For today’s blog I read Katia Buffetrille’s article Self Immolations In Tibet and Jeffrey Bartholet’s article Aflame both chronicling and trying to understand the reasonings for the Tibetan self-immolations that have been occurring in recent history and their connection to China’s occupation of Tibet. Without a historical basis for setting one’s self on fire, Buffetrille states how the first modern self-immolation occurred in response to the Indian police preventing a group of the Tibetan Youth Congress from participating in a hunger strike until death. Following police intervention in the hunger strike a monk set himself on fire catching large amounts of international media attention. This action has since been followed by a number of other self-immolations in protest, with the most of them occurring directly after some form of Chinese crackdown in Tibet. A vast majority of them occur directly within Tibet, however given Chinese censorship self-immolations are usually noticed most when they are done by Tibetans in exile. There is debate over the motivations of those who perform these self-immolations and whether they are acts of protest and the immolators are martyrs in the fight for Tibetan independence or the immolators are simply suicidal Tibetans and self-immolation has become the preferred method of taking one’s life. In my opinion the self-immolations are a direct form of protest to Chinese control and are the most radical non-violent way a Tibetan can show the world their problems with China. Buffetrille states that roughly two-thirds of the immolators have been in their twenties with the oldest being in his forties. We have discussed in class how the younger generations of Tibet are beginning to generate tension with the Dalai Lama and his calls to non-violence against the Chinese, given that it goes against the teachings of Buddhism. Given the idea that there are some Tibetans considering using violence against the Chinese in their desperation, it would make sense that there are a large number of young Tibetans who are not willing to use violence against the Chinese yet, but still believe that more radical steps need to be taken to show that Tibet does not accept Chinese rule. By self-immolating this more radical generation is honoring the Dalai Lama’s wishes and not violently revolting against the Chinese, but are still showing that they are willing to give their own lives, become martyrs in the name of Tibetan Independence. And is it can be seen in Buffetrille’s article many Tibetan’s view those who self-immolate as martyrs, having giving their life in the fight against Chinese repression, regardless of whether or not that life was given at the end of a gun barrel, or from the engulfing flames from their gasoline soaked clothes.
In this article Religious Relationships with the Environment in a Tibetan Rural Community: Interactions and Contrasts with Popular Notions of Indigenous Environmentalism, (a mouthful of a title) the authors discuss the ideas and roles of worship of local gods with the lay people of Tibet and how this affects their worship of their environment. Many rural Tibetans still have a strong foundational belief in their traditional regional gods all of whom are directly tied to the environment of their local ecosystem. It is by this very nature that many lay Tibetans are inclined to take steps to protect their environment since they see it as an extension of their religion and any damage that falls upon their sacred sites could come back to them much worse. This combined with the Buddhist ideals that all life is precious form a powerful incentive to protect their environment. As we saw in the Pad Yatra documentary on Tuesday, Tibet has clearly been one region that is already seeing the potential future impacts and ecological destruction that can come from climate change.
Given the current political tension between Beijing and Tibet, alongside with China’s new push into more eco-friendly environmental policies, it would seem that China has an opportunity to hit two birds with one stone. China could make a form of a cultural peace offering to Tibet by stepping up their environmental conservation efforts in the Tibetan plateau, and framing it as not simply an fight against climate change but as protection/worship of the Earth and the idea that all life is sacred. By following this strategy China would not directly lend credence to either Buddhism or local spiritual deities, but would in fact still follow their basic tenets and directly appeal to the goodwill of the people in a moral sense. Not only would this appeal to Tibetans from a religious angle but from a pure standard of living angle as well. This would further their propaganda message that China is simply helping the people of Tibet who are incapable of helping themselves, and bringing them into the twenty-first century. This effort would be well received in the west (as long as it is genuinely followed through) from younger generations who are growing much more environmentally conscious. China could use the guise of environmental protections to peacefully bring a large portion of the Tibetan population closer into the fold of the Chinese government, genuinely make concrete improvement in the lives of Tibetans and others surrounding the plateau, and at the same time garner goodwill from Western populations looking for powerful governments to step up and lead the charge against global warming. From a karmic perspective, environmental protection seems like the best possible move for the Chinese government.
In the documentary Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey we follow the Himalayan trek of Gyalwang Drukpa, a lama of the Drukpa lineage and a staunch environmentalist. Gyalwang leads several hundred people through a path in the Himalayas picking up cleaning up plastic waste, and educating remote villages on the importance of eco-friendly practices. Given that the Himalayan region is being so heavily impacted by the rapid pace of global warming, as could be seen by the extreme and unpredictable weather, it was heartwarming to see an influential religious leader in the region take such personal charge of the efforts to reduce the impact that plastic waste can have on this crucial ecological system. From a religious perspective, Gyalwang has effectively altered some of the core messages of Buddhism in a way that strongly appeals to a western audience. Buddhism has always preached the message of compassion for all living things, and in this way Gyalwang’s message is no different, all life is precious no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. This could be seen in the moments when the group stopped to blow bugs off of the trail or when several followers helped a trapped horse out of the mud. Buddhism in a traditional sense requested compassion on the grounds that all living things are of a similar soul, just in a different state of reincarnation. This message has never deeply resonated with a western audience since the concept of reincarnation is not one that has ever been strongly established in western culture. However, by using the backdrop of global warming, a phenomenon that western culture and science is very much aware of, Gyalwang has provided a context in which Buddhism’s unyielding compassion can be more culturally understood. This can be seen in the large number of westerners who participated in the long trek. Approaching Buddhism from an ecologically preservative perspective creates opens an interesting path to rethinking some traditional Buddhist doctrine. Global warming is Humanities collective suffering for the bad karma of pollution and destroying the natural habitats of creatures all around the world. This bad karma can be cleansed through pilgrimages such as Gyalwang Drukpa’s or smaller acts such as the planting of trees to help rebuild deforested areas. One line from the film that particularly stuck out to me was in reference to how the storms like the one in the documentary had been happening more frequently in the past several years (paraphrasing) “We need to stop calling them natural disasters, they are not coming from nature. These are man made disasters”. The idea of taking responsibility for the damaging acts of the past and taking the necessary steps, regardless of how big or small, is one that would appeal to young western audiences. I personally am not sure if I believe in the concept of reincarnation currently, or if I will ever believe in it. However, I do believe in global warming and if Buddhist practice was rooted in the idea of reducing global warming for what will be either my children’s generation or my next reincarnation, then I would be much more inclined to support it.
In the 11th chapter of Gary McCue’s Trekking In Tibet McCue discusses the Mount Kailash Region, the cultural and religious significance of it, and how best to travel through the region. This reading broke down the why Mount Kailash was sacred to the multiple religions of the region as well as how a large number of pilgrimages occur every year from worshippers of several different religions. In a way this particular reading felt much different from all of the other readings I distinctly remember from this course due to the fact that this reading presented a perspective of Tibet that I as a western tourist could directly experience. All of the other understandings of Tibet have come from a largely historical or theological perspective. Reading about a Holy Site of Tibetan Buddhism, a place where Milarepa himself stood, alongside the “pit of garbage and broken glass, barking dogs, loud Chinese disco music, and revving truck engines” (Trekking 207) that is the town of Darchen feels almost wrong. Sacred sites of Tibetan Buddhism turning into little more than a tourist trap for adventure hungry westerners is one certainly one of the unforeseen consequences that can come with the opening up of Tibetan culture to the outside world.
One other section of this reading that particularly caught my attention was the section on the Mount Kailash Circuit Trek. McCue describes the hike as a rather difficult hike that can be completed in its entirety in a day, if one spends their entire day on it. There are some Tibetans however, who complete prostrations during the entire trek, in which case the journey can take up to two weeks long. McCue also mentions that for a Tibetan Buddhist, one trek around the mountain cleanses the participant of a lifetime of sins, and enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime by completing 108 circuits (Trekking 213). This pilgrimage seems to be the latest stop in a line of diluting the requirements that are necessary to attain enlightenment. Based on the early teachings of the Buddha, enlightenment was something that required utter devotion and commitment over several lifetimes to attain. Then we eventually reach the Tantric practices in which enlightenment can be achieved through suffering and the careful practice of certain methods under the watchful eye of a qualified guru. Now however, it seems that enlightenment is something that can be obtained simply by hiking around a mountain 108 times. McCue’s description is undoubtedly an oversimplification of the practice that occurs when one performs the Mount Kailash circuit, however the fact of the trend in attaining enlightenment remains. What exactly about Buddhism has caused it to so drastically lower the standards for entry to enlightenment? Is it a trend of trying to entice more hesitant followers to throw themselves at a suddenly more attainable goal of enlightenment? Or is it simply because Buddhist practitioners have come to understand the nature of human existence to a point where they can streamline the practices to be achieved not only in one lifetime, but a fraction of that?
The Tibetan Buddhist institution of Tulku involves the stewardship of a reincarnated Lama’s holdings and possessions from one generation to the next. Once the reincarnation of a Lama or some other being worthy of identification, their steward confirms the validity of the reincarnation and then acts as a guardian for the young Lama until they come of age and can legally take possession of their belongings and responsibilities. This practice which is a crucial aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist power structure, especially in the role of the Tibetan head of state, the Dalai Lama. Tulku is a double-edged sword when it comes to establishing future cultural and political landscapes. In one sense Tulku is a way to prevent the entrenchment of wealth across generations and prevent the formation of any kind of landed aristocracy or nobility (Hirschberg ii). By reincarnating throughout the Tibetan plateau into both rich and poor families alike Tulku is a form of social mobility unseen in the western world which is dominated by generations of wealth being accumulated in the hands of a few distinct family. While in Tulku this wealth is still accumulated into a central ownership, this ownership is not strictly governed by the social status of one’s birth. The unfortunate side of Tulku is the extent to which it stands to be manipulated by political or economic forces. In the case of influential Buddhist Lama’s, the Chinese government is attempting to intervene in the realization of their rebirth. With the occupying secular Chinese government taking an active role in the stewardship of reborn Lama’s education, possessions, and cultural responsibilities the best interests of the Lama and the Tibetan people may be waylaid by Chinese ambition for the region. This is of a particular issue in the rebirth of the Dalai Lama where the Chinese government wishes to use the reincarnated Lama to help legitimize Chinese control of the region and subdue resistance (China’s Tensions).
Another issue with the concept Tulku beyond the secular realm of Tibet is it directly conflicts with the Buddhist ideal of emptiness in a theoretical sense. Given the idea that material possessions and wealth have no inherent meaning then why are vastly wealthy Lama’s and monks maintaining their extravagant wealth from generation to generation? The concept of the middle way does state that Buddhist monks should not need to live in poverty, but yet the consolidation of wealth into the estate of one Lama over the course of multiple lifetimes seems to conflict with the idea of giving up attachment to the physical and material concerns of our lives. The concept of a religious hierarchy dominated by the wealth of reincarnated Lamas and their stewards directly contradicts with the viewpoint that all physical things are empty of inherent meaning and power.
In the readings from The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, the author discusses the practices in which both a Tibetan monk and a lay person of Tibet come to understand the concepts of literacy and Buddhism. Both are learned largely through memorization and recitation of known letters and text, until a pupil can read and repeat a given text. A Tibetan education is focused largely on reading through memorization largely ignoring the ability write, with the exception being practicing calligraphy (84). While memorizing a text may be helpful in remembering the many lists and heavily structured rituals that come in Tibetan Buddhism, based on the descriptions from this reading it seems that the Tibetan educational system would fail greatly in the aspect of teaching comprehension. Simple memorization of Buddhist scriptures would go a long way in assisting young monks to be able to quote scripture and provide a textual answer to many of the questions they may be faced with in their religious studies, however it would do little to prepare them to expand on past teachings and potentially modify the scripture so that it could more effectively adapt to a changing social or political climate. To put this issue to a metaphor, if someone was trying to learn a new language they could easily find a translative dictionary or pay someone to write a very extensive phrasebook. While inefficient this person could essentially converse with anyone in that given language without ever truly learning or understanding this language. Then while this person may be considered “fluent” in this new language, presented with a word or phrase not in their books, or in a Tibetan’s memory, they may be unable to adapt and react to this previously unknown situation. This gap in creative adaptability seems to be tackled to some extent through the practice of Tibetan debate. The author describes the methodology of Tibetan monastic debate as involving “the same kind of logical manipulation as algebra” (195). In this sense it would follow that Tibetan debates largely consist of breaking down memorized texts and paraphrasing them in given moments as a response to a question posed in the debate. This practice would go a long way in helping a monk comprehend and understand the texts they would have been working to memorize as a part of their schooling. Being able to deconstruct and repurpose logical arguments would be very helpful in the path of comprehending Buddhist texts however this practice of debates still does not address the lack of creative development that monks see in their education. This could be of a particular problem for Tibetan Buddhists in the modern world as they try and preserve their ancient customs in the face of Chinese oppression. In their inability to adapt their message and teachings, Buddhism as it stands will have a difficult time being repurposed to attract a western audience, which it desperately needs if the religion is going to take hold beyond Tibetan borders.
In my overview of the “Women in Tibet” reading it is made clear that the concept of female monasticism in Tibetan villages such as Labrang is largely viewed as unnatural and is in stark contrast with many of the established Tibetan gender roles that have existed for the region for the better part of it’s history. However, with the imposition of Chinese communist rule, and the societal changes that came with the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, it would seem that despite the continued conservative mindsets of many Tibetans the position of nun is becoming much more open to the women of Tibet.
One point that I found interesting was how the imposition of Chinese rule indirectly led to the loosening of gender positions in rural Tibet. This trend followed a pattern very similar to that of the industrial revolution in Europe in the eighteenth century. The transition of the industrial revolution largely involved the migration from rural areas into newly formed urban centers due to the availability of new wage paying jobs. Meanwhile in post-Chinese Tibet many women were encouraged to migrate from a rural background to a more urban environment. While the symptoms of both migrations may have been the same, the causes for both were quite different. Due increased state repression of religion in the region and the imposition of property taxes led to a large percentage of Tibetan families being unable to maintain their landholdings. In most areas of Tibet women were liberated from their assigned gender role due to the need to find wage paying jobs in order to support themselves and their family. However, in regions that there was still a Monastic presence such as Labrang, many women turned to a the monastic vows in order to find some sense of stability and a guaranteed meal (Gyatso 267). The reality of the Chinese occupation of Tibet is that is has been a brutal and oppressive regime. However despite this, the Chinese reforms did more for gender equality than centuries of Buddhist teachings of compassion ever did.
One other interesting point I noticed in this reading was the description of how karmic rebirth can play a role in the establishment of gender roles. Being born as a female, while still with the advantage of a human birth is deemed to be a lower form of birth than being a man, summed up by “males have more merit from past lifetimes and thus enjoy great social advantages in this lifetime” (Gyatso 269). The implications of using karmic rebirth to justify social, political, or economic inequalities are highly dangerous to any possible ideas of progressivism or social progress. Justifying a particular group’s persecution whether it be racial, sexual, or otherwise based on their misdeeds in a previous life may make karmic sense, however given an amoral approach to Buddhist teachings, this could easily be used as a means for further persecution of that particular group. In a way the justification of karmic rebirth as a reason for one’s suffering is no better than the idea of scientific racism. Factors beyond one’s control in a Buddhist sense must be carefully monitored to prevent further oppression in a secular sense.
The concept of selflessness is one that is all too familiar to many Americans when it is summed up in the statement “Treat others how you want to be treated”. It is a statement burned into the minds of both young children and aspiring Buddhist pupils. As said by Padampa Sangye, “Whatever you want, others all want as much; so act on that!” (p 223). It is in this sense of compassion and empathy for other beings that many relationships and attachments form. It is in these attachments that a contradiction of sorts can form in the Buddhist teachings. In the teachings of Geshe Tonpa he states, “This decadent age is therefore not a time for ordinary beings to help others externally, but rather a time for them to live in solitary places and train their own minds in the love and compassion of bodhicitta” (p 237). Also, in Transcendent Concentration we are meant to give up all worldly attachments and connections. However, this to some extent comes in conflict with the idea of precepts of aspiration and considering others as equal to self. As an aspiring Buddhist, and someone who wishes to attain both bodhicitta and enlightenment, you must be willing and active in taking on the sufferings of those beings around you. Living in seclusion on a mountain top one may be able to concentrate and meditate in peace but how will you be aware and able to feel and experience the suffering of other beings so that you might understand and feel empathy for their plight? The concepts of selflessness and seclusion are two ideas that practically do not contradict in way that could be potentially lead those following the Dharma astray from the ten negative deeds. In their desire for isolation, any worldly distraction from meditation could provoke a monk to think not of the suffering of the creatures around him but instead of only his need for concentration.
Another interesting point in this reading, or more so the general teachings of Buddhism we have covered so far is how drastically different the concept of greed and continually striving for wealth are represented in American culture versus Buddhist teachings. As in the story of Daughter, continually looking for a better deal or living situation down the path will never leave you satisfied and will eventually leave you in ruin (p 226), or more directly stated “Like the rich, the more you get, the more you need,” (p 248). In Buddhist teaching the never ending desire for wealth is the direct cause of suffering, as you will never truly be satisfied with your level of wealth. However, in American culture the paradigm is the same but the perspective is flipped. The ability to always accumulate more wealth is not a cause for suffering but instead a cause for happiness. The idea of “the grass always being greener on the other side” is not a cycle of unattainable happiness but is instead a path down which there is unlimited potential. In my opinion this concept is the greatest obstacle to Buddhism further expanding into America. One of the core tenets of Buddhism is asking Americans to give up what has been ingrained as their unlimited source of happiness, and instead see it as a cycle of unending suffering.