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Portraits of compassion

Capturing the transcendent strength of Tibetan pacifism



Imagine spending the winter in a yak hair tent at 16,000 feet, with nothing but burning dung to keep the blistering cold at bay. Living like that would quickly teach you the futility of cursing the wind that hardens your face. Indeed, according to the Tibetan Buddhist faith, there is nothing to be gained by feeling anger towards anything or anyone, not even the Chinese, whose occupation of Tibet since 1950 has given the Tibetans plenty of opportunities to succumb to anger. Only 11 of Tibet’s 6,200 monasteries remain intact. Nomadic herders have been roped into communal farms. Monks and nuns continue to face torture, jail, and death. As recently as 15 years ago, Chairman Mao jackets were mandatory attire for all Tibetans, who are now a minority in their own land, thanks to the Chinese government’s encouragement of ethnic Chinese settlement in Tibet. But despite their hard faces and harder times, the Tibetan heart remains supple.

Phil Borges’ photographic exhibit, Tibetan Portrait: The Power of Compassion, on display through November at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, presents a stunning glimpse at the Tibetan alternative to anger. Photographed in Tibet and in the Tibetan community in exile in Ladakh, India, the pictures present an otherworldly palate of human characteristics that, while unified through their Tibetan experience, are at the same time as diverse as downtown San Francisco.

Well, perhaps not. But looking at these surreal portraits, I saw Tibetans that look like Amish, Tibetans that look like Rastafarians, Tibetans that look like Arabs, Native Americans, Indians from India, and shriveled Italian grandpas. I saw my big Jewish nose on the face of one, and some even look Chinese.

It isn’t surprising that Tibetans encompass such a range of physical characteristics, considering their geographic positioning at the headwaters of Asia. Most of the great rivers of Asia start in Tibet, including the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yellow, and the Yangtze, as well as rivers that drain into the interior basins of Central Asia. These river corridors serve as natural travel routes between the Himalayan highlands and a diversity of lowlands, allowing for the assembly of Tibetan genetic stock from Turkish, Mongol, Chinese, Southeast Asian, Pakistani and Afghan blood, among others. Through this same geographic position, Tibet has inherited the role of gatekeeper of Buddhism, as the faith cycled around Asia, evolving into its various manifestations. Through Buddhism, the Tibetans succeeded in pacifying and demilitarizing the once fearsome Mongols, one of the greatest stories of pacification in history.

Borges’ photos give credibility to the belief that cameras can capture a piece of the human soul. But the soul shards captured in these photos come from wells that seem inexhaustible beyond comprehension. Lifetimes of wisdom seep from the eyes of crippled children; a woman’s stare is glassy and defiant, while one of her two husbands spins a prayer wheel in the background. If Chinese oppression could not dampen the radiance emanating from these people, then it’s hard to imagine that a light-focusing box can steal anything that cannot be replaced.

One of the most striking photographs is of a man named Tseten, who shines in living color despite the black and white film that imprinted his radiance. Before the Chinese occupation, Tseten had a large herd of goats, and life was good. Now he lives in a refugee camp near Ladakh, where he has one goat and a tiny plot of land in which to grow vegetables. And life is good. “Because of my religion,” he says, “I am happy living anywhere.” According to his religion, true bliss is independent of external environment.

Those who embrace this concept into the marrow of their bones can remain happy in prison, in work camps, maybe even when they are being tortured with electric cattle prods or getting their teeth knocked out. There is no time for anger, because harboring anger would be a form of suffering far greater than torture, imprisonment, or forced labor. The Chinese, they believe, are acting out of anger, greed and ignorance, and as such they are already suffering greatly.

Moreover, through these malicious acts, the Chinese doom themselves to unfortunate future incarnations. For all of these reasons, the Chinese are in sore need of compassion from their Tibetan victims, rather than anger. Thus, it is not uncommon for Tibetans to look at the Chinese with sincere compassion. And by avoiding the path of anger themselves, they are helping to ease the twisted knot of angst that is choking the world, while securing for themselves fortunate reincarnations the next time around.

Judging by the depths of soul in the eyes of Tibetans, it seems likely that, Chinese occupation or not, to be reincarnated as a Tibetan is still a popular choice: a melting pot fountain of enlightened souls, bubbling at the headwaters of Asia. Looking at these pictures and reading the captions, it is bewildering that these people even exist. Even more bewildering is why the Chinese won’t leave them alone. In the face of Tibet’s struggle, my own problems seem petty and insignificant, and my responses to them immature and foolish. Even Sept. 11 cannot hold a candle to a fifty years of occupation, oppression, and the loss of 20 percent of Tibet’s population. When I think of the American response to the terrorist bombings, red faces and bulging veins and myriad expressions of venomous outrage, I can only wonder what the result would be if our national response to the attacks was one of compassion toward those who have harmed us, rather than reentering the never-ending, self-perpetuating cycle of rage.

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