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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: Religion Observance in Present-Day China and Tibet


42-01 Roadside Shrine #7, On Kora, Lhasa, TibetRoadside Shrine, on Kora around Potala Palace, Lhasa

Religious Observance in Present-Day China and Tibet

Having visited the Sera Monastery today with hundreds of monks debating in the courtyard, and seeing all the pilgrims arriving at the monasteries and temples, I wonder about the religious persecution I was led to expect.

Xi says there are official and unofficial restrictions on what a religious person in China and Tibet can and cannot do. It is illegal to exhibit a photograph or image of the Dalai Lama in Tibet. It is illegal for any person—especially monks and nuns, in both China and Tibet—to object to public policy based on religious grounds. It is illegal to claim that a spiritual being has spoken to you or through you. And some groups like the Falun Gong have been found to be anti-humanitarian, so you cannot openly practice or espouse the Falun Gong. “I have already told you how I feel about them,” she said, and frowned. There are practicing Falun Gong in China for certain, but unless they make themselves a public nuisance, no one is going to go look for them. The same with Tibet, she says. Everyone who wants to have a picture of the Dalai Lama has one, but they don’t go waving them around. And you are free to pray to anyone in your heart, the photograph is not important, right? But, she agrees that the whole idea is silly and difficult to defend.

Earlier we met with three Tibetan schoolteachers, all female. The conversation was open but there were few pro-nationalist feelings expressed. The laws are racist against native Tibetans, that is true, and the religion is under strict control of the government, which is unfortunate, and the police can detain a Tibetan without a charge and hold them incommunicado—that is very uncivilized, agreed. And it is true that many monks have disappeared, and all of the important ones have fled, been killed, or are in prison, so there is no one to teach, yes. But it was difficult before the Chinese, too. The monks took advantage of the people. Even the Buddhists will tell you that.

No one likes the railroads except the Han. They have built a new Lhasa, turning the plains around Lhasa into the modern city, built and owned and occupied only by Han. Even in the old town—where the Tibetans are gathered—when a business changes hands, invariably it will be sold to a Han. Building and businesses are strictly monitored, and any Han can go to the front of the line.

But the teachers weren’t upset that the classes were taught in Chinese. Chinese was the language of the future. Very few children speak Tibetan outside of their homes. That is too bad for the elders, but good for the next generation.

What did she think of teaching the Chinese version of Tibetan history? These books are written by Chinese historians, she says. We believe this is the true story and it is false history that is taught in the west. (The official Chinese history is that Tibet has always been a part of China, and Tibet was liberated from an abusive usurping theocracy in 1949. No one outside of China—that I know of—has ever expressed this belief. As far as I can tell, there are an appropriate amount of official documents that would only exist if Tibet was negotiating as a separate country with the Chinese at least as far back as 150 years ago. But Xi—certainly one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and well informed, and proud of being a free-thinker—is insulted that Americans talk of Tibet and China as two separate countries. “It would be like saying the United States and California.”)

The lead teacher at the school—Anji—is a Buddhist, but more important to her is that she is a professional, modern woman. She is her family’s first college graduate and the only teacher in her school district who has studied in the United States. Things were improving for her under the Chinese. But since the 2008 uprising, travel for Tibetans—even to several of China’s provinces where there is unrest, and to Hong Kong, where there are organizations that can get anyone with enough money out of the country—is restricted. She does not see why she must lose her ability to travel because a few troublemakers make life miserable for everyone else.

Our other guide is Tendzin, who ten years ago was able to get a 2-year visa to study as a Buddhist monk in Dharamsala, India. But he overstayed his visa, never expecting to return. And Tendzin wasn’t the only one, which also contributed to the current restrictions.

One day news arrived that Tendzin’s mother was dying and he returned to China. He was jailed and tortured (“Just a little,” he said”) and released after six months. He will never be allowed to leave Lhasa again, that much is certain. He will never be allowed to enter any Buddhist temple of monastery or associate with any monks or nuns.

Before he left Tibet, he had been living comfortably as a single teacher, but now he is married with a nine-month old son and the only jobs he can get are temporary ones, like manual labor, or on a good day a tour like ours. Our company and others insist on a native guide, but in general it is harder for Tibetans to work as tour guides, as most of the best jobs go to the Han, who will present the Chinese version on Tibet and the troubles.

He says the Tibetan language will never die—it is a holy language, a sacred speech. He is keeping his son out of school because he would be taught Chinese poison. Instead he and others have created their own home schooling, rich in Tibetan history and culture. He would die for the Dalai Lama. (Every time he mentions the Dalai Lama by name, he hits his heart with his fist.) “Long live the Dalai Lama,” he says, turning to window, overcome by emotion. “Tibet will never surrender. Never!”

42-02 A home shrine, LhasaA Hidden Household Shrine, Lhasa

“What about Christians?” I ask Xi on our evening walk. “I have a friend who smuggled bibles into China in the late ‘90s.”

Xi laughs out loud. “That is a scam, run by local dishonest Christian pretenders. It is true that during the Cultural Revolution all versions of religion were prohibited. But today there are forty million Chinese who described themselves as Christians in the 2010 census. There are currently more practicing Christians in China than Europe. There are four million Christians in Beijing alone, and over the last decade it has become the fastest growing religion in China. The largest bible publisher in the world is in China. Here Christianity is associated with prosperity, and everyone here wants to get rich.”

But she tells me why there remains a negative feeling in China about Christianity. Between 1850 and 1864, China had a civil war of its own, and for China the rebels were a Christian militia from the south. Just about every family in China lost more than one family member in that war, and entire families were wiped out.

The leader of this uprising was Hong Xiuquan. By the time he was 37 years old—when one should be entering their most productive years—Hong had spent everything he had on preparing for the imperial examinations, which would have allowed him to get a job among the scholars. After his seventh and final failure, he was broke and without prospects. He took to bed and did not speak or eat or respond in any way for three full days. On the third day he arose and told his friends and family that in a dream he had been visited by God. In this dream, God told him that he had been transformed into the second Son of God, the younger brother of Jesus. He was to be the messenger of the Apocalypse. He would raise an Army of God and lead them against the forces of evil in China. These forces of evil—God told him—were the Qing Dynasty, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religions. When Hong reached the Forbidden Palace’s walls, God himself would be first over the parapets, leading Xi and the Army of God to final victory, inaugurating a Paradise on Earth.

Hong began assembling a community around his messages from God. First he recruited a childhood friend—Yang Xiuqing—as his second-in-command. Shortly after Hong’s dream, Yang received a vision of his own: God appeared to him and said he was not a firewood merchant from Guangxi but God’s mouthpiece on Earth. From that moment on, God would express his opinions through Yang as well as Hong.

Hong established the capital of his Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing. There he raised an army, mostly from the poor and landless and uneducated Hakka, a subset considered inferior by the Han. The Taiping Rebellion was only the latest in a long history of tension between the minority Manchus—who ruled from the north as the Qing Dynasty—and the Hakka, who lived mostly in southern China as miners and manual laborers.

Issachar Jacox Roberts, an American Baptist minister, arrived in Nanjing at roughly the same time as Hong received his first visit from God. Roberts claimed to have been sent by God to assist Hong in matters of doctrine and to perform the sacraments. Every Sunday, Roberts baptized thousands of pilgrims arriving in Nanjing to join the Army of God. Soon Hong controlled a large part of southern China, ruling at one point at least thirty million people.

In the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, all property was held in common; everyone was treated equally under the law—regardless of role, caste, race, or creed—including women, who for the first time in Chinese history were given equal rights. Hong was guided by messages from God, which predicted an imminent final war between good and evil. He taught—as Jesus did—that the rich should sell or give away all of their possessions, and the first responsibility of all was to take of those less fortunate than themselves. Caring for the sick and the abandoned became everyone’s number one priority. No one went hungry, no one made money off the labor of another, and everyone was “landed” (in that all land was held in common and anyone could work as much land as they could tend).

Meanwhile, under the Qing, China had suffered a long series of disasters, traditionally seen as the result of an illegitimate regime. These included earthquakes, fires followed by floods, and droughts followed by famine. At the same time there were economic problems, especially in the cities, following the reparations imposed upon the Chinese by the United Kingdom following the First Opium War. In 1842 the Qing had no choice but to sign a treaty that was ruinous for the Chinese merchants, whose punishing taxes crashed the economy. This led to social decay, especially in the provinces. Roving bandits and pirates worked almost without interference. Hong trained his Army of God on these bandits and pirates, and then he moved his army north to keep imperial tax collectors and soldiers out of the south.

The Army of God had been trained to hunt small groups in the bush, and they began the war with the same guerrilla tactics they’d used to defeat bandits and pirates. But whenever the Army of God arrived at a town, the imperial forces were long gone. Hong soon ordered an official invasion of the north and, from the first, the Army of God won every battle. More important, he was able to consolidate his gains and repel every counter-attack.

This was China’s first total war. Anything of value that couldn’t be eaten or used by the invading army was burned, along with the town itself. Besides razing rural areas and burning innumerable villages and bridges, over 600 cities were leveled during the war. After the women were raped and the children slaughtered, the fathers and sons were given a choice to join the army or be slaughtered as well.

In 1853, at the height of the rebellion, Hong Xiuquan—who had never left Nanjing—withdrew from public life altogether and would only “speak” through written proclamations dictated to him by God. He was consumed by paranoia and trusted no one. He saw too late the folly of giving Yang the voice of God, and of allowing Father Roberts to contradict him on matters of doctrine at Hong’s disadvantage. He could see how he had been used by them both to set up their own kingdoms, at the expense of his. As soon as they could infiltrate or bribe a Royal Guardsman, Hong would be dead. His retreat into the castle, under constant guard, only made this take-over all the more likely. He soon had bodyguards to protect him from his bodyguards, and a senior Royal Guardsman to watch over them all.

One night Hong summoned Roberts and Yang and their families to his residence for his annual birthday feast. After everyone had gathered, he had them slaughtered, from youngest to the eldest, leaving Roberts and Yang for last. Then the Royal Guards slipped out and slit the throats of any guards whose allegiances were in doubt. If any innocents died, it would be a reminder to the rest of the necessity to keep your allegiances clear and unquestioned.

As the rebellion traveled deeper into mainland China, they began to meet organized resistance. Tales of their butchery preceded them, and the north was more educated and most of the population were landowners and modestly well-off and had much more to defend and less to gain from Hong’s mission to destroy the Qing Dynasty. And they—like most Chinese, really—were happy with Confucianism and their traditional Chinese customs and values. In the face of their first organized resistance, the Rebellion stalled and the Dynasty launched a counter-offensive, which drove the Army of God almost back to where it had begun.

They re-entered the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom hungry, and found women and children in a lightly farmed countryside. This was an army who only knew how to live off the land and who couldn’t wait until tomorrow, and they flattened the kingdom like locusts. Luckily for them, the imperial forces stopped just short of crossing into the south. But now the greatest threat to the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was their under-employed and hungry army.

In 1859, one of Hong’s cousins—Hong Rengan—convinced him that the difficulties their kingdom were facing were the result of Hong’s unfulfilled prophecy. Hong Rengan was a warrior and he pledged to storm the palace and decapitate the Qing Dynasty himself, and then plant the flag of the Rebellion on the top of the palace, even if Hong did not send the army to join him.

And so the Rebellion left the south a second time, and began by winning every battle once again. But the Qing had made a deal with the Brits, who knew their future profits were at stake and sent a general and a battalion with the latest weaponary. First they secured a supply route into Shanghai, and then they dug in and kept the Army of God at bay until spring planting, when they launched a counterattack. The Army of God—remembering what happened the last time they met opposition—began to melt away. Within days, the Army of God was in full rout.

By1864, the Army of God had retreated back to Nanjing. Instructions from God were read outside the palace. These were the palace walls God had promised to leap to precipitate the fall of the Qing. But before God could appear, Hong was poisoned. Raving for twenty days, he died only hours before the arrival of the imperial forces, which was for the followers of Hong an Apocalypse of sorts.

At its height, the Army of God had numbered 500,000, and over 300,000 remained at the time of Hong’s death. They drifted in small groups to the outer provinces, where they returned to guerilla warfare. The rebellion only officially ended in 1871, when the last of the rebel forces were cornered in the western mountains and slaughtered in a single battle.

Shortly after Hong was buried, pilgrims began to appear at his mausoleum, having heard that Hong—like Jesus—would return again. Imperial soldiers smashed his mausoleum and burnt his body, mixing the ashes with cow dung, and shooting it from a cannon. This would make any return by Hong impossible.

Less than 700,000 people died in the American Civil War, most of them soldiers (although there were instances of total war in the wake of both north and south forces, especially late in the war). But in the Chinese civil war 20-30 million Chinese died, most of them civilians. At a single battle in 1846, over 100,000 soldiers were killed in three days of fighting. But a million civilians were slaughtered in the province in the months that followed. Even today—in the post-modern world of modern war—the Taiping Rebellion remains one of the deadliest in history.

During the Rebellion, other religions took advantage of the chaos, including a struggle for autonomy by the Muslims in the southwest. Many of the religious restrictions in China were enacted at this time, when the most dangerous threats to the dynasty came from religious groups. But the modern Chinese can believe and worship any way they want. Xi’s family is Buddhist. Several families who live on her floor are Christians. But religion is not—and Xi agrees with this—allowed in the classroom or in political discussions. Religion should be a private thing.

42-03 Kora's end  the path to the Potala PalacePilgrimage’s End, the Final Approach to the Potala Palace

Evening Walk with Xi

a pantomime against rice-paper,
one arm pushing forward,
one arm pulling back—

I tell Xi that Tendzin walks the shore at night under a full moon so a god can slip into his heel and see through his eyes.

“In China we talk of a ‘God’s eye view.’ We are trained that when we have an argument, part of the argument consists of trying to see the disagreement from the other person’s point of view. When you do that often you cannot stay easily in one opinion. But we do not claim to actually be seeing as a god would. As a Buddhist, I was taught to be suspicious of anyone claiming to have a god’s vision. Why would god choose such a man and not another? I am sure Tendzin is a very sincere man, but why does god always choose someone without power when he could have talked to Mao or President Nixon? Why does god not go on television? This may be true, but it has not been my experience. What do you believe?”

“I believe Tendzin’s sincere, I don’t believe he’s making any claims for himself. For Tendzin it’s more of a humbling experience I think. I think he’s been given a vision—and I’ve been given that vision too—that the world is a mirage, like right this minute. It seems so real and it’s already gone and we don’t even know what it was. And we’ll never know what anything is. I think if you haven’t had that experience it just sounds like nonsense. But if you’ve had that vision, you can’t unhave it. It’s like waking up. You can’t put the dream filter back on, or not the old one. Even this—you and me. It seems so real but it’s going to be gone forever in just a second. All of it. Always. Gone. As if it never existed. Me too. There’s where it’s all headed, oblivion. That’s the only possible end. So, how do you live, knowing that, how do you go forward?

“The Greeks believed that unless you made yourself empty there was no room for the muses to appear. Some artists claim not to have any memory of having created their masterpieces. They will find a poem or a painting or a piece of music they do not recognize, signed with their names. I see Tendzin doing something similar. He makes himself available, invites them in, and it’s no surprise, really, that he believes they visit him.”

“Have you ever been visited by a god?”

“When I travel, I carry around a pocket notebook and write down anything that catches my attention. At the end of the trip, I type up what I’ve written, and it’s only when I reread what I’ve written that I see how it’s all connected. There are pieces I can’t remember writing. And there are things that meant something completely different at the time I wrote them down, and there are things that I wrote down way before I understood them, and there are things that have since changed meaning. There are things I’ve written down that are written as if I knew they were going to be important later. This has happened to me so­ many times that I rely upon it now. If there’s a story—and there does seem to be one, only visible to me after the fact—it’s not in my conscious mind. Chance and chronology have created the best of my writing. So my job is to write down whatever catches my attention. “Notice what you notice,” Allen Ginsberg said. Sometimes I have to re-read something I’ve written ten, twenty times before I begin to understand it. And on each succeeding reading my understanding of it changes again, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.”

“I like that you make yourself empty. I have so much activity up here. Except when I begin a painting. I have trained myself to stop thinking and concentrate on my eye and my hand. Do you think there is something inside, trying to get out?”

“You mean me personally or people in general?”

“I am asking you.”

“Trying to get out of what?”

“That something is trying to happen.”

“Trying to happen? No. I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You have no feeling that something is about to happen?”

“Happen, or happen to me? No. What?”

“I am going to paint you, just like that! ‘Happen, or happen to me? No. What?” Xi clapped her hands and laughed, spinning toward me and then spinning away, skipping ahead.

“Xi, when you talk like this, I swear, it’s like this morning when I was playing Mah Jong with Stephen. He was so much better than I was that I knew I’d never catch up. Never. Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you play Mah Jong?

“I am of the first rank,” Xi sniffs.

“Of course you are.”

42-04Yuan Xi, painting in temple studio, BeijingXi Painting in Her Beijing Studio

When asked about why she is no longer a member of the federation of traditionalist landscape painters, Xi said that only the weakest bamboo seeks the comfort of mighty trees. She preferred her own sunlight. When asked if she has any desire to make art for a living, she says, “Wanting to become successful in art is to follow the wrong star. Today, Prison Break is the most popular TV show in China. An artist fights for moments of beauty. Experiences them, understands them, has the ability to communicate them to others. That is what an artist does—I communicate beauty to others so they can see it too. Selling has nothing to do with art, but educated eyes will find you if you are talented and you have something to say, something needing to be said. When an emperor came to power, the first thing he did was begin building his tomb. We are all building our mausoleum, whether we know it or not.”

“Xi, when we first met, you asked me why I came to China, why your tour. For the last six years I’ve made pilgrimages to various places that are very important to me. Europe and Morocco and Africa and India and Nepal and China and now Tibet. And I’ve been writing about these pilgrimages in a series of books. That’s how I came here. That’s why we met. You are my guide for a pilgrimage through China for the sake of your poets, for the sake of your 3000-year unbroken history of civilization, for your people, whom I find modest and curious and generous, proud of their country and their history, memorizing her poets and her leaders. And you’re a very important character in that book. I didn’t tell you at first because it didn’t come up, and then I was worried it might make you self-conscious, and then I was afraid you might tell me I couldn’t continue. But this seems like the right moment. I promise not to use your real name and to change the facts so that you’re less you and more like a character in a book. I’ll mix your stories with a lot of others. But the spirit will always be you.”

“You can call me Xi,” she said without thinking.

“That’s nice because it sounds like ‘shee’ in English.”

“You must be very rich.”

“Ha! For the last twelve years I’ve been selling my library and some of my archives to fund these trips. And I live cheaply so I can travel expensively. It’s a choice I made. I drove the same beat-up car for twelve years, I don’t have a smartphone, and I don’t have cable or a dishwasher or air conditioning. I’ve lived in the same house for the last 22 years and haven’t redone or improved anything. I shop with coupons.”

Xi claps her hands and laughs, my nervousness slipping away.

“I must paint you! I must paint you right now!”

42-05 Yuan Xi's painting, Beijing, Dec. 2012MY Portrait: “We are looking from behind you at your hands while you are talking.
They have separated from your wrists like little birds, singing your stories.”

I could see the hotel marquee. I didn’t have much time. “No, I mean it, I really want to know. Which Buddha family are you?”

Xi looks at me and frowns, “You really do not know? That is not very smart. You should know that and a lot more by now.”

“So, you know my family?”

Xi stopped walking and turned away from me and made the face she makes when talking about the Falun Gong. Then she turned back to me and sighed. “Are you making a joke? I knew your family before I knew your name! I knew it by the way you greeted me, that first morning in the airport. You greeted me with generosity. You are of the Ratna family. I am a Padma. That is why we are walking together—because you are generous and I am passionate. With your generosity I burn at my brightest, like a candle in an open window. Without my passion, you would be in a hotel room, watching CNN, nothing to write about. How can you not know that?”


42-06 Pilgrimage's EndPotala Palace Visible from the Pilgrimage’s End, Jokhang Temple

Written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.







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