Bearing witness: Why I spirited secrets out of China

This is the last in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono on the occasion of Chinese President … Continued

This is the last in a series of five columns written by Matteo Pistono on the occasion of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s trip to Washington this week. Pistono, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, is the author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” an account of a human rights monitor operating covertly in China and Tibet.

I first journeyed to Tibet more in the late 1990s. I was on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of a 19th century Tibetan mystic named Tertön Sogyal. A horse-riding bandit turned meditation master, Tertön Sogyal eventually became the teacher of the 13th Dalai Lama, the predecessor to the current Dalai Lama. Such was the prevailing belief that Tertön Sogyal’s mantras and prayers could protect Tibet from foreign armies that the Dalai Lama summoned him to Lhasa to serve the nation. Not unlike the Dalai Lama today, Tertön Sogyal was a master at integrating his political duties with spiritual practice, never losing the pure motivation that holds others’ well-being as the priority.

The roadmap for my pilgrimage was Tertön Sogyal’s own far-ranging travels across the plateau. I meditated among hermits in remote sanctuaries and cliffside grottoes; slept in the caves where Tertön Sogyal had experienced spiritual visions and revelations; and on foot, horseback, and dilapidated buses, I crossed the same glacier-covered passes that he used to travel from eastern Tibet to Lhasa. I was searching out the masters and yogis still alive who uphold Tertön Sogyal’s spiritual lineage and could tell me the oral history of his life and teachings.

But my pilgrimage took an unexpected turn.

The more time I spent in Tibet delving into the 19th-century esoteric teachings of Tertön Sogyal, the more often I met Tibetans who wanted to tell me their story of frustration and pain at what they view as China’s occupation of their country. And the Tibetans spoke of their never-ending hope that one day the exiled Dalai Lama would return to Tibet. Traveling as a Buddhist pilgrim, I gained Tibetans’ trust. Political prisoners who had experienced abuse and torture in Chinese prisons showed me scars. Monks and nuns who had been kicked out of their monastery gave me their expulsion notices from the local security bureau. I was taken to meet a Buddhist leader who had been scalded with boiling water and then jailed for five years for publicly praying to the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans not only told me their stories, but early into my pilgrimage they asked me to spirit such firsthand accounts of human rights abuses out of Tibet and into the hands of Western governments and advocacy groups. While I still wanted to search out Tertön Sogyal’s meditation techniques, I became a courier of often-graphic accounts of torture and abuse. This required I evade China’s vast security network of plain-clothed security agents, undercover cops in monk’s robes, and the sophisticated cyber police. And I began photographing Chinese secret prisons where Tibetan monks and nuns are incarcerated for their Buddhist beliefs. The decade-long journey in Tertön Sogyal’s footsteps became a different kind of pilgrimage–one that became the dual narrative of “In the Shadow of the Buddha; Secret Journey, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” which landed on bookshelves Wednesday.

I cannot claim to have benefited anyone from my human rights work. I can say that I have tried to apply what my teachers have taught me about acting for the benefit of others wherever I find myself. I have given voice to what I have witnessed. I know in politics, ultimately, there are no winners, for every politician will die and every government will eventually fall–the wise, durable question is not if a political system will survive, but when will it fail? Because everything is impermanent, including politicians and their governments, we have a responsibility to effect change that will bring about the conditions right now for others to find contentment and happiness.

This is why I, and many others like me who have been so profoundly affected by Tibet’s unique wisdom culture, cannot let the world forget about Tibet. China wants the government and the people around the world to forget about Tibet, to turn their backs on monks, nuns, musicians and bloggers who languish in prison for their religious beliefs and their peaceful expression of political views. It is the responsibility of those of us who have the freedom to travel, to write and express our opinions, to talk to our own and others’ governments, to not only bear witness but to act to change injustice. This is why I documented China’s human rights abuses in Tibet and why I wrote In the Shadow of the Buddha. I do not expect everyone to take up the Tibet issue. That is not my intention of why I write. But wherever we find ourselves in the world, I hope the book encourages the readers never to lose hope or faith or a sense of responsibility to those who are suffering in their family, in their community, or in other countries.

I believe progressing on our spiritual path means doing what each of us needs to do to for ourselves to bring about true and lasting contentment, beyond suffering. And accomplishing the path of social engagement means creating the conditions for others to find that same lasting satisfaction. These commitments I’ve learned from my venerable teachers and one that I continue to take with me. Following in the footsteps of past saints, I have learned that we return to the place before the journey begins–to that space of infinite possibility where the saints of the past have made the commitment:
For as long as space exists
And sentient beings endure,
May I, too, remain,
To dispel the misery of the world.

Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet.” Pistono’s images and writings about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political and spiritual landscapes have appeared in BBC’s In-Pictures, Men’s Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed his undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of Wyoming, and in 1997 he obtained his master of arts degree in Indian philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and photos of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the executive council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture.

Pistono will be speaking at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, at 7 p.m. Jan. 28.

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  • Farnaz2Mansouri2

    Don’t let them forget. However, remembering accomplishes nothing. Witnessing does the same. It did nothing for the Native Americans genocided by the Christians/Catholics here, nothing for the Jews genocided by the Christians/Catholics in Europe, nothing in Sudan, etc., etc., etc.Your Christians are a curious lot. REad Valerie Dixon’s column on this blog, and Dixon considers herself a “leftist” (LOL).Take it from this brown, Iranian Jew. The Tibetans are without hope. They have as much of a chance as India’s three hundred million Dalit, as much of a chance as this IRanian Jew had in IRan.The only way, the ONLY way would be worldwide sanctions against China. Well. Unlikely. The ChristoIslamic culture values the big bucks. That is why it allowed genocide in Sudan, China’s ally.Don’t let them forget. Make them look at their hands and see the blood. Maybe, one day, some day…Jewish optimism.

  • Rangzen

    Thank you, Mr. Pistono, for your work for the Tibetan people, for this book, and your comments this past week. As a Tibetan, I appreciate your efforts to give voices to the Tibetan people who are silenced by Chinese oppression & censorship. We Tibetans will never stop fighting for our rights & freedom. China is strong & powerful, but truth & justice are on the side of the Tibetan people. All empires eventually fall & when the PRC Empire falls, Tibetans, Uighurs & Chinese will finally be free.