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

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