Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Spirituality for Sale in "Little Lhasa"

By Manpreet Singh

The Seoul Times; October 19, 2005

Home to nearly 15,000 Tibetan refugees in India's mountainous state Himachal Pradesh, Dharamsala is becoming world's busy spiritual pilgrims' destination.

Tibetan Buddhism is the new fad with the spirituality-shoppers who flock to this "Little Lhasa in India."

The place got famous after the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, got Nobel Prize for peace in 1989. With Tibetan image becoming popular worldwide, anything with Tibetan tag is a big business here.

Ready-made variety of spiritual experiences is the packaged deal. Advertisements of courses in Buddhist spirituality, meditation and philosophy cluttering the walls in Dharamsala overshadow a few posters exhorting boycott of Chinese-made goods and seeking Tibet's freedom.

Foreign tourists with freshly tonsured heads (some in newly acquired maroon Buddhist robes) make a beeline to attend philosophy and meditation classes. Squatting in the dimly-lit incense-smokedrooms, and struggling to chant in Tibetan language some 'mantras' after the Lama's voice-is the scene they love to be in.

Thubten Samphel, Information Secretary with the Tibetan Government-in-Exile sees the commercialization of Buddhist spirituality in a larger context, "The materialistic western world finds itself in a spiritual vacuum and looks towards the east; and it becomes a demand-and-supply kind of thing. It's sad, but you can't prevent people's greed to make more money."

Thubten even justifies this 'flirtation' with Tibetan Buddhism as it is politically desirable, "It all may seem commercial but it is an opportunity for us to make the world aware of what's happening in Tibet. There are foreigners who have supported our cause of Tibet's liberation, only after taking interest in Tibetan Buddhism, wisdom and culture."

But many Tibetan Lamas find presenting a romanticized view of Tibetan culture and Buddhism as"deplorable and crazy." "Buddhism is a very deep and intensive religion," says Tenzin Kunga, a young monk at Tse Chok Ling Monastery. "

Foreign tourists after attending a 3-4 day course, consider themselves to be the masters of religion. It's ridiculous. They have made Buddhism a fashionable commodity."

Tyler Dewar, 24, a Canadian studying Buddhism for the last two-and-half years in Dharamsala, sums up the scenario, "I think most foreigners are testing waters or may be looking for some entertainment through spiritual experimentation.

Moreover, they also need to fill time in a remote country."Admitting spiritual starvation of the west Tyler explains, "The young people in the west find Buddhism and other eastern religions attractive as they are not authoritative like some other religions."

Hence, attracted by the charismatic Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and Tibetan Buddhism, the spirituality-shoppers from world over land in Dharamsala. Dalai Lama himself holds annual spiritual teachings which are favourite with the westerners.

Tibetan Government in Exile offers courses in Buddhist philosophy at nominal prices. Only these courses have some amount of seriousness. The other private spirituality-shops that have mushroomed all over the town seek to rake moolah, religiously.

Spiritual healers, Yoga and Reiki masters have also joined the bandwagon, lured by lucre.

An old monk R.Tsering blames the spirituality-shops for undermining Buddhism as a religion, "Many people have opened spiritual shops to fleece the foreigners. And they offer religion like a new dish. In the race for money religion becomes secondary, and the sanctity is lost."

But for those making business of religion, sanctity lies in making more profits. They promise and tempt foreign tourists with 'complete awakening', 'spiritual clarity' or 'multi-dimensional vision' in this unusual spiritual pilgrims' destination.

The only enlightenment the naïve seekers may get, from the roadside spiritual gurus is in the lighter weight of their wallets. Some may experience certain spiritual awakening, most return as dry as they had come, even disillusioned.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Nepal Cracks Down on Tibetan Refugees

By Sudeshna Sarkar, Indo-Asian News Service

Kathmandu, October 15, 2005 -- King Gyanendra's government cracked down on Tibetan refugees afresh, hitting two of them with jail terms, contrary to its earlier practice of allowing them to travel to India.

The Nepal government's move follows closing down of the local office of the representative of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader.

Sonam Tsering, an 18-year-old Tibetan, was arrested by Nepal police Friday after he entered the capital and headed for Swayambhu, the area in the city housing the Swayambunath temple, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines and home to a large number of Tibetans. Nepal's police, usually slow to move, however acted with speed in Tsering's case, handing him over to the immigration department, who promptly fined the teen 27,000 Nepali rupees (about $375).

Since the boy was unable to pay the fine, stiff by Nepali standards, he was handed down a three-year imprisonment and sent to the Dilli Bazar Jail in the capital. Rights activists said both police and immigration officials had moved so uncharacteristically fast to take advantage of the weekend and the ensuing week-long holiday for Dashain, Nepal's largest festival.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has an office here that, among its other functions, facilitates the forward journey of Tibetans escaping from the Chinese control to India, where the Dalai Lama has his seat in Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

Earlier, Nepal's role had been to hand over fleeing Tibetans to the UNHCR. However, following a growing closeness between Beijing and King Gyanendra, Nepal has been cracking down on the refugees.

International Campaign for Tibet, an NGO with offices in the US and Europe, last month published a report, "Dangerous Crossings", which said, as relations between Beijing and King Gyanendra's government warmed up and Nepal sought to please its northern neighbour, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Tibetans to flee to Nepal.

Last month, another Tibetan exile, 25-year-old Norbu Tsering, was arrested at the Nepal-Tibet border while trying to return to his native village in Kyidong in Shigatse in Tibet. He too was handed over to the Nepali Immigration Department who fined him 28,651 Nepali rupees.

Tsering too failed to pay the fine and was sentenced to three years and three months in the same prison.

In 2003, Nepal deported 18 Tibetan refugees, including women and children, to Tibet under pressure from the Chinese Embassy here despite massive international appeal. The action resulted in tremendous criticism, especially in the US, one of Nepal's major donors.

Consequently, the Nepali government has been resorting to fining and jailing the refugees. Tibetans fear after they serve out their jail term, Nepal might quietly deport them to China where they are likely to face punishment.

China says there are no Tibetan refugees, only illegal immigrants who should be punished accordingly.

Though it says Tibet is an integral part of China, Tibetans flee the communist republic in hundreds every year to escape Chinese curbs on Tibetan customs, especially rituals in honour of the Dalai Lama.