By Robert B. Ekvall
Travel Book Club
Robert Ekvall was born in Gansu, China in 1898 to missionary parents. Growing up in the border area of China and Tibet he learned the local Chinese and Tibetan dialects, and as most foreigners in Tibet at that time, felt something they could not understand from the Tibetan landscape and her people.
After high school and university in the United Stated he returned to the border area and submitted a request to the authorities to travel to and live in Taktsang Lhamo, an area he promised himself he would go to one day. Almost a year later and known as Sherab Dzondi, he arrives, fulfilling his dream, and settles in the village of Sechu in the fall of 1930. He makes friends with the village headman and enters into the rhythms of Tibetan daily life. It takes a year for him, his wife and son to build a house. The house is built of rocks and becomes the strongest and safest house in the village.
Every chapter is a rambling telling of his relations with the people in his village and in the villages surrounding him. He describes many individuals and has names for them like Stretch Ears Jamtzen, Slab Face Richen, and Fence Teeth Wanjur. Eckvall describes hunting trips, how problems between villages are resolved, marauding bands of brigands, encroaching Chinese militia, the yearly butter festival and the cooking and eating of traditional Tibetan food. What is curious is that he does not tell us is anything about his wife and son. The other thing is he rarely preaches the gospel to his Tibetan friends. It is only after Ekvall does something the villagers view as especially helpful, like being the only one to shoot a Yak while on the hunt, or convincing a Chinese general not to attack, does the villagers request Ekvall preach. Of course Ekvall notices that when he preaches the Tibetan are fingering their malas and chanting quietly, not listening at all.
At the end he goes on a pilgrimage to Lhasa. When he returns to Sechu he finds his family is sick and he must leave the place he loves. When he leaves, his Tibetan friends tell him that he must hurry back to Sechu because he is one of them, except Ekvall cannot return because of the Chinese Communists invasion. This book puts you right there in the thick of a Tibetan culture that has been lost. I wish I could have been there.
Robert B. Ekvall has written eleven books on Tibet.
Tintin in Tibet
Little, Brown and Company
Tintin in Tibet is one of 24 comic albums created by the Belgian illustrator and author Georges Remi under the pen name Hergé. The character of Tintin was based on a man Hergé knew who fought in WW1 and later traveled the world. Tintin first appeared in print in 1929 and the last time in 1983. The Adventures of Tintin features episodic stories of adventure, daring do, and all kinds of misfortune followed by good luck. Tintin is a young man during his teen years, with a round face, ruddy cheeks, hair that never gets ruffled, and the never ending attitude and attributes of a boy scout. He always wears a sweater with white shirt collars sticking out at the neck and ill fitting pants hiked up his calves. He is indefatigable, irrepressible, decent, compassionate and trustworthy, and always accompanied by his white dog Snowy. He solves every mystery and everything turns out well in the end. Tintin is allegedly a reporter but he does not report anything and is often accompanied on his adventures with Captain Haddock who always encounters pitfalls and pratfalls throughout the story and is prone to great exclamations like: “billions of blue blistering barnacles.”
Tintin in Tibet was published originally in Europe in 1960. The story starts in England where the Captain and Tintin read in the newspaper about a plane crash at the border of Nepal and Tibet with no survivors. Tintin’s Chinese friend Chang was on the flight and Tintin dreamed that he survived the crash. So the Captain and Tintin make their way through a series of misadventures and misfortune, especially to the Captain, and eventually they reach Kathmandu and trek to the crash site. Along the way they barely make their plane out of New Delhi, meet Chinese and Sherpas in Kathmandu, stay at a Tibetan Monastery in a remote mountainous area, encounter a Yeti and find Chang. Whew!
The Adventures are fun to read, the illustrations are packed with images in the background, and Snowy goes everywhere with Tintin. Once you read one you will be hooked.
Tibetan Tales for Little Buddhas
By Naomi Rose
Clear Light Publishing
This children’s story and picture book features three Tibetan stories from what we would call Old Tibet or pre Chinese Communist Invasion Tibet. The first tale, Yeshi’s Luck, is about a son and his father searching for a lost horse. As they venture out into the grasslands and mountains, the father chants, and the son cannot understand how that will help find their horse. Many villagers come out to help but are stymied by nightfall. Yeshi is puzzled when his father appears unconcerned. The next day the horse is found and thus begins Yeshi’s misfortune and eventual understanding.
The second tale is Jomo and the Dakini Queen. Jomo lives with her Aunt Peta and Jomo feels her aunt is very hard on her. Taking their yaks out and above the barley fields, she comes upon a cave she has never seen before. A sound is emanating from the cave and Jomo is drawn inside. She trips and when she looks up she is frightened by a scary beast that turns into the Dakini Queen.
The final tale is Chunda’s Wisdom Quest. Chunda is a young Monk sent off to find the mystical land of Pema Ko. Almost immediately he stumbles, falls, rolls downhill and sprains an ankle. He wonders if he will ever find Pema Ko if he can’t walk. A herd of goats keep him company and he makes his way with a stick to steady him. After sleeping he follows a creature that to him appears to be a gorilla. In the Yeti’s shack Chunda finds the creature is suffering with a huge splinter of wood in his foot. Does Chunda find Pema Ko?
These three tales work as fables and/or parables and are written in English and Tibetan with color drawings that illustrate the stories, by Naomi Rose, taking up half of every page. Tibetan Tales for Little Buddhas won the 2005 Nautilus Book Award in the category of Children’s Illustrated Book. A thoroughly fun and enjoyable read for adults and a teaching tool for children who are unaware of Tibetan Buddhism or Culture.
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
published in the U.K, by Chattus and Windus
and in the U.S. by Random House
Sky Burial takes place in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. It starts in a small town in Nanjing (southeastern China) where two students fall in love at a medical college run by the Chinese Communist Party People’s Liberation Army. Kenjun and Shu Wen marry in 1958 and almost immediately Kenjun is sent to Tibet. Shu Wen is left alone and dreams of her husband every day. One afternoon Shu Wen reads an Army posting and finds that Kenjun is reported to be missing in action and mostly likely dead. Shu Wen refuses to believe it and volunteers for duty in her husband’s regiment.
Shu Wen then goes on an incredible adventure and is separated from her regiment and travels searching for her husband with a Tibetan woman who is also searching for the man she loves. They follow leads that take them all through the mountains and valleys of Tibet and finally stay with a Tibetan nomad family for a few years where Shu Wen learns to respect and love the Tibetan Nomad way of life.
I don’t want to give away the ending but I do recommend this book whole heartedly. It is a slim volume and can easily be read in one sitting. When I was reading it I did not want to put it down. The part about the seasons and the daily lives of Tibetans was fascinating. The author was born in Beijing in 1958 and by the late 1980’s was one of China’s most successful journalists. Xinran is also the author of the Good Woman of China which is a highly recognized work about the lives of Chinese women. She currently lives in London and writes for the Guardian newspaper.
The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place
by Ian Baker
Published in 2006 by the Penguin Press
The Heart of the World is a memoir, a travelogue, an adventure, a history and a dharma book. It is a lot to pull off in one 400 page book but Ian Baker succeeds on all levels. How many more secret places are there left in world; maybe none but Baker and Buddhism explain how there are still secret places left in our minds if we would only open ourselves to the possibilities. Pemako is a region in southeastern Tibet bordering with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan. It is a remote region with no roads and impenetrable forests, the deepest gorge in the world and it is a beyul or secret place and possibly the origin of the mystery known as Shangri la.
Baker describes his journey from an American living in Kathmandu to accepting students for a year abroad, to a chance at a rafting adventure, to meeting Buddhist masters, to an adventurer in the wilderness of nature and in the wilderness of the nature of our minds. He recounts the stories of the first white British adventurers who first entered Pemako; Kingdom Ward and Lord Cawdor, Bailey and Mooreshead. He quotes from their writings liberally as well as many Tibetan Tulkus and others.
He weaves his story from past to present to Tibetan Buddhism to walking through forests where leeches suck his blood and snakes so poisonous they kill with one bite. He describes climbing mountains, traversing what is left after landsides; and crossing rivers on slippery fallen trees. He camps in leaky tents in three day rain storms, circumambulates the mountain Kundu which represents the heart essence of Dorje Pagmo, the great goddess of Pemako, and survives to tell an enthralling tale of what one person can achieve physically and spiritually.
He experiences all this with an eclectic group of fellow travelers who he doesn’t describe in any great detail. At any one time he travels with one to three fellow Americans, a Persian, a Tibetan tulku, Tibetan nuns, a Thai Botanist, and various Sherpas, Monpas and Lopas as hunters, porters and guides. He explains the ancestry of all who inhabit Pemako and their lifestyle. Ian Baker gives us the Tibetan Buddhist view of all events, thoughts, desires and travels throughout the book. Finally he writes of the myths and spiritual aspects of waterfalls.
I did not want this book to end. But all good things come to an end. Did Baker and his fellow travelers find what they were looking for: a secret place, a 100 foot waterfall along the Tsangpo gorge?
In his words: “We feed on mystery, whether the enticements of unknown lands or a masked dancer revealed more perfectly by what she hides. The scrolls describing beyul lead us similarly into wonder, for they are accounts of processes in the mind as much as in the external world. There is no real separation or boundary between ourselves and the world around us, and an ever present wildness and radiance lies at the heart of our tamest vistas.”
The Stupa – Sacred Symbol of Enlightenment
1997 Dharma Publishing – part of the Crystal Mirror Series Volume 12
Prepared by Elizabeth Cook and the Yeshe De Project
A stupa is the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment and provides harmony and balance in the world. It connects the inner world with the cosmos outside. A mandala is the blueprint for its construction, Inside there are relics of Buddhas, Guru Rinpoche, Arhats and other holy beings that have the ability to defuse negative forces, subdue the ego, assist in healing the body and mind, heighten awareness and avert natural catastrophes.
“More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha gave guidelines for the construction of stupas and described the value of devotional practice directed to them. It is clear from these teachings that the purpose of creating, caring for and honoring a stupa is not to honor what is dead and gone, but to attune oneself and others to undying heart of reality, the source of all happiness and enduring joy. Eloquent shrines to life, stupas embody the view and actions that fully and fearlessly embrace the reality of human existence, finding within the transience that defines the rise and decline of all phenomena the timeless current of becoming. It is this realization, that we participate simultaneously in the singular and universal, that heals loneliness and separation, gives meaning to life, and confers the power to appreciate whatever arises.”
The word ‘stupa’ is a Sanskrit word meaning pile or heap. Another word ‘caitya’ refers to the entire monument while stupa means the central form. In the Pali language stupa becomes thupa and caitya becomes cetiya. In Tibetan it is bum-pa which means vase. Chorten is another term for caitya.
“In our times marred by aggression, territoriality, and the increasing primacy of materialistic views, the appearance of the stupa in new lands is a hope for a new understanding of human being, and understanding that transcends the concept of self, and opens the way for a higher bonding with all humanity. If the deeper meaning of this ancient symbol takes hold in the West, the stupa could serve generations in the future as it has had in the past, a reminder of humanity’s noblest aspirations and a potent force for balance, harmony and world peace.”
The Stupa is a large book, hefty, and over 400 pages long and over 200 photographs and drawings. The book explains what a Stupa is, what it represents, why they are built, who builds them and how they build them as well as the names of Stupas in other countries and how each country builds them differently. The book is also a travel book as it gives readers a choice of sacred pilgrimages to go on to experience Stupas close up and the routes to get there. It is also a history book that tells the history of Buddhism in each Asian Country. The book is many things as well as informative, engrossing and at times easily readable and at other times the amount of words in Sanskirt that are unknown and unpronounceable for us is difficult. More than anything written above the book is filled with a power of love and sacredness. One feels it just holding it one’s hands.
The photographs bring the stupas to life; they are mostly color and show the stupas in their glory and in their decay. Some of the photographs show what is left of stupas if no one takes care of them or if they are in Tibet then the Chinese Communists destroyed them. The most amazing photographs are when the stupas are shown in jungles or in full view with mountains behind them as you can get a sense of place. When you finish reading the book invariably you feel that your life is less without living in the presence of a stupa; and if you did live in its presence then you would take care of it whether you had read this book or not.
“The interaction of mind and symbol is not well understood in the West, for the science of mind is still in its infancy here, and our ability to comprehend the inner workings of relics and stupas is limited. Yet such knowledge is a priceless resource. We have some inkling of the power of code on computer chips; how much greater may be the capacity of mind for promoting peace and happiness, and healing imbalances, and for living wisely in a world of continual change. The scriptures and symbols of ancient traditions have preserved keys to this knowledge. It is hoped that future generations will find ways to use these keys, not simply for understanding the past, but for activating blessings in the present and opening even greater possibilities for the future.
Stupas are a powerful catalyst for this knowledge. Where heart and mind are open to their significance, they continue to support all that benefits living beings.” Tarthang Tulku April 1997
Note: As a refugee in India in the early 1960's, Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, an eminent lama from the Nyingma school, perceived the urgent need for preserving the sacred texts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Dharma Publishing and Dharma Press began operations in America in 1970 and in 1975 they were formally incorporated as a non-profit organization under the name Dharma Mudranalaya DBA Dharma Publishing and Dharma Press. All proceeds from the sale of their products contribute to the preservation of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
In The Kingdom of the Dalai Lama
Archibald T. Steele and Bea Baker, first published in 1993
Arch Steele was an American foreign war correspondent for United Press, the New York Times, the Chicago Daily News and, the New York Herald Tribune. He covered China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa from the early 1930s until his retirement in 1960. He then published several books including his extraordinary tale of his trip to Lhasa. “What I saw on my visit there in 1944 was an undeveloped Shangri – la waiting only for world recognition of it independent status. The little country was at peace with the world.” It took him 12 years to get a visa to Tibet. When permission came the document was a naturally made two foot square piece of paper.
Steele left from Calcutta, India He traveled to Sikkim by motor vehicle often stopped by landslides and other obstacles. From Gangtok he rode a pony every day for two months on a route designated by the Tibetan government. His caravan had a hundred porters, mules, donkeys, and horses. Along the route he describes the landscape and the people in the way newspapermen of the 1940’s described everything; dry and objective. One wishes the author would have suspended his newspaperman point of view for this trip being the only one to have been permitted to enter Tibet during the Second World War Nevertheless the book is valuable for the very fact he was there just before the Chinese Communist invaded.
At Yatung his caravan was joined by two Tibetan soldiers who escorted him the rest of the way. Not once was his caravan threatened or molested by anyone. In Gyantse Steele stayed with the British Trade Agent Sir Basil Gould. When the caravan nears the holy city it is met by Tibetan officials who tell Steele his itinerary is not auspicious and must change the date he is to enter Lhasa.
“The farmhouse I stayed at was of a pattern that became very familiar to me before my journey was over. The ground floor was reserved for animals. The household occupied the second floor, reached by a steep ladder like stairway. They busied themselves about the dark, mud floored room spinning and weaving wool, churning butter, preparing tea and just gossiping. The guest room was also the room of the family shrine. Walls and ceiling were covered with faded patterned cloth. On one side was a row of gilded cabinets, embossed with dragons and phoenixes in the Chinese manner, and containing the family valuables. Along the top of the cabinet, some 15 Buddhist images peered out from little decorated alcoves. Aging photographs of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama adorned colorfully decorated pillars supporting the rafters.”
Eight miles from Lhasa Steele caught the first glimpse of the gleaming, golden roofs of the Potala in sunlight. Three miles from the Holy City he met his old friend Hugh Richardson, head of the British Mission in Lhasa. “Lhasa town is a collection of close packed buildings in a maze of tortuous narrow streets. There is no sewage system, so most refuse goes into the street. Dogs and ravens are the scavengers. Were it not for the altitude, Lhasa might have a serious disease problem. But flies don’t thrive at this altitude and epidemics are rare.”
A few days later Steele and an interpreter the Tibetan government assigned to him arrived at the Dalai Lama’s throne room in the Jewel Park with other pilgrims and dignitaries. At a given time the group entered the room where 100 Monks sat in service of His Holiness. “At the far end of the aisle the Dalai Lama (9years old at the time) sat in the attitude of a Buddha on an elevated seat. He was gowned in maroon robes, but scarves of white silk covered his legs.” Steele had met the boy several years earlier under different circumstances at a monastery in northwestern China. When their eyes met the Dalai Lama recognized him; Steele approached and offered the ceremonial scarf and bowed, not a word passed between them.
He stayed in Lhasa a few weeks doing as he writes “the usual things one does in the city”. One wonders what the usual things the only American in Lhasa are. He meets with government ministers, the State Oracle, a few noblemen, hangs out with Hugh Richardson, visits monasteries and recounts the stories of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas and briefly mentions the Panchen Lama. Steele states that at the time he was there, there were approximately 2,000 Chinese and over 200 Nepali and Ladahki traders, as well as four British people.
The rest of the book was put together after his death by his partner Bea Baker. She adds essays at the end by the International Campaign for Tibet about the ongoing tragedy. In the Kingdom of the Dalai Lama is not a great book. But it is a historical document and contains Archibald Steele’s many black and white photos taken on his trip and in Lhasa; the photographs that Steele took on his trip alone are enough reason to read the book. It is a rewarding and fast read leaving the reader to ponder what if he or she had the opportunity to visit Tibet just before the communist invasion.
The photo on the Left is the author and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1939.
Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism
and Sino-Tibet Relations
By Warren W. Smith, Jr.
This is a heavy tome coming in at 700 pages not including a vast bibliography, index, a preface, and maps. This book is not for the casual reader but is a must for all Western supporters of Tibet. It will give the reader exact detailed information on the history of Tibetan Nationalism and Chinese – Tibetan relationships from before recorded history to the mid 1990’s.
After the preface the book begins with geographical information on how the land mass started forming when the Indian sub continental plate joined the Eurasian plate (13 -25 million years ago); the plateau reached 1,000 meters 2 - 4 million years ago and has been growing ever since. The next three chapters are dense with information about Tibetan origins. Numerous clans, tribes, family groups are named with dates and places where these groups inhabited. Unfortunately it is hard to remember all these groups and although there are four maps none of them show the ancient place names or the inhabitants. Also over time all the place names and clan names have changed. This is my only quibble with this otherwise outstanding work; the book needs more maps!
“Tibetan mythological sources speak of four or six original tribes of Tibet. The four tribes which appear in most sources, and to whom precedence is usually given, are the Don (lDon), Ton (sTon), Se and Mu (rMu). Each of these tribes is also associated with states foreign to the central Tibet state and they are often referred to in that connection: Don with the Minyak, Ton with the Sumpa, Se with Azha, and Mu with Zhangzhung.” Who? What? Where? When? There are literally hundreds of names of tribes from what is now Mongolia, China, Tibet, Turkestan and a host of other countries that have changed names many times. Information on how they warred or intermingled or shared boundaries is all included.
The consolidation of the first Chinese state under the Ch’in dynasty (221 – 207 B.C) was in Northern China as the tribe or tribes before the Ch’in moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and pastoralism. Now these first northern tribes had something to protect and they brought their expanded families together and soon peoples on the frontier as well into their sphere. This is when the meglo-manical mindset of the people that later would be named Chinese began. With their way of life needing protection they thought themselves better that those who continued with hunting and gathering and those others were considered barbarians. They also believed that all barbarians should be assimilated with them. The barbarians were dumb and ill informed that the way of life and culture of the Northern Chinese was better and if they just accepted it they would be assimilated.
But not all the so-called barbarians desired assimilation, so the Northern Chinese thought of another way to bring them into their sphere: any barbarian who traded with them or fought against them over land and boundaries were thought to be assimilated whether they liked it or not. The Northern Chinese, later known as the Ch’iang, were the best people on earth and no one dare disagree.
Later in 629 Songsten Gampo’s son Namri consolidated the Yarlung Tibetan State with its capital in Lhasa and continued the process of territorial expansion. A few years later the Tibetan attacked the Ch’iang and defeated them. However the Ch’iang state in their history books state that the Tibetans brought gifts for them and apologized for their actions. It was the Ch’iang’s inability to accept defeat and even though they were defeated they still felt the Tibetan had been assimilated. Thus began Sino - Tibetan relations and the lying and fake news commenced.
The Yarlung State fell in 842 and there was no longer any central authority in Tibet until 1247 when the Mongols dominated the area. During this time the central state in what we now call China also fell apart. At the same time Buddhism gained prominence all over in what we now called Tibet and the Cho Yon tradition was established and became the foreign relations pattern for Tibet. It was the priest patron relationship that typified Cho Yon. The first time this was established with a Buddhist Lama and the Mongol Khan. Later the Chinese would state that this relationship was only possible with Chinese leadership and that both Mongols and Tibetans were assimilated even though they lost wars with Mongols and Tibetans. This was to be their M. O. for the next few thousand years.
When Kublai Khan died sectarian conflicts arose all over Tibet, Mongolia and China. Soon Tibet came under the sway of the Ch’ing especially after the Fifth Dalai Lama died. He had successfully kept the Ch’ing at bay, but after his death there was no one to carry on his work. Starting in 1792 the Ch’ing dynasty started a long slow decline, while in Tibet no strong leader appeared to take control. The Eight Dalai Lama died in 1840and the Ch’ing wanted to use the Golden Urn method to select the Ninth Dalai Lama but Tibetans revolted and it was never used – although Chinese history states that this date began the tradition of the Golden Urn.
As the Ch’ing declined the belief that they were besieged and everyone was against them was propagated to the people and propaganda reared its head for the first time as the Ch’ing clinged to their last ounce of power. The Thirteenth Dalia Lama was born in 1876 and confirmed in 1879 without any interference from the Ch’ing. At the same time Nationalism as a political ideology occurred in both China and Tibet as they wanted to change their relationship. In March 1904 Colonel Younghusband and a British regiment made their way into Tibet and all the way to Lhasa. Concurrently another group known as the Han formed and superseded the Ch’aing and assimilated them and all tribes of Northern China under one people.
It is now that most western Tibet supporters know the rest of the story and we still have 550 pages to go as Warren Smith quotes directly from Chinese documents, United Front Work Department reports, CCP resolutions, and newspapers, British Foreign Office cables and memos, U. S. State Department cables and memos, and Indian government machinations to tell the sad, tragic story of a country left alone to be gobbled up by a Communist regime.
If what has happened to Tibet and continues to occur is anybody’s fault or is everybody’s fault. Yes the Indians, the British, the Americans, and the Tibetans all made mistakes, miscalculations and were timid and tired from WW2 and the crisis in Korea. However if we are to fault anyone let us lay the blame on the government of the Chinese Communist Party.
The book ends with Mr. Smith stating that even if the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party changed in the next few generations what is happening in Tibet will continue because all Chinese people have been indoctrinated with the propaganda that Tibet is an inalienable part of China for the last 200 years.
Warren W. Smith is a research historian at Radio Free Asia and a leading expert on China’s control policies in Tibet. He is the author of Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations (1996), China’s Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation (2008) and Tibet's Last Stand: The Tibetan Uprising of 2008 and China's Response (2009).