Friday, August 12, 2005

Dharamsala, India

Experiment in Exile - Since the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, Tibet has been reinvented -- in Dharamsala, India

By Pico Iyer -- TIME Asia -- Aug. 07, 2005

Even at 1 A.M., the road to higher ground is crowded. Minivans, buses packed with people,bicycle-rickshaws, trucks carting huge bales of straw, shawled figures, groups of pilgrims and dogs are all proceeding through the darkness, their way lit by occasional small fires.

As the road begins to climb, however, away from the nondescript Indian town of Dharamsala and toward the"Upper Dharamsala" that is the site of many Eastern (and Western) dreams, the crowds and cars fall away. I find myself on a winding, narrow mountain passage, lights in the valley below, stars beyond counting above, and nothing around but barking wild dogs.

This is the place where the very notion of home is being reconfigured for the global age? Where a sad and piercing past is being turned into a bright new vision of the future? It's hard to believe, as I ascend a steep, unpaved path that soon will be clotted with Indian beggars, mothers with babies at their breasts and hands extended, and more packs of dogs.

The heart of Upper Dharamsala, known as McLeod Ganj (an appropriately mongrel name that brings together an old British lieutenant governor of Punjab, David McLeod, and the Hindi word for "neighborhood"), isjust two malodorous lanes, cluttered with shops and ragged wayfarers and the refuse, it seems, of many incarnations.Then the light comes up above the scrappy settlement on its little ridge overlooking the Kangra Valley, 480 km north of New Delhi.

I hear chants from the temple across the way, a gong being sounded as the sun comes up above the snowcaps surrounding the 14th Dalai Lama's home. Scores of Tibetans are beginning the 20-minute walk through the pines around the Dalai Lama's house, muttering prayers as they speed along a dusty path next to prayer flags and stupas, spinning prayer wheels, as they used to do in Lhasa, stopping at one point to throw Tibetan tsampa barley flour up into the blue, blue heavens, wishing long life for their beloved leader.

Around me, matrons from Lhasa are buying bread from vendors outside the temple, and walking their children to the Tibetan school down Temple Road. Recent escapees from Tibet are setting up tables and preparing lattes and chocolate cakes at the sleek Moonpeak Café and at Chonor House, the elegant guesthouse run by Tibet's government-in-exile.

Everywhere are monks in red, reciting sutras, sweeping their temple grounds, streaming into Internet cafés, and just whiling away their day in the shadow of Himalayan foothills, almost as if they were at home. What I'm seeing, improbably, is a vision of Tibet that you can never see these days in Tibet itself.

Home Away from Home

For 46 years now, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people has not seen Tibet, and the vast majority of his people have not seen him. The central historical moment for modern Tibet came, of course, in March 1959, when the current Dalai Lama, then 23, having seen the Chinese troops of Mao Zedong encroach upon more and more of his territory, and realizing that resistance would lead only to more violence, determined that he could save his land only by fleeing it.

He would take the idea of exile to India, and try to infuse it with a classical Buddhist commitment to transformation. How this innovation works -- the Tibetans would draw selectively from the past, jettisoning what was out-of-date -- becomes evident as soon as I walk into the traditional center of town. The shape of McLeod Ganj, I begin to see, is a mandala of sorts, the hub of a wheel whose spokes go off in six different directions.

Follow one road and you will arrive at the Tibetan Children's Village, the headquarters of a nationwide network of schools that offer 17,000 Tibetan children a training in their culture so extensive that the majority of the students come from Tibet itself, sent away from home by parents who may never see them again but long for them to grow up Tibetan.

Up the next road is the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, where traditional folk opera and music, and modern theater, are practiced and performed, then exported around the world. Down the alleyway behind is a classical, gold-roofed Tibetan temple whose quiet garden, where small monks sit in the sun, playing board games among the marigolds, could be in Lhasa.

A fourth road, if followed, will take you down, in 20 minutes or so, to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, the dusty collection of buildings that marks Tibet's government-in-exile, and the Nechung Temple, where the state oracle still offers visionary advice while in a trance -- as his predecessors have done since the 8th century.

A fifth will take you to the Dalai Lama's modest house and the temple, monastery and Institute of Buddhist Dialectics that he has set up beside his abode. And if you follow the long mountain road down into the valley, past the old Anglican church where Lord Elgin (of the marbles) is buried, and the army cantonment that also recalls the days when this was a British hill station, you will come in time to a glittering retreat worthy of Shangri-La: the Norbulingka Institute, where Tibetans paint tankas, build statues and practice traditional wood carving with an intensity quickened by the challenges of exile.

Dharamsala is not really a community, in short, but an experiment, in which the Dalai Lama and the people around him craft a new incarnation of Tibet -- a Tibet 2.0 -- that aims to be modern, open to the world and, for the moment, outside of what is traditionally, physically, Tibet.

The idea reflects what one sees in Shanghai, in Vietnam, even in Cambodia: out of hardship, people will try to create possibility. As long as the Dalai Lama cannot go back to Tibet, Tibet must come out into the world, and in a new and improved form.

When I look in on the Dalai Lama one morning this past spring and ask him what qualities Tibetans can offer fellow refugees around the globe, he says, after a careful pause, "Maybe, first, hope and determination."

Drawing, as is his way, on recent encounters with other exiled groups in Chile, Germany, Australia and the U.S., he talks about the value of nonviolence and his eagerness for democracy and modern education, and then stresses the difference between cultural props that can be discarded and those that remain essential.

"If you make the effort, for example, to keep Tibetan-style long hair in the heat of India --unrealistic!" The famous laugh breaks out, as he contemplates the absurdity of holding onto what is no longer useful and not moving with the times.

But in terms of a way of thinking, not just of living -- a language and a set of ideas -- "these things are worthy of being preserved, and can be preserved."

The fruits of this practical optimism are everywhere in Dharamsala. One bright afternoon I watch large groups of nuns, many of them newly escaped from Tibet, practice classical Tibetan Buddhist debating in the courtyard of the elegant new Dolma Ling nunnery, as they could never have done in old Tibet; in exile, for the first time in their history, nuns are receiving doctoral degrees inTibetan Buddhism, training to become abbots, and producing their own magazines.

A few days later I pick up a book, Muses in Exile, that represents the first anthology of Tibetan poetry written in England ever to be published. And on a sunny spring day, Jetsun Pema, the Dalai Lama's younger sister, sits in the brightly colored Tibetan Children's Village she has long overseen and tells me of plans to build a Tibetan university on land now bought near Bangalore.

Tibetan publications even come out these days in Japanese, and the government-in-exile maintains offices even inTaipei, Moscow and Pretoria. The idea that lies behind all the activity is a planetary one: Tibetans can offer a model to Kurds, Palestinians and many others who have lost their own homelands, by showing that cultures can be sustained in exile as long as they are constructed inwardly.

Tibet has certain advantages over other places-in the charisma of its leader, the historical pull of its other worldly homeland, the natural magnetism of its exotic ways. But its people are working constantly to find new ways to mix cherished traditions with the world's realities.

The students at the Tibetan Children's Village, for example, take all their classes in Tibetan until around the age of 10, then all their subsequent classes in English. One of the Dalai Lama's translators for philosophical discourses, in the same vein, got his doctoral degree in Tibetan Buddhism, then took another doctorate in philosophy at Cambridge.

As I begin making my way through the book of poems, though, I am quickly reminded of the other side to the hopeful visions and high ideals offered by the Dalai Lama. "The collective conscience expressed by [exiled Tibetan youth] today," the introduction to the book announces, unflinchingly,"has a root of deep resentment directed towards the U.N. and the exile government for their failure to find a workable political solution to the dilemma of Tibet's occupation."

Talks with Beijing are ongoing over the possibility of Tibet's preserving some degree of cultural and religious autonomy. Yet more and more young Tibetans feel that their homeland is being destroyed day by day, and that their government, currently led in its Middle Way policy of forbearance by the gentle scholar-monk Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche, has made no headway at all in protecting it.

In the meantime, Tibetans who have never seen Tibet have found themselves turning into strange, hybrid creatures (this is the theme of many of the poems, nearly all of them sad) that speak Hindi but have no real connection with Hindu culture, that possess Western friends and languages but no great prospects in the West, and that lack a homeland and even passports linking them to a place to call their own.

"Ever since our holy and revered Prime Minister said there is only one way to deal with the Chinese and the way is -- no surprise -- compassion, I said, 'I can't support this any longer,'" says Lhasang Tsering, a onetime worker in the government-in-exile (and a guerrilla) who now sits in his Bookworm bookstore, lamenting the ineptness of his leaders.

At almost every turn in Dharamsala, one bumps into this debate between those who follow the Dalai Lama's position-of trying only to"save," not "free," Tibet and those who say that a Tibet without freedom is no Tibet.

"If peace with China means saying we are not equal to the Chinese," Tsering tells me over tea, "I am sorry, I will not say that.

"The more I walk around Dharamsala, the more I find Tibetans torn on a central contradiction. They will never say anything against the Dalai Lama. He is their country, in effect, their great hope and the incarnation of their god of compassion; as long as he is around, they can believe that Tibet might survive. Yet his policies of patience and forgiveness are more than some less patient Tibetans can live up to.

I go one day to see Lobsang Yeshi, vice president of the Tibetan Youth Congress, traditionally known as the "militant" voice of Tibet in exile (and also its largest NGO, comprising 30,000 of the 130,000 Tibetans outside Tibet), and watch the acrobatics in action.

"His Holiness is our strength, our power, our ground; everything," says Yeshi. But then he says (as his beloved leader would never say): "Now is the time to act."

Tibet's World

Amid all the uncertainties, though-or maybe because of them -- the calendar in Dharamsala is so full of special events and ceremonies that sometimes it can feel as if one is living inside a kaleidoscope. When I arrived this March, the Dalai Lama was giving 15 days of extended teachings, mornings and afternoons, as he does every year as part of Monlam, the Great Prayer Festival. More than 5,000 monks and nuns from Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, South Korea and India itself sat in the courtyard in front of his temple each day, listening to rigorous scholastic discourses, rich with subsections and syllogisms and allusions to philosophical texts.

Around them were ordinary Tibetans, happy just to see their leader, and at least 2,000 foreigners following the teachings on radios that offered translations in English, Russian and even Mandarin. The day the annual teachings ended, the Dalai Lama and Samdhong Rinpoche offered speeches for Tibet Uprising Day on March 10, and a marching band from the Tibetan Children's Village played the Tibetan national anthem, set to pipes and drums.

After the addresses, hundreds of Tibetans walked the 10 km down to Lower Dharamsala in the rain, waving banners that read, CHINA: END FORCED ABORTIONS IN TIBET and THIS IS THE MOMENT -- NOW OR NEVER. SHALL WE BE SLAVE OR BE FREE?

That evening, on the other side of town, the young activists who run Students for a Free Tibet put on a concert, where local rock 'n' rollers sat cross-legged at the front of the stage and played' 60s-style guitar solos as expressions of their pain and dislocation.

Part of the strange vitality and color of Dharamsala comes from the fact that it is as compressed and piquant an image of the global village as you can find anywhere, quite literally a huge hamlet that brings together every last knick-knack of the global economy.

One night in March, I find myself in the Current Event café, a cozy, 20-seat joint carved out of the hillside (just between the Korean, Japanese and Thai restaurants), where you slip off your shoes at the door and enter a warm haven of nachos and honey-lemon-ginger tea.

A professional Canadian singer-songwriter delivers a haunting version of Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah, Tibetan blades with waist-length hair and turquoise in their ears sing a nomad song from the Amdo region of eastern Tibet, and then everyone joins together in U2's stirring anthem to "one love" and "one world" (written, as it happens, for a Tibetan benefit concert).

At the bar, five or six hunks, all recently fled fromTibet and striking with their high cheekbones and white smiles, eye the unaccompanied young women from Vienna and San Francisco, and get more than interested glances back. A meeting, a mating of needs, it might seem, between foreigners hungry for redemption of some kind, and Tibetan kids eager for a future. But in an exile community, cross-cultural romance, like everything else, comes with different pressures.

Every Tibetan who moves to the West, or takes on a foreign destiny, represents one small step toward the assimilation, which is the dilution, of the Tibetan race. As it is, the Dalai Lama's own sister confesses that when she was elected to the Cabinet, she needed help in reading official Tibetan; and since the U.S. took in 1,000 Tibetans in 1991, there have been fears of a brain drain that could distract Tibetans from their most urgent priority -- Tibet.

For now, the restlessness gives a new dimension to Dharamsala's status as a kind of parable of homesickness and desire. "When they are in Tibet, they long to come to India," one of the Dalai Lama's translators tells me, about the newly arrived boys from Tibet.

"When they get to India, they dream of America. But when they get to America, what will they dream of then?"

In the meantime, thousands of refugees from Tibet keep pouring into already overcrowded Dharamsala every year -- hundreds of youngsters who arrive at the Tibetan Children's Village, half-broken by their flight across the mountains; old people who merely want to see the Dalai Lama before they die; and dissidents eager to tell the world what's going on in Tibet.

Once or twice a month a bus deposits 50 or 60 new refugees from Tibet in a makeshift reception center, where they will stay, sometimes two to a bed, for a month or so, until new homes can be found for them.

"I came here 12 years ago," a young woman tells me as she cleans a room in my guesthouse. "I couldn't tell my family or else they'd say no." So, she says, "They think I'm dead. They think Chinese killed me."

For 29 days she had walked across the Himalayas to Nepal -- "Every day we cried. We were so hurt."

After arriving in Dharamsala, she studied hard for two years. Since then she has washed dishes in an Indian restaurant, gone to Ladakh to work in a shop that soon closed, even married a foreigner and tried a life abroad. Now she's back here, cleaning rooms for eight years already, and never able to exchange a word with her family in their distant village.

Once upon a time, the lure of Tibet arose from the fact that it seemed so far from the rest of the world, hidden behind the highest mountains on earth. Now, even its most specialized rites and doctrines are part of the global neighborhood. The Dalai Lama has tried to use exile as a way to bridge the divisions between the four often warring schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and his famously fractious people, coming from three provinces scattered across an area as large as Western Europe, have worked hard to bury their differences beneath the necessity of thinking only about Tibet as a whole.

But the heart of his message -- and of Dharamsala's promise to other exiles -- lies in the notion of thinking of home, and permanence, in a different and more invisible way. One brilliant afternoon, the Tibetan leader presides over the consecration of a new monastery in the Kangra Valley, just below McLeod Ganj, where monks will conduct doctoral debates as they have not done since they left Tibet.

Their aim, he tells the robed figures assembled before him, should be to ensure that the monasteries they build are not just physical structures but sanctuaries within themselves -- so strong they can inspire the world.

Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of Sun After Dark, a book of travels, and Abandon, a novel.