By Chet Yarbrough
Eat the Buddha
By: Barbara Demick
Narrated by : Cassandra Campbell
Barbara Demick gives listeners a picture of Tibet with a darkness that rivals the narrative she creates for North Korea in “Nothing to Envy”.
“Eat the Buddha” is a reminder of China’s insistence on Tibet’s acceptance of Communist authority in the face of Buddhist and Tibetan ethnic and religious identity. Like the Uyghurs in mainland China, Tibetans practice a religion that conflicts with Communist atheism. Unlike Islamist Uyghurs, Buddhists eschew violence against oppressors.
Demick addresses self-immolation as an example of Tibetan protest which does not harm others but only one self. Well over 100 men and 28 women have set themselves aflame.
Self-immolation remains a form of protest that reaches the youth of Tibet in the suicide of Tsewang Norbu, a Tibetan pop star, who sets himself on fire in front of the Potala Palace on February 25th, 2022.
Tsewang Norbu (Tibetan pop star–self-immolation in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.)
Demick bases “Eat the Buddha” on living seven years in Beijing, with personal visits to Tibet. She interviews Tibetans and Chinese, including the Dalia Lama who is exiled in India.
Demick interviews many who consider Buddhist teaching a positive and integral part of their lives and culture.
Demick’s history of the treatment of Tibetan citizens under Maoist communism reminds one of America’s treatment of Indian tribes in America. Mao tries to erase Tibet’s nomadic culture by murdering Tibetan leaders and excommunicating the Dali Llama. Mao’s object is to thwart the influence of Buddhist religious belief and indoctrinate Tibetan citizens into the ways of Communism.
Mao era attack of Buddhism during the Cultural Revolution.
Demick tells the story of Maoist cadre’s eviction and eventual murder of a regional Tibetan King and his wife during the cultural revolution. The daughter of the former King is one of Demick’s many interviews. The irony of this daughter’s experience with Chinese culture offers both positive and negative memories of her early life in Tibet. She adapts to Chinese doctrine but eventually becomes an assistant to the exiled Dali Lama in India. She cannot abandon her Tibetan cultural beliefs.
Tibetan demonstration in 2020.
Mao, and today’s Chinese leaders, believe any ethnic self-identification, other than Communist party doctrine, conflicts with the State.
Like America’s treatment of Indians, China’s leaders use carrots and sticks to integrate Tibetans into Communist doctrine and Chinese culture.
Rather than accepting culture difference, both America and China suppress their ethnic minorities. However, the suppression is qualitatively different. The significant difference is that China sees minority ethnicity and religion as a direct threat to Communist ideals. In contrast, American history implies ethnicity and religious difference are an evolutionary characteristic, bending toward freedom and equality. That does not make American history less violent, but it suggests hope for something better than China’s expectation of ethnic and religious absorption by Communism.
Demick suggests Tibet is currently in the carrot stage of influence by the Chinese government. Having personally traveled to Tibet in 2019, much of what Demick describes about the modernization of Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet, is obvious.
The restoration of the Potala Palace by the Chinese government is astonishingly beautiful. It is the burial place of past Dalai Lamas. Though it is no longer a practicing Buddhist temple, it is a tacit acknowledgement by China of Tibetan culture.
The last chapters of Demick’s book acknowledge her extensive research. She notes Tibetans are better off now than they were during the Mao years. However, she explains Tibetans do not have the same economic opportunity as the ethnic Chinese. It is important to be Chinese and even more important to be a member of the Communist party. (Our guide in a trip to China and Tibet reinforces the value of being enrolled in the Communist party. Though he abjures the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, he has a slender hope to join the Communist Party because of the opportunity if would afford him and his family.)
Demick infers Tibetans face the same discrimination as American minorities (these pics are not of Tibetans but American Asians attacked by non-Asian Americans in 2021), and presumably the same discrimination felt by many women in the world.
In Demick’s interviews of the Dalai Lama, she finds he is optimistic about Tibet’s future and survival as a Buddhist haven. The Dalai Lama continues to negotiate with China’s leaders with hope of a return to Tibet. (He was exiled in the 1950s by Mao’s government. That exile remains in place.) His successor is to be chosen by the Gaden Phodrang Trust, an India-based group set up by the current Dalai Lama. However, the Chinese government says it will approve the Dalai Lama’s successor. The Buddhist belief is that the Dalai Lama must be a reincarnation of former Dali Lamas.
GADEN PHODRANG FOUNDATION OF THE DALAI LAMA
Demick writes of a Padme Dalai Lama in Tibet with a marginal explanation of their importance in Buddhism. The Padme Dalai Lama plays an important role in selecting the next Dalai Lama. The Padme Dalai Lama is second in the hierarchy of primary Dalai Lamas. A Padme Dalai Lama is identified (chosen) by a current Dalai Lama. The 14th Dalai Lama chose a 6 year old boy but he was taken by the Chinese government after his selection. Demick explains the Chinese government chose to select the next Tibetan Padme Dalai Lama despite the 14th Dalai Lama’s choice. No one with certainty knows of the Padme Dalai’s fate. Some suggest he is now a college graduate living an anonymous life. Theoretically, today there are two living Padme Dalai Lamas.
Today’s Dalai Lama is Tenzin Gyatso. He is the 14th Dalai Lama. As of this writing, he is 86 years old.
Pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama are forbidden in China. Demick notes that a travel book in her carry on luggage is confiscated by a Chinese Airport inspector as she returns to the United States in 2o20. The confiscation is because the travel book had a picture of the Buddhist leader.
Demick draws an interesting picture of Tibet. It reveals both the truth and weakness of one historian’s view of China and Tibet. It is founded on the truth of what a number of Tibetans remember of the Mao’ years and the current relationship of China and Tibet. As is true of all books of history, China’s and Tibet’s past is not perfectly clear and the future, at best, becomes a cloudy past.