In July of 2014, my wife and I cleared customs in the Lhasa Gonggar Airport and emerged, breathlessly, into the brilliant dryness of Tibet. We saw our last name on a placard thrust high above the crowd and towed our roller bags towards a woman in traditional Tibetan dress. She was Lhamo, our guide, and she motioned for us to bow while she threw khatas (ceremonial scarves) around our necks. Lhamo is the daughter of a family from the TAR (Tibet Autonomous Republic) and the mother of two toddlers. She learned English by studying at home and meeting foreigners. She taught us “tashi delek” (greetings), and advised us to “get used to the altitude by taking it easy.” We threw our bags into a Toyota Land Cruiser and she quietly said: “There are two things to remember at all times. Never say the words ‘Dalai Lama’ and never take pictures of police or military.” It was then that we realized this was no Shangri La; instead, we were in a highly militarized community.
Why did I want to go? It all started in 1979 when I studied Buddhism at the Lawudo Gompa in Khumbu on the flanks of Mount. Everest. The Gompa is on the border with Tibet so Tibetan monks and lamas joined the students daily. Tibet’s border was closed to foreigners, but very porous for local folks. Our teacher, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, was only in his twenties, but he commanded the program with insight. I learned lessons in detachment and humor that have stayed with me. Ever since, I have felt a special respect for Tibetans. In the years after my seminar on Mount Everest, I have wanted to know how Tibetans were doing. After all, it has been 56 since the Plateau was taken over by the PRC. Are we hearing any of the truth in the West? In a world where Tibetans are simplistically described by the PRC and Hollywood, what do Tibetans think about themselves? Finally, I wondered if Tibetan culture is resilient enough to survive a military occupation.
For ten days in July, we visited cities, monasteries, and lakes in the TAR. We had conversations with many Tibetans and Chinese visitors. During the following week, we trekked in Tibetan communities in Yunnan, just across the border from the TAR. After the three-week visit, is it possible for me to write a comprehensive report on Tibet? No way. We only saw only a few areas of Tibet and the schedule was partly controlled by Chinese officials. Nonetheless, we had many free hours in which to explore Lhasa, Shigatse, Namtso Lake and Gyantse. Regardless of limitations, I hope this study will be like a pebble in the waters of discussions about Tibet and the PRC. (Sakya 369)
In the months since our visit, a mishmash of observations has been distilled into three dynamic images: (1) Tibetans thriving on the Plateau, (2) Tibetans maintaining religious customs (i.e. represented by the khata) and (3) Tibetans co-existing with military occupation (i.e. the gun). The Plateau, averaging over 4,500 meters in altitude, affects everything, from bodily strength, to the planting of barley, to yaks and goats, and, ultimately, to culture. The khata represents the Tibetans’ link to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. The gun, representing military checkpoints and armed encampments, places continuous pressure on Tibetans and on tourists.
The latitude of Tibet is the same as Florida and Georgia, so a visitor might expect a subtropical climate. Such is not the case; in fact, the arid, frigid Tibetan Plateau, nicknamed the “Roof of the World,” is the highest plateau on Earth. It is no wonder that vast areas are practically uninhabited. From the plane, I saw no signs of human existence for most of the flight from Kunming. Later, as I hiked to the some of the highest monasteries in Tibet, I noticed that Tibetans had succeeded in exploiting their environment and they were surviving. Many tourists barely function unless they have supplemental oxygen and my wife almost died from oxygen deprivation.
Being in good physical shape, though, I thought I was ready for the thin air, but I was wrong. One day, on a steep trail leading to monastic caves, I realized that I had dropped the last tourists. Lhamo turned to me and said, “You are really strong.” It is true that I compete in ultra-distance events, but I could see short, thin women passing me at every turn. Impulsively, I turned to a nun who was carrying a bag of cement and asked how much it weighed. My plan was to help her carry it, but, to my astonishment, I could not lift the bag at all. It must have contained well over 50 kilograms. I bowed with embarrassment and murmured “thuk-je-che” (thank you).
As I look back on the Tibetans’ strength, I concluded that the nun was so strong because she had more red blood cells than low landers like me, but now there is evidence that Tibetans have a further advantage, a gene protecting them from thin air: “The prevalence of the gene variant in the Tibetan population was first reported by the team in 2010. It was attributed to natural selection and adaptation to the unusually low oxygen levels. The members of the population without this gene would most like(ly) die before reproducing, ensuring the prevalence of the gene in the surviving population.” (Singh 1)
In other words, Tibetans are a good example of natural selection. Their physiological assets have made it possible to manage high-altitude agriculture. One example is the raising of the yak and female dri. Tibetans use the yak for transportation, milk, tents, butter, clothing and meat. Barley is a another compelling example of Tibetans’ resilience in the midst of a harsh environment. Barley can be grown by almost any farmer and is the people’s food. It is nourishing, filling, and tasty. It is so omnipresent that once I was overcome with the desire to help with the harvest and attempted to cut and tie barley with a peasant.
As a way to understand the overwhelming value of barley, we should look at commentaries about what happened when barley disappeared. To a visitor today, it is inconceivable that there would ever be an absence of barley and toasted tsampa, because tsampa is on every table. But, in one of the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution, the PRC decided to end not only the production of barley, but the farmers’ agricultural labor system.
In the 1960s, “the communes themselves did not even have the authority to decide what crop to plant. The led to pressure to grow wheat instead of traditional barley…But the crops continually failed because of the extreme temperature fall at night…” (Shakya 310, 312, 313) The resulting famine led to the deaths of over hundreds of thousands of Tibetans when they were “forced to replace high-altitude barley, the staple of the traditional diet, with wheat and rice, which fared poorly in Tibet’s arid climate and thin, rocky soil.” (Powers 170)
Some cynics say the khata has become a tourist gimmick, akin to receiving a lei when arriving in Hawaii. But the khata is a good symbol of the religiosity and reverence that permeates Tibet. Today, khatas are still signs of respect and celebration. In addition, temples, chortens, prayer wheels, mandalas, koras and rosaries provide even more evidence that Buddhism is inseparable from most Tibetans’ lives. Men and women murmur prayers while counting their rosary beads; thousands load incense in temple ovens, people prostrate themselves as they make their way around major temples. We saw police monitoring Tibetan ceremonies, but the horns, dancing and singing never paused. The khatas represent religious tenaciousness.
The PRC’s attempts to delete pictures of the Dalai Lama seem effective; his image is never seen in the market or temple and his name is suppressed online. In fact, my wife and I started a travel blog, but were unable to overcome the firewalls constructed by Chinese censors. It soon became clear that certain words led to the deletion of our posts. We changed “Dalai Lama” to “yak” and we had sporadic success with a post like this one: “The yak is everywhere and nowhere; he is respected by all.” Later, our guide pointed out that the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist ancestor is Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. Since Chenrezig is depicted everywhere, the Dalai Lama is everywhere.
It is a remarkable irony that, due to the Chinese colonization of Tibet, the Dalai Lama has become even more famous. Paradoxically, the PRC might have more easily attained the goal of isolating Tibetans from the Dalai Lama if they had left Tibet alone. The Dalai Lama has inspired Tibetans’ self-confidence since he is the proverbial David fighting Goliath. Sakya cites an example from 1987, when the Dalai Lama spoke to the U.S. Congress. “What struck most Tibetans was the image of the Dalai Lama being enthusiastically received in the parliament of the most powerful nation in the world.” (417)
In 2015, as the Dalai Lama turns 80, one could argue that the Tibetans’ trump card is soon to be lost. However, Shakya says that Buddhism is at the heart of the Tibetans’ world. “Buddhism had always been the core of Tibetan identity, and its clergy the epitome of ‘Tibetanness’…There had always been a strong historical sense that Tibet had been the exclusive territory of the Tibetan people. This was further strengthened by the shared mythical and religious beliefs which regarded certain geographical landmarks as sacred.” (Shakya 417, 421)
After we drove out of the Lhasa airport, we passed through our first police checkpoint, and it seemed like a normal activity in the post 9/11 era. Once we entered Lhasa proper, however, we saw checkpoints on practically every block. The standard procedure for pedestrians was to place bags on a conveyor belt and walk through a metal detector. The guards were a mix of Tibetan and Han men, some of whom were belligerent to pedestrians. My wife witnessed a guard berating a Tibetan woman and pushing her to the ground.
Checkpoints out of Lhasa are roadblocks where all traffic comes to a halt. Our Tibet permits and Chinese visas were always required and they were processed in about ten minutes. We never got used to the military’s presence, perhaps because it seemed to be larger with each successive day. By Day 4, we saw processions of armored vehicles. Some convoys had 75 vehicles and all seemed to be heading for vast encampments that rose out of the Plateau every 50-100 kilometers. We did not see buildings but rather large circles of vehicles and tents. And, with each day, the detailed instructions from the checkpoints became more preposterous. Our driver had to arrive at each checkpoint at a specific minute so as to show he drove neither too fast or too slow. Once, after driving slightly too fast, the driver had to pull over for about a half hour so as not to arrive too soon. My wife and I took the chance to “visit nature,” but we were worried that somehow our wandering away from the road might be seen as a crime. I guess we were starting to get paranoid.
One way to assess the power of military rule is to evaluate its effect on the average person. In retrospect, there was only one time that we noticed abject fear. At the Pelchor Monastery we wanted to meet the head lama because we had noticed him in several BBC video segments. Due to lucky coincidences, we found his office and told him we admired his role in the videos. At first, he looked afraid, as if he expected us to criticize or punish him. We reassured him that we had great respect for his work and his ability to seem calm and wise in a video. He smiled and we hugged each other. Nonetheless, my wife and our guide felt that the Pelchor monks seemed stricken in ways we saw in no other setting. Lhamo hypothesized that, since the monks had been the focus of a foreign media production, they must have been monitored by PRC officials. They are between a rock and hard place, having to serve the Communist Party and their traditions. Fortunately, we broke through the nervous moments with donations of soccer balls, but I doubt that the levity lasted very long.
Are the immolations signs of Tibetan despair and resignation? I do not understand all of the reasons behind the 142-plus Tibetan immolations, but I imagine that many are protests against the traumatic oppression of monastic life. Tibetans, like all of us, are “vulnerable” to the effects of stress. For Fleming, there may well be “loss or trauma and unresolved historical grief.” (50)
As described by Healy in Fleming (25) the basic question is this: does the community have the “capacity…to absorb disturbance while undergoing change so as to retain… identity that preserve(s) its distinctness”? For clues outside of observations, I turn to Sakya who argues that “the majority of Tibetans see the presence of the Chinese both as an embodiment of state power and as a malevolent force which ultimately seeks to destroy Buddhism and Tibetans (italics added).” (447) After visiting Tibet and Yunnan, I agree with Sakya. Tibetans see Han Chinese as a foreign occupation by an enemy army.
Will the religion survive? In the last 25 years, I witnessed the rebirth of the Catholic Church in the formerly communist countries of Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia. Cuba became a communist country in the year the Dalai Lama fled to India, but the Church is thriving and the government welcomes its renaissance. In the same sense, Buddhism will never be extricated from Tibetans. It is the soul force that explains the rigors of the Plateau and what it means to be human in a spartan world.
When faced with famine, military occupation, destruction of monasteries, banning of Tibetan in schools and travel restrictions, will Tibetans eventually be crushed by PRC oppression? Sakya writes that Tibetans are partially immune because “For the majority of Tibetans the high politics of China was remote and irrelevant.” However, Sakya sees earlier traumas that: “…haunt the Tibetan landscape. The people who lived through the period still express their incomprehension…” (347)
Using Fleming’s definition of cultural resilience, I believe that Tibetans will retain their identity and cultural distinctiveness. They will continue with festivals, songs, food, yaks, goats, poetry, chanting, language and a sense of humor. Tibetans will survive underneath the PRC’s heavy handed reforms while taking advantage of vast engineering improvements. Land, faith, and culture will protect Tibetans in two ways. First of all, as long as they are allowed to live on the Plateau, Tibetans will be inspired by the earth and its produce. Secondly, the PRC’s economic and political changes do not directly challenge the culture of day-to-day life. Underneath and around the guns is a thriving Tibetan Buddhist society.
What could break the will of Tibetans? A wholesale removal of Tibetans from the Plateau and a banning of Tibetan languages would threaten to destroy Tibetan culture. Certainly, the death of the Dalai Lama will alter the landscape, as writer Woeser points out: “(T)he fate of the Dalai Lama remains an open wound in the heart of every Tibetan. He is the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a living, breathing bodhisattva…But once he is deceased, hope becomes despair, hatred overcomes fear, and bereavement fans fanaticism.” (10) Pessimists may argue that the Tibetans have an impossible situation; after all, China’s economy will soon be the biggest in the world and China will be the greatest empire of this century. However, the Tibetan David has many advantages. A highly motivated diaspora prospers under the leadership of the Dalai Lama and his internet-savvy supporters. This Dharmsala-based community transcends the physical boundaries of China. In a sense, the diaspora applies balm on the Plateau’s psychic wounds. That is a big reason there is hope in Tibet, Amdo and Kham.
In the future, I believe it is crucial to answer these questions:
- How do Tibetan children learn their native language when it is banned in school?
- How is PRC censorship being affected by social media?
- How are the immolations affecting PRC – Tibetan politics?
- What are the effects of dams and railroads in Tibet?
- How can monastic scrolls be safe-guarded and translated into other languages?
- Craige, Tito and Kim Craige, Fearless Plateau, video, Chapel Hill: Craigeclips, 2015.
- Fleming, John and R. J. Ledogar, “Resilience: an Evolving Concept: A Review of Literature Relevant to Aboriginal Research,” Pimatisiwin, Canada: PubMed Central, Summer, 2008.
- Sakya, Tsering, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, New York: Penguin, 1999.
- Sautman, Barry and J. T. Dreyer, Editors, Contemporary Tibet, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.
- Singh, Aprajita. “Tibetans Breathe Easy…” Down to Earth, a publication of Common Sense, July 3, 2014.
- Powers, John and D. Templeton, Historical Dictionary of Tibet, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012.
- Woeser, Tsering and W. Lixiong, Voices from Tibet: Selected Essays and Reportage, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014.