Interview with Wangchen Dorje
November 26, 2003
The following interview is with a Tibetan monk in the Gelug tradition. His name is Wangchen Dorje, although he was given that name when he became a monk at age fifteen. Every family feels honored if one of their children becomes a monk or nun, however, Wangchen’s parents resisted his first teenage inclinations to join a monastery. They wanted him to make a lifelong decision, not an impetuous decision that he might later regret.
Wangchen was born in approximately 1976, the year of chairman Mao’s death. His parents were children when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949, so Wangchen is part of the second generation of Tibetans to grow up in a climate of religious oppression, disruptive Communist policies and severe discrimination in their home country. Like many of his fellow Tibetans, he has worked within himself so that a reaction of hatred doesn’t take root in his mind. To outsiders, that seems like an extraordinary feat, but Wangchen has many role models that inspire him and guide him.
He joined a monastery in Tibet when he was about fifteen years old. One month later, without telling his parents, he embarked on a three-month trip to walk over the Himalaya to escape Tibet. When he arrived at Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India, his uncle and his brother welcomed him with a change of clothes, some food and a bed –and a place in the monastery.
For the first time, Wangchen was taught how to read and write Tibetan. He was given an education in Buddhist philosophy, debate, multiphonic chanting, ritual and sand-mandala painting. Wangchen proved to be a talented student. Three years ago, he was given an opportunity to join a troupe of 12 monks on the “Mystical Arts Tour” with Drepung Loseling Monks who tour around the United States and Europe giving demonstrations of sand-mandala painting, Tibetan dance, music and chanting.
This troupe was invited to Camden, Maine by a local chapter of Amnesty International. All the monks stayed with host families and Wangchen made quite an impression of everyone he met, including his host family. He had just “picked up” English while on the tour with no formal training. (He also speaks Chinese, Hindi and Tibetan and would like to learn Spanish next.)
In 2003, with the blessing of Drepung Loseling Monastery in India, he was invited back to Camden for an extended stay, joined by fellow monk Dawa Gyalsten. The process to obtain visas was quite uncertain, as 80% of the monks who have applied for visas to come to the US since September 11th have been rejected out-of-hand. Wangchen’s good karma? He showed the American Embassy clerk photos of his last trip to the US. One of the photos featured Wangchen with singer Ricky Martin. The clerk was so tickled by this, their visas were granted.
Interestingly, Wangchen also didn’t tell his parents he was coming to the US this time. They were angry when they found out he was here, and called him at his house in Camden from Tibet to let him know that. They are worried for him. They are perhaps worried that the luxurious life here (where the rice doesn’t have weevils) will corrupt him. Although he hasn’t seen his parents in twelve years, their opinions and happiness are very important to him. It’s difficult to explain to his parents how much people in this country want to learn the Dharma. It’s difficult to explain to them how grateful we are that talented young monks are willing to come here to teach us in English.
Holly: What’s your name and what does it mean?
Wangchen; My name’s Wangchen Dorje. Wangchen Dorje means, maybe Wangchen means “powerful” and Dorje means “strong.”
H: I thought Dorje meant “lightening bolt.”
W; For example in Tibet some healing chant and then we meditation then the suffering’s over, then finally they put Dorje on the head because Dorje stop everything, they cannot come again, so I think Dorje means strong.
H: What’s your mom’s name?
W; My mom’s name’s Jhampa Dolma.
H; And your father’s name?
W: Temba. Sonam Temba.
H: Can you tell me a little bit about their story?
W: My father is now, they tell me, 61. My mother is 7 years younger than my father. 54, something like that. They are in Tibet. Father’s a villages leader. Sometimes the Chinese officials call come there, because they have meeting there, he has to go for meeting every month. But he can get some money also every month.
H; He’s paid?
W: Paid. But very small paid.
H: Who pays?
W; Chinese Government pays him.
H: So what is his job?
W; His job is just farmer.
H: What plants does he farm?
W; Barley, beans and um..I can’t say in English…then cabbage, onions and so forth.
H: You have tsampa [roasted barley flour] often?
W; Yes, every day tsampa, sometimes we are very feel bored. Tsampa, tsampa, tsampa; In the morning tsampa, lunch, tsampa, dinner, tsampa. Too much tsampa.
H; Do you miss tsampa now?
W; Very much. In India, sometimes we get, but the taste is …different, we can’t feel always this tsampa is like in Tibet, tsampa, so it’s difficult to find.
H: Is your mother a good cook?
W; Very good cook. Really. I told Dawa, sometimes I cook here, I make bread, he make vegetable here. I have lineage, my all family has come lineage, lineage for how to cook because my mother very special. In Tibet, (to) see which is good cook and which is not good cook, they see the bread. If some make very delicious vegetable, “oh he’s good cook”– they don’t say. Who is good cook or not, they see the bread. Because the bread is very difficult to make in Tibet. Sometime it looks burned, sometimes it looks ugly, sometimes, black. When my mother cook the bread, my father and me go together on the hill, people come together, then my father show the bread, my mother made bread looks beautiful and other guys bring black and burned, like that. And also she can weave and knit. She’s perfect. But unfortunately we don’t have girl. We don’t have sister. Some of my village’s people said, “Oh you need one sister because if you have sister your mother teach every good things for her.” Cooking weaving, but for us not necessary. Men (don’t) learn this one. My mother’s perfect. No woman compete with her from everywhere.
H: She’s famous in your village?
W: No famous, just like popular. Also they say “you are very lucky lady, you have four boy.” In Tibet, some people don’t born the boy.
H: So are people sad for you if you have a girl?
W; No sad, no sad, but in our family, need a girl. But usually, generally like boy. But some family need also girl. For example, lots of people wish one girl for my family. My brothers also “We need sister.” like that.
H: Are you the youngest?
W: No, middle.
H: Middle of four boys. Are you the second boy?
W: Yes, second boy. The middle two are monk. The oldest and youngest are farmers in Tibet.
H; Where is your brother who is also a monk?
W: In India, same monastery, Drepung Loseling Monatery. Yeah, he can debate very well.
H: What’s the name of your village? Are your grandparents from there?
W: Yarno. No. My grandmother dead 7 years ago. In my life that is the first time I said about my mortality. For example I was born and no one die in my family. Also, I like my grandmother very much. When I escaped [Tibet 12 years ago], I don’t remember my parents too much. I always miss my grandma very much. The mind, something knows. Then I doubt, maybe I cannot see my grandma again. Then I come India. A couple years after, my grandma dead. My grandma had two child; my father and my aunt. My aunt also dead. My grandma die by cancer, my aunt die by…headache.
And my grandma has two brother. When the Chinese come they were killed. One is monk, one is lay person.
H: Did they fight?
W: Yes, fight with Chinese. The monk is put in a prison, then my grandma sometimes bring some foods to him in prison. At that time he scold her. “Don’t bring this food to me.” There are two children; my father and my father’s sister. “Give them, but don’t bring to me this food.” At this time my grandma said “He’s the perfect person in this group.” There lots of prisoners in this prison, but he is handsome, always happy, ready to sing a song. My grandma didn’t worry after that because he always happy. But when almost released, someone pushed them “Don’t release him, because he really challenge Chinese back, something like that.” After that, one Chinese soldier come, one letter give my grandma, but she cannot read Chinese.
At that time, not individual work. All Tibetans together work, share food…now almost individual. At that time everybody work together, food together, they fill the seeds together…but the Chinese think this not good share. Instead, how many people in your family? Six people? OK six people has like field this big.
H: So the Chinese wanted you to share more or less?
W: The Chinese just make different. People need to go work together, so my grandma take this letter to work with her, someone can read and…it means he’s pass away, there’s no need to wait for him. They killed him. In prison.
And (the other) one is lay person, (there were) two brother. And he’s in home with his family, in the morning he going to make tsampa at the mill. He has two bag of barley on back of ox. There’s two Chinese leaders, call him. “come here.” He didn’t doubt. Just go there, “What?” They asked him “Who is in this house?” He never doubt. Just two people (also with guns and everything, but just two people.) He say his name, his wife, then one is monk in prison and… everything he tell. Then the Chinese leader [makes a loud whistle/cry] There are LOTS of Chinese soldiers around my house. Too many. They call “Who is inside the house?” My uncle wife come, say “he’s not inside. He’s outside” They said, “Don’t lie.” Several guns sound. In Tibet the doors are like (French doors that open toward the outside.) After that my uncle (threw) open the doors at once, took his Tibetan knife [sword] and (said) “Come on!” But he couldn’t come. He was shot (with) too many guns together. He (was wearing) a special protector (around his neck), but this protector cannot protect the bones. He fell down. There’s no blood. They cannot (pierce) the skin because special protection. Underneath, the bones broken, the blood (flowing everywhere underneath.) So he’s dead.
Actually my monastery’s not Thrangu [where he became a monk in Tibet.] My monastery is far from Thrangu. My mother is from Thrangu. My father is from a little far. In (Thrangu) Monastery my uncle is chantmaster, the one who died in prison. My mother never agree for me to become monk there. It’s too far from my village…
H; How far?
W; Here, not too far, but in Tibet very far. Because you have to walk and never go fast. Maybe in the morning walk, by night you can reach there. Three hours on bicycle. She never agree me to become monk at the (village) monastery (either) But (if I wanted to become a monk) she wanted me to go to big monastery. Also I like big one very much, because the big monastery has good rules, the monks are good and everything. So I didn’t go to my father’s side monastery, I went to Thrangu, my mother’s lineage monastery.
H; Do you know your mother’s parents?
W: When I was born they pass away. When I was in mother’s stomach, very big earthquake come in Tibet. Each family has dead one person at least. Some family has dead two or three people. Mother’s mother dead by earthquake, mother’s father also like that.
H: Do you know what year you were born?
W: I don’t know year. They said I just born after the earthquake. Sometime when I grow up my mother give me special food. Maybe butter or yogurt, but we don’t have enough for everyone, but my mother just give me. That kind of food, I don’t like. I like butter or yogurt, but I just like to eat together. So I said “no, no, no, why this only me?” My mother says “When you were young baby, you didn’t get good food, you just got mother milk, so when you grow up, maybe big problem, sickness come.” I born after the earthquake.
H; Do you know the Tibetan year you were born?
W: Yes, Tiger, maybe Earth. Monkey..monkey, I think. I don’t know. I don’t know the birthday.
H: So you’re about 27 years old?
W: 27 or 28, something like that.
H; How old are the oldest people in Tibet? Are they 60? Are they 70?
W; Very rare to see 70. If they see 70 years, they say “Oh, very old.” Because you know, in Tibet. (it’s hard.) But here you see 60 or 70 years old, they really looks very healthy. In Tibet, 60 or 70 (year olds), because since they were young they’re not healthy, not good food, then old very easily. Then often cancer because they eat too much oil.
H; Oil? From butter?
W: From Butter, and also from yak (fat) and meat. They keep the greasiness old, very old, then they make tea they say “delicious.”
H: But it’s putrid.
W: Putrid. But it’s necessary putrid for the tea. If there’s no putrid, there’s no taste.
H: Maybe they get sick earlier.
W: Yes, but I don’t know, when they are young they are really strong. Really strong. They have nothing sick. Going to everywhere without shoes. And sometimes it’s raining, raining and their clothes all wet, but they never put off, they just sleep. When they wake up, it is dry. Never sick, never sick. Really strong they are.
H: Do you think young people are not as strong?
W: Very strong. Stronger than here. For example, I was in Tibet, I never get sick. Very Strong. Then I come to India, then little bit stomach problems, little bit cold…
H: It’s normal though. So…did you have cousins your age in your village?
W: Yes, I have lots of cousins…
H: Father’s family?
W; No, mother’s side. My mother has one sister. Sister has seven child. The oldest one is monk. He can be Geshe soon [get his doctorate in Buddhist philosophy]. He’s very smart. He other ones are all married, lots of children. They call me “uncle Wangchen.”
H; So did you go to school in your village?
W: Yes, for 2 or 3 years. But we didn’t learn very well. But when come back home, the parents also didn’t say “You should learn.” They don’t like to learn Chinese.
H: Your school was Chinese?
W: Oh, we can’t get chance to learn Tibetan. We have there one (teacher who) understand both Chinese and Tibetan. Sometime the Chinese teacher not come. Then he teach us Tibetan lessons. When he come [mimes hiding a book]…hide. Secret!
H; If he were caught, what would happen?
W; If people see? Maybe fine, but then dismiss from the school, then he don’t have work.
H: So you went to school only 3 years?
W: yes, I didn’t learn very much, but now I very regret. Sometimes I think Chinese language is more necessary for us than English, because in future, we have to speak with Chinese. Now I always tell my cousins to send my nephews and nieces “please, please send to Chinese school.”
H; Do you think that in the future Tibet will be free?
W; No I don’t think (so.) It’s very difficult…No, I don’t think become free Tibet.
H; Does that make you sad?
W; Yes, very sad. This is not small things, very difficult things. Sometimes the new monks in Tibet said, you know, people keep the small bombs, keep the guns. If Dalai Lama pass away, we really need to fight with Chinese. So right now they collect the guns and bombs and just keep them, slowly slowly (accumulating.) And they said they think if his holiness angry (because we’re fighting) … then we credit very bad karma. They believe (this.) His Holiness pass away, it’s possible someday we need to fight the Chinese. So the new monks said, we cannot always [gestures getting hit in the back of the head] generation after generation, (for) all time, we cannot. We are human beings! We need rights. Patience has also measure.
H: “There is a limit to patience.”
W: There is a limit to patience. I also sometimes think if His Holiness pass away. I’m a monk, always practice patience (etc., but…) I told you there’s a Chinese girl came from China last year, she said “Sorry, I thought Tibetans were like,” what say, “animal.” Because when she was in Chinese school, Chinese teachers say “Tibet is like that, Tibetans like that.” She thought like Tibetans can’t speak human language, (like people wear) one leaf here, one leaf here [gestures to cover his privates, front and back] Just cover this, they cannot speak human language, what kind of people is that?! She thought like that, Tibetans are. Then she saw here, His Holiness Dalai Lama (being revered), lots of people (looking interested in what the monks had to say) She said “sorry, sorry” she said. She’s just come from Chinese. She was in school. That’s not her (fault). She listen her teachers. And some Chinese teachers very nice.
When one monk went in Chinese school, he said “Listen, listen, you should study now. You get a good opportunity now. Do you know whose kindness this is? You don’t know, there is one great person in India, his Holiness Dalai Lama. His kindness. When one day he pass away, you never get this chance of study.” said the Chinese teacher. They think also His Holiness pass away we cannot find education, things like that. Some Chinese very nice. So I don’t think it become free Tibet maybe His Holiness pass away. Sometimes I think His Holiness is very special. He don’t pass away (during this) just like difficult situation. People believe (in) him. Maybe can make something for Tibet people before he pass away. Free is very difficult, His Holiness say no need. Independence, what say, mutual benefit. Tibet has big place, but population’s a little small. 6 or 7 million. The Chinese population’s more, but we make something mutual benefit.
H: Have you ever had a Chinese friend?
W: Chinese friend? Yes, I have lots. My father has lots of Chinese friends. They like tsampa very much! Chinese people is very friend! For example if I angry with Chinese people, one friend, you Chinese, there’s nothing result! For example sometimes I see here in United States, some Chinese are really like [looks defensive, cold] They just serious. Nothing, nothing use. If he serious, he cannot do nothing to me, if I angry with them I just make me suffer myself. Suffer! I cannot do anything. (So) just we are happy, we can tell them true situation. For example, there is one Chinese girl, when we was in Library just couple days ago. She come from (China) for one year. She come with American girl, her friend. The American girl just want to introduce to me. She said “this is my friend from China.” She said “hi”[shyly, warily] I said “hi” [openly, ready to talk] (But she saw Free Tibet (stickers everywhere so no conversation.) They are angry. They don’t like free (Tibet) but they don’t know the real situation. (They think) the Chinese give us human rights, religious freedom, they give us everything, then we always say “Free Tibet, Free Tibet.” Of course they angry with us. (In reality) they always do us bad bad (things) then we say “Free Tibet.” Why they angry with us? Really. They make Chinese and Tibetans look equal. Sometimes I think we don’t need free Tibet. We can stay with the Chinese of course, ok. But we need human right. We need Chinese and Tibetan equal, from the government. They give us human right, religious freedom, democracy…sometimes I think really the China’s a big country. We can stay with them, happy, just.
But they try to make the religion nothing. For me, I think if there is no religion, hard life I think. For me. I don’t know, for some people maybe very happy. For me, (if) I didn’t (become) monk, (if) I didn’t study the Buddhist religion, really I’m not good life, I think. Maybe I have connection with the former life or…something good for me. So I think if I didn’t follow something religion then really I’m unhappy, always suffer. For me, very special, someday problem coming, I can deal by very good reasons. Everything. I have everything.
They [the Chinese] just try to disturb the religion, like, dreams, don’t tell dreams… “where’s the hill (monastery), we going to bomb, we going to fight them,” they says. If there’s something we can see, we can touch, they believe. But that’s just their (official) view. Individual people don’t think “something we can see, touch” they don’t think. Just official view.
H: So do you think about the future? Your future? Do you think about seeing your parents again?
W: Yes, I really, very much. If I can’t see them, maybe they can get sick or something, I feel. Just I check now, everything in future, I just check. [reference to “future” being an illusion, not something real yet makes you feel hope or fear.] For example, I try to (imagine) if I not be monk, just I married with some girl and I have baby, I have the problems…then oh, I don’t want to think anymore!! Really. For example, sometimes I think if I cannot see my parents, maybe one day they call me, my father is dead, Oh, what do I do?! Maybe I become crazy, I feel that. Because when my grandmother dead, I cried for one week. Every morning, when the sun setting, then India is very (strange) place. I miss my grandma. Sometimes then I remember her kindness, she tell me important words, I remember (them), then very cry. Then I check I don’t see my parents again one day, maybe it’s possible call me, really sad. Because they are very kind to me. Really kind. Sincerely. If they are not kind, they are my parents. So really I hope see (them again.) My mother is also said this times very bad situation but they always pray. Pray we can see (each other) again. Also they think my kindness…their fields different with other people’s. Our fields are better. Village people say “Of course your fields good barley, good beans…everything you have better because you have two monks in India.” “But no, “ I said on the phone, “That’s not my kindness, that’s the result of your do always compassion, be good person, go to straightforward, no jealous with other village people, thinking about next life, recite mantra. All this be good that result. Not my kindness,” I told them. So also please continue to be good person. I don’t have to teach, I don’t have to give you anything. If I have just give you something, it’s not good. Teaching is very important. When you wake up, see the people—love. Some people in Tibet, see people—angry. (This person) angry with everybody. He is wrong. (Here’s a story) important for me. Indian master Shantideva. He teach. For example, if we go to the hill and the whole hill is cover with thorns, we cannot cut (all) the thorns because we have to (get to) the top of the hill. But on the way up the hill is covered with thorns, so what do we do? You don’t need to cut. You (put your) shoes on, then go. Like that, we cannot challenge people. We need put shoes on [our whole body] by (dismantling) our own anger.
H: Do you have a plan to see your parents again?
W: Sometimes I think maybe one (year) His Holiness do Kalachakra, maybe I can even (get them) from Tibet to India. In a couple years, maybe I can call them, see (each other) in India. That is my plan.
H: Just a visit?
W: Just a visit.
H: Then they go home?
W: I always think I want my parents to see His Holiness Dalai Lama. I just want to say little story about my parents because they are very faithful to Dalai Lama. So that is my responsibility within my 3 brothers. They can’t do that, I can do that. If then my parents see the Dalai Lama before they die, then (can be) OK. If I go there stay (with) them (in Tibet) I cannot do anything. If I go back to Tibet, maybe Chinese officers come to see me. Try to do something bad to me, my parents also then very difficult to die. They worry. Maybe they can come, come to India just pilgrimage. No problem. Within one or two year, I try to spend for them. Maybe here (I can save some money) the exchange in India very easy. So I just call them, they say “Oh, O…K…” They don’t think they can come, they think maybe very difficult. Difficult journey, they getting old but come to see Dalai Lama, on the way (if) they die, no problem. One day they really die. So yeah, that’s my plan for my parents. I am a monk I cannot do (very much) for my parents so I always call my brother “Please listen parents advice, always serve parents,” he said OK. I always tell them, “don’t work anymore. Just something to do next life.” They (depend) on my brother. They don’t work, they don’t need to worry food…in the morning they don’t need to wake up, they bring food to parents. Brother very kind.
H: They live with your oldest brother?
W: Youngest brother. He got married a couple months ago.
H: Your oldest brother is not married?
W; He’s married. He has two child. One I tried to send to India, but very difficult to send. If they escape, OK they don’t do anything, …(like) I told you, my mother said “All you children can be monks. If we have no food (we won’t be) shy to beg for you. Because you’re monks, so nothing to be shy. ‘oh, I have four sons they are all monks in monastery’.”
In Tibetan monastery, we don’t have food, we bring from home, only. In India, lots of people help. In Tibet, we bring the food from home. If there is no workers? How we bring the food? So my mother said, “Don’t need to be shy. I’m going to beg. That’s my honor!” she said. She think beg some food then bring it to monastery, that’s honor.
H; Do you think in America it’s a little crazy that we don’t live with our (elderly) parents?
W: Yes, I really think sometimes strongly (at first) but now no problem. For example, when I first come here in Florida…”what are they talking about?” in our host family in Florida. (There is a ) son living (with) his mother. Mother has said, “this is my son, he’s 25 or 26 years old, he pay me for the room.” My god! “Is this your son?” “ Yes he’s my son.” I thought I didn’t hear good English, Maybe I misunderstand so then I ask our translator “What is she talking about?” The son need to pay his mother to live with her. She said that’s very good and he can use every thing. … This is really different culture. Really different.
In Tibet, they don’t want child to live outside. I told you (how sometimes) two brothers marry one girl and live as three, because they’re all together. So for me it’s difficult. But also the children (give) no benefit (back), in my opinion. If someone has child, the parents send school, send lots of money for them, school, and when the children grew up, they go away, nothing. Single people (have it) very nice sometimes, I think. Why (have) children? People say “I love children.” That’s just the reason. That is my opinion. In Tibet, (when you have) children, you don’t need to work until dead, when parents old, just recite mantra, (if someone needs advice) in a serious situation, they (give advice.) Otherwise they don’t need to do (anything). They have respect. If there are two sons, one son is necessary with parents their whole life. (If they have children, but still are left alone) then people say “That child is really bad.” But I never see. This one is very different for me (culturally.)
Also I (was) surprised, a Tibetan family come here to live. The son didn’t study well. The parents a little bit punch (his head), maybe little cut.
H; You don’t hit in Tibet?
W: (Yes), hit very much! But never angry. Of course (I understand) why he hit me? He want to make me good person. If I do always good for me, he never scold me, he never beat me. Why he beat me? For myself! He want (to) control me! But (he) never (beats me because he’s) angry. But here, the teacher asked, “What happened to you?” The child said “my father.” So the teacher call and the police come get father and (put) in prison! That for me [laughing] really surprised.
Some kind of things I like very much (here). They don’t do like this in Tibet, ask them when their very young important things, they make good person. The small baby never shy and dance (in front of strangers). In Tibet they cannot do. If some other people come, (they say) “you go outside and play.” If baby want to ask new person something, they say “Don’t disturb (them.) Go play, play!” Here they don’t say. Here he’s also like a little big (person.) Something important he thinks, so (they) ask “what do we do?” [People listen to a child’s opinion.] When they grow a little bit they can do everything!
I recorded this interview the day before Thanksgiving in a wealthy, idyllic part of the world. Our tradition is to eat until we hurt as a way of celebrating our excessive affluence. What struck me most at first was that Wangchen doesn’t have the right, the means or the opportunity to see his parents again –possibly ever– before they die. This was in contrast to my eye-rolling sarcastic rejoicing that I didn’t have to endure my parents this Thanksgiving. My parents also live far away—in Ohio and Florida—and I dread having to go visit them, even though I love them.
The lack of freedom involved in not being able to see one’s parents again had seemed an archaic circumstance; like someone who sailed to the new world and could never even write a letter home. But this was a modern lack of freedom. The kind where your parents could still pick up the phone and call you half way around the world to yell at you. I superimposed Wangchen’s predicament on my life; I didn’t have the money to fly myself to my parents or fly them to me. I didn’t have a credit card. I occasionally had the money to call them, but they didn’t have email and couldn’t read my letters even if I wrote to them. I didn’t have a passport that would allow me to cross a sparsely patrolled, northern border—like Canada’s—even if I somehow found the money to do so. If I did find the means and the opportunity, I could not plan on returning to the life I am building now. I could expect, in fact, to be abducted, starved and tortured for wanting to visit my own parents before they die in my own country. And my parents could be expected to live 10 to 15 fewer years in their lives, giving me less time to solve my predicament.
Biggest similarity? My father and Wangchen’s father really are the same age. Now for the biggest difference: Wangchen isn’t toxically livid about this circumstance being imposed on him by the Chinese Government. I would be a homicidal tornado if I really were in his shoes.
I’m already toxically livid at my own government, and they have done nothing to interfere with my ability to visit my parents. In fact, they have bailed the airlines out with billions of (borrowed) dollars (that my grandchildren will have to pay down) in order to allow me to fly to visit my parents. But even if I couldn’t fly, I could, take a train, bus or drive my car to see them in an emergency. And the clearest thing is: I would. The connection between parents and children is the same at its core. (The connection to my government could involve more gratitude, however.)
OK, nobody knows how to get under my skin like my mother, and I would sooner drink lye than invite her to come live with us in our one bedroom house, but when you scrape back the layers of cultural accretions that come from living in an affluent, individualistic and sometimes dysfunctional culture, there is a primal, archetypal imperative that you help your mother if she needs help, (at least for me).
So that contemplation on freedom was my initial reaction to my interview with Wangchen. While transcribing the interview, I also noticed that I had asked some loaded questions. I asked questions for which I had a presumed answer that in an Asian society, the parents would live with the oldest son (then only if he was married), that families would be sad to give birth to girls, that his primary family ties would be patrilineal. I was wrong in all these presuppositions. Further, Wangchen went to his mother’s family monastery, instead of his father’s, which was closer. I had assumed gender and family roles based on time I’d spent in China and Japan. I was trying to be a good listener, but still couldn’t get out of my own way.
I had, however, intentionally asked Wangchen about his family rather than about his own life, and I think this was a good choice. Many people are happy to dump the contents of their heads if you ask about their stories and then sit and listen to the answer. Monks, on the other hand, are training in egolessness and will navigate your questions to take the focus off themselves, quite often. By talking about his mother, grandmother and the Chinese, the reader can really start to see Wangchen’s character. If I had asked Wangchen only about himself and his story, the answers would have been more abbreviated, like when I was trying to pin down the year of his birth. He didn’t know. Didn’t care. But when his parents tried to give him credit for their good fortune, he set about convincing them otherwise. That led to his story about Shantideva’s “hill covered in thorns” lesson. Put on your shoes! It is OUR responsibility to dispatch our negative emotions but it’s not our right to take credit for good deeds. This was a clear reflection of Wangchen’s culture and character.
This orientation is so opposite to our standard American worldview that I am getting choked up thinking about it.
There happens to be a war going on in my family, at the moment. Long standing resentments boiled over into an overt conflict between my cousin and my brother-in-law. It is astonishing enough that I have that much family in the same small town. (I would venture to say that families don’t generally need this kind of proximity in order to have a war, however.) In this conflict, at least one side has a worldview that supports a good-vs.-evil, black and white, Star Wars-type mythological approach to ethics. That’s about all it takes to have any war and so it is with this one. So Luke Skywalker decides that Darth Vader is an utterly unredeemable human being because he backed out on playing bass in a scheduled band gig. Conversation is halted, compassion evaporates, epithets fly. Luke feels totally supported and justified in his feelings of being Wronged with a biblical capital W.
Our culture supports this viewpoint by never suggesting that emotion affects logic. Logic is rather something unassailably constant, whether or not we partake in it. By so revering rationality, we are unschooled in the reality of our regularly irrationally informed logic. A logical conclusion is based on facts. No one admits that those facts are in turn often based on emotion.
What’s more, we are often not in charge of (and therefore not responsible for) our own stupid inner worlds. This is revealed in the not so subtle exchanges like, “You are pissing me off.” “If you hadn’t been such a #$@!*, this never would have happened.”
Compounding our tendency to blame the other person for the unpleasant feeling associated with being in a conflict, we also have an incredibly shallow understanding of causality. This means that we tend to look on the history of any conflict, as having a beginning right before the fight. Where hundreds of tiny exchanges prior to the conflict could have contributed to the conflict—indeed, needed to happen in order for the conflict to occur—we only see the last straw.
When it comes down to the “fact” of the last straw, culpability for the whole conflict seems clear and if it’s clearly in our favor, then we can relax in the glow of the social confirmation of our own perspective, while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility we may have had in creating the hundreds of little pre-events, thereby dooming ourselves to reliving this bullshit in the future.
In short, we take credit where credit isn’t due and then blame others for our negative emotions; exactly the opposite of Wangchen. What’s more, we see events as black and white and isolated in time and declare it “reality” instead of seeing clearly that it’s a reflection of a human mind, and nothing more.
When considering the larger implications of this difference in worldview, we can consider them in stages. First, as a child within a family. Here in the US; “Stop making your sister cry!” (i.e.; she isn’t responsible for her own emotions, you are.) “Grow up and get out!” (i.e.; You are a burden. You don’t have to pay me back, just get off my back.) “Do you think you’re the center of the universe? I have needs too!” (i.e.; The world is split up into a finite amount of X to be divided among selfish people.)
While I don’t presume to know the banter in a Tibetan household, we saw that Wangchen didn’t like to enjoy special food as a child if there wasn’t enough to go around. We saw that his mother considered it an honor to beg food to feed him so he could study to deepen his character (not just acquire knowledge.) We saw a tendency to deflect evidence of needs when Wangchen’s great uncle scolded his grandmother for bringing him food in prison.
While contrasting these incidents so starkly might seem to be exaggerated or unfair, consider that the American ones unfold in a context of material affluence, political and social stability.
Extrapolate this to adult life, then political life, and then international government-level interaction. Imagine if the sharks on Wall Street trained their minds to think of others first with a profound understanding of the laws of causality. If “The Diamond Cutter” is any indication ( a story about an American Geshe in the Diamond business in New York City) business would still thrive based on deeply ethical principles of interconnectedness and company loyalty soars. How would the economists in the US government behave if they had a clear understanding of the principle of global interconnectedness that exists whether or not they see it? Would they have signed the Kyoto Protocol? Would they be so enthusiastic about corporate self-governance in the third world if they held an equal amount of love towards a sweatshop worker and their own child? Would billions of people be so hungry?
Would the Israelis and Palestinians, who share the mythological propensity for defining reality through the deluded faculty of a human mind, still be fighting if they started to “wake up” from the delusion of being so different?
It is clear that we just change our perspective on something and feel entirely better about it. My sister left her purse in Subway yesterday and was enraged at her boyfriend for taking it in his car until she realized where she’d left it. Her anger evaporated. Of course it did! It was based on a delusion. That’s the nature of any untrained, deluded mind. That’s what we all have to work with. It is humanly possible to wake up from that delusion and for an Israeli to fall in love with a Palestinian because (s)he is a fellow human being with SO MUCH in common.
For most of us in this country, we have never seen this wakefulness in action. We don’t have role models or a social context that shines a light on the thousands of little decisions we make that contribute to our happiness and the happiness of others. Wangchen is an ambassador from that social context. He is a role model for us so we can get a foothold on the long climb out of our delusion. It’s a climb towards a paradigm shift for humanity that will change history on our planet.