Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book Review: "In The Land of The Eastern Queendom" by Tenzin Jinba

In Land of the Eastern Queendom, Tenzin
Jinba: University of Washington, 2014.
A matriarchy with Amazon-like superwomen on the ancient Tibetan plateau? Could the old Tibetan reference to Shar Rgyalmorong (“eastern valley of the queen”) be something more than a myth after all? Alone the idea is galvanising. However, discovering it in a real place and in our time exceeds all expectations. Thanks to Tenzin Jinba the world now knows: The mythical women's kingdom of old is for real. It can be found in present-day Danba county in Ganzi prefecture, Sichuan province, China.

Is it for real?

"In the Land of the Eastern Queendom" is the story of how a marginalised Tibetan region of today’s Kham proclaims itself the heir to the legendary women’s kingdom. In the process, they establish an identity for themselves and also improve the local economy by attracting tourists. It is the story of how all players - the state, community elders, village folks, local tourism administrators and county chiefs – forge a pact on the myth of the Queendom, bordering on obsession. At times, the account reminded me of a parody: In the movie "Waking Ned Devine", an old man in a remote Irish village dies of a heart attack soon after learning he won the lottery. The entire village then teams up pretending the winner is still alive and goes on to share in the fortunes.

In Eastern Queendom too, people work together to keep up an appearance. Danba elders, for example, deploy all their linguistic and cultural skills to reinterpret toponyms, historic events and folk tales so these give credibility to the Queendom legend. Villagers join in the party by recounting an episode where Chairman Mao visited Danba in the 1950s and was received by three famous female village heads who the community claimed descended from Queens. In their eagerness to claim the Queendom pie for themselves, individual villages in the county also try to outdo each other by competing for the title of "the true capital of the Queendom". Seriously and ferociously, they lobby the authorities to enlist official endorsement and designation.

Danba sits in the Tibetan periphery where far
western Kham and southern Amdo converge. 
The county forms part of larger area traditionally 
known as Gyalrong (also Gyarong and Jiarong)
The author also shows how locals make use of the Queendom label to defend their pedigree vis-à-vis the neighbouring Khampas, who are said to look down on the Danba Tibetans or the Gyalrongwa in general, for not being "real Khampas" due to their mixed ethnicity and an unintelligible dialect pejoratively referred to as log skad or “gibberish”. The Danba Tibetans counter the prejudice by invoking the Queendom myth: Not only are they real Khampas, but they are of superior stock because of the supreme position of women in their society. The argument effectively adds to the superwomen lore and works both within the context of a post-gender society and the socialist gender perspective. Within the context of the macho Khampa narrative however, the Queendom argument is paradoxical and self-defeating, as the author notes. Nevertheless, he acknowledges with amazement how the people of Danba invoke it so undeterred and in such unison.

Another invention deployed to cement Danba women as the rightful heirs to the royal lineage are the annual beauty contests, which attracts tourists from far and wide. Danba has an unusually high percentage of good-looking women, so the story goes, and this is once again attributed to “royal descent.” The author mentions however that during his entire field research trip in Danba, the beauty queens were the only female actors visible in the Queendom campaign. If Danba ladies really descended from queens, the author asks, why aren't they in the lead in what must be a larger campaign to reclaim their rights? Slowly but surely, a most promising female power narrative circles around a lapidary physical beauty contest. The book ends with the author concluding somewhat heavy-heartedly that it is impossible to validate the kingdom of women in Danba. In the end, too many things just do not add up.

 “Eastern Queendom” contains important lessons but without more context, readers may put the work aside as a curious niche topic within the larger field of Tibetan and Chinese studies, a tragicomical account about a peripheral place without a larger significance. After all, what is Gyalrong famous for in Tibetan history? The only two people I have come across in my readings are the 14th-century Buddhist friar Tsako Ngawang Drakpa, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa and the contemporary writer Alai,whose book "Gesar" I reviewed earlier in the year.

Yet "In the Land of the Eastern Queendom" is not just an oddly exotic story about a remote, heavily sinicised Tibetan area, where identities along with the meaning of toponyms are switched at will in exchange for profits from tourism. In my eyes, the most striking aspect about the Queendom is that it works despite the absurdity. It works for naïve Chinese tourists, shrewd bureaucrats, savvy locals and also for the state which uses it to bolster its propaganda about ethnic harmony. While the charade may cause only blank headshaking from external observers, from a local perspective, the Queendom is an unmistakable golden-egg laying goose.

What is important to realise here is that the goose has "relatives" in other Tibetan areas along the frontier with similar narratives. Herein lies the larger significance of Tenzin Jinba's work in Danba. As chance would have it, I am female, Tibetan and hail from a frontier family myself. Many observations made in Eastern Queendom resonate with me as I see them being played out in my hometown as well. To this larger context of the Queendom story, I would now like to add a few thoughts.

Whenever Tenzin Jinba detected yet another contradiction in the Queendom narrative, I was secretly hoping that Danba could still be the women’s kingdom. However, when he mentioned that nobody in the area had even heard of such a place prior to 2004, my alarm bells began to ring: The story began to sound familiar! As the author reveals, the "Queendom" idea was hatched by the head of the Propaganda Department of the Ganzi Prefecture. The official “saw proof” in Danba's architectural style as well as local customs and rituals.

Popular Amdo singer Drönbe on her album "The Cluster of Golden Stars" (2009) depicted in what looks to me like a Gyalrong ladies Chupa - said to be beautiful and worthy of a queen. The marketing strategy seems to work.

The way the Queendom was "discovered" in Danba county happened in the same manner "Shangri-La" was discovered in Zhongdian county of the Diqing prefecture. Prior to 2001, the locals of this Tibetan region in Yunnan had no inkling either that they were the last paradise. State-hired scholars then “proved” that the setting in "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton was in fact the Zhongdian plains.

Suddenly more parallels jumped to my eye. A conspicuous one was Tenzin Jinba's story about Danba elders' linguistic pipe dreams. They were reminiscent of the mindboggling linguistics applied in Zhongdian to cement the case that they were "Shangri-La". While in the Queendom, it is two villages quarreling over who gets to be the capital city, in "Shangri-La" it was two counties, Zhongdian and Lijiang, contesting the title. In the case of "Shangri-La" too, the evident inconsistencies have not stopped the hype. If visitor statistics can be trusted, the place receives more tourists every year than the whole of the Tibet Autonomous Region combined.

In "Mapping Shangri-La – Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands" (2014), Emily Yeh and Chris Coggins poignantly summarise the general mechanism how tourism development unfolds in Tibetan frontier regions. Their observations are valuable in that they apply also to Danba and the Queendom: The state portions "Tibet" top-down into non-threatening, consumable pieces of Tibetanness for domestic tourists. The "product" is packaged with an official storyline, official sites to visit and official things to do. Tourism in the Sino-Tibetan fringe is guided and orchestrated with visitors "educated" along the official narrative. Personal discovery off the beaten track is not part of this package. The commodification process is duped "Shangrilazation" and has become the default tourism approach for many Tibetan areas in the fringes. Zhongdian "Shangri-La" is the prototype with others following such as "Little Tibet" in Gannan (Labrang) and "Yading Shambala"(Joseph Rock's Konkaling) to mention but the better known ones.

From an absolute perspective, places like the ones mentioned above including the Queendom are gradually exposed as faux. From a relative perspective however, I propose we do not discard the obvious material rewards too quickly. Thanks to tourism, locals can tap new sources of income as hoteliers, restaurateurs, tour guides, drivers, performers, meditation teachers, language teachers, and so forth. The hospitality industry has created attractive alternative jobs to traditional agriculture, which also takes some pressure off the land. While Chinese tourism inevitably brings undesired effects and a strain on the local culture and environment, it is noteworthy however that some locals manage to appropriate the myth to work precisely for environmental conservation and cultural protection.

Paradoxically, Shangrilazation has also led to a revival of Tibetan culture in some border towns with locals beginning to show a renewed interest in their Tibetan heritage, the written language as well as Buddhism. That these results are achieved in the name of a fictitious place should not diminish the tangible merits. My hypothesis is that it is precisely due to the infantile, politically non-threatening cloak of a Chinese-created fictitious Tibetan place that cultural revival and environmental work becomes possible in the first place.

From a local perspective therefore, Shangrilazation is not the worst of all worlds. Especially when we think back of what the Chinese thought of Tibetans and their culture only a few decades earlier. Who would have expected Tibet to become a dream destination for them? When was the last time Tibetans under China had some degree of freedom to pursue and express their cultural and religious identity? Where else in the Tibetan areas is it possible today to engage in cultural activities without immediately being suspected of ulterior political motives, if not in the “Disneyfied” places?

This is not to say that Shangrilized Tibetan places do not face the same problems as other Tibetan areas. Political repression, external domination, loss of culture and crisis of identity are omnipresent worries as Tibetans struggle to find a halfway decent modus operandi while hoping for better times. As the author highlights in connection with the two Danba villages that contend over who gets to be the capital of the Qeendom: Political repression is a sword of Damocles with locals having to walk a fine line: "If the queedom dispute were labled a political riot, all their efforts would be rendered meaningless (p. 75)." But while the challenges in Danba are the same as in other Tibetan areas, the interesting point is how the Gyalrongwa deal with them. The idea of the Queendom is undoubtedly orchestrated top down, but it is important to acknowledge that locals too are heavily involved with many at the forefront actively shaping and implementing it according to their own ideas rather than impassively standing beside or even opposing it.

Last but not least the question about political allegiance: What can be said about frontier Tibetans with regard to their political orientation? Tenzin Jinba sounds stressed that some Tibetans perceive the Gyalrongwa as politically indifferent and "Chinese". The author, a Gyalrong native himself, retorts they are proud of their Tibetan heritage, but that this pride does not automatically include support for political protests. He consults a reputable Lama-friend to find out more about the reasons for Danba's political abstinence whereupon the Buddhist dignitary cites "practical concerns" and "secularization".

In my view, we would also have to add "historical neglect by the centre" to account for the emotional distance: Whatever nation-building efforts may have been undertaken by Lhasa in the old days, they did not penetrate to the periphery. The political reality in the borderlands was simultaneously overlapping and with multiple centres of power. There were the local Tibetan leaders, there were provincial warlords, there was the representative of the emperor in China and later the Nationalist government; finally, there usually was a prominent monastery affiliated with a mother institution in Central Tibet through which the Dalai Lama made his influence felt. To safeguard local interests in this complex power matrix, frontier Tibetans have moved in and out of one culture, adapting their outlook to best suit the times and circumstances.

In the case of Gyalrong, the diverse ethnicity, particular linguistics as well different religious orientations are additional factors that distinguish them from the pack. In Tibet proper we have an ethnically bi-polar situation of Tibetans neatly on one side and Chinese on the other. In the periphery however, the delimitations are less clear as Tibetans have been living side by side with the Chinese and other ethnic groups for centuries. In Gyalrong in particular, ethnic intermarriage has been common, which makes the Gyalrongwa stand out even among frontier brethren. It is therefore safe to assume that the point of departure for ethnic identity and allegiance differs from other Tibetan areas. Using ethno-nationalist slogans of "one flesh, one blood" alone to distinguish Tibetans as we are prone to do in exile and also in the border areas of Kham and Amdo, will inevitably fall short and only reinforces internal differences. In the Sino-Tibetan fringes, ethnicity and language look more like one among several rather than the sole decisive factor.

And while some perceive the people of Danba or the Gyalrongwa in general as bogus Tibetans, sober-minded Westerners may perceive places like the Queendom as too Disneylandish. For the Chinese overlords on the other hand, the Queendom and other creations along the frontier are Tibetan enough for the touristic experience, easy to access and politically stable. As for the Gyalrongwa themselves, it looks to me like they are doing what many frontier Tibetans have always been doing: Using the hype, the projections and stereotypes, not taking things too seriously, and make the best of one's situation and the times. Any strategy that could eventually lead to passing on the Tibetan culture to the next generation – if only halfway intact – not only deserves but also absolutely must be explored to the fullest. In this regard, Tibetans in general may find something to learn from the experience of the frontier. Accepting these marginalized groups into our fold will make us Tibetans more resourceful and versatile on the whole.

The Queendom author is himself a role-model operating skillfully between the devil and the deep blue sea. If his work is perceived as too accommodating, the Tibetans will accuse him of collaboration. If his work is perceived as too opposing, the Chinese will accuse him of secessionism. The sociology and anthropology professor of Lanzhou University has been carefully walking a fine line, able to work with foreign universities and share his insights with readers like us. He is also going to participate in an international conference on Tibetan borders in Paris early next year as I have learnt. I wish him and the organisers all the very best of success. I hope some of the insights can be applied beyond the academic discourse to provide inspiration for a broader understanding and tolerance of what constitutes Tibetan culture and what it means to be Tibetan.

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: "The Noodle Maker Of Kalimpong" By Gyalo Thondup

Gyalo Thondup:
The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong
Public Affairs: New York, 2015
Once a year I meet up with friends of my late father's generation, peacefully chatting about our phayul, remembering old stories and personalities and speaking our local dialect. These are moments I cherish for they make me feel I am part of history; that I am carrying on the torch. This time however, the peace evaporated quickly when a man at the lower end of our table suddenly exclaimed to everyone assembled: "Did you hear? Gyalo Thondup wrote a book. In it, he says sdugchag zhedrag ("nasty things") about Bapa Yeshi!"

"Is it true?" One of my father's friend's gave me a questioning look, "You read the book".

I did read it and he is critical of Bapa Yeshi, it is true. But Gyalo Thondup writes unfavourably about others as well, not just the quixotic people in the resistance. No wonder readers have protested his interpretation of events. Even his co-author finds it necessary to distance herself by adding a strange disclaimer in the epilogue in the style of "whatever is written here, I am just the writer and not liable for the content".

But do I want to get involved? Forgive me. I am tired of them: Controversies. To me it is he-said-she-said. What do I know? I am of a different generation. The biggest takeaway for someone like me is how Gyalo Thondup established contact with the Chinese and how the Tibetan side - maladroit, insecure and ill-advised - missed every single opportunity to come to an agreement. In my view, there is much to be learned from these failures.

Gyalo Thondup cites two specific instances in which the Tibetan side wasted opportunities for talks. The first occurred under Deng Xiaoping when both sides came to an agreement to hold talks about the Dalai Lama's return. The Chinese side stated it would be ready to meet his representatives anywhere he likes. Instead of settling the question of location with the dialogue partner first, the Tibetans pompously blared out to the world that talks were going to be held in Geneva. The Chinese side saw the faux pas as proof that the Tibetans were not seriously comitted. They immediately broke off communication.

The second instance was handled so poorly we continue to struggle with its consequences. The Tibetan side caused a disaster beyond all expectations in connection with the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Looking at the proceedings everything was on a good way: The search team in Tibet had done all the preparatory work and remarkably so had the consent of the Chinese authorities to consult with the Dalai Lama in order to come to a final decision. The Tibetans then again surged ahead unilaterally, proclaiming this child is the new Panchen Lama without informing their Chinese counterpart first. What a debacle. The humiliated Chinese reacted by demonstratively picking another child with the Dalai Lama's appointee never to be seen again.

The takeaway from these two instances is very important and Gyalo Thondup points this out as well: The Tibetan leadership in India needs to alter its communication culture and refrain from constantly involving the global media at every step. They need to better understand Chinese culture and etiquette. Going public is the last step, taken together after mutual agreement. Since then, the two sides have not been on speaking terms. Any attempts from the Tibetans to revive the talks have failed. A few years ago, Gyalo Thondup's successors, the Dalai Lama's envoys unable to live up to earlier successes, threw in the towel in frustration.

My impression is that instead of learning from their gigantic mistakes, the Tibetan side is doing anything it can to deepen the rift and aggravate the consequences from the communication fiasco. If I critically reflect without preconception, not only have we blasted the Panchen Lama succession, but by insisting that the China-appointed Panchen Lama is not authentic, we have also spent the last twenty years opting for confrontation. Is it not time we ask ourselves what the benefit of insisting should be? It is too late to have another candidate installed. Beijing's appointee is grown up and sits firmly in the saddle. According to recent reports, he also begins to show some backbone by speaking up on issues that are important for the Tibetan people. Given the circumstances this should be a reason for cautious optimism. If we recall, the selection process of the previous Panchen Lama was troubled by similar legitimacy problems. He succeeded in silencing the critics precisely by letting his actions speak. Tibetans are pious but they are also pragmatic. When the person is perceived to fulfill the responsibility that comes with the role, it becomes less important whether a reincarnation is "authentic". I say it is time to stop harping on about principles and give the young Panchen Lama in Beijing a chance.

If the Tibetan side is truly committed to getting the Dalai Lama back to Tibet in this lifetime, it is better to work for a rapprochement between him and the Panchen Lama in Beijing. Consider how awkward it will be for the Dalai Lama to be meeting with the Panchen Lama whom he has opposed all these years. How can they play their traditional roles to benefit all Tibetans if they are not aligned? Thus, those who truly want to see Kundun back in his native land must seriously reflect whether it is not wiser to advocate a policy change now and frame good arguments that lead to a rapprochement. Mind you, "their" boy was not arbitrarily picked out of the blue. He made it into the final shortlist of three candidates, all of them Tulkus. Tibetans highly respect such "runner ups" and refer to them as Panchen ‘os sprul or “Panchen selection Tulku”. Do we have reason to believe that the selection process up to that point was faulty?

I am saying all this because at present, neither the Dalai Lama nor the Panchen Lama can fulfill their roles to improve the Tibetan people's situation. One is accepted but not there. The other is there but not accepted. It is absurd. It should be one office, one Lama, not double this, double that. People are tired of the double staffing that comes with posts of high-ranking Lamas. It creates divisions that hurts us. Instead of finger-pointing, we should make an effort to come to a rapprochement with Beijing and their Panchen Lama so he and the Dalai Lama can start to work together for the wellbeing of the Tibetan people. After all, the Tibet issue is said to be about the six million Tibetans, is it not? Therefore, anyone with an influence on the Dalai Lama should now advise him towards seeking an understanding with the leadership in Beijing so he can return sooner than later.

Concessions are difficult and they hurt our ego. Though the official message is that we accept Chinese rule, I have the impression the Tibetan leadership is happy with the current situation where they manage the refugee community now grown into the third generation and well-established in the countries where they took up residence. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama has also evolved into a global religious figure and so everything seems just fine. But if the Tibetan leadership were to put themselves in the shoes of a person in Tibet, there isn’t the faintest doubt that the Dalai Lama’s place is among his people. There would be so much he could do with his international prestige, not only for the Tibetan people but also for the betterment of China as a whole, were he only to return now.

Of course, Dharamsala is free to insist on its right to determine reincarnations and opt for remaining stuck for another twenty years. Or they can toss dogmatism over board and take a bold step forward. If we are able to get our heads around now and make the difficult decisions, things may gradually start to move. In the medium run, accepting the reality may lead to the opening of the door to talks again, which has remained so closely shut. As for the "real reincarnation" of the Panchen Lama, the whole matter is most unfortunate. But it is to be hoped that his situation too will improve and he can finally begin to lead a normal life, once the reincarnation issue is formally settled with the Dalai Lama throwing his weight behind Beijing's appointee.

Back to The Noodle Maker: Never mind the false modesty implied in the title of the book. In the old days, many Tibetan families in Kalimpong made noodles for a living. Gyalo Thondup, we all know it, is not one of them. In his self-perception he may be a noodle-making country bumpkin from the Amdo backwater. His brother, the Dalai Lama, in his self-perception is a "simple monk" for that matter. But in the external perception of the Tibetan public, it couldn't be more different. As far as Gyalo Thondup is concerned, we think of him as Yabshi Gyalo Thondup, a member of the inner sanctum, the Dalai Lama's family, and a representative of the high nobility. From the point of view of an untitled Tibetan, there is no social class difference whatsoever between Gyalo Thondup and the opportunistic nobles whom he accuses by name of collaborating with the enemy and of many other misdeeds. It so happens that the Tibetan nobility is made up of families into which a Dalai Lama was born. The fact that Gyalo Thondup never had to account for his opaque and yet so dominating role behind the scenes, can be directly linked to his aristocratic Yabshi credentials. As the Dalai Lama's relative, we must concede, the man is a sacred cow.

So while I understand that many are upset over irritating remarks and accusations contained in The Noodle Maker, his story is also a testimony of how weak the exiles' democratic institutions really are with nobody calling for accountability. The judiciary has no punch, the legislative no power and the executive no means. The media shows no interest in investigating his role nor does the public, which remains entangled in a web of rumours, innuendos and interpersonal conflicts. Gyalo Thondup was the man who dealt eye to eye with all the powerful people in China, America, India and also Russia. His mission was to get Tibet independent with the secret help of the Americans. Later, when independence was dropped as the official goal, his task changed to getting the Dalai Lama back to Tibet. That he never received an official mandate from neither the government nor the people is one of the many contradictions in the way we Tibetans conduct our politics. His legacy will inevitably carry an overtone of uncontrolled power, secrecy and intrigue.

Though I did read Gyalo Thondup’s memoirs, I am unable to really assess The Noodle Maker. It contains too many parts on which I cannot throw any light. I tried to present my takeaways and observations instead. I also think we should ask ourselves who else could have handled our national affairs at the time, had Gyalo Thondup not assumed the role. Would we be any better off? If he was that bad, we should have employed someone else, but we didn't. In this regard, The Noodle Maker highlights our deficit in terms of strong leaders who can cope with modern politics and become winners for our people.

The critical issue is for our classe politique to have the courage and break out of its cocoon, overcome decades-long political inertia and finally make a positive impact for the Tibetans. How can we start a new way of thinking without taboos and get talking with the Chinese again? And how can we rear the leaders capable of taking on the challenge? If the Tibet issue is still about the six million Tibetans, then this is the important point to work on.

My father's old friend sighed: "Our task has become very difficult."

The others nodded in agreement.

I felt bad for them and also myself. We really are in a sad situation. If The Noodle Maker shows us one thing then it's that. But in my view, there are still a few chances left to improve our lot. We should not blow them again.

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Can't Touch This!

I looked closely to figure out the deity depicted on the front of the amulet box: Was it Jetsun Dolma? - Hard to tell with only the head showing.

The Ga'u was probably as old as the hills with the holy image yellowed and weather-beaten. But Arya Tara would make sense. Placing your faith in her, and especially so in her green version, is said to effectively protect one from all kinds of obstacles and that's the whole purpose of a Tibetan protective amulet box after all.

While holding up the amulet box as I dusted my altar, fragments of an old conversation came to mind:

"What's this, Pala?"

"It's a Ga'u. I wore it for protection during the escape from Tibet."

"How did it protect you?"

"It has a holy content that protects the wearer against any harm. But Girls mustn't touch it."

"Why mustn't girls touch it?"

"Girls just mustn't touch it," was the laconic answer.

I must have been around seven or eight years old, just about starting to realise that humans come in two forms. An amulet box that loses its protective power when touched by a girl? Are girls so mighty they can disempower a Ga'u just at a touch? Innocent thoughts.

One day when no one was around I quietly approached the altar. The idea was too tempting. So I opened the glass cupboard and clandestinely poked the Ga'u sitting in a corner with one finger. After I had done what was forbidden, I expected something terrible to happen. But nothing happened for the longest time, neither to my dad whose protector was now wrecked, nor to me as some kind of divine punishment. Eventually, I concluded that the Ga'u must have been damaged. Soon I forgot about it and didn't think of "girls mustn't touch it" until much later when I stepped into a monastery in Tibet as an adult.

Many monasteries have a side-chapel housing so-called Dharmapalas or protector deities. Above the entrance are signs saying: "Ladies not allowed". Tibetans say it's because women are unclean and their presence would displease the Dharmapalas - or their jealous consorts to be precise. Only Tibetans can think of such an explanation. But most of the time there is no explanation at all. You just have to go with the flow, meaning you have to wait outside.

I was concerned what foreign tourists would think. "Women not allowed" could quickly slide into the same category as "Blacks not allowed" or "Jews not allowed". It could share the disdainful company with Apartheid and Anti-Semitism. Once in bad odour, it's hard to get rid of.

"Akhaa," I sighed, "I came from so far and now I am not allowed to go inside, adzeee, phanga-la!" The caretaker monk heard me. He had pity on me but still wouldn't let me enter. Instead he gave me the following word of advice: "Bumo, the Dharmapalas off limits in this monastery are on open display at the next monastery down the road. Just go there."

It was a well-meant insider's tip. It was also when I began to suspect that it's the monasteries which decide who displeases the Dharmapalas. My suspicion was reinforced during another occasion when I traveled in a group led by a Lama who "exceptionally authorised" women to enter a forbidden protector chapel. He simply overruled. All this seemed to suggest that barring women from entering certain parts of a monastery is probably just about putting on an air of great importance: "We have something so important here, that you cannot see it."

And there isn't anything to marvel that would justify the fuss in the first place. To all the ladies who have never seen a protector chapel from the inside and have been dying to see one: You haven't missed a thing! All you'd be able to find after stepping into what is usually a moldy, dark room are furiously looking statues drowned in loads of Khatas wrapped around them. Any ride through a tunnel of horror is more interesting. It's best not to even care about not being let in. It is most definitely specific monasteries in Tibet creating a fuss because in Tibetan monasteries abroad everyone can view Dharmapalas if they wanted to.

Only recently I learned the legendary Tibetan freedom fighters held similar superstitions about women's malignant and destructive powers. As they resisted the Chinese invader, many wore protective amulets. Stories of their lifesaving, bulletproof capacity abound. In "Histories Arrested", Carol McGrannahan writes that some Chinese soldiers deliberately dipped their bullets in women's menstrual blood to “override” the omnipotent armour. - No wonder we lost the war.

Behind my cousin's farm in the valley where my dad was born, rises a soft, forested hill. I always wanted to build a little house on its slopes. In the beginning my relatives smiled at the idea. I thought they were happy that I intended to come back and live with them. But with the years I learned that the hill was the home of a Shidag or local protector deity. Nobody in his right mind would build a house there, disturb the Shidag's peace and bring misfortune over oneself and the community. I bid farewell to the idea.

But when I was getting ready to join the others for a smoke offering at the very hill, my cousin pre-informed me that girls could only go up to a certain point and that the peak was off-limits. - Phew, what a busu dokpo Princess-And-The-Pea Shidag they had living behind their farm! But again I gave in out of considerations for local beliefs. After all I was an outsider. The last thing I wanted was for my relatives to get tired of that niece from abroad who keeps arguing with them about their outdated habits. And I had to grant them that in their eyes, there was no misogyny involved. They thought it's for the girls' own good.

There is something raw and wild about protector deities that strangely enough, I find fascinating I must say. Whereas the sophisticated construct of Buddhism for which Tibet has become a synonymous the world over, is an Indian import, protector deities are an autochthonous creation. Through Buddhism Tibetans were able to transcend the small, the local, the isolated and the strange. It has ennobled their culture by making it internationally compatible and respectable. Protector deities on the other hand are superstitious local relics of an ancient past. While Buddhism is the monks’ religion, making offerings to protector deities is the people’s religion. This is the Tibetan contribution grown under their own steam free from external influences. In other words, if anyone is unhappy with protector deities, we have no one to blame but our own genius!

I still see the five slightly haggard-looking Austrian climbers before me. They had dinner next to our table and my cousin whispered: "See those yang ren over there?" pointing at them discretely in Tibetan-style by pursing his lips and shoving forth the lower lip, "They're the ones who vanished at the sacred mountain!"

What had happened?

During a trek, these greenhorns disappeared from sight in plain daylight. That's what had happened.

The Chinese flew in a military helicopter and soldiers to search for them, but the Austrians remained lost for several days. When they miraculously reemerged by themselves, all they were able to explain was that the path between them and the rest of the group suddenly disappeared from view and then just as suddenly reappeared. To them it hadn't felt like days but hours. My cousin like other locals at our table, were convinced that the mountain Shidag had abducted the foreigners for intruding into his domain.

"Ré,ré,ré," I joked, "but after two nights, our Shidag discovered these guys didn’t understand Tibetan, so he kicks them out!" The Austrians had no clue why the people next to them were so jolly that evening. Yet humour couldn't disguise that something in us said protector deities are a force to reckon with. Even I felt a trace of doubt in the back of my head.

Girls are not supposed to touch it and here I am inheriting this thing, which now takes a seat on my altar. Eyeing the amulet box in my hands now, I'm actually all smiles. I wish my father could see me as a grown woman, with a profession, in an egalitarian relationship with a man I love, and two children we are raising together. I don't mind him anymore saying I mustn't touch it. It was the time. All these biased Tibetan stories used to bother the hell out of me. I used to be vocal about it and didn't leave out any opportunity to fight and argue against this kind of discrimination. But now it seems as if these are stories from another world. Because having to argue with someone over alleged female inferiority now feels as awkward as having to argue in all seriousness that the earth is flat: snows of yesteryear. But even when it seems like bygones, the question remains: How do you convince people of something they aren’t aware of, but they badly need?

A young man once asked the Lama how he could influence his non-Buddhist farming parents to stop making a living from raising animals for slaughter. What could he do so the parents avoid accumulating unwholesome karma? The Lama advised the young man not to mention "unwholesome karma. He said since the concept of the law of cause and effect was alien to his parents, their first reaction could well be disbelief followed by rejection - a dead-end in other words. Instead, he recommended the young man turn himself into a shining role model of a Buddhist so that the parents realise all by themselves what they do for a living is not good.

Perhaps this is also a valid approach for us Tibetan girls and our well-wishers? From my early experience with Tibetan youth and women's groups, girls who push too hard for women’s rights are quickly perceived as feisty and dogmatic to people caught unprepared. Once this unfortunate impression is created, we have the dead-end situation. In the Tibetan case, feminism is the alien concept provoking disbelief and rejection and society is the ignorant parents. Rather than debating then, perhaps we ladies could try to transform ourselves in to a peach of a girl: Outwardly non-threatening and gentle, inwardly dedicated to work towards change. How could it cross someone’s mind to slight such people?

Factually speaking, the situation of Tibetan women today is already fundamentally different from fifty years ago. More and more are overcoming their "bad" karma of being born into an allegedly inferior female body, even in Tibet. There is no longer any compelling reason to be born as a male when one can accomplish the same in a female body. More and more girls can afford to ignore the nonsense because they have an education and with it come choices. Not everyone is in this fortunate situation yet, but the trend is irreversible: girls are getting on track and sooner or later society will find itself before a fait accompli.

Sometimes when I look at myself however, I wonder whether the cultural prejudice sits deeper than I prefer and perhaps is also unintentionally internalized. Because after all these years, I am somehow still impressed with not being allowed touch it. I had to gather all my courage to open the amulet box in order to take a look at the so holy content forbidden to girls. What came to light were a tiny, well-preserved peacock's feather and a small heap of what I took to be soil crumbs wrapped in a piece of cloth.

From the Mind Training text "Peacock in the Poison Grove" which the Lama taught a while back, I deducted the feather stands for protection against all kinds of poison and dangers. The text uses the symbolism of the peacock, which is said to be immune against bites from poisonous snakes. I don't know how zoologically accurate that is but in a transferred Buddhist sense one's delusions rooted in egoism are the "poison". The peacock represents the power of Emptiness and Universal Compassion, which cuts through the delusions and destroy them.

What I naïvely mistook for soil crumbs were parts of a disintegrating Tsatsa, a small clay image of a Buddha or a saint. The Tibetan government handed them out to Tulkus and government officials on the eve of the Chinese invasion. And how did this exclusive gift end up in a regular guy's G'au and now sits on my altar in the West? It turned out the amulet box belonged to my uncle, my dad's Tulku-brother. He gave it to my father for protection amidst the turmoil. Lhasa was under heavy fire when they escaped. Those must have been crazy times. If only the Ga'u could speak!

Still unclear is the deity depicted at the front of the amulet box. Could it really be Jetsun Dolma? My little one refers to her as bumo sangye, that's "girl-Buddha". That would beat everything. Have a girl-Buddha on an amulet box that girls are not supposed to touch, hilarious!

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Book Review: "Buddha" by Osamu Tezuka

"Buddha", Osamu Tezuka; Vertical, New York: 2006 -2007 

There really is no end to learning, even when it's unintentional. I actually got something out of Manga or Japanese comics. It's a genre I never consciously took note of, probably because all that came to mind were platitudinous landscapes and infantile characters with big wide eyes and gaping, toothless mouths. When I heard "Manga", I thought "Dora the explorer"- or sick Japanese men reading porn comics in congested subways.

But the other day, I ended up ordering eight volumes of comics for none other than myself. My brother-in-law warmly recommended getting "Buddha" by Osamu Tezuka for my children. He said his eleven-year old foster son devoured the comics and he thought my kids might like them too. Now my brother-in-law is a sober-minded and sagely person. Whatever he recommends I am inclined to read or watch. So I looked up the author duped “the God of Manga" and also read a couple of reviews, which by and large were positive. On the side, I found out that the TV cartoon series I loved to watch when I was a kid, "Kimba The White Lion", was also an Osamu Tezuka creation. - If he did Kimba, his "Buddha" had to be good!


And I wasn't disappointed. The life-story of the Buddha in eight volumes as so-called “graphic novel” was an entertaining and humorous read. "You can't leave the palace," the attendant tells Siddharta, "it will be all over the papers!" And the drawings – of historic Indian towns for example - are not platitudinous at all, I must admit, but often contain a love for playful detail transporting the reader to ancient India. Furthermore, the Manga Buddha is kept simple in black-and-white rather than making it an opulent, glittery colour-Fest à la Bollywood. The understated appearance does no harm to the fascination of the story though. I for one didn't consciously notice the lack of colour until I had proceeded deep into the tale. It speaks for the strength of Tezuka's story-telling and my inattentiveness.

The author also manages to capture the bellicose atmosphere of the time well. Many of the petty little kingdoms were constantly at war with each other; violence, death and destruction were the order of the day. By using typical comic-style exclamations in huge and huger giant caps followed by multiple exclamation marks such as "HERE'S YER KILLER!! CLANG! Or THUNK! And WHOOSH! as well as HYAA!! Tezuka manages to paint a vivid picture of the warring environment at the time.

Tezuka's Manga also has a special way of portraying animals. In the beginning pages of the first volume, for example, he describes the story of a rabbit that jumps into a fire and immolates to offer himself as food to a starving saint. The saint is left humbled and speechless over the magnanimous act of the rabbit. At another point, in a nod to the famous first sermon at Deer Park, a deer even serves as the Buddha's translator. Animals are thus not passive sentient beings in the traditional Buddhist sense. Tezuka goes a step further: They are reflective beings fully capable of generating Bodhicitta. Perhaps the author’s reason for assigning animals “human” traits comes from the traditional Jataka tales? They recount past lives of the Buddha, when he takes birth as an animal to help fellow creatures. In one tale, he chooses birth as a monkey to save his pack from evil humans. Subsequently, the human king learns a lesson on how to be a responsible and benevolent ruler.

A subject I would not have expected to see in a comic is a critique of the caste system. Tezuka's "Buddha" takes a clear stand and questions the justification of caste by using invented characters such as the slaveboy Chapra who conceals his background to become the foster son of a general - only to be disowned when his foster father finds out. The author even lets Siddharta fall in love with a Shudra woman, Migaila, who also happens to be an ex-criminal. The straw to break the camel's back: Siddharta refuses to marry princess Yasodhara, his bride in the traditional account, and insists on marrying Migaila instead. Now, how historically accurate all this is, I do not know, but the thought of a Buddha falling in love without consideration for social norms is undoubtedly appealing and totally in the spirit of our time. To achieve the required drama and push his message, the author exaggerates plot lines and characters to extremes.

Surprising to me were many other aspects in the Buddha's life I had never heard about or imagined. The biggest surprise was Siddharta's crush on Migaila as just mentioned. Other curious points include Ananda: He was not just the Buddha's cousin but an ex-social delinquent and murderer? And Angulimala, the finger-collecting mass murderer, who became a disciple of the Buddha, had actually been bewitched to commit his crimes? Among the Buddha’s followers we further count Tatta, a "low-caste" bandit and notorious troublemaker, who can enter the minds of people and animals; there is also a little boy with a perpetually running nose by the name of Asaji, who can foretell the future; and of course the giant, Yatala, 20 feet tall with a body impenetrable by any arrow - how come I never heard of any of these characters?

I never guessed the Buddha was in such colorful, unconventional company ! The characters are lively and stick deeply to the reader’s memory. Reading the Manga Buddha at times was like reading Harry Potter. Were our Tibetan narrators perhaps censuring and embellishing the life-story of Buddha in order to make him appear so serene and holy? But after a while, I began to suspect that it must be the other way around: The one embellishing was Tezuka rather. His fictional characters and the dramatic plots help transform a familiar story into a colorful theatre. It may not be historically accurate but there can be no pretense. After all we are dealing with a comic and we've heard the traditional account so many times already. A little bit of change here and there and some drama can only be refreshing. That's what I concluded for myself.

When I think about it, it is absolutely ingenious how Tezuka created characters and invented events to weave such an adventurous tale of one of the greatest religious figures. Not many Asians would have dared to do it and do it so well, without compromising the basic message. Perhaps one reason why Buddhists have not accused him of blasphemy and religious satire is because he used Manga as a medium. If it's Manga, it's kids talk and outside the line of fire. Moreover his creativity focuses on characters around the Buddha. The Enlightened One himself is largely left intact from fantastic inventions, which helps in avoiding controversy. In hindsight, stopping short of getting creative with the person of the Buddha was probably a wise decision. Not every art produced from political freedom is also good art as the recent Muhammad caricatures have sufficiently shown.

One thing that occasionally bothered me in “Buddha” was the language. At times it becomes vulgar and violent with expressions I neither want my children to hear nor read. Maybe this was a concession deemed necessary to keep regular Manga readers at it? Another criticism I have is that all females in "Buddha" are drawn bare-breasted including the Buddha's mother. Why is this necessary? Another concession because in Japan it’s adult males that read Manga? Over here comics are aimed at children. So what is the point in sexualizing the women in "Buddha"? Was the Indian weather at the time this warm? Or was there perhaps a temporary shortage of cloth? Or maybe I'm just too prudish. I sternly think Tezuka-san should have drawn the ladies proper tops.

At times during my read I also had to think of my late father. He was particularly fond of the comic “The adventures of Asterix and Obelix”. How he identified with the two indomitable Gauls, who resist Roman occupation! With the help of a magic potion brewed by their druid, a handful of these Gaulish villagers could wipe out entire legions of Julius Caesar's army with no sweat. It was my dad's retirement project to translate all of the thirty-five volumes of Asterix' and Obelix' adventures into Tibetan. Alas, he passed away too early to realize his translation project and without getting a chance to read Tezuka's Manga Buddha. I would have liked to know what he, the comic pro, would have thought of it.

Who could forget the legendary fanfare at the opening of each volume: "The year is 50 B.C. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely... One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders."

Overall the Manga Buddha is well worth the read, all eight volumes. You advance quickly as there is not much text and the action and drama keeps you engaged. The traditional account of Siddharta Gautama is told in a fresh new way using an unconventional medium. Set in ancient India, readers can also learn something about the culture and the Zeitgeist of this historic period. "Buddha" could even become a first point of contact to learn about Dharma, especially for children.

Eventually however, when you become seriously interested, there is a need to differ fiction from fact. Tezuka's "Buddha" would therefore not be my first choice for an introduction to Buddhism. Having said that, it could help kids and adults from an established Buddhist background to see the person of the Buddha, often deified in Tibetan-style Vajrayana, in a new light as more human and normal.

For now I will shovel the eight volumes of Tezuka's "Buddha" onto the bookshelf. My children are welcome to read them if they like.

Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet