Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.
January 25,   2011
In the Shadow of the Buddha

In the Shadow of the Buddha:

Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet

By Matteo Pistono

 

Part spiritual biography, part nail-biting undercover reporting, In the Shadow of the Buddha brings together Pistono's quest to uncover long-hidden spiritual truths and real-time violations of religious freedom in Tibet.

For nearly a decade, Matteo Pistono secretly carried out of Tibet evidence of atrocities by the Chinese government, showing it to the US government, human rights organizations, and anyone who would listen. Yet, Pistono did not originally intend to fight for social justice in Tibet -- he had gone there as a Buddhist pilgrim.

Disillusioned by a career in American politics, he had gone to the Himalayas. After encountering Buddhism in Nepal, Pistono's quest led him to Tibet and to a meditation master whose spiritual brother is Sogyal Rinpoche, bestselling author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Pistono not only became the master's student, but also couriered messages to him in Tibet from the Dalai Lama in India. This began an extraordinary, and ultimately vital, adventure.

In the Shadow of the Buddha is a book about Tibet through the eyes of a devotee -- a stranger hiding in plain sight. It's about how a culture's rich spiritual past is slipping away against the force of a tyrannical future. It's about how Tibetans live today, and the tenacity of their faith in the future in spite of dire repression and abuse. It's also about Pistono's own journey of merging political activism with Buddhist mysticism, a man who traveled thousands of miles and risked his own life to pursue freedom and peace.

An Excerpt: The Mission Begins*

When I first journeyed to Tibet in 1999, I was on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of a nineteenth century Tibetan mystic named Terton Sogyal. A horse-riding bandit turned meditation master, Terton Sogyal eventually became the teacher of the XIII Dalai Lama, the predecessor to the current Dalai Lama. Such was the prevailing belief that Terton Sogyal's mantras and prayers could protect Tibet from foreign armies that the Dalai Lama summoned him to Lhasa to serve the nation. Terton Sogyal was a master at integrating his political duties with spiritual practice, while never losing the pure motivation that holds others' well-being as the priority.

I first learned of Terton Sogyal in 1996 when I met his reincarnation, Sogyal Rinpoche. I was in graduate school in London studying Indian philosophy. I was drawn to Terton Sogyal's life story because I know politics matters. My parents had instilled in me an awareness that social action is not so much a choice as a responsibility -- to ourselves and to our community. There was something in Terton Sogyal -- the way that he pursued the path of spiritual enlightenment even while in the unsavory theater of politics -- that I wanted to understand more deeply.

The two years before coming to London I had lived in extreme contrasts -- on the one hand meditating in Nepal and on the other involving myself in partisan environmental politics in Wyoming. In Nepal, I had spent months meditating under the guidance of a Tibetan lama in the foothills outside Kathmandu. I was introduced to ancient methods of meditation and yoga that are meant to uncover the indwelling potential of spiritual awakening that each and every one of us possesses. After six months of meditation retreats, I returned to Wyoming and began working in environmental politics, battling oil and gas lobbyists in legislative hearings in Cheyenne. I continued to practice meditation in Wyoming, but it did not take long before the serenity that I had experienced in Nepal was but a memory. In the face of my political adversaries, a vindictive mind would arise with ferocity. The divide between my social activism and spiritual practice was vast because I didn't know how to take the insights and peace I experienced on the meditation cushion into the world.

When I arrived in London for graduate school and began studying meditation with Sogyal Rinpoche, as well as the history and the works of the mystic Terton Sogyal, I realized that here was an example of what I aspired toward. Terton Sogyal possessed an endless reservoir of wisdom and strength to draw from while working in the volatile political realm of late nineteenth-century Tibet. This reservoir was something that I needed to tap into. So after I graduated, I decided to see where Terton Sogyal's saintly life had played out -- and deepen my own meditation practice -- in hallowed caves and hermitages high on the roof of the world and among Tibet's sacred temples and shrines. I set up a base in Kathmandu as a freelance journalist to fund my travels and began making frequent trips to Tibet.

The roadmap for my pilgrimage was Terton Sogyal's own far-ranging travels across the plateau; his life was not bound to isolated mountain retreats. Soon, I was meditating among hermits in remote sanctuaries and cliffside grottoes. I slept in the caves where Terton Sogyal had experienced spiritual visions and revelations. On foot, horseback, and dilapidated buses, I crossed the same glacier-covered passes that he used to travel from eastern Tibet to Lhasa. And I sought out the masters and yogis still alive who uphold Terton Sogyal's spiritual lineage and could tell me the oral history of his life and teachings.

But the pilgrimage took an unexpected turn.

The more time I spent in Tibet delving into the nineteenth-century esoteric teachings of Terton Sogyal, the more often I met Tibetans who wanted to tell me their story of frustration and pain, and about their never-ending hope that one day the exiled Dalai Lama would return to Tibet. Traveling as a Buddhist pilgrim, I gained Tibetans' trust. Political prisoners who had experienced abuse and torture in Chinese prisons showed me scars. Monks and nuns who had been kicked out of their monastery gave me their expulsion notices from the local security bureau. I was taken to meet a Buddhist leader who had been scalded with boiling water and then jailed for five years for publicly praying to the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans not only told me their stories, but early into my pilgrimage they asked me to spirit such firsthand accounts of human rights abuses out of Tibet and into the hands of Western governments and advocacy groups. While I still wanted to search out Terton Sogyal's meditation techniques, I became a courier of often graphic accounts of torture and abuse. This required I evade China's vast security network of plainclothed security agents, undercover cops in monk's robes, and the sophisticated cyberpolice. And I began photographing Chinese secret prisons where Tibetan monks and nuns are incarcerated for their Buddhist beliefs. The journey in Terton Sogyal's footsteps became a different kind of pilgrimage.

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Matteo Pistono is a writer, practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and author of In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet. Pistono's images and writings about Tibetan and Himalayan cultural, political, and spiritual landscapes have appeared in BBC's In-Pictures, Men's Journal, Kyoto Journal, and HIMAL South Asia. Pistono was born and raised in Wyoming where he completed his undergraduate degree in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming, and in 1997 he obtained his Masters of Arts degree in Indian Philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After working with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on Tibetan cultural programs, Pistono lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West graphic accounts and photos of China's human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world, and he sits on the Executive Council of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Rigpa Fellowship, and the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture. Pistono and his wife, Monica, divide their time between Colorado, Washington D.C., and Asia.

* This excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright C 2010 Matteo Pistono

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