Jamyang Norbu: A Tibetan Cultural Critique

Over the years I have been trying to understand our [Tibetan] predilection to deal with national emergencies by burying our collective head in the sands of superstition and inertia. The observations and conclusions gathered in these two essays “Body Snatchers” and “Back to the Future” are presented in the hope that they will help to persuade younger Tibetans to think rationally and act vigorously in politics (and in religion) in much the way as the Buddha himself seems to have advocated. […]
On a grey morning during the monsoon of 1976, the small town of McLeod Ganj, or at least the Tibetan part of it, experienced a curious upheaval … The cause of the disturbance was not physical, like an earthquake (which the area is somewhat prone to) nor social or political, like the communal riot we had some years ago. A psychologist might say that it originated from “the dark, inaccessible part” (to borrow from Freud’s definition of the id) of the Tibetan mind. […]
One of the most widespread and persistent of phobias that Tibetans have had in the past about travelling to “the great Indian plains” (gya-thang or gya-ding) was of being abducted and having their “human-oil” (mi-num) squeezed out of them. The extraction process was explained to me by a geshe (doctor of divinity) from Drepung monastery, when the two of us arrived at the North Indian city of Siliguri from Kalimpong. Geshe L was a heavily-built man of around fifty years of age, quite learned, in the traditional sense, yet fairly open-minded as well.
As we boarded a cycle-rickshaw and were pedalled away to the New Jalpaiguri railway station by a skinny, hollow-cheeked rickshaw-wallah, geshe L appeared ill-at-ease. He turned to me and asked whether I had heard of any “human oil” squeezers operating in the town. I insisted that those old stories were absurd and completely without foundation. But he was not reassured, and seemed to regard my attitude not only as frivolous but dangerously naive as well. Geshe L patiently explained it all to me.
It appeared that in most cases of human oil abductions, the victim was first rendered helpless by a drug slipped into a drink or a cigarette. He or she was then taken to some lonely warehouse or shed where he or she was stripped naked and hung upside down from the rafters over a low fire. Gradually, the body would begin to drip fat — in the manner of a roasting pig — which was collected in a pan underneath, and later bottled, or whatever. […]
Then one day … a monk taking a walk from the town to the Tibetan Children’s Village encountered a group of Indians on the road. At this time of the year, Dharamsala is filled with yatris, pilgrims, visiting Hindu holy sites around the area. These pilgrims generally wear red headbands or carry red flags as tokens of their faith. This particular group of Indians on the McLeod -TCV road started to shout and whistle (in the noisy exuberant way of Indian pilgrims) to some of their friends on the road below. The monk, who was somewhat corpulent, suspected the worst and fled back to McLeod Ganj, where his breathless account of red flags and near abduction immediately circulated around the town, sending a frisson of apprehension through it.
Two days later, on a somewhat overcast day, I was hanging about the bus stand at the air-gun stall that once stood just by the intersection of the two roads, one leading to the Tibetan Children’s Village and the other to the nearby village of Forsyth Bazaar — which then continues on to Lower Dharamshala. The stall owner and I were having a chat when a few Tibetans from Forsyth Bazaar walked by. They were hailed by a McLeod Ganj Tibetan. The subsequent conversation went something like this:
McLeod Tibetan: Hey! Where are you all going?
Forsyth Tibetan 1: We’re going back to Phosa Baza (Forsyth Bazaar).
McLeod Tibetan (gravely): You’d better be careful. People are being grabbed and taken away these days, just like that. There’s this jeep with a red flag that comes along, and then there’s nothing you can do about it.
Forsyth Tibetan 1: We heard something like that.
Forsyth Tibetan 2 (worried): We’d better rush back, our children are alone at home.
McLeod Tibetan: You do that. Someone told me that there was a jeep full of Indians this morning at Phosa Baza. He thinks the jeep may have had a red flag stuck in the front.
The group from Forsyth Bazaar quickly walked away down the road. The McLeod Tibetan hurried towards the main street. I couldn’t swear it was him but the next minute there was this outcry “Where’s our children?” Another voice pitched in, “The children have been taken!” It was absolute chaos after that.
In a surprisingly short time, the bus-stand was filled with panic-stricken Tibetans. The women were the noisiest, screaming at the men to do something, and crying and howling as if it were judgement day. The men rushed around shouting threats and curses. I remember one man in particular, a self-important but simple fellow [who] loved bustling about in public gatherings, looking busy and important. That day he was running up and down the main street brandishing a long and wicked-looking Tibetan dagger, all the while shouting ferociously: “Where are they? Where are they?”
A few female hippies were in the crowd with some old amalas. All of them were weeping copiously. One old granny was holding a yappy little apso that was adding its share to the general cacophony. A rather brainless German girl I knew spotted me and came over howling, “Save the children! Save them!” […]
I’m afraid I laughed out aloud. Some people in the crowd turned on me. “How can you laugh? …Our children … abducted … etc.” I tried to explain how mistaken they were but got nowhere. Fortunately there was a timely distraction; someone had the sense enough to suggest that they check the local day-school where the very young children of McLeod Ganj studied. Everybody surged down the street to the small two-room school. The old monk teacher was rudely woken up from his nap. He had given the kids the day off and most of them had gone off to play. Finally, the children were rounded up. In fact, quite a few of them had been in the crowd all along, shouting and enjoying themselves. […]
For the few Tibetans who fancy themselves as rational and progressive, and further suffer from the need to express such views, life in the Tibetan community in Dharamshala often takes on … absurdities, frustrations and hazards … Even on such a basic issue as public health it is easy to put oneself in a false position by merely doing the sensible thing. In 1983 there was a nasty outbreak of rabies in Dharamshala. At the Tibetan Children’s Village over a dozen children were bitten by rabid dogs and two boys died. I was director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) at the time and, despite opposition, had all the dogs around the area removed somewhere far away. In spite of my efforts a woman whose husband worked at TIPA was bitten by a stray. I wanted her to get rabies shots immediately but her husband insisted on her being treated by a shaman. There was little I could do except rail against the futility of shamans and oracles. The woman died, of course, and it was a horrible lingering death. But that in no way seemed to convince the husband, or his friends and relatives, that they had done anything wrong. All it did was add to my reputation as an “unbeliever”.
…In the exile Tibetan world even a moderately progressive position runs up not only against the conservatism of the older generation and the church, but often against the whimsies of Western “Dharma types” enamoured with everything “traditional” or “mystical” in the Tibetan world. The advantage for Westerners in love with shamans, spiritual healing and what not, is that unlike the natives, if things go wrong they can fall back on the technology, wealth and security of the Western world.

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