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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Tibet

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, December 6, 2002
From the Field
York Geoffrey


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Pictures from Tibet

Sishu Basang and his family
Photo: Geoffrey York

Tibetan yak herder Sishu Basang on his farm
Photo: Geoffrey York

Tibetan monks preform a daily prayer ritual
Photo: Patrick Baert/AFP


Sishu Basang might have found the perfect Tibetan survival technique in the era of Communist occupation. Faced with a confusing clash of secular and religious deities, the 49-year-old yak herdsman has prudently opted to flatter all of the local gods.

I was on a government-organized tour of Tibet (the only legal way for journalists to visit Tibet these days), and our Chinese minders had chosen Mr. Sishu as a model herdsman for us to visit. He was the owner of 29 yaks, 58 sheep, 44 goats, four horses, and an impressive ability to juggle the political and spiritual demands of Tibet's most powerful authorities.

When I entered his mud-and-straw house on a starkly beautiful plateau of green pasture in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, about two hours from Lhasa by road, I noticed that his walls were covered with icons of all the regimes that claim dominion over his homeland. Mao Tsetung, Jiang Zemin, the Panchen Lama, a variety of Buddhist gods -- they were all there. This guy wasn't taking any chances.

The herdsman considered himself a Marxist. He told me that he has been a proud member of the Chinese Communist Party for more than a decade. In one room, a brass plaque revealed that the Communist government had honoured his family as one of the 10 leading families in his village.

Yet while he belonged to an officially atheist party, it was fairly obvious to me-- though he refused to admit it -- that he was a Buddhist as well. Prayer flags were fluttering over his house. An entire room had been transformed into a Buddhist shrine, filled with thangkas (religious paintings) and posters of Buddhist deities.

When this puzzling fact was drawn to his attention, Mr. Sishu squirmed uncomfortably and offered the implausible explanation that the Buddhist shrine had belonged to his dead grandmother and he simply hadn't gotten around to removing it since her death. He also acknowledged that his wife and children were Buddhists, although he wasn't quite ready to confess his own religious beliefs.

I wondered how he rationalized the two conflicting beliefs. But it turned out that he had an admirably simple way of holding the competing ideas in his mind.

"I think Marxism serves the people and helps the poor, but the Buddhists never do bad things to the people either," he told us. "So sometimes I think our purpose is the same."

He talked about how, as a Marxist, he helps provide sheep for the poorest people in his village. But he also acknowledged the persistent appeal of Buddhism among his Tibetan friends. "The number of people who believe in religion is increasing," he said. "Some people are always praying to God to bless their family with more animals."

Even after 52 years of repression and occupation by the Chinese Communist government, Tibet remains one of the most religious places on earth. Its largely because of the political compromises that people such as Mr. Sishu have made to survive.

Talk to the Tibetan pilgrims in Lhasa and Shigatse and you'll discover that they trudged on foot for weeks, through mountains and hills, to reach the sacred Buddhist monasteries. Or look at the Tibetans who walk slowly around the Barkhor, the ancient pilgrimage route that surrounds Lhasa's holiest temple, the Jokhang. Every three paces they stop, prostrate themselves, and tap their foreheads to the ancient stones of the path. It must be arduous work, after a long journey from their remote farms or villages, yet you can see them at all hours of day or night.

These were the most memorable images of my time in Tibet, despite the best efforts of our minders to show us the factories and railways of China's campaign to modernize this ancient land.

At every press conference and briefing, government officials sat next to the Tibetans, whispering in their ear to supply the authorized answers to our questions. Yet our escorts could never completely control the situation. At the end of the press conferences, the journalists wandered off to the temples and monasteries and found quietly rebellious monks who told us how they continued to support the Dalai Lama, in their hearts if nowhere else. A few were even continuing to hide photos of the Dalai Lama in their rooms, despite fear of heavy punishment if they were discovered.

Most ordinary Tibetans are not as courageous as the monks. But, they still find ways to keep their religion alive despite the predictions of Chinese officials who confidently insist that Buddhism will slowly fade away as science and education take hold.

Some Tibetans, like the village herdsman, are pragmatists who see Buddhism as a simple and good thing. Others are more devout and defiant. None show any sign that their spiritual beliefs are fading away.

"I am a Buddhist and I follow the Dalai Lama," one Lhasa resident told me. "I wish he would return to Tibet. Me and my friends get together and talk about this. We wish freedom for Tibet and we ask why we can't be free and why can't the Dalai Lama be in Tibet?"

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