Las Ramblas's Lamas

By Michael Leube | 2002-04-01 12:00:00

I asked, crudely, "What is the worst thing the Chinese did to you?" Silently, the Tibetan monk Palden Gyatso took out all his fake teeth, then curled his tongue upward exposing some deep scars. I just sat there, ashamed of my insensitive question. "The worst thing," the translator conveyed to me, "was that the Chinese almost made me lose my compassion for them." The old man put his teeth back in his mouth and smiled.

That was one year ago in Dharamsala, India, the exile home of the Dalai Lama and his government. The 68-year-old Palden Gyatso was sitting in front of me in his maroon robes. Above him hung a large silk picture called thangka of Geshiring, the Buddha of compassion.


A few days before the interview, I had been walking along a small street just above the Dalai Lama's residence. It was a beautiful day in October. On my left far below India stretched away and high above my right, the Himalayas scraped a deep blue sky. I was shocked, having just finished Palden Gyatso's autobiography,Fire under the Snow, a compassionate but definitely not a feel-good book. An old monk, looking like an archetypal Far Eastern sage came towards me, slowly flipping the beads of a rosary between his fingers. I fumbled in my pack for the book, compared the backcover with the face that had just passed me and, yes, it was the same person. I ran back, waving my book and pen, and asked him to sign it. He smiled, slowly sat down on a bench and took a long while to carefully write a dedication in Tibetan shorthand. Then he took my hand for another small eternity, smiled again and went on his way.

A few days passed. At the school where I was teaching English to Tibetan refugees, I found a young man who offered help in translating for me. Together we headed down the hill to the small room of Palden Gyatso.

Even now, I don't understand how this man can smile. He was beaten and degraded by Chinese soldiers and prison guards. He watched his nation being destroyed, his religion forbidden, and his friends kill themselves. Thirty-three years he had spent in prison in his own land because he would not bend to Mao Tse Tung's demands. He would neither give up his religious beliefs nor forsake his country. When he escaped across the Himalayas into India, Gyatso smuggled samples of the torture devices used on him: handcuffs, thumb-cuffs, serrated knives, cattle prods and electric shock guns.

"What can we Westerners do to help the people in Tibet?" I asked.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama says the Chinese and the Tibetans have to learn to live with each other. They both want happiness. The Dalai Lama should be supported in his efforts to spread the truth about the oppression of Tibet."

"What about a boycott?"

"Big governments will always do business with China and boycotting on a consumer level will only hurt the wrong people. Involvement with human rights is a better approach." He added that we should support Amnesty International, which had helped him somewhat during his prison term. The only feasible procedure of putting pressure on China is on the national and political level but here too the major economic powers of the West depend on trade with China.

"Isn't there anything more His Holiness, the Dalai Lama can do?"

Gyatso looked at the picture of him with the Dalai Lama. "He is doing all he can. He is giving mental health to the Tibetans as well as Westerners. We all are in a spiritual vacuum."

"Are you optimistic?" I asked and to my surprise he answered with a determined "yes." He said that many countries like Tibet have found their voice in the world and there are fewer wars. He also believed that the Dharma (Buddhist truth) was spreading to the West, which was beneficial to world peace.

The Chinese tried to steal the younger generations. Primary schools are taught in Chinese and children are only marginally exposed to Tibetan culture and tradition. Whole Tibetan regions are flooded with Chinese people, birth control is forced, and entire Tibetan neighborhoods have been destroyed. The remaining monasteries are under constant surveillance; monks and nuns are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama; and construction of religious architecture is banned. In the most famous case of religious disrespect, the Chinese simply picked a boy themselves to become the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The senior monk responsible for the search was detained and later sentenced. Religious leaders were forced to denounce the Dalai Lama's choice, young Gedhun Choekyi Nyiama, who disappeared a few days later and is today the youngest political prisoner in the world.


Almost exactly a year had passed since my first meeting with Gyatso. In the aftermath of September 11, I was feeling nervous and blue. Following a hint from a friend, I was off to see Palden Gyatso again, this time in Barcelona.

We met the next morning in a small office of the Casa del Tibet. He recognized and welcomed me warmly and the director of the Casa, Thubten Wangchen kindly translated. On the table between Gyatso and me lay the Time issue with Bush waving an American flag. I asked Gyatso's opinion of terrorism.

"I never believed terrorism can solve anything at all. Negotiation and dialogue can. When the Americans do something against the Afghans, many more innocent people will be killed." Nice enough, but I wanted something more specific.

We talked about karma. The word refers to the relation of cause and effect. Every action of body, speech, and mind carries a result in the phenomenological world as well as an imprint on consciousness; the present moment is determined by karma. Every action I have ever taken had brought me to that monk, that morning in Barcelona.

"Similarly, all the people who sat in the World Trade Center on September 11th were there due to their actions in the past," the monk explained. "Of course the people had no direct fault, but still they met with the plane that morning. And the hijackers also had so much bad karma built up that they killed thousands. But retaliation will only add even more negative karma." He closed his eyes, and shook his head ever so slightly.

My talk with Gyatso of course also had to do with reincarnation, since we were talking about different eschatological views (literally) colliding on September 11. I asked, "What is the Buddhist take on suicide?"

"Human life is precious. A suicidal person fails to see that value and wastes a life. Bad karma is produced that will not lead to another human rebirth." Buddhists never answer violence with violence. They did not when the Taliban blew up the magnificent Buddha statues in Afghanistan and the Tibetans have not violently answered the Chinese invasion. The latter case is especially hard to believe, considering that an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans died within the first 10 years of occupation and some 100,000 fled into exile.

"Tibet is paying off some bad karma," Gyatso said without any hesitation. "But collective karma is difficult to pinpoint. Even I surely went to jail because of karma, but why exactly I don't know. I also survived jail and can now help my people at home."


Gyatso fled in 1992. Soon afterward he went on a march through the Alps. He walked 49 days from Lyon to Geneva in remembrance of his trek into India and to raise awareness of Tibet. He wanted to speak to the mountain villagers of Europe. All received him warmly; five times he even found the Tibetan national flag raised to greet him. The mayors of the villages told him that they would be left there until Tibet was free. Those flags will be tattered and torn by the time they are taken down.

Although the story of Tibet has become a staple of Western conversations, support for the country usually does not go much beyond the level of bumper stickers. But the Dalai Lama tirelessly tours the world, never failing to mention the plight of his country in speeches.

Cultural exchange also goes the other way. Anyone with a Chinese visa and a lot of money can visit Tibet as part of a packaged tour. Tourists fly into the land of snow and walk around Lhasa where the Dalai Lama would be captured or shot.

"Is this a good thing?" I asked Gyatso. He believes that only some go with true sympathy for Tibet but everyone's money goes to the Chinese. Furthermore, if one tries to mingle with the locals, problems arise, since the Tibetans living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region or the four Chinese provinces are allowed almost no contact with the rest of the world. The mere possession of an image of the Dalai Lama is prohibited.

After the interview, I was invited to come along on an excursion on "Las Ramblas" with the two maroon-robed monks. It was a beautiful fall day. Below me lay only asphalt and high above me Columbus scratched the sky, pointing to America. The scooterboys were laughing, middle-aged businessmen were looking at us peripherally, and the video cameras were shifting from the statues and saxophone-players to the Tibetans. They stole the show.

It was strange to see Gyatso again in the middle of the bustling Barcelona - so removed from the pristine Himalayas. Had I seen this in a dream last year I would have laughed the next morning. But there I was on Las Ramblas, shopping for some cheap loafers to fit my grinning friend in maroon.

Michael Leube is a sociologist in Madrid.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2002, page 13. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Michael Leube here

Peace Magazine homepage