Tibetan Monks and Gangsta Rap

The long bronze prayer horns, bastard cousins of some kind of Swiss yodelling implements, bayed into the Himalayan morning air. Drums thudded out across the foothills. Prayers had started in Samdrub Darjay Choling monastery, a Tibetan refugee centre in North-eastern India, and they’d woken me up.It wasn’t so much the Buddhist cacophony that was bothering me, though. Rather, it was Outkast’s Andre 3000, raucously assailing me from the open window of a monk’s bedroom. Not, in all honesty, what I’d imagined to be the favoured listening of men who devote their lives to peaceful contemplation. But then, much of my experience of the Tibetan refugee community defied my expectations.

Tibet is a particularly easy nation to romanticise. Images of smiling monks skipping through meadows, arm-in-arm with Richard Gere, troop through our consciousness. Shangri-La and the Dalai Lama appear to us as the last bastions of isolated old-world innocence in an increasingly cynical global society. Understandably, when the West sees this innocence wrestled to the ground by faceless, blue tracksuit-clad drones, it gets indignant.

But as much as is about human rights abuses, what has really raised the public ire is the idea that the Chinese are forcefully destroying another culture, as the prevalence of references to ‘cultural genocide’ demonstrate. Of course, Tibetans are discriminated against: forbidden to carry pictures of the Dalai Lama; squeezed out of jobs by Han Chinese immigrants in Lhasa; their very language gradually eliminated. This is, rightly, the subject of international censure.

But the unspoken assumption of much reporting on Tibet, that its culture would have been preserved unchanged without the pernicious influence of the Chinese, is unfounded. Confronted with the seductive allure of American popular culture, even distant Himalayan states struggle to maintain their traditions indefinitely.

The remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, as close a relation to Tibet as you’re likely to find, became the last nation in the world to introduce television in 1999. A crime wave including murders, drugs offences and fraud – hitherto relatively unheard of events – followed. Many Bhutanese blame this on the television. The editor of the national newspaper Kuensel, for example, claims that the ‘younger generation jettison traditional culture for whatever they are sold on TV.’

This tendency was all too clearly in evidence amongst the Tibetan refugee community in Darjeeling. As figures standing piously apart from the modern world and all its accompanying vagaries, monks are often held up as paragons of political and cultural purity by the mainstream media. The prominence afforded to them in the recent Burman unrest is only one such example of this. The monks in Samdrub Darjay Choling, however, presented a much less idealised picture.

It wasn’t just their predilection for Andre 3000. They were obsessed by everything that the materialistic bling culture of US gangsta rap had to offer. Robes were ditched at every opportunity for more ‘hip-hop’ clothing, with the one proviso that it was red. In their free time, they played on Playstations, practised break-dancing, tried to pick up girls in the evenings and, when that failed, even watched porn on cheap Chinese VCDs.

This could not be solely ascribed to the whims of younger monks. It was present at an institutional level. A rival monastery had been set up next door by disgruntled villagers protesting at the head lama’s use of their donations to ostentatiously purchase diamond rings and a small fleet of 4x4s.

Ostensibly at the front line of the struggle to preserve their own culture, having left behind an authoritarian state to do so, these Tibetans appeared indifferent to their fate. In providing the source material for this rejection of traditional values, the West might be accused of conducting a ‘cultural genocide’ all of its own. This is somewhat wide of the mark. The monks’ decision to ape 50 Cent, however saddening it might be for the idealist in all of us, was one taken freely, without any coercion from monolithic powers.

Our affection for the concept of Tibet springs out of nostalgia for an imagined archetype of peace and virtue that may never have existed anywhere, even in the Himalayas. China’s policies in Tibet are reprehensible, but they should not be credited with the destruction of a national culture. Cultures have a natural tendency to do this to themselves, whether we like it or not.

Tom Walker

[Image Source: http://flickr.com/photos/grahamking/1341754652/]