Imagining Tibet

So did you go to Penor Rinpoche’s Gompa?” the guy sitting next to him asked.

“Ah, sadly I couldn’t. I didn’t have much time,” was the answer. “But I saw Sera Monastery. It was great,” he added. “I heard that there are more than 5,000 monks there”.

I was on my way back to Dharamshala from Delhi by bus. While trying to sleep on this bumpy ride up to the cooler mountains, I couldn’t help overhearing this conversation between a ’recent arrival’ from Tibet and his more local seatmate. They were discussing Tibetan Settlements and the various monasteries that have been re-established on the plains of South India.

I couldn’t help but think about the paradox that become obvious as the conversation progressed. Here was this man, recounting his experiences about his pilgrimage to India, for him the land where Tibetan Buddhism came from, and a life-changing experience in many ways.

The person sitting next to him, exile-born, was obviously far more interested in hearing details about Tibet itself — the land of exiles’ consciousness, the land that Tibetans in exile want to see more than any other. Yet this guy from Tibet was probably far more interested in talking about the exile community, as he was quite excited to be heading to Dharamshala, the exile spiritual and temporal capital.

I couldn’t help then but think about the parallels between the pilgrimages that Tibetans made, during earlier times of freedom, and now. There are accounts of pilgrims measuring the distance to Lhasa — the capital of Tibet, the holy city — with their body-length.

Even today this practise continues, although I suspect in a far more limited, and restricted, manner. The pilgrimage is a chance to see the holy city, to worship at the Jokhang, to gaze up at the soaring Potala, and in days gone by, to perhaps catch a glimpse of the most revered Dalai Lama.

These days a different pilgrimage is more common. This one is not counted in body-lengths, but in bodies. The hardships that the earlier pilgrims endured and the hardships Tibetans crossing the Himalayas undergo today are essentially similar in many ways, but these days the price may be a lot higher. But then so might the goal.

For many, this pilgrimage leads to not only the rending apart of families, but an actual meeting with the Dalai Lama for his blessing, and a new life. The simple pilgrimage, like so many things in Tibet, has changed.

That led me to this question: Do the Tibetans in exile, now the third generation to be born in India, perceive Tibet in a different way to our brethren in Tibet? We know of the external changes that have taken place since the Chinese occupation in the late 1940s. But do we really understand these changes? All we really have are the images our parents or grandparents brought out with them, and they haven’t changed, even though we know Tibet has. Many Tibetans would not even recognise the places or the families they left behind.

Yet despite all the upheavals, tragedies and transformations, Tibetans in exile have always looked at Tibet as the place of our dreams — a land that defines our collective consciousness as Tibetans.

So, what about our hopes, our dreams, even our perceptions of ourselves: how disparate are they to those of us living within Tibet? We have a different education — we have an education. We can practise our religion. We can speak out about what we think, albeit within limits, without the fear of ending up incarcerated. So how do our dreams, our prayers, our lives, differ?

For as much as we are all Tibetans, our backgrounds are different, and situations can dictate a great deal of our aspirations, and our lives. Personal histories shape a lot of the way we think and the way we act.

What is the meaning of freedom for a Tibetan in Tibet?

Does that mean the concept of a difficult and dangerous journey into exile, or the chance for a night off from study?

Does the idea of living in Tibet mean being in a land that they belong to, or living in country-sized prison?

Is family the cousin you came out with, or a group of people you can go and visit when you can get time off work?

Are we in danger of becoming a divided people? Are we gradually moving slowly but inexorably away from each other, like a glacier in the Antarctic that imperceptibly but unceasingly creeps away from its origins, until finally one day it drops off the edge into the ocean, and disappears into the sameness of the water surrounding it?

Are we in danger of becoming three different peoples — those in Tibet, those born in exile, and those who have recently escaped occupation and have to deal directly with those changes? Are the problems that flare up between ’newcomers’ and ’exile-born’ indicative of a deeper and more dangerous rift?

I think not. For all the differences between Tibetans, there are differences within communities everywhere. People live with differences even where there has been no serious interference to directly cause it.

We at least, know what has happened and are aware of the changes. We are lucky that changes are not sneaking up on us unawares, that we have a chance to save some of what is deliberately being destroyed.

Superficially, it may seem that the prayers of a family with a son or daughter a political prisoner are going to be different to those whose child is facing school exams. But all either family really wants is the best for their children.

The dreams of a teenager in Tibet may be to escape into exile for the chance to study, whereas the teenager in India is hoping for a university placement — but both are wanting to learn, to go forwards with their lives. Deep down, are those surface dissimilarities really different at all?

And for all the disparities, at whatever level and appearance, between those of us in exile and those in captivity, there is some fundamental commonality, there is something that makes all of us say: “I am Tibetan.”

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