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



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