Further Delights in Dharamsala

6.00am, the alarm sounds. Climbing slowly out of bed we get dressed and roll our yoga mats out on the hotel balcony. The air is crisp and refreshing as we start the first round of ‘Sun Salutations‘. I watch across the hillside as others mimic our actions on a mosaic of rooftops. Numerous devotees perform an early morning Kora of the Dalai Lama‘s residence to my right, while below the landlady lights the ‘Potala Incense’ and the aroma drifts up through the hotel. Like clockwork, on the fourth sun salutation the warm rays burst out from behind the spine of the Himalayas. As I moved into a shoulder stand, my legs straight up in the air, I thought to myself, ‘wow, this must be that thing they call a “healthy lifestyle”’.


Our days in Dharamsala were full and rewarding. Once the sun was up and we’d showered, it was down to the local Tibetan café for an enormous serving of Muesli and Yoghurt. Every day at this time the place was full with fellow travellers, volunteers, teachers, spiritual philosophers and locals. We would normally meet a regular crowd there doing similar things to us; from all over the world people had been drawn together to help the Tibetan cause. Of course the area was also well populated due to a certain ‘Dalai Lama’ arriving in town, and even those who have little interest in Buddhism were excited about seeing this spiritual superstar.


People had come from all around to hear His Holiness teach, and the town exuded an air of excitement in the days preceding his appearance. The whole experience was strangely like attending a football match or a music gig; we went and registered beforehand and received our ’passes’ before heading up to the temple to reserve our seats with a carefully placed sheet. He entered the ’arena’ past all his followers, taking the time to wave and greet as many people as he could. It was quite moving to be in the Dalai Lama’s presence alongside all the Tibetan monks and laypeople to whom he means so much. He symbolises everything Tibet stands for and the struggle they continue to endure. For decades his country and its culture have undergone systematic destruction at the hands of the Chinese, yet his message has remained consistent; violence will only lead to more violence, and all those involved should strive to negotiate through peaceful means. His political acumen is what the Dalai Lama has become renowned for, and it was therefore incredibly refreshing to hear him in the role of ’teacher of Buddhism’, rather than politician.


As the Dalai Lama taught in Tibetan, we listened intently to the English translation on FM radio. The teachings were being given at the request of a large group of Taiwanese Buddhists, and it was pleasing to hear His Holiness interact with the Chinese speaking contingent. The topics covered provided good fuel for discussion in our English classes. A monk student of Hazell’s asked if she had understood all she had heard, to which she replied, ’erm yes, I think I grasped the basics’. ’No. No. No,’ he replied, ’you may have understood intellectually, but you haven’t realised with the non conceptual mind. You must go home and meditate upon the teachings until you realise for yourself’. So that we did, but it turns out the ancient teachings of the Buddha take a little longer than one meditation session to sink in; it would seem one must start thinking in lifetimes rather than years.


The rest of our time was filled with numerous other activities. I took on a second student named Dolma, a shy Tibetan refugee with only very basic English, but unfortunately her sister became ill during our stay, so we only met on a few occasions. I was looking forward to helping her tell her story in English, as it was this part of the interaction which proved to be most rewarding. Gradually, as a students vocabulary improves, the richness of their tale reveals itself in full colour and further communicates the plight of the Tibetans to the rest of the world. We also attended a number of events with ’guest speakers’ who had their own story to tell. One such man told his story to a room full of people at the LIT centre, and the tale culminated in him displaying the wounds inflicted by Chinese soldiers during the 2008 uprising in Tibet. The Chinese military had begun shooting indiscriminately into the protesting crowd and had badly wounded a monk, who eventually died. The speaker had attempted to move the injured man out of the crowd and was shot in the arm. He fled as the Chinese gave chase and was wanted as an instigator of the protests from then onwards. He knew he couldn’t return to the city so he escaped to the hills where he received no treatment for his wound, and his arm eventually became infected with maggots. His friends cut out the rotten flesh and luckily his arm began to heal, and it was at this point that he decided to make the dangerous journey through the Himalayas to Dharamsala. The Tibetans love a tall tale, but this man desperately wanted to relate his story in the hope such efforts would increase awareness of the continuing Chinese brutality.


I also attended a number of interesting screenings and discussions given by the ’Active Non-violence Education Centre’ (ANEC). ANEC provide the local community with training in using non-violent means to bring about positive change, with the teachings of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and Ghandi acting as guiding principles. The workshops they run in the Tibetan transitional school are of particular importance; recently arrived refugees are educated in non-violent techniques with which to protest against the Chinese occupation. Many of the students choose to make the dangerous trip back to Tibet after education, and therefore the work ANEC do is of huge benefit inside the country as the inhabitants continue to contend with Chinese oppression and brutality.


At one discussion a representative from the Tibetan Youth Congress was present; this organisation are known for a more aggressive approach to protest, and his belief was that the media only take notice if protest is forceful. This opinion is prevalent, particularly among young Tibetans, as they feel the passive approach is not working and force must now be utilised. I explained that I had worked in the British media and believe the Tibet issue is woefully underrepresented; this is a concern as the support of the major world powers is crucial to Tibet. I commented that in Western media there are images on our screens every day of conflict and violent protest and viewers are anaesthetised through overexposure; another news article with burnt out cars and smashed shop windows is unlikely to shock or change opinion. I asked the Youth Congress member what the most powerful and enduring image of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest was; he replied straight away that it was the unarmed man stood in front of a Chinese tank, protesting peacefully. I therefore suggested that the most powerful thing the Tibetan population, monks and laypeople, could have done in the protests of 2008 was to congregate on mass in front of the Jokhang temple, sit down, and begin reciting prayers as the armed Chinese military looked on. In my mind this would have been an immensely powerful image of peaceful protest and any unprovoked violence from the Chinese would have been immediately apparent and condemned globally.


During these discussions I became a little frustrated and disheartened by the idealistic and unrealistic opinions of how the Tibet situation could be resolved; ’Ghandi did this’, ’Martin Luther King said this’, ’When Soviet Communism collapsed this happened.’ Nobody could really offer a workable, ongoing solution to their specific difficulties. In other discussions we had been involved in, the advent of Chinese democracy was proposed as one of the most likely catalysts to a free Tibet. The young in China are miseducated about Tibet and it is taught that it has always been a province of China and that the Chinese have done immense good there by ‘liberating’ the area from regressive feudalism and a tyrannical, separatist in the Dalai Lama. Therefore, an accurate education through freedom of information would enable an intelligent population to vote democratically for a mutually beneficial resolution to the Tibetan situation. Another suggestion is to utilise the classic non-violent tactic of non-cooperation; boycott all Chinese products and services and use only Tibetan produce. I commented that having been to Lhasa recently, the Tibetan population are so dependent on Chinese products and services these days, that to boycott everything would likely leave the Tibetans in a state of impoverishment. Furthermore, the more successful the Chinese economy becomes in the world arena, the more likely it is to bend towards democratic principles. As stated, this could be beneficial to Tibet, so by attempting to harm the Chinese economy, they may inadvertently damage their own chances for autonomy.


This jostling of political ideas could have continued all evening, and ultimately we all became aware of just how difficult the Tibetan situation is. There is certainly still hope that Tibet will be free in the future or at least achieve a level of real autonomy, but unfortunately this appears to depend upon the attitude of the stubborn Chinese government. I was also very disappointed to discover that the UK have recently decided to shift their position and define Tibet as a part of China. This is a cowardly response rooted in the fear of upsetting the modern superpower of China. If you take only one thing away from the words I have written here, let it be this: Tibet is a country illegally occupied by Chinese forces. It is not a province of China.


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