Of Tibetan Monastery and the West

Here is something that I wrote in 1999 concerning developments in Tibet in the past and the ongoing development among Tibetans in the West. The points raised in these items are relevant even today, I would think.

How could they do this to the Monastery?

Bhuchung K. Tsering

Tibetan Review, November 1999

The elderly Tibetan was telling me about an incident that took place in his town, not far away from Lhasa. “I heard that one day the soldiers came and surrounded the monastery. I was a little boy then. I heard that the soldiers asked to be let in so that they could meet the head lama. But the monks who were confronting them would not allow them in. Hectic argument began and the situation was becoming tense. By then the head lama, whose residence was above the monastery and so was observing the development,opened his windows and asked the monks to let the soldiers come and meet him. The monks relented.”

“The soldiers went up to the residence of the head lama. After a while some of them came out with the head lama and took him on a horse, in the direction of Lhasa.Thereafter, commotion ensued. The soldiers began to ransack the monastery, breaking the sacred statues and throwing their contents on the street. Some of them were even trampling on the sacred objects.”

Sounds familiar, you may say. What can we expect from these godless soldiers, you may be thinking. Tarry awhile and hold your judgement until the end of this column.

The man switched on to another incident. This time though he wasn’t retelling a story he had heard. This incident took place when he was in a prison in Tibet and he was one of the main players.

“One morning one of the guards pointed to six of us prisoners and asked us to follow him. We were taken to a nearby monastery. Pointing to a reliquary in which the body of its head lama was embalmed, the guard said this was a symbol of oppression and superstition, or something similar. The guard asked us to tear down this reliquary and destroy it. We did as we were told. We pulled out the remains of the lama. Someone even cut the body and we were amazed to find that it still appeared fresh. We could see the fat layer beneath the skin.”

Sounds familiar again? Well, the second incident is nothing abnormal. The Chinese authorities forced Tibetans to do such “unTibetan” acts. But the soldiers referred to in the first incident were not Chinese soldiers. They were Tibetans. And these Tibetan soldiers did not belong to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. They were members of independent Tibet’s army and the incident related to the storming of the Radreng Monastery in 1947. The head lama, as you may have guessed by now, was the Radreng Rinpoche, a former regent of Tibet. As history tells us, he fell out of grace with the then regent, Taktra Rinpoche, and subsequent to his imprisonment in Lhasa in April 1947 died under mysterious circumstances a month later.

What is it that makes people do certain things under certain conditions? Tales of prisoners or even Tibetans outside prisons having to perform activities which go against the tenets of Buddhism are a plenty in the tragic modern history of Tibet. The incidents have included celibate monks and nuns being ordered to fornicate or of mani stones being used to pave the path to toilets. In fact displaying spiritual inclination was the antithesis of Chinese Communism. But why did the Tibetan soldiers in 1947 behave as they did? Arresting the ex-regent could have been unavoidable given that it was the instructions of the powers-that-be in Lhasa. But why did they go to the extent of desecrating the Radreng Monastery?

The report regarding the Radreng Monastery is just one person’s point of view. May be there is the other side of the picture and I would welcome any readers bringing that to our attention.

Holding On to Your Faith

One of the biggest challenges to Tibetan immigrants to the West is to hold on to our faith while adapting to the New World. Tibetan Buddhism with its pantheon of deities has created regular holy days that act as reminders to the practitioners to perform prayers, visit lamas and monasteries and make ritual offerings. In the Indian subcontinent this did not pose a problem as Tibetan refugees and local populace following the same faith have a social and cultural infrastructure. Whether it was Saga Dawa or Lhabab Dhuechen one could find a monastery or a temple nearby. Also, it did not matter whether any of the holy days fell on a working day. The working environment of a majority of Tibetans in the Indian subcontinent was such that they could have the needed flexibility to fulfil their spiritual chores. More importantly, Tibetan children had enough exposure to a spiritual environment.

Can Tibetans in the West stand up to this challenge? I got an indication of what sort of outcome it could be when I had the opportunity to visit a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Washington, DC early in October. The temple was hosting a group of Tibetan monks from Zongkar Choedhe monastery, now re-established in Rabgayling settlement in South India. The monks were constructing a Yamantaka mandala (made of wood) and displaying some of the antiques in its collection (I had written about these in a column in 1998 ).

The temple was full of Vietnamese, old and young. Inside the temple, a majority of the people, dressed in traditional Vietnamese garment, sat silently as the Tibetan monks had a prayer session. But outside the temple, a group of children, dressed in the latest American fashion were in heated discussion, in English, over a pack of Pokemon cards, the latest craze from Japan among American children. Could this be the future of the Tibetan children in the United States? Much depends on the Tibetan parents.

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One response to “Of Tibetan Monastery and the West”

  1. Tsering says :

    Being accustomed to visiting monasteries in India to offer prayers particularly on special occassions, I miss this practice in US.

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