Why Tibet

Jen and I are taking a trip to Tibet, and I’ve been asked more than a few times: “Why Tibet?” It’s one of those difficult questions because it’s absolutely simple and clear to me why we’re going – but for a dozen different reasons. Teasing those reasons apart turns out to be harder than I would have thought. Each one is a long and somewhat personal story.

One path through the story starts about 15 years ago:

In 1995 or 1996, my mother came to Ann Arbor to visit me at college. I sang with the Men’s Glee Club, and we were doing a concert. She stayed in the Bell Tower hotel, which is right in the middle of campus.

One morning, as my mother was coming down for breakfast, she stumbled into a kerfuffle of security in the lobby. She asked the staff what was going on and discovered that the Dalai Lama was also a guest at the hotel. He was about to leave for his day’s activities. She didn’t know much about this fellow, but it seemed like the beginning of a good story, so she grabbed a newspaper and settled on one of the comfy chairs in the lobby. In short order, a signal went around, security was organized, the elevator descended, and a monk in orange and yellow robes emerged. Not knowing what else to do, she stood up. He made eye contact with her, put his palms together in front of him, and gave a little bow. Instinctively, she smiled and returned the gesture. At that, he broke into a broad grin and hustled out to start his day.

In the ensuing weeks, she began to read his writings. The Art of Happiness served as an accessible introduction. After that, she plunged deeper into readings about and by the man, into the history of Tibet, and into the Tibetan Buddhism that he practices. She sent me copies of some of the books that she read. At the time, I was a clueless undergraduate, then a self important and busy grad student, and then a self involved young professional. I stuffed the books on shelves and rarely took time to read them. Now, those books are still on my shelves, but well thumbed and forming an odd chronology. I sort these books by the dates of the inscriptions she wrote in the front covers.

Tibetan Buddhism had a significant positive impact on her life. I think that the practices and ideas that she learned from the Dalai Lama helped her to live a happier, calmer, and more satisfying life than she otherwise might have. Those same teachings are helping me as well, in similar ways.

Today, I’m plowing through John Avedon’s In Exile From The Land of Snows. It’s one of the definitive histories of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, and it’s a hell of a read. However, I have to hurry through the last 200 pages before we depart: Chinese authorities might seize it if I were to take it with me to Tibet. It contains pictures of the Dalai Lama, you see, which are strictly forbidden. As a foreigner, I would probably only get hassled a bit. However, were I to share those pictures with a monk, a nun, or with a TIbetan family – they could face imprisonment or worse.

The Dalai Lama is the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He was forced to flee his country in 1959 in front of the advancing forces of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Even his image is forbidden there. The man has lived and will almost certainly die in exile, a guest of India and of the world. If his image is forbidden, you can only imagine the reception he might receive were he to try to travel to his home even one more time in this life.

Me and my tourist dollars are welcome, provided that I don’t cause any trouble while I’m there. I have been warned against telling stories like these to the Tibetans who I meet. Much as the image is forbidden, so is “divisive and rebellious talk.” My story about the smiling monk who bowed to my mother, whose books changed her life, these are forbidden in the land of his birth.

I think that my mother would have liked to see Tibet, but she didn’t get the chance. I think that the Dalai Lama would like to see his country again, but that chance may be gone as well. I’m going out of respect for people who won’t get to see those lands. I’m going to see for myself, to take pictures, to meet the people, and to feel my weight on the same earth that brought forth the ideas of Tibetan Buddhism.

I’m going, even if I have to fall silent for a little while, while I’m there. A little silence every now and again is good for the mind.

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