TIBET OR NOT TIBET

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Tibetan women protesting against China at the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, September 1, 1995, courtesy of Reed Brody.

At the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing this past September and the parallel Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum in the suburb of Huairou several issues had delegates and Chinese officials toe to toe. Not the least of these was the issue of Tibetan sovereignty. On September 1, as the rain fell over dozens of supporters, nine Tibetan women held a silent protest. With scarves tied over their mouths, they stood holding hands for…At the U.N.’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing this past September and the parallel Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum in the suburb of Huairou several issues had delegates and Chinese officials toe to toe. Not the least of these was the issue of Tibetan sovereignty.

On September 1, as the rain fell over dozens of supporters, nine Tibetan women held a silent protest. With scarves tied over their mouths, they stood holding hands for about fifteen minutes. The women were the only nine Tibetans in exile to be granted visas to attend the conference. China sponsored a separate group of women from the region which it has occupied since the 1950 invasion. The protest coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of formal Chinese rule in the Himalayan region. Leaders of the Chinese backed group denied the exiles’ claims of repression in Tibet, despite the fact that these have been documented by independent observers.

A day earlier, the Tibetan women had caused a more violent stir when they showed a copy of the videotape “Voices of Exile.” The film, which features interviews with Tibetan women—along with fleeting images of the Dalai Lama—was shown in its entirety. After the screening, however, a hotel worker removed the tape from the machine, causing an uproar that almost came to blows.

A few days later, at the NGO conference, Eva Herzer, a Canadian lawyer, was punched and shoved by Chinese plainclothes police as she attempted to pass out literature about Tibet. She later said that police chased her around the site trying to confiscate literature on reproductive freedom. “I feel I have a moral obligation to speak up on behalf of Tibetans in exile who come with their stories but are not safe here,” she said, referring to the nine Tibetans who had been constantly followed and photographed since arriving in China. Australia filed two formal complaints over the harassment and surveillance of Tibetan women at the conference. One followed an incident where Canberra’s Ambassador to China, Michael Lightowler, rescued two Australian women of Tibetan origin from a fierce verbal attack by members of the Chinese-backed Tibetan delegation.

The U.S. State Department accused China of stepped-up religious persecution and other wide-spread human rights abuses in Tibet. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kent Wiedemann said that Beijing was hampering Tibet’s unique Buddhist traditions “by imposing limits on religious education and by limiting the size of the monastic community compared to traditional norms.” At the same hearings, the Dalai Lama’s special envoy to Washington, Lodi Gyari, pointed out that the official U.S. position of recognizing Tibet as a part of China was undermining the self-determination prospects in the dialogue the Dalai Lama would like to resume with China. He also criticized President Bill Clinton for “timid” White House meetings in 1993 and 1994, which did not “give dignity” to the Dalai Lama.

UNFAVORED NATION

In August the United States resumed full diplomatic relations with Vietnam for the first time since the end of the war twenty years ago. One month earlier, Vietnam became the first communist country to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and it was thought that Vietnam might even be granted Most Favored Nation status by the United States. Now, however, it has begun to look as though major differences still divide the two countries. On August 15 a Vietnamese court sentenced dissident Buddhist monk Venerable Thich Quang Do to five years in prison, following his attempt last November to provide relief supplies to victims of a flood in the Mekong Delta that killed more than 400 people. Thich Quang Do, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, is the number two leader of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which was banned following the 1975 communist victory in the Vietnam War. Since then the government of Vietnam has recognised only the state-sponsored Vietnam Buddhist Church (VBC). The government said UBCV members had taken advantage of the flood to disturb the public order. Along with Thich Quang Do, five other UBCV members received sentences from two years of house arrest to four years in jail. The day before, in a court in Hanoi, two Vietnamese-Americans, Nguyen Tan Tri and Nguyen Quang Liem, received prison sentences of seven and four years, respectively, for initiating political activity in favor of a pro-democracy movement. 

The Clinton administration, in a statement on August 15, strongly protested the sentencings and stated that Vietnam had damaged its chances of winning Most Favored Nation status from the United States. A day later, however, members of a Vietnamese trade delegation in the San Francisco Bay Area were busy promoting trade between the two countries. The delegation is scheduled for stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York as well. Responding to United States criticism, the Vietnamese government said it saw no connection between its human rights performance and the attempt to win United States trade privileges.

SHOOT THE MOON

Onlookers in Cambodia are being advised to wear welder’s goggles to watch “the moon eat the sun” above 12th-century Angkor Wat temple on October 24, but a bulletproof vest might be a better idea. “You’re going to see every Cambodian with a gun shooting at the moon to help the sun escape,” said one local businessman. Legend has it that if the sun comes out of the mouth or the stomach of the moon, then the country will prosper. If it comes out of the bowels, there will be famine. For Cambodian Buddhists, however, a solar eclipse traditionally meant that somehting bad from the past will change for the better. Let’s hope so.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

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Lawson Fusao Inada (age 5) with his mother, Masako, and father, Fusaji, Jerome Relocation Camp, Arkansas, 1943.

In his September 4 review in The Nation of the bookDemocracy on Trial: The Japanese-American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II, by Page Smith (Simon & Schuster), poet Lawson Inada unveils a relocation plan of his own. “God ahead, laugh, even scoff, if you will,” writes Inada, “because my idea is so stone-simple it’s ridiculous.” Inada’s plan, in short, is this: the former relocation camps are an abandoned piece of recent American history, just sitting there going to waste. Instead of feeling guilty about them, why not use them as a relocation site for “our recent Americans from Southeast Asia and Tibet”? Why not populate them with Buddhists? Inada’s plan doesn’t stop there: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh could chair the “Peace Relocation Authority.” The result would be not “gambling casinos or cult centers but cultural centers, retreat centers, peace centers—staffed by Buddhists (Smokey the Incense Caretaker), open to the public.” Concludes Inada, “These parks could turn a profit. And prove a blessing.”

Inada spent much of his boyhood in a relocation camp in Arkansas, and his book of poems Legends from Camp (Coffee House Press) won an American Book Award in 1994. Thinking back on those days recently, he wrote:

See, you go to those camp sites now and at best you might find a plaque. But, in their own ways, they are all beautiful places, “unused,” and useful for habitation, retreats. . . Moreover, they all eventually established Buddhist centers with services—and this despite the face that many of our Buddhist leaders were swept up by the F.B.I. as soon as December 8, 1941, and taken under cover to separate camps in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bismarck, North Dakota; and Misoula, Montana; thus, in a very real sense, those places became “retreat centers.”

DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL

Preparing for the Pope’s visit to the U.S. should have been fairly simple for Buddhists: just do nothing. But that wasn’t an option for Alphonso Alvarez, Jr., of Baltimore, Maryland. Alvarez, a Buddhist, was invited along with his friend Douglas Tillery, a devout Baptist, to attend a lunch with His Holiness Pope Paul at Our Daily Bread, the Baltimore soup kitchen where the two men have eaten breakfast together every morning for the past two years.

Tillery would like to convert Alvarez, but so far the latter has held fast to his Buddhist faith. The two were selected for the honor along with 18 other participants in Roman Catholic charity programs. Alvarez, 57, who until recently was an employee of Goodwill Industries, has been disabled from polio for most of his life. 

A few days before the event, when the two men were discussing what they intended to say to Pope John Paul II, the issue of Alvarez’s Buddhism came up once again. Tillery’s advice: “Don’t tell him.”

L.A. STORY

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C.P. Boys gang member (left) paiting a children’s sand mandala in Los Angeles with Tibetan Buddhist monk Lama Sonam (center) and Zachery Duardo (right) as part of “Healing the Causes of Violence,” by Susan Du Pré, courtesy of Samaya Foundation.

Tibetan Buddhist monks from Gyuto Monastery in India taught the art of sand mandala painting to children in two northeast Los Angeles communities this past August. Part of an ongoing program, “Healing the Causes of Violence,” sponsored by Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez and the Samaya Foundation, the project invited people from all segments of the community, including gang leaders, to take part in making the mandala, which the monks defined as a “home for a purified state of mind.”

In a letter to Samaya Director Barry Bryant, Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti wrote: “It has been brought to my attention that during the month-long program, only one act of violence was reported between the gang groups in Cypress Park and Montecito Heights. This is an outstanding result given that there were 14 gang-related deaths in 1994 during the same period.”

DEAD BODHISATTVA

The death of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, 53, of heart failure on August 9 throws light once more on one of the wackier manifestations of Western Buddhism: Dead Buddhists of America. According to founder Ken Sun-Downer, who also edits the bi-yearly Dead Buddhist newsletter Conch-Us Times, the organization was formed “to connect people who appreciate Greatful Dead and Buddhist meditations and cultures.” Exploring that connection, Sun-Downer writes:

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a connection between the Buddha-dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and some Grateful Dead lyrics?
And when the day had ended,
With rainbow colors blended,
Their minds remained unbended,
He had to die, oh, you know he had to die . . .
I like to interpret this as remaining steadfast in the Dharma at the time of death so that the different colored lights experienced as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead help one to attain the rainbow body of the Buddha. 

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Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia (1942-1995).

 

In his eulogy, “Now Jerry Is Through with Becoming,” in the current issue of Conch-Us Times, Sun-Downer describes Garcia as “a lighthouse on the rocks of modern-day stressed-out society; a Rock ‘n’ Roll Bodhisattva in Psychedelic Music Mandala.” Concerning Garcia’s history of substance abuse (he was in a rehab center for heroin addiction at the time of his death), Sun-Downer quotes the words of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “You must separate the man from the teacher.”

GLOBAL WARMING

In yet another post-Cold War globla initiative, 500 people gathered in San Francisco on September 29 for “State of the World,” former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s three-day conference on global solutions to the deepening ecological crisis. In attendance were politicians, scientists, business leaders, spiritual teachers, and artists from fifty nations, including former heads of state George Bush and Margaret Thatcher, media mogul Ted Turner, Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu, Carl Sagan, Michael Murphy, Deepak Chopra, Joan Halifax, Richard Baker Roshi, Cambodian Buddhist leader Maha Goshananda, and Kushok Bakula, the spiritual leader of Buddhism in Mongolia. In his keynote address, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh said, “My generation has made many mistakes, so please, practice being fully present in the moment, and stop thinking so much.” Afterwards, Thich Nhat Hanh held a tea for teenagers who had gathered for a related Global Youth Forum. In answer to one young person’s question, “What makes you happy?” Thich Nhat Hanh smiled and said, “Being peace.”

LAMA DRAMA

In May the Dalai Lama announced the reincarnation of the eleventh Panchen Lama (often considered to be the second most important lama in Tibet) had been found in the Tibetan village of Nagqu. However, the Chinese government insists that it has final authority over the recognition of important lamas under the terms of a 1972 Qing Dynasty agreement. Meanwhile, it is rumored that the six-year-old lama is being illegally detained.

AS THE WHEEL TURNS

According to his autobiography Take It Like a Man, Boy George has finally come out of the closet as—a Buddhist. On the celluloid trail: Seven Days in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, directed by Jean Jacques-Annaud; and Kundun, a life of the Dalai Lama developed by screenwriter Melissa Mathison and director Martin Scorsese. At North Carolina’s Wingate University, the Dalai Lama was introduced by his old friend, anti-communist crusader Sen. Jesse Helms(Rep., N. C.). Naropa Institute’s Andrew Schelling has been awarded a Witter Bynner Foundation Grant to translate women poets from ancient India. Big Apple Buddhists no longer have to leave Manhattan to find a Zen teacher, sincePat Enkyo O’Hara, now affiliated with ZCNY, and Bonnie Myotai Treace, newly arrived from Zen Mountain Monastery, have teacher in-residence zendos. “A spontaneous, grass-roots effort that is still taking shape,” The Buddhist Coalition of New England already has more than 20 member organizations. Zen Views: Generic Zen with a Beat, the minimalist brainstorm of Ann Lee Finkel, editor, and Gordon Robert Switzer, key grip, includes a recipe for zucchini pancakes and detailed instructions on how to fold origami peace cranes. The on-line Aung San Suu Kyi Anthology (see http://www.maui.com/~lesslie/) has nearly everything ever written by or about the Burmese leader. Lastly, overheard on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan: Woman: “If I was the Buddha, I wouldn’t have spent all that time sitting under that tree.” Man: “Gotta do what ya gotta do, baby. Gotta do what ya gotta do.”

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