Politics & Policy

Between the Middle Kingdom and the Land of Snows: Part II

A smattering of high lamas, and the world's most gruesome funeral.

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a five-part series relating the author’s travels in China and Tibet. Click here for Part I.

‐ If you meet rural Tibetans, the question they ask you first will be, “Where are you from?” The second question will be, “Have you ever been to India?” (They have a special interest in India, this being home to the Dalai Lama’s government in exile.) The third question will be, “How much would it cost me to move to America?” (I never give the unfortunate answer: “More than you will ever have.”)

‐ Despite a decades-long Chinese campaign against him, the Dalai Lama still reigns supreme in the Tibetan imagination, and even retains the loyalties of young and middle-aged Tibetans born after his exile. While trekking in the Himalaya, my traveling companion and I often camp near small villages. Each time, the local children come to our campsite and spend the afternoon with us (we are that cool). One, a boy who speaks no Chinese and must communicate with me in improvised sign language, pulls from his neck a pendant containing the Dalai Lama’s photograph and blesses our tent with it. Many, many Tibetans wear such pendants (always under their clothing, as it is forbidden to own a picture of the Dalai Lama). Some Tibetans even build hidden rooms in their homes whose sole purpose is to house such a photograph.

‐ The Tibetans have an insatiable interest in the lives and times of their other incarnate lamas as well. Consider a rumor I hear about the Panchen Lama.

Background: The Panchen Lama is traditionally the second-highest spiritual and political authority in Tibet. The Tenth Panchen Lama — a fascinating man who began public life collaborating with Peking but, after witnessing the horrors of Chinese Communism, denounced the occupation at great personal cost — died under suspicious circumstances in 1989. (Most Tibetans believe he was poisoned.) The Dalai Lama, acting from India, recognized a young Tibetan boy as the reincarnate Panchen, but the Chinese bosses would have none of that. They detained the boy and his family (who have not been heard from since) and coerced a group of high lamas to recognize a party-approved candidate. This “official” lama was then also detained, and has spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Peking, learning all the right thoughts.

The rumor: In Tingri, a town near the Nepalese border, I hear that both the real Panchen and the fake one have escaped China and fled to Nepal or India. (“Real” and “fake” are not my designations, but those of every Tibetan with whom I have discussed the Panchen controversy.)

This rumor is highly unlikely to be true, given that both candidate lamas are effectively in prison. Escapes are not unheard of, however. The Karmapa, another incarnate lama, slipped his Chinese minders in 2000 and made a wild car run to Nepal. (He drove at night, circumventing Chinese checkpoints and making use of a remote pass through the Himalaya.)

I should in fact refer to this escapee as “the candidate Karmapa,” for his lineage is also disputed. Prior to the escape, he enjoyed Chinese favor; at the same time, a rival Karmapa had been selected by Tibetan lamas in India. This dispute goes unresolved.

Whether the Panchen escape story is true or not, there is nothing the locals would rather discuss.

‐ I am reminded that there is no necessary connection between saintliness and popularity, even among highly devout peoples. The Tibetans are most admiring of Tsangyang Gyatso, their sixth Dalai Lama, who died in 1706. I can understand their sympathy: He was a certified badass, a carouser who slipped out of the Potala Palace at night to get drunk and chase Tibetan women. He was also a fine lyric poet (or is at least considered such by scholars of Tibetan).

‐ One should resist the tendency to romanticize the Tibet in which His Late Carousing Holiness lived. A Tibetan acquaintance of mine tells me the story of his grandfather, who, decades ago, though already married with children, fell in love with the daughter of a Tibetan cabinet minister. This minister expressed his disapproval by having the unwanted suitor tied to a stake in the countryside, where he was eaten by wild dogs. I offer this anecdote not to excuse the Chinese conquest, but to suggest that it replaced good, old-fashioned, workmanlike savagery with the machinery of ideological slaughter.

‐ If you travel widely in Tibet, you will come to understand something of its political and cultural complexity. This in turn will help you understand the impossibility of its ever again being “free,” even if China were to renounce its claim on Central Tibet (something it will never do, for reasons of national pride, economics, and strategy, in approximately that order).

The area designated “Tibet” on a map is an arbitrary cartographic creation that includes less than half of the land traditionally under Tibetan control. The greater part of this land — including almost the entirety of regions known to Tibetans as Kham and Amdo — has been absorbed into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, all of which I have visited. Their Tibetan towns are in many ways more “authentic” than Tibet proper — that is, they have fewer Chinese residents, and their Tibetan residents look and sound less Chinese, than is the case in the countryside surrounding Lhasa. But because these Tibetan enclaves exist in provinces that are overwhelmingly Chinese, there is zero possibility of their ever being granted a modest autonomy, let alone independence. I have unlimited moral sympathy for the Free Tibet movement. But Mao will freeze in hell (or, if he is in one of the cold Buddhist hells, he will burn) before there is an independent and unified Tibetan state. That is why the Dalai Lama himself no longer calls for one, choosing rather to advocate Chinese suzerainty of Tibet.

‐ The Tibetan towns in Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu are subject to fewer travel restrictions than is Central Tibet. For example, tourists to Lhasa are legally barred from attending sky burials, the most common Tibetan method of corpse disposal. But in Jyekundo, an outpost in remotest Qinghai, my friend and I have no trouble ascertaining the location of the nearest sky-burial site and hiring a cab to take us there. Unfortunately there is no burial this day. But I saw one three years ago in Lithang, Sichuan (the focal point of an anti-Chinese uprising in the late ’50s; as you might guess, things ended badly, with the Chinese air force bombing the local monastery and the rebels fleeing to Mustang, Nepal). I would describe the sky burial thus:

A female corpse was skinned, gutted, chopped into smithereens with an axe, and mixed with barley. At some point, two young monks showed up on a motorcycle, chanted a sutra, got bored, and headed back to the monastery. Meanwhile a swarm of central-Asian vultures circled overhead. Once the corpse was mutilated beyond recognition or form, everyone present retreated from it, allowing the vultures to dive, bomber-like, and devour the mass of human pulp within ten minutes. If you have never seen central-Asian vultures, it will be hard for you to imagine how sinister this sight was. They are much larger than their American cousins, roughly the size of golden eagles, and they hop about more evilly than any creation of an animator’s pen.

The man wielding the axe went about his business as casually as the vultures would. He even invited me to take pictures. (I declined.) He was a relative of the deceased, but not a close one. Generally, after a death, the local monk-astrologer determines which relatives are to attend the deceased’s funerary rites. Next of kin are, mercifully, exempted from this duty.

It is a grisly custom that even many Tibetans find hard to witness. But it is also mesmerizing. In particular, I will never forget the sound of the axe as it cleft bone and struck the rock on which the corpse lay. (This sound was something like that of chopping carrots, but wetter, and with a metallic ping at its core.)

‐ That seems a fine note to end on. In tomorrow’s installment: a mountain named Everest, the eating of bitterness, and an ironical chuckle at the Chairman’s expense.

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