A group of Nobel laureates including the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Theresa, and Desmond Tutu convened in Bangkok early this year to protest the detainment of fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, currently in her fourth year of house arrest in Myannmar (formerly Burma). The State Law and Order Restoration Council seized control of Myanmar in 1988 after killing hundreds of members of Suu Kyi’s Burmese Democracy movement.
A Montreal-based group, the International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development, brought the Nobel Peace Prize recipients to Thailand along with representatives of Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee.
Former president Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica and His Holiness the Dalai Lama sent messages of support to Aung San Suu Kyi and called for an international arms embargo to be imposed on Myanmar. The Chinese government had requested that the Thai foreign ministry deny a visa to the Dalai Lama. Their request was not honored but the Thai military barred the Dalai Lama from appearing on militarycontrolled radio and television. At this time no change in the status of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest has been announced by the Myanmar military leadership.
The Venerable Oung Mean, Cambodia’s third-highest-ranking Buddhist monk, died of a heart attack in Olney, Maryland, on March 16 at the age of sixty-six. Before fleeing Cambodia and coming to America in 1978, Mean was a special adviser to the religious leader of Cambodia (the national Buddhist Patriarch), wrote and translated numerous religious texts in Khmer and English, and taught at the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh. In the United States he expanded the Cambodian Buddhist Society and the Wat Buddhikarma in Silver Spring, Maryland, a center for Cambodian Buddhists displaced by the civil unrest in their native country.
On April 6, a Vietnamese man from Dorchester, Massachusetts, burned himself to death to protest the treatment of Buddhists in his native land. Described as quiet and deeply religious by family and friends, Binh Gia Pham had apparently been planning his self-immolation for some time. According to newspaper reports, Pham had made a pledge in a letter dated March 12 to an unnamed Buddhist leader in Monterey Park, California, to burn himself so that he could be “a tiny brick contributing to the house of Buddhism.”
Pham had also addressed a letter to President Clinton lamenting the treatment of Buddhists in Vietnam, who he felt were restricted in their religious and civil rights by the Communist government. Two Buddhist leaders in New England, Dr. Chi Huu Nguyen and Thich Glac Duc, were notified of the impending suicide on the morning of its occurrence but were unsuccessful in their attempts to prevent it.
State police have not yet decided whether to prosecute five acquaintances of Pham’s who videotaped the death in order to provide documentation to further its political ramifications. They could face a maximum penalty of ten years’ incarceration for their alleged role in assisting the suicide.
DEATH BY DEMOGRAPHY
A report in an April issue of The Economist suggests that Tibetan hopes for independence are being subsumed by the growing power of consumer culture. According to the report, Lhasa has doubled in size over the past six years due to an influx of Chinese government spending. The Chinese plan—to redirect the attention of Tibetans from politics to economic gain—has resulted in shops now stocked with VCRs, photocopying machines, and computers, as well as a proliferation of karaoke bars and posters of Taiwanese pop idols. This new material boon has come at a high price, even to the Chinese occupiers: growth is straining the infrastructure and the capital suffers daily blackouts. Further complications have been catalyzed by the dramatic shift in the composition of the population. Chinese in search of economic opportunity are emigrating to Tibet in droves. In Lhasa alone the 100,000 or so Tibetans are already outnumbered by ethnic Chinese. While Tibet’s governor, Gyancain Norbu, insists that there are no more than 60,000 Han Chinese in all of Tibet, he does not appear to account for all “temporary” migrants and many thousands of soldiers in the security forces. The Chinese attribute the need for the large security force to the monks and nuns who continue to demonstrate. In mid-March, they staged a week of protests to commemorate the anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. About thirty protesters were arrested. Having learned from previous years, however, police did not open fire on the unarmed crowd but used more subtle means: surveillance cameras and hordes of agents to discover and arrest protestors before the crowd could gather momentum.
To critics of the Chinese regime, however, the presence of the army is part of China’s systematic destruction of Tibet, and has more to do with population statistics than with inconsequential protests from the few monastics left; in this view, following the destruction of Tibetan culture, the genocide of the Tibetan people will be completed through these calculated population shifts in which both the army and the business-people are simply ploys in a Chinese game of death by demography.
The Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP), an organization devoted to the study and preservation of Asian literature, released its first computer disk of translated Buddhist texts in March 1990. Since then, the group, founded by Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, former head of Sera Mey Tibetan University, has brought out two more disks—bringing the total of newly translated and computerized words to three million. Specifically, the focus of the project is to make the root texts of Tibetan Buddhism—Sanskrit texts dating from 500 B.C.E. to 900 C.E. and subsequent Tibetan translations—available in English on inexpensive computer disks. The aim is to make these texts, along with dictionaries and bibliographies, easily accessible to scholars and practitioners in the West. For example, in the floppy version of the Diamond Cutting Sutraone reads “Morality means never to harm . . . another living being, and doing this because you yourself want to escape from suffering.” At this point, a flashing prompt appears on the computer screen with the message “Click on the word suffering to see its special meaning.” This leads to several definitions, employs other texts, and offers Americans the opportunity to begin to understand the various and subtle uses of Buddhist concepts. The latest disk features the first installment of the graphics library that makes woodblock prints just a keystroke away from your laser-jet output.
This year, for its most ambitious project to date, the ACIP contracted with the St. Petersburg Branch of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences to co-produce a catalogue of Tibetan classical literature. Because of the massive destruction of the libraries of Tibet, it is believed that this collection is the largest in the world, with fifty to seventy thousand separate works, which until now have remained uncatalogued and unavailable to international researchers. For more information, fax or call: (301) 948-5569.
Buddhist computer enthusiasts are getting wired with Tiger Team BBS. Based in Berkeley, California, Tiger Team operates a not-for-profit computer bulletin board for the Bay Area Buddhist community and lists local as well as international events and conferences. The bulletin board also provides a forum for discussions of Buddhist philosophy and practice; an opportunity to “talk” with Buddhist monks, priests, and academic experts; and access to a library of Buddhist papers, journals, and texts, as well as to Asian language tutorials and word processing programs. They also operate an electronic gallery that features traditional and contemporary Buddhist-inspired art from America and abroad.
Tiger Team is not alone. There are actually four Buddhist-related bulletin boards—Buddhism, Buddha-L, Tibet-L, and Zendo—in operation, all of which are accessible through Tiger Team. A free service, Tiger Team is only a phone call away for anyone with a computer and a modem. For more information call: (510) 540-6565.
A new computer video game, Disney’s Heaven and Earth, draws its inspiration from the art of contemplation. Designer Michael Feinberg, said to be a longtime practitioner of Zen meditation, was reading Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s The Sacred Path of the Warrior when he hit upon the idea of developing a “meditative” game based on spiritual exploration. The concept means that rather than being challenged to outshoot or outfox an opponent, players are thrown back on their own imaginative resources. And, better than that, the only “competition” a player faces is him- or herself. Many aspects of the game make direct references to Buddhism; for example, a series of “illusions” that must be seen for what they are in order for the player to progress, a 108-step pilgrimage, and the ultimate destination—”Shambhala.”
The Anatomical Chart Company, based in Skokie, Illinois, is currently marketing a “more or less life-size” plastic reproduction of a human skull. The inverted craniums are used as decorative bowls perfect for serving candy or condiments—complete with miniature skullshaped pedestals. A spokesperson for the company did admit that “Tibetan monks had a head start” on using skulls as functional art, for altar objects and offerings. The receptacles resulted from accidents in the manufacture of models for schools, when the heads were either cracked—or half-baked.
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