A-LIST TIBETANS OF BEIJING
China, at official level, lacks confidence, sees dangers and conspiracies everywhere, feels compelled to control who can say what. But now a new generation, who are confident and relaxed, are reaching out for new experiences, transcending the narrow fixations of the modern consuming self. They need to experience directly. They go in increasing numbers to Tibet, encouraged by the flood of glossy magazines on the news stands, in supersaturated colour, proclaiming the beauty of Tibet, and the magnetic attractiveness of the charismatic lamas. They go on pilgrimage.
That’s what the celeb pages of China’s media say. The gossip is all about who not only likes to hang out with Tibetans, but who is a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, with a deep connection to a specific lama.
Take, for example, this chatty piece about who’s who in the Buddhist social whirl of Beijing. The name dropping is awesome, not only global stars such as Jet Li, but lots of household heroes in China, Guan Xuyi and Wang Fei, and the Taiwanese artist Aya who is big in Beijing. This is celeb A-list stuff; it’s all artists, actors and entrepreneurs, the new shapers and makers of culture and business success, the role models for everyone else.
Being gossipy, there’s plenty too on which lama has fathered whose child. But the devotion of these stars to specific lamas is clear, and that for some their turning of the mind is not recent but goes as back as far as 1992. What’s new is that all of this is now so cool. The bottom line is that in Beijing Tibetan Buddhism is seriously trending.
What this reminds me of is my experience, early in my one year living in the US, in 1997. As an Australian, usually on the periphery, I relished the opportunity to read the hallowed New York Times every day. One morning I picked up the paper, sure that a Tibetan event the previous night would have been covered. I looked in International News: nothing. I looked in National News section: nothing. I looked in Features: nothing. I pored over the Op-Ed page: nothing. Finally I came to the Society pages, the hot celeb news, and there it was: a roll call of movie stars and other celebs all dressed up and all espousing the Tibetan cause.
With a bit of hindsight, we could say 1997 was a peak year for Tibet in the western world (and a peak for print newspapers). It’s been somewhat downhill since. But in China the same phenomenon just gets bigger and bigger.
It’s so easy to be a bit snooty about these bubbles of fashionability, and say they don’t mean anything much.
Yet decades ago the Dalai Lama prophesied the rise of a relaxed and confident China able, at last, after a century of turmoil, to find space to emancipate the mind to new possibilities. The Dalai Lama prophesied all this at least 20 years ago. It made little sense then, to exile Tibetans chafing at the lack of progress of official dialogues. Tibetans are in awe of the prophetic powers of great lamas, but only after they have turned out to be right. It is the awe of hindsight; at the time, it just seemed the Dalai Lama was holding out the slender hope that some day, some how, China would transform itself from within, to a gentler, more open-minded country willing to cut the Tibetans some slack, which is what Tibetans basically seek. Now it is happening, and as with everything else in China, it is happening fast.
Emancipating the mind is a common official slogan, signifying official policy is shifting, to which cadres and officials are expected to adapt. Seldom does it mean openness, or freshness, or imagination; often what is signified is a tightening of censorship, further restricting what can be spoken of. Actual emancipation cannot be commanded from above, it arises spontaneously from below.
Cynics will say it is only a tiny urban elite who are taking to all things Tibetan, that it is just a passing fashion, that it is suffused with Shangri-la romanticism, China’s own version, ironically, of Orientalism. Maybe. The lamas, who now have millions of sincere Chinese followers (the Dalai Lama some time ago said two million) have no problem with the starting point of encounter being tinged with fantasy. From a Buddhist viewpoint, all of us are going round and round in confusion, seeking happiness here and there and seldom getting far. We latch onto things hopefully, until disappointment sets in. If we latch onto the Buddhist lamas, with delusional expectations of being saved from ourselves, the lamas then gently set us to rights, holding up a mirror, in which we see not only our delusions but the inner strength beyond the clashing emotions and projections. By definition, we start the Buddhist path deluded. That is why the path exists, and why it has so many entry points, to cater for the infinite variety of delusion.
All this is implicit in the Dalai Lama’s prophecy, which should now be recognised, as it increasingly manifests in evident ways. Far from being a forlorn hope, it is now unfolding, in Beijing, Shanghai, New York, on remote pastoral hillsides in Sichuan Serthar, and anywhere China’s highly mobile new generation go. A new China is emerging. The Communist Party will be the last to know.
I met a Tibetan man who spent 3 years in NY patiently cultivating the new generation of young Chinese studying and living in NY. He learned that it is seldom possible to get far with those Chinese of the 1989 generation in long term exile, even those who actively cultivate connections with Tibetans. They are still locked into the mission of the Confucian sage, to save China from itself. For at least a century this has been the sacred mission of China’s intellectuals, including those dissenters outside the mainstream or in opposition to those who hold power. They all want to be the One. They compete furiously.
Because they hold fast to this mission to find the sole path that will lead China to greater glory and success, all else is instrumental, including their strategic alliances with Tibetans. In other words, Tibetans need to be wary of the first wave of Chinese who approach them, declaring common cause.
The minds of these dissidents are full of the complexities of their mission, the difficulties of saving China, since, paradoxically, China must above all be saved from itself. These are anxious men and women, consumed by the perils of discerning what must be done, and exhorting everyone to act accordingly. They exhort a lot. They don’t listen. They are unable to attune themselves to Tibetan quietness, reflectiveness and straightforwardness.
The tone of the 1989 generation, whether in exile or in power in Beijing, whether communist or dissident, is shrill, harsh, urgent, exhortatory. This doesn’t make for much listening or encounter. Because there is so much exhorting going on, the target audience, of fellow intellectuals and ordinary folk, is bombarded, and inclined to tune out. The declamatory, legislative voice is prescriptive, not dialogic.
In practice, when exile Tibetans first meet these Chinese self-proclaimed friends of Tibet, the usual outcome is disappointment. The heart of the Tibetan wells with all the pent-up pain of his people, but the Chinese man (usually on both sides a man) is not open to that pain, especially if it comes as an emotional onrush. Tibetan heart meets strategising Chinese mind, to little purpose.
So it is good Tibetans are starting to realise there is little point in investing much energy in that 1989 generation which is far more Confucian, and elitist, than it realises, deeply imbued with classic Chinese literati values even when in opposition. In turn, that may open space for other Chinese, who do gradually open their hearts and minds to new encounters, to make friends, without feeling the Tibetan-Chinese friend-space is already crowded with the declamatory tones of the professional dissidents.
The new generation has grown up in a newly rich China that has achieved the China Dream of prosperity, at least for this urban tribe used to luxury, able to study abroad, open to wondering what else there is in life beyond consumption. My friend, one of the few exile Tibetans fluent in Chinese, knows that in China, relationship is everything, taking time to hang out, go to a restaurant, find out what really interests the other, attune yourself. It is slow, patient work, but it works. Gradually, curiosity arises as to what Tibetans think, how Tibetans respond, what is a Tibetan take not only on grand political questions but on the meaning of life, or, as Tibetans prefer to say, how to live a meaningful life. It’s not a matter of postures and positions on this and that issue, it’s a matter of friendship.
The new generation of course arrives in the west with preconceived ideas: China has been so generous to Tibet, why aren’t the Tibetans grateful? Tibet is so backward, China can modernise it. China is a great and successful civilisation, why not just join, why insist on being different? Let it pass, my friend says, no need to contradict.
Sometimes he is able to arrange for a few to visit India, to see for themselves how the Tibetans live, to immerse themselves in a Tibetan atmosphere, to encounter the common Tibetan strength of mind, emotional steadiness, sincerity and quiet way of stating truths. Sometimes they get the rare opportunity of audience with the Dalai Lama, now 80.
Thus do Chinese minds begin to turn, one by one.
All of this is deliberately low key, no press releases. Not even the exiled Tibetans of Dharamsala, who accuse their government of achieving nothing, know of this low key program. The disillusioned exiles may well retort: is that all? How long must we wait for such processes to bear fruit?
It may take a long time, far longer than the activists can bear. Yet what else holds hope of change, the groundswell of popular change that governments belatedly discover, as the ground beneath them shifts? This is the process of historic shifts, and it is now happening at an accelerating pace in China, in the cities, among the new class of confident consumers looking for greater meaning. The connections are being made not only in NY but in the upmarket Chaoyang district of Beijing, where it is now ubercool to have a Tibetan friend, even more to have a lama. This is not coming about due to a Tibetan plan, there is no such plan, it is the spontaneous curiosity of the human mind, whose basic needs are met, who turns to the higher needs, that the psychologist Maslow called self-actualisation.
China’s new brand of Tibetan Buddhist pop singers and artists may seem to be merely torch songsters, in the long tradition of women standing by their man. But the lyrics of these songs of passionate yearning are uncannily reminiscent of contemporary Tibetan pop songs, in which the love of the land, the love of the beloved, and love for the lama, are indistinguishable. Take Wang Fei. One of her songs, in translation:
i would do anything for you
anything for you
i am ready to forget even my name
just to stay in your arms
even for seconds only
i don’t care even if i’ll lose everything
i would do anything for you
anything for you
i am ready to forget even my name
These are today’s update of calling the lama from afar, invoking and receiving his blessings, and being transformed by them, self-actualised.
For the businessmen too, taking bold risks, knowing when to go all out and when to duck, leaping decisively onto the next big thing, guidance and inner strength are essential. You get it from the lamas.