Days of the Diggers
Peter Coyote: Days of the Diggers
An interview with Peter Coyote by Melvin McLeod.
The Diggers were a group of sixties radicals and performers whose formula for building a new society was equal parts utopianism and indulgence. In Sleeping Where I Fall, Peter Coyote remembers his life as a Digger.
Shambhala Sun: After reading your book, I found myself haunted by this dedicated, talented, crazy group of people. You don't romanticize anyone, least of all yourself, and the hard drugs and the violence and the foolishness almost overshadow the ideals you wanted to bring out. So, what were the Diggers trying to achieve?
Peter Coyote: I think the core value was to create a culture in which it was possible to be something more than either an employee or a consumer. We wanted to create a culture in which it was possible to live a life predicated on the more human impulses and values, with room for one's personal eccentricity.
We were part of a huge wave in the sixties that called in the nation's markers and promises. We were the products of high school civics classes and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and we were smacked in the face by the civil rights movement. Remember, this was a culture that had just gone through the paroxysms of the McCarthy period.
So we were a generation of kids looking for something authentic and real, a generation that I think produced a great deal of substance that still exists today in our culture. When you think of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the gay movement, the alternative health movement, the alternative spirituality movement, the environmental movement, the organic food movement-all these have permeated the culture and changed the way people live.
These are manifestations of the intentions of the sixties. I don't care at all about the institutions of the sixties-I don't care if I never see another peace symbol or bad psychedelic poster or pair of bell bottom pants-but the important thing is that the intentions of the sixties have been manifested.
Shambhala Sun: The key term for the Diggers was "authenticity." Yet you were performers who treated their own lives as art, and you say that as you look back now, you see what you achieved then as essentially a work of art. What is the relationship between authenticity and life as performance?
Peter Coyote: To me, authenticity means being responsive to your true feelings, thoughts and impulses. That's what authenticity is. One of the things the Diggers had in common was that we were actors, and when we were performing we were trying to invent vehicles to talk about the subject of authenticity. For instance, if we wanted to give people the opportunity to explore the issues that come up around profit and ownership and the roles of manager and shop person, we would invent a theater in which we would be ourselves, but the setting was made highly theatrical. For instance, we had a free store, where not only the goods were free but the roles were free. When someone came in and said "Who's the boss?" and we said, "You are." We could deliver the lines as ourselves; it was the setting itself which was startling.
We felt we could undermine the culture. People will not cross the street to see Bill Clinton, but if you put Tom Cruise in the parking lot of a mall, you'll need police to keep people away. If the people have an image of something they want, they will organize their aspirations and activities to get it. What we realized early on was that a vision was much more compelling than a foot in the back.
We were trying to create compelling visions of the kind of society that people would want. So our challenge as performers was how to invent situations and contexts that would expose people to their own conditioning and the expectations held out for them by the culture, and offer them the opportunity to respond in a fresh and authentic way.
Shambhala Sun: This reminds me of the vajrayana concept translated as "crazy wisdom," in which a highly accomplished teacher may manifest a true sanity that transcends or even violates convention in order to wake people up.
Peter Coyote: Like the Zen master who kills the cat: "If someone can show me their true self this cat will live." The only thing was, we were not highly evolved wisdom people.
Shambhala Sun: Yes, the key element in such a risky endeavor is a great deal of internal discipline, which was outstandingly missing in your cases.
Peter Coyote: That's right. Part of the arc of my book is the precise stages and mechanisms through which a lack of internal discipline and a submission to indulgence erodes high personal callings and intentions.
Shambhala Sun: Unless you're coming from a point of view of genuine selflessness and discipline, how do you draw the line between a political choice to free oneself from social conventions and plain personal indulgence? In practice, are they really separable?
Peter Coyote: Well, we didn't know. If you believe the culture is your enemy, and that you're going to imagine your way out of it, and you're going to make your imaginings real by acting them out, one of the dilemmas you have to face is the possibility that your imagination has been co-opted by the culture. One of the reasons we took drugs, aside from just curiosity and peer pressure, was to consciously try to bust out of the envelope, to make sure we scrambled the mix so thoroughly that the ideas that emerged would be authentic by-products of our own imagination.
Shambhala Sun: But we're talking about a lot of heroin and amphetamines, not drugs known for their consciousness-expanding qualities.
Peter Coyote: Except that when you look at the great artists of our time who were our mentors and heroes-Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday and all the great be-bop musicians and the Viet Nam vets coming back-basically we joined that chorus of people singing through the flames after setting themselves on fire. I'm now talking from hindsight, having been a Zen student for twenty-five years, but at the time we thought that this was selfless behavior. We felt that we were giving up concern with health, with identity, with fame, with wealth, so we could achieve this kind of compassionate reworking of the culture to liberate other people.
Shambhala Sun: Much of your book is devoted to life in various rural communes, in which people attempted to eliminate any manifestation of the personal or the private, often to the point of obsession.
Peter Coyote: Well, I think it was an adolescent misunderstanding-going to the opposite end of the spectrum without discrimination. In point of fact, there's no such thing as freedom, but you learn that late. You learn that freedom, if it's anything, has to do with accepting absolute and unalterable interdependence. Certainly part of authenticity would have been admitting that we all had possessions that we liked, and that we had certain senses of order that we liked in our private living spaces.
I think you have to look at it as a kind of experiment which found the edges of the envelope. I think that if we had tried to create a village instead of a commune, for instance, it might still be going. But it was too radical a leap to try to put thirty souls into a one-family house and rethink everything. It was too exhausting.
Shambhala Sun: Which is to say that the revolutionary approach, which is to go back and redo everything in life, failed where a more moderate approach might have worked.
Peter Coyote: I think the middle ground is the most effective, although that's not necessarily the way that young men and women think. For instance, I think the extremes of the sixties may have led the country into the hands of Reagan. I don't think the American public embraced his conservatism. Rather, I think they embraced his avuncular old fashionedness, because the sixties raised so many questions that people couldn't answer, that they looked for a kind of holding action, a place to rest. They didn't know they would be opening the door to a kind of home grown fascism.
I take a certain amount of responsibility for that. One of the things you learn is that being in a counter-culture condemns you to marginality: if people don't like your style, they're not going to go for your ideas. Had we not been so insistent on our own style, with our own vocabulary and our own everything, we might have frightened people a little less and kept the debate going a little longer.
Shambhala Sun: On the other hand, the sixties had a significant positive impact on the culture, which it might not have had without the extreme element which you represented.
Peter Coyote: Well, Malcolm X used to say that Martin Luther King ought to thank the Lord that I'm around, because every time I go out there and frighten everybody, all those white people go running to him and write him checks. So there is a way in which radical forces push the edge of the envelope, and I do think we have moved the cultural ground in a progressive direction.
Shambhala Sun: One of the most fascinating-and frightening-parts of the story is your deep involvement with the Hell's Angels, who in that period were close to radical elements in San Francisco. The Angels were nothing if not authentic.
Peter Coyote: Well, it's a complicated bag. First of all, I don't know anything about the Angels now; they may be just another organized criminal class. But at the time, we had to come to terms with these guys who lived on our streets. And my experience was that by approaching them as men capable of intellection and decent people-until I knew better-they would respond, and they did. I had unprecedented access to the Angels for a number of years and met some of the most intelligent and lucid men I've ever met in my life, and also some of the scariest and most psychopathic men I've ever met.
Shambhala Sun: Tell me about your transition from drug-addicted radical to serious Zen student.
Peter Coyote: That was in a period where I suddenly was forced to think about a lot of things that I'd never thought about before. Suddenly I was alone; I did not have this nurturing community supporting me, and I realized that a lot of my predilections and impulses had been unhealthy. I realized that I'd damaged my health, and I began to get curious about what constituted good health. I put myself in a course of psychotherapy, I began Zen practice, and I met this woman who seemed like a very healthy person. I wanted to live a life that included good health and respect and reverence for my body and other people's bodies, which had been an enduring criticism of mine of the Diggers. There were a lot of things I couldn't go along with-a lot of our events were so chaotic and unbeautiful that I felt estranged from them. That wasn't the way that I perceived the universe.
Shambhala Sun: And ironically, beginning with a desire for simple good health, you ended up involved in something that may be fundamentally far more radical than anything the Diggers ever did.
Peter Coyote: Without a doubt. Buddhism is far more radical, by far the most radical thing that I have ever been involved in. Healthiness was just the path I took getting there. A lot of people didn't have to do that; a lot of people at the monastery where I lived were just innately intuitive and healthy people, who got there by a much gentler and less dramatic path. And god bless 'em. I did a lot of damage along the way, karmically and physically, to myself and other people.
Shambhala Sun: Why do you think that young people today have turned back past the sixties to the Beats in their search for cultural heroes? Is it because it's hard to see one's own parents as rebels, or is it deeper than that?
Peter Coyote: I think there's something deeper than that. First of all, you have to remember that from the sixties to the present there's been twenty- five years of aggressive disinformation and re-estimation of the sixties. The Reagan/Bush people did not want another generation of committed activists stirring things up. They've spent millions of dollars paying pundits to dismiss the sixties as a failure, to dismiss committed social activism as somehow unhip. They have created icons like David Letterman, whose attitude of cynicism about everything is the supreme goal of adolescence.
So one way in which they can co-opt the counter culture is to go back to the Beats, who were primarily interested in self-exploration. Certainly the most radical elements, like Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, were political, but the effect of the movement was not specifically political.
Shambhala Sun: So cynically, you could say that the mainstream can promote cultural rebels like the Beats, but not political rebels like the Diggers.
Peter Coyote: David Foster Wallace has an essay in which he tracks down the strategy of television ads. What they do is create a sense of irony that kind of washes over everything. Like, yes, of course you're being pitched as a stupid consumer, and we know that you're smart enough to know that, and we know that you're not going to take it seriously because you're so hip you don't take anything seriously. Wallace's essay is a brilliant examination of the kind of convoluted argument that TV has to make to keep a sense of cultural rebellion alive at the same time that it makes you part of a herd of consumers and television watchers.
Shambhala Sun: The mainstream culture is far more pervasive and sophisticated than it was when you were young-capable of instantly co-opting whatever it wants to. How much chance does a young person today have to genuinely rebel?
Peter Coyote: Well, I think young people are telling us that they don't have a lot of hope they can change things. When I see a kid walking around with pins through his nipples and twelve rings through his eyebrows, what it makes me think is that he's in a great deal of pain; that's what he's showing me. They've come up against a culture so monolithic that all they can do anymore is reflect how it feels. It makes me feel really bad, because I think there are ways in which they can contribute, if they can get outside of their own pain and they can link up with other people who are in pain. There are things they can do which may not look flashy but which are conscientious. You can start buying less, using less, wasting less-any place your life touches the culture you can make a difference.
Shambhala Sun: As you look back at the Diggers, what beyond the basic impulse do you think still has validity today?
Peter Coyote: Well, I think the notion of doing what you do without thinking about fame and fortune is pretty valid. I think the notion of doing things for free is pretty valid. It doesn't work in all contexts, but it certainly works in some. I really trust that compassionate intentions will find the appropriate ways to make themselves manifest and that each generation will think up their own ways to do it. Just as we related to the Beats, kids will be relating to what we did and correcting it and altering it to be more appropriate to their time.
I think it's a new game because we have exhausted the idea of having a pure place to stand outside the culture. I think this is now the time of mahayana culture-this is the big vessel, the big boat, and we're all in it. Things are going to be played out not as outsiders, but as insiders, and I trust that young people will work out their own ways of doing it. You know, things are coming around. It looks like capitalism has won but it's not over 'til the fat lady sings. They're creating a global proletariat, they're creating global oppression, and people are not going to dry up and blow away. I don't know what's going to happen, but it's going to change.
It's Been a Long Time Coming
It's Been a Long Time Coming
Saturday morning, June 14, the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, DC got off to a feisty start. The media was out in full force, with reporters jammed into the press tent and photographers pushing and shoving for a good shot. Asked by one reporter what a bunch of musicians were really going to be able to do for Tibet, both Thom Yorke and Sean Lennon went on the counterattack.
Sean Lennon stated flatly that he "resented" the question and insisted that he and the other artists were consciously using their celebrity as a vehicle to increase awareness about Tibet. Thom Yorke, of the band Radiohead, said, "There are a lot of really stupid reasons to become a rock star; this is one of the good ones." He incorporated East Timor and other repressive political situations around the world into his discussion of Tibet, and ended by telling the press that they had "the responsibility to tell the truth." Recently released Chinese political prisoner Wei Jingsheng and Tibetan Rhodes Scholar Tashi Rabgey spoke about the denial of human rights in China and Tibet respectively.
On the mainstage later that day, hip hop cornerstone KRS-One, self-proclaimed "blastmaster," spoke emphatically to the crowd of how he had attended a public talk by the Dalai Lama just a few weeks earlier and thus felt compelled to convey the importance of keeping a warm heart and being compassionate towards all human beings and not being "anti-Chinese." Shockingly, the first day of the concert came abruptly to a halt when a bolt of lightning struck the seats in RFK Stadium, injuring twelve people. The music stopped, people were asked to move away from the large television monitor screens, and the Weather Service was called to see if it would be safe to continue. It was determined that the lightning and rain would continue into the evening and it would not be safe to proceed with the performances. The capacity crowd of 60 thousand left the arena cold, wet and confused, some upset and demanding a refund.
Thunderstorms and lightning gave way to a warm and sunny day for Sunday's concert. Canceled performances by bands such as REM were rescheduled for Sunday. Becky Schwartz, concert volunteer and Wesleyan University student, was enthralled by REM's performance: "Thom Yorke's performance of Patti Smith's singing part in the REM song "E-Bow the Letter" was a moment of transcendent musical brilliance." Less articulate attendees settled for adjectives like "cool" and "awesome."
Show-stopping performances of the day included Wyclef Jean and Radiohead. Hip hop's four-star generals, A Tribe Called Quest, captivated the crowd for the third year in a row. As expected, the Beastie Boys followed by Pearl Jam had everyone in RFK Stadium on their feet. The Red Hot Chili Peppers took to the stage using Pearl Jam's equipment for a surprise set that had fans rushing back in from the exits.
The concert ended on a positive and energetic note, and the rally that followed was better than any of us could have hoped for. Monday, June 15, was a day of firsts for many of the people who found themselves on the west steps of the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
On this bright summer day, hundreds of young men and women-inspired by the weekend's Tibetan Freedom Concert-were attending their very first political rally.
For many Tibetan refugees in the audience, it was the first time they would have an opportunity to meet with congressional representatives and talk officially about their oppression by the Chinese.
For some of the Republican and Democratic congressional representatives, it would be the first time they had come together to speak out in support of Tibet's continued quest for self-determination.
But for activist and rock music mogul David Crosby, the mix of music, protest and politics was nothing new. On this morning, he looked something of the wise old grandfather as he rested on a large speaker to the right side of the platform looking out over the crowd, many of whom weren't even born when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were at their peak of success.
"Excuse me, sir," a young woman security guard said, tapping him on the shoulder. "Could you clear this area. I have an artist coming through here that needs to get on stage." He turned to her with a mischievous smile and stated flatly, "I'm an artist, too!" The young woman was embarrassed, but still didn't know to whom she was speaking. She turned and asked some older men around her if they knew him; they chuckled and explained his identity. Indeed the cause of Tibet seems to belong to a whole new generation of protesters.
Although Crosby was there to gather information for his new book, Stand and be Counted, which chronicles the history of music and political activism over the last forty years, someone asked him if he would be kind enough to perform. He walked over to Sean Lennon, son of John Lennon, and asked if he would join him for a song.
"It would be an honor," Lennon replied, and within an hour they took the stage.
Smiling at the crowd, Crosby said, "I wasn't supposed to be here on stage today. I came for the same reason you did-to be counted, to stand up for what you believe in. I am very proud to be here today exactly as you are. Somebody asked me if I would sing one song-I thought I might have one." The twenty thousand plus crowd was filled with inspiration as they played "Long Time Coming," and after the song was over Sean Lennon, a three-year veteran of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, took the podium and spoke passionately about the importance of preserving the culture of Tibet.
I spoke with David Crosby a few days after the rally, and he commented on the "bittersweet feeling" of playing with Sean, his fascination with Adam Yauch's commitment to the cause of Tibet, and his own feelings about Tibet. "I am not constructed so that I can just stand idly by and do nothing," he said.
When I asked him how it felt watching this new generation of activists, he replied, "I was really very, very proud of everybody who was there, and as I was watching the young people there I knew that nobody needed an instruction book-it just came naturally to everybody."
Indeed the National Day of Action rally for Tibet came off without a hitch. It was a day of impassioned music by artists such as REM and Thom Yorke, and powerful speeches from congressional representatives, human rights activists and members of the Tibetan government in exile, including the head of the Tibetan Parliament, Samdong Rinpoche.
The event culminated in a deeply personal and heartfelt speech by Richard Gere. He began by saying that the view of the enormous crowd gave him a chill, because he knew that Tibetans inside Tibet would hear about this event and gather so much strength and hope knowing that people all over the world cared deeply about their human rights.
Gere eloquently moved the issue of Tibet beyond the realm of economics, geography, diplomacy and politics and into the realm of non-violence and compassion for all of the universe. He invited everyone present to join him with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace in Lhasa on the first day of the new millennium for the beginning of a whole new world.
The day was closed by the Venerable Soygal Rinpoche and Tibetan monks and nuns with prayers to generate bodhicitta, but emotions were still high after the event. People lingered about the field and the steps around the capitol. Hundreds continued chanting "Free Tibet"; a large group of people carrying Tibetan flags and banners formed and began to move towards the White House, where reportedly several arrests for civil disobedience occurred.
The rally was the essence of what the Milarepa Fund, in conjunction with other Tibetan support groups, has been working for over the past three years-building awareness and translating that awareness into action for the people of Tibet. All the rockstardom, glamour and good times at the Tibet Freedom Concerts ultimately made this National Day of Action for Tibet possible.
While the rally of 20,000 might seem small by comparison to the 128,000 tickets sold for the concert itself, it was in fact a major victory for the Tibet movement, which has seen unprecedented expansion in the last five years.
The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) and Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), co-sponsors of the concert and rally, have both experienced a dizzying growth in membership and support. SFT will be going into its fourth year with close to 400 college and high school chapters in North America, and another 25 chapters in eleven countries around the world. Working together, ICT and SFT offered education about Tibet to concert-goers and gathered 7,000 postcards addressed to Chinese president Jiang Zemin expressing concern over the welfare of political prisoners such as the Panchen Lama and Chadrel Rinpoche. SFT also had information and postcards expressing concern about clothing manufacture Levi Strauss' decision to resume operations in China, despite China's abysmal treatment of its labor force.
As Clinton's comments to Jiang Zemin proved the following week, the people do indeed have the power. Freedom for Tibet seems more possible than ever before, but as David Crosby reflected, "In regards to freedom for Tibet, I feel that debating whether it is a hopeless battle or not is really not the point. The point is that a truly evil empire is acting in a way that is blatantly wrong. They are crushing Tibet in no less a fashion than Hitler crushed Europe. Regardless of whether we are artists, activists or just the guy next door, we are all citizens and we all have a responsibility to take a stand against injustice."
Taking a stand for Tibet . . . it's been a long time coming. Looks like the wait is finally over.
Kay Dougherty is national coordinator of Students for a Free Tibet.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Way Up High
Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Way Up High
No, Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in Arizona, where sixties' peace and love live on at the annual Rainbow Family gathering. Hank Rosenfeld says everyone should go at least once in their life.
If I am to spread the information properly-"take all the junk in the news and make it sing like poetry," as I.F. Stone taught-then I must inform you I'm starting with disinformation. Disinformation as opinion piece, from the United States Senator from these parts of Arid Zone A, Republican Jon Kyl, in the White Mountain Independent up in Show Low, AZ:
Arizonans near the site of this year's event already are finding out how disturbing this supposedly peaceful and spiritual group really is. . . . Residents of the town of Springerville have been told if they try to interfere with the group's illegal activities, this "peaceful" group would "trash the town". . . . Rainbow members have urinated on food in stores so the shopkeepers will throw it in the trash where members could then retrieve it. . . . I would think all Arizonans would be concerned for the safety and well-being of their fellow citizens and for our state's beautiful natural resources.
My pal Cape appears to be playing it straight this time, we're covering this for CBS after all, but once inside the RX-7, he's still a goner and sooner than ever, stoked by the strong coffee he made on the trunk, followed by a joint, a cigarette, a Coke and more coffee. We're late and we have to wait for Black Rock headquarters to Fed-Ex the relay equipment from New York: CBS-issue cellphone and mini-disc recorder.
We really came here of course, to The Rainbow Family of Living Light's annual world meditation for peace, in order to see all them thousands of hippies dancing naked and tripping around their teepees. To conduct a radio investigation for CBS. Who are these people? Are they just some kind of weird Neil Young leftover hippie dream, or the last and best hope still leftover from the 60's?
Cape sends this first report back to network headquarters: "They came to the Apache Forest in northeast Arizona to pray for world peace, but the Forest Service said `Get a Permit.'"
Pretty good lidlifter. Then our CBS cellular dies-or maybe the wilderness is bereft of cells-whatever, we have to go use a payphone 30 miles back in Springerville, where they don't get folks from CBS too often.
"Aw these kids are awright, they just don't like the government is all," says Joe Ellis, 73, in a laundromat on N. Hopi Drive and Main. "Hell, I don't like the government either."
Heh, heh. Way to go Joe, set the scene for us here in the heartland. Eagar, two miles away, is the home of eastern Arizona's most famous militiaman/supremacist, who just happens to be on the front page of today's Arizona Republic for refusing to obey a court order and come down from his hilltop lodge/bunker.
Eagar's also where we find the National Incident Control Readiness Strike Force Team, the authorities that the U.S. Forest Service headquarters sent here to handle the Rainbow Family. From this command post in an Eagar elementary school, National Incident Team Information Officer Rose ("I used to be in radio") Davis sits us on teensy kindergarten seats for an interview. Davis says she's from Idaho, and there are Forest Service officers here from as far away as Georgia.
The U.S. Forestry and Senator Kyl are upset because the Rainbows adhere strongly to the part of the Constitution where it talks about the right to peaceful assembly. So why don't FS Officers just go in and bust those 'bows for the no-permit no-no?
"Sheer numbers," Davis shrugs at last. There are 20,000 Rainbows arriving but if any of them are seen using the lake on reservation land, they'll be kicked off by the Apaches because, she says, "the Apache do not like the Rainbows. They think they're American Indian wannabes."
On the mountain top, the wannabes greet us warmly. All we've got are sleeping bags and dead technology, but they invite us out in the meadow for a huge drumming circle to communicate with the rain gods. It has been another dusty hot day, 100 plus degrees, even here at 9,000 feet. But "it always rains at a Rainbow Festival," Running Cloud, our guide says. Rain soon arrives, followed by a double rainbow. Then an additional prayer wish is added, for both rain and bow to be sent to "Our brothers and sisters in Flagler County, Florida."
Two days later, it will rain in Florida for the first time since the fires started. No propaganda. Just fact. We're CBS, we can't make this stuff up. Sure, the double rainbow will turn into "nine rainbows" according to Wolf Hat, sipping tea by a fire the next night. Probably on acid there were nine rainbows visible, but why argue about rainbows? A red-tailed hawk flies overhead. There's a guy Red Hawk, too; all the Rainbows have names like this, like gang monikers, only the opposite of gang monikers in that these seem peaceful.
Running Cloud's been camped here 34 days already. He's a scout who helps find the landing site for the Gathering. He says Senator Kyl's opinion piece was the typical retro-propaganda re Rainbows, something they're used to from the local scare-mongering fishwraps. "Migosh," he laughs, "any damage we do to this forest, which we repair before we leave, doesn't hold a candle to corporate industry's weapons of mass destruction. This is just more diversion, puffery, makeshift reality. Like Shakespeare says, the masters of culture always hatefully resent the promises and the trustworthiness they're forced to demonstrate. They loathe it. The reason the Forest Service is upset is twenty thousand people are having too much fun in their park."
After harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man would have discovered fire.
-Teilhard de Chardin
As night falls, we throw our sleeping bags on some pine needles and go meet Jackie from Iron River, Michigan ("up in Superior") working at the Gathering's Info Center tent. Jackie also helps run the Lost and Found there: a hemp hat, knife from Kathmandu, a puppy, and "Oh, we found your husband..." That sorta stuff.
Jackie gets us stoned. "Welcome home!" Amazingly this is also CBS's motto: "Welcome Home." (Nice yin-yang there, the somethingness and the nothingness mutually necessary.)
CBS deemed it okay we spend our days straight and nights stoned to get perspective on the scene here. I have never seen so much grass smoked. And this just in the Info Center, because I haven't been here long enough to see anything else. Psychedelics use appears much more discreet. We can't find any mescaline at all for instance, nothing for sale, certainly. Only barter is done here.
"Using money jeopardizes our right to use public land," says the Guide. My green energy, five bucks, dropped into the "magic hat" is welcome barter. "Remember," says the Guide, "The energy you give will come back. Wherever possible."
"It's a pleasure doing pleasure with you," one trader says after I exchange my WalMart canteen for a rock. Cape, trading with a six-year-old from Pt. Loma, gives up Pez for a crystal. We heard Rainbows love sweets. In fact, this place runs on sweets and no sleep. Everybody's slept two hours in the last three days and has been up for about 38 hours straight, depending on their drive or hitch to get here.
Directions from the Info Center lead us to a living breathing Whole Earth Catalog, with workshops on everything from earthship building (solar homes in Taos, I learn), to Lubavitcher Kosher cooking (chicken, trust me).
Something else from the guide: "What you have, share. What you are, teach."
Pretty intriguing. To see if it works, I show Jackie some sign language I learned from my nephew in San Diego, and she teaches me how to draw a new Lost & Found sign (somebody lost the old one). Cape says Abbie Hoffman said, "There are no teachers, we are all each other's teachings." This seems to grok what the Rainbows grok. We get into a discussion with her friends about Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Huxley, Buckley and Cassady, touching on Groucho, The Free Speech Movement, SDS, the Diggers and Dharma Bums. Jackie suggests that from now on, the Info Tent will be where one brings information.
She calls me "brother" and takes me to sit by the "Gypsy Cafe" fire. There is a total fire ban statewide, but the Rainbows got an okay from the Forest Service to architecturally-construct a couple of safe fire pits. Beautiful faces reflecting rising firelight are chanting in front of us. Some of the sisters bare their breasts and beat drums with beatific looks beamed back out into a widening circle of dancers. I've died and gone to tribal heaven. Welcome home.
High on popcorn, fire and dope, this is the best party I have ever been to. One of the keys I think, was realizing that being a "reporter" sent a bad vibe. Plus all our CBS TV references and movie references are lost on the Rainbows. They are not only a US Forest Service headache, they're Hollywood's worst nightmare. They just do not meditate at the multi-plex; they're busy making their own movies in the moment. Hippies, lawyers, stroke victims, people with broken necks, architects, grandmothers, all here doing it. So Cape and I have decided to tell them we are "elders," and in this way the media wrapper peels away and kids and women and men will overcome their inhibitions more easily and speak with us. Not that they have any...
"Omitakuye oyasin!" I keep hearing this by the fire and along the trails here, as a greeting or exclamatory. Or: "Om atakwe ase," as BeeohBee spells it for me. It means: "All my relations. Two-legged and four-legged. Whole!" Shared responsibility (Oglala).
We dance around religiously for a bit, meet parents and their children, Willow and Miracle, Ocean and Stony. I meet Roger, who hitches to the gathering every summer. The rest of the year he is an electronic underwater welder. "There's like twelve in the world," he says. He teaches me some Rainbow code: "Six Up" means there are Forest Service or cops in the camp. Guns in the church, six bullets to a gun, hence "Six up."
"This is our church," Roger explains.
After nodding off by the fire, I stumble my way back to our CBS campsite, and a perfect night for lucid dreaming. It's cloudy and no stars now, a slight breeze at 9,000 feet. Cape and I are probably the only ones here without tent or teepee. My new $29.95 bag from SPORTMART keeps me cozy. (It was really $39.95, but the woman rang it up wrong; hence, shopping smart at SPORTMART!) Laying back I feel wet drops fall upon my eyelids. Not a lot of rain, intermittent droplets like little angels from above, telling me to "Go! Go! Go to Sleep!" each time one plunks my peepers.
An elder named Elijah, a fantastic-looking black man walking naked with a stick, says all of this is about love and God. Peace and passion too, but mostly love and God. That's what people bring in and search for here. People are lost all over the place here; everyone is always asking directions to the dozens of neighborhoods and kitchens. With all the hitching, praying and partying, everyone has had like two hours sleep in three days. Children give the best directions.
For Running Cloud, it's not all warmth and light. "Rainbow life can be hectic, chaotic, blissful, rewarding," he says. "Also disappointing, the political side of it especially. Sometimes they get on your last nerve, and I only got one."
Another thing making him nervous are the US Forest Service choppers whirring overhead. On my morning walk, I see a Ronald McDonald beheaded and stuck on a pike just off the path. I see Elvis on a skull and crossbones flag. There is a "DEAF TRIBE" campsite here. A woman lifts up her granny dress and pees right next to me. Here's a firefighter from Maine, a software salesman from Provo. Perhaps our best interview for CBS today is a guy from The Netherlands who wants to, "Thank you everyone, for this is the American dream!"
The 4th of July is Rainbow's annual peace meditation, twenty-five thousand of us now, joining in a "silence is sacred" morning. Around midday everyone comes together in ever-widening circles, hands held skyward like we're saguaro cacti giving it up to the Arizona sun. Half of us are half-naked (as if expressing some kind of wholer human?), and a Hopi-styled kachina clownguy darts in and out of the circles, fucking with everybody. Cape turns on the mini-disc recorder to capture thirty minutes of Om-ing. The sister on my right in the peasant dress keeps switching her handholds from sun-raised to held-between to the arm-upon-shoulder-drape. She is weighed down by her rings and bracelets, although each position works for me. I feel that I've found the center of the counterculture, after being too young for it in the 60's and feeling too old for it in the 90's.
Then the children come parading out from Kiddie Village in face paint and costumes under the long green drape of a dragon train, breaking down our circle wall with an explosion of holy antics. Kiddie Village is probably the coolest neighborhood/kitchen here, full of flowing food and dirty-faced kids with non-stop smiles running between the trees. There are even a couple of naked pregnant women. (Pregnant women and kids are the first fed everyday at the dozens of kitchens/neighborhoods.)
The rest of the day promises constant partying. However, the sister next to me in the peasant dress does not give me a Rainbow hug. I don't know why. The Rainbow hug is famous world-over for its length as well as its depth. And I'm wearing my fresh, tie-dyed John Lennon tee-shirt today, too.
CBS issued me no bowl and you're also supposed to have a spoon attached to your belt. But I'm starving and determined to get fed in the Krishna Kitchen. A hunk of mush made from yogurt, rice, fruits and nuts gets dropped into the palm of my hand and I sit on some pine needles to slurp it up. Yuck. Yummy. Yuck. But as luck would have it-not luck, "magic"(the total appreciation of chance)-I get to have a pregnant naked woman wash my hands off afterward.
Whenever you look at someone with love in your heart, you are praying.
Everybody here looks better in the dark. A lot of last night's starry dynamos are walking around burned out or just sitting and gazing off stumps today. Poetry, lectures, meditation and massage, and consciousness-raising circles begin to dot the meadow. I go stand in a huge line, I have no idea what for: it's a woman on a chair, giving bite-sized Snickers bars for a hug. This place runs on hugs and chocolate.
I am having a great holiday, but I forgot to bring fireworks. Good thing though, as none are allowed. When some jerk launches a sky-rocket into the crowd, he is quickly surrounded by the Shanti Sena, the Rainbows' internal security force. Some have walkie-talkies, the others you never notice until they surround you, I guess. Non-violent intervention. There are other helpers, healers in C.A.L.M. (Center for Alternative Living Medicine) tents.
Tonight we hang in a great neighborhood: "The Lovin Oven," where a Deadicated band is strumming and harmonizing, and cookies are being passed around. Finding the Lovin Oven is like stumbling into the heart of the forest. Here the Rainbows have built mud kilns in a pine grove, stuck dough inside all that packed-up earthdirt, and then stacked the heated loaves in rows of skinny quaking aspen branches about eight feet high. Close by is another tent where women roll and powder and put all their lovework into the delicious buns, breads and cookies that feed thousands through the night. To come upon this baking bread is surely to breathe in the heart of the forest. And just like that, this is the best camping trip I've ever been on.
Don't try to build another ark; create a cup for your brother to drink from.
I don't know how they do it-yes I do, by consensus, like the Iroquois Code that Ben Franklin studied while he wrote the Declaration-but the Rainbows seem to find the most beautiful spots on the planet when they come together to pray and play. Every year since 1972 the Rainbow Family has found a different national forest in which to live this collective vision quest in a wilderness of bears and blue dragonflies, and God, of course, on the good clear nights. All they want to do is feed everyone, and every year they run into trouble with the government. Two years ago in Missouri, the Forest Service joined the prayer circle on the 4th, but this year the National Incident Team is putting out press releases detailing the "confiscation of illegally possessed feathers" and other violations of the law.
Presently, I find myself in a stand of trees, serving water to my brothers and sisters. Here by the big black kettle, I fulfill my own Fisher King initiation myth, sharing the cup like it's the holy grail. In this tent I also find my music, the right band to jam with on my Hohner. Folk music, anybody can play with that, so I join in. When everybody is singing Jesse Colin Young's "Get Together," you feel an old revolutionary zeal made new again in this moment. And you know it will be won with affection.
We're all the same person looking in a mirror, trying to shake hands with ourselves.
In the morning, I hear some frogs in a swamp beyond the parking lot and meet Paul, a software engineer from Provo. "I'm ready to go back and work my life," he says, inspired and accepting at the same time. I go to the It's a Beautiful Day Cafe for some "hot mama" tea and suddenly see cops on horseback, in longcoats like western highwaymen. "SIX UP!" I turn and shout, but way too late. Everyone's gonna be busted. Then one hippie by a fresh green patch of sprouts offers some up to a police horse.
USFS: Oh please don't, I'll never get him back.
HIPPIE: Ohhh I'll bet he'd like them. They're reeeeal good.
USFS: (pause, noticing sprout path) Say, how did you do that? That's pretty amazing.
The hippie starts to explain sprout-farming and how this bunch came up in less than two weeks. And this is the closest I have seen the Rainbows and the U.S. come together this weekend.
It was the media coverage of the Human Be-In that destroyed the spirit of the Haight-Ashbury.
-Flashing on the Sixties, by Lisa Law
Cape backs the Rx-7 off onto the gravel road carefully. We drive back down into Babylon to Superior, where the century plants bloom every hundreds years and the Rainbows pass through in buses and colored vans and jeeps.
How did all that Rainbow prayer affect Arizona? Only one person was killed over the 4th of July weekend. Ten died last year. According to the news, the reasons are, "Driver awareness and increased patrol presence."
There are more Rainbow gatherings scheduled for Greece, Costa Rica, Russia, South Africa, Israel and Quebec. Everyone should go to one once in their lives.
Will I ever really "let it all go," as a Krishna brother counseled? My backpack spilled open in the Krishna meditation tent and he suggested I throw it all in Ma Vishnu's fire. Until I do, I haven't done anything, have I? I haven't let it all go, it's just in my head, in notebook testaments. I certainly haven't committed to living it, and when I get back to LA I'll rip up parking tickets and throw them in the meter maid's face, and yell at a gardener for no good reason. So what happens to our bliss when it doesn't follow us out of here?
We sent CBS 18 reports; they aired a few of them. Our final report should have been: "The 90's are dead. Long live the one good thing from the 60's still going on! OMATAKWEASE! ALL MY RELATIONS. WHOLE!"
Hank Rosenfeld is a folk journalist and light comedian living in Santa Monica, CA. He has written humor for radio and TV, plays for small audiences, and stories for even smaller publications. He interviewed Allen Ginsberg for Pacifica Radio and was later yelled at by Allen for misquoting him. Hank lived on a pirate radio ship off the coast of Israel called The Voice of Peace and was once arrested in Athens for robbing the National Bank of Greece. He was innocent.
Tibet: Why ask Why?
Tibet: Why ask Why?
I remember clearly the first time I saw a Tibetan. I was thirteen years old, and my parents and I were travelling abroad for a year. My parents were Buddhists at the time, so they were visiting sacred Buddhist sites and doing extensive meditation retreats at various ashrams and spiritual centers in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
It was at the end of one of those endless Indian train rides, and I was tired, dirty and dreaming of a nice hot shower and a clean bed. We stumbled out into the Varanasi train station, which reeked of sickly sweet incense and cowshit. Homeless people in rags slept on every available inch of floor space, and the walls were covered with red splatters of betel spit.
Every traveller in India has one of those days, when they reach the end of their rope and are about to go totally nuts. I've seen it many times: a British woman reduced to tears after trying for four hours to buy train tickets. A German tourist lunging at an Indian bank teller who refused to cash his traveller's checks but wouldn't tell him why. As I stepped out onto the platform, I felt it about to happen to me. The heat and crowds and flies and cowshit and noise were too much. I was going to lose it.
Just then I saw two old women walking towards me. They were rosy cheeked, smiling, and wearing the aprons that Tibetan women wear. They were spinning prayer wheels, talking with each other, and seemed totally unaffected by the madness around them.
I asked my mother who they were.
"They're Tibetan," she replied.
Did these women have some secret source of inner calm that I was not privy to? Probably not. Were they any more spiritual or enlightened than the rest of us? I don't think so. But still, I remember the experience. It was this, and subsequently meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya, that started my fifteen year relationship with Tibet, its religion and its people.
In that time, awareness of Tibet has grown and grown. In the early eighties, when I and a handful of friends were the only Buddhist vegetarians within a five-hundred mile radius, Tibet was barely known in mainstream America. Then more Tibetan teachers began making their way into the West and more travellers were allowed into Tibet. Resettlement projects brought more Westerners into contact with Tibetan culture, as did the Dalai Lama's constant speaking and campaigning on behalf of his people. In the last few years, with more and more grassroots and celebrity support, awareness of Tibet, its culture, its people and its political situation has skyrocketed.
Now hundreds of thousands of Americans know about Tibet. The Dalai Lama has made his way onto billboards for Apple computers; Tibetan monks are being used to sell Airwalks. Steven Seagal has been recognized as a reincarnate lama, and Time magazine calls Buddhism the fastest growing religion in America.
Yes, awareness of Tibet has reached a fever pitch. So much so that scholars have begun debating about why Tibet is so popular and writing complete volumes on the subject. Critics are analyzing the entire phenomenon. Essays and editorials with titles like: "Demystifying Shangri-la" have appeared. Tibet scholars are on NPR, speaking at length on subjects like "the historical evolution of Western perspectives on Tibet."
So why is Tibet so popular? For some it is the religion-a fascination with the colorful deities and elaborate rituals. For others it is the fact that in spite of all the pain and torture the Tibetans have endured, their political struggle has been nonviolent. Jesse Helms likes Tibet because he sympathizes with any country that's been overrun by godless communists. Right-to-lifers have befriended Tibet because they are shocked and dismayed by the Chinese government's policy of forced abortions. Tibet has touched the lives of people in all parts of society, from all walks of life.
At this point Tibet has the support of an almost comically diverse band of politicians, musicians, activists, actors and dharma practitioners, but I believe that to try to analyze why all these different people find Tibet so appealing is really unnecessary. Every one of these people has a different reason for supporting Tibet, and while critics may gripe that these people are not supporting Tibet for the right reasons, the fact is that Tibet has our support. We have all befriended Tibet, and our reasons for doing so are as many as there are faces of Tibet.
Over the years I have seen many Tibets. After that first glimpse of those Tibetans in the Varanasi train station, I became interested in Tibet from a purely religious and cultural perspective. At that time I saw the idyllic Tibet, the one that Hollywood embraces and scholars feel perpetually obliged to demystify for us: the Tibet of the tranquil monks in high mountains ringing bells and meditating on the impermanence of life.
Later, when I went to Tibet, I saw a brutalized land whose people were being tortured and killed. I have seen a fierce Tibet as well: a land of Khampa warriors, wild horsemen and bandits who would just as soon cut your nose off as talk about nonviolence. Over the years, I have been frustrated by Tibet, loved it, hated it, wanted to never hear the word Tibet again, and then been moved to tears by the beauty of its culture and the strength of its people.
I have watched Tibet's increasing popularity and also have participated in bringing it about. All the while, I have considered the ramifications of Tibet being so popular. I have thought about the strange phenomenon of bringing such a culture into contact with modern America and how, inevitably, something gets lost in the translation. At times I have felt sad, longing for the Tibet that in earlier years was more "mine." A secret, hidden place of such beauty that only I, out of all the people I knew, had seen. At other times I have felt incredible joy, seeing first hand the sheer number of people that now know of Tibet.
But never once have I had to ask myself why I support Tibet. I just do, as one friend supports another. Tibet is part of my life. I do not pretend that Tibet was ever a perfect place, nor do I care. In the same way that I don't expect perfection from my own friends, or ask them why they're my friends.
If we are to truly support Tibet, then we must treat it as we would our closest friend. We do not have friendships because we want to "get" something out of our friends. Likewise, we don't sit around and analyze why we have befriended someone. It is simply that our lives are enriched by that person's presence. Tibet and its people have the same effect. They enrich the lives of many people; those of us who've been enriched by Tibet feel obliged to give something back.
If we choose to, we could probably discover much about ourselves in searching for why we are attracted to Tibet, its culture, its people and its cause. We could discover much about our own projections, our fascination with the distant and remote, our idealism, our motivations, and much more. But perhaps that is not what Tibet asks of us. Tibet and its people do not ask: why do you care about us? They do not ask us to see Tibet as either a Shangri-la or as a land of feudal serfs. They also do not insist that our motivations in supporting them be absolutely pure. They are simply asking for our help, and they are glad that we do care, that we do help. Because for them, time is running out. For them, there is no time to sit around and debate about the socio-cultural phenomenon of Tibet's popularity while their relatives are dying.
As Westerners we have the luxury of being able to sit back and analyze political struggles, causes, and social phenomena occurring all around the world. As we do so, we inevitably find truths and we inevitably find hypocrisies. Through all this, we tend to forget a simple fact. Right now, amidst all the hype surrounding Tibet, amidst the endless discussions and debates on whether Tibet was ever really a blissful land of enlightened beings, amidst the congressional speeches and the concerts and the films and the analyses and resolutions and dissertations, a sixteen-year-old Tibetan nun lies on the floor of Drapchi prison beaten half to death by Chinese soldiers. Her body is scarred with cigarette burns and she is weak from being tortured with electric cattle prods.
Now tell me. Why should we help her? Or perhaps that is not the right question. Perhaps the right question is, will we help her before it's too late?
Josh Schrei is a full time activist working at the Milarepa Fund, a part-time writer, and a collector of kung fu movies and old records.
Which Way to Freedom?
Which Way to Freedom?
As never before, Tibetans are debating the best way to win freedom for their land. While many remain confident the strategy of non-violence and engagement will win out in the end, others are driven by their country's terrible suffering to advocate stronger measures.
In New Delhi on April 27, during a skirmish between Tibetan demonstrators and Indian police, 50-year-old Thupten Ngodup cried out "Free Tibet!", doused himself with gasoline, and set himself afire. The horrified crowd looked on as Ngodup, caught in a blazing inferno, stumbled about with flailing, outstretched arms. He died two days later at the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, while softly chanting the Buddhist compassion mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum.
In June, another powerful image caught the world's attention. In an unprecedented broadcast, Chinese television presented uncensored coverage of a news conference by Chinese president Jiang Zemin and American president Bill Clinton. Standing amiably side by side, the two discussed the thorny issue of Tibet with an unmistakable air of optimism.
"I want to emphasize that according to the Chinese constitution, the freedom of religious belief in Tibet and also throughout China is protected," the Chinese president assured Clinton, adding that "earth-shaking changes" have taken place in Tibet since 1959.
Smiling Bill Clinton talking freely before all of China in favor of Tibet. Thupten Ngodup's fatal display of despair for his country. Two powerful and contradictory images signifying the complexity of the Tibetan situation. They testify that the Tibetan movement has reached a significant crossroads in its forty-year history.
The joint press conference buoyed hopes that the issue of Tibet had come to the fore of international diplomacy. Following the visit, the Tibetan Government-in-exile stated in a press release:
"We applaud President Bill Clinton for asking the Chinese government to enter into dialogue and negotiation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We also applaud President Jiang Zemin for publicly recognizing the fact that Tibet is an important issue needing a solution and for indicating his willingness to have exchange of views and discussions on this."
Said His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "In spite of the worsening situation inside Tibet, I believe that China is in the process of changing for the better. If you only look at events in Tibet, there is cause for frustration, but if you look wide enough, there is great hope. Today's China, compared to fifteen, twenty years ago, is a much changed China."
Since China's invasion of Tibet in 1950, Tibetans have been struggling to reclaim their homeland through non-violent methods, but the failure to win concrete gains has frustrated many within the exile movement.
The seeds of dissension were sown in 1988, when the Dalai Lama formally renounced the goal of full independence in favor of self-rule. In return for genuine autonomy for Tibetans, his "Middle Way" approach accepted Chinese control over Tibet's defence and foreign policy and down-played Tibetan demands for independence.
In his statement on this year's anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan revolt, the Tibetan leader explained: "What I am seeking is for the Tibetan people to be given the opportunity to have genuine self-rule in order to preserve their civilization and for the unique Tibetan culture, religion, language and way of life to grow and thrive."
As its name suggests, the Middle Way is a conciliatory response to Tibet's plight, since full independence seems an increasingly impractical goal in light of the Chinese regime's unyielding policy on its territorial integrity, including both Tibet and Taiwan. But the Tibetan leadership has been able to point to recent publications by Chinese intellectuals appealing for a move towards Tibetan autonomy, and the revival of contacts between Tibetan emissaries and Chinese officials through "private channels," as reasons for hope that moderation in dealing with the Chinese may result in liberalization in Tibet.
Other Tibetans, however, see this "Middle Way" as a futile attempt to appease a hard-line Chinese regime. In spite of the concessions the Dalai Lama has already made, Jiang had made clear during the press conference that open dialogue is only possible if the Dalai Lama acknowledges that Tibet and Taiwan are an "inalienable" part of China.
This was a wake-up call for many Tibetans. Frustrated, they are increasingly vocal in expressing their impatience with the status quo, and a new radicalism is emerging from the fringes of the Tibetan movement. Proponents of violent resistance argue that international efforts to intervene on Tibet's behalf were only stimulated by violent outbreaks in Tibet in 1950, 1959 and 1987-89. For a growing number of Tibetans, pursuing another course of action is preferable to the current death-watch over their nation.
For a small and disenfranchised people to confront an opponent as formidable as China, unity would seem vital. But the growing dissatisfaction with what some perceive as the Tibetan leadership's inaction is deepening rifts within the exile community.
This year's hunger strike in New Delhi signaled a greater willingness among Tibetans to defy the expressed wishes of their beloved leader, who opposed what he considers acts of self-inflicted violence. When government delegates visited the hunger strikers, they were greeted by jeering Tibetans. Inside Tibet, a series of bombings has recently been carried out against Chinese targets.
"Our generation feels something else needs to be done," explains Tenzin Sonam of the Tibetan Youth Congress in New York. "We've been practicing non-violence for so many years. It is not effective."
"The Middle Way is very confusing. We Tibetans shouldn't compromise our right to a free Tibet," says Pasang Tenzin, who in May helped organize a rally at the U.N. "The world thinks we Tibetans are from a land of Shangri-la. But Tibet really exists and Tibetans are human beings desiring freedom."
In the aftermath of the failed anti-Chinese uprising in 1959, the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 Tibetans fled Tibet, heading south in a dangerous journey over the Himalayas to India. Today, the Tibetan diaspora numbers about 130,000. India remains a generous benefactor to the largest Tibetan refugee community of 100,000, while smaller clusters dot the globe.
Until now, the Dalai Lama's leadership of Tibetans-both in exile and inside Tibet-has been largely unchallenged. The Buddhist leader has inspired the world with his message of kindness and the futility of violence. His smiling face became a symbol of world peace when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his steadfast promotion of a non-violent solution to China's illegal occupation of Tibet, and for millions around the globe, he represents an ideal union of spirituality and statesmanship.
"The Tibetan movement is more than a group of people trying to regain independence," says Thupten Samdup, national president of the Canada Tibet Committee. "It involves the whole concept of non-violence and decency. We have gained so much support and sympathy because Tibetans have so far been very consistent in their belief that truth and justice will prevail. It is very important that Tibetans follow the path of non-violence."
Nima Dorje, a 32-year-old chemical engineer living in Alberta, appreciates the pragmatic position the Dalai Lama has taken. Dorje, one of the key persons responsible for bringing the Tibetan grassroots network on-line, suggests that the "Middle Way" approach could help expedite negotiations with China. As a strategy it might also bring independence for Tibet, a goal which he believes must never be abandoned.
"What is needed is for some prominent Tibetans and groups to publicly disagree with the strategies of His Holiness while agreeing with the objectives. This would assist in His Holiness' position to be seen as moderate. But the problem is, few Tibetans want to disagree with the Dalai Lama."
In the West, outrage over China's repression in Tibet and admiration for the forbearance and compassion with which Tibetans have responded has made Tibet a popular cause for politicians, students and Hollywood glitterati alike. Clinton's trip provided China an opportunity to respond to the growing chorus of voices decrying Tibet's predicament. In turn, Clinton blunted criticism of his inaction on Tibet by addressing publicly the sensitive issue of human rights with the leader of the world's largest police state.
It was in both sides' interests to promote the Clinton administration's policy of economic engagement with China through the image of an open and changing China. Besides the unprecedented news conference, China released Chinese political prisoners Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan in April to set the stage for Clinton's visit.
"One cannot be misled with a release of a political prisoner every now and then," says Tseten Samdup, press and information officer of the Office of Tibet in London. "Tens of thousands of prisoners are locked away in prison and labor camps. The welfare of these prisoners must be equally addressed." Last year, a report by the European Union revealed that more than 3000 Tibetans were expelled from monasteries as part of China's re-education campaign between 1996-1997. Amnesty International reported that 96 Tibetans were imprisoned last year for taking part in peaceful protests.
Thupten Samdup believes that while the recent news conference was a positive contribution to the Tibetan cause, the symbolic exchange must be followed up with more substantial political measures. "Engagement is important but at the same time, human rights abuses in China must not be tolerated," he says. "The American public must remain firm on these issues, otherwise the Chinese will never take them seriously."
Samdup, a former member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, questions whose interests are really being served by trade with China. "Clinton is the American people's representative. He has to speak for his constituency and not for business corporations. I wonder if Clinton would still favor engagement after he spent a month in a Chinese prison."
The Dalai Lama was more positive about Clinton's efforts. He told Time magazine, "In the long run, his comments will certainly have a very good impact on the minds of many Chinese. But it's too early to assess the immediate impact. What's clear is that President Clinton made a great effort to put across his views."
Engagement advocates rely on the argument that more foreign economic involvement will inevitably make China more open politically. It is argued this new freedom will extend as well to Tibet.
But a closer look questions the linkage between prosperity and political freedom. In her paper "APEC, Globalization and Tibet: A Briefing Paper for Tibet Support Groups," lawyer and Tibet activist Cathy James argues that without accompanying social measures to safeguard human rights, the ills of the free-market, such as unemployment, poverty and extremist violence, multiply. Free enterprise alone cannot guarantee growth of democratic, humane societies.
One need only look at contemporary Tibet as evidence of this. In spite of the large financial resources being channeled into the region, the quality of life for the average Tibetan continues to deteriorate. Unemployment and poverty have risen and illiteracy is by some estimates as high as 80%. Use of the Tibetan language is virtually non-existent in the marketplace and in the higher levels of the educational system.
The influx of Chinese cadres and entrepreneurs, invigorated by China's market campaign to increase industrial development and foreign investment in Tibet, is perhaps the Tibetan people's most serious problem. The steady migration of Chinese, who continue to monopolize the benefits of Tibet's economic revolution, has drastically altered the demographic integrity of Tibet. Currently there are 7.5 million Chinese in Tibet, compared to 6 million Tibetans. So far, market reforms have served only to consolidate Chinese colonialism in Tibet, reinforcing the destruction of its culture and way of life.
Interestingly, one who favors engagement with the Chinese is the Dalai Lama himself. The Tibetan leader has made clear his opposition to trade boycotts, explaining that in the long run isolating China is not the answer to Tibet's problems, particularly in an era of rapid globalization. At a recent news conference in New York, the Dalai Lama argued that, "In the long run, the rule of law and a more open society, with more freedom of religion, will be of immense benefit to those people who put money in China. So their own interests are very much involved. It is in the interests of peace in the region, and I think the whole world, to make good friends with China."
Explaining that in his view the most effective way to improve human rights and religious freedom is to "engage Chinese leaders directly without public condemnation," the Dalai Lama made his own appeal to Chinese interests: "The top priority of the Chinese government is stability and unity. In order to achieve that, I feel that realistically the best thing is dialogue on the basis of the middle approach.
"Although there has not been official contact since August of 1993, there has been some contact through other channels, in some cases government, in other cases individuals. So my position is that in spite of the worsening situation inside Tibet, I am fully committed to my middle approach. As soon as some positive indication comes from the Chinese government, I'm ready to talk. Anywhere. Anytime. With the changing situation in China proper, I think eventually some kind of understanding will come. In the long run, I am optimistic."
But even the Dalai Lama knows he is caught between his long-term hopes for rapprochement with the Chinese and the immediate desperation of Tibetans who see their country terribly wronged. Take the hunger strike in New Delhi, which went sixty-seven days before being ended by the intervention of Indian police. It was at a protest against this intervention that Thupten Ngodup immolated himself.
The fast began on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. A craftsman, two artists, a shopkeeper and two elderly Tibetans sat in the heart of New Delhi's Jantor Mantor Park. They resolved to starve themselves to death unless the United Nations put Tibet on its agenda.
After nearly seven weeks of living on water and lemon juice, the enfeebled strikers were forcibly removed by Indian police, who took them to nearby hospitals to be force-fed. A new batch of five Tibetans dutifully resumed the fast. The hunger strike ended only when members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which spearheaded the strike, decided to give international pledges of support time to concretize.
Meanwhile, scores of other Tibetans stand ready to offer their lives if need be. "If our demands are not fulfilled, we will resume our movement," the TYC warned in a statement. "We will continue to fight to the last drop of our blood until freedom and dignity is restored to the people of Tibet."
The Dalai Lama visited the hunger strikers to express his admiration of their devotion to the Tibetan cause, but his disapproval of their methods. Moved to tears by their selflessness, the Tibetan leader knew he had little to offer as an immediate alternative to the hunger strike.
"I went to them, and I expressed three points," the Dalai Lama said. "First, I expressed my appreciation, my admiration for their determination. Second, I made clear to them I believe this hunger strike is a form of violence, so I did not agree with it. Third, since they were taking this drastic action for the Tibetan cause, which is also my responsibility, indirectly they are actually helping me. I also mentioned that as Buddhists we should have sincere motivation, compassionate motivation, and should not have negative feelings towards the other side.
"Then if I really want to stop them, I have to offer them an alternative. That is not there, unfortunately. I am fully committed to the middle approach to solve the Tibetan issue. But meantime, there is no response from the Chinese government, and the situation inside Tibet becomes worse and worse. More and more people are feeling some kind of desperate feeling.
"So in order to stop the expression of their desperation, I have to offer them something. `Oh please don't do this, you see, we have this other way.' Effectively, that's not there."
One way to bring more rapid change to Tibet is being proposed by Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, chairman of the Assembly of the Tibetan People's Deputies. He is organizing a Gandhian-style Satyagraha movement as an immediate and dramatic yet non-violent way to restore freedom in Tibet. The Satyagraha (literally "Truth-Insistence") principles were developed and used by Gandhi in his struggle to emancipate India from British rule.
To prepare, activists will undergo rigorous spiritual training, during which they must remain truthful, peaceful and non-violent. The operation, fraught with danger, is set to begin in 1999. Entering Tibet, the Satyagrahis will hold peaceful protests demanding rights already enshrined in Chinese law, such as the right to education, removal of racial discrimination and the teaching of the Tibetan language. If they are arrested and imprisoned, they plan to continue their peaceful protests in prison.
"The Chinese can only imprison us for a charge of trespassing. They cannot imprison us for the whole lifetime and then if they release us, then we will start again," says Samdhong Rinpoche. "All Tibetan people must, with united hearts and minds, courageously engage in a Satyagraha movement, as an effective means to achieve our own truth, for truth is always victorious and truth is on our side."
But truth and non-violence can be slow to win out over a hardened police state. As the situation inside Tibet grows bleaker with the passage of time, many Tibetans wonder when the strategy of non-violence will bear fruit. The Tibetan movement has become a symbol of hope for those promoting a global political culture of non-violence and dialogue. But the cost of remaining a moral example is too great for a growing number of Tibetans who simply want an end to the atrocities inflicted on their land and people. While the world fawns over romanticized images of a gentle Himalayan utopia, frustration simmers among Tibetans as they are forced to watch the real Tibet die before their eyes.
"If Tibetans resort to violence the world community would be to blame," says Thupten Samdup. "They would be failing a great man, the Dalai Lama, in front of his people."
As a result, Tibetans are taking matters into their own hands. The recent unrest within the exile community is a clear demonstration to the Chinese and the rest of the world that there is more to the Tibetan movement than just the benevolent face of its saintly leader. Tibetans' determination to win freedom for their homeland is encapsulated in the simple reminder by a Guatemalan Indian: "Don't forget that there's always someone who can pick up the banner of the fallen and say, `We carry on the struggle.' "
Chokey Tsering is a freelance writer in Montreal and is studying for a Master's in sociology. She is a member of the Canada Tibet Committee.
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