Friday Reads: Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick

Barbara Demick’s 2009 book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, blew me away with the eye-opening window it provided into everyday life in North Korea. In Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, published this past July, Demick offers similar insight into Tibet by profiling a handful of individuals whose lived experiences paint a representative picture of life in a little-known land.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in my limited knowledge of Tibet. I associate it with the Dalai Lama, living in exile in India; Mount Everest, located on the border between Nepal and Tibet; and conflicts with the Chinese government, which claims sovereignty over it. After reading Demick’s book, I’ve definitely expanded my knowledge of the issues Tibetans have faced, particularly since 1950 when the Chinese army “liberated” them on behalf of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.

Demick’s subjects tell tales of property seizure and struggle sessions. They also suffered from famine–a result of collectivization coordinated by cadres who ignored the delicate balance Tibetans had previously maintained between herding and high-altitude farming. Perhaps the biggest affront, however, was the Chinese government’s effort to suppress Tibetan’s religion, culture, and language through attacks on monks, monasteries, and the Dalai Lama:

Seeing the monks humiliated, statues smashed, and paintings burned shook Tibetans to the core. Buddhism provided the rituals through which the seasons were measured, births celebrated, and deaths grieved. . . . The attacks on religion alienated Tibetans who might otherwise have supported the Communist Party’s efforts to stamp out feudalism and create social equality. (48)

Not surprisingly, monasteries have become primary sites of contemporary Tibetan resistance. Initially demolished or repurposed in the late 1950s, monasteries started reopening in 1980. By 1994, however, the Communist Party had started cracking down on them again to “rein in Tibetan religious life” (144). Since then conflicts have escalated until, in 2009, a young monk set himself on fire, triggering a wave of self-immolations over subsequent years. (The 156th occurred on November 26, 2019.)

Due to the shocking nature of this means of political protest, self-immolations have received international media coverage. If you are like me, this may be the primary reason you have even the slightest inkling of what’s been happening in Tibet. If you’d like to learn more, however, you now have a book recommendation: Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha!

Demick, Barbara. Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town. New York: Random House, 2020.

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