The earthquake that happened on April 14 in Yushu was bitter and tragic. During the relief work carried out just afterwards, it was just like one Tibetan aid worker announced in a message: “…we will never forget the crimson-and-marigold of the relief work in Jiegu (Kyegudo) that made people dissolve in tears.” The “crimson-and-marigold” symbolises the thousands upon thousands of Buddhists of the Snowland: our Rinpoches, Lamas, monks and nuns.
When the foreign media present in the disaster area carried out interviews, they took notice of the Buddhist monks who with all their strength participated in the relief work; they also took notice of the Chinese media trying hard to avoid mentioning the monks’ efforts, pointing out that “even the daylong broadcast of mourning on Wednesday excluded any images of the monks, whose crimson-and-marigold robes have been a ubiquitous sight on the streets of Jiegu.” (New York Times). Even worse, ten thousand Buddhist relief workers were forced out of the disaster area on the sixth day after the earthquake, a fact which the local authorities will find hard to deny.
The behaviour of the Buddhist relief workers reconciled the merciful and benevolent spirit of Buddhism and the love for one’s compatriots, like the common saying “blood is thicker than water” describes; moreover, it actually also contained a kind of sense of resistance. For quite a while now, and particularly since 2008, when resistance spread across Tibet, the image of Tibetan monks in China has been demonised and the living conditions of Tibetan Buddhists have been characterised as being treated like prisoners. Yet, because of the unexpected earthquake, the Buddhists monks’ actions at all costs opened people’s eyes. Also, we are able to understand ordinary people’s belief in the Buddhists through the plain words of a Tibetan who had lost his loved ones: “They are everything to us!”
The local authorities regarded the Buddhist monks’ actions as a battle to win over people’s hearts, which eventually drove them mad so they expelled the monks. Yet, the unfairness with which the monks were treated, in fact aroused a great deal of sympathy even in the national media, so the truth has actually come out and many more people have become aware of it, thus reverting the damaged reputation of the monks and revealing the real relationship between the monks and the authorities. Therefore, in the whole process of their voluntary rescue efforts, being forced to stop rescue work, leaving the disaster area and the dynamic actions between them and the people, the authorities, the army and the media, they displayed a very outstanding sense of resistance unique to monks. In the process of carrying out these actions, Tibetan religion and its influence among the people become the crucial element of support. Moreover, no matter how dissatisfied and annoyed those who hold power are, because of the earthquake, because of the will of the people, because of the world’s attention, for now they are forced to be tolerant. Although the time of tolerance is very brief, it has still provided the possibility to reveal the real image of the monks, which has in return entirely eliminated the demonisation of Tibetan monks, which had already been “achieved” by the government for many years.
It is also worth mentioning that the monks bravely and confidently faced up to interviews with the media, they even took the initiative and asked to be interviewed. For example, when the New York Times journalist interviewed a Buddhist relief worker, the monk directly spoke out the truth, pointing out that “we just want to save people, yet they consider this tragedy as an ideal opportunity for propaganda.” Since this truth occurred in a public space and by no means one that is limited to religious Buddhists, through the reports of journalists (not only foreign ones, also a few Chinese journalists), the message, which Tibetan monks wanted to tell the world, could be delivered, this is truly very well done.
Also, the funerals at which thousands of victims were cremated received an unprecedented amount of attention because death and dealing with death has always been of immense importance for human beings, superseding nationality, religion and country. But even more because according to local traditions and culture, the funerals of the many victims is something that no official relief workers, soldiers, or police officers, but only Buddhist monks in temples can take in hand. The videos recording the events at the time portray the grand, tragic, and solemn scenes, which is so different from any other cultures and which only belongs to the culture of the local nationality, in this special moment, turning the crimson-and-marigold Buddhist monks into astounding characters. No matter how much the local authorities water down their influence, the monks still managed to thrill people. In fact, they still managed to convey some type of spirit of resistance, which is not violent, but which is rooted in the essence of a non-violent non-cooperation with “Tibetan characteristics”.
The anthropologist J.C. Scott, who wrote “Weapons of the Weak”, expresses that even those who are most oppressed possess some assets with which they can fight, perhaps even more than most people think. They can make use of these assets to resist oppression; this type of resistance is also much stronger, more profound and effective than most people commonly assume. Yes, for us, the assets to fight can all be found in our own religion, traditions and culture. The significance of forty thousand monks as the relief workers is the force that was able to contend with the disaster when the disaster happened.
Beijing, May 4, 2010
This post is also available in: English