The Potala

I haven’t posted any travel photos here for a while, so I thought I’d begin with a nighttime photo I made of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The Potala, for those that don’t know, was the home of the Dalai Lama’s – Tibet’s spiritual and temporal leaders – including the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.

Notice that I used the word was. The Dalai Lama fled from Tibet to India in 1959, nine years after the Chinese Communists had invaded Tibet, during a Chinese crackdown on Tibetan independence.

I’m mentioning this now as the Dalai Lama was in the news last week, meeting with President Bush and then receiving a medal from the United States Congress, despite protestations from the Chinese government in Beijing. (It’s good to know that our government is finally doing something right!)

Before I went to Tibet, I had a discussion with someone at my job who’s interested in Asia. He told me that he has no plans to visit Tibet as long as it’s occupied by China, but the Dalai Lama himself has said that people should visit Tibet to see what the situation is like for themselves and then tell people what they’ve seen.

Well, it’s difficult to find out from Tibetans what they really think of their country being absorbed into China and to have more and more Chinese people flooding in. Tour companies and guide books tell visitors to avoid talking with Tibetans about such topics – more for the sake of the Tibetans, who can get into serious trouble with the authorities if found out speaking about such things.

Still, it’s hard to think that most Tibetans are happy with the situation. The Tibetan capital, Lhasa, seems to be another big Chinese city for the most part. Tibet is a Buddhist nation and a very devoutly spiritual one at that, and while monasteries are now being allowed to be rebuilt (a tremendous amount of damage was done during the Cultural Revolution and a great many Tibetans were killed, too), the Chinese control how many monks can inhabit each monastery. Monasteries that once housed thousands of monks, I’ve read, now are only permitted to maintain a few hundred. Even to become a monk, one must be vetted by the authorities and not found to have any ties to independence-minded Tibetans. I’ve read that students and government employees are also prohibited from being practicing Buddhists.

Now, I am certainly not a political activist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do try to learn something about the places that I visit. On the subject of Tibetan independence, the Chinese are claiming that the Dalai Lama wants to split up the Chinese motherland by breaking Tibet away. As the New York Times wrote in its editorial last week:

The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese Army crushed an uprising there, is a powerful symbol of Tibet’s resistance to China’s suppression of its religious culture. In Beijing-speak, the Dalai Lama is a “splittist,” someone out to split off a chunk of China. Zhang Qingli, the Chinese party boss in Tibet, denounced the Dalai Lama as “a person who basely splits his motherland and doesn’t even love his motherland.”
The fact is that the Dalai Lama does love his motherland — Tibet — and is not trying to split it away from China. He said yesterday that he is not seeking independence from China. What he wants, he says, is “meaningful autonomy for Tibet.”
I tend to liken the Chinese occupation of Tibet to the Roman occupation of ancient Israel. Sure, the occupiers bring modernization and advancement (new roads, etc), but they try to suppress the local culture with a very heavy hand. Still, the Roman Empire eventually fell. Someone has written that Tibet will be free when China will be free – and a Chinese friend of mine in his 50’s says that he thinks he’ll see the end of communism in China sometime during his lifetime.
In the meantime, the Tibetan people still show their spiritual devotion despite all of the hardships. It is very moving to see people go to temples to prostrate themselves and pray. They bring butter with them to add to the butter lamps in temples; they walk the pilgrimage circuits spinning they prayer wheels. I saw some people traveling by foot on the road to Lhasa, prostrating themselves the entire way – a journey that should take weeks or months to complete. Even though the Potala Palace is an empty place – a museum – people still go there and spread themselves on the ground in spiritual devotion.

The fellow from my office who I mentioned earlier told me that the main reason the Chinese are allowing monasteries to be rebuilt is to give tourists a reason to visit Tibet and spend their money. Well, it’s hard to argue with that. In one monastery, my group visited a debating courtyard where the monks famously debate Buddhist philosophy and principles by slapping their hands to emphasize a point. The entire perimeter of the courtyard was ringed with camera toting tourists, and I did kind of wonder what the point of it all was.
Still, I figure that a monastery rebuilt for the tourists to come and visit that will provide some Buddhist instruction and inspiration is better than a monastery reduced to a pile of rubble. Even though Tibetan Buddhism must exist today under severe restrictions and scrutiny, I’m hoping that it will be enough to allow it to survive until the day that Tibet will once again be free.

Finally, the Times editorial also said this:

The Dalai Lama said yesterday that he felt “regret” over the tensions. It is our hope that leaders will continue to ignore China’s protests and threats, and that by continuing to honor the Dalai Lama they will finally persuade Beijing to open serious talks about granting autonomy to Tibet.

I hope so, too.

About Dave Rudin

Dave Rudin is a fine art photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. He specializes in art nude and travel photography, using black & white film and making silver gelatin prints in a darkroom.
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