Australia Tibet Council

Enabling everyone in Australia to be part of change in Tibet

Thoughts on the 2014 Dharamsala Insight Tour

Friday, 17 April 2015

Here is another instalment from McLeod Ganj in India. This one is all about the tour and what I learned. It’s a little long so hopefully it is interesting enough to keep you reading!

4.Tsundue talkOne of the reasons for me choosing to go on this Australia Tibet Council tour was to gain insight into the Tibetan people from whose faith I have benefitted so much. Through the tour I have gained insights well beyond my expectations. You may have already read my descriptions of our audience with the Dalai Lama and how amazing that was.

During the rest of the tour we met many other Tibetans from political, social, religious and educational institutions. Before coming on this tour I had some scant knowledge of the situation in Tibet which we sometimes hear about in the news. I had heard several stories of Tibetans crossing mountain ranges in winter to escape into Nepal and then through to India. I remember news of the protests in 2008 before the Olympics with the hope that there would a change in Chinese policy towards Tibet.

Our group heard personal stories from students, activists, ex-political prisoners, a politician, educators and from community leaders. They were all passionate and consistent with their stories: China illegally occupied Tibet in 1959 and is carrying out a cultural revolution as it did in its own country under Chairman Mao’s rule. As with many other refugees across the world, the occupation of Tibet is resulting in geographical displacement, discrimination and violence against the Tibetans, destruction of their cultural heritage and the restriction of religious freedom. However, we don’t seem to hear much about this in the general news like we do for example about Palestine, Afghanistan or East Africa. During the past ten days I have been wondering why. What is it that makes the Tibetans and their situation different? Compared to other refugee populations, how is it that exiled Tibetans have been able to organise themselves and their communities to deal with their current situation and to prepare for their anticipated return to their homeland? Furthermore, how is it that despite the trauma many exiled Tibetans have experienced, the work to realise these initiatives is coming from within the community?

Here are some of the insights and thoughts I have developed through the tour:

 - The Tibetan people have a leader of an exceptional calibre who has promoted the modernisation of his people in the context of very old and strong religious and cultural traditions. We visited a nunnery project led by His Holiness’ sister-in-law which is promoting the education of nuns in ways never seen in Tibet before it was occupied. This development is steadily gaining acceptance amongst the religious monastic traditions.

 - We visited a school run by Tibetans which teaches Tibetan children their language and culture within a modern curriculum including maths, science, art and other languages.

RFA studio - We visited the Radio Station (Voice of Tibet) which broadcasts in and outside Tibet in both Tibetan and Mandarin, the intention of the latter being to promote a better understanding of Tibet amongst the Chinese population.

 - We spoke with members of the Tibet Women’s Association who promote the role of women in society, as well as researching what is actually occurring in Tibet in terms of the environment, the education and health of their people.

 - We visited several social organisations which help new refugees get on their feet in terms of housing, language and skill development.

 - We toured a Tibetan Cultural Institute which teaches Tibetan art and culture and produces very high quality examples of these for anyone to purchase

 - We visited the Tibetan Library which is working to preserve ancient Buddhist texts and scriptures smuggled out of Tibet after the occupation, and which is now the centre where international scholars translate these texts into other languages and help deepen the world’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

GCS Namgyal - We spoke with ex-political prisoners who described what life was like living in Tibet, how they had been mistreated by Chinese officials, and how grateful they were to have escaped to live closer to the Dalai Lama.

 - We spoke to young students who are active on the international political stage promoting freedom for Tibet.

 - We had dinner with a member of the Tibetan Government in Exile who passionately described the current political situation in Tibet and the challenges of negotiating with the Chinese Government for a Tibet Solution.

 - We visited an old peoples home where older people are looked after until they die, where the average age is 86 years, where the facilitates are limited but where the resident’s eyes all shine. The criteria to enter this home is that a person has no family to look after them. All the residents participate in some form of the running of the home and are actively involved in practicing their religion. The carer to resident ratio is 146 residents to four carers – which for me says it all!

In addition to visiting all these institutions, we also talked to many people about their experiences of living in exile and of escaping from Tibet. Many had made the journey as young people, one man as young as 10 years old. We asked what their motivation was to make this very risky and dangerous journey. The answer was almost always the same: to be closer to the Dalai Lama and to gain educational opportunities for the future – in that order. It’s hard to imagine growing up in an occupied country where people get arrested for speaking of the Dalai Lama or having any evidence of their loyalty to him, and still feel such a deep connection to motivate risking their lives to be closer to him.

G2 tibetan on koraIn addition to the Dalai Lama’s leadership, the Tibetan people have also received extensive support and land from the Indian Government. This has been a huge enabler to helping create meaningful lives for the Tibetan people. From what we saw, the Indian community just takes this into their stride, and as one man said to me, “There is really no difference between us and the Tibetan people. They have been here a long time, and I have many Tibetan friends”.

There is one final thing that appears to have significant impact on the Tibetan people’s ability to do what they do and that is how they practice Buddhism. The most moving example of this for me was what I experienced while walking the Kora every morning. The Kora is a route of more than one km around the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple, along a rugged and hilly path that many Tibetans walk every day, including the young, the old and the very old who can hardly walk. There are hundreds of prayer flags hanging in the trees along the route as well as stupas, smaller temples and dozens of prayer wheels. Half way round the route there is a central place where people give offerings, where three or four monks chant every morning, and where Tibetans who have sacrificed their lives for their country (through self-immolation) are remembered.

Kora MonkThe people who walk this route do so with exceptional reverence and devotion which was very moving to see. At about 7:30 each morning, after the chanting has finished, all the Tibetans present form a line in front of the stupas and sing the Tibetan national anthem. They then take a small handful of barley flour (one of the main ingredients in Tibetan traditional food) from a bowl to which people have contributed all morning, and throw it into the air as a gesture to benefit all beings. When I saw this I cried. It represented the essence of how the Tibetan people can focus on others despite the incredible challenges they face.

All this in ten days!! I am so grateful for having had this learning opportunity and give full credit to the people who put this tour together. We benefited fully from their hard work and the connections they have built over the years with key people in the Tibetan community to help make this experience so real.

The tour, however, was not just about these serious (though important) matters. We also had a lot of fun shopping (a fair bit!!), wining and dining (without the wine, only beer and Bloody Mary’s for some of us!!), and many wonderful conversations within the group.

Mary Anne

Read Mary Anne's blog on meeting the Dalai Lama.

View photos from the 2014 Insight tour.

Download the detailed Information Pack for the 2016 Dharamsala Insight tour here.