Friday, June 27, 2008

A Meeting In Tibet, 1950

I have seen this picture many times before but quite by chance I found it on the internet the other day. The photo appears in Heinrich Harrer’s famous book Seven Years In Tibet, in the first English edition on the front cover and as the frontispiece in subsequent editions. Harrer said that he considered it the best photo he ever took in Tibet. The picture was taken in the far south of Tibet in a monastery near from the Indian border in either late 1950 or early 1951. The Chinese had invaded the country, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government waited to see what would happen and finally they decided to flee. The Dalai Lama and his retinue went to the far south so they could negotiate with the Chinese and, if necessary, slip across the border into India. Little news leaked out of Tibet and million around the world listened to their radios for news of the fate of the young ‘god king.’ For Nehru, it was his first major foreign policy quandary but in the end he issued a statement saying that he hoped Tibet and China could settle their differences peacefully. Tibet’s monastic hierarchy was starting to see the disastrous consequences of their policy of total isolation and were in panic and the prayers to Tara didn't seem to be working. One person in India hit on an idea that he thought might help the situation. Just before Independence, the British government had returned to India the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana which had been sitting in a box at the V&A since the middle of the 19th century. Venerable Mativalla Sangharatana of the Mahabodhi Society of India asked Nehru if the Indian Government would allow a delegation from the MBSI to go to Tibet and show the sacred relics to the Dalai Lama – both as a blessing to him and to let him know, in an oblique way, that people outside Tibet were aware of his plight. Nehru agreed. Without informing the Chinese government who, if they had known what was afoot, would have angrily protested about foreign national crossing into the ‘sacred Chinese motherland’ without permission, Ven. Sangharatana and his party set off. They flew to Gauhati and then took trucks, then horses and finally yaks through what is now Aranuchal Pradesh, crossed into Tibet and in three weeks arrived at the monastery where the Dalai Lama and his government were staying. On the far left of the picture is a Sri Lankan monk wearing glasses and with his hands clasped in front of him. This is Ven. Sangharatna. The Dalai Lama holds the casket containing the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana which has just been handed to him by Ven. Sangharatna.
I first met Ven. Sangharatna in (if I remember correctly) in 1975 and a year later I became a samanera under him in his monastery at Sahet Mahet (the ancient Savatthi). Once I asked him about his adventures in Tibet and he told me the full story. He also had some very interesting photos he had taken while there but I think these are now all lost. He mentioned how amazed he was by the utter barrenness of the Tibetan landscape and how awed he was by the Dalai Lama’s presence and the gorgeous and elaborate protocol surrounding him. One thing he said that stays in my mind because the expression on his face when he said it was this. Thousands of people from all over southern Tibet had come to see their king; he never having been there before and many of them probably never having been to Lhasa. When the Dalai Lama appeared to the throng, he said, huge monks with yak hide whips prowled through the crowds lashing anyone who dared lift their eyes to see the sacred presence. Ven. Sangharatna was not a particularly sentimental person and he had very little time for what he considered ‘humbug’ – rituals, miracles, people claiming to be enlightened, etc. When I asked him what the Dalai Lama was like he was quiet for a few moments, he adjusted his glasses and then he said in a very soft voice, ‘The Buddha’. He paused for a moment and added ‘That’s it, he was just what I expect the Buddha was like.’

5 comments:

Justin Choo said...

Bhante,

Can you please elaborate on the last sentence. I honestly do not understand its implied meaning.

jessicatang said...

'huge monks with yak hide whips prowled through the crowds lashing anyone who dared lift their eyes to see the sacred presence.'

Buddha will never do that...

Ken and Visakha said...

What a splendid photo! Great beings recognize great beings, of course.

Is there a biography of Ven. Sangharatana?

We are still grateful for the time he took talking with us in 1983 about what Savatthi was like when he first went there.

Thanks for this precious Dhamma musing!

Shravasti Dhammika said...

How luck you were to be treated to one of my teacher's 'comprehensive' guided tours of the ruins of Savatthi. He had a knack of imparting his enthusiasm to others.

Terrance said...

Can a person be a "Buddha" and still tolerate injustice and harm under his/her jurisdiction?

I wonder...