And here’s a picture of Yangzom with her mother and grandmother. She’s an actor and a prominent activist for the Tibetan cause.
We got talking about Tibet. The recent news is horrible. A young woman immolated herself in Eastern Tibet, the Chinese are forcing all Tibetans to be educated in Chinese. The magical spiritual culture of Tibet is in its endgame. Every traditional society off the modern grid is in its endgame. They will all be assimilated or wiped out in a decade or two, I observed to Yangzom, and she nodded grimly.
I told her about my l990 Vanity Fair piece on the Chinese ethnocide of Tibet (see Past Dispatches/Tibet; it’s called The Silent Killing of Tibet), which Robert Thurman, the Tibet scholar and father of Uma by Nena von Schlebruge (who was also, like Barbara Leary, married to Timothy Leary; Barbara was his last wife; I’m probably one of the few people who happen to know two of Leary’s wives) called “seminal.” Papa Bush, W’s dad, was reportedly so moved by it that he invited the Dalai Lama to the White House, the first American president to do so; the others were afraid of antagonizing the Chinese). Nothing has changed, it seems, I said to Yangzom. The Chinese are just rolling over their Western Treasure House, as they call it, cutting all the forests, mining the minerals, mowing down the wildlife and devouring it, eviscerating the gentle, otherwordly culture, and now with the railroad running from Xengdu to Lhasa, more and more Han Chinese are settling there. Tibet is a treasure house, but not in the way they see it. It’s a treasure for all mankind, a spiritual treasure.
Then I did a piece in l995 on the kidnaping of the 11th Panchen Lama boy. Then I did a thorough investigation of the controversy over the two rival incarnations of the 17th Karampa, whose lineage started the whole Tibetan tradition of reincarnating boddhistvas. My brother Nick was a follower of the 16th Karmapa, I told Yangzom. He had the first Karmapa center in his house in Katonah, New York. He had roomed at Oxford in the early sixties with Trogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a high tulku or recognized reincarnation of the Karmapa’s school, the Kagiu, who had just gotten out of Tibet and went on to become one of the pivotal teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in America. His books The Myth of Freedom and Cutting through Spiritual Materialism were major texts of the Sixties, and he founded the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, where my niece went to college, the daughter of my sister Tonia, who is also a Tibetan Buddhist. Our family association with Tibet in fact goes back to l912, when my great-uncle Andrey Avinoff, a famous Russian butterfly collector, was one of the first foreigners to enter Tibet. He was looking for new species of Parnassius, a genus of alpine papilios or swallowtails (see Past Dispatches/Old Russia). He was also an amazing painter. I grew up with his mystical watercolors and pen and inks of Tibet and used his extensive library on Tibet to write a fifth geography report on Tibet in l957, when the Dalai Lama was still in the Potala, which I got an A+ for. It started me on the career of literary geography, going to places all over the world and identifying the natural and cultural forces that make them the way they are, that I’ve been pursuing ever since.
Yangzom explained that she was a Nyingma-pa. Her grandmother had been a nun in the Nyingma school, which is the oldest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. (The Dalai Lamas belong to the Gelug school, which was an offshoot of the 4th Karmapa). Nyingma monks and nuns are allowed to marry, unlike the monks and nuns of the other three. She presented me with a book she had written called Across Many Mountains, published by St. Martin’s Press. She and her mother and grandmother are on the cover. She said she was prompted to write it because her grandmother was in her nineties, and she wanted to get her stories down about her life and what Tibet was like in the old days before they were lost forever. How interesting, I said, that’s exactly why I wrote my family’s history, Russian Blood. Both my grandmothers were in their nineties and I felt the same urgency, and writing the book deepened my sense of who I was, where I came from, even though the world of Old Russia is completely gone (except for the splendid architecture of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod, and other ancient cities), the communist revolution that overthrew it having happened forty years before Tibet’s.
I read Yangzom’s book on the planes back to New York and Montreal, and it’s a masterpiece of simple, graceful, natural storytelling. By telling the lives of her grandmother and mother and herself– the tragic history of Tibet over the last 70 years comes effortlessly, powerfully, and movingly to life. Kunsang and her husband and their six-year-old daughter Sonam had escaped over the Himalayas in l959, barely surviving the freezing journey, and Sonam had grown up in India and married Martin Brauen, a Swiss ethnographer, who had taken Kunsang (now a widow) to Zurich, where Yangzom was born, and I don’t want to say anything more so I don’t give the story away. The book conveys what the Buddhist faith of the average rural Tibetan was (and still is) like better than any of the dozens of books I have read on Tibet, and acknowledges, I was glad to see, that the old theocracy was not a perfect society. Both the feudal aristocracy and the religious hierarachy were responsible for the social injustices and the exploitation of the peasants that Mao used as an excuse to annex the country and destroy its culture. What he brought, the devastation of thousands of monasteries, the torture and slaughter of thousands of monks, nuns, and former aristocrats during his Cultural Revolution, was far worse, which was also true of the USSR.
Robbi is half-done writing the screenplay, and I really hope Yangzom’s book makes it to the silver screen. I was so glad to meet her because my last involvement with things Tibetan, my investigation of the controversy over the 17th Karmapa ten years ago, had left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I confronted the Machiavellian religious politics that Tibetan Buddhism is no more exempt from than any of the other religions. It was just like the rival Popes during the Medicis, the one in Rome and the one in Avignon. Plus the fact that there is really not much any of us can do about China’s ethnocide of Tibet, had made me turn to the numerous other horrible situations where my writing stands a better chance of making a difference. But what is important and special about Tibet is not its the inevitable repugnant religious politics, but the faith and practice of its highly evolved version of Buddhism and the radiant clarity, infectious happiness, humility, and gentleness, and of its people, and their fervent desire to benefit all sentient beings, which is their gift to the world, and we must do everything to see that that this spiritual world view and way of life is not lost. I am deeply grateful to Yangzom and her book for reinfusing me with a desire to do something for Tibet. I hope the opportunity will present itself in the time I have left here.
So please read her book, musiclovas, tidebuckas, soldiers of love. I promise you that you will thank me for bringing it to your attention.