[Guestpost by Kunsang Palmo]
I had sat with the White Buddhists for at least thirty minutes. It was a frustrating experience. I sat in silence watching the gross fetishization of Tibetan Buddhism. I told my friend I couldn’t watch the head lama doze, bored by the dullness of the affair that he had legitimized and sanctioned, any longer. As far as I was concerned at the time, that space had nothing to offer to me. It was not going to satiate my need to be among my people. It was so simplistic in its understanding of Tibetanness, so naive and thoughtless, it was insulting.
As we were walking out, the wife of the head lama suspecting that I was Tibetan, invited my friend and me to tea. We began to speak and she asked me questions about my family as if in search for some sort of connection to the Tibetan community. It could be possible that she felt as distanced from the monastery as I felt even though it belonged to her. At least, I hoped I was not the only person who felt awkward. I watched her dismiss the White women as they walked in and out. I also comfortably ignored my friend. Did we both equally feel the need to reclaim our space or was it us relieving ourselves from the awkward circumstance that we were put through? It could be that my observations are nothing more than projections and a result of my own personal desire to connect to her in the way I am used to connecting to people in monasteries. However, the fact that she spoke to me in Tibetan, despite the fact there were more non-Tibetan speakers than Tibetan speakers, had the effect of actualizing what I desired from the monastery at that moment. Sonam provided me the comfort that I had come to expect from monasteries and built a protective barrier around me from the foreign practices which had, till that moment, alienated me completely. They looked at us curiously and prepared tea for us, but since we were speaking only in Tibetan, there was no way for them to join us. She was completely engrossed in the conversation that we were about to begin.
They were the kind that I used to have with my grandmother as I laid my head on her lap. She would list all the people in our immediate family, which she had narrowed to include twenty six people. Then she would list the people who she considered were close relatives. She would talk about the people who claimed to be relatives but were actually not because of their mother’s promiscuity or mistake in calculations. What had been nothing more than long, never-ending lists of people to me, could have been my grandmother’s way of speaking about herself without actually doing so. This listing of people is a very common practice among Tibetan refugees.
So, when I entered the conversation with Sonam, I knew exactly the sort of descriptions she was expecting from me. She wanted to know my blood ties, my people, and through that she would know me and we would know each other. She asked me what refugee camp I was from. I said I was from the Tibetan refugee camp in Jawalakhel, Nepal. She excitedly replied that she knew people from there. I said I was the granddaughter of Pulu and Tacho. She said the names sounded familiar but she was expecting a more detailed account of who I am and how I came to be. I explained that I was from the Derge County of the Khampa region on Mother’s side, and from the Nangchen County of the Khampa region on father’s side. She waited for me to give her more clues so that she could put together the puzzle that was in her head. I said that my mother, like me, was from the Jawalakhel Camp in Nepal and that my father was from the Bir Tibetan Refugee Camp in India. I explained that my biological father and my mother were not together, and that I had never known him my entire life. A fire sparked in her eyes and she told me that I was Rabsel’s daughter. Finally a name, I thought. From various gossips, I have heard stories about him but no one in my family will ever say his name. Even the most gregarious of people will avoid uttering his name in front of me, always too afraid to remind me of my half-complete blood line. She introduced herself as the sister of the woman who my father was supposed to marry but refused to because he was in love with my mother and could not imagine himself with a sanjor, which is the Tibetan equivalent of FOB (Fresh off the boat) and is used to describe people right out of Tibet. His elder brother, the more responsible one, married her sister instead, who had gone all the way to India for the marriage. She explained that my uncle is a good man, described my grandfather as a devout Buddhist and a practiced yogi, and my aunt, it turns out, is a famous, Nepali pop singer who also happens to be a nun. The woman whose ethereal voice dominates the Boudhanath stupa with “Om mani padme hum” is my aunt! She explained that Ani Chonyi, the pop singer, gave my father a job at her nunnery when he was down on his luck and that he was kicked out because of his crazy antics.
She used the word crazy a lot when talking about my father. At the end of the conversation, she gave me phone numbers, told me where she lived, asked me to visit, and then officially introduced me to head lama, Rinpoche Kunsang. The Rinpoche looked at me and said my nose looked uncannily like my father’s, which explains why my grandmother always pinched my nose and frowned. I was no longer sitting in utter discomfort looking at the women who had cloned themselves to be Tibetan; their aesthetics so impeccably Tibetan that it was disturbing. I remember speaking to a person who told me that he believes he was a Khampa in his previous life. In the face of such sincerity, I couldn’t laugh openly, but it made me wonder about how Tibetans represent themselves and the popular understanding of the Tibetan that make a lot of people believe that with effort and sincerity, they too can be Tibetan.
I thought about how different my dynamic with Sonam was compared to the one she had with the White women. I thought about my memories and how much they conflicted with what I had experience at the monastery. There is a Buddhist monks who visits our college every two years to build a sand mandala. During his visit, he usually makes time to give a talk on Buddhist philosophy. He stressed to his audience the importance of the heart and how its presence is lacking in the modern world that is preoccupied with developing the mind. During his talk he essentialized Tibetan Buddhism into compassion and the practice of Buddhism to be nothing more than a strong focus on the development of the heart alongside the mind. After his talk, I had a lengthy conversation with him where we mostly exchanged jokes. When I asked him about his talk, he responded with “you kind of have to say that.”
It is a phrase that Tibetans often use when they are in a foreign space, where they believe they are expected to say certain things. He knew his audience and knew what they expected from him. He also knows the educational tradition that he is entering and is mindful not to disturb it. It is a source of his livelihood and has proved itself to be relatively lucrative. The purpose of this paragraph is not to accuse him of being a liar. I don’t think he is lying. It is true that the way he speaks to me is different from the way he speaks to English speakers and I noticed the same behavior from Sonam, the wife of Rinpoche Kunzang at KPL. However, I don’t think he believes that he is proselytizing because the sort of Buddhism that he is speaking of is not the same as the one he practices. It is a Buddhism that has been designed specifically for the West and it is one that is aware not to disturb Western sensibilities. It is not the Buddhism he knows.
When I walk around campus, I will pass by several windows decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. One time, I even found a window with the Tibetan national flag. I went all over campus looking for that person because people hang Tibetan prayer flags but no one hardly ever hangs the Tibetan national flag; too political and not as attractive as the spiritualism associated with Tibetan Buddhism. Turns out, it is another symbol of my community decontextualized. It is like seeing someone else’s cooking pot. It is a personal item when in our own homes. It is what a parent or a guardian might use to feed us. However, we don’t attach meaning to it when we find it in someone else’s home. It is mass-produced and although food is personal and the pot, integral to creating that familial space which is always designed around food, the pot itself is decontextualized from family because it is sold in the market. Anyone can buy a pot. Similarly, the monastery was decontextualized from the Tibetan identity. It had been sanitized of all the things that I had always considered it to represent. It successfully alienated me but through the process of sanitation and decontextualization, the monastery was made accessible to all who were interested; another commodity, ready for consumption, in the great capitalist market.
[This piece is a continuation of “A Tibetan Refugee Visits an American-Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.”]