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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Chewing the Buddha Bush at the Olympics

August 21, 2008

Greg Palast
Tricycle Magazine
August 13, 2008

Lhasa, Tibet -- China's secret police are just terrible at keeping
themselves secret.

The detective, dressed in her business suit and pumps appropriate to
urban Lhasa, did not expect to be trailing my wife and me up the
steep hillside to a monastery 15,000 feet up an ice-crusted ridge.
Even at 200 yards behind us, I could see her shivering in the thin,
frozen air, trying, absurdly, to look like just another hiker on the
barren slope.

But then, she really wasn't trying to hide. Her presence was meant to
send a message of fear and intimidation. I got the point earlier when
a photographer we'd helped sneak into Tibet was arrested, her film of
protesting Tibetans seized and her camera smashed as she was hustled
onto the first plane leaving the country.

When my police shadow looked away, I snapped a photo of the long
boxes below me, roofs of the prison complex. It housed more Buddhist
monks than any monastery.

At a hermitage carved into the summit rock I found my host sitting
cross-legged under an ancient tapestry depicting a monster ready to
devour quiet souls.

The holy man had questions for us:

Does Christianity have a god? (Answer: "Sometimes.")

What is a 'President'?

It was 1993. I told the monk the new President, Bill Clinton, had met
the Dalai Lama

This Clinton must be a very holy and very good man, yes? ("Sometimes.")

It's not that the priest avoided worldly newspapers, but he'd just
gotten out of prison after 27 years and he didn't get much news
there. Not that you could get any real news in Tibet. No journalists
are allowed there. (Not to be impolite to their Chinese minders - or
lose their lucrative Olympics deals - The New York Times and NBC
cover Tibet from Beijing and Delhi. Just check the by-lines.)

I assured him that Clinton, though not quite holy, would, at the
least, help Tibetans.

That seemed easy enough as they didn't want very much, these mountain
folk. They didn't demand independence from China but, ironically,
just the opposite: an opportunity to become Chinese, that is, have
full access to schooling, university positions afforded their ethnic
Han comrades; and to have a share of the jobs and wealth created by
the uranium and other resources of their plateau nation.

And maybe something a little un-Chinese: freedom of expression, of
movement, of culture, of religion. I assured the monk that this new
President would help them obtain just a bit of autonomy in the
"Tibetan Autonomous Region," as China calls it.

The lama smiled. It was not cynicism but a friendly disbelief in
change happening in this coming year. He measured change in lifetimes.

He asked a student monk to pull down a small painted statue of the
Buddha - which the elder man then chopped apart with a knife. He then
gestured to his acolyte to give us each a piece of the icon - to eat.

Swallowing the body of his Lord was not meant to make us holy but to
solve a more immediate problem - lunch. The painted god, I discovered
with relief, was made out of barley, beer, rancid butter and honey.

I could see that my Tibetan translator was chomping at the bit to
show the old man messages we'd brought from the Dalai Lama's
Secretariat in India. But that would have been suicide. The young
translator's brother (I certainly won't use their names), a cook at a
nearby temple, joined a demonstration of monks against Chinese rule
and was shot dead. I admonished our translator that his mother
couldn't afford to lose her last remaining child.

Instead, we gave the lama a postcard printed with the image of the
multi-armed god Chenrezig. The priest would know, but the Chinese
wouldn't, that Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is a
reincarnation of this god.

"Ta la'i bla ma tshur log pa," I said in my ridiculous Tibetan. The
Dalai Lama will return.

We all return, he indicated, though not necessarily in this body.

The shivering "tourist" policewoman waited for us to leave before she
entered the sanctuary. I can only imagine the questions she'd asked.

Ta la'i bla ma tshur log pa. The point of our heading deep into
Tibet's wastelands was to spread the word that the Dalai Lama hadn't
abandoned his people as the Chinese propagandists told them on radio,
on loudspeakers, and through their local quislings. (My favorite
notice was a warning by Chinese authorities that they must "approve
all re-incarnations." That was meant to avoid the Dalai Lama locating
the new child containing the soul of the Panchen Lama, the Dalai
Lama's missing, and obviously murdered, number two man.)

On to another monastery with the postcard and the message. The old
nuns would put the postcard over their eyes and forehead and turn to
bow into the sun's rays, the symbol of Free Tibet.

One monastery was quiet. In a land where you see the clouds below
you, not above, sunlight is brutally harsh. Every image stands out in
painful, unforgettable clarity. This emptied place had been smashed
into ruins by the Red Guards. They'd arrested all the monks they
hadn't gunned down, some of the 200,000 Tibetans killed by the
Chinese in their ethnic "re-education" campaign.

But the troops had left standing a wall of painted Buddhas, dozens
and dozens of them. The Chinese cadres were certain the magic powers
of these religious images were bunkum. Nevertheless, just in case,
they'd put a bullet hole in each Buddha's forehead.

Back down in the city, another plainclothesman, a grinning Chinese
man, greeted me in the parking lot of the Lhasa Sheraton - in
English, "Glad to see you again!"

Again?

"Oh, don't you remember me? I was standing outside the Dalai Lama's in Delhi."

"Um, I was there to, you know, get some maps and, uh, some postcards."

O.K. This is my warning. Say something, Palast. I tried this:

"That's nice!" He stepped closer and grinned harder. "I have some
books for you about Tibet" - some propaganda about Tibetans as
cannibals (really). He paused, grinned even harder, then added, "I
left them in your room."

In my room? Another warning.

I wasn't worried about the bed search. The envelope the Dalai Lama's
Secretariat had given us had already been delivered to persons whose
identities we made certain not to know.

*

In his fleeting moment as President, Bill Clinton didn't have time to
remember Tibet. More pressing to him was free trade - with Mexico via
NAFTA - and free trade with China, to which he granted Most Favored
Nation status.

*

That May, we left just as the streets were filling with Tibetans
demonstrating for freedom. They would never be seen on US TV. Not
then, not now. NBC will interrupt the Beijing Summer Olympics only to
broadcast its millionth ad for McDonald's.

George Bush is there; says he was thrilled that the Chinese dictator,
Hu Jintao, invited him and Laura and the kids to lunch. I doubt if
they dined on a barley Buddha.

In the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin, Americans knew that the
competition was as much over our national souls as our physical
prowess. When Jesse Owens, a Black man, left Hitler's Aryan runners
eating his dust, America jumped to its feet and cheered - not just
for what he did, but for who we are: for liberty and justice for all.

Now, our Olympic Committee cravenly demands our athletes remain
silent about Tibet. But they shouldn't bother: Bush has already won
the gold medal in the Cowardly Silence competition.

*

On the way to the Lhasa airport, leaving those occupied territories,
I thought I could see, looking into the harsh glare, the Buddhist
hermitage just below the Himalayan crest. I asked my guide if he'd
heard from the old monk. I was told that, days after our visit, he
raised the Tibetan sun-flag and was arrested.

The foolish Chinese undoubtedly would have sentenced him to only one
life in prison.

He would return.

CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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