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Lions Roar : May 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2011 44 as for the people of tibet, i didn’t expect to talk to them much. one tibetan activist told me to imagine that, as a westerner in tibet, i had a fatal disease, and anyone i spoke to would catch it. that gruesome exercise, he felt, would give me the necessary discipline to keep tibetans out of jail for talking to a journalist. tibet was tense as i touched down, and understandably so. that spring was the fiftieth anniversary of the dalai lama’s es- cape to india and the birth of the Free tibet movement. Protests had erupted on previous anniversaries of the escape, and i knew the Chinese bureaucrats in lhasa were braced for more. i was prepared to see a tightly controlled city. lhasa is surrounded by space—miles and miles of empty, arid terrain. it reminded me of ireland, where my parents had emigrated from in the fifties. ireland’s countryside is famously lush, but when you are walking through its blue-black hills late at night, without a porch light or a spark of electricity visible, the loneliness of the place can make you shiver. i’ve always thought of superstition and ghost stories as beginning in places like these, places where the land- scape seems indifferent or ready to devour you. my father used to tell me about a family friend who told him he would meet him at “the hand” when he was dead. the hand was a local crossroads, and months after the man’s death, when my father was walking home from a party, he saw the family friend there. my father is not a superstitious person, but he swore that he’d met that one spirit. empty landscapes produce ghost stories. and faith. in my first days in lhasa, i had that feeling i’d got- ten in ireland. i was struck by how tangible the bud- dhist faith was there. in a place where you could be arrested for possessing a picture of the Fourteenth dalai lama, tibetan women prostrated themselves in a square near the Potala Palace, their faces to the ground. i walked with young men doing their circuit around the Jokhang temple at the center of lhasa, their faces grimy and exhausted. i saw impossibly old women—bent over at the waist from age—climb the floors of the Potala Palace. it seemed like a large risk to their health. yet in their faces was blissful happiness. many were crying. i had always thought of buddhism as something mental, some- thing you did with your brain. Pictures of buddhists practicing their faith showed them with their eyes closed. the Catholicism i was raised in was more connected with physical places, pilgrimag- es, stories of crucifixions, and bloody pogroms. buddhism seemed to float above the real world. i’d been raised in the irish equivalent of martin scorsese’s Mean The Dalai Lama on his throne in Tibet in 1951. escaping tibet gave him the chance to manifest Buddhism in his own nature—open, joyful, empathetic. It has given his message to the global community a flexibility and adventurousness it wouldn’t have had back in lhasa. Photo©1951byKPa/zumaPress.Com/KeystonePress