I should’ve seen it coming. Kenny’s pre-teen rebellion, Ethan’s inherent spirituality, the human draw of the novel, colorful, mysterious. The children are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. They began praying, behind my back, at temples during our trip to southwestern China (Chengdu, Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, Kham in the Garze Autonomous Prefecture). While I wasn’t looking, they got our guide Tenpa to teach them the motions.
I allow it. It’s all one god, Adonay or Avalokiteshvara (1,000-armed manifestation of the future Buddha). Getting them to stay seated in Beijing’s lovely synogogue, or to do Hebrew homeschool with me (though they finally do), is harder.
Tenpa, our 28-year-old guide/driver, drove to patriotic Tibetan rap. Tenpa walked to Lhasa and over the Himalayas to Nepal at 15, in 2 pairs of crappy shoes. It took 55 days to escape China, to attend school. Tibetan-area schools (as throughout rural China) are terrible, and China won’t grant passports or he would’ve flown. He slept in one blanket and a plastic sheet. His group of a dozen, with guide, walked at night to avoid being shot or arrested. His friend lost all his toes.
Once in Nepal, UNHCR and Tibetan government-in-exile flew them to Dharmasala. He stayed 7 years and (atypically) returned to China, to see his dying father. Parents who send their kids out for education are subject to Chinese punishment.
Up above 12,000 feet in the Tibetan grasslands, brown now in winter, we were surrounded by yaks and wild horses. Thousands of prayer flags flapped beside mani stones on roadsides. Every moment unveiled robed monks, tradtionally dressed herders in fur wraps, old women prostrating on the road on 1,000-mile pilgrimages, kids making murmuring rounds of the many sets of prayer wheels at surprisingly big monasteries in tiny villages. At the legendary (cold, oxygen-deprived) top of the world, first you marvel that anyone can survive. Then you try to digest the decorative, and natural, beauty.
Below this paragraph, what looks like several buildings, is an important monastery in Tagong, built to honor the 7th century King Songtsen Gampo, whose conquests created a Tibetan empire on the high plateau (and nearby parts of China and India), spreading Buddhism with conquest. (It didn’t, as I’d naively imagined, simply flow naturally from here like water downhill.) I believe Songsten married a Chinese princess. Mongol rulers loved and patronized lamas. Tibetan Buddhism ‘ate’ China’s ancient dynasties, too, serving as their spiritual leaders, until the 20th century.
Tibetan Buddhism: Born in splendid geographic isolation. Nurtured by sophisticated monastic education at large universities. Gifted with astonishing aesthetics. Now led by a man with rock-star charisma and Nobel-prize winning politics of nonviolent resistance.
Lower down (around 9,000′) in Kham, homes clung almost to cliffsides and terraces (walnut orchards, at the home where we stayed) were so steep, only ladders could connect them.
When we got to China last August, one of my first thoughts–seeing Beijing’s masses, the power-crazed immensity of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, the grim determination of the sharp-elbowed old ladies forcing their way through packed subways, likely survivors of horrors I can’t imagine–the thought was, ‘There is no hope for Tibet.’ The boys’ beloved nanny for about 6 years in Brooklyn is Tibetan, from a Kathmandu refugee community, educated (like Tenpa) in Dharmasala, her father one of the 80,000 or so who escaped over the Himalayas, on foot, in the years after Chinese annexation, from 1959 through the ’70s. She has a distant cousin in Garze, where we were, a Khampa. The Kham accent, clothing, and other cultural aspects, are slightly different. Once there were three kingdoms, then three historic areas. Today there’s a jigsaw puzzle of designations, but of course, it’s all Tibet.
The Tibetan diaspora has more of almost everything than the Khampas: Education. Money. Medical care (traditional and modern). Freedom. But they face language and culture loss. In these more remote Chinese Tibetan areas–far from Lhasa (Lhasa is now only minority Tibetan, resettled by Chinese using the highway and rail line)–education levels are “some of the lowest in the world” … but they still live, while enduring repression and hardship, Tibetan lives. The herders are some of the last nomads on earth.
The reasons Westerners love Tibetans, in their (I’m sorry) exquisite victimhood, are compelling and familiar. The Dalai Lama is our era’s Dr. King, our Gandhi, our precious sane voice of compassionate interfaith understanding. (“One religion obviously cannot satisfy all of humanity… therefore the only sensible thing is that all different religions work together and live harmoniously, helping one another.” The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama.) But these intellectual, political, and (yes) ‘radical chic’ elements, and the anti-China sentiment embodied in much Tibet-love, are all absent in my innocent kids.
Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana, “diamond” –- precious, changeless, pure, clear, able to cut anything without being be cut. It’s part Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion (magic, shamanism, nature worship); part Tantrism (Indian metaphysics of ‘interwovenness,’ that mystical Oneness of all things). It involves the senses: visual (intricate, symbolic mandalas); muscular (the hand gestures, the moving of prostration and wheel spinning); verbal (sacred syllables, Om Mani Padme Hum).
Kenny suffered, on our second night at altitude, a serious form of illness called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a potentially fatal condition, especially among climbers marooned way up high (who deny the symptoms, so invested are they in the climb). But I recognized it quickly–thanks to printouts from the Everest Base Camp Clinic I had, and we had Tenpa and his SUV to race us down to a Chinese county hospital, in time. With rapid descent, and oxygen, and the car (always a lynchpin in the whole Tibet plan, for safety), he was fine. The edema was mild, caught early. (Our Beijing doc pronounced his lungs unharmed.) So the children were not really eaten. But I was provoked, profoundly, to consider the draw of the place for me, and for them, and for all of us.
The trip was so intense that I am, for the moment, going to leave it at that.
Next post: “Green energy” hydropower development desecrating Eastern Tibet.