By Janhabi Nandy
Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India – October 28, 2009
The first evening in Dharamsala the delegation attended a performance of Tibetan music and dance. It was wonderful; beautiful, entertaining, professionally performed. I reflected that the artistic culture that an audience member interacts with is a result we see at a certain moment in time; we hear the song sung today, or the pretty carved box that we buy. Yet the culture that is at risk of being lost is not just that result, but the process that leads to that result. We hear the song, but we don’t know the details about the hours of rehearsal needed to be able to perform it (making singing a career, not a hobby), the tradition of apprenticeship to a master musician, or the unique history of that genre.
While not everyone may want to hear a CD of Tibetan songs, teachers may learn from the practice of teaching that music or historians may learn from the lyrics of the music. Preserving artistic culture and sharing it becomes a lot more complicated than a concert. And eventually arises the question of what is the culture we are preserving…if the box carver starts carving abstract images instead of pastoral scnes, if the dancer includes Indian classical dance steps into the Tibetan folk dance, is that still traditional? Does the way we support artistic culture allow for that culture to change?It was the next day at a briefing from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, that these musings became relevant to human rights. We heard how the Chinese government claims that it is allowing religious freedom to Tibetan Buddhists by allowing them to have monasteries, statues of the Buddha and practice certain rituals. But it was explained to us that Tibetan Buddhism is the transformation of the mind of a person, a .lifestyle and set of insights to be learned and lived; not a pretty museum full of statues to be visited by pilgrims. Without freedom of thought, of expression or of assembly without freedom from mandatory official indoctrination sessions, the right to wear robes and sit in a monastery is not religious freedom. His Holiness used the freedom of thought he has had in exile to develop historical traditions of consensus decision making in Tibetan Buddhism into a democratic government for the Tibetan community. Tibetan Buddhists who have real freedom of religion would be individuals and communities without limits on where their spiritual and intellectual learning and teaching could take them. It is the suppression of that process and its potential results that really matters to an oppressive government. With art and with religion, focusing on what can be seen from the outside can be misleading.