Monday May 28, 2018
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Tales for a home: Tibet towards freedom (Part 1)

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By Sagar Sethi

Buddhist_monks_of_Tibet10Almost half a century ago the sea of red consumed the inner peace in Tibet. During this invasion a rally of Buddhist monks were clapping. In October 1949, the forty thousand Chinese soldiers that blurred the lines separating Tibet from their motherland returned the favour with hand-claps of their own. So, these forty thousand marched across the river Yangtze into the eastern province of Tibet expecting some resistance or rebellion but were instead welcomed with an applause. This moment in history is classic! Not for the act of mutual reciprocity but because the gesture of hand-clapping among the Tibetan Buddhists means among other things to “Go away, I resent you.”

Passang
Passang

How does remembering a home you can never go back to feel? Not because you ran away from it but because you were forced to. Passang, a Tibetan refugee currently putting up in Majnu ka Tila, says that “China has not only bitten your borders (India), it has eaten away our lives too.” She came to India when she was only eleven and even after so many years she still feels homesick.

In April 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, the leader of Tibet, himself escaped from his home and reached Tezpur in Assam, India on 18 April 1959. The Buddhism that spread from India to Tibet returned to India as a religion in exile, forced from its homeland.

Much like in India, religion is the be all and end all for the people of Tibet. In fact every time Tibet is mentioned our minds jump to ‘Buddhism’ in a matter of seconds. But what was there before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th-8th centuries A.D in Tibet? Before their conversion into Buddhism the people of Tibet were mostly accustomed to barbaric traditions and customs. These barbarians painted their faces red with ochre or vermilion and that’s how they got the name “red faced men.”

Pre-Buddhist barbarianism gradually faded as the influence of Buddhism strengthened. These changes converted the red faced men into more peace loving and civilized people. Their purpose in life shifted to inner peace and wisdom. Interestingly, it was the influence of Buddhism that had made the Indian emperor Ashok the Great change his pro war strategy into a more philanthropic one.

Photo credit: tibetmuseum.org
Photo credit: tibetmuseum.org

 

Then why did the People’s Republic of China send an army of forty thousand to liberate the people of Tibet? The question really is liberate them from what – inner peace? Perhaps they feel no need for soft spoken Tibetan Buddhists in a World that can’t stop talking.

The people of Tibet, isolated off the Himalayas with an identity of their own, were robbed of their home just around the time when we Indians gained ours. Less than a week ago, ‘We the people of India’ celebrated sixty eight years of our unity in diversity. This was witnessed by many Tibetan refugees who still long for their independence, their freedom. Their struggle might not concern our status as an independent nation but Tibet does hope that our motto ‘unity in diversity’ turns into a global ethic.

Since the exodus of Tibetian Buddhists from their homes, a lot has been exchanged between Indians and them. We will discuss the character of this cultural symbiosis and the influence it had on Sino-Indian bilateral relations in the series that follow.

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  • Manoj Sethi

    Buddhism is a religion which practices inner peace and Tibetans being Buddhists have not been able to free themselves from the Red brigade of China since they are habitually not aggressive. Unless a good sense of spirituality prevails over the leadership of China, one feels the longing for freedom by Tibetans is a far cry.

    • Sagar Sethi

      Thank you for your suggestion 🙂 I hope there are other ways to bring a change in this scenario since solely relying upon China’s leadership has proved futile for the struggle of Tibetan independence. Perhaps if the issue is stressed upon with greater force and determination by our government in its relations with China.
      Their hopes are pinned on us, and their optimism is commendable.

  • Manoj Sethi

    Buddhism is a religion which practices inner peace and Tibetans being Buddhists have not been able to free themselves from the Red brigade of China since they are habitually not aggressive. Unless a good sense of spirituality prevails over the leadership of China, one feels the longing for freedom by Tibetans is a far cry.

    • Sagar Sethi

      Thank you for your suggestion 🙂 I hope there are other ways to bring a change in this scenario since solely relying upon China’s leadership has proved futile for the struggle of Tibetan independence. Perhaps if the issue is stressed upon with greater force and determination by our government in its relations with China.
      Their hopes are pinned on us, and their optimism is commendable.

Next Story

Buddhist Monk Losang Samten Uses Colors to Spread Message of Peace

Samten was born in Tibet. When he was a young boy, his family escaped to Nepal fleeing Chinese Communist control of his homeland. They lived in a refugee camp for years.

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Samten
Former Buddhist monk and Tibetan scholar Losang Samten uses colored sand to build mandalas, circular images filled with complex iconography, which have great meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism. VOA

According to one estimate, there are a 5 quintillion, 5 hundred quadrillion grains of sand on earth, a number so large it must be approaching infinity. This makes sand an appropriate medium for the construction of spiritual images of the universe.

Former Buddhist monk and Tibetan scholar Losang Samten does just that, using colored sand to build mandalas, circular images filled with complex iconography, which have great meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Tibetan monks have created mandalas over the centuries from a variety of materials. Before sand, they used crushed colored stone. Now Samten travels around the world to find sand in various colors. He also dyes sand in watercolors.

Now Samten travels around the world to find sand in various colors. He also dyes sand in watercolors.
Tibetan monks have created mandalas over the centuries from a variety of materials. Before sand, they used crushed colored stone. VOA

Decades of mandalas

Samten, in his mid-60s, learned the craft at the feet of the Dalai Lama.

“When I was a teenager, age of 17,” he told VOA, “I had a privilege to enter His Holiness Dalai Lama’s monastery … in India. I have been studying sand mandalas ever since then. So it’s a long time.”

VOA found Samten painstakingly layering grains of colored sand at the gallery of the Philadelphia Folklore Project. The particular mandala he was working on was the mandala of compassion, or unconditional love.

Far from random designs, mandalas have been perfected over centuries.

“These are uniquely designed many, many, many, many, many years passing to an artist to another artist to another artist to another artist,” Samten said. “The color has a meaning, the shape has different meanings. Not my design; it didn’t come out of my own idea.”

When Samten created a sand mandala at the American Museum of History in New York in 1988 at the request of the Dalai Lama, it was the first time the 2,600-years-old ancient ritual art was seen outside of monasteries. Since then, Samten has made sand mandalas in museums, galleries and universities across the U.S. and many parts of the world.

“They are used to enhance the spiritual practice through image and meditation, to overcome suffering. Mandalas represent enlightened qualities and methods which explain this path, making them very important for the spiritual journey,” Samten wrote on his web site.

Nothing is permanent

Samten was born in Tibet. When he was a young boy, his family escaped to Nepal fleeing Chinese Communist control of his homeland. They lived in a refugee camp for years.

Now Samten travels around the world to find sand in various colors. He also dyes sand in watercolors.
Samten, in his mid-60s, learned the craft at the feet of the Dalai Lama. VOA

“In the winter of 1959, [we] crossed Mount Everest, it took us two months to cross,” he told VOA. “You cannot travel during the day and so scared and not enough food not enough clothes. I was age of 5. I saw, I mean unbelievable dead bodies, people dying without food. I became a monk at age 11 when I was in school, refugee school.”

Samten left monastic life in 1995 and became the spiritual director at the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia. He says the patience of the creative process, can lead observers to find calm determination within themselves.

“When I am doing this mandala at universities and schools, many kids came to me, (saying) ‘when I saw you doing the sand mandala, that help me so much to finish my education, patience …’ I have a lot of stories,” he said.

Monk Samten
Samten was born in Tibet. When he was a young boy, his family escaped to Nepal fleeing Chinese Communist control of his homeland. VOA

Beauty comes and goes

After a sand mandala is completed, it is dismantled ceremoniously.

“Dismantle has many different reasons,” Samten said. “… One thing is, dismantle is a beauty, whatever we see as a beauty on the earth, never be everlasting as a beauty and impermanent, impermanent, comes and goes. It’s like a season.”

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Or like sand, ever changing in the wind.

Samten often invites children to participate in the ceremony.

To gallery visitor Traci Chiodress that was part of the charm of the event.

“I think it’s powerful to see something so beautiful created, and then taken apart, and to be done in a community with a group of people of different ages,” she said. “I just think it’s an important type of practice.” (VOA)