The image above from today's New York Times is so wrong in so many ways. It captures the photo-op high point of Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Dharamsala, India. First off, the depth of bows should be reversed. From this shot, you might imagine Nancy to be the great spiritual leader, which -- just my guess -- she probably is not. Second, what was the thinking as to how this trip would affect the US presidential elections in November? You can be sure this was covered in some strategy session. The leveraging of human suffering to wave the flag of liberal correctness has to be at least vaguely nauseating -- especially in light of the fact that 99+% of the people viewing this photo have no fucking clue what's really going on in Tibet.
As many of you know, I live in Boulder, Colorado. At a conservative estimate, there must be literally thousands of Free Tibet bumper stickers cruising the streets of this burg. Yet an unscientific survey I conducted this week showed that there were no -- as in none, zero, nada -- books on the history of Tibet on the shelves of Boulder's two largest bookstores, Borders and Barnes & Noble. The latter did have several copies of The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama in its history section, but conversations with the Dalai Lama hardly constitute serious intellectual history. If you doubt this statement, imagine the history of the Catholic Church you'd get from chatting with the Pope.
And the gnarliness of Tibetan history is the stuff of legend. I am currently reading an excellent book on this very gnarliness -- History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People's Republic of China -- which shows, in a very disciplined and scholarly way, how both sides distort "the facts" and "the truth" each claims to be conveying. Neither camp is spared the author's keen eye for bias and hyperbole.
My favorite bit so far involves the works of Robert A.F. Thurman, whom I prefer to think of as Uma's Dad, which he in fact is. The photo of the two together is from an InStyle magazine slideshow titled "Fergie and LC Daily Hot Shots," which also includes candid pics of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton, and Lenny Kravitz. The caption reads: "Uma Thurman joined her father, Robert, for the annual Tibet House auction at auction house Christie's in New York City. Items up for grabs included a $20,000 shopping spree at Donna Karan, a set of Gucci luggage, and dinner with Uma and her dad at the tony Four Seasons hotel."
Wow, huh? And if you'd been top bidder for that tony dinner, you could have discussed with Bob the situation in Tibet.
In History as Propaganda, author John Powers has this to say about Thurman...
While Richardson and other Western and Tibetan writers freely acknowledge that Tibet was by no means perfect, Robert Thurman's characterization of Tibet is distinctive in that he appears to recognize no flaws in old Tibet.In the next paragraph, we read a contemporary update on the fantasy of Shangri-La -- or, as it's called these days by my dearly departed (to Nova Scotia) ex-brethren, Shambhala.
In Thurman's version, old Tibet was an idyllic land of spiritual adepts, He refers to them as "psychonauts" and claims that while the West invested its resources in the pursuit and development of external technologies, the Tibetans invested just as heavily in the pursuit of spiritual perfection.Of course, this leaves hanging the question of who, precisely, was doing all this "investing." Powers continues...
While other writers portray Tibet's relative poverty in a negative light, Thurman contends that Tibet's people freely chose to reject materialism to better pursue their religious goals, The economy was deliberately "minimalist" because Tibetans wanted to produce only enough to feed everyone and provide a small surplus to guard against any shortage. They realized that greed and corruption result from excessive materialism, and so they consciously decided to limit themselves to a "small is beautiful" economy.
Translation: Tibetan serfs were more than happy to slurp Yak-butter tea and thin barley gruel while the monks daubed gold leaf onto the roofs of the Potala. Right out of this picture, on the other hand (or is it the same hand?), would be "a $20,000 shopping spree at Donna Karan, a set of Gucci luggage, and dinner with Uma and her dad at the tony Four Seasons hotel."
Pressing on a bit further...
Thurman's Tibet was "a place of unprecedented opportunity for the individual intent on enlightenment: maximum low-cost lifelong educational opportunities, minimum taxes, no military services, no mortgages, no factories of material products, no lack of teachers and realized beings." It was a "spiritual civilization," a country in which the people had a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all life that resulted in an attitude of stewardship of the environment and in which the government unilaterally chose to demilitarize the country, creating a "zone of peace" that is a model that should be emulated by other nations.
Has being dirt-poor and politically disenfranchised ever been made to sound so wholesome? Not to mention, notice, how eco-friendly! But let's consider for a moment Thurman's notion that this model should be emulated.
Chances are good that most of you would balk (to say the least) at the idea of living under a born-again evangelical Christian theocracy. Uh, that's OK, thanks. I'm trying to cut down. Or how about an Islamic theocracy? That'd be cool, right? Well, hmmm, on second thought, maybe not. But a Buddhist theocracy? Especially a Tibetan Buddhist theocracy? Double-down super-especially a Tibetan Tantric Buddhist theocracy? A-OK! Bring it on!
Never mind that "Buddhist theocracy" is an oxymoron. As so many spiritual-but-not-religious wanna-weenies are utterly flabbergasted to discover, Buddhists are by definition atheists. So the "theo" bit doesn't really apply. You could look it up. Knowing that you won't, I looked it up for you. In the Wikipedia entry for Nontheism, we get to read this quote from my old pal Pema Chodron (she knew me when I was still an active alcoholic and practicing Buddhist [they went so well together back then, if only as psychic protection from this sort of thing]). Where was I? Oh yes. So Wikipedia quotes Pema from her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times...
The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God.[...] Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold [...] Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves [...] Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on.In other words, if I may paraphrase, if you want to believe in a magical heavenly au pair girl, knock yourself out, fool! In light of this gloss, her first sentence, above, seems a tad disingenuous. The fact is, Tibetan Buddhists no more believe in God than the Chinese Communists do. Put that in your bong and toke it.
What they both do believe in is...
Perhaps this will make more sense in context.
Note the rich gold brocade. Note the look. But especially, note the word "ruling." Take it very seriously. They do.
Back to that Free Tibet bumper sticker. If you want something of substance about Tibet -- say, to display prominently on your dashboard so it looks like you know what the fuck you're talking about -- you can do no better (I checked) than the two-volume 1500+ page History of Modern Tibet by Melvyn C. Goldstein. Volume 1, The Demise of the Lamaist State, covers 1913-1951. Volume 2, The Calm Before the Storm, covers 1951-1955. Granted, that still leaves more than 50 years of recent history out of the picture, but it explains a whole hell of a lot about what's going on in Tibet today. As do these excellent books...
If you really want to understand the region, pay less attention to books like Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, who was a member of the Nazi Party, and to the various (and vacuous) gushings of Giuseppe Tucci, who was a committed fascist (see "Giuseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the age of Fascism" in Donald S. Lopez, Jr (ed.), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism).
Instead, try thinking of the Tibetans and Chinese as normal human beings like you and me, trying to work things out on the ground instead of allowing themselves to be used as pawns in the hyper-abstract geopolitical war games still being played on artificially intelligent supercomputers by dried up old military geezers in Washington and Beijing. And yes, Virginia, on the equally bizarre prayer wheels of Dharamsala.
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Friday, March 21