200 Years in Tibet: Glimpses in Fact an Film

By Lefebure, Leo D. | The Christian Century, March 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

200 Years in Tibet: Glimpses in Fact an Film


Lefebure, Leo D., The Christian Century


Western visitors have been impressed by Tibetans' gentle spirit and their devotion to Buddhist practice.

Tibet has represented many things to the West: a remote and forbidden land, an exotic region of magic and mystery, and a source of spiritual wisdom and insight. In recent months, Hollywood has brought images of Tibet to American consciousness through two major movies. Seven Years in Tibet, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, is based on the adventures of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in the 1940s. Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, is about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. (Kundun, which means "presence," is a title of respect used for the Dalai Lama.) Both movies include images of traditional Tibetan life and also of China's invasion and oppressive rule of Tibet.

Many Americans, from Hollywood actor Richard Gere to conservative Republicans in Congress, have recently protested the treatment of Tibet by the Chinese government and demanded a stronger U.S. response. Last year, when Chinese president Jiang Zemin was honored at a state dinner at the White House, a "stateless dinner" was held in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the sufferings of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese.

Understanding Tibet, however, has proved difficult because of its remote location and its distinctive history, customs and religion. Tibetans even have difficulty communicating with other Buddhists. Some years ago, a leading Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Kalu Rimpoche, met with Korean Zen master Seung Sahn for dharma combat--an encounter that tests and challenges each master's understanding of Buddhist teaching. As the Tibetan lama sat fingering his prayer beads and murmuring a mantra, the younger Korean Zen master began the exchange by reaching inside his robe, drawing out an orange and holding it up. In a defiant and challenging tone, he asked,"What is this?"

It was a classic Zen question, and Seung Sahn waited to pounce on any response that would betray ignorance. The Tibetan simply sat quietly without saying anything in reply. Seung Sahn moved closer, held the orange under the lama's nose and repeated his question: "What is this?" Kalu Rimpoche bent over to discuss the situation with his translator. The two Tibetans talked for several minutes, then the translator spoke to everyone in the room: "Rimpoche says, `What is the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?"' The dharma combat went no further.

For centuries, Western images of Tibet have stressed the exotic and incredible. Medieval Christians like Odoric of Pordenone, William of Rubruck and Marco Polo brought back reports of Tibetans' magical powers and strange customs. Some 19th-century Europeans believed that Tibet was the homeland of the Padaeans who, Herodotus reported, lived east of India and had the custom of eating their dead.

More recently, in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), Parisian-born scholar Alexandra David-Neel recounted her experiences in Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century. She told of Tibetan monks who could survive in freezing temperatures with little or no clothing, who could float on air or walk over water, become invisible at will, send messages across large distances by telepathy, and choose to die by dissolving their bodies at will, leaving no trace behind. David-Neel reported that when the Tashi Lama departed from the city of Shigatse he allegedly left behind a "phantom perfectly resembling him who played his part so thoroughly and naturally that every one who saw him was deceived. When the lama was safe beyond the border, the phantom vanished."

David-Neel claimed to have learned the skill of magical formation herself. She created the image of a monk who was her servant, visible to herself and sometimes to others. He would perform various actions for her, and he would occasionally touch her shoulder. As her relationship with the phantom developed, he underwent changes in appearance and behavior, eventually escaping the control of his creator. …

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