This is the third in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono for the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington this week. Pistono, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is the author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” an account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.
By Matteo Pistono
“We are in the midst of a fierce struggle involving blood and fire, a life-and-death struggle with the Dalai [Lama] clique. Leaders of the whole country must deeply understand the arduousness, complexity, and long-term nature of the struggle.” –Zhang Qingli, head of the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet, March 2008
The People’s Republic of China makes it abundantly clear to foreign governments, and Tibetans and Chinese alike, that the Dalai Lama is a problem for them. State-sponsored media and government leaders express this quite publicly. Because the PRC accuses the Dalai Lama and those who work with him (e.g. the Dalai clique) with attempting to “split the motherland,” any activity whatsoever that has to do with the Dalai Lama is by extension seen as “splittist” activity.
In 1995, a renewed offensive was made on the Dalai Lama, which included banning his photographs and intensifying media attacks on the Dalai Lama as a religious fraud. This was a change from the 1980s when the Dalai Lama was attacked primarily as a political leader.
In Tibet today, religious devotion to the Dalai Lama, including acts such as listening or watching audio or video cassettes about or by the Dalai Lama or conducting any secular or religious ceremony in the Dalai Lama’s name are seen as acts of political rebellion.
I have met Tibetan Buddhist teachers in Tibet who have been tortured and spent years in prison simply for encouraging the devout to pray for the Dalai Lama’s long life. Local government departments in Tibetan areas regularly issue and enforce strict regulations on dates they deem politically sensitive such as July 6, the Dalai Lama’s birthday, or Dec.10, International Human Rights Day and on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize. A few years ago, I saw a Lhasa city government citywide notice that stated, “The People’s Government forbids any person, any group, or any organization, in any form or in any place to use any situation to represent celebrating the Dalai’s birthday, to pray to the Dalai for blessing, to sing prohibited songs, to offer incense to the Dalai, or to carry out barely-flower-throwing illegal activities”.
While authorities and security personnel in Lhasa on July 6, and other dates, keep a keen eye open and the detention cells ready for use, a quiet event occurs every Wednesday. On that day, Tibetans across Tibet and in particular in Lhasa carry out intensive popular religious practices, more than on any other day of the week. These include devotional practices such as circumambulating and prostrating in front of the Potala and Jokhang temples, making offerings of burning juniper incense, pouring libations in traditional vessels in front of the Tibet’s protector deity, Palden Lhamo, and tossing barley flour into the air. Why Wednesday? According to the complex Tibetan astrological calendar, the Dalai Lama’s birth sign falls on that day. As with many days in the Tibetan calendar that are deemed to be auspicious, pious and devoted behavior is believed to carry special weight on these days.
This unorganized yet massive expression of devotion to the Dalai Lama that is evident on Wednesdays took place in a similar fashion before the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. But because of the political climate now and the volatility that surrounds the figure of the Dalai Lama in Tibet, according to elderly Lhasa residents, the Wednesday observances are carried out with even more vigor than before 1959. When asked about the possibility of police questioning prompted by these observances a 65-year-old Tibetan man responded, “What do you think, will they ban Wednesdays?”
Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet.” Pistono’s images and writings about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have appeared in BBC’s In-Pictures, Men’s Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Wyoming, and in 1997 he obtained his master of arts degree in Indian philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and photos of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.
Pistono will be speaking at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 7 p.m. Jan. 28.