Tuesday, February 24, 2009

soe lhatson and bhumo

the house i share with three other westerners in dharamsala shares a wall with drolmaling nunnery, a tibetan nunnery with 200 nuns in residence and undergoing a 15-year intensive training program in buddhist philosophy and debate. among the nunneries built in exile, drolmaling was designated as one of the nunneries for tibetan nuns who had been imprisoned as political prisoners - nearly all for having taken part in peaceful protests asking for greater religious as well as political freedom for tibet. it was thought best for their healing process that such nuns should make their homes in nunneries with others who shared that particularly traumatic experience.

while sitting across the wall from this community, this morning i read online a short item from the ny times mentioning the sentencing of two tibetan nuns to 9 and 10 years for participating in the protests that were taking place all across tibet last spring.

i quote the item here in full. somehow i found the matter of fact tone of the piece somehow highlights the sinister quality of the devastating facts it reports.

Four Tibetans in Sichuan Province have been sentenced to prison for taking part in protests last spring, according to a Tibetan advocacy group. Two are nuns from the Pangri Na convent in Garze County: Soe Lhatson, 35, sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Bhumo, 36, sentenced to 9 years, said the group, Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. They were among 55 nuns arrested after a protest on May 14, the group said. Two other people were sentenced to three years each for taking part in a protest on March 18, also in Garze.

it bears mentioning that pangri-na nunnery houses a total of 80 nuns. it is thus clear that the nuns had decided as a community to offer their bodies and voices collectively. only a dozen or so nuns who had been committed to do prayers for families in that area had been absent from the protest. after the arrests, chinese police raided the nunnery and those nuns who had not protested were reportedly "restrained with tied hands and detained for the whole day. Then their hands were untied and they were released after being held for one day, but still they are not allowed to leave the nunnery." they were later subject to 'education' sessions by chinese officials following the arrest of their sister nuns. the 50 - 55 nuns who were involved in the protest last year were reportedly beaten severely at the time. about 40 of them were held for six months and released and another 12 nuns from this monastic community in eastern tibet are still in prison. the 12 still under arrest are said to be leaders of the community.

his holiness the dalai lama mentions sometimes an ordinary tibetan monk he met and whom he asked he had ever been in danger during his years of imprisonment in tibet. this monk replied that indeed he had, and when his holiness asked him what danger, he said he had been at times in real danger of losing his compassion for his chinese jailers. since these two nuns are in their 30s, they may have had the years of buddhist practice needed to authentically adopt such an attitude towards their gaolers. but the total physical control that prison guards have over their wards in the prisons in tibet makes female prisoners - and somehow it seems especially nuns - particularly tempting targets for forms of victimization.

in the very best case, they will emerge in the years 2018 and 2019 with some inner humanity intact. if they still have the courage and resolve to make the long trek over the himalayas to escape to india - a trek that is particularly fraught for ex-political prisoners as if caught they know precisely where they will be sent back to, they might find homes in tibetan nunneries here. but unless they have exceptional resolve, these two, at least, will most likely be too old to begin the long and arduous training program here at drolmaling.

i am posting this message on february 25, the day of the tibetan new year. it may go some way towards explaining tibetans around the world do not find cause for reveling in the dawning of yet another year of this current situation.

soe lhatson and bhumo are just two of many, many other nuns in similar situations. but their names made it on to the public record, and so we have this modest chance to see them as individuals, recollect them, and connect with them in our minds as particular human beings, even once in a while over these long years ahead. their parents names too were published, so can include them too in our thoughts. soe lhatson's parents - no doubt afflicted terribly now by the news of their daughter's sentence - are yeshi gyaltsen (her father) and her mother is named drukdung. tenzin thinley and theymo are the father and mother of bhumo.

in the vast networks of possibility, soe lhatson and bhumo could become our neighbors, in a distant future too rosy for these two even to dare to dream of in their coming days, weeks, months and years of incarceration. whether their future brings them in our geographical direction or not, i want already to acknowledge our connectedness to them in a broader human sense. for our part, we four in this small across the wall from what could be their future home will be repeating their names from today on in our evening prayers, doing our best to accompany them in our own small way.

photo of a nun at drolmaling comes from their website

Monday, February 23, 2009

lhasa, guge, princeton, dharamsala, bodhgaya

to remember a magical moment in bodhgaya last january with wen-shing - traveling companion from the tibet site seminar trip, neighbor from dharamsala and dear friend.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

there will be no new year this year

normally this time of year my tibetan neighbors here in dharamsala would be joyfully cooking, cleaning and beginning their rounds of friendly visits to share in welcoming the new year, which begins next wednesday according to the tibetan lunar calendar. and i would be preparing for a long hiatus from opportunities to study or read texts with my tibetan teachers. but this year, my teachers have told me it is fine to continue meeting to work together and for class next week. i do notice a good deal of the house-cleaning that accompanies this holiday, but otherwise, tibetans are not celebrating the new year this year. as they explain, it just would not be appropriate to adopt a festive tone when so many tibetans were killed this past year, and so many more are still captive in prison in tibet. from today's ny times article, it seems tibetans within tibet are under pressure from the chinese government authorities to put on their happy faces and go on with business - or holiday - as usual. most are unlikely to do so, by all accounts.

and here, tibetans in exile are free to celebrate or commemorate as they see fit. given the choice, the period is being marked with peace marches, hunger strikes and a general preference to honor the sacrifices made by those within tibet, rather than enjoy the taste of their own freedom in exile.

this upcoming year is particularly poignant for tibetans because it marks 50 years since their country was lost to them, with the invasion of communist forces in 1959. after 50 years of unswerving commitment to non-violence as the path to recovering their country, this path thus far has not yielded a single substantial concession from those who continue to occupy tibet and run it as if it were their own - which indeed it has effectively become. reflecting the lack of success of the earlier policy, his holiness the dalai lama urged tibetans to adopt a so-called 'middle way' path in which they relinquish their demands for independence for tibet and seek instead a more modest state of autonomy in which chinese remains formal dominion over tibet, but tibetans are granted autonomy in practice of religion, and follow their own internal policies - a bit like the relation of the 50 states to the federal government in the us. this too has been rejected wholesale by the chinese officials. in rueful acknowledgment of the lack of progress towards even these more modest goals, earlier this year tibetan refugees from around the world assembled to vote to decide if they would continue to respect the middle way path suggested by his holiness the dalai lama. the result of that vote was to affirm the collective tibetan determination to maintain non-violence as the cornerstone of their response to the chinese oppression within tibet, and to continue to wait for a softening of policies in china.

even the hunger strikes reflect the combined principles of fierce determination and gentle wisdom. those who refuse food and drink to express their solidarity with those in prison and to register their protest of the situation in tibet do not strike to the death. rather, people come and fast together for a few days, and then yield their place to others willing to make this symbolic sacrifice of their temporary well-being, but wise enough to do so without sacrificing their lives.

photo of tibetan nuns on hunger strike by getty images

Sunday, February 01, 2009

like we were gods, but also human

en route from sarnath to dharamsala, i stopped briefly in delhi for a talk about friendship at tushita meditation centre in delhi. while in town, i had lunch with my friend meena, a teacher at the american embassy school and visited her classroom. the embassy school, like the americam embassy across the street from it, is accessed only after the sort of security on might expect at an embassy site in a country plagued by terrorism that can be explicitly targeted at americans, as we saw recently in mumbai. after showing my passport at the guarded entrance, there was a repeated twilight-zone sense of having left india entirely. the entire school could have been lifted up from any american city and dropped piecemeal into the center of delhi, complete with its disaffected teenagers, their hip wardrobes and high-tech accessories. as meena and i - a teacher they knew and a buddhist nun they did not - strolled together across the campus, one thing i encountered that i would not expect in your random american high school were the frank looks - mixing curiosity and a quiet respectfulness - that we received from the students.

the school largely serves embassy offspring and the children of other expats. though it does accept local students, the annual fees of $20,000 - for a day school no less - makes it accessible only to the tiniest slice of local population. as it turns out, meena had taken her ninth graders to tushita some time back, and given them an opportunity to experience buddhist meditation. she mentioned that they had written of their experiences and offered to send me a copy. i found their responses both sociologically interesting and unexpectedly inspiring, in terms of the impact of even the simplest buddhist tools - applied even briefly - for opening the heart. i share here a sample of the students' frank responses in hopes they might also touch yours.

When we all got into the room we all took pillows and sat on it. Ms. S then explained what the whole place was about. After that we closed our eyes and we sent happy thoughts to one person that we thought needed them the most. We did this because Ms. S said that we usually think only about ourselves. Which is true, people are very self-centered. I thought of this little street girl that I see every day at the stop light near my house. I had seen her crying the other day and I just couldn't stop thinking about her. It just made me feel really sad. So I tried to send her all of the happy thoughts I had within me. – Scott

We sat in a circle and practiced meditating and creating these good vibes. In doing so, not only was I relaxed, but I also felt that possibly the person I was sending the vibe to might receive it and be happier. This chance to relax and be positive was both spiritually and physically calming. From our field trip I learned that Buddhism exists in the most random locations of the city and that it's not the location of a religious center but rather what it contains. – Danny

While I was meditating Ms. Srinivasan whispered to us to think about someone who was suffering and to think about them from our side. She then told us to give them a blessing from the bottom of our hearts. At that moment I felt a sense of pride coming over me because I hadn't done such a deed for someone in a long time which proves how selfish we humans can be. Others who live on the streets and live in hardships every day are satisfied and are happy to a certain degree. Those people are heroes and whom I look up to and am inspired by because they hardly complain. After that Ms. Srinivasan told us to remember the last time we ever helped anyone. Honestly for me it had been awhile because I always tried or attempted to but I never ended up helping my friend or family member. As I thought of this I felt dissatisfied. Even though it was only a blessing it came from my heart and I really care for that person but unfortunately they don't know that. I hope someday they will. This experience has made me more mature and to keep a lookout to help those in need. – Kresha

We were told to clear our minds completely and think of any one person that we know or we've seen that is suffering. Then from deep inside our hearts, we were to wish the best for this one person. Then we were to think of all the people in the world and do the same for them. I think this is a really good principle of this religion. When you think like this, you are basically telling yourself that every living person is in a way like you and is basically you. When you show compassion for these people, you are not only helping and caring for them but helping yourself. – Anmol

I think that every religion is the same just looking at different points from different angles and giving more importance to some things. When you start seeing what each one is about you realize all of them are kind of the same. I think Buddhism is a really nice way of seeing life, but at the same time I think it is really difficult because you care a lot more for others than for you and it is really cool but I need to be honest…I mean for me it is really difficult. Anyway, if some day I can really care about others without thinking about myself first, it is going to be a miracle. I would really like to learn more about Buddhism. When we did the meditation I felt so relaxed and I think it is a good and nice way of remembering the people who are going though a hard moment, especially the ones you know but as well as every single person in the world that is suffering. In our daily life we hardly think about all of the people in the world that are suffering and when you think about that you realize how lucky you are and we live in a very nice bubble. I really like my bubble but I really want to try to get out of it especially when I am in India. – Ale

One of the most peaceful ten minutes of my life since I came to India. This field trip that we went on today was a very, very exciting experience for me because I am very fascinated by the Buddha. I have been reading the book "Buddha" by Karen Armstrong recently and find his theories and teachings very interesting and true. So for me to come here to a place where the Buddha is worshipped is something I have wanted to do for some weeks now. It was really interesting because I have never really meditated like that before and I found it rather nice. At first I thought I wouldn't like it and that it was silly but when I got started I felt happy and excited at the same time. The whole concept of meditating and relaxing yourself in this way is something I have only read about in a book. I felt as if I had been lifted up. I felt lighter. – Rasmus

I liked the idea of love and compassion meaning different things. Love meaning you want the best for someone else and compassion meaning you want to end suffering. I think those meanings are much better than the meanings we all, know them for. You told us to think of someone we saw or remember or concentrate on sending them a blessing. This was interesting, in most religions people pray to a god, in this case it was like we were gods, but at the same time people. We were feeling for other people and sending them blessings, as if answering their prayers. – Alex

In this field trip to a Buddhist place, we meditated and thought about the suffering of other people. First we sat in a circle and breathed and then started thinking about someone other than ourselves who was suffering. We then offered them hope from our hearts that their suffering would stop. According to Buddhists life is suffering and when we discover the cause of suffering is desire or an expectation we understand that is we let go of our desires and expectations we wouldn't suffer. However, that wasn't the goal of this field trip. The goal was to move on from focusing on your own suffering and notice how much others around you suffer. The goal was to wish for the well being of someone else for a chance. We were asked when the last time we wishes for the wellbeing of someone from our hearts were, and honestly I had trouble remembering a time I wished well from the heart for someone other than myself, my family and some of my friends. This really showed me that I should be happy for what I have, because there's someone out there who doesn't have anything, and is truly suffering. – Anya

We were told to choose someone who is having a hard time with life at the moment and that we should send our blessings to them. This was very hard as I see so many people that I know having a rough time right now but in the end I chose my grandmother and tried to send out positive thoughts and prayers for her general wellbeing. After our blessings, we focused on Delhi, the whole of India then Asia ands we were asked the last time we really thought about suffering in the world. I couldn't remember and I figured that I should start to do some thinking. Meditation is very calming and I personally have the feeling of sleeping but being awake at the same time. The environment that we were meditating in at the dharma center also contributed to the calming affect it had on me. The lighting was appropriately dim and the fact that we could not hear any of the chaos and noise outside also helped us reach a point of isolation from everyone else in that room. I felt like I was alone and at peace with myself. – Nina

While thinking of people who are less fortunate than me, I pictured the two sisters I pass everyday on the way to school. One of them has something wrong with their foot, the other gets beat regularly. I thought about what it would feel like to live like that, it would probably break me. I realized that they were dealt a bad hand when they were born, but people like my driver, who had befriended them over the years, helped whenever they could. Every time I see them they always smile and wave, I think that it's amazing they can do that when their world is so cruel, for lack of a better word. – Irena

Usually I don't enjoy meditation or yoga, this time I felt that it was really precious time to think about one person who was having a hard time and bless them kindly. Although our class couldn't stay there long enough because of a lack of time to go back to school again, I felt really comfortable and purified after I blessed one kid I met in "Reach Out" one of the service clubs at the American Embassy High School who lived on the streets in front of the school. I couldn't forget his bright eyes and facial expressions though he was very poor. – Jeeyeon

I really liked meditating, that helped me relax and forget the outside world a lot. I believe my spiritual well wishing might have done someone some good. - Kevin