I had always thought it quite pretentious, the cool, self-proclamation of yourself as ‘Buddhist’, it had created an aversion in me to resist the label and teachings. However when the opportunity arose to study for one month as part of a university exchange program ‘Tibetan Buddhism, Culture and History’, under monk scholars at a Tibetan University in India, I was beside myself with excitement for the upcoming adventure. One month before lift-off, on uni break, found me on a remote organic farm in Tasmania, surrounded by forest. In amidst the daily chores of the farm, I found snippets of time to start on my pre-reading.
As I sat reading one story, of Buddha’s’ previous incarnations before his life as Buddha, I found myself connecting with Buddhism on a deep unexpected level. The story reverberated in my being. Although I had never had any contact with the story before it was as if its memory still sat in my cells from a previous life, reactivating…It all felt somehow distantly familiar. Those few weeks found me every night dreaming of Buddhism, awakening with remnants of the Buddhism theme. I dreamed that my ’soul’ had been waiting this whole incarnation to go to India. This is all coming from the subconscious mind of someone who does not necessarily subscribe to any particular religion or belief in reincarnation.
The first minutes of my first class at the Tibetan University, found me with tears coming out of my eyes upon looking at the monk lecturer. It was deeply affecting, not so much anything solid that the monk was teaching that created that particular emotional response. I feel now it was more a reaction to an inner realisation that I was in the presence of great spiritual depth. The monks with deep crimson robes and round shiny heads, one with a voice like Yoda, another always apologising, ‘My English is like a baby crawling on the road’, another a fat ancient toad who spoke in high-pitched English that was draining to even decipher, all speaking on different avenues towards compassion and theories of interconnectedness.
A few weeks into the course we were invited to attend audience given by the visiting Karmapa. The night before I read up on the Karmapa, and found that he was the 17th reincarnation of an enlightened being. In Tibetan Buddhism there is the Dalai Lama, Pachen Lama and the Karmapa all reincarnations of enlightened beings. The 17th Karmapa is only 21 and defected from China in 2000. Hundreds of students and visitors packed the hall to see him. As exchange students studying at the University, we were treated as honoured guests and were seated behind our monk scholars in the front rows. The Karmapa came in, in all the beautiful procession and splendour you would expect of a great spiritual leader; huge horns blew announcing his entry and as the Karmapa sat on wooden carved throne, he appeared fierce, strong and majestic like a lion. His penetrating eyes looked over the crowd, resting on no-one. I felt unworthy of the honour we received as Western students, as we lined up and offered khatha scarves put around our necks as spiritual blessings. After his speech the Karmapa left and much to my surprise I was left feeling completely overwhelmed, bawling my eyes out, for no logical reason. It was an instantaneous weeping that I could not help.
With the intense month-long course completed, I headed to Dharamsala, where the Tibetan government in exile is located, and His Holinesses the Dalai Lama was giving His spring teachings. It was so lovely to be there amongst the mountains, fresh air and the thousands of Tibetans, Westerners and Buddhist nuns and monks who gathered to hear His Holiness’s teachings. The place was swarming.
Violation of human rights – the Tibetan issue
On March 10, I attended a rally in commemoration of the thousands of Tibetans, including monks and nuns, who were killed for peacefully protesting in Lhasa in March,1959. What I learned was staggering. I had not realised how ignorant I was regarding the situation of Tibetan people in ‘Tibet’s Autonomous Region’ which has been governed by communist China since 1959.
Tibetans are forbidden to carry pictures of the Dalai Lama, or do pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama. Thousands of Tibetans risk their lives every year in order to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in India. They risk being shot or put in prison or dying during the dangerous, long, journey; up and over the vast mountain ranges that make up the Himalayas. Just last year on the 30th September, 2006, a group of Tibetan pilgrims were fired upon by Chinese military at a pass near Nepal. A 17-year-old nun was killed instantly. Among the 75 pilgrims only 41 made it safely to the Tibetan Refugee Centre in Kathmandu. Of the group 18 are still missing and thought to be detained by the Chinese, and 12 of these pilgrims range from the young ages of seven to 16. It was only due to a mountaineer in the area who filmed the incident and posted it on the internet, that the killing received international coverage. Tibetans should be allowed basic human rights such as the ability to exercise their right to spiritual pilgrimage.
Why would China release its stranglehold on Tibet, an area that is rich in natural resources and also contains the source of all the major river systems in Asia? China, a production giant, has degraded and polluted and devastated its own environment irreversibly and now relies heavily on the exploitation of vast natural resources found in Tibet. The rapid rate of mining continue along with deforestation – now estimated at 70% having being cleared since 1955. The number of Chinese in Tibet now equals that of the Tibetans. It is a ‘human bomb’ where Tibetans have few positions of power within the political system. They lack access to even basic education, with only 31% of Tibetan children receiving minimum education. Tibetans are also not taught their own language, history or culture. They are taught to speak and learn Chinese. With a new rail system opened in 2006 between Golmud and Lhasa, this enables a further stronghold on Tibet, with greater ability to carry people, military arms, and natural resources in and out of Tibet.
China is a powerful economic and military force in the world. The ‘international community’ has previously ignored the situation and allowed China to walk in and destroy a valuable culture. The Tibetan people are peaceful and practise non-violence. They need the support of the international community. Next year the 2008 Olympics are being held in Beijing. This will allow an unprecedented amount of media into the country. Usually China has tight controls over information released within the media. However the magnitude of media presence and people attending the Olympics from other nations will open up further awareness as to the human rights violations being committed. We are now in the year 2007 and individuals are connected more than any other time in history. We have the power and awareness to put real pressure on governments to act in the best interest of all global citizens.
Whew! So who would have thought that the initial dreamy beginnings of my inner journey would have led me on this particular exploration. For me the connection that I have with Tibetans and their spirituality goes hand in hand with the empathy I feel towards their suffering as a people.
We are so indescribably lucky to have the Dalai Lama visiting Australia. I wish I could welcome him to Australia with the widest arms and heart and tell him that he has an ally in us.
I will also be there in support of countries such as Tibet that need our collective voice and assistance.
Natasha was born and raised in W.A, but has spent the better part of the last 10 years travelling. She is currently in her final year at the University of Tasmania completing a Bachelor of Arts. Natasha is interested in artistic and sustainable and shared living, and a society not based on commodity. She lives for idleness, cloud watching, tea drinking, creativity, and reading.
Further information and resources:
Watch ‘Cry of the Snow Lion’ Documentary
This article appeared in conjunction with Accidental Buddhist
My name is Pasang*. I am 24 years old, and I come from the Amdo region of Tibet. I was born a nomad and lived a traditional nomadic life until my escape to India in 2000. I lived with my father, grandmother, sister and brother. (My mother left us just after I was born.) Most of my life consisted of looking after our nomad family’s yaks and sheep. However, between the ages of 10 and 12 I stayed with my uncle in a nearby city where I attended Chinese school. Because of the expense of school and my father’s need of extra hands, I returned to my family and the nomad life until the age of 17 when I decided to escape to India.
I left Tibet because I wanted to meet His Holiness. I had heard from other people that he was in India, and no one knew when he would return. For me His Holiness is like God. I had a lot of devotion for him; ever since I can remember my family always talked about him, so my devotion for His Holiness came very naturally at an early age even though I had never seen him. I did not know why he was not in Tibet; I never thought about it being wrong that he was not there. I heard he was in India – a kind of holy place-maybe like heaven. I hardly knew it was a country because I lived as a nomad in a tent; plus it was easy for us to have pictures of His Holiness as compared to places like Lhasa where the Chinese come and check, so I didn’t know that he was in exile. Actually, I didn’t know what was going on in Tibet – the political and historical situation. I thought that China was my country and Chinese and Tibetan people were the same. I felt different among Chinese in Tibet, but I thought that was because I was a nomad so my clothing and lifestyle were different. When I came to India after a two-month journey, I found out that China actually occupied my country, Tibet. It was a big surprise to me. I went to the Tibetan exile government’s transit school in Bir where I learned about Tibetan history, culture, and what China did to my country and my people. It was all very hard for me to believe. To meet His Holiness was an indescribable experience for me.
The long escape from Tibet to the Nepalese border is an almost unspeakable experience. We had to walk at night and try to hide during the daytime in order to get some rest. I can see the fear we had knowing how dangerous it is because if the Chinese catch you, you will for sure go to prison or would be shot.
In my group, there were only men and I was the youngest. On the way I thought I was going to die. It is difficult to breath even for Tibetans when crossing high mountain passes. I had ice on my face and I could not feel my legs even though I was walking. I couldn’t think clearly because of the lack of oxygen in the air at such high altitudes. The snow was very thick in those heights and the wind extremely strong and painful upon my face. When the sun was shining it was so strong. On the way I saw dead bodies; I saw a young girl about my age lying fresh half covered by snow. She looked as though she had just died. It is still very painful for me to think about seeing her lying there dead. Spending nights in high mountain passes made me fear for my own life as my body was so stiff, almost frozen. It was hard to get up and make my body move again. The last days of the journey we ran out of food. I felt so weak that I had to sit down more and more often, so even though we had no more food, I felt so bad that I didn’t even have an appetite. Sometimes I put a little snow in my mouth but that was all. My mind was not working clearly and all I could do was keep on walking. That was what I had to focus on-walk and walk. At the same time, I felt like I was slowly dying. I’m sure that this journey is like Hell.
Finally we survived the journey, but when I arrived in Nepal I experienced a different kind of pain. At the refugee-processing centre there were two flags – one American and the other Tibetan. I recognised the national flag of United States of America, but had to ask what the other flag was. It was the deepest shame when I received the answer. I had not recognised my own national flag. Many Tibetan people escape everyday from Communist China in order to seek a better life and better opportunities in the exile society. And many people come like me just to get the chance to see His Holiness in real life.
* Name changed for protection from political retribution
By Natasha Burnaby
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