On Tibet

Book Review:

Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film and Politics

By Bhuchung D. Sonam

Published by TibetWrites, Dharamsala, 2012

Pages: 242, Price: Rs 200 

The narrative of Tibet has never lacked for commentators and those willing and eager to tell its story on its behalf. Beginning in the twelfth century, the land, its culture and its people have been scrutinised and written about by a steady stream of explorers who managed to breach its defences and sneak into the remote Himalayan kingdom. These accounts, and those who braved the land of snows to gather them, became invaluable in the nineteenth century when secret spying and mapping missions were despatched to Tibet, as the Great Game began to unfold in Asia.  

Its strategic location, its geopolitical importance, and its exotic appeal as a sort of a last unexplored frontier, ensured that Tibet remained an area of interest for ‘outsiders’ who commented upon it, told and retold its story, and continued to add to the body of writing on it, even as it passed into an era of turmoil and occupation by the People’s Republic of China in the twentieth century, and a section of its population fled their troubled homeland. What is interesting is that a large part of this body of work on Tibet, scholarly, literary and otherwise, was written by non-Tibetan ‘experts’ on Tibet.

As the Buddhism of Tibet, represented most prominently by Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, began to gain currency as a credible spiritual path in the Western world circa 1970s and ‘80s, a new wave of writings emerged. A host of Tibetan Rinpoches became popular teachers and began travelling the world, setting up centres and acquiring students who were affected not only by their teachings of the dharma, but also by their joie de vivre in the face of adversity. The writings that emerged from the dharma’s interaction with the world, most notably the West, are a testimony to its ability and willingness to converse with new perspectives and worldviews that were quite different from its own.

So, the world fell in love with the Thunderbolt Vehicle to enlightenment (Vajrayana Buddhism) taught by affable, ruddy-cheeked Rinpoches, leading to a ‘dharma publishing’ phenomenon. Glossy-backed books on personal growth, often compilations of teachings given by a Tibetan teacher, began appearing on bestseller lists. Though I have never heard or seen any Rinpoche actively reinforce a Shambhala-esque view of Tibet, either in lectures or in their writings, the fact that there had existed this very practical system of mind-training in Tibet, preserved and practised by human beings, who stood before the world and whose equanimity was palpable, did add to the halo of spiritual accomplishment around Tibet. I wouldn’t say it further exoticised Tibet, but it did lead to a somewhat distorted popular perception of the country – that it was a paradise, disturbed but nevertheless idyllic, filled with enlightened, angelic maroon-robed monks.

This is why Bhuchung D. Sonam’s writings, along with those of a small but growing group of Tibetan writers within and outside Tibet, become so crucial. Along with the older Lhasang Tsering and Jamyang Norbu, writers like Sonam, Tenzin Tsundue, Woeser, Jamyang Kyi and others, are engaged in intently surveying and mapping the spectrum of the contemporary Tibetan experience – that ranges from repression at home in Tibet, to a “stateless, homeless” existence as refugees in India and other parts of the world.

Bhuchung D. Sonam’s Yak Horns is a collection of the author’s writings – essays, literary criticism, film and music reviews, et al – that have appeared in journals, the author’s blog at burningtibet.blogspot.in, and on websites dedicated to Tibetan writing, like www.tibetwrites.org. Through the diverse topics he tackles in the book, Sonam amplifies the voice of an entire generation of Tibetan refugees – those who grew up in exile, never quite at home, assimilating in their adoptive homelands yet never free of the persistent remembrance of the true one they had never seen. In this, Yak Horns presents an invaluable insight into the soul of the young refugee, whose “permanent address has been stolen”, as Sonam’s biography in the book so poignantly states.

The collection of articles and essay in Yak Horns also serves as both a mirror of, and a commentary on, the contemporary Tibetan cultural and literary scene. Those who may not regularly read the blogs and magazines where these articles appear will find in this book an opportunity of a snapshot of the same delivered to them, which suffices as a useful introduction to contemporary Tibetan perspectives and realities. Sonam is an intrepid chronicler, and little seems to have escaped his prolific pen in the years represented in the book. What one also gets is a sense of the secular literary and cultural traditions of Tibet, through his cataloguing of the works of individuals such as the inveterate traveller and controversial writer of the early twentieth century, Gendun Choephel, who could be seen as a precursor to the secular Tibetan intellectual movement of which Bhuchung D. Sonam is a contemporary representative and to which he owes allegiance.

Along with past intellectuals, Sonam keeps his lens trained on the contemporary community of writers within and outside Tibet. For those within Tibet, writing and blogging have proven to be a crucial means to resist mounting repression by a paranoid state-machinery wary of Tibetan insistence on a unique and distinct nationhood, identity and culture. By telling the truth about what is happening in Tibet, one that is often at variance with the ‘official’ version, they risk imprisonment, torture, loss of careers and separation from loved ones.

A case in point is Jamyang Kyi, a journalist employed with the state-run Qinghai Television, whose account of her imprisonment in the aftermath of the widespread protests in Tibet in 2008, was smuggled out of the country and published as a book in exile, titled A Sequence of Tortures: A Diary of Interrogations. This happened after the blog where her account first appeared in 2008 was taken down. Another prolific, and fearless, blogger is Tsering Woeser, who lives and works in Beijing and has often spoken about the “imperialist cultural invasion” of Tibet. Despite repeated curbs and threats to her freedom, she and her husband, the author Wang Lixiong, continue to post content online that attempts to reflect ground realities in both Tibet and China.

Time and again in Bhuchung D. Sonam’s writing emerges the voice of a people chafing at and struggling with the yoke of a brutal colonisation. The only ray of hope seems to be their resilience, and their refusal to give in to their oppressors despite overwhelming odds. This is evident in this quote from Gartse Jigme, a monk from a nomadic family in Amdo, who writes in his book, The Warrior’s Courage, and who Bhuchung D. Sonam quotes:

“As a Tibetan, I will never give up the struggle for the rights of my people

As a religious person, I will never criticize the leader of my religion

As a writer, I am committed to the power of truth and reality

This is the pledge I make to my fellow Tibetans.”

Indeed, it is a pledge that resonates through this book and the many paths it traverses, the many stories it tells, and the one homeland it pays homage to: Tibet.


This review was published in the April 2013 issue of Seminar magazine (http://www.india-seminar.com/semframe.html


Dynamic Dakinis

As we celebrate the festival of nine nights of the goddess, Navaratra, let us consider a lesser known feminine divinity – the Dakini. She is a minor figure in Indian traditions and iconography, but assumes great significance in Tibetan Buddhism as the essence of feminine wisdom. That she is feminine points towards the Tantric influence on Tibet’s Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana owes some of its distinct character to Tantra, where the Divine Feminine had an exalted presence. For instance, a sloka from the Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘Do not question woman. Adore her everywhere. In her real nature, she is Bhagavati (Perfection of Wisdom); and in this empirical world Bhagavati has assumed the form of woman.’

The Dakini principle, called ‘khandro’ in Tibetan (literally ‘sky dancer’), represents a dynamic flow of energy with which the yogic practitioner must work in order to become realised. The dakini might appear as a person in order to impart crucial teachings, benevolent or wrathful, according to the situation. The practitioner must invoke different aspects of the Dakini principle in order to fully understand the play of energy in the phenomenal world.

The Dakini is thus a deity, visualised and invoked, as well as a ‘spiritual midwife’ who acts as catalyst and helps in the birthing of true wisdom in the seeker. She is said to appear at crucial moments in a practitioner’s sadhana, when a shift must be made for further growth, and mostly this is a shift from a purely intellectual pursuit to an experiential way of understanding. 

She is the practitioner’s connection with practical, intuitive wisdom, and quickly takes him or her to the heart of the practice by demonstrating how to decisively cut through delusions and attachments. This is illustrated in the story of Abhayakaragupta, a monk and a scholar, who was offered a piece of meat by a young woman. Taken aback, he shoved it away. The young woman was a dakini who had come to teach him the crucial lesson of breaking out of habits, even if they were the ‘golden rules’ set by the Buddha. Where there is negativity, the Tantric practitioner must work with it and transform it, rather than take recourse in cultural, or spiritual, conditioning, as Abhayakaragupta did.

The Dakini principle is dynamic and direct, and brings about true realisation unfettered by punditry when she assumes the form of a teacher. It is said to be possible to recognise a dakini only through intuitive understanding, for she does not reveal herself. The Dakini is believed to have been embodied and expressed in real women throughout the history of Buddhism in Tibet, such as Yeshe Tsogyel, consort of Guru Padmasambhava, among others.

The Last Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama
His Holiness blesses a copy of my book, 'Dharamsala Diaries' in 2007.

In a recent statement, the Dalai Lama has attempted to demystify the seemingly esoteric system of reincarnate lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. Here is a look at the system’s spiritual roots, and why the Dalai Lamas of Tibet might soon become a part of history.


“I am held to be the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet, who are in turn considered to be manifestations of…the Bodhisattva of Compassion… I am often asked whether I truly believe this…when I consider my experiences during this present life, and given my Buddhist beliefs, I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas…and to the Buddha himself.”

– Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama ofTibet

Reincarnation inTibetis not only a matter of religious belief. It has struck deep roots in its lived culture and led to a unique system of spiritual leadership most popularly exemplified by the Dalai Lama. Eminent teachers of Tibetan Buddhism are believed to re-enter the world upon death, in fresh bodies, to carry on their work. In a statement released on 24 September 2011, the Dalai Lama explains this phenomenon, “There are two ways in which someone can take rebirth: under the sway of karma and destructive emotions, and rebirth through the power of compassion and prayer.”

Conscious Rebirth

The ‘conscious reincarnations’, called tulkus, are identified through an elaborate process that includes clues left by the predecessor, divination, a search among plausible children taking into account auspicious events at birth, and an examination of selected candidates through signs such as familiarity with the deceased’s belongings and attendants.

The recognised child, usually three or four at this time, is installed in his predecessor’s position with much celebration. Then begins a rigorous course of study – training in spiritual disciplines, scriptures, philosophy and practices particular to the lineage. Once the tulku matures in age and understanding, he takes over the responsibilities of his predecessor.

It might be argued that any child put through a couple of decades of concentrated spiritual training will grow into a wiser human being. While this may be so, little tulkus usually display a keen aptitude for scriptural study, metaphysics and meditation, as also equanimity, balance and quality of concentration not common in other children of their age.

The Dalai Lama, who has an abiding interest in modern science, has said that he is willing to consider scientific proof that debunks reincarnation but that until then he would continue to believe in it. He has talked about his tutor, Ling Rinpoche’s reincarnation, who, at age two, crawled to the Dalai Lama’s room on his own and laid a ceremonial scarf on the bed!

Bodhisattva’s Vow

The key to understanding conscious rebirth is a word the Dalai Lama uses in the opening quote – ‘bodhisattva’. In his words, “Superiorbodhisattvas, who have attained the path of seeing, are reborn…due to the power of their compassion for sentient beings and based on their prayers to benefit others.”

The Buddhism ofTibet– Vajrayana – itself a branch of Mahayana, is essentially the way of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is the Buddha-to-be, who has chosen to delay his release from samsara for the sake of everybody else. Nirvana for oneself is unthinkable when countless others continue to suffer, and the bodhisattva in his deep compassion, chooses to return with only one motivation – to help as many beings, in as many ways, as he can.

For the young tulkus, it is an inspiring focus to develop in life. Where one’s raison d’etre, reason for being, has nothing to do with personal ambition, high-flying careers, or even families and children, like most of us. Every practitioner of Vajrayana, in fact, attempts to cultivate this attitude of compassion and dedicates his spiritual practice for the welfare of all beings.

Uncertain Future

Recognising the potential for manipulation in the tulku system, suitable checks and balances were put in place. These, along with everything else in the matrix ofTibet’s culture, were dealt a massive blow with the invasion ofTibet and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama out ofTibet in 1959.

One reason that has prompted the Dalai Lama’s recent statement is his concern about the politics that will be played with his reincarnation. His concern at the imminent subversion of a spiritual ideal that lies at the very heart of Tibetan Buddhism has prompted him to consider ending the institution of the Dalai Lama.

“When I am about ninety I will consult the high lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism,” he says in the statement, “and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.” Because a bodhisattva operates from a motivation of concern and service to the other, the Dalai Lama seems to have handed over the choice of his reincarnation to the other as well.

In one of the last decisions of his present life, he once again evinces what has been a lifelong commitment – pointing to the need to innovate with tradition, let go of aspects that are no longer tenable, and keep an open mind to the endless possibilities of life.

The Dalai Lamas of Tibet face an uncertain future. But they carry a valuable message for us in this age of materialistic greed, encapsulated in this prayer the Dalai Lama recites every day:

For as long as space endures,

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I too abide,

To dispel the misery of the world.


This article appeared as cover story in the October 16, 2011, edition of The Speaking Tree newspaper.