Monday, June 26, 2006

The Buddha Takes No Prisoners

Tibet appears to most of the world as a docile, isolated country that succumbed meekly to the historical imperative of Chinese domination. It stands to reason. Tibet is the most Buddhist of nations, one whose spiritual traditions go back thousands of years and whose leader, the Dalai Lama, espouses non-violence with mirthful humility. But appearances do deceive, and in fact the Tibetan people, making peace with their own karma, fought the hated Chinese with a level of rage, tenacity, and savage violence one can hardly associate with Gautama's "middle way."

In a gripping account that covers the period post-WWII to the present day, Buddha's Warriors by author Mikel Dunham describes Tibet's slow descent into war, first baited into infighting by China's divide and conquer strategy and then, realizing China's true intentions, discarding their ancient tribal loyalties to join together as a nation and resist. They mounted warhorses, stockpiled arms and money in Tibet's once vast network of monasteries, and countered a Chinese slaughtering machine with their own.

Dunham spent seven years researching his book, basing his story on first-hand accounts by the Tibetan warriors who fought the Chinese and the impassioned CIA operatives who believed so much in their cause. This is not a tale for the squeamish; Dunham describes in detail unbridled, widespread, and programmatic Chinese sadism that takes ones breath away, and a Tibetan response to the barbarism that shatters the Shangri-la myth. They took no prisoners. What becomes abundantly clear in this story, and is truly troubling, is that even in the heart of Buddhism violence finds a home.

Four key players drive this drama: Mao Tse-Tung, India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Tibetan General Gompo Tashi Andrustsang, and the CIA. Mao echoed the ancient Han dynasty's obsession with the Motherland and simply couldn't countenance an independent Tibet. He skillfully manipulated Nehru whose dream about leading a new Pan-Asian bloc made him blind to Mao's machinations. Gompo Tashi led the Tibetan army (Chushi-Gangdruk) for years, using his charisma and wile to inspire his warriors and inflict frequent defeats on the Peoples Liberation Army. And the group of dedicated CIA case officers coordinated U.S. air drops and covert support for the Chushi-Gangdruk and, over time, became committed to the Tibetan nation and the heroic Tibetans they trained as covert agents.

Note that the Dalai Lama, who wrote the foreword to Buddha's Warriors, is not on the list. Revered by his people then and now, the Dalai Lama's obvious dilemma offers an interesting undercurrent that runs throughout the book. Dunham, perhaps because it is a delicate subject, touches upon it only obliquely: committed to non-violence in a place where only malevolence, revenge, and relentless brutality were the language, the Dalai Lama could only be a pawn in the much larger power game played between Mao, Nehru, the United States, and his own people. In one of the most poignant passages of the book, one can hear the despair in His Holiness's voice, not only for what was happening to his country, but for his inability to do anything about it. "By then, I could not in honesty advise them to avoid violence. In order to fight, they had sacrificed their home and all the comforts and benefits of a peaceful life. Now they could see no alternative but to go on fighting, and I had none to offer."

Dunham describes in vivid detail and offers dramatic testimony how the Tibetan's incandescent love for the Dalai Lama unleashed a passion for his safety that gripped every Tibetan man, woman, and child. The fighting raged, causing horrific carnage. Dunham tells of the many monks, inspired by the revered warrior-King Gesar who had waged war in the eleventh century to protect the dharma in Tibet, who "give back their robes," or renounce their vows, to join the fight. Dunham writes of the reasoning behind the monks' decision that "violence was never a good thing, but an inevitable phenomenon along the savage journey to Enlightenment – war against the enemies of the dharma was a personal choice and not to be judged." Ironically, the monks made excellent warriors with their austere lifestyle and dietary discipline, and the 6,000-plus monastery network provided a "pony express" of sorts, allowing information and arms to flow surreptitiously throughout the country and support surprise victories against the unwary Chinese.

But Tibet was doomed, no matter how hard it fought. Two things worked against it: the high-level corruption, incompetence, and outright treason by some key officials in the Tibetan government; and the multitudes of PLA of which Mao had a seemingly unlimited supply. The Tibetans simply could not fend off the the swarms of Chinese soldiers that filled their valleys.

In the end, the shifting alliances and national interests of China, India, and the U.S., which were at times both poison and antidote to Tibet's desire to be left alone, almost certainly ensured that it will never be its own country again. Buddha's Warriors tells us why that happened, and how this tragedy forced Tibetan Buddhism out of its isolation to engage the world with its deepest truths.

A Spring Morning

The morning was silk, soft on the skin, and just before dawn. The early spring air carried the season's first hints of warm moisture. A light breeze brushed my closed eyes, and a quiet but lilting birdsong began to tease awake the silence. In that brief moment between sleep and full lucidity, I felt a boundless peace that I hadn't felt for some time.

In the year leading up to this Easter Sunday in 1984, my wife Jackie and I had been fighting her leukemia. We had gone to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant. For someone her age and health and with a perfect donor match in her brother, Jackie's prognosis was good. We were going to beat this.

We were wrong. Jackie's transplant failed. We tried again. Failed. After 6 months of pain and radiation and dialysis and tubes and corpses hauled out on gurneys every day in this "research" center, a doctor shook his head somberly and told us there was nothing more they could do. Jackie sat propped up in her bed, her skin cracked and green, a urine bag hanging limply on a hook nearby. She gazed calmly at the doctor and, as was her style, analyzed the situation clearly and resolutely. She then said quietly, "Well, I certainly don't want to die here. I want to die in my home."

And that's what she did. We traveled back across the country to live out her life in our house in New Jersey. I was her nurse. Medical paraphernalia crowded every corner of our bedroom. We knew that she was going to die, but we didn't know when. So we spent the last three months of her life together in a surreal netherworld, somewhere between a life we had lost and death we could not know. Friends and family helped and watched.

Ordinary sounds and colors of life took on a menacing tone. Their simple beauty – which I was only now beginning to comprehend – stood in stark contrast to the horror we were enduring, enlarging and intensifying it. And I only knew the one Noble Truth: the suffering that had crept up incrementally, and that would soon come rushing headlong with terrible, overpowering force. If you're not ready for it – and I wasn't – it will gouge out a hole so deep inside that its vacuum sucks the breath out of your lungs and all reason out of your brain.

Two days before Easter, Jackie felt well enough to have dinner with friends. But her body finally said "no more." She lost bowel control at the dinner table, and I got her home before pain sent her into convulsions. Mercifully, she drifted into semi-consciousness. As the hours passed, I sat powerless, exhausted, numb. She held me with a look that was an odd blend of anticipation and uncertainty, but very nuanced, composed, unruffled. She no longer spoke, nor seemed to understand anything I said to her. She looked beyond me, and then she closed her eyes and began her death rattle. I feel asleep to that raspy sound.

Then, that Easter morning. Jackie lay beside me, quiet. At once, the sweet silence that had momentarily soothed me turned cold and real in its meaning: she was dead. In a panic, I reached for her arm. It was cold up to her elbow. She was gone, freed. The morgue truck took her body away.

In the ensuing years, I teetered on the brink of a bottomless maw in my soul, but dragged myself back to life by establishing certain truths as handholds. First: my young daughter Corey needed me. I had to survive for her. Second: the irony of suffering. We never seek it. We tremble at its approach. But every horror and degradation and shame that it visits upon you will yield in its wake – if you survive it – a strength grown out of a profound joy and understanding of the rhythms of life.

I didn't realize in those early days that as I finally drew free from the black hole inside me I was beginning to practice and understand the dharma. I would mouth cheery comments like, "hey, we're going to be dead before we know it!," not really understanding why others didn't find that humorous. Then, about a year ago, I found that the name of such existential insouciance was "dharma" and it is giving shape and direction to my own personal truths. Its simple tools – like seeing every single moment for the unadorned truth that it is – help daily living but, more importantly, are building a framework in which I'm learning how to coexist peacefully – even graciously – with that 800-pound gorilla named Samsara.

Muttering "Mutton" in Mongolia

Twenty hours in the air and a half-planet away from home, Mongolia's Ulaanbaatar finally reveals itself in a treeless valley surrounded by the four sacred peaks of Bogd Khan, Bayanzurkh, Chingeltei, and Songino Khairkhan. It's 10 p.m. when we land, yet only sunset in this northern latitude. Burnt orange light streaks the ground between long shadows. The darkening sky and the treeless plain squeeze between them the last minutes of day. On the horizon, an iridescent thunderstorm pours torrential rain down its mushroom stalk. Soviet-era helicopters sit in the weeds and rust under sagging rotors.

My brother Grant and I have come to this historically Buddhist land to see the state of the dharma ten years after the end of Soviet rule. For centuries, the country has had strong ties to Tibetan Buddhism—indeed, before the Soviet "repression time" beginning in 1921 some estimates counted more than 98% of the population as Buddhist though recent studies suggest that has dropped significantly.

At baggage claim, we see why: a battalion of well-groomed Mormon missionaries wearing black suits and gold name tags. They are cheery, polite, relentless. We soon learn that they are the dharma's main competition for the hearts and minds of Mongolians. More troops to the front lines.

Before heading into the country, we spend two days here. Almost half the country's population of Mongolia crowds into this capital city of one million. Deep potholes and broken streetlights reveal the surface state of a crumbling infrastructure. Broad avenues teem with a human succotash of ancient style and urban culture. Young girls queue up for water at public pumps. One-horse wagons dodge buses and cars that careen wildly in no-rules driving. Young toughs in L.A. Dodgers caps play pool on tables sitting out in the open air. Exhaust fumes, dust, and cook smoke hang in the air. Animal bones litter the ground, some still clinging to remnants of flesh and fur. Dirt streets meander throughout, bordered by ramshackle fences that shield from random theft the family gers, the traditional round tent of the Mongols.

During their rule, the Russians imposed a command economy on a nomadic people. When they left, the economy sputtered to a halt. The Russians had also destroyed 700 monasteries, forced thousands into slave labor, and slaughtered 17,000 monks and 10,000 citizens. Many lie buried in mass graves with bullet holes in the backs of their heads. The Russians forced the surviving monks to abandon Buddhism, marry, and enter secular life. Even so, many continued to practice in secret while hiding sacred objects for a time when the dharma could reemerge.

That time came in 1991, when a peaceful revolution led to a democratic government. The Mongolian dharma emerged from seven decades of subjugation severely weakened. Christian missionaries—particularly Mormons—have swarmed into the spiritual vacuum seeking converts while the consumerist din of Mongolia's emerging Western-style market economy threatens to drown out the quieter clarity of the dharma.

But the dharma is adapting. Prime Minister Enkhbayar is a practicing Buddhist (and, yes, a Communist in a democratic republic) who is keenly interested in preserving Mongolia's Buddhist heritage. Many provincial governors and members of parliament share his passion. We visited Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar, Erdene Zuu and Shankh Khiid monasteries in the ancient capital Kharkhorin, a temple in Dalanzadgad, and talked to abbots, lamas, and monks. Speaking to us in their rhythmic, whispering language with soft, glottal inflections, they showed us their reconstruction efforts and where they restored to their spiritual place the relics and statuary their predecessors hid during the Soviet era.

Out in the country, the endless blue sky and undulating hills exude a primeval magic almost unbearably moving. In a jeep, it's unbearably moving, too, as in teeth-chattering, organ-jarring, head-banging bumpy. Mongolian "roads," well, aren't.

In Kharkhorin we drink airag, fermented mare's milk that tastes like salty cream and quinine water. Nice buzz. From Dalanzadgad, we drive through the minimalist majesty of the Gobi, dodging sand devils and camel carcasses while skimming over the trackless plain like speed boats. A white vulture soars above us in a Yol Valley canyon. I slip on an ice flow in the summer heat of the desert. The Flaming Cliffs lick the horizon at sunset. And later that night under glimmering starlight at Three Camels Lodge, traditional singers Nara and Eata sing a Praise to Altai Mountain. And all the while we eat dried mutton, and mutton patties, and boiled mutton, and mutton meat sauce, and mutton soup, and never wonder why we don't see any sheep. We've eaten them all.

The Mongolian dharma, frail as it may appear now, seems poised to transcend this moment in history. I see it comfort an old woman turning a prayer wheel and sustain the monks rebuilding their cherished sites. I feel it riding the Gobi wind and steeped in the very rock strata of these old mountains. Certainly, the men in black and the clangorous western marketers will paint their colors here and there, but their brushes cannot take them deep to where the dharma lives.