Tibet: the 10 of Swords

I'm writing this post in a hotel room in Namling, Tibet. This is an area very few westerners are allowed to visit, because it is difficult to get the appropriate permits from the Chinese government to be here. We were surprised to receive our own permit to be here, but rejoiced at our good luck. 

Last night, within 15 minutes of our arrival at this hotel, five Chinese police officers showed up to question us about why we are here and how long we plan to be here. They debated the validity of our permit and wanted us to leave immediately. We would have had to drive 6 1/2 hours back to Lhasa in the middle of the night, and then find a hotel that could accommodate our group of 16 people on short notice. The catch-22 was that we are not allowed to drive after 8 pm due to governmental road curfews. It was already 7 pm when we arrived here, and there are at least a half dozen police checkpoints between here and Lhasa, so that drive would have been impossible. After turning over our passports for examination, making a few phone calls to the right people, and the good word of the Chinese police "safety officer" who has been our mandated constant companion since we arrived in Tibet, it became possible for us to stay for our allotted two nights here. 

The hotel is opulent in design, yet there are no guests here but us, the water is turned off most of the time, there is no hot water in the building at all, the electricity is sporadic, and last night I am pretty sure a local woman was assaulted outside our window. We heard her screaming, heard a man's voice angrily shushing her, and then the police showed up again. Despite the crystal chandeliers in the lobby and message painted on the wall welcoming us to the "Holy Land," this is a harsh place, a dangerous place, a critically environmentally damaged place, and a place where even the most basic liberties are a luxury enjoyed by the very select few. 

I'm telling you this because it's important that you know about it. It's important that we who enjoy the privileges of relative personal safety, freedom, and security pay attention to what is happening outside our bubbles. I'm telling you this to help dispel any romantic illusion of mystical Tibet that you might carry. It's not here. The magic of legend has been, like the rest of Tibet, beaten into submission. Nearly every Tibetan we have met has told us how blessed and fortunate we are to be western practitioners, because that is where the dharma teachings are available now. They exhort us to practice, to keep the dharma alive. I have cried and prayed for them everywhere we have visited. I will cry and pray for them after we leave. I will practice harder than before, because I know they are right, and I feel a great responsibility to do what they have asked, to keep the dharma alive where I have the freedom and opportunity to do so.

I'm telling you this because, although I have lived and worked in some really rough neighborhoods in NYC and Oakland, although I read, researched, queried and investigated ahead of time, although I thought I had done my own due diligence and adequately stripped myself of my own mystical illusions of Tibet before I came, nothing could have prepared me for the reality of what I have seen here. And mine is just one single observer's story. 

Before coming here we were warned not to be too visibly friendly or generous with the locals in public because it could get them in serious, life-threatening trouble. We heard a story of a Tibetan woman who gave some food to a monk on the street in Lhasa, and who was then grabbed by the police, a bag placed over her head, and taken to prison where she was interrogated for two weeks before they placed the bag over her head again and dropped her off on a street corner with no explanation. Our tour guide on this trip escaped Tibet when he was younger, and he lived in India and Bhutan, studying. When he had to come back to take care of his aging mother, he was forced to spend 6 months in prison in order to re-enter his homeland, and he considered himself lucky for a light sentence. Right before we came here, we did a ten-day retreat with a Tibetan tulku who spent 15 years in prison before escaping and coming to the west. There are thousands, millions, more stories just like these, and worse.

It's easy for Western Pagans who have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and many other privileges to romanticize cultures and religions that are worlds away. Being that we Pagans are an intelligent, curious lot, we love to read, research, and learn about the indigenous, old world, and third world traditions that echo our own dearly-held values and practices: closeness to the Earth, polytheism, shamanism, and the spontaneous arising of natural magic. We often even feel a sympathetic camaraderie with those who, like Tibetans, have been persecuted for adhering to their traditional ways. After all, we are well aware that we, too, are a religious minority whom others have sought to crush or control in the past, and even in the present in some areas.

But there is no way, literally no way at all, that we can accurately draw parallels between the realities that are suffered by those who live elsewhere and what we experience in the US, or most of Europe. We can draw sympathetic, if pale, comparisons, yes. Parallels, no. Even those who have it the worst in the US are unlikely to be arrested, disappeared, or outright killed simply for practicing our religion today. For example, even in the most conservative, Christian-heavy areas of America, even when we choose to keep our Paganism secret for fear of professional or social ostracization, no one in the US has to apply for a government permit to be Pagan. It is inappropriate to compare ourselves to those who have to endure this, and worse. Rather, it would be better if we could see, reflected in the experiences of others who are more persecuted than we, how far we actually have come, and then leverage the power we have gained to continue our own march toward greater collective empowerment, as well as aiding the empowerment of those more oppressed than we.

We Pagans also have to confront the fact that, amidst our relatively young and often highly mundane American history, media and culture, we thirst for things we consider magical, lush, heroic, and "exotic." It is a joy for me to sit on my cozy meditation cushion in my warm, pretty apartment envisioning snow lions and flying dakinis and wizened sages with amazing powers as described in countless Tibetan texts. I look around me at reality TV, corporate personhood, the horrible legacies of African-American slavery and the murder and colonization of Native Americans, the gross consumption of gas and other natural resources, and I don't see much that I like about America, sometimes. It's a comfort to turn to foreign myth, history, and culture and identify with that rather than identifying with the things I find odious here.

Being in Tibet, I HAVE met some amazing shaggy homeless dogs that really look a lot like snow lions, many magical women who are enduring terrible conditions for the sake of devotion to their practice, and a few old men with twinkling eyes and arthritic legs bowed from years of sitting meditation. It is both exactly as the ancient texts describe, and nothing like they describe, at the same time. I have also come to a new level of awareness of the gratitude I have for the US and its freedoms, as well as a deeper personal sense of commitment to preserving and advancing them. I can easily see how the Tibet of right now could be the US in 50 years. All it would take to topple our basic freedoms would be 1) a high enough rate of impoverished and undereducated unemployment mixed with, 2) a gross inadequacy of basic natural resources like fresh water, to render us excruciatingly vulnerable to an autocratic corporate government. Make no mistake, this is already happening. I am clearly, clearly able to see how many freedoms people have been forced to surrender here, in order to just survive. When the hand that feeds you also controls your every move, it is amazing what you can learn to live with. Some might say, "I'd die before I would let that happen to me!" But I wonder if you really would. Think about where our freedoms are now compared to 20 years ago. What have we learned to live with already? Homeland Security, the TSA, the NSA.

Lest I sound like a doomsday prophet, or even just a whiny American traveler, know that there is so much I have loved about Tibet, and so much potential I see here for the day when freedom returns to this land. The nuns where we did our most significant retreat are utterly wonderful. The mountains are awe-inspiring. The spirit of the Tibetan people is courageous and fierce. I cultivated a deeper-than-ever respect for the significant contributions that Tibetan culture has made to the world in the way of meditation, mind training, and natural medicine. This article isn't meant to tell the whole story of my journey, nor to draw big conclusions, as much as it is an initial introduction to some themes I intend to unpack in further posts. Stay tuned for:

Tibet: the Queen of Swords
Being White and a Minority
Alternatives to Appropriation
Tibet: How can I help?

So, how did I deal with the suffering I saw when I was in Tibet, the sense of futility I had even when we presented gifts and financial donations and medical equipment to the nuns, the sense of deep loss that is felt in every moment that freedom is further curtailed? For one thing, I did magic. Turn up the volume if you want to hear it, and take a peek if you like at the Mother of the New Time ideals.