The immediate  response of my Tibetan friends, on hearing that a brand new Potala has been built over the river from the original, positioned facing north to look at and interrogate the historic Potala, is that this is good. It matters little that the geomantic positioning is all wrong, that the purpose is to stage a spectacle to imprint the Party’s “mass line” on the minds of millions of Han Chinese tourists flocking to Lhasa. What occurs most readily to Tibetans is that the actual Potala is overloaded with tourists, so a duplicate might take the pressure off, that’s  good.

Big new globally branded hotels coming up in Lhasa will be good, because it gives opportunity for Tibetans to connect with tourists who have a sincere desire to make meaningful connections with Tibetans. The wider impacts of commoditising Tibetan culture, as a packaged product, are secondary.

In the deeply rooted optimism of the Tibetan mindset, it is all to the good that the Buryat Hambo Lam planned to declare Russia’s  Putin-lite leader Medvedyev an incarnation of Tara. Splendid. It matters little that his strategy was to not only curry favour with the Kremlin but to distance Buryat from Tibetan Buddhism, relocating the epicentre of Buddhism to Buryatia, as prophesied by the Buddha’s saying that Buddhism would go north. Buryatia is as north as it goes.

It takes a lot to rile a Tibetan. One has to work hard, pointing out one negative impact after another, before a Tibetan will softly and reluctantly say: this is not necessary, not skilful.

Westerners far too readily dismiss this as naivete. It’s not hard to see why. When you hear Tibetans tell you, with conviction, that they know that the last Romanov tsars, or even the leading Politburo members in China are or were secret Buddhists, seeking the blessings of the lamas on their deathbeds, it is hard to see anything more than wishful thinking.

Yet it would be wrong to attribute this to a bubble of bliss that Tibetans inhabit, that shields them from reality. Modernity fetishes the fact. We readily talk of hard-headed facts. We are all too willing to believe the worst, even to the point that it depresses us. Cold, hard, reality is meant to be a refresher, a wake-up call, as if the modern fact has its own independent existence. We are predisposed to believe the worst. From that ingrained starting point, we sometimes then discover circumstances are more workable than we initially supposed.

Although Tibetans are predisposed to believe the best, they do work through the complexities of situations, and may come to realise that all is not well, that bad actors, or more probably bad motives are in play. The new brandname hotels may employ  some Tibetans who speak Chinese and can pass exams and security checks, but few tourists want more than photo opps with cute Tibetans. The intrusiveness of the mass tourist gaze penetrates even the climactic moments of a lengthy pilgrimage to the Jokhang to purify the mind. So maybe, on balance, mass tourism with Chinese characteristics is not helpful.

The Buryat Hambo Lam may have hit on a classic strategy to bring Russian power into the Buddhist realm, but his chauvinism denies the lineage connections with Tibet, and seeks to invent a tradition of purely indigenous, autochthonous Buddhism that owes nothing to no-one. He bolstered his case for an autarkic Buryat Buddhism by parading the mummified body of a predecessor who died in 1927 as Communist purges loomed. Miraculously, seven decades later, the body remained so lifelike it was as if he died only hours ago. This proves that fully enlightened beings realised the nature of mind, in Buryatia, so there is no need of any dependence on external connections to maintain authentic lineages.

As Anya Bernstein says: “In September 2002, Buddhist lamas of the Ivolginsk monastery in the post-Soviet Republic of Buryatia in southern Siberia accompanied by independent forensic experts performed an exhumation of the body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov, the last head lama from the time of the Russian empire, who died in 1927. The body of the lama, found in the lotus position, allegedly had not deteriorated, and soon rumors spread that the lama was alive and had returned to Buryatia, as he had promised he would. According to the stories told by senior monks, before his death Itigelov asked to have his body exhumed. After the exhumation in 2002 the lamas installed the body in a glass case in the Ivolginsk monastery, which very soon became an international and domestic sensation, with articles appearing in The New York Times, and Russian politicians and oligarchs rubbing shoulders with droves of pilgrims and tourists to catch a glimpse of the lama.”[1]

How should we respond to  this necropolitics, as Bernstein calls it? Is it ludicrous, inspired, chauvinist, magnetic, negative or positive? It may well be all the above. Little of it fits into the category of the modern fact. The Tibetan worldview accommodates much more than objective fact.

Tibetan optimism has powerfully sustained Tibetans under decades of Han intrusion, arrogance, racism and offensive insistence on attacking what is dearest to Tibetans, the Dalai Lama. The good hearted response is not at all naïve, it has been an inner strength sustaining Tibetans over long, bleak decades. It originates in the sacred outlook cultivated by Buddhist practitioners, who enable themselves to act effectively in the world by first adopting the stance that everything, even the most polluted and psychotic states, are originally pure and remain undefiled by confusion and delusion. Meditators are instructed in many intensive practices to realise this as the fundamental truth of all phenomena, in ways that are embodied and thus come readily to mind.

Ordinary Tibetans, who have no particular religious training, but who grow up in Tibetan culture, inherit that positive attitude. All share in this legacy, it is in the air. There’s nothing naïve about this: it is the reason Tibet has survived and often thrived, against the full might of modern coercive authoritarianism.

[1] ANYA BERNSTEIN, The Post-Soviet Treasure Hunt: Time, Space, and Necropolitics in Siberian Buddhism; Comparative Studies in Society and History 2011;53(3):623–653.


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