James: I'd like to introduce you all to my dear friend Haven Tobias who will be guest posting today. Haven has been a wonderful friend to myself, and The Buddhist Blog, so I was thrilled to read about her recent visit to Tibet. Especially given the recent turmoil. I believe that the best sources of history and news come from first person accounts. Her first hand experience of details on the ground in Tibet riveting. May you all find Haven's travel post as insightful as I did:
I arrived in Lhasa, after 44 hours on the train from Beijing, on May 2, 2012. I knew not many tour groups had been granted the special visa needed to travel to Tibet since the crack-down after what the Chinese had identified as “unrest,” but still I was unprepared for our “welcome.” Unbeknownst to us, the railroad station was cordoned off, and our guide was being kept a block away. So, there was no one to assist us when we were swarmed by several members of a SWAT team (so their helmets and jackets read), who seized not only our Tibet-entry papers, but also our passports.
Either none of them spoke English, or they preferred not to speak English. There were only six of us, and our average age was about 70, and it is hard for me to believe we posed any particular threat to warrant the gruff treatment. We seemed to be at an impasse as to what would happen next. Our leader was brave enough to just walk off to find our tour guide. He told her he could not accompany her back to us, but that she need not worry. Our passports would be returned to us and he had an extra copy of our entry papers. After a while, our passports were returned to us, and we were allowed to leave the railroad station and meetup with our guide.
Even that “welcoming” did not prepare me for what I was to see in Tibet. I gradually became aware that there were military everywhere. They were posted on the rooftops; they were at every intersection in several-man formations, looking in all directions. They were at the entrance to monasteries, and they were handling the security at the Potala Palace,(the former Winter Palace of the Dalai Lama), including again taking possession of all passports. They were driving convoys of military vehicles on the roads, bearing bumper stickers that read: “Listen to what your government says. Do what your government tells you.”
I am not a China expert, and I am not a Tibet expert. I am commenting only on what I saw, but not interpreting the policy implications. (I am not a fool, however, and I am very aware of the environmental and geographical reasons why China would assert control over Tibet at whatever cost.)
The reason why I think my experience is an appropriate topic for The Buddhist Blog is different from the political and social ramifications. There is a tender and delicate balance between Thay’s call to Engaged Buddhism and Thay’s exhortation: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
I practiced law for 4 decades. I tend to want to solve problems. I ask: ok, what can I do about this problem? I ran through the whole list of practical solutions. Organize a debate over whether to boycott tourism in Tibet or to encourage tourism in Tibet. (This, by the way, is no longer up for discussion. After two more people immolated themselves in early June, China closed the doors to Tibet again.) Petition our government to impose economic sanctions on China. (Ok, I’m waiting for the laughter to subside…) Flood China with social media comments about what’s going on in Tibet. (Perhaps they couldn’t all be blocked.)
But it wasn’t because I couldn’t come up with a practical plan that I had a lightening change of focus. I just suddenly realized how very right Gandhi was when he said “Be the change you want to see” and how very right Thay is when he says “Peace in oneself, peace in the world.”
I didn’t suddenly realize this as an intellectual premise, or as a last resort. I realized in a visceral manner to my very core that what I could do for the Tibetans was to hold them in the heart of my meditation, and what I had also to do was to hold the Chinese soldiers, so young, and probably so scared, in the heart of my mediation. Both “sides” are held hostage to greed and hate and delusion.
I am not saying that there are no situations, in Tibet, or elsewhere in the world, where there aren’t real victims. But I am saying what Thay said a long time ago in his brilliant poem “Please Call Me By My True Names”:
-- if we look deeply we see that the “victimizers” are also victims, and
that we ourselves are both victims and victimizers. We have no more
worthy deed to do for this world, no greater gift to give, than to cultivate a
heart that is open to peace and understanding and compassion, without
May all beings find refuge in a heart that has grown big enough to hold all who suffer.