Monday, July 20, 2009

Tibet's Changing Values

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the third in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

It’s not possible to walk by the imposing Potala Palace in Lhasa and not be awestruck by the structure, rising to majestic heights in a background of blue sky and billowing white clouds. From the visit by Francis Younghusband over a century ago to now, the palace has not changed but the foreground has.

Potala used to sit amidst mud hovel and surrounded by smelly squalor. Now it towers over a broad boulevard and a huge square in the tradition of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, except in Lhasa the square is ringed with potted flowers. Most visitors will inevitably stop at the square for their souvenir photo with the palace as background.

Some observers might say this is Tibet modernizing and making progress to join the rest of the world. Others think this is cultural genocide.

The Central Government in Beijing has lavished billions to build up the infrastructure inside Tibet. In addition to the railroad on the roof of the world, at an altitude impossible to be built according to experts in the West, highways now criss-cross Tibet linking this region to rest of China.

Just a mere three years ago, a trip over the pass to see Yamdrok Lake and transit through Gyantze to get to Xigaze would have required riding an all-terrain vehicle over bone jarring mud tracks and an overnight stay at Gyantze. Now with a newly paved highway 307, the drive took less than a day.

Before the liberation of Tibet from theocratic rule, the nearest trading partner was India. From Gyantze, the nearest town to the border of India, the Tibetan trader would mount up and take 15 days to get to India and 15 days to get back. Today, Tibetans no longer get their tea from Darjeeling but from Yunnan and elsewhere within China and it doesn’t take a month to bring the shipment in.

In every village we drove by, the best looking building in the village was invariably the government funded primary school. Of course in the old days, the lords of the land never felt the need to educate the peasants and such a building was not necessary and did not exist.

On the western side of the pass on 307, we passed a man-made reservoir, built about a decade ago to capture the glacier run-off which feed an irrigation system for the farm lands below. Many farmers in addition to raising crops had built plastic film covered green houses to grow vegetables which they sold to nearby cities.

A fortress on top of a steep hill dominated the valley around Gyantse. An aristocratic family used to live in that fortress until 1959, now a museum and landmark of the city. If the valley was still controlled by the lord in the fortress, there would be no irrigation ditches, no green houses and the farmers would have remained peasants with no incentives.

The monument in front of the fortress commemorates the heroic (and tragic) resistance of Tibetans against the British incursion of 1904.

Within the commanding view of the fortress is the Palkor Temple built by the first Panchen Lama in 1418. One of the side chapel connected to the main temple contains a breathtakingly beautiful collection of clay statues of abbots, revered monks and famed scholars of Buddhism from far and wide including some from Bangladesh and India.

Except for the main temple and the great white pagoda containing 108 shrines, much of the Palkor complex was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. As our guide explained, the extent of destruction during the Cultural Revolution was quite uneven in Tibet and dependent on the cooperation and participation of local Red Guards.

The ringleaders came from the mainland but they needed local complicity to know where the targets were located and local volunteers to help with the destruction. In places where they were rebuffed by the local denizens, they left and went elsewhere for easier objectives.

At Palkor, much of the complex still lay in ruins. Elsewhere such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang, Drepung and Sera Monasteries and Norbulinka in Lhasa and the Tashilunpo Monastery in Xigaze, the tourist can see the restoration and maintenance work going on but would be hard pressed to distinguish recovery efforts from the revolution to routine maintenance from age.

In the past, the monasteries owned the land surrounding them and the peasants were at best tenant farmers. Today, the monasteries are profitable selling traditional medicine, Buddhist souvenirs, rights to photography inside the temples and unending stream of donations from the believers.

Devout worshippers visit these monasteries clutching stacks of one jiao bills (worth one tenth of a yuan and about 1.5 cents U.S.) which they stuff in front of Thankas, Buddhas, and anything else they consider holy that can help them in this and next life. These pennies can add up.

What we didn’t see in our tour was a Buddhist equivalent of the Catholic Charities, organized to help the indigent. Apparently, the mission of the monasteries is to help the people attain enlightenment but nothing to help them ease the temporal pains and physical needs.

So the lives of Tibetans are changing. They are getting educated and have more control of their livelihood. More of them may settle for promenading around the Potala holding prayer wheels rather than the three-step then full prostration march. But the Tibetans remain deeply devoted Buddhists and the feudal mindset that put themselves in the hapless class will take a long time to wear off.

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