By Tenzin Nyinjey
Like most children, I was a rebel too, more inclined to do things that were opposed to our Buddhist values. My friends and I enjoyed catching fish and crabs in the ponds. We often tracked down birds’ nests and followed Indians hunting wild deer and pigs in the jungles of tribal Orissa.
These huntsmen, bows and strings dangling from their shoulders and their faces smeared with soot, had some sense of fairness and justice—something perhaps folks responsible for the economic crisis in US can learn from. Once they hunted down their prey, they distributed the share equally among themselves, and even to us children who hadn’t made any contribution but simply watched them as mere spectators. Of course, we couldn’t bring our share of meat to homes for fear of our parents’ reprimand. We gave them away to stray dogs.
However, I loved the Buddhist rituals and ceremonies my parents held in our homes every now and then. For it was on such occasions that I got to enjoy the most delicious of foods. I loved the beautiful tormas made by monks and ngagpas. The sound of drums and conch shells and chanting of monks were sheer melody to my ears. The crows landing on our roofs to feast on tormas and the plume of smoke rising up in the blue sky from burned junipers was a spectacle too.
I remember my mother sending me out every evening to the local monastery to offer holy tea and coins at the altar of gods and goddesses. I always grabbed this errand with sheer delight—it was not out of religious piety however, but having the opportunity to get out of my house and play football with other kids that prompted me to do it.
Bowing and touching my heads in respect to the images of gods lining the altar of the monastery was a grueling experience. The most awe-inspiring moment was when I stood in front of the image of Palden Lhamo, unable to look into her fiery eyes—for some strange reason she was showered with more respect for being the most wrathful and protective of deities!
As I grew up and left my village and moved to Indian cities for higher education, I had to adapt my religious beliefs and practices too. Rarely any Buddhist rituals and ceremonies were held in cities that I could be a part of. Again it was my monk brother who came to my rescue. He presented me two books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama—the Art of Happiness and Ethics of the New Millennium—both of which gave me a new perspective of Buddhism that is more ‘rational’ and ‘modern.’ I was in disbelief that a Tibetan Buddhist leader, who never had ‘modern’ education in his life, could pen New York Times best sellers!
However, the struggle for survival driven by sheer competition was the norm than values such as love and compassion in cities like Delhi. The most sophisticated, intelligent and good-looking were ‘naturally selected,’ while the lesser fortunate ones were left behind in our rush to reach to the top. I witnessed lamas whom we have been taught to worship since childhood hanging around with powers that be, living in posh hotels and driving expensive cars. My spiritual and religious convictions, as a result, began undergoing changes.
I became more and more skeptical, even cynical, tilting towards all kinds of isms—atheism, socialism, communism and anarchism—drifting away from the bearings of my own community life, like a sailor whose boat was trapped amid heavy storm in the ocean, unable to find where the final shore lies! I wondered if, as the Chinese propagandists say, religion was not being used by the powerful to keep down the masses in ignorance and slavery. I wondered if there was a higher and absolute truth governing the laws of our universal world.
I began digging up my country’s history, finding to my utter indignation how religion was used as an instrument to strive for power by ruling elites. I couldn’t reconcile Buddha who gave up his own kingdom and wealth with Tibetan religious personalities sitting on political thrones and ruling the lives of ordinary people. The sectarian violence and infighting that resulted from the system of chosi-sungdrel was a blot on Buddha’s noble teaching and our country’s history—and we still suffer from its legacies.
Indeed, when people most responsible for protecting religion become corrupt, indulging themselves in wine, women and power, the worst result is young folks with highly impressionable minds lose faith in religion itself. I was no exception! I resisted (unconsciously) such corruption in my own unimaginative and uncreative ways, offending the sensibilities of my own people, alienating my parents and family. I stopped visiting monasteries, gave up reciting manis and refused to seek audience of lamas, and even made fun of fellow Tibetans who showed extreme religiosity—not cognizant of the fact that it was religion that actually gave them strength and succor in the face of overwhelming suffering caused by dislocation and dispossession of exiled life.
Historians like Gendun Chophel, Samten Karmay, Dhondup Gyal, Dungkar Lobsang Trinley, accused of being anti-Buddhists, however, taught me that the problem doesn’t lie with religion itself, but with the state that used religion to do its dirty work. These writers introduced me to other religious figures in Tibet’s history practicing religion sincerely without the taint of worldly interests such as material wealth and political power. The lives of Milarepa, Ugenpa, Thangtong Gyalpo and Tsangyong Heruka showed me the true essence of religion—love, compassion, tolerance, and service for others—rather than seeking power in the name of religion!
They helped me regain my faith and reclaim my Buddha!
The author is a political commentator based in Dharamshala.
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.