WOMEN OF TIBET
CARRYING THE CULTURE
an interview with Rosemary Rawcliffe
Women of Tibet: A Quiet Revolution had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 2007. Each screening was followed by a moving discussion with director/producer Rosemary Rawcliffe and two of the Tibetan women featured in the film: Ama Adhe Tapontsang, who spent twenty-eight hard years in Chinese prisons, and Dolma Tsering Teykhang, a member of parliament of the Tibetan government in exile. A Quiet Revolution is the second film in Rawcliffe’s Women of Tibet trilogy of one-hour documentaries exploring the Buddhist values at the heart of Tibetan culture—compassion, nonviolence and peace. Rawcliffe shows how these values are embodied in, and nurtured through, the endurance and power of Tibetan women. A Quiet Revolution tells the story of the 15,000 women who were exiled and jailed for their participation in the Tibetan women’s uprising against the Chinese in 1959, as well as the stories of their daughters and granddaughters who are committed to carrying on the cultural legacy of their people. Rawcliffe has produced and directed international programs in theater, television and film for more than thirty years. Inquiring Mind coeditor Barbara Gates and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and intuitive counselor Phyllis Pay interviewed Rawcliffe in Albany, California, in November 2007.
Inquiring Mind: What first drew you to Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan people?
Rosemary Rawcliffe: In 1989, I had just moved to New York and was at a dinner party where I found myself talking with a Tibetan monk, Lama Pema. I told him I was at a crossroads. I’d sold my businesses and left London with one suitcase. I’d had the fancy cars, my business partner and I had founded and operated three film companies simultaneously, owned and restored a heritage home, and housed my businesses in a six-story building in London’s Soho. I’d traveled the world and, apart from a deeply distressing childhood, I’d had a fabulous life. Yet I felt empty and couldn’t find anything that held deep meaning—other than this “search for meaning.” We agreed we would talk more later in the week.
At his apartment, by the door, there was a flyer with a face shining out at me. It was the most beautiful face I’d ever seen—it was Her Eminence Sakya Jetsun Chimey Luding Rinpoche, His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s sister. (Sakya Trizin is the head of the Sakya lineage.) When I saw her face, something clicked. There was a complete recognition of someone I had known for eons—not necessarily Jetsun Kushok la (as she is also known) but an energy—and it was boundless love.
Two weeks later, I found myself attending a Green Tara initiation given by her in the chapel at Columbia University. Cindy Crawford was sitting in the pew across the aisle from me. When Jetsun Kushok got to the part of the initiation about overcoming obstacles, pieces of the ceiling started to fall down from the transept just past Cindy Crawford’s ear and smashed on the floor between us. I thought, Oh boy, if Jetsun Kushok la can really bring the roof down, I’d better pay attention!
During the following months I went back to London on business but called Jetsun Kushok la in Vancouver to ask if I could come and study with her on my way back to New York. Of course, she said no. But during the following three years I persisted, asking again and again. Each time she said, “No!” Meanwhile, I studied intensively with several other Tibetan masters, including His Holiness Sakya Trizin.
Inquiring Mind: At that time you thought you’d given up making films forever, but then you ended up making this trilogy about Tibetan women. How did that happen?
RR: Well, first of all, it didn’t happen in a flash; it was a long process of rediscovery. Over time I’d come to understand that the underpinning of the whole of Tibetan culture is nonviolence. It seems to bubble up as a natural state from Tibetan’s devotion to and belief in the teachings of the Buddha. I thought, Wouldn’t it be neat if I could somehow capture just a little bit of that unwavering and indestructible commitment to the love and compassion that is the heart of the Tibetan people, that lives at the heart of nonviolence? The world we have created is in a serious mess, I remember thinking. We spend millions of dollars trying to resurrect the wisdom of Native Americans, the Egyptians or the Greeks—any civilization that seems to be able to offer us wisdom—but right here we have a living wisdom tradition that we are watching be destroyed, and we’re allowing it to happen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could somehow distill or decant this idea into a story about Tibet’s recent history and the heart of the Tibetan people?
As this idea was beginning to form, in 1991 during a huge gathering of all the Tibetan lineage masters and His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New York, I was volunteered to drive for His Holiness Sakya Trizin. As I got to know him, it occurred to me that most Westerners didn’t really relate to men on thrones, even this much-beloved exotic creature wearing huge turquoise earrings. The whole Tibetan tradition, the monastic tradition really, is very hierarchical. But it came to me that there wasn’t just this man—there was his whole family. It was unlike anything else I’d encountered in the Tibetan tradition. Everything else seemed to be driven by “the incarnate” or “the Tulku” and all of that. This family was a bloodline, or “bone lineage,” as the Tibetans call it.
Anyway, I found myself asking Sakya Trizin, “Your Holiness, it seems to me that a Western audience might relate to family rather than the Tibetan monastic tradition. Would you give me permission to make a film about you and your family?” He kind of cocked his head one way, paused and then said, “Yes.” I was inspired to begin storytelling again, and with it came a natural desire to tell the story from a woman’s perspective. A little later I began to work with Jetsun Kushok la on her film biography, and that was really the beginning of what would become the trilogy.
My interest in exploring the idea of the role of women in the Tibetan family came about both through watching Jetsun Kushok’s family and how she treated her children and through the stories she told me about her auntie and countless other extraordinary women. From her I learned that Tibetan women carried a big part of the culture as well as being deeply committed to their own spiritual path. In the Vajrayana, in the deepest sense, there is no separation between the masculine and the feminine. Tibetan women sit very solid in their femaleness, and they also sit very well in their maleness; they are not threatened by the masculine in the way that Western women are. On the contrary. In the Tibetan tradition, the feminine is wisdom, the universal container. The masculine is compassion, which arises out of the vessel of the feminine, wisdom.
Later on, this same theme emerged as I learned about the Dalai Lama’s mother, who was known as the Great Mother of Tibet. In all, she gave birth to sixteen children. Only seven survived, and of those seven children three were tulkus, major carriers of their tradition. In my Great Mother film, in every single story that any of her children or grandchildren tell, the Dalai Lama’s mother is manifesting one of the six paramitas. Of course, the Prajñaparamita is the Great Mother. The Dalai Lama talks about how his mother would cry whenever she saw beggars. She would give them whatever she had—the paramita of generosity, the Great Mother in action!
If we look at the archetypal aspect of the feminine, then we see the Great Mother, which to me is a model that’s been lost in Western culture. For thousands of years we’ve allowed the mother to be reduced to less than a second-class citizen, to where we don’t know how to mother anymore. How can we heal ourselves if we don’t have a model of the Great Mother to learn from?
IM: Is that what led you to make the first film in the trilogy, The Great Mother?
RR: Actually, I never set out to make a film about the Great Mother. I set out to make a two-hour special about the 1959 uprising of Tibetan women who went up against the Chinese unarmed, the women who provided the resistance, escaped into exile, and rebuilt the Tibetan community. That film is now the second film in the trilogy, A Quiet Revolution. I made The Great Mother because as I worked on the film about the ’59 uprising, I learned that the Dalai Lama’s mother was pivotal to the well-being of the Tibetan people. I’ve come to think of the Women of Tibet trilogy as the “three faces of the Great Mother.” The first (The Great Mother) is the model; the second (A Quiet Revolution) is the activity, the body of the Great Mother archetype; and the third (Women, Wisdom and Spirit) is the divine face of the Great Mother, showing how the women’s spiritual tradition has maintained the integrity of Tibetan culture. Their spiritual tradition sustains the Tibetan people; it comes up through the culture like a taproot from the center of the Earth.
IM: In A Quiet Revolution, the extraordinary spiritual force of the Tibetan women is palpable throughout. But how did 15,000 women come together in the 1959 uprising?
RR: In 1956 open rebellion erupted in eastern Tibet. During the next few years hundreds of Tibetans were imprisoned, executed or starved to death. Afraid of the People’s Liberation Army, families began migrating toward Lhasa, thinking the Dalai Lama would be there and everything would be okay. By 1959, fearing resistance from the growing numbers of Tibetans in Lhasa, the Chinese surrounded the capital with heavy artillery on three sides, at the same time sending many of the men back to their townships and villages. Tensions escalated, and on March 10 the uprising began. On that day, in the midst of the demonstration, four aristocratic women agreed that they must do something to oppose the Chinese hostilities. They made and distributed hundreds of handwritten flyers urging other women “to gather at the large ground below the Potala Palace.” On March 12 an estimated 15,000 women showed up.
It’s said that each woman brought her kids and a pot or pan to beat, and they marched peacefully around Lhasa. During the march they sought help from the Indian consul general: “Please ask the Chinese to go back to China. Tibet is for Tibetans.” Their racket created a diversion, allowing the Dalai Lama to flee. It also made the Chinese extremely nervous and prompted them to fire on the Norbulingka (the Dalai Lama’s summer palace). Thousands of people were massacred during the following days, but the women didn’t surrender until they heard that the Dalai Lama had escaped. Of course, the men were also very much part of the revolution, but the women never get talked about. Once again, women are written out of history, their own history. So that was part of my motivation in making the films: to create something that was a record.
In 2000, when I went to Dharamsala, I sought out the women who had participated in that history. One of the first women I met was Ama Adhe, who was in the uprising and had survived for twenty-eight years in prison.
IM: Watching the film and hearing her speak, I had a sense of Ama Adhe’s tremendous love of the Dharma. That must have carried her through all those years in prison.
RR: She really came to the Dharma when she was captured and imprisoned. You know, she was buried alive, but by chance one of the guards saw that she wasn’t dead and dragged her out of a pit full of dead bodies. Prisoners were not allowed to practice their Tibetan Buddhism; that was cause for execution. Ama Adhe was fearless. She prayed to Tara most of the time and to the Dalai Lama as Avalokitesvara.
IM: In one of the most powerful segments of the film, she sang to let the other prisoners know about the Dalai Lama’s escape.
RR: Ama Adhe wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone else because she was in solitary confinement. But while she was feeding the pigs, she was out near the other prisoners. One day she was overjoyed to learn from a prisoner who had just been transferred to the prison that the Dalai Lama had escaped. As a code to other prisoners, she sang a song that the sunshine (Dalai Lama) would return and the snow (Chinese army) would disappear. Like most things Tibetan, this was symbolic; it symbolized that the Dalai Lama would surely return and bring peace and happiness back to Tibet. The Chinese figured out that Ama-la was singing the news, so they threw her back into solitary confinement again and tortured her for several days.
I once asked her, “How on Earth did you get twenty-eight years in prison while most people got three to seven?” She said, “Because they couldn’t break me. Every time I wouldn’t denounce the Dalai Lama or the Dharma, they would add another two or three years.” In those twenty-eight years, she says she saw about 13,000 people die.
IM: Despite all she witnessed and all she suffered herself, it was extraordinary to hear her say that through working continuously with the Dalai Lama when she got out, she learned to move beyond her rage. How do you think her rage was transformed? I mean, how can that happen for anyone, for you or for me?
RR: I’ve no idea how it happened for her. I can only speak to how it happens for me. And look, I’ve been an angry person; I carried a lot of rage because of my childhood. Of course, it’s a process. It begins with grief: being willing to go into the depths of my own grief for what we’ve managed to accomplish on the planet as so-called humanity.
Meeting the Dharma was like coming home; it provided a tool for me to go into that grief, to go into forgiving myself for my own ignorance, for my failings and wrong turns. So I don’t know how Ama Adhe transformed her rage, but I surely know how it works for me. It’s contacting an unwavering love of who we are, of being confident that at the heart of our being there is goodness: our individual and unique Buddhanature.
That’s where I think courage comes from as well. Ama Adhe and I did talk about that. She was in despair over the loss of all she knew in her childhood—the beautiful land, friends, mothers and fathers and animals—before the Chinese took over Tibet. But she was firmly rooted in the love of Buddhanature, so there was no choice but to stand up to her captors. They would have had to kill her to kill that spark.
IM: Why did she feel that it was so crucial to tell His Holiness and let the world know of the suffering that she and her fellow prisoners went through?
RR: Well, when she was in prison she and three other women made a pledge that whoever survived would make sure His Holiness knew what the Tibetan people had gone through. I can only imagine that it would be the equivalent of talking about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Why wouldn’t we want to let people know about that? It’s about the survival of our humanity. You asked earlier about my motivation to make these films. I strongly believe that if we allow the Tibetan culture to be lost, we will lose a part of our humanity. Look, the Tibetans are carrying the model for our collective humanity when it comes to creating a society based on peace and nonviolence. They’ve been doing it for fifty years in exile. If we lose that model, that possibility, how do we imagine we can create a world worth living in? My own personal humanity resides in that idea. It’s no surprise to discover that when I reach for the highest within me, I find myself turning to a culture that lived in the highest place on the planet and that carries this highly evolved wisdom.
Look at what unbridled testosterone managed to accomplish in the first Iraq War. You had these penis-like missiles, gazillions of them per minute, penetrating the cradle of civilization, the womb of the world, and that image was being pumped into our collective unconscious by satellite as it was happening. That was part of our humanity being destroyed.
I am fixed on the idea that if we lose the Tibetans, we lose the model they carry for us in a way that no one else is carrying it at the moment. Imagine a planet without the possibility of peace and nonviolence. And let’s not forget the place we live; our home is also the Great Mother.
IM: The Women of Tibet trilogy certainly dramatizes the Great Mother archetype of fiercely feminine compassion, love and peace and helps preserve the Tibetan model for a world that really needs nonviolence. Your ongoing work seems to express these values on many levels and from many angles.
RR: Yes, I have come to understand that I haven’t done anything, even when I was making corporate films, that hasn’t on some level been about the Great Mother.
© 2008 Inquiring Mind
where His Holiness the Dalai Lama led interfaith prayers for peace
at Gandhi’s Memorial shrine after riots in Tibet.