Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Rainbow Palace

Much of The Rainbow Palace by the late Tenzin Choedrak is a harrowing memoir of imprisonment and torture under the Chinese. As one reads the simply told story, the horror of the Chinese occupation of Tibet is set out yet again. For all the scholarly scepticism about the concept of totalitarianism, there is something distinctive about the attempts to control all aspects of society and, in this case, to obliterate all aspects of Tibetan culture. From the perspective of the millions of dead in each case, there is little to choose between Leninism and Nazism. In a Mengele touch, the Chinese even engaged in medical experiments and harvesting of body parts from their Tibetan victims (p.224). What paraded itself as the cutting edge of history was an exercise in brutal, distilled and pervasive sadism allied to a ruthless exploitation of Tibetan resources and people.

Tenzin Choedrak grew up in rural Tibet, suffering a stepmother who neglected him. Eventually, he took up studies of Tibetan medicine, becoming one of the Dalai Lama’s personal physicians. Then the Chinese came to ‘liberate’ and ‘modernise’ Tibet. Nothing they brought was worth the horrific cost they imposed. Choedrak’s report of the Chinese war against even Tibet’s fauna and flora seems weird, until one considers how much the Han perspective is of wilderness-as-enemy, further inflamed by the Maoist enthusiasm for industrialisation, and that it was a strange and unfamiliar wilderness
After twenty-one years of often horrific penal servitude, from which there were desperately few survivors of those he was imprisoned with (his medical knowledge helped), Choedrak eventually was able to leave Tibet. He took up a position once again as the Dalai Lama’s personal physician, with the added task, strongly encouraged by the Dalai Lama, of keeping alive and spreading the practice of Tibetan medicine.

The way Tibet has become a land of belief, living in the aspirations of its diaspora comes across strongly.

Choedrak’s deep Buddhist faith was obviously central to his life. He notes that various Catholic and Muslim prisoners were also able to achieve some serenity against the abuse of their captors:
I could see at Jiuzhen Catholic women and Muslims facing suffering with as much tolerance as certain lamas (p.197)
But his own sense of what was appropriate it seen in his immediately preceding comments:
As for me, anger filled me as soon as the blows began to rain down. I did finally succeed in mastering my reaction and even in erasing the very idea of anger from my mind. However, I still had much work to do to acquire the serenity of the tulkus in the face of all ordeals. (pp 196-7).
He came to practise compassion by providing medical advice to his captors.

His story also records how some Tibetans despaired or collaborated, often behaving quite despicably. Later, Choedrak would fight the traditionalism of some of the émigré Tibetans to get, with the Dalai Lama’s support (whose enthusiasm for machines and matters technical is notorious), grinding machines for Tibetan medical pills.

That the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been horrific is widely known. Now, Tibetans are a minority in their own country, as Han colonists make Lhasa and other centres majority-Han cities. Choedrak’s story is well worth reading just as a story of witness of behalf of himself, and those who can no longer speak, of what they experienced. This is quite explicitly part of the purpose of his memoir.

But it is also a memoir about trying to see beyond the surface of things to deeper truths and capacities.
Love and compassion play a primordial role in our existence. And tolerance. We should exert ourselves to lead a life directed by the awareness of our actions. Thus, whatever happens, we will have nothing to regret. (p.294).

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