A Much-Needed Tibetan History Lesson

Dharamsala is a real contrast to Manali although, in some ways, for me, less impressive.  This isn’t to say that it isn’t beautiful, inviting, peaceful …perhaps I’m just feeling “lost” without my view of the Himalayas.  Knowing me, though, I’ll readjust fast.  In the meantime, I remind myself that not only is this hill station exceedingly charming, but it’s home to a a world-famous dignitary – His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

And this is about as impressive as it gets, right?

To my shame,  I am woefully ignorant of all matters Buddhist, not to mention the history of the Tibetan people.  I know little more that that many of them were jailed or murdered by the Chinese Communists in the 1950s and those who fled were offered “refuge” by Nehru.  (Today, under his Holiness, they function as a government in exile – not that I know what this means either).   I am embarrassed – I have a degree in politics and international relations!  I decide to try and rectify this sorry state of affairs.  First stop, the Tibet Museum.

In two hours, my eyes are opened.  The cultural heritage of these people is richer than I could ever have imagined and inextricably bound up with Buddhist practices.  Their songs, step dances and masked opera are loaded with hidden meaning (I discover that Tang Xianzu, a prominent dramatic artist of the Ming dynasty, is regarded by many as the Shakespeare of the East).   Moreover, between the 11th and 14th centuries, every significant Buddhist text was translated into Tibetan.  Today, I am told, a fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk will have to have taken 253 vows, and then need to partake in bi-monthly “confessions.”

I wonder if these are taken on in a “confession and rosary” Catholic tone, or a “You must afflict yourself on the thirteenth day…” Yom Kippur manner?  I even wonder if I should track down a monk to see if he’ll let me get a few things off my chest (it’s been over nine months since I confessed anything…so not only would I learn something new, but I’d clear my conscience too, right?)  As I ponder this thought, I spy a monk wandering down a corridor, decked out head to almost toe in bright orange.  The exception is his feet, where a pair ofvivid pink Crocs completes the attire.  Unwilling to compromise his privacy, I resist the urge to pull out my camera.  It’s a unique look, that’s for sure, not that I think it’s likely to catch on.  Trust me, bright orange is enough for the hardiest eyes…

Florescent clothing aside, I soon find myself in another part of the museum, learning of the darker history of the Tibetans, namely the horrific persecution they have suffered at the hands of the Chinese.  The guide who walks round with me informs me that over a million were killed as a result of the Chinese invasion (before 1949, Tibet was a nation state with its own government, currency, postal system, language and legal system).   After the invasion, 6,000 monasteries were destroyed, and tens of thousands of locals were forcibly removed from their lands. Today, singing the national anthem is a crime, waving the flag is is illegal and even possession of a photograph of the Dalai Lama can result in imprisonment.  According to the UN, torture in Tibet remains widespread and “routine”. In desperation, many Tibetans have taken to self-immolation.  And yet Chinese occupation continues and the world stands by. 

I am appalled at what I learn and ashamed at my ignorance.  I leave the museum stunned, and heavy in heart.  I vow to send a cheque to Free Tibet, once back in Israel, and spread the word.  Because I don’t believe ignorance is bliss, and the point of this trip is not just to enjoy myself (which I am doing, immensely), but learn a little.  And today I know I have