

I had to think back.

I worked in a middle school there in the mid-1990s. Tibetan wasn’t considered important enough to figure on the curriculum. On my first day in the classroom I was taken aback by the Chinese name cards in front of the students: The children all looked “rugged-faced” but had these names that wouldn’t suit their faces.

“I didn’t come all the way here to teach Chinese kids”, was my first thought, “they tricked me”, was my second thought.

Later when I became friendly with some of the other teachers they assured me my students were all kosher Tibetan kids. They were just not from the surrounding countryside but town kids. By then I had become suspicious myself. During breaks I would occasionally hear snatches of Tibetan when the children were at play.

Gradually I realised that many of those Chinese-sounding names were not properly Chinese after all. For example, there was a boy sitting in the front row with funny glasses. He was a good student.  The name on his card said “QI LU RONG”. I figured out “Qi” was his Xing or Chinese family name. It was customary for townspeople in this part of Tibet to have a Chinese family name parallel to their Tibetan family name, that much I knew. Depending on which culture they were operating in, they would use either their Chinese or Tibetan name. Since school is a public affair, the kid naturally used his Xing.

So far so good - but then what was “Lu Rong” supposed to represent? It turned out that was a clumsy Chinese rendering of the local Tibetan, a malapropism of the Tibetan “Lobsang” which in this region is pronounced something like “Luzon”; and since we are dealing with people who are all illiterate in their mother tongue - and since we can hardly expect the Chinese to know the correct rendering of Tibetan names into Hanzi - the bona fide Tibetan name “Lobsang” became the dreadfully sinicised “Lu Rong” - out of sheer ignorance and incompetence.

During that time, I occasionally visited Anye Rinchen, an old Tibetan who had returned from an Indian settlement in the late 1980-ies. When he was a bit drunk he used to tease the local officials: “When you folks go to a conference up in Lhasa, you have to keep your mouths shut because you don’t know Ükè, only the local Tibetan dialect; and when you go to a conference down in Beijing, you folks also have to keep your mouths shut because you don’t know Putonghua, only your local Chinese dialect.”  There wasn’t anything the officials could say because it was true. Even Anye Rinchen, himself illiterate in any language, clearly saw their limits.

These are stories over ten years old, Anye Rinchen passed away in the meantime and things have gradually been changing.

My partner said: “The same governor who called for restraint with regard to the Amdo language protests has been taking private Tibetan lessons himself to make up for his deficit.“

“His learning curve must be steep,” I exclaimed, “because a year ago I heard him deliver a formal speech at a new-year event in surprisingly decent Tibetan!”

“Some other intellectually more sophisticated officials must have also recognised their lack in substance”, my partner continued, “Many are taking private Tibetan lessons these days. There is a small presence of Tibetan language teachers from outside the region who cater to those needs.”

Yes, and I also remembered at least one official had a child studying at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala although the official version was that the kid was studying in Lhasa.

So when the governor summoned everyone to tell them not to get involved in the Tsongön language protests, was this perhaps intentionally phrased ambiguously so his Chinese superiors would not become suspicious? Was this perhaps not to be interpreted as cowardly after all but as skillful?

Mirig dranyam - keyig rangwang - "All nationalities are equal - freedom of language"

I asked: “Since the official allegation is that the language protests are politically motivated, what other method than taking to the streets could the students possibly have used? Do you think there would have been a more skillful way for the students to make themselves heard without getting into trouble?”

He said: “It is not clear to me how the government delivered the message and what it exactly entailed. Did they say they want to stop using Tibetan as the medium of instruction? Did they say they want to stop all Tibetan in classrooms? If the message was too harsh, then students and teachers naturally felt threatened.”

He continued: “I am also not sure about the penetration of spoken Tibetan in Amdo. I can only infer it must be a bilingual set-up in the classrooms because the Amdowas speak great Chinese too. I can’t imagine there are exclusively Tibetan-medium schools since education is government job. Still the Tsongön area is way ahead with regard to penetration of the Tibetan language. They teach all the subjects - including the sciences - in Tibetan. Isn’t that wonderful? They continuously develop and enrich our language adding new vocabulary so anything and everything going on in our world and our minds can be expressed in our mother tongue. The work they have done is so encouraging and so important. They have made significant contributions to the continued relevance of Tibetan culture today.”

And then he said something striking:

“When you see how skillful the Tsongön people have been in getting this far within the system – not only preserving but enriching and expanding Tibetan – and when you think of the experience they must possess in dealing with authoritarian government, it’s a bit baffling that they chose to take to the streets rather than looking for a more subtle method. Because they are aware the official reaction to the protests can cause an enormous setback to the advancement of the Tibetan language for a long time to come.”

It’s true. They are risking a lot. We are already hearing of principals, deputies, being fired or transferred and even students being interrogated. And we are learning about more protests. But then should they just have restrained themselves just like this governor suggested?

I said: “It must have been an emotional short circuit. There is no other rational explanation. After all, this piece of news comes just as one more arbitrary policy aimed at pressing the irritatingly non-conform Tibetan identity into the Chinese mainstream. Maybe it was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe people were just fed up and couldn’t help but to air their anger without thinking about the long-term consequences.”

My partner asked: “Do you really think they have a plan to wipe out Tibetan because it makes us so different?”

I reflected for a moment: “I think it’s not about us and what makes us special. It’s about them and what makes life easier for them. The motivation to press us into the Chinese mainstream is so administering becomes easier for them. It’s all about what is easier and practical for them. They want to lump everyone together so it’s easier for them to manage “the masses”.

My partner reminded me: “But don’t forget, officially they embrace bilingualism. Maybe in practice, it risks to foster separate identities that they want to prevent. So their position on bilingualism in practice becomes ambiguous.”

I said: “Practicing bilingualism correctly also means having to acknowledge people’s diversity, which is contrary to their ill-conceived idea of man. All their policies are rooted in their linear, flat and mistaken idea of man that material well-being is all that people need to be happy. That’s very communist but at the same time it is also very feudal.  It’s not like they have problem only with Tibetan, but it goes on to Cantonese and Uighur as we know. “

“I also believe they don’t do a grand analysis of how the Tibetan language – secular or religious – fosters a separate identity,” my partner said slowly, “it’s shallow mind most of the time, I think you’re right. You know they have this word xitonghua, which means to systematize, norm or standardize everything like a commodity. That’s the expression they also use in raising sports figures, athletes. I met one at the airport who said in the West, they focus on the individual’s strength and develop these, whereas in China, they have one single approach for all athletes – “xitonghua”. Since there are so many athletes, chances are out of a hundred, one makes it to the top with this type of grooming.”

“Right, and who cares about the other ninety-nine who failed and whom they’ve messed up in the process? They have more than enough candidates, so who cares about the fall-off?” I replied.

The implications are very clear: There is little space for individuality as far as the government’s dealing with the average Chinese citizen is concerned because that means complicating their work as administrators and organisors. And on this basis we can deduct that there is no space for groups of people either who stick out like the Tibetans or Uighurs or Cantonese speakers because that also means complicating their grand scheme. It’s as linear as that. People face a government in whose mindset they are just a number to be “xitonghua-ed”.

The conversation was helpful because I began to recognize a pattern.

“But now that we’ve figured them out, isn’t it up to us to find ways to work around that pattern,” I asked, “because the way things are at the moment, we do not have power to break it or even challenge it?”

My partner was firm: “We have to challenge them when we believe things go wrong but we have to make sure our actions remain not only peaceful and within the constitution, but at the same time very careful and well thought out. Since their default disposition vis-à-vis the Tibetans is nervousness they are prone to overreact and we have to bear the consequences.”

Then he asked me the crunch question: “Do you think it’s worth making the effort to teach our kids? Do you think they will ever speak Tibetan and use it when they’re grown up?”

We all wonder all along whether it’s worth keeping up the Tibetan identity.

I spontaneously replied: “We have to keep on teaching them and making every effort. It’s the right thing to do. We don’t need to speculate too much about its eventual outcome. We have to do what’s right without getting obsessed.”

I added: “What our children do with their heritage is no longer in our hands and we shouldn’t be too concerned about that either. Also, as people who have faith in the Dharma, we must try to look at this as a practical exercise in the law of cause and condition that says if you create the conditions, you will get matching results. We may not live to see what comes out of this exercise but we can be confident we exhausted all methods that are in our power.”

I don’t know what made me say all that. Life would be a lot easier if we just stopped the Tibetan overtones and became thorough Westerners or Chinese, I’m sure you agree. But when my partner looked at me with what I thought was a warm and loving expression on his face, I knew I had instinctively said the right thing.

It boils down to our demand to respect our individuality versus their habit of lumping everybody together like a commodity and pushing through uniform policies that are easiest for them. It’s a matter of perseverance and individual choice for all Tibetans, whether we live in Tibet or outside. Tibetan spoken at home in the family is where it starts. Even in Tibet with official pressure in the schools, this is completely in our hands and is the absolute minimum we all can do.

Maybe my partner and I are too simple-minded. Maybe we are under-analysing the situation but that’s what we believe. We also believe the accuracy of our analysis doesn’t matter so much as long as we carry on.

Kelsang Tenzin Kamè 30
I came across a really cool alphabet rap from Tibet the other day. The name of the song is “kamè 30” by a performer called Kelsang Tenzin left in the picture.

Never heard about the guy before, but the song is powerful because it contains an ardent appeal to more self-responsibility in holding high our beautiful Tibetan language. 

The chorus says:
Children of the Land of Snows 
We Tibetans have a saying:
“No matter how many languages you know
If you forget your father’s tongue, then shame on you!  
There's a link to the video at the bottom. It’s easy to get distracted by the video because it’s so hip. Just pay attention to the message. It tells us what we need to hear: We can be multi-lingual, widely-travelled, professionally successful, socially respected, politically influential, rich, famous - we can possess all outward signs of success, but if we neglect our mother tongue in the pursuit or fail to pass it on to our children, our achievements are incomplete - because we lost touch with our roots.

There is absolutely nothing to add to that.

Mountain Phoenix

Kelsang Tenzin's "Alphabet Rap"

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

Friday, October 8, 2010

When The Snowlion Descends From The Mountain

A while ago, we received an invitation to a smoke-offering ceremony (Sangsol) to commemorate the freedom fighters of the Tibetan resistance and all compatriots killed in the course of the Chinese takeover.

Andrug Gonpo Tashi’s memoirs, Nyarong Aten’s life-story written by Jamyang Norbu; or John Avedon’s “In Exile from the Land of Snow”; those were books that coined us as youths. Who wasn’t impressed by the stories of the brave men of the “Four Rivers and Six Ranges” or Chushi Gangdrug, who fought the invaders and orchestrated the Dalai Lama’s flight?

Decades later, somebody gave us a copy of Lithang Athar Norbu’s oral memoirs recorded on DVD. He recounts, in great detail, those days of glory and subsequent tragedy from the perspective of a directly involved witness to history. Irritations between his organization and the Tibetan government, which later arose when on Indian/Nepali soil, were also freely addressed. He spoke from memory about historic events as if everything had just happened yesterday. I was glued to the TV for hours. I would not have been able to tell. He appeared very together and lucid, but somebody pointed out he was already very ill. Parts of the DVD are also available as video on Youtube

Even though the resistance failed, our “war heroes” deserve to be honored because they didn’t give up without putting up a good fight. So the least someone like me could do, I figured, is go and pay my respects.

The memorial service began straight away with a two-hour prayer session. We recited a hotchpotch of I-don’t-know-what, jumping back and forth between the pages of a 2-inch thick prayer book. The only fractions I was able to discern was a Mandala offering and a couple of stanzas from Lama Choepa. A solemn introduction by the leading monk was missing. It would have been helpful to know what it was we were reciting and how that related back to the people we were remembering.

Before we then proceeded to the actual smoke-offering ritual, there were formal speeches by people who hold office in the organization understood to be the heir to the resistance movement, also going by the same name. Further function owners were a people’s representative and a representative of the women’s organization. The government was not represented.

The main point reiterated by the speakers was: a) remember the sacrifice of Chushi Gangdrug, b) remain united (dogtsa jigdril), and c) follow the orders of His Holiness well.

I was so disappointed. Had they nothing more relevant to say for this significant ceremony?

Nobody has forgotten the sacrifice not just of Chushi Gangdrug but of all Tibetans all over the country. And aren’t we as united as ever? This "dogtsa jigdril" point reiterated at every gathering is such an artificial point with no real-life reference. It’s also misused to obtain 100 % obedience on any topic. Whoever has a deviating opinion on anything is quickly running the risk of not being dogtsa jigdril and not following the wishes of His Holiness. The speeches were nothing more than the repetitive routine call for everyone to stay put in their place, try even harder to be even nicer, and obey even more - as if that would get us anywhere.

I don’t know what went through the others’ heads. My desperate thought was: “More of the same is not enough, not enough, not enough.”

Suddenly I remembered a new Tibetan music album from an India-Tibetan: I was so put off by the name regug - “waiting with hope” – I didn’t even bother listen to the CD. “Waiting with hope” summarizes our current mindset so well. We all wait and hope: for the Dalai Lama to sort things out for us, for the liberal forces in China to bring about political change for us, for third countries to pressure China for us. And as it was, even some people in the fine arts were waiting and hoping for better times.

Then my thoughts went back to the old men we were commemorating. What would they do? Slowly I noticed an essential oversight: The little success the Tibetan resistance had back in Tibet, was precisely because they were NOT waiting with hope but acting with resolve.

When the Chinese came to take control of our country, the official Tibetan position was to appease them – “waiting with hope” basically. In contrast, the people in the resistance trusted their own judgment and went for active defense – without endorsement from the top.

Is that why the government didn’t send a representative to attend the memorial service? Because you don’t honor disobedient, violent subjects? Because the government doesn’t want to jeopardize the chances of a negotiation break-through with China by associating with “counterrevolutionaries”? Because Chushi Gangdrug is a “Khampa thing” and the Tibetan government stands above petty little phayuls? Or could the government representative not attend, simply because he was ill or occupied with something else?

It's a co-incidence that Jamyang Norbu just published “High Mountain Elegy” as I am writing down my thoughts. We learn that even at that memorial service, there weren’t any Tibetan government representatives present. Instead, we learn that former CIA people, who trained the resistance fighters, organized the whole event and held the speeches of honor. It speaks in their favor because they don’t owe us anything, and it only adds to our government’s shame. The reactions to Jamyang Norbu’s article show clearly that people are upset about the government’s no show.

The "flaming sword" is the sword of wisdom Buddha Manjusri which severs the roots of ignorance. Picture:

It doesn’t look like the government has a position on the Four River Six Ranges at all. If they calculated that China will give them credit for ignoring Chushi Gangdrug, it’s miscalculated just as Ngapo’s obituary was a miscalculation. They made zero points on the foreign policy side through these actions, at the cost of alienating a lot of their own people all across the board.

If the government believes Chushi Gangdrug is a thing of our past, non-compatible with our current political style of peaceful resistance, and too regional for our pan-Tibetan outlook, they are ignoring that the freedom fighters are remembered even in Tibet today and by people who were born after the Cultural Revolution. The whole landscape tells the story of resistance, bravery and sacrifice:

Once after a long walk, we clueless greenhorns raised in faraway lands chose a scenic spot by a small alpine lake for a rest. “Although this is a beautiful spot, our people avoid this place,” our friends remarked, “there was a bloody battle here. Many good men were killed. Some tried to escape over the frozen lake, but the ice broke and they drowned with their horses.”

Suddenly at that lake-side, the fighting and bravery were no longer stories handed down by others, they appeared so real. I was standing on the very place they stood. I was breathing the very air they did. My blood froze. Our friends’ remembered. Their parents and grandparents had remembered even though times were much rougher when they were young.

Or take Pema from the Tibetan for kids story. The only time she mentioned her ex was when she saw a picture of Chushi Gangdrug soldiers in a book. She said “the children’s father’s uncle” was a famous freedom fighter hailing from Ganzi (shame on me, I can’t remember his name). The thing is: Pema grew up under the “new China”. There was no way she could have had access to the type of books we read. And still she was informed because in her family, too, they remembered, admired, and passed on.

So if our government’s intention behind cutting Chushi Gangdrug dead is to prevent regionalism, it’s not working. On the contrary, alienating people by not giving credit where credit is due seriously risks to increase regionalism.

At first, I regretted wasting time at this clumsy function. But then it turned out to be a real eye opener. It helped me realize a number of things.

Finally, it dawned on me why some contemporary Eastern Tibetans don’t fatigue in basking themselves in the glory of the freedom fighters. To them, it is a source of endless pride that the resistance movement arose in Dokham and was led by people from that area. Yes, it’s pathetic to try and associate yourself with something you haven’t even contributed to. But now I can understand that psychologically, it makes sense because resistance was the last honorable act from the Tibetan side within living memory. What followed has been nothing but a long row of humiliation: total defeat, escape, despair, and political self-mutilation all the way down to “waiting with hope”.

I also realized that while there wasn’t much the government could do to control the Tibetan resistance when they were still on native soil, later in India, the now Tibetan government-in exile became increasingly irritated by political dissent. They started to perceive Chushi Gangdrug as a threat to their power monopoly and began to exert pressure. In the name of unity, in the name of the Dalai Lama, in the name of non-violence: from this moment on, there was a break. The heroic freedom movement of old became an annoying, anachronistic relict of the past that could not be put to any good use for the future.

Don’t we have saying? When the snowlion descends from the mountain, he’s nothing more than an ordinary dog? It looks like that’s what happened to the Four Rivers Six Ranges. After they left Tibet, only ugly stories were circulating about them such as bullying villages, raping women, plotting to murder the Dalai Lama (!), and conspiring with Taiwan. All the glamour was gone.

Next, I realized that Chushi Gangdrug doesn’t just stand for a romanticized picture of courage vis-à-vis the external invader, it stands for genuine courage to stand up for one’s beliefs vis-à-vis anybody really, and if necessary even your own government. So those old men had a political maturity about them that made them very modern. They were truly free men at any point in time.

Didn’t His Holiness, who has always opposed violence, respect these upright men for their courage and integrity? He says so in “My land and my people”.

To be brutally honest, it’s the Dalai Lama who should have reacted. He should have sent a representative or a message. After all, Chushi Gangdrug was out to save him. They sacrificed for him. These are Andrugtshang’s entry lines in the book “Four Rivers, Six Ranges – a true account of Khampa resistance to the Chinese in Tibet”:

My beloved leader,
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso,
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet;
My unselfish compatriots who gave their lives,
the coming generation of freedom fighters.
And read the lines at the end of the book:

May Lord Buddha bless my country and raise a new Tibet. And may his noblest representative on earth, the Dalai Lama, lead our people once again to freedom, peace and happiness.
Those lines say everything. For these guys, the Dalai Lama was the embodiment of everything that was dear to them: their country, their way of life, their faith, everything. The government was merely saved along with him.

So for us to pile up all the blame and shame in front of the government’s door is incorrect. We all know our government is weak and incompetent. Sadly, there is really nothing to expect from them. So picking on them without ever mentioning Kundun’s behavior in this matter is the same game as “Deconstructing Ngabo”. It’s bashing weaklings and useless. It’s the doggish approach.

If we are serious, we need the guts and the skill to take it up with those who are really in charge; we must take the matter to the Dalai Lama himself – in form of letters, e-mails, audience and conversation, whatever possibilities we have - and address it honestly and objectively. That would be the snowlion approach.

Finally came the smoke-offering to conclude the memorial service. Amidst a lot of smoke, we again recited something undiscerning and again my thoughts wandered off.

What’s the essential difference between a snowlion-person and a dog-person after all? Take a look at the Chushi Gangdrug emblem. The old men have put it down for us in the form of the two swords. It's the wisdom to recognize a problem correctly and the courage to act upon it with resolve. This is the legacy. We can continue to delve in the past and complain or we can strive to live as they have lived.

Arro-tso, I’d say the vibes are still going :--)

In memory of some great old men!
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 17, 2010

A Comment to “Two songs about Tibetan unity” on High Peaks Pure Earth

I appreciate High Peaks Pure Earth because it brings significant developments in Tibet and China to our attention. Recently, it discussed songs about Tibetan unity: “Mentally return” and “Song of unity” to which I would like to add some comment.

When I heard the song “Mentally return” for the first time about two years ago, the few fragments I believed I understood were enough to knock me off my feet. What an immortal declaration of love to our homeland, the gracious land of snows! A hunt for the music and the lyrics began which only ended in the Barkhor last summer, when I finally managed to buy a VCD of the 2007 Rebkong open-air concert which featured “Mentally return”.

In case the VCD is still on sale, people should make sure they buy plenty of copies. The disk quality is so poor that after watching it a second time, it would just stop every other second and not move for the longest time.

Did you also marvel at the large audience? I do hope people showed up out of free will and attendance wasn’t orchestrated. I rejoiced inside over so many “rugged-faced” folks of all ages participating peacefully in what was not only a visibly big entertainment event, but also a gigantic exercise in reaffirming collective identity. Moreover, the whole concert was moderated exclusively in Tibetan. That was encouraging when we recall that even cultural events often have bilingual moderation at best.

After the 2008 unrests, I wonder how long it will take before such large gatherings will be allowed again. We hear the organizers of the pompous, bi- or tri-annual Kangba Yishu Jie (“Khampa Arts Festival”) were looking all over the place for a “safe” location to stage this year’s event, but low profile. As a last resort, they settled for the rebaptised “Shangri-la” Tibetan Prefecture of Dechen in Yunnan. I have always wondered whether the Tibetans really find it entertaining to look at people in plump jewellery and machos in stone-age felt outfits parading through the streets with archaic daggers hanging from their belts. Or is this a top-down ordered marketing event aimed primarily at tourists? Let’s see how it goes. The festival is still going on as I am writing.

But to come back to “Mentally return”, I see it standing in the tradition of inward-looking, identity-strengthening songs that are also lyrically discerning like Tso Ngonpo by Dadon or more recent songs by Kunga. If we think about it, even songs from the old Tibetan era are the symbolic, poetic type. For instance the 6th Dalai Lama’s TrungTrung Karmo or Makyé Amé. They are equally about something which is important to the composer's heart, but which can’t be openly expressed because it would cause trouble.

These days, some artists pick old songs and modify them, but still stick to the symbolic, indirect style: There is a popular Amdo remix of the Dalai Lama’s Trungtrung Karmo. It’s sung in the form of a dialogue between a person and a migratory bird. Obviously, the only reason for the dialogue is the underlying circumstance that the person is separated from its kin by a third party and can’t interact freely. Still the remake is not a sad song at all, but a cheerful one. In this language of symbolism and vagueness this could – or could not – mean: Even though you suppress us, we will not allow you to spoil our mood. Check it out:

I heard Sherten’s “Song of unity” for the first time on High Peaks Pure Earth. It’s a soft and pretty song. The words on the other hand, are unmistakably direct. Certainly it is brave to be so direct, but is it also wise, I wonder. That road is confrontation and could lead directly to trouble and prison. Is our cause served by that? I am not sure.

The words are bold, yet the meaning is not clear. What is meant when the Tibetans of three historical provinces are asked to “unite”? Work to become one administrative unit but still under China? Work to become separate from China? “Unite” meaning do what?

Moreover, the phrase “unite” (dogtsa jigdril) is an over-used panacea applied to all our political problems. Often it is also interpreted to mean “Don’t talk back, just do as you're told”. I felt uneasy when I heard Sherten call “unite, unite” throughout the song.

I know it’s a traditional music style. But I find excessive goat-like singing with “baa baa” over every vowel at the end of a line un-cool. Just makes the sound very folksy and “Country-music”. That’s just my individual taste though, ignore it. Sherten is undisputedly a rising star and currently dominates the charts also in our corner of the highlands, with every place playing his music. Everybody here, boy and girl alike, loves his music without ifs and buts.

Still I fully agree with High Peak Pure Earth’s assessment that “Mentally return” is the more powerful of the two songs. The only thing is the English rendering of the title. It sounds odd. I would have translated it more freely as “Many happy returns” or something to that effect.

Do you have good sites to recommend? I sometimes go to "Tibet Music Net" and “China Tibetans Music & Entertainment Portal” which friends recommended. You'll find the latest songs from the music scene in Tibet there. Not that I understand much, I just randomly click around for a taste.

It looks like music has become a flexible channel to emphasise collective identity. That’s good news. What I find even more impressive is that many composers and performers don't compromise and pay equal attention to artistically good songs.

In 2007, another album with subtle “Tibetan power” songs was published in Lhasa. The title is Lhämè kyi tsesog – “the stainless life” and features 16 songs performed by less-well and better known artists including Zimi 9pa, Kunga, Yadong, Jamyang Kyi, and also Sherten.

Check out track no. 5 Sem ü kyi dunpa which I would freely translate as "Prayer from the bottom of my heart". It's performed by singer Norsang in the picture below. Lyrics are by Tenzin Chodak and the tune by Lhakpa. The singing style is reminiscent of Sherten but the accent is closer to high Tibetan, so a translation may not be necessary:

I'm still struggling to get the audio on the blog. Once it's there, listen close: You'll love the ending line where he says rang rig rang-gi kyongla sho. In these rough times, may we find the strength to save ourselves.

Mountain Phoenix

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hocus, Pocus, Abracadabra!

People have all kinds of ailments that make them stick out. One of my former bosses was known for her restless legs. They would suddenly start to dance under the table during meetings without her being able to make it stop. Or this colleague who has a cheese allergy: He was very hungry, lugging down two helpings of Risotto without noticing the graded cheese in it. They had to call an ambulance after his airways began to swell in the cafeteria.

Mountain Phoenix has nothing that dramatic. She is merely blessed with an extraordinary pair of lungs. Catching the slightest cold can make her get stuck with the most tenacious cough in the world – a dry, empty bark that keeps coming and coming until her lobes ache and the diaphragm is sore. Air-conditioned rooms, trains and airplanes are pure torture chambers.

During the latest episode, I emptied two bags of cough drops and one-and-a-half bottles of disgusting cough syrup in seven days – with zero impression on the cough. It’s a blessing in disguise that the swine flu hype is over. Otherwise they would have made me stay away from work - that is if people on the commute wouldn’t have thrown me out of the train in the first place.

Over the years, I tried all kinds of over-the-counter cough medicines, but once I have this cough, boy, nothing helps, it just sticks. Neither the general physician nor the lung specialist has found anything. All they discovered was that my lungs looked a bit “asthmatic” although I was assured it wasn’t asthma - very helpful diagnosis indeed!

Maybe I was waiting for too long and now this thing has become chronic? There was a great granduncle in my family who coughed happily and healthily up to the age of 94. Maybe it runs in the family?

My friend Pema from the Tibetan for kids story witnessed one of my cough attacks the other day. She happens to hail from a family of traditional Tibetan medical doctors still practicing in Tibet today. Through her stories I realized how wide-spread and well accepted traditional Tibetan medicine was not only in its country of origin but also among very respectable people in China.

Pema said in an uneasy voice: “Your cough doesn’t sound good at all. You’d better go and see a Menba.” I told her about my disappointing odyssey from one medicine and doctor to the next. Pema added: “No, I mean you should see a bod men menba.”

I didn’t want to be disrespectful as she comes from that traditional Tibetan medicine background. But Pema urged me to go and see this doctor, who she claimed was “one of the few remaining masters still trained at the legendary Medical School at Chakpori in Lhasa”.

I was hesitant at first. What could an Amchi possibly do? But something made me change my mind. After all, cough-wise I was in such a bad shape, what have I got to lose, only my cough, right?

The Amchi was a girlish-looking little old man, who also wore the robes of the Buddha. And boy, must he have loved incense. When I entered his office, I almost fainted amidst all the smoke from the incense that was burning on his shrine. Poor Medicine Buddha sitting on that altar. Now I understand why you’re always depicted in blue: You’re smoked all day! The smoke immediately made me cough and I had to think of the Chinese doctors back in the hospitals in Tibet, who chain-smoke while examining their patients, not taking the cigarette out of their mouths even when speaking.

I sat down and explained my situation whereupon the Amchi started to do the famous Tibetan medical pulse diagnosis. I only had that done once before, many years ago in Lhasa, as a routine check-up so to speak. At that time, the Holiday Inn had an in-house Menba whom all the Western tourists went to see. I thought if science-driven, rational Westerners trust Tibetan doctors, it would be safe for me to do the same and so I also went. That consultation didn’t last longer than 15 minutes; cost 100 USD with no diagnostic finding. Maybe because I had nothing, maybe because I had something but he couldn’t find it, or I had something and he wouldn’t tell me. In any event, my first encounter with a Tibetan doctor was not convincing.

The Chakpori doctor took longer. Only to mumble after what seemed like half an eternity: "Hmm..., there's definitely something wrong with your lungs..." I almost had a little fit inside. Didn’t I just say that there was something wrong with my lungs?

“Tell me something I don’t know, Pola!” I thought.

“If you leave this untreated, you will have serious shortness of breath as you get older”, the doctor continued.

That was like a bomb.

“This is the moment your negative Karma catches up with you,” I thought, “you are being punished with a breathing problem for your sarcasm. Forget about your old-age plan to retire to high-altitude Tibet. This is the kind of bill people like you have to pay for disrespectful, blasphemous thoughts on Tibetan medicine and innocent Tibetan doctors…”

My fear was intensified by the story of two elders I suddenly remembered: One asthmatic, the other with high-blood pressure. Both wanted to return to Tibet for good. One of them suffered a heart attack before even reaching the highlands, the other almost died shortly after getting there. Both came back utterly traumatized by their experience of Chinese hospitals and never tried to return to Tibet thereafter.

I got panicky. My plan, my hope, my dream… Not enough merit growing old on Tibetan soil… I would be stuck here like those two old folks. But what’s the point in having healthy lungs if you have to trade them for a broken heart?

“Oh no!” I exclaimed in fear. “Please, no breathing problems! Does that mean, when I’m old, I can’t go to Tibet because of altitude and shortness of breath? Please, Amchi-la, help me!”

“Oh, you absolutely have to go to Tibet”, the doctor replied gently, “where on earth to go if not to Tibet?” In beautiful and impeccable Lhasan he continued: “Don’t worry, there is a medicine to help your lungs heal. But you must start taking the medicine now without delay, while you’re still young.”

How kind and trustworthy an Amchi could look all of a sudden! And what a lucky buggar I was. Was I not just given a second chance? Plus a compliment? “Young”!

So this is the story of how I became a hardcore Ribu eater. Now, if that isn’t proof for the existence of the law of cause and effect, then I don’t know what is: Here goes the sacrilegious Mountain Phoenix sentenced to swallow a total of eight soaked wonder pills a day for an undetermined length of time, as a last resort to cure her nervous lungs. How ironic!

To tell you the truth: I still can’t take these Ribu Tibetan medicine pills completely seriously. I found out they are made in Ladakh, so I trust the medicinal herbs come from the Himalayas and are really the ones in the original prescription. But Ribus are still the most unpractical and ugly-tasting medicine in the whole world. They have to be soaked for hours! And who can tell whether they really do the job? You normally take them over such an extended period, in the end, one is never sure whether the sickness disappeared just by itself or whether it was due to the effect of the holy Ribus.

Another hilarious aspect of our Ribus are all the things you have to follow when taking them: Things like no “sour” and fried foods, sweet foods only on full-moon, but not simultaneously with spicy foods; garlic and onions are always absolute no-go’s; take pills before sunset, never after; but do take after sunset on full-moon, with one eye half-closed, standing on one leg, and in the dark - so no one can see how fantastic all this is?

But as awkward as it sounds to me, my heathen lungs have responded well to the wonder pills. That’s all that counts because it means I am less likely to suffer from respiratory problems when I’m older, which then means my chances to survive into retirement in Tibet are still intact.

In my mind, I now bow with hands folded to the wise medicine man from the Medical School on Iron Hill in Lhasa. I utterly repent my ignorance. Thanks to Tibetan medicine, I can still dream to be that old woman with long white hair, sitting in a woolen Chupa on the verandah of her small home, under a sunny, clear-blue Tibetan sky, breathing the clean mountain air, while reading her Peja and sipping hot water - maybe with some dissolved Ribus inside, yes!

Provided of course, nothing trailblazing happens like I get run over by a car, die in a plane crash or an Asteroid hits the planet and we all go, that sort.

When my colleagues at work ask what it is that I’m sipping in that exotic-looking Chinese thermos-mug, I tell them just that: Magic potion.

Hocus, Pocus, Abracadabra!
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, July 2, 2010

Bashè Forever!

We were invited to a Tibetan wedding the other day. The bride was flown in from the Ba area of Kham, and wore a wedding dress typical of her home region. She looked stunning with all those ornaments around her waist, neck and head.

The Western-born groom and his family wore traditional garb too, just like most of the guests, including my own little family. We all must have looked like we stepped out of a pictorial “Costumes of Ancient Tibet”.

It was a typical Tibetan wedding with hundreds of guests - none of which were required to sign up or off by the way - plenty of food and drink, in a merry atmosphere of a folk festival. But what made this wedding particularly memorable was the music and the fun time we had dancing.

To the honour of the bride, a group of dancers performed songs from the homeland. The best thing was that all guests were invited up on stage to join in. My kids didn’t have to be asked twice. They were among the first ones to join the round dance. Obviously those visits to Tibet and a never-ending supply of music VCDs their dad would bring home from his trips had made an impact...

A young woman dancing next to me was all smiles and suddenly said: “I’ve never seen this kind of dance at Tibetan gatherings, it’s such a pity. This is so beautiful, I don’t know how to dance this - so difficult!”

“Honey! Never heard of Bashè? What planet are you from?”

Of course, I didn’t say that.

Instead I politely replied: “Oh, this genre of song and dance is known as “Bashè”, but it’s popular all over Eastern Tibet. The performances you see at large Tibetan gatherings abroad, tend to be mostly from the Western and central areas. You know, Toeshè, Gyangshè, Nangma, sometimes pieces from Lhamo opera, that sort…”

“Alè”, she went, looking at me as if I were the one coming from another planet.

But the great thing was, she and a lot of other people without Bapa connections, felt the groove. They were all on that stage with the dancers, laughing away, having a good time: Western friends on the groom’s side, Toepa moms, Lhasan couples, Tsangpa elders, a few Amdowas, and Mountain Phoenix with her kids, trying to look “normal” up there. We were all led by the beautiful young bride, who was an exceptionally graceful Bashè dancer.

The Western-born groom didn’t dance. No matter how staunch a patriot he may have been, but like most folks born outside of Tibetan culture, the singing and dancing part just didn’t click. It would have looked out of place also, because meanwhile he had changed into Western attire completely.

My partner? - Never sings nor dances in public. But he’s excused, as far as I’m concerned, because he is among the few, who manage to look masculine even in the funny male Chupa.

So what’s the big deal with Bashè? The penetrative four-four time? The sound of an antiquated string instrument called "Piwang"? The lyrics? The tunes? The choreography? A combination of them all? Take a look at this interpretation so you know what I mean:

The thing that sticks out with Bashe is it can be very modern with really cool, outgoing moves, often involving all parts of your body, including rowing with the arms. There is more freedom for physical expression. Not that you can create your own moves, but within a move, you have space for individual interpretations. At the same time, the music can be spiced up with contemporary beats while the basic step combinations remain technically the same. This makes Bashè a true folk dance, a down-right communal undertaking with three generations dancing to the same music. That’s amazing!

Another thing about Bashè is it’s always sung with fervor. The melodies are usually simpler than from the central areas, but that’s being compensated for by a lot of passion in the voice. The lyrics are easy: Most of he time it’s longing for or praising your phayul, the snow-capped mountains, the beautiful grasslands, your parents, or your lama - with lots of repetition in between.

The thing is: To really feel the groove, you have to dance along with all the others, while also singing at the same time: that's at the heart of the Bashè magic. People who only dance along but can’t sing, look somehow out of place. And people who sing without understanding the meaning are also unmasked pretty fast because their dance lacks character.

I have a crush on Bashè if you haven’t noticed by now. Here’s another, more traditional piece that’s also quite charming to sing and dance along:

But there is something else to Bashè, beyond the fun factor, something really wholesome.

Remember a well-known contemporary son of Ba, the infamous Bapa Phuntsog Wangyal? After he fell from grace, the one thing that he says helped him survive those years in solitary confinement, was singing and dancing the songs of his hometown. - Good for the old man the repertoire of Bashè folksongs is virtually infinite! Lasted for 18 years! Bashè as life-saver!

A friend, who works in a home for asylum seekers here, told me, there are new arrivals from Tibet who play this music day in and out. It helps them endure the foreign environment and relieve them from their homesickness. Life in four-four time…Bashè as emotional healing!

Maybe an innovative musician could transform Bashè for a broader audience. Like Bangra which also has local origins, but is spreading beyond the Punjab and even beyond the borders of India… or Reggae coming out of Jamaica but now being played all over the place… Bashè as Tibetan musical export to the world!

Once in a blue moon, even Mountain Phoenix, the part-time Tibetan, gets depressed with homesickness. The only thing that really helps in those moments is to buy a ticket and fly to Tibet. But as that’s hardly ever possible, the next best thing, which kind of works too, is plug in a Bashè VCD and imagine she is hanging out with those singers and dancers in the grasslands on a beautiful, sunny day, surrounded by magnificent snow-capped peaks… Bashè as antidepressant!

I vowed to learn those glorious songs and sing them to my children. By now, they know about half a dozen, picking up in no time. And just casually along the way, we all also work on our Tibetan. On the lookout for fun ways to teach your kids Tibetan? Use Bashè as a language-teaching tool!

Bashè forever – Yallaso! Tashi-sho!
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 4, 2010

Out Of Sync

My seven-year old participated in a Tibetan function the other day. It opened with the usual pomp: Drums, flutes, traditional costumes, huge flags, and a portrait of the Dalai Lama ceremonially placed on a throne; then all function owners gather on stage and sing the Gyelu, our beautiful national anthem.

I don’t know how many of these functions I’ve sat through since my own childhood – innumerable ones. Still, I can’t recall a single occasion where the Gyelu has failed to move me. Have you ever heard a more beautiful national anthem then the one of Tibet, our beloved homeland? Here is particularly graceful rendering of our Gyelu:

So when I saw my child standing on that stage, I realised it’s time to teach my kid the national anthem. For if there is one thing a patriot MUST know, then it’s how to sing the Gyelu with dignity and grace.

Well, the great thing coming out of this first: My child can sing the anthem now, every curve of the tune, with a crystal-clear pronunciation, without a single trace of a treacherous foreign accent to be detected, nor even intonation. My kid can even play the anthem on the flute and the piano. Bravo, chapeau!

At the same time, the child hasn’t asked me too much about the meaning, for which I’m really grateful. Here’s why:

While preparing to teach my kid, I realised that all these years, I had been singing the Gyelu like a parrot, not only ignorant of its meaning, but also without feeling the urge to learn what the words actually mean. Mea maxima culpa!

When I quickly wanted to fix this embarrassing gap in education, before my child could expose my inadequacy, I searched for a translation so I could convey the meaning. Only to discover in horror that the text of our sacred anthem turns out to be - excuse my language – crap! Check out this extract from Wikipedia:


That doesn’t sound like the anthem of a country, that’s the hymn of an ideology! Our hymn glorifies Buddhism instead of Tibet. As far as I get it, the “Gye” in Gyelu stands for “country” (gyalkhab), correct? But the content makes it a “Nang-lu” - anthem of Dharma. It’s crazy. We got it all mixed up!

Reportedly some overzealous folks are propagating to have the anthem rewritten since it was texted by the late Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang, junior tutor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose reputation has become tainted due to his personal protector deity having been the these days disgraced Dorje Shugden. Well, the anthem definitely needs to be rewritten, I can’t agree more, but for another reason: It needs to be rewritten because it puts religious ideology in the place that appertains to our country. It basically claims our country is Buddhism.

The line which personally makes me the most uncomfortable is the one glorifying the antiquated system of religion-cum-politics-combined:

May a new golden age of happiness and bliss spread
throughout the three provinces of Tibet
and the glory expand of religious-secular rule.
We sing these lines on every important occasion and with all our heart. But how can we continue to praise a system that has proven to be unfit to handle the requirements of the modern world? This form of government has not served us well in the past for it was unable to interpret the signs of the times, unable to make the right decisions, unable to prevent the Chinese takeover. And it is not serving us well in the present either for the governing Lamas make our secular politicians look like little kids who constantly need to be told what to do next.

Look at the mindset our anthem reflects and then say we’re democratic. Who are we kidding? How can we even think to have democracy without secularisation?

Just for the record: I’m not criticising the Dharma, nor the composer. I just think he was the wrong person to go to for the anthem. What can you expect? Dharma is a Lama’s worldview. No wonder did we end up with the anthem we have, an anthem that mixes apples and oranges, that praises religious rule and relegates our country to the second line. But it’s not the composer’s fault, it’s ours.

We say we are a democracy. We say religion and politics should be separated. Everyone is full of praise for the “Amdo madman” Gedun Choephel, who said about our political system: “If you mix salt and sugar, how can that possibly result in palatable food?”

But our anthem unmistakably shows us once more: We Tibetans are completely out of sync. There is a huge disconnect between what we say and how we actually tick.

Since we’re oh so engrossed with Buddhism, maybe it helps to recall the famous line from the Heart Sutra: Zug tongpa ‘o, tongpanyid zug so. We are trapped to systematically cherish the first part, “form is emptiness”, and slight the second, “emptiness is form”. We value Buddhism so much that we constantly dismiss the equal importance of the “conventional” realm.

We lost our country over this fatal prejudice, but shockingly, we still haven’t become any smarter. We still go on the old way, we still praise religion and slight the secular. We still can’t find the strength to reform our worldview and our political system. We even stole the national anthem from our country and gave it to our religion.

Buddhism is important for our identity and it rightly holds a special place in our hearts. But Tibet is just as important. We haven’t done our country justice. A first step to get back in sync is to give our country a Gyelu that is worth the name.

Tongpanyid zug zo!
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. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Happy Sakadawa!

It’s the beginning of Sakadawa, the most important Buddhist holiday. People commemorate the birth, enlightenment and passing of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Many lay folks intensify their spiritual practice during the Tibetan Vesak by following special rules to complement their regular Dharma routine.

The most visible Sakadawa practice for the lay is to refrain from eating meat in order to minimise the accumulation of negative Karma by harming other beings. It’s commonly believed that spiritual merit accumulated during this special month multiplies manifold. If it’s meant as an incentive to step up the practice, it seems to work.

What I like best about Sakadawa is that it gives you choices. So if you think it’s overkill to observe it for the whole month, you can simply do it for a single day - ideally on Tsepa 15, the day of the full moon which falls on 27 May this year. And if you can’t live off a single meal for that one day, then at least make sure you avoid meat. - You can almost custom-build your Sakadawa, ain’t that beautiful?

But I didn’t always look at Sakadawa this way.

In fact, I didn’t pay attention at all, ever. When I accidentally learned that we were in the middle of Sakadawa, the only thoughts that would go through my head would be: If you eat animals year-in and out, what good is it to put on a saintly show for just a month or a lousy day? You seriously believe that would make a difference? Only old illiterate folks fall for that!

I just couldn’t get my head around it until many, many years later.

During Q&A following a teaching on “Atisha’s Lamp on the Path”, one person remarked that it was so incredibly difficult to generate compassion towards all beings by reminding yourself that they have been your loving mother in countless previous lives.

The Lama’s response was: “Go step by step. Do today what you think you are able to do today, and pray that one day, you will be able to do what you are unable to do now.”

I don’t know what that person made of the comment, but it struck a chord with me. Maybe because the authority to decide was left with the individual and there was zero pressure. Lamas are so cool sometimes.

I asked myself what I could do without much effort. Then suddenly I had the idea: I could go vegetarian. The least I could do right then and there, was stop harming “mother sentient beings” by eating them. If you love meat, everyone will understand why you can’t be a vegetarian. But if you’re not particularly fond of it, like myself, and still aren’t a vegetarian, now that’s unforgivable: It’s eating animals out of indifference, out of plain thoughtlessness. So what may have looked like a great act, was actually nothing, and should have suggested itself long ago.

I owe the Lama and the person who made that mother-sentient-being comment. And want to know the funny part? It’s how one thing is leading to the next. Remember the Lama said "go step by step"?¨

After having gone vegetarian for well over a year, I now I find myself thinking that I could equally easily do away with other stuff around me that’s made from killing animals, such as shoes, handbags, jackets, belts, pants. I still use whatever leather stuff I have, but I haven’t bought any new items. Now, that is a little sensation considering that I’m the stereotype female when it comes to shoes and handbags.

So never say never: I eat “Saitan” and “Quorn” now, why not wear “vegan” shoes? Right now, the only thing that's holding me back is their hair-raisingly ugly design - which means I need to work on my vanity, a true effort.

What also takes a conscious effort is to avoid becoming an over-correct, newly-born Buddhist, a “convert”, a really fussy person, who makes life for everyone around her difficult, just so hers can lived the way she thinks is correct. I don’t want to accidentally wipe out all the potential merit I’d have accumulated on the one side, by giving people a hard time on the other side.

Still, as a late bloomer, I feel compelled to catch up. So for once, I’ve been anticipating Sakadawa as an opportunity to generate some revenue for my merit account. Now is supposedly the best time to accumulate it, and it doesn’t even cost me a real effort. Don’t I love Buddhism?

Happy Sakadawa!
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.