New Internationalist

Dreams, Schemes And Prayer Wheels

Issue 274


Dreams, schemes and prayer wheels

Dharamsala, also known as Little Lhasa. It’s the place
Tibetan refugees dream of, and the home of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Clinging precariously to the Himalayan foothills, amid woods and waterfalls, is the once-tiny settlement of McLeod Ganj. Now the old British hill-station above the Indian town of Dharamsala is the sprawling home to around 20,000 Tibetan exiles. About a third of the way down the hill is the compound of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

As far as the Indian Government is concerned none of this exists. The Indian policy is, as one senior Tibetan official told me, to ‘keep one eye open and one eye closed’. India does not want to harm its relations with China. But it has also helped the Tibetans far more than any other country.

The first wish of all refugees arriving in Dharamsala is to see the Dalai Lama and receive his blessing. Then they concern themselves with the more mundane things, like food and shelter. Kalsang Yulgial, who runs the refugee reception centre, is a large friendly man who has a picture of the Dalai Lama meeting John Major hanging on his wall. I try not to hold this against him.

Kalsang’s job is not an easy one. The refugees arrive full of expectations. Many want to stay in McLeod Ganj and be near to the Dalai Lama. But the place is bursting at the seams. The Tibetan Children’s Village has 2,000 students – about twice as many as it should. There is room for only 120 people at the refugee reception centre. And the Indian Government is now putting pressure on Dharamsala not to accept any more refugees. The Dalai Lama would also like Tibetans to stay in Tibet. By leaving the country in droves they are playing into the hands of the Chinese, he says.

‘Some have just come for an audience with His Holiness or to visit their children in the school. That’s fine, they will go back to Tibet again afterwards. But with the others it’s more difficult. We have to explain the situation to them carefully,’ says Kalsang.

The authorities are now allowing people to stay for a year or so – during which time they receive teaching on Tibetan culture and identity. They are told that the best way they can contribute to Tibet’s struggle is to return.

There is a certain logic in this. But don’t exiles who have made a hellish, life-risking journey, resent it when comfortably settled people in Dharamsala tell them they should go back?

‘The Dalai Lama talks to them and usually they understand. Nobody is ever returned by force and political prisoners and torture victims are automatically allowed to stay,’ says Kalsang.

Jamyang Senge, for example, could never return. For 15 years he was a political prisoner, for 10 years after that a slave. He starts by telling me, through an interpreter, that he has never been interviewed in this way before: ‘Sitting on a chair, facing you, answering your questions. I am more accustomed to answering questions on my knees, with my hands tied behind my back and with kicks to my head and body.’

He was a young man when taken prisoner by the Chinese. ‘They arrested me because my father and my brother were in the Four Rivers, Six Ranges resistance movement. I was kept in prison for 15 years from 1959 to 1974.

‘During interrogation I was beaten up and left without food. The Chinese would try to brainwash us. I was forced to denounce my faith in Buddhism and in the Dalai Lama. But this was lipservice – it did not come from the heart. His Holiness remained my main source of inspiration during these years. They always asked the same questions. After 15 years of this I was released from prison and forced to do unpaid labour. The labour camp was in Mynak near the border with China. There was never enough food. I survived by stealing whatever we were growing.

Finding safety and happiness at last. Ex-prisoners Jamyang Senge and Rinchen Dolma in Dharamsala.
photo by VANESSA BAIRD

‘When I was finally released, I was in bad shape. I was not able to sleep. My arms were very weak from being tied up so much of the time and having had so little food. A loud bang or a vehicle horn was enough to suddenly fill me with fear.

‘All I wanted to do was to leave Tibet. But my wife thought that if we tried to escape we would get caught. Then this summer we decided to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa with our 13-year-old son. From there we went on to the sacred Mount Kailas. This took us quite close to the border and we joined a group of people who were planning to escape.’

After the interview we go downstairs to meet his wife, whom I immediately recognize as Rinchen Dolma, the girlish 60-year-old who was lying under a tree in the Kathmandu reception centre. She remembers me too. She’s happy. She and Jamyang are going to stay here in Dharamsala – a long, long nightmare for both of them is over. Jamyang’s anxiety attacks have left him since he had an audience with the Dalai Lama. ‘I feel safe, all these fears have gone.’

This is a common line, the usual answer to my questions about psychological problems experienced by torture survivors. ‘Tibetans don’t seem to suffer from these problems so much,’ I am told. ‘It’s to do with our religion.’

I ask a nun who is suffering from depression, for instance, how she feels towards the Chinese who tortured her. Without hesitation she says proudly, ‘Nothing’. Did you ever feel anything? ‘No, never; nothing.’

Is this where the Buddhist meditation on ‘turning your mind into a piece of wood’ comes in handy? Or is it a straightforward case of what Western therapy would see as ‘denial’ of anger, a typical cause of depression? I hear that there are plenty of people in Dharamsala with serious psychological problems: people who feel isolated, suicidal or uncontrollably aggressive after years of abuse by Chinese torturers. The problem is beginning to be recognized. With the help of the Danish agency Danida, the Tibetan Health Department is starting a new programme for survivors of torture.

Then there is the complex issue of ‘bad karma’. The religious explanation usually given for Tibet’s plight today is that Tibetans are being punished collectively for sins committed in previous lives. But does this mean that Tibetans still deserve all they are getting – 45 years on? Are not the Chinese obviously to blame for human-rights abuses and the like?

‘Well,’ explains one official, ‘if we try to blame other people for our problems the problems will just get larger. Religious teaching helps us make the problems smaller.’

But, I insist, are the Chinese not to blame?

‘Politically they are,’ he says, ‘but if you dig deep into religion whatever we suffer is because of our past deeds. Perhaps because we did not listen to the previous Dalai Lama when he was trying to reform Tibet.’

I’m feeling very uneasy about this. It sounds a bit too much like papal infallibility to me. Must the Dalai Lama be obeyed even if he has got it wrong? And if so, what does this make of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s claims that it is dedicated to creating a Western-style multi-party democracy?

I put this to the Speaker of Parliament, the Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche. He’s one of the Administration’s leading intellectuals and himself an incarnate lama.

Do you ever disagree with the Dalai Lama?

‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘We agree to disagree. He’s a very democratic person. He never likes to impose his ideas – except for his insistence on democracy. When we [the Kashag or Cabinet] disagree with him he agrees with us.’

This sounds all right to me. But he then goes on to say: ‘This has led us to make many wrong decisions. Now we disagree with His Holiness in order to appear democratic. But in our hearts we agree.’

This does not sound much like genuine democracy in action to me.

‘No,’ he admits with a wise old smile. ‘But he thinks very rationally and his judgement is very solid. Our collective wisdom is much less than his.’

Can he give me an example of when he disagreed with the Dalai Lama and was proved wrong? He cites the Strasbourg Proposal in which the Dalai Lama suggested that the Chinese allow Tibet self-rule, while retaining control over defence and foreign policy. Samdhong Rinpoche now thinks this was a brilliant move because it called China’s bluff. The Chinese had up to then said they were prepared to negotiate on anything but independence. Yet here they were, still refusing to talk and proving to the world that they had no intention of reaching a settlement.

I’m thinking it’s really time to talk to the man himself.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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