Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town – Barbara Demick

About the Book

Just as she did with North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick explores one of the most hidden corners of the world. She tells the story of a Tibetan town perched eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in all of China for foreigners to visit. Ngaba was one of the first places where the Tibetans and the Chinese Communists encountered one another. In the 1930s, Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War. By the time the soldiers reached Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter—to Tibetans, it was as if they were eating the Buddha. Their experiences would make Ngaba one of the engines of Tibetan resistance for decades to come, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation. 

Eat the Buddha spans decades of modern Tibetan and Chinese history, as told through the private lives of Demick’s subjects, among them a princess whose family is wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in the storied monastery of Kirti, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who falls in love with a Chinese woman, a poet and intellectual who risks everything to voice his resistance, and a Tibetan schoolgirl forced to choose at an early age between her family and the elusive lure of Chinese money. All of them face the same dilemma: Do they resist the Chinese, or do they join them? Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight?

Illuminating a culture that has long been romanticized by Westerners as deeply spiritual and peaceful, Demick reveals what it is really like to be a Tibetan in the twenty-first century, trying to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language against the depredations of a seemingly unstoppable, technologically all-seeing superpower. Her depiction is nuanced, unvarnished, and at times shocking.

336 pages (kindle edition)
Published on July 28, 2020
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Back when I was working on my undergraduate degree in nutrition, one of my last classes was called Multicultural Health and Nutrition. I loved this class. Our big semester project was to pick one country in the world, and break down their typical diet and nutrition needs, traditions (food you eat for festivals, etc.), common food-related health problems, and the like. Most of the people in class chose typical regions of the world, like the Middle East, or India, Mexico and the like. 

I chose Tibet. 

Why? I’ve always had a fascination regarding places in the world that I will likely never go to. I like to immerse myself in these areas because they get so little attention or serious consideration by so many in the West. So when I saw that Barbara Demick, who wrote one of my favorite books ever, Nothing to Envy, was turning her sights to Tibet, I was there with bells on. 

Demick focuses on one specific region of the Tibetan Plateau, specifically Ngaba, a town that has been a focal point for a lot of recent upheavals, protests of which, more recently, have been known for monks self-immolating, for example. Ngaba has been cut off from the world for longer than just about any other area of Tibet, and the Chinese officials have been very careful about what information gets out about any of this. For example, I had no idea that some of the monks who lit themselves on fire actually survived, and are now living in hospitals in terrible condition, with amputated limbs and the like, and brought out to march out some party lines for people when necessary. 

There’s a saying that when there is a fire in Lhasa, the smoke rises in Ngaba.

Eat the Buddha starts out in the 1950’s, with a princess, right around the time when Mao was annexing the Tibetan Plateau. Through a series of interviews, Demick weaves together the stories of people who lived in this region when things were happening, like the Cultural Revolution, failed farming campaigns (the Chinese didn’t quite understand that not everything grows at high elevation with a very short summer so there was a lot of starvation). Some of the people interviewed didn’t end up in Tibet. The aforementioned princess, for example, ended up in China, with a poor class background, and then worked as forced labor for several years after a whole bunch of “reeducation” campaigns, which were horrible, abusive, and death was a common result of them.

The Communist Party had identified feudalism and imperialism as the greatest evils of society. Their dilemma was how to destroy feudalism without becoming imperialists themselves; they couldn’t simply force “reforms” on the Tibetans. In order to live up to their own lofty propaganda, they needed the Tibetans to carry out reforms voluntarily, joyfully. To convince them, they dispatched young Chinese recruits, some of them still in high school, to spread the word.

Demick moves throughhistory smoothly, often weaving in custom, religious belief, and lore as she goes. She also does a great job at examining the larger, more sprawling Tibetan history which is, perhaps, incredibly misunderstood by the wider world. We tend to see Tibetans through the Dalai Lama, a man known for compassion and promotion of peace. I wasn’t aware of the long sprawl of warring tribes, and kings, tribal battles, even the time when a Tibetan king rose up, and brought an army down on China, overtaking a city, which is a deed that is still spoken about with reverence all these hundreds and hundreds of years later. 

The book is broken up into spans of time, which helps readers follow what’s going on. It also helps to understand how previous policies and events were used as the backdrop for how things changed and what happened later. How the failed Cultural Revolution led to a time of tolerance, and how that led to a time of upheaval again. Everyone seemed to have an idea of how to deal with Tibetans, while the Tibetans themselves were largely shunted off to the side, ignored, and/or treated terribly. The slow wasting away of their cultural heritage left a generation of Tibetans who cannot read or write their own tongue. Religious history, which has been the backbone of their culture, is regarded as sacred to the older generation, and laughed off by the younger, who have been inundated by Chinese anti-religious propaganda regarding the “Dalai Clique.” 

Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay—’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number. But there are some evocative figures of speech. Some will call it dhulok, a word that roughly translates as the “collapse of time,” or, hauntingly, “when the sky and earth changed places.”

It reminded me, in some ways, of some things I’ve read about Russia, specifically regarding Russia’s push to annex areas like Ukraine, and even Georgia, where the culture was slowly bled out of the people. Stalin, for example, got really upset when he was in seminary school because he wasn’t allowed to speak, read, or write Georgian, his native language. It was against the law. Before that, there had been a tug-and-pull between Russia and Ukraine, where writing and language was likewise made illegal, a criminal act to partake in. This slow bleeding of culture is not new to our world, but books like this, where the slow degradation of the language and culture of a people, and the examination of the price of that, is a really stark reminder about how important words are, and how foundational culture can be, and when it’s gone, or starts bleeding away, just how impacted people are. 

In modern days, the history of Tibet has, if anything, gotten more complicated. In my own research after reading this book, I have noticed a huge push from Chinese tourism companies to get tourists into the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and many people have answered the call. This leads to things like sacred rights, traditions, and the like being boiled down into something you can sell at a gift shop. It has increased revenue to those in the right places, and brought more awareness to the region, but the flow of information both into and out of the area is still very constricted and controlled, and there seems to be quite a dramatic wealth gap, and there’s still a generation of Tibetans who are becoming strangers to themselves. 

Furthermore, around the time of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, there were absolutely incredible uprisings in Tibet, which started out peacefully, in the hopes that the eyes of the world on China pre-Olympics would keep the government from cracking down on any peaceful protests. Monks organized themselves into groups, with the hopes of raising awareness to the plight of the Tibetan people. It didn’t quite work out the way anyone wanted it to, and a wave of self-immolating monks and nuns followed in quick succession. There was violence, and a lot of blood and death and pain. 

Ngaba was a great place to focus this book, as it seems to be one area where all the roads seem to connect in a fashion that allowed Demick to write a book that gives a pretty detailed, good overview of what has happened, and is currently happening in Tibet. This book made my heart hurt. On the other hand, it opened my eyes to just how misunderstood this region of the world is, and just the kinds of struggles that happen day in, and day out, when you are under this kind of pressure to change, transform, become other than what you are. There are no easy answers to any of the situations presented to readers here, and some of them will make you tear up, and hit you pretty hard, but it’s books like this that, I think, are so important. There’s an entire world out there going through things that I cannot fathom. Unless books like this continue to be written, and the authors who dare to push the boundaries dare to keep pushing them, people, like those interviewed in this book, will remain silent, voiceless victims. 

Demick, in Eat the Buddha, gave an intimate voice and an outlet to a struggle that the world really needs to know more about. Masterful and important, defying boundaries imposed by governments, and unafraid to try to understand a point of view that has spent over fifty years being repressed and silenced, this book rivals Nothing to Envy in every possible respect. 

Read it. 

Now.

5/5 stars

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