Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tibet: The Idea and Reality

For generations, James Hilton’s compelling novel Lost Horizon has fired us with tales of a distant paradise called Shangrila, situated we are told in a sylvan valley somewhere beyond the Himalayas in the vicinity of Tibet. The name Shangrila has become synonymous with all good and nurturing places, as well as symbolic of a long-lost state of being founded upon harmony with others and within oneself.

Tibetans, too, have a place like Shangrila in their dreams and meditations. They call it Shambhala. While most Tibetans had not yet attained its borders and state of being, they had managed to create a way of life in pre-conquest Tibet oriented to the ideals of a Shambhala.

Over thirteen centuries ago, the entire nation and ethnicity of Tibet had embarked upon a spiritually civilized path through life. In ensuing centuries, Tibetans had succeeded in seamlessly uniting the timeless earth religion of Inner Asia with later Buddhist teachings and practices geared toward the refinement of the bodymind into that of an enlightened being or buddha. It was a path of living that kept their feet firmly planted on the earth while their spirits were enabled to soar to infinite heights.

Fortunately for them, Tibet’s mountain fastnesses, arduous long distances between settlements and daunting weather proved to be excellent insulation from outside political machinations and threats of conquest. Their natural solitude enabled Tibetans to preserve the best of humanity’s teachings on the conduct of life for future generations. Tibet , in fact, is now the last in a venerable lineage of ancient civilizations such as were Sumer, Egypt, Greece, India and China - all of which are now either ghosts or shadows of their former selves.

Tibetan civilization arose over thirteen centuries ago and came ever so close the same fate as its ancient siblings over the past half century. Tibet had been rudely dragged from its blissful complacency into the harsh light of the “real world” of A.D. 1950 with the invasion of eastern Tibet.

It was a time when consequential changes were fulminating throughout Asia. Mao Tse Tung and his People’s Liberation Army had established yet another dynasty in China. Their 1949 revolution had issued out of the historical tides and social dynamics of Chinese life. But what may have been natural and inevitable for the Han was in no way natural or acceptable to the non-Chinese cultures living since time immemorial along their common border. And within a year of the end of the revolution in China, arose the old hegemonous chant that had served previous dynasties in their conquest of Mongolians, Manchurians, Muslims of Turkestan and Tibeto-Burmans of Yunnan. “Tibet has always been a part of China,” it asserted and reasserted.

This paen has a familiar ring to Americans. We remember the nineteenth century hegemenous exhortation: “go west, young man.” And, indeed, the settlers went west to the “empty frontier” by the tens of thousands, despite the slight complication that Native Americans were already living in this, their Shangrila.

Within a short time the Wild West had been “opened” and many Indian nations had gone the way of the wild buffalo, with hardly a voice raised in their defense. Similarly, with today’s massive influx of Chinese settlers, Tibetans stand to go the way of the wild yak in their own homeland: very much considered by the rulers in Beijing to be China’s Wild West. But this time, voices are being raised in Tibet and worldwide.

We, in the Far West, have often romanticized, indeed pedestalized the Tibetans. And they often take great pains to remind us that they are merely human beings, exactly like ourselves. Still, much praise is justly due them.

Tibetans had developed an all-encompassing and universal philosophy of living - we call it Tibetan Buddhism - which is now recognized as one of the great achievements of the human spirit. People in every industrialized nation have begun to incorporate its ethical, psychophysical and intellectual teachings and practices into their daily lives, thanks - ironically - to the Chinese-imposed diaspora of the Tibetan people.

As a last living link to the perennial philosophy of life, Tibet is the concerned teacher on the last day of classes, cautioning the students to “learn the lesson now or you never will.” Today’s most pressing goal in fact lies in learning the lesson well, through embodying humanity’s fundamental wisdoms-in-living. In a world mired in competition, divisiveness, greed and ignorance of our basic, shared humanity, we are being pulled ever more deeply into the maelstrom of global conflict and personal disequilibrium. It has become increasingly obvious that no infusion of money, technology, military aid or political ideology can snatch us from this downward spiral’s grasp.

To change the course of things requires a sea change in the realm of heart and mind; Tibetans call it compassion and wisdom. We need this whole force to establish within ourselves and with our local and global neighbors a holistic, spiritual state of being exemplified by our respective versions of Shangrila. It’s a fragile state, given its presence in the hearts and minds of a current minority of human beings. Still, only a single seed is needed for a forest to grow...

Tibet is one of the world’s last good seeds of civilization. And now, during their time of intense struggle for cultural survival, the people of Tibet deserve our full support, both as a matter of human rights and because of the precious but fragile idea and reality which are Tibet.

As goes Tibet, so goes the world.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Dear Peter,

How have you been since those days in B'ton? Thank you for writing so beautifully about Tibet. I was just reading so many blog comments full of negative emotions about the recent demonstrations. I really needed a break.