Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Theocracies & Realities

Fifteen years ago, reading about Ireland, Israel, and Tibet, I entertained at least myself with my own musings about my fascination with failed attempts at theocracies. Or, oligarchies in thrall to the religiously obsessed. My interests since childhood have wandered in such realms in my armchair travels. The Six-Day War, the Black & Tan struggles, the flight of the Dalai Lama: these somehow entered into my boyhood reading. I delved deep into the dugouts of Irish republicanism where the far-right and the extreme nationalist found common cause, the fortressed walls where settlers on the West Bank (or Occupied Territories or Judah & Samaria depending on your predilection, as in Northern Ireland, The North, North-east Ireland, Ulster, and Occupied Ireland also show) contended to establish another pre-messianic domain in New Yerushalayim's golden light, and the shattered lamasaries where the snowy lion rampant on the brilliant Tibetan flag once revealed that nation's clash of empty expanse and mind-altering sunbursts of dazzle upon the rarified air's glare.

Yet, whether Mick Collins or David Ben-Gurion or the Dalai Lama, it's easy to romanticize. The Cairo Gang and the Stern Gang uncovered the sordid if necessary evils of a revolution against the British. While the feudal poverty endured by the subjects of the abbots -- in the Himalayas as in the fields of Flanders or the forests of Wales-- attests to the conditions within which a lucky ten percent or so lived relatively comfortably, despite their vows, upon the labors of many who had no choice but to go to bed hungry. Yet, trained as a medievalist in an era and a country far from either the ethos or the edifices, I have tried to understand such mentalities through their remnants, their texts and illustrations and prayers. My knowledge of Tibet pales beside my familiarity with Irish republicanism and that ideology's again removed from my daily toil, let alone the distance bridged by my shelves with their dusty considerations on the clerical discernment of spirits or the neglected wisdom from seven centuries ago directing me along the narrow path to ascetic mystical enlightenment as intended for an anchorite in Northern England.

Not many boys in the States may claim having had a real Tibetan kiss, but my eldest son did, from Sareng, who grew up in the refugee town of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama resides with many exiles. I've never seen "Seven Years in Tibet," or "Kundun," let alone a documentary on the salt trade there that I'd wanted to years ago and have forgotten the dutifully mundane name of. But, I read Richard Avedon's narrative history "In Exile from the Land of the Snows" and learned of the tortures meted out upon the monks and nuns and laity in Sinkiang prison camps that equal the agonies of the Armenians or Jews or Rom. For a long time, I wondered why our own country did nothing.

Stupidly, in my youth, I waited for a president who'd take up the Tibetan cause, failing to realize that what mattered more were pandas, ping-pong, and profiteers. Now, I even teach those "displaced" workers who've lost their jobs across the fence at "globalized" Boeing; they have even been sent overseas on their last assignment: to train their replacements in China who now build our military's planes. Faustian bargains indeed. We will end this century another shrunken British Empire, our dominion over a few rocky islands of penguins or pigeons. The Chinese and the real Indians will prove our betters, and we will vie with France for past glories and present malaise. As with the past obliterations of peoples and cultures and faiths, we in this ridiculously hypocritical, undereducated and overstimulated nation bow before idols of free trade, most favored nation status, and filthy lucre.

Like Francis Bacon, even my own knowledge fails to inure me from the marketplace, even as I shrink, like him, into my library's comforts. Claiming scant understanding of what's contained in countless volumes and lifetimes of meditation, still, I've integrated a bit of the "Bardo Thodol" into my dissertation. I marvelled at its terrors and beauties when I studied Sogyal Rimpoche's version of it around the time of the death of my mother. Last night, at the end of our yoga session, Layne and I heard our teacher for the first time chant the primordial "Om" three times and then Shanti thrice. Now, of course I thought of the end of "The Waste Land," for my learning's not gone astray. But, I also realized, and perhaps T.S. Eliot did despite his learning, the sheer awe-ful (in the original sense that the anchorites knew that good Saxon word) nature of that cry and that acknowledgement that we know only that we do not know.

Robert, Uma's dad, Thurman, who in his edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead better titles this treatise by a subtitle, "Liberation Through Understanding in the Between," pioneered as a young American scholar our understanding of what he coins as "psychonauts." Thurman undertook this formidable learning that guided so many-- by explanations such as his life's work-- into the current revival of dharma in the West. Rick Fields, in his history of this movement, "When the Swans Came to the Lake," includes a prophecy I dimly remember of iron birds and red wings in apocalyptic days that fulfills the Buddhist entry into our society. I turn to Thurman's dedication, which I opened by chance only now. It predicts the current crisis and summons up dark memories of such turmoil over the past half-century.

"This book is dedicated to the brave and the gentle people of Tibet, who have suffered and are suffering one of the great tragedies of our time. The entire world is turning its back, due to fear and greed, while the Chinese government pursues its systematic campaign of genocide. May the conscience of all people cry out in one voice! May the Chinese people inform themselves at long last, find out they have been lied to by several of their own governments, and realize they are in extreme contravention of the laws of humanity and of nature! May their hearts then soften and may they take concrete action to repair the great harm they have inflicted on this innocent people. May the Tibetan people soon regain the sovereign freedom they have enjoyed since the dawn of history! And may the sunlight of Tibetan Spiritual Science once again shine brightly upon a freshened world!" (vii)

I think tonight of the recent hundred people reported dead after protests in Tibet. The Chinese regime spins mightily their machine, for we all know no boycott will occur, no goods will stop filling our Wal-Marts, and no debts will suddenly go unpaid-- at least for now-- by the banks and factories and corporations who control globalized profit, no matter the Red Flag or the Stars & Stripes flying outside the firm's headquarters. We too live under an oligarchy, rule by the propertied few, in league with a plutocracy where the grads of Harvard Law and Columbia and Oxford will come November continue their rule. We look back at the monastic worlds of East and West and shake our heads derisively at their backward notions. Yet we live in the most sinister theocracy of all, in thrall to the idols of the marketplace. In this Left Coast, post-Christian secular realm, are we any more free today despite our purported freedom from bondage to our distant lords and under our imperious masters?

Photo: from Independence Cymru blog for 18 March. There's based in San Francisco the International Campaign for Tibet at Save Tibet, and this organization in London: Free Tibet

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