Friday, March 14, 2008

The Bell Ringers

[ Bell Ringer, detail by John Paul Thornton]

What does the uprising of Tibetans against the government of China mean to you? Have you been watching the Internet news? Does a crumbling bumper-sticker proclaiming the liberation of Tibet register anymore to anyone? Could anyone be shocked by the new images of sweet Tibetan monks torching businesses ? Could anyone be surprised by the Chinese promises of swift authoritarian response?

Symbolically, it is a struggle of heart and mind. Shall the ability to use violence override the Buddhist core issue of peaceful detachment? Shall the government in Beijing react with the same strategy of force, to crush this rebellion as the world awaits a supposedly enlightened Summer Olympics? The story of the recent violence and demands from both sides may be examined
in this article, along with photos from the Associated Press.

I lived in a Tibetan refugee settlement in Nepal.
Most Tibetans I met with spoke of "the Chinese" as nameless, heartless reapers of unspeakable doom. Can one be a Buddhist and hate? I wondered. Of course, I never asked this question aloud of my new friends and hosts. I was just a guest and I chose to experience the views of the Tibetans without voicing my opinion to them. Tibetans have seen their way of life practically obliterated since 1959.

More recently, I spoke in Beijing, China, where "Tibetans" were referenced the way insensitive Americans might speak dismissively of native "Indians" who now have found their place in the cosmic order, apparently happily running casinos.
"What Tibetans? There aren't any Tibetans", I was told by a a Chinese friend. "The Tibetan region is simply China now", he explained, "The people of the Tibetan culture are so much better off now that there are proper grocery stores and paved roads leading to the formerly isolated plateau. We bring them education and real hope." Again, I chose to listen, as purely as I could, without prejudice. It was hard.

As a traveler, I have always taken what I feel to be a road of reflection rather than exertion.
I have always felt that, as an American, my views on the matter would be wildly simplistic, or meaningless. Of course I would exhort freedom. The thought of what the American government ( and Spanish government ) did to the native cultures on the North American continent becomes more distasteful and incomprehensible each day I grow older. We "root" for justice in the Tibetan region because our own history shows us that the cultures we wiped out in America were more meaningful and reverent than a thousand modern strip malls and Kentucky Fried Chickens could ever be. Why take a pristine Himalayan meadow sprinkled with picturesque stone monasteries and fuck it up with an asphalt parking lot, a disco and a pool hall? Weirdly, we watch as China commits acts of governing that were formerly that of our great great grandfather's. We want it to stop. We know better now, we say.

And again, I ask, is a Tibetan follower of the Buddha allowed to burn buildings? Or can anger and uprising in fact become the highest tools for good? Don't scold me. I am just asking. I am just an American. Would the Buddha sit quietly, cross-legged under his tree? Was he ever required to fend off an army? Would he have? Should he have?

Somehow, in all of us perhaps, in our collective memory or in our present gut, there resides a strange comprehension of steps each party takes to achieve either "freedom" or "Unity". The idea that we are supposed to evolve as a planet is tested when regions live out their own personal genocide stories. Will Tibet stand alone?

Does morality come from an inner pang within our gut, or is it taught to us as a set of selected axioms. Does a person need to be one-sided to be moral? Does being one-sided provide focus, or spiritual sanctity? Does morality mean to stop imagining the world through the eyes and heart of your enemy? I am just wondering.

While working closely with the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal, I created a series of larger than life-sized paintings of monks, each carrying bells. I named this series "The Bell-Ringers". To me, they represent not only archetypes of steadfast courage, but are personal reflections of a few real individuals I had the honor to meet and live with in the settlements. I think that these paintings also convey, in a pictorial sense, the old proverb that speaks of implication, responsible action and the softly creeping realization that 'You cannot un-ring a bell...' The world is watching. The world has video cameras now, along with the internet and YouTube.

You cannot un-ring a bell.