Thursday, June 21, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lamas

Shoes and other relics of the 6th Dalai Lama
Aung San Suu Kyi had a most fascinating life.
In 1964, she went to Oxford where she studied for three years to earn a BA in philosophy, politics and economics. 
Later she got her first work experience as an assistant secretary in the United Nations Secretariat.
In 1972, her life took another turn when she met a young and brilliant British scholar, Dr. Michael Aris, whose expertise was the Tibetan Buddhist. 

Suu Kyi asked her future husband for a 'favour': "I only ask one thing, that, should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them". 
He agreed.
After Suu Kyi and Michael were married in London, they moved to Bhutan, where he worked on Pemalingpa, the famous 15th century yogi and siddha.
Her life as a mother of two sons and a scholar continued smoothly during the following years. 
It is during the early 1970's that Aris did most of field researches in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh (Tawang).
His wife often accompanied him.
By that time, Aris had added another topic to his study: the 'lives' of Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama, born in Urgyeling near Tawang.
Though his official biography said that Tsangyang Gyatso passed away in 1706, some texts said that he survived and roamed around Mongolia and the Gobi desert and had the most extraordinary adventures. Here is what the official biography says:
In 1701 there was a conflict between the Desi and Lhasang Khan, the descendant of Gushir Khan, and the latter killed the Desi Sangya Gyatso, which disturbed the young Dalai Lama. He left his monastic study and chose the outdoor life, he had no plans to take the fully ordained vows. In fact, he visited the Panchen Lama in Shigatse and requested his forgiveness, and renounced even the vows of a novice monk. Though he continued to live in the Potala Palace, he roamed around Lhasa and other outlying villages, spending his days with his friends in the park behind the Potala Palace and nights in taverns in Lhasa and Shol (an area below the Potala) drinking chang and singing songs. He was known to be a great poet and writer and he wrote several poems. In 1706, he was invited to China and died on the way.
Michael Aris studied both lives of the Dalai Lama. 
Speaking perfectly Tibetan, he knew well the area where the Dalai Lama was born (in March 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the present Dalai Lama entered India through the same area).
In a previous posting, I have described this region where Michael and Suu Kyi traveled. They went to Urgyeling where the Dalai Lama took birth and to Berkhar, the remote hamlet, south of Tawang where Tsangyang Gyatso' mother lived. She herself was a descendant of Pemalingpa.
The visit of the couple is still remembered in the area.  
These years made the Burmese leader very close to the Dalai Lama. 
It is probably one of the reasons why they met two days ago in London
Did they discuss the 'secret life of Tsangyang Gyatso?
Perhaps not!
In the 1980's, the Aris family came back in India where for two years, Michael Aris conducted his research at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla.
After traveling extensively through the Himalayas and writing on India's age-old traditions of peace and tolerance, the couple returned to London in early 1988. And then she jumped into politics!

Urgyeling, birth place of the 6th Dalai Lama

Here is excerpts of Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives of Michale Aris:
This is not the place to explain in detail what happened to the Monyul [Tawang] region later in history, but a very brief summary helps to put the Sixth Dalai Lama in his full context. The "Tibetan government appears to have been quick to realize that 'the area had great strategic and economic importance. Not only did it provide the only direct corridor to the Indian plains lying completely within Tibetan territory, but the whole region was extraordinarily rich in natural products unobtainable on the Tibetan plateau. It formed a natural staircase of different ecological levels stretching from the plains of Assam through dense subtropical forests in the foothills to the Alpine regions above and the high plateau beyond. Apart from the trans-Himalayan trade though the corridor which the government could carefully control to its advantage, the whole area was easily exploited for those natural products which lay in such heavy demand in Tibet. These included loads of grain, particularly rice, collected its taxation twice a year; rare medicinal herbs for the medical college in Lhasa; bamboo pens and paper made from the bark of the daphne tree for the offices of the Tibetan government; the skins of wild animals hunted by the Aka, Miji and other tribals who formed part of the district; sheep wool from some areas; butter from the pastoralists of the north; and a variety of fruit for certain privileged government officers. Whole orange trees complete with the ripened fruit were delivered every year to the Dalai Lama himself. It is not known whether this last custom began in the lifetime of the Sixth but it is well remembered today.
Apart from odd skirmishes with the Bhutanese to the west and the tribals to the east, little seems to have happened in the region until the British arrived on the scene in the late nineteenth century. Prior to that the only event of some international significance occurred in 1714 when one column of Lajang Khan's 1714 campaign against Bhutan invaded from the direction of Tawang.30 As will be seen, the khan had deposed the Sixth Dalai Lama seven years earlier and I believe the destruction of the Dalai Lama's restored and enlarged family temple at Ugyenling [or Urgyeling] occurred during this campaign as an attempt to obliterate his memory. In local legend the destruction is blamed on a Mongolian called Sokpo Jomkhar who, if my interpretation is correct, would have been Lajang's commanding general in the area. The temple built later on the original site and still standing is a very modest affair. It is in the hands of the family's present descendants, though the details of their descent are not known. As it now stands, the temple was perhaps reconstructed during the reign of the Seventh Dalai Lama. It was he who was responsible for ennobling the family of the Sixth's mother at Berkhar. They were granted the title of Depa Kushang (roughly "Ruler Uncle".), and confirmed in their estates. At the same time they were exempted from the payment of taxes and the rendering of labour service. All this can be assumed to have happened after the posthumous reinstatement of the Sixth as the true incarnation of his predecessor, as we shall see.
Footprint of the 6th Dalai Lama
The rights which the Tibetan government won over certain tracts in the Assamese plain at the foot of the Monyul corridor, or which were perhaps inherited from the local rulers whom the Tibetan government displaced in Monyul, were ceded to the British in 1844 in return for an annual subsidy. During the Simla Convention of 1914, signed by Great Britain and Tibet (and initialled but never ratified by the Chinese), the entire region was made over to British India. However, the transfer was never fully implemented on the ground and when India won its independence in August 1947 it found part of what it regarded as its own territory still under the control of Tibetan officials. After Communist China had fully annexed let, it was soon realized that independent India had by then consolidated its claim on an area of Tibet which China had traditionally regarded as its own. And so the seeds of a long conflict were truly sown. The Sino- Indian border war of 1962-3 resulted in the defeat of the Indian army in the area but left the status quo intact, with half of the Monpas continuing to live under Indian control south of the main watershed and the other half north of it, where they are classed today as one of China's smallest national minorities. Despite an uneasy truce the conflict continues to flare up from time to time. Even as these lines are written in 1987 there are renewed hostilities.
That the Sixth Dalai Lama was born in the disputed area will always serve to remind the Chinese that for many centuries it lay under the control of what they persist in calling “the local government of Tibet". For the Indian government the birth of the Dalai Lama there will perhaps always be something of an embarrassment. For the old Tibet the area is, like that whole country, lost beyond hope of recovery. From the point of view of the inhabitants of the area itself, the very last of their many acts of service to the old Tibet was to provide an escape route for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama as he fled from the Chinese south to India in 1959. The route took him straight past the family temple at Ugyenling where his sixth embodiment had been born nearly three hundred years earlier.

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