REALITY SANDWICH IS PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE

History Lessons with His Holiness: The Story of Tibet

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In this interview I talk to Thomas Laird, a longtime photojournalist in Nepal, about his new book, The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. Laird’s book is unique; it is the first history of Tibet to be written with a Dalai Lama since the 1600s—and it couldn’t come at a better time. Since the takeover in the 50s, China has been steadily trying to erase Tibetan culture and religion. I asked Laird to talk about how it was to work with his Holiness on the project—I was particularly curious to know how he balanced this historical project of national identity with the Buddhist ideal of self-dissolution. Our conversation, like the many conversations in Laird’s wonderful book, was profound.

AE: You’ve been back and forth between Nepal and The United States for the past thirty years doing a huge variety of journalistic coverage. Talk about the evolution of your work with Tibet and how you came to write The Story of Tibet in cooperation with the Dalai Lama.

TL: I had already been living in Nepal for about fifteen years when the Chinese opened Tibet to tourism for the first time, in 1985. By then, Tibetan friends in exile from Tibet and Sherpas in Nepal had already spent a lot of time trying to educate me about the culture, religion and history of Tibet—this was from the time I was nineteen. I was lucky to have met some of the greatest Tibetan meditation masters early on. I met the 16th Karmapa as early as 1974; I also met a luminous Sherpa artist and yogi who lived in a cave in the Himalayas, who had studied for decades in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. These people, as well as yak herders and barley farmers, spent a great deal of effort to educate me about their worldview during my youth in Nepal. I was a bad student, but I spent fifteen years at it, and some of their wisdom, and humor, seeped through.

Thus, when I rushed into Tibet as soon as it was opened, amongst the first few foreigners who arrived there, I was somewhat prepared. Besides my Tibet background in Nepal, I was on the cusp of being an established journalist and photographer. I had honed media skills for a long time, but had not really been able to make a living at it. That first year traveling freely throughout Tibet, everything I did wound up in print. I took a trip in a yak-skin coracle down part of the Tsangpo River: the first foreigner to do that in decades. Conde Nast Traveler published the resulting story. I found a massive, remote monastery, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and National Geographic snapped up a picture of its desolate ruins for a double-page spread: there I was, sharing Galen Rowell’s space in National Geographic. It was dreamtime, personally and professionally. Before Tibet, I had refused to be co-opted into so many other things where I could have ‘made a living’. Instead, I held out for ‘doing what I dreamt of’ (even though I did not know what that was). Suddenly, in Tibet, I found it. So those first years in Tibet were tremendous. I trekked all over. Shot everything I could get access too and lived with the Tibetans. There was so much work I wanted to do—for me, because I had to do it. An amazing experience like that probably does not come twice in one life.

Such experiences in Tibet focused me, professionally. So when the 1991 revolution hit in Nepal, I was ready. I jumped on that and took photographs of every aspect: the street battles that left dozens dead, secret meetings with the democratic leaders living underground, and so on. I had figured out how to get the resulting photographs in front of editors at Stern, Time, and a Time-Warner publication based in Hong Kong, Asiaweek. Asiaweek began to run six-page photo spreads of my work in Nepal, and asked me for extended captions. Within a year, I was their correspondent in Nepal. I wrote more than 25 articles for them over the ten years—some were cover stories. During the revolution, and as I reported its aftermath, I met all of the politicians who were brought to power by the revolution. Because of those contacts, when I asked for permission to be the first foreigner to visit the Tibetan Buddhist Kingdom of Mustang, within Nepal, the Prime Minister of Nepal granted me the permit. Even though Mustang is part of Nepal, politically, it’s actually a part of Tibet, ethnically, religiously, culturally. So I spent a year in what was essentially a time capsule of ‘pre-Chinese invasion’ Tibet just before tourism was allowed in there. And during that time the writer Peter Matthiessen came up and spent a month with me, and we did a book together. That was my first book: he wrote the text and I did the photography: East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of Mustang.

That month with Peter, and then the months of work afterwards as I helped him fact-check the final text, inspired me to take my writing more seriously. Also in Mustang I saw the social relations between what I can only call “serfs and masters”—still intact there—and that rounded out my vision of Tibet. The serfs of Mustang were only freed in the 1960s. People my age had been born as serfs, and they taught me a great deal about their society before emancipation from their lords. Because Chinese have used the social inequalities that existed in pre-Chinese-invasion Tibet as an excuse for their invasion, this issue is not something most supporters of Tibet have been eager to discuss. However because of my background this was an issue which the Dalai Lama and I did discuss when I began work on The Story of Tibet.

Something else happened in Mustang. I met children whose hands had been blown off by grenades that the U.S. government had supplied to Tibetan guerrillas based in Mustang during the 1960s. It’s a chapter of America’s Cold War history that most Americans remain unaware of. Anyway, when Nixon and Kissinger made kiss-kiss with Mao, part of the price of our new relations with China was that we had to stop arming people who were still mounting armed attacks on the Chinese in Tibet (which the Chinese saw as China). So we dropped the guerillas, and never took time to go in and clean up the mess of ammo dumps we had established there. So those weapons were still laying about the countryside, and children were still having their hands blown off in the 1990s when I went up there. Again, this was an aspect of Tibetan history that few Tibet supporters were eager to discuss.

So, as you can see, my education about Tibet, about many aspects of Tibet, went on for decades before I met the Dalai Lama. When I came out of Mustang, I was eager to write a book about the CIA’s covert support of the Mustang guerrillas. I was so eager to do that, that I rushed from Mustang directly to the National Archives in Washington DC, to see what had been declassified about this chapter of our history. I discovered that CIA has retained Top Secret classification on most of those documents, so Americans are unable to know their own history from that era. Most books on the subject, even now, are flawed in that they have been published only after vetting by the CIA.

As I read primary materials for weeks in the National Archives I stumbled onto something else: I found a story about the first CIA agent ever killed. In 1950, six months before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Douglas Mackiernan was shot dead in Tibet. Ultimately, I published my first non-fiction book about him: Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa. When I first found the documents that led me down the path towards that book, I did not know what I was seeing, but because of my grounding in Tibetan history, I knew enough to smell a story. It was a story that every Tibet expert in America had ignored, or missed, for fifty years. I became obsessed with finding the truth and writing a story that would be both readable and accurate. It seemed Americans needed to know this history as we headed into the Middle East for fresh adventures.

And here at last we come to the Dalai Lama. As soon as I realized that this CIA agent had been shot in Tibet my first inclination was to ask the Dalai Lama – though he was just 16 at the time – if he had known that Mackiernan was a CIA agent when he had met survivors of the Mckiernan party in Lhasa. So I called up his office in Dharamsala, India, and talked with one of his secretaries. They were fascinated by what I had uncovered in the National Archives, so when I asked for an interview, it was granted.

The Dalai Lama and I met and from the start we argued, a lot, about everything. I had already been through the more typical arc that most Americans go through with Tibet. Awe. I want to get enlightened now, please. But by the time we met I had gone on to something else. I was fascinated with every aspect of Tibetan history. That passion about Tibetan history came out in our dialogue. Nor did I treat him with the sort of fawning awe most Americans, and Tibetans, approach him with. He seemed to like that. After our first meeting he told his secretaries to allow me back in to see him when I had questions. So I started to see him a couple times a year, whenever he had time, and whenever I had questions.

He was a guiding light behind my second photo book The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple: Tantric Murals from Tibet. I had begun to shoot amazing murals in Lhasa, in a temple that had been the private meditation chamber for the Dalai Lamas. It seemed important to do a photo book on the murals, and of course the Dalai Lama’s commentary was essential for the author who wrote the text for that book, my friend Ian Baker. (Famous for his discovery of Hidden Falls in Tibet a few years later).

Over the course of several years, the Dalai Lama and I met to talk about these books, and in the process I sensed some frustration in the him. It surfaced when he spoke about Tibetan history. Several times he said something like, “Oh, Tibetan history, so complicated.” It was shocking to sense his frustration, almost despondency. It opened me up to the idea that the public perception of him as this smiling Buddha might be detracting from our ability to dialogue with the nuanced person within that. And as I thought about it, I realized that he did not think that Westerners understood the essence of Tibetan history very well, if at all. We have an overview of western history, even if we do not know the details, but we lack that for Asia. To me it seemed as though the Dalai Lama was worried at how the Chinese were manipulating that ignorance amongst Westerners.

It was an electrifying experience. I realized that he needed something, that I could do something for him, in a sense. Instead of approaching him, looking for enlightenment, looking at what he could do for me.

So, the next time I met him I asked him a simple question, “Would you write a history of Tibet with me?” And he said yes. In fact, he said “Yes, that is important work.” And that allowed me to write The Story of Tibet.

When you initially conceived of this book, were you consciously thinking, “A Dalai Lama hasn’t been involved in the writing of Tibetan history since the 1600s—so now’s the time!”

Yes, that was part of the sense of mission I brought to the work, when I discovered it needed doing. Understanding that, and sensing every year between the year 2000 and the 1600s, I grew more and more excited. As I began the book I had the mistaken idea that somehow I had been especially chosen to write it; I learned better during the decade that it took to write, and publish the book. But as I started the book I was well aware that the Fifth Dalai Lama’s history of Tibet was still in print. And so there was reason to believe that the book I was writing might still be in print four centuries from now. Before I finished the book I understood that the importance of the book had nothing to do with me, but that it was still probably true that it would be in print for a long time. How many things will you work on in life where you feel there is a good chance it will still be around four hundred years later? That fantasy was useful in that it empowered me to summon the degree of commitment and energy that required to see the book published. I had no idea what I had embarked upon as I set off. The Dalai Lama did. One of the first things he said to me when we agreed to work on the book was “It will be difficult for you.” It was. It was all worthwhile in the end because the book is unique, and so, shall we say, “long-legged.” It’s going to be around for a while.

What were your conscious intentions in writing The Story of Tibet? How emotional was this process for you?

I tried to expunge my own emotions from the book except where it was clear to me that that the narrative required their presence. Peter Matthiessen told me something about writing the Snow Leopard. He said that the crumb trail of emotions a writer drops into the facts is something readers follow, as they find the emotional trail through the forest of facts. It stuck with me as I wrote The Story of Tibet. So that is one response to your question. Yes, I tried to use my emotions, and the readers’ emotions, about the Dalai Lama, in a lyrical way, to keep the readers interest in what could have become a dry academic book. I consciously set out to elicit an emotional response from the reader, at the conclusion of every chapter. At the same time doing that, I would surrender to those emotions myself as I wrote the end of each chapter. This emerged naturally as I wrote, it was not forced, though it was conscious. Personally, those emotions charged my batteries, so that I could summon the energy to continue writing. So emotion was important at several levels. It empowered me, and it powers the narrative.

However, my own journey was far more emotional than I let on in the book itself. There was the roller coaster of meeting the Dalai Lama, and then summoning the belief in my own ideas, in my own perceptions, to argue with him, to engage in spirited dialogue. Doing that I discovered that it was the only way to peel away the levels of perception that the Dalai Lama brings to a conversation. Sitting there soaking him up is pointless for a writer. That’s what you want to do as a person, but it’s a waste of his time, in a sense. It’s certainly a waste of the reader’s time. I had to meet him half way, and that required more emotional growth than I knew I was capable of. I would walk out of a week of daily four-hour interviews with him, drained, and then spend six months preparing for the next set of interviews. I read dozens of books so I would know what to ask, so that I could challenge his assumptions, and ask him to explain.

Throughout your book there are many moments where the Dalai Lama seems to disagree or diverge with you, at least emotionally, over some of the more urgent or extreme political motivations for telling Tibet’s story. How did you come to understand the paradox of the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist detachment in relationship to the fact that, clearly, he also has an activist’s political agenda to represent?

In plain terms, yes, we argued. That’s the key to this book. Its why the book exists at all. And its why many readers connect to the book. It’s not what you expect when you pick up such a book. The simple fact is that the Dalai Lama encouraged me to argue with him. That’s the message I got from him, and my nature is argumentative. That worked well, for us and for the reader. It was only through our arguments that the key revelations of the book were nurtured. There are things in The Story of Tibet that have never been understood about the Dalai Lama before. Simple things like “14th Dalai Lama”. Fourteenth what? Is he the 14th reincarnation of the First Dalai Lama? That’s what I thought, that’s what every book I had ever read said. But that’s not the ‘truth’ as understood by the Dalai Lama. So that’s the positive side of what emerged from our arguments. Assumptions were broken down. That only happens through sincere dialogue.

But there is another level of the game. He is emotionally detached, in some ways. He does not have the responses you or I would have to a situation. There is a calmness that come from meditating four hours a day, for his whole life. I don’t have that detachment. I am attached, I am passionate. I am, in a way, the fool.

Actually, I don’t think he has an activist’s political agenda to represent. There are Tibetans who have that sense of activism. But we soften the sharp edges of the nuanced reality of who the Dalai Lama is if we try to represent him with the word-box ‘activist’. That word only tells part of his reality. He always resisted me when I tried to put him into word boxes like that.

The detachment that he has, from mind training (years of meditation) shapes how he sees the world, and if we want to grasp a sense of that world (without years of meditation) then we have to listen to his nuance. Very carefully. And if we think we understand him, challenge him. Because invariably our understanding of who we think he is, is preventing us from seeing him.

So, in the book, I try to reveal the nuance of who he is by narrating our arguments, truthfully. Particularly when I would head down a path that he disagreed with, or where I misunderstood him. I am the fool, I become everyman, his foil, that he uses to allow the reader to sense the nuance of who he is.

While you mention in the book that you are not a religious or “believing” person, you also seem to have many spiritual “aha” moments during your conversations with the Dalai Lama. I noticed a curious relationship between your journalistic detachment as a writer and the Dalai Lama’s spiritual detachment as a Buddhist. Do you feel that you developed a deeper sense of yourself as a spiritual being during this project?

Yes. You could hardly spend that much time with Tenzin Gyatso and not develop a deeper awareness of you own spirituality. And, yes, again I consider myself spiritual, though I am not a believer. The Dalai Lama makes spirituality very practical. It’s like hanging out with a ballet star. You can see that the ballet star walks differently. And then when they get on the stage you see that they can do things you cannot. But yet, hanging out with them, you realize that their special abilities grew out of a lifetimes dedication to daily practice, and training. That funny way they walk down the street is part of what allows that beauty on the stage. You develop the sense that if we devoted ourselves, as they do to their practice, that we could achieve some fraction of their apparently miraculous abilities (and worry what we might lose if we did so). In this way being around the Dalai Lama made spirituality less remote, less of an ideal. It made it more concrete for me. Not that I became better, just by being around him, but I did get a sense of what it takes to be nice to people, to control one’s anger, to think about what others want, or need. Seeing his example, in small things, you see where you are, and what it would take to develop your abilities. Spirituality becomes concrete, and for me it emboldened my lack of belief. If I may be so bold: belief is not the foundation of spirituality; knowledge is not the foundation of wisdom.

In many ways, we in the West romanticize the lineage of lamas from Tibet in the same way that so many people have given themselves blindly to papal power over the course of time. In this book we get to know a history of lamas who are not perfect holy-men on mountains, surrounded by white light. Did you ever feel conflicted in presenting some of the darker sides of the lama lineage? Why do we westerners hold such romantic views of Tibet and how does our consciousness of Tibet need to evolve?

Yes, I agree that some westerners romanticize Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, and yes, I agree we do that in much the same way that European peasants once spiritually enfeoffed themselves to Rome. I have seen examples of this that were chilling. I have literally seen people die because of such beliefs. This is, as I believe the Dalai Lama would say, ignorant

No, I did not feel conflicted about presenting a nuanced, holistic, view of Tibetan history. By the time I came to write The Story of Tibet I was writing it in part, exactly because that was what needed doing. I read Magic and Mystery in Tibet, by Alexandra David-Neel, when I was an 18-year-old kid. I bought it from a bookstore on the Spanish Steps in Rome, and read it as I hitch hiked to Kathmandu in 1972. So I had been there, done that. A long time ago. In fact, living in Kathmandu, I had seen dozens of shall we say, emotionally challenged westerners, diving into the deep end of Tibetan meditation practices without proper preparation, without guidance, after developing an irrational view of Tibetan Buddhism, based on Tibetan classics that had been poorly translated or poorly understood, in the late 19th and early 20th Century. People who did not speak a word of Tibetan told me they were receiving their mediation guidance through telepathy from a Tibetan Lama, who did not speak anything but Tibetan. I was called on to pick up the pieces a few times, get them on their meds, get them to stop meditating, get them on a plane, and get them back to their families.

In those instances, while talking with Tibetan meditation masters who were trying to help such people, I saw one thing very clearly: Tibetans who become monks and nuns are often the most grounded, funniest, well adjusted people in their society. They come to Buddhism not to heal themselves but to empower themselves, so they can help others. Of course, there are exceptions, but anyone who has spent time with Tibetan monks knows that they are a hoot. Even if you just read The Story of Tibet, the first thing you learn about the Dalai Lama is that he is always laughing, always telling jokes—and often those jokes are self-deprecatory. On the other hand, my experience was that in general (with notable exceptions) westerners attracted to Buddhism are looking for healing. They are not very lighthearted, and they don’t have a lot to give to others.

One of the reason westerners hold such fantastic ideas about Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism is because even in the 1960s there were no good translations of basic Tibetan texts available. So people read fiction parading as fact, like Lobsang Rampa, Madam Blavatsky, or The Ascended Brotherhood, and thought they knew something about Tibet. Luckily for me, since I do not read Tibetan, many people of my own generation have accurately translated the basics of Tibetan literature: I even had access to those ideas while the translations were still in manuscript form. A heroic job of translation has been done. There is a great deal of accurate material out there now that was not available, really, until the 1980s and later. So that’s one part of this.

Why do westerners hold such romantic fantasies about Tibet? Tibet has always attracted people on the edge, and until recently they were being fed hogwash. That is changing. Calm, normal, people have developed more realistic appraisals of Tibet, its religion, and its history. And this trend is enriching our view of the world. But it’s a slow process, and many people first coming to the subject of Tibet still seem drawn, like moths to the flame, to the old work, that really needs to be put aside.

On the other hand, the Chinese Government goes out of its way to distort the history of Tibet, for political purposes. If you think the weird things Madam Blavatsky did to Tibetan Buddhism are strange, you should see the trash the Chinese Communist Party dresses up as history.

In writing The Story of Tibet I was sincerely motivated to find a balanced, grounded, view of Tibet as a real country, with a real history, with real problems in its history, without losing sight of the fact that Tibet is a country that has real spiritual treasure to offer the world. But to get to that, you have to burn through your assumptions, and ground your basic understanding about Tibet in the facts. Which is one of the reasons why I wrote The Story of Tibet. I am very lucky that I set out to accomplish that task at a time when so much new material was available.

There is a sense throughout the conversations you have with the Dalai Lama that, historically, Tibet has been primarily concerned with the flourishing of Buddhism—over and above its political/national identity. Most armchair Buddhist scholars know that Buddhism is primarily concerned with the dissolving of the egoic self. How did you deal with the paradox of the struggle for a national identity in Tibet, the flourishing of its national religion, in contrast with Buddhism’s deepest tenet of self-dissolution? Did the Dalai Lama ever address this with you?

There are several places in the book where the Dalai Lama answers this question in a way that its impossible to do justice to in this interview. However, to be frank, this is perhaps the toughest question you have asked. Let me tell you a story. After the book was published in the U.S., I went on tour. One evening after I finished speaking, a young Tibetan woman, born in exile, stood up and thanked me for the book, which was moving. Then she asked me something, more or less in these words.

“In your book you give us many examples of the Dalai Lama’s lack of attachment, developed through spiritual training. In one example, you show how the Dalai Lama or anyone who has developed ‘lack of attachment’ through a lifetime of meditation practice, might view the Potala Palace in Lhasa as just another building. But for those of us who have never been to Tibet, the Potala is not just another building. Its a symbol of Tibetan nationalism. Can you explain to me how we should understand that? Are we supposed to devote our life to achieving real autonomy in Tibet, in fighting for the rights of the Tibetan people? Or is that a waste of time and instead we should devote our lives to mind-science, so that we can achieve real liberation, not the physical liberation of our country?”

Frankly, I could sense where her mind was going after she got about half way through her question. I had half-felt her question as I interviewed the Dalai Lama and as I wrote the book. As her words landed in my ear, and then fell into my heart, they landed with pre-ordained order. They landed, one after the other falling exactly where the construct she had already created in my mind decreed, and I was crying long before she came to the end of her question.

After she finished speaking there was absolute silence in the room. I was weeping, on the podium, silently, with no attempt to brush away my tears.

In reply, I said, “I am not the person you should ask this question of.”

Recently China finished a three billion dollar railway to Lhasa. Nearly half of the population of the Tibetan region is now filled by Chinese workers who received incentives to work in Tibet. Although the killing of culture is perhaps not as outright or loud as something like, say, the Rwandan Genocide, China is slowly attempting to dissolve Tibetan culture and identity. If things as loud and violent as Rwanda can be ignored by the rest of the world, how can we expect a response to the more subtle cultural genocide happening in Tibet? What can be done?

There is only one answer to the question of Tibet: education and freedom. The Chinese people need to liberate themselves from the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party. To do that they need Americans and Europeans to support their education, and their freedom. While we may be unable to do much towards those goals it’s critical that we do nothing to empower the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party. Since we cannot overthrow the CCP—only the Chinese people can do that—we should at least not empower its stranglehold. We must do no evil.

Frankly, I believe it’s a betrayal of America to do anything that supports the empowerment of the Chinese Communist Party. It is evil to do so. Yet, today our foreign policy towards China, our outsourcing of manufacturing to China, the way our military power is being slowly choked to death in the quagmire of the Middle East, our addiction to imported oil, the way the corporations dominate the formation of foreign policy goals according to the demands of their quarterly profit statements – a cloud, a host, of inter-dependently co-originating factors – all insure that every purchase in every store, by every American, empowers the CCP. This is a dreadful mistake for which we, and future generations of Americans will pay a terrible price, the extent of which we are hardly able, in our silk-cocooned luxury, to imagine. Future generations will look back on corporate domination of our foreign policy in the same way we look back on IBM selling card sorters to the Nazi regime in the years leading up to World War II. Card sorters used to count, more efficiently, those headed to the Nazi death camps. We are living through a period of blindness, lead by ignorant fools who lack any basic understanding of history. Quarterly profits are no basis for foreign policy. Its not evil men who allow this evil, it’s a host of interdependently, co-originating factors, over which no single human has conscious control. We are all part of this.

What can be done? We must reverse – with a host of conscious adjustments at many levels – twenty years of failed foreign policy. We must invest our outsourced manufacturing only in countries where there is at least an emerging democracy – or even better, to return our outsourced manufacturing to the United States. The United States must become a net exporter of carbon-free energy: specifically we should set it as a national goal to become independent of all carbon-based energy within a decade. And then to become an exporter by year eleven.

You may think, at first glance, that these answers have nothing to do with Tibet. However, this is the only answer I have. If we would undertake these goals, we could avoid a war with China, and still see the end of genocide in Tibet. Unless we take up the two stated above, on a wartime footing, now, war with China appears inevitable. The fate of Tibet—and the fate of human rights and democracy around the world—is intertwined, with the interdependently co-originating factors that shape the emerging conflict between China and the West.

I understand that after reading the above you probably think I am some rabid, right wing nut. I ask you to take a moment and think through that assumption. I am scared about the future of China and the United States. That’s what studying a thousand years of Chinese and Tibetan history with the Dalai Lama taught me. What’s most awful for me is that such conflict is avoidable, except that we lack the political leadership to achieve that goal.

If you think this view of history is “Buddhist,” I urge you to read War And Peace. My view is steeped in Tolstoy’s view of history, re-formed by the work of Owen Lattimore, and then, shall we say, “cold pressed” by my time with the Dalai Lama.

Of course, I may be wrong. But you are not the first person to ask me, after reading this book, “What should we do?” So I have given this reply some thought.

Towards the end of the book you mention that many scholars in the U.S. are influenced in their writings by the power the Chinese hold over travel/study privileges. Could you explain your findings and personal feelings on this issue a bit more? Is the “Beijing” sensitivity really that high for US scholars?

Yes, Beijing’s sensitivity is that high. If you think I am crazy you should read The Anaconda in the Chandelier by Princeton Professor, Perry Link. Its available on line, here.

You ask me to explain my feelings on this. America is being betrayed by some of those who know China the best. Specialists, who make their living with their China knowledge, are treading around the Chinese Communist Parties sensitivities when they write books to describe China to Americans, and when they provide guidance to those who shape American policy towards China. Yes. This is a fact. But don’t take my word for it, read Perry Link.

The hard part for me is that once I became aware of this, and began to look through the standard histories of China being used to teach the freshman courses on China, this became very clear.

I don’t think the Americans doing this are evil, I think they are protecting their pay check and that their actions are … well, it goes back to the idea of interdependent co-origination. Darwin wrote one of the clearest examples of this theory, as played out in one field of knowledge: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. That’s a textbook example—perhaps the first—of what I mean by the phrase. Since there is no god, as we imagine it, how did life emerge? It evolved during deep time from a host of factors. Time and pressure turn lava to rock; rock is worn down by rain; chemicals from the rocks leach into the water; the chemicals interact—and so on. Over billions of years. Life evolves from “nothing.” Life interdependently co-originates.

As above, so below. People think their opinions emerge, freely. In fact all our thoughts “interdependently co-originate” growing out of the chaotic muck of an incalculably large array of factors. Political scientists who adjust their word choice when describing China on CNN, even as they hope to shape what Americans think about China, are part of an array of forces that we cannot calculate. But responsible people in the U.S. are allowing their word choice, in print and in public debate, to be shaped by the sensitivities of the Chinese Communist Party. This is a fact, and it should scare you. Read Perry Link. As we saw on September 11, it’s what you don’t expect that will get you.

Please note that its not the people of China I am discussing. It’s the CCP.

Finally, how has your adjustment been coming back to the United States recently? What are you up to in the near future? Do you have new book ideas in the works?

Its been rough, returning to the U.S. after thirty years in Asia. You get spoiled living in Asia by so many things that are completely unavailable here. Free time. Time to read. The only time I have to read in America, is on a plane. The other problem is that I look American, sound American, but actually I am a type of immigrant, suspended between two worlds. It’s actually easier for Indian-Americans in America – people look at them and don’t expect them to know the plot lines of sitcoms from the 1980s. But they look at me, and I look just like them, so they expect me to know all these things that I don’t. So it’s confusing.

Furthermore, the place and timing of re-entry has been challenging. It was only two years after returning to America, and buying a home in New Orleans, that Katrina struck. I went out and covered that for the media, for months. So it’s been interesting times. It was hard enough carrying around images of dead bodies from the war I covered in Nepal, but now I carry around, for life, these images of bodies floating in the waters of flooded New Orleans. We pay prices for the things we do. I would not have missed any of it, but we pay prices.

Despite everything, I find time to write, not as much as I would like, but still some. And I am happy to be here in America, watching, writing.

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