Spacious Minds
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Spacious Minds

Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism

Sara E. Lewis

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Spacious Minds

Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism

Sara E. Lewis

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Spacious Minds argues that resilience is not a mere absence of suffering. Sara E. Lewis's research reveals how those who cope most gracefully may indeed experience deep pain and loss. Looking at the Tibetan diaspora, she challenges perspectives that liken resilience to the hardiness of physical materials, suggesting people should "bounce back" from adversity. More broadly, this ethnography calls into question the tendency to use trauma as an organizing principle for all studies of conflict where suffering is understood as an individual problem rooted in psychiatric illness.

Beyond simply articulating the ways that Tibetan categories of distress are different from biomedical ones, Spacious Minds shows how Tibetan Buddhism frames new possibilities for understanding resilience. Here, the social and religious landscape encourages those exposed to violence to see past events as impermanent and illusory, where debriefing, working-through, or processing past events only solidifies suffering and may even cause illness. Resilience in Dharamsala is understood as sems pa chen po, a vast and spacious mind that does not fixate on individual problems, but rather uses suffering as an opportunity to generate compassion for others in the endless cycle of samsara. A big mind view helps to see suffering in life as ordinary. And yet, an intriguing paradox occurs. As Lewis deftly demonstrates, Tibetans in exile have learned that human rights campaigns are predicated on the creation and circulation of the trauma narrative; in this way, Tibetan activists utilize foreign trauma discourse, not for psychological healing, but as a political device and act of agency.

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Chapter 1

LIFE IN EXILE

In premodern Tibet, there was a largely semibureaucratic governance marked by regional and religious alliances (Samuel 1993). Tibet’s exact geographic boundaries are contested and varied across historical maps, but most regional provinces fell under the rule of the Dalai Lama’s administration in Lhasa, beginning with the fifth and extending to the present—the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya), the lineage of the Dalai Lamas is associated with the Gelugpa tradition, which rose to power above other schools. Throughout Tibet’s history, the rise and fall of these various Buddhist schools was synonymous with political rule. Systems of governance were not uniform in Tibet; some regions were governed as kingdoms, others as chiefdoms, and some were ruled by religious leaders (McGranahan 2010a; Tuttle 2005).
By the time Chairman Mao Zedong came into power in 1949, he announced his intention to “liberate” Tibet. Despite an appeal by the Tibetan government to both the United States and Great Britain to support its application for membership in the United Nations, little was done to stop the People’s Republic of China, which was rapidly becoming a world power. The United States, focused on the Korean War, did not speak out against the invasion. As McGranahan (2010a) details, however, the United States has a long history of working quietly behind the scenes for the Tibetan political cause, including covert CIA training of Tibetan civilian militia. In 1950, forty thousand Chinese troops moved into the capital city of Lhasa, prompting the state oracle1 to determine that because of the mounting political crisis the sixteen-year-old Dalai Lama should assume power immediately rather than waiting until the customary age of eighteen. Despite a number of appeals to the United Nations, the international community did not intervene and over the next decade Tibet was systematically taken over by China.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama, in a disguise, fled to India. The journey took three weeks by horseback, traversing the Himalayas. Over the next several years, eighty thousand Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama, the political and spiritual leader of Tibet, into exile. The Dalai Lama was invited to India by Prime Minister Nehru, who provided the Tibetan leader and his people a safe haven in Dharamsala. This remote hill station in Himachal Pradesh was abandoned by the British, who had formerly established a military cantonment in the region. Although it was treated as a remote no man’s land, the local Gaddhi people were displaced when the British colonized India, and still today are marginalized in their native land. Upper Dharamsala, known as “McLeod Ganj,” is almost entirely a Tibetan enclave and remains the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Central Tibet today spans an area of China known as the TAR—Tibetan Autonomous Region; much of eastern Tibet, Amdo and Kham, has been incorporated into the Gansu, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai provinces. The official statement from the Chinese government is that Tibet has always been a part of China, thus justifying the invasion and subsequent rule over it. While today’s political disputes focus on human rights, in the early days of conflict, Tibetans resisted the characterization of the struggle as a violation of individual or human rights, instead insisting that the focal problem was to regain the sovereignty of the Tibetan state (McGranahan 2010a). But as described later in chapter 4 of this book, a new and intentional focus on human rights has become more prominent today as activists seek to join global narratives of resistance. And whereas there are discernable disagreements among Tibetans, most take the Dalai Lama’s lead and have given up hope of independence and instead seek cultural, linguistic, social, and religious freedom and autonomy.
The Tibetan government-in-exile, housed in Dharamsala, is composed of the kashag (executive cabinet) and a forty-four-member Parliament. By his own hand, the Dalai Lama relinquished his title as political leader of Tibet and pushed government leaders to develop a more secular and democratic political system. In 2011, the sikyong (political leader), Lobsang Sangye, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was elected to the newly formed cabinet of the government-in-exile as the prime minister and new political leader of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama remains a spiritual leader of Tibet, although there are many other lesser-known lamas, such as the seventeenth Karmapa, head of the Kagyu school, who are also deeply influential in social and cultural life.
Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government-in-exile, led by the Dalai Lama, attempted to engage China in a series of peaceful negotiations. Despite being termed the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” Tibetans claim they continue to face religious, cultural, and ethnic persecution. The Dalai Lama hoped that through compromise and peaceful dialogue, an agreement could be reached. Along with the kashag, he developed what is known as the “Middle Way Policy,” which does not ask for independence, but rather “meaningful autonomy.” The policy evokes the following:
The central government of the People’s Republic of China has the responsibility for the political aspects of Tibet’s international relations and defense, whereas the Tibetan people should manage all other affairs pertaining to Tibet, such as religion and culture, education, economy, health, ecological, and environmental protection; the Chinese government should stop its policy of human rights violations in Tibet and the transfer of Chinese population into Tibetan areas; to resolve the issue of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shall take the main responsibility of sincerely pursuing negotiations and reconciliation with the Chinese government. (Dalai Lama 2019)
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not acknowledge Tibetan sovereignty and has refused dialogue with the Tibetan government-in-exile, maintaining that the Dalai Lama is a terrorist who encourages separatism among Tibetans (who should pledge allegiance to the Chinese government).
Despite wide admiration for the Dalai Lama across the globe, there are no countries that recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile as a legitimate government. Even the government of India, despite its own ambivalent tolerance of Tibetan settlements inside its country, does not formally recognize Tibet as a sovereign nation. When countries like Germany or the United States host the Dalai Lama, even in his role as religious figurehead, the People’s Republic of China blasts them for doing so, sometimes threatening economic sanctions. This tension also plays out in more subtle instances, such as when a Tibetan undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was barred from carrying a Tibetan flag at her graduation ceremony in 2017 because, she was told, “Tibet is a part of China” (Boston Globe 2017). There are few countries that publicly acknowledge the Tibetan situation as a crisis and none are willing to risk upsetting the PRC to offer much to help.
The flow of migrants out of the Tibetan plateau has fluctuated over the last several decades, but it is estimated that nearly 150,000 are living in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and elsewhere across the world. Although it is difficult to document current trends in the diaspora, it is estimated that approximately 2,500 to 3,500 Tibetans leave the country each year (International Campaign for Tibet 2019). Some leave legally on temporary visas and do not return. For example, 300,000 people came to Bodhgaya, India, in January 2012 when the Dalai Lama led the Kalachakra Empowerment;2 many were Tibetans on a three-month religious pilgrimage visa. I attended the initiation where I observed many older people who arrived covered in dirt and torn clothing, having traversed the Himalayas and undertaken arduous journeys to attend the teachings, underscoring what people are willing to sacrifice for a chance to connect with their spiritual leader. Many Tibetans with whom I spoke told me they saw this as their last opportunity to see the Dalai Lama and to receive the special Kalachakra empowerment. Some had only loose plans of where they would go next and many had only enough money for a few weeks. The Tibetan settlement communities throughout India support new arrivals with funds that comes, in part, from foreign aid. Indeed, the new arrivals did not seem to worry much about how they would get by.
Exile communities in India are relatively thriving; however, Tibetans living in India are not granted citizenship or political asylum. Tibetans can obtain residential certificates (known as RCs), which must be renewed every year, but Indian officials may deny them arbitrarily without recourse. Some Tibetans who are born in India are able to procure Indian passports, yet this is highly variable and depends on the mood of Indian government officials; giving baksheesh (bribes) to secure one’s paperwork is sometimes effective. My neighbor, a retired government official said: “Now thousands of Tibetan refugees don’t have an RC. Therefore, they have many problems in their daily life, such as finding jobs. Without an RC, you can’t buy cooking gas or rent rooms from Indians. But if they have money, it will be easier for them to solve these kinds of problems.” It is known around Dharamsala that monasteries and nunneries are filled with Tibetans whose RCs are lapsed, having been denied renewal. There is no governing body to which they may appeal, so people simply stay in a quasi-legal situation in India unable to travel. There are rumors that one day the Foreign Registration Office (FRO) connected to the local police department will canvass the monasteries demanding registration cards. Although these ambiguities are unsettling, most Tibetans in Dharamsala feel they are under less scrutiny than they were in Tibet.
At the same time, Carole McGranahan (2016b) makes the case that citizenship refusal among Tibetans in India is a complex dance for those who insist their loyalty remains in Tibet—a homeland to which they vow to return. “Tibetans refused citizenship, but were they ever offered it?” (McGranahan 2016b, 336). For members of the Tibetan diaspora, although living in India affords a degree of pragmatic freedom, the refusal to pledge their citizenship (first to China, and now to India or Nepal) is a power move to stake their own claim to future citizenship in a free Tibet. Renouncing their citizenship, even if it would make daily life easier in India, sits closely alongside the experiences of their countrymates in Chinese prisons and detention centers. The director of a social service agency in Dharamsala explained to me:
When I was in my county in Kham, no one could say anything about the history of Tibet. My parents can’t explain the history or say very much about Tibet being an independent country. If they tell us about history, then children might not be able to keep the secret and they might get in trouble with authorities. My uncle is in a Chinese prison right now. He was sentenced to fifteen years. He was supposed to be released in 2011, but during his time in prison he never gave up his love for Tibet. He was asked to renounce his love for Tibetan culture and religious practice, but he wouldn’t comply. So he was given three years extra. The reason that Tibetans have so much hope is because the Chinese always discriminate against Tibetans for jobs and education. They are very strict in their policy. This caused Tibetans to unite, giving us strength to resist the Chinese.
And thus, there is great ambivalence in the meaning of acquiring, renewing, and being denied an RC in Dharamsala. It is at once a tedious hassle and an index of their precarious ties (or lack thereof) to citizenship.
One might ask why China cares so much about Tibet. Some of these reasons are described below, but there has also been ongoing controversy over Taiwan and many lesser-known territories throughout Mongolia, Russia, and the South China Sea have been embroiled in land disputes over the last sixty years; Tibet is not unique in this respect. And yet because of the fascination with Tibetan Buddhism and admiration of the Dalai Lama, the occupation of Tibet has garnered international interest. Today, Tibet is valuable because of its untapped territory for Han Chinese settlers; during the 1970s, Tibet’s vast, open space was used for different purposes: the storage of nuclear weapons. There is also an abundance of natural resources in Tibet, such as lithium, copper, and rare minerals. As well, it houses a great mass of underground water that is increasingly controversial in its usage and conservation. Over the last decade, the People’s Republic of China has built a series of hydroelectric dams on rivers in Tibet to export electricity back to Chinese cities. Many Tibetan activists today have become increasingly concerned with the environmental destruction of the land; for instance, many protest the development of a hydroelectric construction project on Yamdrok Tso, a sacred lake between Lhasa and Shikatse (International Campaign for Tibet 2014).
A new arrival I interviewed at the Tibetan reception center explained: “Me and my husband had to leave Tibet because my husband took photos of the Chinese taking aluminum out of the ground near Nari. Many trucks took the metals out of the ground to take back to China. Also in my county, many places were destroyed by this digging. And the rivers were destroyed by harmful chemicals. Many animals and even people died because of the chemicals. My husband tried to protest against this. Later we found out that the Chinese were planning to arrest us for exposing them.” Similarly, another new arrival explained:
The Chinese are destroying the environment. Many areas are destroyed. Mandrojama, the birthplace of Songtsen Gampo [king of Tibet who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the land], held many resources. The Chinese dug out many precious metals and gems, completely destroying the land. From Mandro to Drikung Monastery, there is one mountain, which the Chinese tuned into a giant hole, removing all the treasures. During the digging, Tibetans were not allowed to come near the site. Also, there is one small electricity base built by the Chinese. This is how they found the precious stones and metals. The Chinese government also built a huge dam in one river. Everyone says if the dam is destroyed, many Tibetan villages will be wiped out by a flood. Near the Drikung Monastery, each day the Chinese took out thirty truckloads of natural resources. I got a small piece of the treasure from another person. The rock is multicolored and very beautiful. This stone is precious, so I put it in my offering bowls [small bowls kept on one’s religious shrine].
As of June 2017, over forty Tibetans in Qinghai Province had been arrested for protesting water rights when Chinese officials announced their plans to divert a river from a Tibetan settlement (Phayul 2017). China dismisses these protests, arguing it owns the right to these resources.
The PRC state government is also concerned with Tibet for cultural reasons. The Tibetan people are counted as one of fifty-five ethnic minority groups within the Han-dominated PRC. Besides these issues of ethnicity that are shared among other territories that have been subsumed into the PRC, Tibet has long been a source of particular tension because of the pervasiveness of religion. Not all Tibetans are religious; however, Buddhist holidays, rituals, and institutions, such as monasteries, are central forces in everyday sociocultural life. Local monasteries and nunneries hold a great deal of responsibility within communities, such as conducting daily rituals to appease local deities and managing funeral rites and care of the dead. Lay Tibetans make offerings to monasteries to perform purification practices on their behalf in times of sickness, financial hardship, or suspicion of spirit harm. Unlike in other religious traditions where monasticism is dying out, the tradition in Tibet remains strong.
Many families continue to send at least one child to a monastery or nunnery, at least for a period of time where they receive religious trai...

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