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Lions Roar : May 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2011 46 even been understood in lhasa, the capital. even the great monaster- ies had individual colleges where different dialects were spoken. the only things that a tibetan could say made him a tibetan were tsampa, the roasted barley eaten from one end of the coun- try to the other. and buddhism, embodied in the dalai lama. so the citizens of this occupied country, quarreling and mistrustful, looked to the young dalai lama to save them. but isolated from his loved ones, deeply lonely, badly educated, the young lama had no idea how to be a leader. he turned to buddhism, not as the re- incarnation of a holy line who is finally taking up his destiny, but as a frightened young man searching frantically for a compass. he dove deep into buddhism’s lessons and emerged, really, a different man. very much the person we know today, a monk who has given himself over utterly to the practice of the dharma. so buddhism in tibet was not separate from its modern his- tory. Quite the opposite, it was essential. in many ways, it was all that mattered. before i interviewed survivors of the uprising, i had assumed that most of them fought for their country. that was the nar- rative in the west: tibet was a nation taken over by a foreign power. it was a story that americans and europeans understood instinctively. the memory of world war ii, of occupation and liberation, is very much alive in us. but what i found in researching the tibetan uprising contradict- ed my assumptions. many of the people i spoke to had fought as buddhists first and tibetans second. monks in the colleges grabbed rifles when they heard a rumor that the Chinese were going to kid- nap his holiness. they hadn’t taken up arms in 1950 when the Chi- nese invaded their borders; nationalism hadn’t roused a majority of them to fight. the notion of tibet was too diffuse and the history with China counseled patience rather than war. what sparked the uprising was a threat to the dalai lama that tibetans—rightly or wrongly—perceived in that spring of 1959. and to stop that threat, they would have laid down their lives. i spoke to monks who now live in tiny rooms in the hills of dharamsala, india, and many told me the same thing: in fighting the Chinese in lhasa, they believed they were protecting his holiness as he sped toward freedom. they believed if he died, the dharma would be irreparably harmed. no price was too great to prevent that. the men and women i spoke to even remembered in vivid detail the morning when rumors of a Chinese plot to kill or kidnap the dalai lama began to circulate in lhasa. they’d dropped whatever they were doing, literally dropped pans and hairbrushes and shovels to the ground, and ran toward his holiness’ palace. they’d aban- doned their own lives in half a second. they no longer existed as individuals; the only thing that mattered to them was his holiness. Monks at a monastery in Tibet with a forbidden photo of the Dalai Lama. In tibet there was a restless hunger to be in the presence of the Dalai lama, to touch him and hear his voice. here were Buddhists whose faith was something they could touch, something that tore their heart.