By Thubten Samphel
Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China
By Tim Johnson
Nation Books, New York, 2011, 333 pp, $26.99
It is no mystery why editors prefer some titles for books over others. They choose titles that help sell books. If titles alone sell books, the new book by Tim Johnson, a veteran reporter who had covered China for Knight-Ridder and McClatchy for six years from his Beijing office, should become an instant bestseller. His canvas is the whole world conquered by the Dalai Lama who, the author says, “has become one of the most recognizable leaders in the world, rising to the level of a universal moral figure alongside Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.” Backdrop of this vast canvas is Tibet which to the author “seemed impossibly exotic, like an endangered orchid deep in the jungle … a species on the brink of extinction.” These two forces, a country and a leader, exerting a tenuous influence on the world are overshadowed by a mighty and all too real China, ‘a behemoth of 1.3 billion people … an increasingly powerful and prosperous force … a teenager giddy with a growth spurt.”
These three themes, the Dalai Lama, Tibet and China, viewed by the world with fascination, sympathy and apprehension in that order and the battles lost and won between them, merge in Tim Johnson’s narrative into a gripping story. For this reason, this writer thinks that there are enough cogent arguments offered in the book to re-name the book into something even more saleable: How China Conquered the World but Lost the Battle to the Dalai Lama.
One of the fascinating tales told in the book is the rebirth and resurgence of the Buddhist faith in Tibet. The late Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, a charismatic and deeply venerated master both in Tibet and the outside world, founded the Serthar Buddhist Academy in eastern Tibet more than thirty years ago. In Tibetan the Serthar Buddhist Academy is known as Larung Gar, which invokes a vast nomadic encampment that downplays its monastic character to circumvent China’s restrictions on the construction of new monasteries. At its height the academy attracted over 10,000 students from all over Tibet, China and South-East Asia, “drawn,” according to the author, “by the fame and brilliance of its founder, revered as a ‘living Buddha.’” At least about 1000 students were Chinese, mostly from Mainland China. The quality of Buddhist education imparted by the academy, which was and still is non-sectarian and open to monk, nun and lay students, rivals that of old Tibet’s best monastic universities and those in exile today.
Unfortunately, China in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s suffered from the Falun Gong fear which led to the organisation’s uprooting from the country. Just as the Chinese Communist Party feared Falun Gong which at one point said to have more than 70 million members, more than that of the Party, the provincial authorities in Sichuan grew nervous about the potential for trouble from such a large body of people outside Party control. In July 2001, the authorities declared the academy “illegal.” Soon after, demolition squads descended upon the academy and by their own admission the authorities said 1,875 dwellings were razed to the ground. All students not native to the region were expelled.
Tim Johnson visited Larung Valley in which the academy is located after the sustained protests that swept Tibet in the spring and summer of 2008. Despite the mauling the Serthar Buddhist Academy received from the provincial authorities nearly a decade ago, what the author saw in Larung Valley astonished him. “While thousands of monks and nuns were forced to leave Serthar in 2001, many climbed over the mountains and returned to the academy later. The population has swollen now to an even higher number … Thousands of simple rustic cabins climbed the slopes as far as the eye could see … A few minutes later, lower in the valley, several thousand nuns flooded out of wooden buildings at the end of classes … I’d never been to a Tibetan Buddhist center with so many ethnic Han Chinese. I wondered what was different here. While clearly some of the Chinese were from Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, many were from the Chinese mainland.”
The presence of a large body of Chinese students at the academy certainly indicates that Tibet’s political struggle with Beijing does not deter ordinary Chinese men and women from embracing and benefiting from the universal values embedded in the Tibetan Buddhist culture. What to Tim Johnson seemed remarkable was how “perhaps the largest concentration of Tibetan Buddhist clergy anywhere in China” stayed out of trouble “by a whisker” when demonstrations calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet engulfed the plateau.
That’s when the hierarchs of the academy employed what this writer considers the art of Tiblomacy, spiritual authorities negotiating between a de-militarised community and a militarized state, an art Buddhist Tibet practised since the days when the hordes of Genghis Khan ascended the ramparts of the plateau. Some three hundred soldiers amassed at the gate of the academy, preventing traffic and people between Larung Gar and the outside world. The soldiers wanted to enter the academy to plant the Chinese flag. The monks wanted an uprising. To the Chinese soldiers the abbots said that 90 percent of the clergy would commit suicide if they entered the monastic compound to raise the Chinese flag. The soldiers and their leaders had also to consider the very real possibility of Chinese students joining the Tibetans to prevent the hoisting of the Chinese flag over their academy. If the word of this confrontation got out, Chinese joining Tibetan protests, what message would this send to the world, and how would this be interpreted by other Chinese who are disgruntled with the authorities for all sorts of reasons? As the author ponders, “If any problems were to erupt at the academy, and Han monks were to side with Tibetans, authorities would not be able to simply blame Tibetans as a troublesome minority under the sway of the Dalai Lama and prone to foreign influence. They would have to explain why well-off Han Buddhists from urban areas would find a remote Tibetan Buddhist sanctuary appealing.”
To the clergy, the abbots said, “You are monks and nuns. Practice compassion, and be patient.” The abbots warned that any trouble would reduce the academy to a big rubble. To the more recalcitrant monks spoiling for a non-violent fight, the abbots told them to take a hike, which several hundreds of them did, to the town of Serthar, about twelve miles away. They were promptly arrested. That advice and hike saved one of the most dynamic Buddhist centres of higher learning from destruction.
As we follow Tim Johnson’s narrative on Tibet, we come across some remarkable Tibetans and Chinese who either individually or by their collective efforts conspire to make the Tibet story even more riveting and inspiring. We come across Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese Nobel Laureate and Jamyang Kyi, a singer and writer, who was detained interrogated for nearly a month for her assertion of pride in Tibetan culture. Tim Johnson tells the story of Rinzin Wangmo, the daughter of the late Panchen Lama who spoke up for the rights of the Tibetan people as no other Tibetan did in Tibet. The same courage emanates Rinzin Wangmo who told the author, “Why March 14 happened was because majority of people have been emotionally suppressed. When things like this happen, it blows up. So it exploded.” This despite the fact that she refers to Hu Jintao, the President of China and the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party as “uncle.” Then there is the husband and wife team, Wang Lixiong and Tsering Woeser, who together have convinced and continue to convince a great number of Chinese to take a serious and less xenophobic look at Tibet.
Tim Johnson covers his Tibet story from both sides of the Himalayas. On this side of the Himalayas we meet shrill critics of the Central Tibetan Administration, activists, scholars and social workers, who give the Tibet movement its drive, dynamism and colour. We meet Tenzin Tsundue, a fine writer and poet and a determined activist, sporting his trademark red headband to confront visiting Chinese premiers from Zhu Rongji to Wen Jiabao from scaffoldings and balconies with Free Tibet banners and with fiery calls to the Chinese leaders to let go of Tibet. Tim Johnson talks to Lobsang Sangay, “one of the exile movement’s brightest lights,” according to the author and the Kalon Tripa of the Central Tibetan Administration for his views on Rinzin Wangmo. In putting all this narrative together, the author does not flinch from covering the controversies that have dogged the exile community. In the years to come Tibetans and Chinese alike will ponder and grapple with the issues covered in the book. This unflinching look at Tibet is refreshing. It is also suffused with a sense of urgency that is elevated to an almost universal import. The author writes, “What I did sense, though, was that there might be something even more important than the endgame for Tibet. Perhaps more crucial would be to observe how a rising China behaves towards those it feels are weaker and in its way.
“Today, it is the Tibetans. Tomorrow, those harmonizing about the glorious blue skies of China could be you and me.”
Thubten Samphel is the spokesperson of the Central Tibetan Administration and author of the book, ‘Falling through the roof’.