Documentary producer Sun Shuyun brings us to a Tibet beyond the news headlines and the cameras, illuminating the everyday life of Tibetans.
By drawing observations on major events in life, she affords an intimate lens into the Tibetan’s understanding of the meaning of life. We sneak up a mountain with the author to witness a Sky Burial – the custom of feeding the remains of the departed to vultures. Sitting with a shaman, we hear of how a mother seeks his advice on whom her daughter should marry.
With simple words and a careful narrative, Sun provides an ethnographic look at Tibetan life through the stories of a few individuals, providing her own thoughts at junctures where practices seem difficult to comprehend for the modern layman. For example, she muses at the eco-friendliness of Tibetan culture when we are confronted with the macabre image of vultures feasting on a carcass, defusing the moment and providing a commentary on Buddhism at the same time.
Her thoughts waft in and out of the narrative, highlighting the dissonance she experiences in a place which had been denigrated by state media since the Cultural Revolution which turned out to just have a radically different worldview.
The power of an idea
Belief was a key theme throughout the book. The Buddhist faith of the Tibetans shone through in their actions. A woman’s fate is seen as predestined, and therefore she could only accept a marriage arranged by her family. Despite the Cultural Revolution’s attempt to burn religious sutras and banishment of monks, Buddhism thrived in the hearts of Tibetans, lived in the way they act and react. It is hard not to admire how the characters took the difficulties in their lives in stride, still insisting to do good because of their belief in karma.
An idea is a powerful thing indeed. The Cultural Revolution provided a counter example of how a single idea could have visceral impact in the real world. For years, instead of their deities and Buddhas, Tibetans had to worship Mao. A hailstone ritual during the Revolution had to be conducted by reading out lines from the Little Red Book and invoking Mao instead of calling on the usual deities. Ironic in the fact that Communism did little to change the habit of worship even though the object of worship changed.
The author gives no chance for us to take sides in this story, showing how both Communism and Buddhism have shaped Tibet for good and for worse. With every benefit comes a cost.