Tuesday, March 23, 2010
It’s all Uncle Mac’s fault. And it started in Manchester, England, on February 1, 1951. “Well, that’s it. I’m off,’’ he said to my father in that casual, laidback way that suggested he was just popping out for a pint of milk.
He then climbed into his Landrover, checked he had his sandwiches and a thermos of tea and set off for India. Months later, he reached Herat, Afghanistan, where he traded the vehicle for a horse and headed east. And then, silence.
A rumoured sighting of him on the Great Wall of China in the early 70’s by an old family friend gave a ray of hope, but then again the man thought he saw my uncle accompanied by Richard Nixon, Shirley Maclaine and Keith Richards. It’s that kind of wall.
My father lost a brother and I lost a hero and I wasn’t even born yet. His journey continued to fascinate me as I grew up. Just getting to India, alone, exposed, and overland in 1951 would have been an awesome achievement. His reasons for going were even more intriguing. As far as the family knew, they’re weren’t any; until we found his diary in a trunk under his bed. One entry for October 30, 1950, read: “I must see Tibet and meet the Dalai Lama before I die…’’
My uncle’s room was left as it was. As I grew older, I began to read his library. He had 600 books – 27 on Tibet. I read most of them, couldn’t understand the rest, but they all stirred my own interest in both the Himalayas and the Dalai Lama.
Twenty years later, I picked myself up off a Greek island and followed my uncle’s trail and mission. A rickety ship from Istanbul to Trabzon; public bus from Erzurum to Iraq; train, bus and camel across Iran. The first white person I spoke to after four months was in Isfahan. He was a Scot, who said over a plate of sheep’s eye-balls: “We used to eat Englishmen…’’
For me, Afghanistan was the pivotal spot on the way to Dharamsala, the exiled home of the Dalai Lama. Even in late ’73, Kabul was a crumbling, turbaned mess. A diplomat’s mistress picked me up and took me to the only restaurant in town that still had windows, and immediately regretted it. She kept saying: “Do try to look a little wealthier, I have a reputation to keep.”
In the freezing heart of Afghanistan’s heroic geography, I remember the ageing truck finally entering the valley of Bamiyan at nightfall, three days after we had left Kabul. The small town announced itself with lights that twinkled from among the rocks and I heard the only other foreigner on the truck mutter:
“Thank God there’s a God.’’
The trail had been forged deep into the Hindu Kush and the vehicle had groaned and swung violently at perilous angles as we swayed about like sea anemones with every jolt. By the time we arrived, the hot water flasks were cold, the cold water was frozen and we smelt like old goats. The air was so raw it hurt just being in it.
Bamiyan is a speck of green in a forbidding landscape and the furthest point Buddhism ever reached on its journey west. This grim, mountainous isolation is littered with abandoned monasteries whose histories seem erased from time and, although the area is completely desolate, one feels one is being watched. This is not a place to linger. This is not a place to be ill or frightened, and one is quickly reminded of the staggering insignificance of humanity which the environment encourages with a mournful, biting, lunar wind.
Steppe eagles glide high on thermals. Lynx and snow leopards may be glimpsed and the marmot, from which you can still catch the Bubonic plague, are hunted.
The valley was dominated by a gigantic, 60-metre-standing Buddha hewn out of the rock face which towers over the settlement below. Being a Christian in an Islamic land and experiencing this lonely and powerful outpost of Buddhism felt like being on a spiritual fault line. It is not a place of answers but of questions. It’s difficult to get to, which could well have been the intention; a secret valley housing the open heart of Buddhism with its compassionate, brave and intelligent message.
The cliff-face is still honeycombed with small caves and passageways which are covered with wall paintings that tell the tale of an attitude that, if you follow the rules, can both help and liberate. Over the centuries, as travellers approached from the west via Herat, the first glimpse of this statue would have suggested the end of one world and the beginning of another, as the looming figure represents a gateway to a whole different option.
The valley is long empty of Buddhists. The Mongolians, known as the people of “The Blue Wolf” and under the command of Genghis Khan, literally swept through here like a carnivorous plague with a taste for destruction. His vast, horse-backed army was preceded by the stench of death, bourn by an east wind and followed a week or so later by the thunder of half a million hooves. The Mongolians hacked the Buddha’s face off. The Taliban did the rest. Bastards.
When I finally made it to Dharamsala, or Macleod Gunj, (which is not a Scottish garage band from Seattle) in Northern India, I politely asked if it was possible to have an audience with the Dalai Lama.
“He’s in Dublin…on world tour…” a beaming monk informed me.
Sweet Jesus. Seven thousand kilometers and His Holiness was 100km from where I had started out from. I thought I deserved instant enlightenment for just reaching the place.
My favourite book from my uncle’s library was “Tibet Tibet” by Patrick French, an intelligent as well as passionate approach to what has happened in Tibet since 40,000 Chinese troops crossed the eastern border on October 7, 1950 to “peacefully liberate” Tibet.
Since then, over a million Tibetans have died under the Chinese occupation as a result of torture, starvation and execution.
Approximately 6,000 monasteries, nunneries and temples, were first looted and then destroyed from the late 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution. Today, China maintains an occupation army in Tibet of at least 250,000. If this is China’s idea of a “ peaceful liberation”, I’d hate be around when they really get pissed off.
On July 6, 2010, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will celebrate his 75th birthday. Will he have much to celebrate? Somehow, I doubt it. History has always had a cruel way with optimism.
Excusing its failure to win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people over the last 50 years, Beijing blames the Dalai Lama for all its troubles in Tibet. It has called him an ‘arch criminal who splits the motherland,’ a ‘jackal,’ a ‘reactionary feudal serf-owner,’ a promoter of ‘rape, murder and child cannibalism’ and a ‘wolf in monk’s clothing.’
For the Chinese, the Dalai Lama is an infernal reactionary who has inhibited Tibet’s progress towards a socialist proletarian paradise by maintaining the government in exile in Dharamsala which, since 1959, has encouraged Tibetan nationalism, and Tibetan resistance, by its mere existence.
As a result, China has felt compelled to maintain a murderous grip over a “minority” people. This is Tibet’s – and the Dalai Lama’s – great dilemma. By remaining faithful to their inherited cultural values, Tibetans make life much harder for themselves in a world where no foreign power will intervene for fear of upsetting the mighty People’s Republic or its own trade relations.
Although the Dalai Lama may be feted by the rich and glamorous, his failing is that if anything, he is insufficiently political. His inclination has always been towards the spiritual and conciliatory, rather than towards worldly cunning.
His central, inner life is his Buddhist practice – as he says, he’s a “simple monk” – certainly more than he’s a political thinker.
Why the Dalai Lama is almost as beloved outside Tibet as he is among “true” Tibetans is attributable to two related circumstances. First, the personality of the man himself: he exudes an aura of serendipitous personal virtue, expressed as an articulate spirituality that, just because it challenges our materialism, finds favour with us. Secondly, he is a figurehead associated with opposition to the inhumanities of Chinese Communism, a brutality nowhere made more manifest than in Tibet itself.
Life is a surprise because, in the end, the Dalai Lama, somehow, came to me. At a press conference in Perth, Western Australia in 1992, where I was living, I watched a hard-bitten camera crew literally melt under his humour and tangible spirituality. They grinned beatifically, transfixed by the charisma and message of universal compassion coming from a man who has kept the Tibet issue alive for half a century.
What is interesting to me is that this great teacher serves as a hero but never, ironically, as a lesson.
And with his eventual passing, a real light will go out in this world.
Happy Birthday, Your Holiness. In advance.