Is spirituality on the decline in Tibet?
“If you want to know what is really happening, you watch CCTV, and think the opposite.”
Gyalchok (not his real name) is not the first Tibetan I have met from his generation who is so openly opinionated. “My mother says I should be careful what I say, but I don’t care. It needs to be said.”
Tibetan youths straddle a world of modern desires and conveniences, and a culture deeply rooted in family and religion.
When he was four, Gyalchok’s mother wrapped him in a towel and smuggled him into India in the roof of a truck. The opportunities for education and the promise of a better quality of life were worth the risk. Unable to get a passport because the Chinese government had imposed restrictions on Tibetans meant illegal entry was the only way.
Whilst in India, Gyalchok visited his aunt in Nepal. “There’re a lot of Tibetans in Nepal,” he says matter-of-factly, and then almost jumps out of his seat in excitement as he adds, “You know, Nepal is a really holy place! I really liked Nepal!”
Then he asks, “Do you have a religion?”
“Ya, a lot of people nowadays are like this, they have no religion. But it’s OK as long as you are a good person.”
Then he asks what religion my family was. “They’re Buddhist.”
“Ah! So you are Buddhist! It’s in your blood!”
I tell him I don’t consider myself one because I don’t participate in any religious rites, festivals, or norms.
But he assures me, “Religion is free! It’s about kindness. It’s in your heart.”
For Tibetans, religion is not a part of life. It is the root of life. But for a lot of young Tibetans like Gyalchok, the pace and distraction of modern-day life has blurred this spiritual connection.
For Tibetans, religion is not a part of life. It is the root of life. But for a lot of young Tibetans like Gyalchok, the pace and distraction of modern-day life has blurred this spiritual connection. There are now too many things to want, and too much time to spend working on getting those things.
The Chinese rule of the Tibet Autonomous Region has also severed the links that define this fundamental part of Tibetan life. “My sister is a teacher, so she can’t go to the monastery. There are many cameras in the monasteries, you will lose your job.”
In Tibet, the Han Chinese outnumber Tibetans three to one. Businesses owned by Han Chinese favour Han Chinese employees, so Tibetans are forced to leave Tibet to find work, breaking another thing that defines Tibetan life – the family unit. Tibetans, like several groups of people that live in the Tibetan Plateau, have a strong sense of family and the unit has been essential in enabling the family to be self-sustainable. Tibetans have farmed and cultivated their inhospitable land for centuries. It was only until a quarter of a century ago that farmland was cleared for economic progress, and families now unable to support themselves without enough land, have had to find means to survive.
I ask if a lot of people are unhappy about the Chinese presence in Tibet.
“It’s not a lot. It’s everyone.”
“What are they so unhappy about?” “Doesn’t everyone want freedom? Freedom to pray? To live, to be what you want to be?”
The nonchalance that young Tibetans had toward Tibetan life took a turn in 2008, on a day that Tibetans now refer to as “March 14”. Like September 11, March 14 marked a turning point for Tibetans who had closed themselves spiritually to flow in the veins of a Chinese capitalist economy.
“March 14 has changed many people,” Gyalchok says.
“When the Tibetans saw how many people were killed, how others were suffering, getting hurt and tortured, a lot of them had their eyes opened.”
“There are so many stories of people getting taken away and tortured. It’s horrible.” The Tibetans aren’t concerned about policy, or land claims, or the government taking their natural resources, as the West has hypothesised about China’s push into Tibet. What they want, is just freedom of will. Freedom to pray.
Gyalchok is among that young group of people that have put aside a life of lavishness and vice. He, too, was once content with beers, discos, cigarettes and abandonment. But it was his mother, not March 14, that inspired him to return to his roots.
“When I came back from India and my mom saw how I had become this person who was just contented with partying, she was so disappointed with me. She wouldn’t speak to me. She’d just cry. For four days she cried.”
“It was then that I realised that she went through so much effort to get me into school that I’d have a chance. I received a scholarship in the Dalai Lama school, was given the opportunity to be educated. But it took me my mom’s silence to realise what all that was worth.”
“Now my motivation is to be the best I can be. When my family is happy. I am happy.”
He does not wear a robe or a fur hat. Fluent in English, dressed in a T-shirt with slacks slung low on his hips, a thin gold chain with a small Buddhist amulet around his neck, Gyalchok looks nothing like a traditional Tibetan. But he is Tibetan, and while he might not appear to care much about his culture, his roots are firm in his heart.
Photo by Debby Ng
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