Archive for July, 2014

Dharamsala Dispatch 6: Tibet Rhymes

BY EVA CIRNU (Dharamsala) - Tenzing Seungyi is a popular Tibetan hip-hop artist who lives in Austria. He looks and moves like many of the young performers his age.  The crowd loves him, bounces around and sings along to his electrifying rhythms.  He is a talented musician with a loyal following.

But there is more to Tenzing Seungyi – his lyrics. The words that accompany his music deliver an important message to young Tibetans.  Even in distant Ladakh, where Seungyi performed for the thousands who gathered for the Kalachakra teaching, that message resonates.  Everyone seemed to know the lyrics of his songs.

Seungyi recently visited Dharamsala where I was fortunate enough to interview him.  Off stage, he’s a charming young man, well-spoken and with impeccable manners.  We had a short conversation by the end of which my respect for his point-of-view and his musical mission had surpassed my liking of his music. It turns out that Seungyi’s songs (which I had imagined to be about bad boy stuff) are all about the Tibetan cause and the importance of preserving the Tibetan language in exile.

“My message to Tibetans in exile, and to people my age, is that without language you can’t do anything. You have to learn your own language first. I understand that in your context it is difficult to learn it, but it is important that you make the effort to learn it. My request to you is that you learn the language as well as the Tibetan texts. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!”

Once again, Tibetan artists manage to notch it up: even in an art form stereo-typically associated with violence and aggressiveness, Tibetan hip-hop artists like Seungyi and Switzerland-based Shapaley, manage to manifest positivity, humour, courage and hope.

Watch our video interview to learn more about Seungyi and to see some of his live concert performance:  Interview with Tenzing Seungyi

‘Dharamsala Dispatch’ is a series of notes from in and around Dharamsala, covering the Tibetan artistic and cultural scene through reports and interviews with prominent Tibetans involved in community events.

Eva Cirnu is the Coordinator of the Canada Tibet Committee’s francophone section. She is currently living in Dharamsala.

Report from Ladakh 2: Reflections on freedom

BY MATI BERNABEI (Leh, Ladakh) -

It’s 3am in Leh on the morning of July 14, and I have just been awoken by the screams and cheers of what sounds like a huge crowd somewhere in the centre of town, the direction my open window is facing. Someone just scored in the World Cup soccer finals, and the town has gone wild with delight. The cheers are followed by what seems like hundreds of barking and howling dogs, eager to join the fun. Yesterday some Tibetan monks told me how relieved they were that their devotional loyalties would not be tested, as the World Cup finals occurred in the early hours of the morning after the Kalachakra, rather than during the teachings. They would not be forced to choose between the two (whew!). And, by the sounds of the cheers, whistles, howling, and honking, the favourite team of locals must be winning at the moment. The gods are indeed looking favourably upon the people of the Himalayas, it seems.

Although I’m somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t able to force myself to stay awake to watch the game with the crowds, this form of early morning wake-up has me smiling. I’ll use the time to complete a bit of writing, hopefully to be sent off to Canada in a few hours, if the internet connection in working (this is a struggle in Ladakh – connections are intermittent, and slow – I have attempted to send short blog posts every day, but have only rarely managed to be on-line when the internet was functioning).

I have chosen to write about some of the human contexts within the community of devotees rather than about the actual religious teachings. In part this is because I am not an expert on Buddhism, and am not qualified to discuss the teachings themselves. Also, this communication is for the Canada Tibet Committee, and therefore most likely be read by people who share my interest and concern about issues of human rights, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

As is to be expected during ten days of Buddhist teachings by the Dalai Lama, I have experienced countless moments of reflection and introspection during the teachings and in conversations with old and new friends here. Yet, a particular theme, revisited every day by His Holiness (sometimes with a brief mention and sometimes discussed at length), has lingered in my mind reinforcing my commitment to the CTC’s advocacy work.

The theme I am referring to centres on the current realities of Tibetans within Tibet and their struggle for human rights and dignity. In the context of these teachings, issues of freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of association come into focus.

Every day His Holiness took time to acknowledge Tibetans who had wished to attend his teachings and to openly study and practice Buddhism but could not.  They could not due to restrictions imposed by the Government of China. He spoke of his deep respect for the resilience and dedication of Tibetans in Tibet, and of his sadness and grief that in recent years many have resorted to self-immolation in the hopes that their plea for help would be noticed by the international community.

During the Long Life Initiation and prayers on July 13, His Holiness asked all 150,000 in attendance to focus several minutes of their prayers on Tibetans within Tibet who, at great personal risk, continue to struggle for cultural, spiritual, and physical survival.

The Chinese Government placed a complete ban on participation in the Kalachakra, yet some Tibetan and Chinese people attempted to make their way to the teachings anyway despite the threat of reprisals. Those reprisals might be applied directly on their return home, or could be applied to family members who never left Tibet. The personal risks they face are huge, yet they are unwilling to succumb to threats and be ruled by fear. Their dedication, inner strength, and determination have inspired those of us whose main obstacles to participation have been rather mundane financial and time restrictions. In my case, I am delighted that I was able to attend these teachings in person.  Still if they had not occurred during my summer vacation I could have very easily, and in perfect safety, read books, watched DVD’s, and followed His Holiness’ teachings on-line from my home in Canada. Tibetans and Chinese who live in regions controlled by the Chinese Government do not have those options.

To protect the anonymity of the people who told me their personal experiences, here I have described the situation in general terms, blending stories I heard from several different individuals from different parts of Tibet and China.

Tibetans are accustomed to travel restrictions and so the challenge of attending the Kalachakra teachings this year did not come as a surprise to them. It is difficult for Tibetans to obtain a passport. For those who do manage to secure a passport, the Chinese Government may permit travel to Nepal but if they continue onward from Nepal to India they risk severe repercussions upon their return to Tibet. In the months leading up to the Kalachakra, the already severe restrictions to travel within Tibet were up-leveled yet again, with increased vigilance at police check-posts along the roadways and in the border regions. One friend told me that a few years ago about 400 people from his region obtained permission to travel to Nepal but this year permission was granted to only 3 people. Freedom of movement is curtailed in a multitude of ways.

Tibetans who managed to make the journey from Tibet to Leh explain that it is the realization of a life-long dream. If they choose to return to their homes and families in Tibet after the teachings their lives will literally be in peril, as they risk imprisonment and even torture. Yet, for them, the opportunity to see His Holiness just once before they die, and receive the Kalachakra empowerment delivered by him, is a risk they are willing to take. Relying on their own creativity and support from people in India to reach Ladakh safely, the journey often took several weeks or months depending on mode of travel and the extent to which underground networks were needed.

The restrictions on Chinese devotees differed somewhat in that they enjoy greater freedom of movement and association within China although they are also banned from any form of association with the Dalai Lama. And, the threat of repercussions for having attended the Dalai Lama’s teachings is also a harsh reality for Chinese Buddhists. Normally, citizens of China who are ethnically Chinese, wealthy enough, and well positioned enough, can easily obtain a passport and a visa for India. In recent years India has become accustomed to Chinese tour groups from places like Beijing and Shanghai visiting various part of the country.

This year was different.  In the months prior to the Kalachakra teachings, the Chinese Government instituted a ban on travel to India. I have been told by people I met here in Ladakh that some Chinese people who had valid passports and Indian visas were denied permission to leave China when they arrived at the airport to board their flight to Delhi. Alternatively, those who travelled to a different country first and who didn’t carry any evidence of their intention to later travel to India, were permitted to leave China without complications. Some of those people managed to reach Leh for the teachings. They remain vigilant and alert, attempting to keep physical evidence of their India pilgrimage to a minimum, yet they exude joy and enthusiasm because they managed to get here at all, and they seem to be making the most of every minute. Many of us who come from countries where freedom of religion, association, and movement are enshrined as legal rights, have been humbled by the realization that we too often take those rights for granted. I am deeply appreciated of the Chinese devotees I have met here who remind me that these freedoms are to be cherished.

Meeting people who face struggles such as these and who express such joy that they could attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings despite the hardship and personal risk, is truly inspiring and humbling. With my Canadian passport, the personal risks I might experience when travelling are minor in comparison. Meeting people who face unreasonable restrictions and attempts by their government to control their bodies and minds and yet respond with dignity, grace, and kindness towards others, inspires me to continue the struggle for global justice.  As a Canadian citizen, I enjoy the freedom of speech as a legal right.  Therefore I have no excuse for remaining silent in the face of injustice.

Mati Bernabei is a Vancouver high-school teacher who is spending the summer in Ladakh.  She is a long-standing member of the Canada Tibet Committee and currently sits on its Board of Directors.  Some of Mati's photos are posted at facebook.com/CanadaTibet.

 

 

Confronting China’s iron fist during my visit to Tibet

BY GAVIN KILTY (Devon, UK) -

Having never been to Tibet before, I had built up a multitude of impressions of what it would be like. Some of those impressions were reinforced during my visit this summer while others were challenged by the actual experience of being there.

One Chinese professor from Shanghai recently said, “The Communist Party is like God. It is everywhere. You just can’t see it.”  This was my overall impression of Chinese rule in Tibet. It is the rule of the iron fist, yet you never see who the fist belongs to.  During our visit, we confronted many examples of this tight control.

No foreigner can travel in Tibet without a guide. This guide must be organized before entering the country. Whether traveling alone or in a group, a guide is mandatory. It does not mean that the guide has to follow the tourists as they wander through the streets of towns, but he must organize and report the itinerary to the authorities regularly at check points positioned along the main highways.

As well as a guide and a Chinese visa, additional permits must be obtained for Tibet in general and for many of the areas to be visited. The entire trip itinerary together with names and passport numbers must be submitted to the authorities and on no account can it be changed. For example, one person in our group fell sick and considered flying back to Kathmandu from Lhasa. This would have meant reapplying for an adjustment to the entire group itinerary, requesting that one name be removed from the list, and applying for a permit for that person to leave the country early. One cannot simply book a flight, take a taxi to the airport, and leave.

For Tibetans the daily life situation is worse.  In the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Tibetans cannot move or travel from one town or region to another without permission. A Tibetan from Shigatsé wanting to visit relatives in Lhasa must apply to authorities for permission to do so - and this in their own country!  Moreover, if a Tibetan has a relative staying in his or her house, Chinese officials must be notified of that visit. Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, and it is just one of the freedoms curtailed in the TAR.

Since 2008 it has become very difficult for Tibetans to obtain a visa for India. One woman whose uncle lives in Dharamsala, told me she can no longer visit him there because of her past trips abroad.  She even suggested that her son, who had done excellently at school, was being denied the opportunities to pursue his chosen career because of his mother’s connections with people living outside of Tibet.

Everywhere we travelled during our tour, there were permits to check, passports to show, and places that were off-limits for no apparent reason. The beautiful Lama Latsho Lake with its prognostic abilities was suddenly out of bounds for tourists over the month of Saga Dawa. Why? What possible threat to national security could a lake pose?

Control was everything. People watched us closely as we made our way through the Potala alongside throngs of Chinese tourists/pilgrims. Once, in a street in Lhasa, a Tibetan shopper was arguing with a Chinese stallholder over the price of an item. Within minutes a plain-clothes security official arrived from nowhere to sort it out.

Even at Everest base camp, a haven of peace and tranquility miles from any political centre, checkpoints were in evidence. We couldn’t do this and we couldn’t do that. We could not even walk alone from the guest house to the base camp tents.

Young military officers are everywhere. Some are pleasant, others officious. Most carry guns. Most look about seventeen years old. In Lhasa there is a police check post every hundred metres or so.

As we approached the full moon of Saga Dawa, lines of army trucks appeared on the streets, each filled with baby-faced soldiers facing to the outside of the truck, machine gun in hand, just waiting for trouble to begin.

The Chinese system functions by way of a tight control over its citizens. Although outwardly it has the appearance of a rampant capitalistic country, its system of social control comes straight out of the old Soviet model handbook. This is explained in the excellent book, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor. Centralization and control of all aspects of life is the driving force behind China’s presence in Tibet. It does not matter if individuals (the relatives of the Tibetan self-immolators, for example) are harmed in the process. The system comes first. What does it matter if a few ants die as long as the ant colony is preserved?  Public opinion is to be controlled and even repressed if necessary, all to ensure the well-being and survival of the Communist Party. Survival is at the very heart of the Communist Party’s thinking. Devoid of any mandate from the people, it must exercise an iron will at any cost.

The Tibetan people are victims of this repressive system. They are not regarded as a distinct people with sensitivities and needs, but as beneficiaries of the Motherland who must comply with the will of the Party. Anything other than that is unpatriotic at the least and treachery at the worst.

Take the issue of the Dalai Lama. No photo of him is allowed anywhere in Tibet. No book, no video, nothing that carries his name is allowed. This is a deliberate attempt to wipe his existence from the consciousness of the Tibetan people. China’s leaders know full well that the Tibetan people love and adore the Dalai Lama. They know, or at least they should know, that he is not a “terrorist” or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” And yet they pursue their cruel policy. Why? The answer is control. By separating the Tibetan people from a leader of their own, China’s leaders hope to extinguish any sparks of rebellion or protest.  There is no empathy for the Tibetan people. The self-immolators and their families deserve no pity and no understanding, because their actions threaten the unity of the Motherland. Therefore, they are treated with harshness instead of understanding.

When the current Chinese president, Xi Jinping, was visiting Europe recently he said, in response to a question about the Chinese government’s lack of care for the Tibetan people, “The Chinese government cares more for the Tibetan people than the international community does.” From one point of view he was correct. The government has poured billions of yuan into Tibet to bolster its economy, improve infrastructure, and provide services. There are even stories of the government building homes for Tibetans who return from exile, and of providing them with jobs and money. Monasteries have been rebuilt; hospitals and schools are constructed where there were none before. These improvements in Tibet are undeniable. The country resembles a large construction site. This is what the president meant when he said the government cares for Tibetans.

What the questioner meant however, and what the international community refers to when it raises issues around “caring for Tibetans”, is something different.  They seek the restoration of basic human rights, a return of political power, and the enjoyment of basic freedoms that have been denied.

I do not know how most Tibetans would react if given a choice between economic empowerment, jobs, and housing on one hand, and the restoration of political freedoms and human rights they once enjoyed on the other. Perhaps many would pragmatically opt for the former over the latter.  Regardless of personal preference, the right to be able to move as you please, worship as you please, speak as freely as you please, to have the autonomy that all people deserve, to be able to stand up against injustice, oppression and occupation are the fundamental rights of every being on the planet.

The Tibetan people deserve no less. They are denied it. This is their struggle. It is not built on hate, ideology, nationalism, religious bigotry, or even nostalgia for the past. It stems from the pursuit of justice and fairness, and for everything that is decent in this world.

Long may the Tibetan people survive. Long may they stand firm against the tyranny cast over them, and may truth, justice and liberty prevail. Bö gyal lo! Bö gyal lo! Bö gyal lö!

Gavin Kilty lived in Dharamsala, India, for fourteen years. He spent eight years training in the traditional Geluk monastic curriculum at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. Currently Gavin is a translator for the Institute of Tibetan Classics and also teaches Tibetan language courses in India, Nepal, and elsewhere.

 

Report from Ladakh: Dalai Lama inspires peace

By Mati Bernabei

Ladakh (India) – July 2014: Deep blue skies, glacial fed rivers and streams, glistening snow-capped peaks, arid landscapes of dirt and rock interspersed with lush green river valleys and hillside oases nourished via intricate ancient networks of irrigation channels. Villages and towns across the region consist primarily of flat roofed houses separated by narrow lanes and pathways, along with Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. In the capital city of Leh, mosques add additional colour and vibrancy to the landscapes and soundscapes. Modernity arrived in Ladakh decades ago, yet respect for the ancient wisdom of traditional understandings has been retained in the hearts, minds, and community practices of many people here.

It is not my first visit to Ladakh, but this year I came for a special purpose – to receive Buddhist teachings and the Kalachakra Initiation, delivered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event is additionally special, as on July 6th His Holiness’ celebrated his 79th birthday here, with about 120,000 well-wishers in attendance.

There are just a few ways to get to Ladakh, and this time I took the easiest route. First, I took a 24 hour flight from Vancouver to Delhi, then, after a few days adjusting to the 12.5 hour time-change, I boarded a 1.5 hour flight from Delhi to Leh. Alternatively, there are 3 possible land routes to Ladakh, each involving a minimum of 3 days driving from Delhi, including rough roads and passes of over 5000 meters (via Kashmir, Manali, or Kinnaur). In my case, the flight was long, but comfortable. I have no complaints, particularly because some other attendees may have walked and driven for many days from their villages in remote regions of the Himalayas.

On July 6th I arrived early at the teaching site near the Tibetan Refugee Settlement of Choglamsar, about 8km south of Leh. What had been an open field just a few weeks ago is now a bustling and well organized outdoor auditorium that can comfortably accommodate up to 150,000 devotees (or more … Himalayan Buddhist culture is expansive and inclusive  -- somehow, at events such as these, even when the space appears on the surface to be completely full, there is always room everyone who arrives). The vast majority of attendees are Buddhists from the local regions of Ladakh, Zanskar, and Spiti – close cultural cousins of Tibetans. In addition, thousands of Tibetans and others from across South Asia have made the journey, as have an estimated 4000 people from foreign countries. We foreigners are seated together in a region where translation from Tibetan into several other languages is provided over FM radio. I am delighted to see that amongst the “foreigners” are hundreds of Tibetans who now live in countries outside South Asia (such as Canada), yet have journeyed here with their families to participate in the teachings and immerse their children within a landscape and cultural contexts that are as close to “Tibetan” as is possible without actually travelling into Tibet. Amongst their various notions of “home”, this place is very close to the heart.

On July 6th, the commemoration of His Holiness’ 79th birthday was both heartwarming, and inspirational. With 120,000 well-wishers in attendance and many more participating via live webcast, His Holiness expressed deep gratitude and appreciation to all those in attendance physically and in cyberspace, to others around the world who were sending their best wishes, and especially to Tibetans inside Tibet who celebrated in secret and prayed for his long-life in their hearts.

Birthday greetings and speeches were delivered by government representatives of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, representatives of Ladakhi Buddhist and Muslim communities, and Tibetan community leaders. All expressed their love and appreciation for His Holiness, and expressed profound appreciation for the ways in which His Holiness has shown us all how to live well in local and global community, and relish the opportunities for learning that human diversity affords us. Actor Richard Gere spoke beautifully on behalf of all foreigners, conveying our appreciation for His Holiness’ contribution to global community through his teachings and his actions.

His Holiness responded with passion, expressing appreciation and thanks. He took the opportunity to remind us of the importance of living sustainably within the natural environment, of adopting non-violence motivated by deep respect (not simply non-violence through restraint, but non-violence of a deeper sort), and of practicing universal values that are relevant to all, regardless of religious or other difference. His passionate request the each of us act, and act now, to promote “peace” in all its forms – environmental, social, spiritual – resonated across the hills.

More in a few days –

Mati Bernabei is a member of the Canada Tibet Committee Board of Directors.  She lives in Vancouver.

Ladakh (India) – July 2014: Deep blue skies, glacial fed rivers and streams, glistening snow-capped peaks, arid landscapes of dirt and rock interspersed with lush green river valleys and hillside oases nourished via intricate ancient networks of irrigation channels. Villages and towns across the region consist primarily of flat roofed houses separated by narrow lanes and pathways, along with Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. In the capital city of Leh, mosques add additional colour and vibrancy to the landscapes and soundscapes. Modernity arrived in Ladakh decades ago, yet respect for the ancient wisdom of traditional understandings has been retained in the hearts, minds, and community practices of many people here.

It is not my first visit to Ladakh, but this year I came for a special purpose – to receive Buddhist teachings and the Kalachakra Initiation, delivered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event is additionally special, as on July 6th His Holiness’ celebrated his 79th birthday here, with about 120,000 well-wishers in attendance.

There are just a few ways to get to Ladakh, and this time I took the easiest route. First, I took a 24 hour flight from Vancouver to Delhi, then, after a few days adjusting to the 12.5 hour time-change, I boarded a 1.5 hour flight from Delhi to Leh. Alternatively, there are 3 possible land routes to Ladakh, each involving a minimum of 3 days driving from Delhi, including rough roads and passes of over 5000 meters (via Kashmir, Manali, or Kinnaur). In my case, the flight was long, but comfortable. I have no complaints, particularly because some other attendees may have walked and driven for many days from their villages in remote regions of the Himalayas.

On July 6th I arrived early at the teaching site near the Tibetan Refugee Settlement of Choglamsar, about 8km south of Leh. What had been an open field just a few weeks ago is now a bustling and well organized outdoor auditorium that can comfortably accommodate up to 150,000 devotees (or more … Himalayan Buddhist culture is expansive and inclusive  -- somehow, at events such as these, even when the space appears on the surface to be completely full, there is always room everyone who arrives). The vast majority of attendees are Buddhists from the local regions of Ladakh, Zanskar, and Spiti – close cultural cousins of Tibetans. In addition, thousands of Tibetans and others from across South Asia have made the journey, as have an estimated 4000 people from foreign countries. We foreigners are seated together in a region where translation from Tibetan into several other languages is provided over FM radio. I am delighted to see that amongst the “foreigners” are hundreds of Tibetans who now live in countries outside South Asia (such as Canada), yet have journeyed here with their families to participate in the teachings and immerse their children within a landscape and cultural contexts that are as close to “Tibetan” as is possible without actually travelling into Tibet. Amongst their various notions of “home”, this place is very close to the heart.

On July 6th, the commemoration of His Holiness’ 79th birthday was both heartwarming, and inspirational. With 120,000 well-wishers in attendance and many more participating via live webcast, His Holiness expressed deep gratitude and appreciation to all those in attendance physically and in cyberspace, to others around the world who were sending their best wishes, and especially to Tibetans inside Tibet who celebrated in secret and prayed for his long-life in their hearts.

Birthday greetings and speeches were delivered by government representatives of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, representatives of Ladakhi Buddhist and Muslim communities, and Tibetan community leaders. All expressed their love and appreciation for His Holiness, and expressed profound appreciation for the ways in which His Holiness has shown us all how to live well in local and global community, and relish the opportunities for learning that human diversity affords us. Actor Richard Gere spoke beautifully on behalf of all foreigners, conveying our appreciation for His Holiness’ contribution to global community through his teachings and his actions.

His Holiness responded with passion, expressing appreciation and thanks. He took the opportunity to remind us of the importance of living sustainably within the natural environment, of adopting non-violence motivated by deep respect (not simply non-violence through restraint, but non-violence of a deeper sort), and of practicing universal values that are relevant to all, regardless of religious or other difference. His passionate request the each of us act, and act now, to promote “peace” in all its forms – environmental, social, spiritual – resonated across the hills.

More in a few days –

Mati Bernabei is a member of the Canada Tibet Committee Board of Directors.  She lives in Vancouver.