Sitting on a borrowed cushion, I fiddled with the tuner on my radio, attempting to find the English translation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching.
Thousands of people had gathered in the temple complex, a select few sitting in the room proper, the rest filling the balconies and courtyard. I had slept through the morning session and was late for the afternoon one — ate a muffin while charging through the streets, consistently rushing to class wherever I am in the world.
I had circumambulated the inner temple partly out of respect and partly to see what there was to see. As I mentioned before, walking clockwise around sacred objects (kora in Tibetan) is done to gain merit. As I made my way around the building, crowds of eyes pushed me along, but for a long moment I had been able to see H. H. the Dalai Lama through the main temple opening, his elevated seat draped in gold fabric, speaking into two microphones. Young monks in saffron robes took notes while the youngest played with tiny plastic airplanes. Turning another corner, an older group of monks filled the large southern balcony, and I suddenly became incredibly aware of my gender. Moving by individuals leaning into microphones offering the various translations, I made my way back to the main seating area.
Having settled into a good spot in the lower courtyard, I had pulled out my radio, only to discover that it refused to pick up the correct frequency for English. Or maybe the problem was that the language changed on the same setting if I pointed the antenna a different direction. And French was not one of them either.
As I was messing with it, a Tibetan toddler wandered up, curious. Considering that it was already broken, I showed him how to pull the antenna up and down, which was very exciting. He took it from me and waved it around; then with a “pew, pew!” he shot at me, antenna blazing, as I died dramatically. Arguably inappropriate for a Buddhist lecture. He reached up and gently pulled the headphones out of my ears and tried to put them in his own. His embarrassed mother arrived and swept him away before I could put on some foreign language that neither of us understood but might be fun to listen to.
Eventually I did get to hear a bit of the lecture, sharing an earbud with a friend. Sitting among a crowd of Tibetans, thumbing through my prayer beads, and contemplating H. H. the Dalai Lama’s message of compassion, for everyone, even your enemies, was meaningful on its own.
But the experience of being a few feet away from him as he walked out of the hall has no words.
Last night, young people from all over the world squeezed into a room, sitting knee to knee on the floor, to hear a former political prisoner tell his story. The room doubled as a classroom during the day, hosting free English classes for Tibetans to which foreign volunteers are welcome. Monks padded quietly amongst the seated youth, passing out plates of noodles – a fundraising meal. The ex-prisoner and his translator sat in small plastic chairs at the front of the simple room; over the next hour and a half, we heard his story in disjointed pieces.
In 1989, he was one of a group of six Tibetan Buddhist monks arrested in China for resisting the regime. The exact charges were not clear due to the translator’s modest ability to speak English. The speaker was held for three years in a Chinese prison, forced into hard labor for long hours, interrogated and tortured.
“We were not human to them, not human,” he said, over and over.
China invaded Tibet in 1959, claiming that it had previously been territory some hundreds of years before; Tibetans argue otherwise, that it was always an independent country. The invasion forced His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the political and religious leader of Tibet, to flee with his government. Being a peaceful, inward-focused country with little development or weaponry, there was no reasonable defense. H. H. the Dalai Lama currently resides in Upper Dharamsala, a.k.a. McLeodganj, in the Indian Himalayas, and maintains the Tibetan government in exile. Many Tibetans followed him over the years, attempting to maintain their culture and language as refugees in a foreign country. Their children struggle with identity and connection.
The ex-prisoner’s face held no expression, his eyes staring into the wall as he listened blankly to the translation. When the translator paused to listen again, he leaned over and spoke quietly in Tibetan, stone-faced. I sat at his feet, near the door, having arrived just before his talk began. His eyes fell into mine and I instinctively smiled – a small smile broke his face in response, and I felt relieved to find some piece of him still alive beneath the experience.
When he was released from prison in 1992, he was not allowed to return to his monastery; the Chinese police constantly monitored his movements. After remaining in Tibet for six years under those conditions, he made the arduous months-long journey over the mountains, through Nepal, to Dharamsala. He told us, “Maybe physical freedom, but without mental liberation, there is no peace.”
Finally in India, the physical and mental damage of the torture prevented him from succeeding in his studies of Tibetan Buddhism, although he tried for several years.
Fifty years after the invasion, the situation continues to worsen. Those remaining in Tibet face oppression, violence, and a constant influx of Chinese settlers sent to destabilize the Tibetan community. Tibetan Buddhism is actively suppressed by the Chinese government, and it is illegal to have a picture of H. H. the Dalai Lama – he is considered a threat to China due to his activism around Tibetan issues and strong popularity amongst the Tibetan population, and the world.
Some believe that China will hold out on a peaceful solution until H. H. the Dalai Lama dies, thinking that the Tibetan cause will die with him.
I run the gauntlet in Delhi when I dive off of the main road into a web of alleys, remembering the route to my hostel by sight. Tiny rooms, no larger than a queen-sized bed, are cut into the walls, hosting a collection of shops that buzz at all hours – men having their beards shaved in a ramshackle barber shop, someone smashing away at metal on an anvil, children hawking soda bottles, pots of oil sizzling with who-knows-what, tiny budget hotels open up to the streets, someone sleeping on a cot. I always hesitate at the last moment which draws a call from someone, then dive around the final corner and charge into the miniature lobby.
You could call India itself a gauntlet, especially when you are foreign, and a woman, and a woman traveling alone. Walking anywhere draws attention from shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers, always “madam, madam”. I set off a cascade of calls as I walk down the street. The first Hindi words I knew were “ji nahi,” no thank you, and I use them often.
My clothes shape how I am treated. On the first day, I chose a salwar kameez after careful perusal of piles of them on the second floor of a tiny, creaky shop in Paharganj, my cheap, slightly seedy neighborhood in Delhi. When I wear traditional Indian clothing, I don’t quite fit into people’s categories – throwing them off gives me a bargaining advantage, and has seemed to earn respect. But when I (unthinkingly) washed all of my clothes in Shimla, the daily rain and coolness meant that they were still soaking wet when it was time for me to catch the bus to McLeodganj. Left with only my original clothes from the plane, I experienced completely different treatment. More offers and requests, less politeness, a clear assumption that I was brand new and had no idea what I was doing. Which is technically true, but I am much more savvy than they expect me to be. I felt like more of an outsider than ever, shunted aside.
In Paharganj, there was a smaller number of foreigners than up here in the mountains. Many Westerners have endured the bouncing buses and pitted roads to this small Tibetan mecca, creating a counter culture that seems to be laid upon the town rather than integrated. I will see how it goes, but I think that I am more judged here than I was in Delhi. I have finally freed myself from the cursed khaki capris, donning loose brown pants that mark me as a local foreigner. A part of the hippie culture, a little less likely to buy something, a little more likely to be going to yoga class.