“I have committed no crime, and yet I am taken prisoner.”
Lotus Sutra, Chapter 4
I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but I’ve been a student of Buddhist thought for a long time, and have high appreciation of its essential teachings as I understand them. Teaching Japanese history semester after semester, I engage the Zen school in particular: objective, rational, dispassionate yet compassionate, true, I think, to the spirit of primal Buddhism as it emerged in India some two and a half millennia ago. I confess I’m not a big fan of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism), and am always amused when I encounter people who sincerely believe it is the oldest and purest variety of Buddhism within the immense welter of sects. I’ve talked to students who have spent semesters in Nepal, imbibing Lamaism, who are persuaded of this. In Lhasa, in 1987, I met a group of Japanese pilgrims in a hotel lobby; one of them told me they were there in Tibet to “get back to the original Buddhism.” I had to point out that, actually, Buddhism had made it all the way across Central and East Asia to Japan by 538, and was officially embraced by the court in 588, long before the faith was known in nearby, but forbiddingly elevated, Tibet.
The first Buddhist missionaries known to visit Tibet arrived in 763, and the version of the faith that materialized thereafter was a unique blending of the indigenous Bon religion with Mahayana Buddhist teachings. Buddhism was already a thousand-year-old belief system (or rather, web of often contradictory belief systems) by the time it reached the Tibetan plateau, and once arrived, the Dharma, the Teaching, got all mixed up with native beliefs about disposal of the dead (“sky burial”—the feeding of corpses to carrion, rather than cremation), about the relationship between the religious Order and the state (the concept of the Dalai and Pancham Lamas, living Buddhas as political administrators), about the sacred nature of the yak and its butter burned as incense, etc. These are features specific to a highly idiosyncratic religious tradition, and certainly not the purest or most ancient Buddhism, whatever Richard Gere might want to believe.
Tibet for some is a Shangri-La, an earthly paradise ravaged by cruel Chinese predation, whose religieux heroically maintain their pure faith in the face of persecution and occupation. Maybe. What I saw in Tibet was great poverty, terrible hygiene, naïve faith inclining herders from the boondocks to sell all they had upon arrival in Lhasa to gift the monks of Jokhang Temple and purchase yak butter to burn in front of temple images. I recall the prostrating faithful in the Jokhang Temple courtyard smacking their foreheads on the pavement or on pillars until the blood flowed (a practice I’ve seen in no other Buddhist context), while all around the inevitable hawkers offered jewelry to the tourists with un-Buddhist pushiness. I recall, too, the beggars at the airport, and how riotously they responded when a Newsweek journalist, thinking he was doing a good deed, started distributing photos of the Dalai Lama among them. (Must be a really objective journalist, I thought to myself.) Anyway, while I’m not knocking it, Tibetan Lamaism’s not my personally preferred variant of Buddhism.
And its pontiff is not among my heroes. The Dalai Lama (or, as the mainstream media invariably calls him, as though desperate to posit some [Orientalistically exotic] hero, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama”) is, I understand, a likeable man. I personally find his writings philosophically parochial, comparatively speaking, rather like those of His Holiness the Pope. On the really mundane side, one point about his career little noted among the fans is that during the 1960s his operation received $1.7 million from the CIA every year to arm, train and pay military forces in Tibet to militarily confront the People’s Liberation Army (New York Times, Oct. 1, 1998). The Dalai Lama himself received an annual paycheck of $180,000 from the U.S. You don’t usually think of Tenzin Gyatso, avatar of Avalokitesvara, as a CIA operative heading up a Contra-type operation, but that’s one aspect of his career. While he no longer promotes Tibetan independence, many of his adherents in Tibet do so, risking torture and death. Reports of Tibetans “tortured for their faith” seem to me implausible; Beijing doesn’t much care about Tibetan religious practices per se, and I’ve even seen Lamaist masses featured on Chinese television. Political opposition to the status quo is another matter.
The Washington Post (January 28), carried a story about a 30-year old Buddhist nun named Sonam, whose family and friends had somehow fallen afoul of the authorities in Tibet three years ago.
She felt obliged to flee her village at the base of Mt. Everest, walking eight days while avoiding police patrols into Nepali territory. Last August, as Nepal’s government, cozying up with China (with which it shares an interest in crushing the locally mushrooming Maoist insurgency), began to repatriate Tibetan refugees back to the PRC, she left Nepal, taking her first airline flights and reaching Washington’s Dulles Airport. Reaching the Shangri-La of America, land of freedom, land of the CIA, land friendly to His Holiness, with naively high hopes for political asylum, she was immediately apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and incarcerated in Riverside Regional Jail in Hopewell, Virginia, just outside of Richmond. She was an illegal alien, lacking proper documents, and a potential terror threat.
After three months in jail, Sonam was allowed a hearing in Arlington, where a federal immigration judge granted her asylum. But, according to the Post, “even as she was hugging her attorney in celebration, the lawyer from the Department of Homeland Security announced that she was appealing the case.” That lawyer, Deborah Todd, argues that Sonam had lived in Nepal for three years and could have stayed there. So the nun was shackled again and sent back to jail, to await her next court date, which, according to her attorney, won’t happen before this fall at the earliest.
Journalist David Cho was recently allowed a visit with her. “It’s so lonely. It’s so hard,” she told him through a translator, sobbing uncontrollably. “Why is this happening?” Homeland Security won’t say; a spokesman said the department doesn’t comment on ongoing cases. We don’t know how many poor souls have been randomly consigned to the post-9-11 gulag. But really. A young refugee Buddhist nun, jailed, granted political asylum, then re-incarcerated by U.S. government appeal? In this world of suffering, in this imperialist country wrapped in religious-like delusions, one can only hope that in her cloister-like cell Sister Sonam finds political awakening, if not spiritual enlightenment.
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(A prayer): May Ms. Todd and her bosses, especially Tom Ridge, who has harmed so many, someday understand the Dhammapada verse (125): “Whoever harms a harmless person, one pure and guiltless, upon that very fool the evil recoils like fine dust thrown against the wind.”
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: email@example.com