The Spirit of Tibet

The following article is from the Summer, 1998 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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PORTRAIT OF A CULTURE IN EXILE

Photographs and text by Alison Wright

Foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama. 200 pages, 180 color photos, 9.5 high x 10 wide $34.95

Snow Lion Publications

The stunning color photographs in this book display the spirit of the Tibetan people living in exile in the North Indian hill town of Dharamsala Home to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan settlement there has grown up around the newly established Tibetan government in exile and the many cultural institutions that have been created since the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet. Alison Wright's outstanding portraits capture the indomitable resiliency of the Tibetan people as they struggle to preserve their unique culture on foreign soil.

Alison Wright, a San Francisco based freelance photojoumalist, specializes in documenting the traditions and changes of endangered cultures and people in remote areas around the world. Based in Nepal for four years while documenting the plight of children for UNICEF and various other aid organizations, Alison became the 1993 recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award in photography for her photographs of child labor in Asia. Since then, she has lived with exiled Tibetans in Nepal and India for over a decade, recording their culture and the challenges of exile. On the basis of this work, Alison returned to Berkeley University where she created her own masters program in Visual Anthropology, and helped instigate the opening of a visual anthropology wing in the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology where she also teaches workshops.

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Monks at Dip-Tse-Chok-Ling Monastery; Laugirr Temple at the Lingkhor; Marl reading prayers at Namgyal Monastery; Trying prayer flags at the Lingkhor during Losar; Opera Mask at the Tibetan Institute of the Performing Arts; The Dalai Lama giving teachings at Namgyal Monastery.

Her successful show of fifty color prints of the exiled Tibetan communities, funded by Kodak, is a fully prepared exhibition that travels to museums and universities.

Specializing in Asia, Alison frequently gives slide presentations and lectures across the country, as well as leading annual photographic/cultural tours to Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan for Geographic Expeditions.

The following is excerpted from the author's introduction.

This is a book of my friends. In 1988 I took my first trip to Nepal on what I thought would be a month-long assignment photographing children for UNICEF. I was so captivated by the magic of Asia that I stayed for aP most four years, and have continued to return there nearly every year since.

While traveling on various assignments in India and Nepal, I found myself constantly drawn to the Tibetan settlements I encountered. After visiting Tibet a number of times and sadly realizing that more of the culture exists outside of the country than in it, I felt compelled to document the Tibetan life in exile as it evolves and flourishes. While working on this project over the past decade I have constantly marveled at how the Tibetan people have opened up their homes and their hearts to me, confiding their experiences, their memories, their hopes and their fears as they began new lives for themselves in strange lands.

Following the 1959 uprising against the Chinese in Tibet, more than 130,000 Tibetans have followed their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile and built 57 refugee settlements throughout the neighboring countries of India, Nepal and Bhutan. Dharamsala, India, home to the Dalai Lama, his Tibetan government, and more than 7,000 Tibetan refugees, is the center of these communities in exile. This thriving mecca still attracts more than 3,000 Tibetans a year who risk their lives crossing the daunting snow-covered mountain passes from Tibet in the hopes of simply receiving a blessing from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom the Tibetans believe to be a manifestation of the Buddha of Compassion. All receive an audience with him upon arrival.

I have had the good fortune to photograph the Dalai Lama a number of times over the years. The last time, as we left his house together, a modest but modern home nestled in the forest overlooking the Kangra Valley, he greeted me warmly.

Ah, you again, he exclaimed, taking my hand and holding it as we walked. He stopped to feed his pet parakeets, and I apologized for taking his time from what is now an incredibly busy schedule of meetings. Please know that I have the best of intentions, I assured him. He turned toward me suddenly, as if reading my eyes. Yes, I know. And good intent, very important. Most important in all that you do. Never forget.

Creating intimate vignettes of Tibetan life in exile has become a life long passion. To me, Dharamsala is the people, and I am lucky to be able to return year after year to maintain these friendships. There is a refreshing openess in the Tibetan communities and I often find myself less guarded there than in the West. The main thing I walk away with after all these years is just how open my heart can become, and being able to communicate purely from that place. That is what this book is about.

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...good intent, very important. Most important in all that you do. . Never forget.

Since the initial exodus from their country, Tibetans have fought to preserve their unique culture and identity. Monks, lay people, parents and children arrived in India and Nepal with precious few belongings, struggling first to survive. Aided by their Buddhist faith, the Tibetan people have managed to rebuild productive lives for themselves, and today Dharamsala arid the other refugee settlements are thriving communities with a strong sense of purpose: to preserve and maintain the ancient Buddhist tradition which forms the core of Tibetan culture. In this sense, Tibetan refugees have managed more than mere survival. They have created a Tibet in exile that is in many ways more truly Tibetan than their occupied homeland.

Buddhism is the backbone of the Tibetan people's existence and their piousness is incorportated into practically every daily activity. And that is something admirable because it's what gives them a sense of place, a sense of purpose. Everyone that spends time with Tibetan people seems to feel this attraction towards them because when you see a whole culture of people that shares in that belief and how they move through the world with the utmost faith in that system, they seem to just radiate. There is a growing nationalistic pride among the new generation of Tibetans who struggle with Western influences, yet still, in their own words, have Tibetan hearts.

Despite their sometimes meager living conditions, I was struck by the unfailing generosity of people who have so little. Always graciously welcomed into their homes, I was offered endless cups of butter tea as I showed them photographs of my family and later sent them photos of theirs. Years later 1 would return to find these pictures still reverently placed on the altar or tacked up on the wall. The images in this book are an appreciation of their strength and dignity in their daily life.

Tibetan culture has much to offer the modern world. It is a final repository of the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition which has virtually vanished from its Indian homeland. The value of this philosophy is shown by the way the Tibetans have survived the ordeal of exile with humor and determination, and with their perspective intact. Their inner strength and courage when faced with the loss of everything they have ever known is inspiring and forms the essence of this book. It is their spirit which keeps them alive. ä_æ

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