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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Tibet of my Youthful Dreams

May 26, 2008

By Tissa Devendra
The Sunday Times (UK)
May  25, 2008

In Colonial Ceylon of the 1920s Ananda College, headed by the
charismatic Kularatne, was bubbling with patriotic fervour. Many of
its staff and students followed their 'guru' in discarding the
colonial symbol of 'tie/coat' and adopting "Ariya Sinhala' dress.

[Amusingly, the black coat and tie have been embraced with relish in
independent Sri Lanka. Good stuff for a sociological study.]

Ananda also became a magnet for some of the icons of Indian
nationalism. Her students and teachers had the rare privilege of
hearing, in their own school hall, the inspired words of the great
Mahatma, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Sarojini Naidu the poet [once
reputed to have had a Sinhalese lover] and many more. Following in
the footsteps of the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott,
guiding light of Buddhist education, quite a few unconventional
Britishers and Americans also came to Ananda to interact with
Kularatne and the Buddhist revival.

Among the most interesting of these was the American scholar of
Tibet's Tantrayana Buddhism,W.Y.Evans-Wentz. He gave a few public
lectures on Buddhism where he fearlessly criticised many cherished
Christian beliefs.

The wide publicity given to these talks inevitably earned the wrath
of the French Jesuit Fr. Le Goc, Rector of Ananda's rival school in
Maradana -- St. Joseph's College. The French Jesuit now challenged
the American Buddhist to a public debate on the existence of God and
related doctrines. It would have been a dramatic confrontation as I
gathered, many decades later, from my father [admittedly a partisan
witness] then a young teacher at Ananda.

Evans-Wentz had amazed the audience when he strode in-dressed in
immaculate white Ariya Sinhala dress! I have no idea as to the
outcome of this last of the great Buddhist-Christian debates. I am
pretty sure all present were, predictably, convinced by the arguments
of their respective protagonists, and left with their natal beliefs
unchallenged. The reading public was so interested that the debate
was duly published in Colombo.

Evans-Wentz left behind his magnum opus "The Tibetan Book of the
Dead" (which went on, many decades later, to become a 'sacred text'
of the Beat/Hippie/LSD Movement).It is this book, and its charismatic
author, that inspired in my father D.T. Devendra an abiding
fascination with Tibet and all things Tibetan.

Father read every book on Tibet that he could lay his hands on - and
I became the collateral beneficiary, in a home where every son or
daughter was free to read any book in the house. It was thus that I
learnt of Tibet and its traditions from the fascinating accounts of
Younghusband's British 'invasion' of Lhasa, the gruelling journeys of
the intrepid Madame Alexandra David-Neel, the sensitive musings of
the Italian scholar Marco Pallis, the French traveller Andre Migot,
the articles and paintings of the Russian Professor Nicholas Roerich
and "Stepping Stones" the journal edited by the English Mahayanist
Bhikshu Sangharakshita of Kalimpong [who went on to found the Western
Buddhist Order in Britain] ­ and Evans-Wentz himself.

The colourful pictures in "Lands and People" held me spellbound with
intricately carved temples, whirling dragon-dancing monks, yak
caravans and forbiddingly beautiful mountains. There is much more I
read, but can no longer recall as I write entirely from memory.

Thus, I became fascinated with a Tibet, of sorts -- the incense-smoky
interiors of ancient temples clinging to mountain precipices, weather
beaten yak shepherds in tattered rags, serene looking monks in
strange headgear, or in fearsome masks.

'It saddens me to see how much the Dalai Lama relishes the honey dew
of media adulation.'

A frisson of strange emotion overcame one when confronted with the
Tibetan paintings of spirits in conjugal embrace symbolising
spiritual ecstacy, or their 'sky burials,' where the dead are chopped
up and left on bare hilltops for mountain eagles to feed on. Father
firmly argued that this was truly Buddhist, in that you renounced any
craving you may have had for the body "you" once occupied and,
instead, donated it as 'dana' for the birds of the air to live on.

The strange spiritual practices of Tibetan Buddhism held us in thrall
-- the lamas meditating in snow which melted around them as they sat
in trance, yet other lamas who chose to be walled into minute 'kutis'
where they meditated for years and, strangest of all, the
transference of the spirit of high lamas to infant boys who were then
inducted into monasteries for decades of training in Buddhist
doctrine and the rigorous practice of meditation. The present Dalai
Lama is held to be the reincarnation of an unbroken series of
thirteen earlier Dalai Lamas, all chosen as infants in a
time-honoured tradition.

Later on, I became enamoured of books by climbers of Himalayan peaks
after reading John Hunt's book on Hillary's ascent of Everest. Base
camps, Sherpas, ice picks, oxygen bottles, crampons, pitons and Yeti
footprints thrust lamas, 'tanka' paintings and precipitous
monasteries into the background of my consciousness.


Both interests, however, came together when I read Heinrich Harrer's
"Seven Years in Tibet." I wonder how many yet remember this man who
seems to have acted as catalyst for the Dalai Lama's flight from the
"Forbidden Kingdom" to the Empire of Materialism. Harrer was an
Austrian mountain climber sent by Germany during WW II to spy on
British activities in India's North East. He was captured and
interned in a POW camp in the Himalayan foothills. He escaped and,
after a gruelling journey without any equipment, reached Lhasa the
capital of Tibet. He lived there in peace amidst Buddhist hospitality
till the war ended.

The already 'enthroned' Dalai Lama was a teenager at the time. His
percipient teachers soon realised that, in Harrer, here was an
unwitting 'visitor' from the outer modern world who could introduce
its strange exotic ways to the young Dalai Lama. Teacher and pupil
studied together for many years and thus was kindled in the young
Lama an enduring fascination with the world outside his 'Forbidden
Kingdom' - a fascination that, later, led both to his great success
and, perhaps, spiritual doom. When Harrer left Tibet he left behind a
brilliant student but infected, alas, with the heady virus of Western

Chairman Mao's China now began consolidating its borders. Tibet had,
for centuries, accepted its status as a feudatory of the "Middle
Kingdom." However, decades of civil war, invasion, famine and
destruction gave the central government no time to establish
effective authority over the outlying enclave of Tibet. This
"province" thus continued to exist in an undisturbed time capsule of
esoteric Buddhism embedded in a medieval feudalism. This period
provided the 'window in time' that enabled the many Western
travellers and scholars to write of the Tibet that entranced my father and me.

No resurgent Communist government could tolerate a self-governing
feudal enclave within its borders. Least of all a territory which
shared a border, and strong cultural links, with an expansionist
India. Thus, as was inevitable, Tibet was "invaded" with all the
insensitivity and brutality of Communist regimes determined to assert
their authority.

The Western press published colourful accounts of ill-armed Tibetan
guerillas and stave-wielding lamas bravely resisting the brutal
People's Army and Red Guards.

Sensibly, the Dalai Lama and his advisers fled their mountain
fastness to hospitable India, the birthplace of Sakyamuni and the
Buddha Dharma . China soon established direct administrative control
over Tibet and abolished the existing "oppressive feudal clerical
regime". Medieval and monastic Tibet was dragged "kicking and
screaming" into the harsh reality of the 20th Century.


The Dalai Lama and his genuine followers flourished beneath the
canopy of India's hospitality. A little Tibet of the faithful, under
the Dalai Lama's tutelage, grew at Dharamsala in the Himalayan
foothills. The extraordinarily intelligent Dalai Lama now blossomed
in the heady atmosphere of intellectual, and multi-cultural, freedom
that would have been denied him in cloistered Lhasa. He now attracted
an unending stream of journalists, disciples, politicians, film stars
and the plain curious. He also began travelling the "world" --
curiously enough only the Western world. The great success of these
missions was the establishment of several Tibetan monasteries,
largely in America and Britain, where learned lamas preached
Tantrayana doctrines and taught monastic practices to Western disciples.

Hot on the heels of these lamas, a steady stream of average Tibetans
began making their way to the Golden West, exploiting the loophole of
political asylum -- already well polished by the diaspora of
Armenians, Kurds, 'eelam' Tamils etc. While they made a living by
pumping gas in New York or crunching numbers in Silicon Valley, they
provided highly visible mobs for any anti-China demonstration. Their
TV-genic assaults on the Olympic Torch Marathon were the best
possible illustration. The Dalai Lama's ill- advised demand for
independence from China gave the West a 'pious' cudgel with which to
belabour China and deflate its Olympic ambitions. The Tibetan
diaspora, keen to exhibit loyalty to their new homes in the West,
served as his footsoldiers to throw mud in China's face.

It saddens me to see how much the Dalai Lama relishes the honey dew
of media adulation - as did the late nun whom the media beatified
long before the Vatican did.

Like her, he developed a fondness for hob-nobbing with headline
makers -- Presidents, Prime Ministers and Hollywood stars. He has
compromised his moral stature in showering blessings on the US
President responsible for thousands of deaths in Iraq and
Afghanistan. It is no wonder he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize --
an accolade the West bestows on Third Worlders who irritate enemies
of the West. It is tragic to see the decline of a Buddhist leader of
such spiritual eminence into a global pop icon and pawn in an
ideological Cold War.

Time's chariot wheels roll inexorably on -- and so does the high
speed railway now linking Lhasa to Beijing. There is no going back,
ever, to the Tibet of my youthful dreams, now buried forever in the
permafrost of history.
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