The Freedom of Cynicism

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Beijing, China – April 2016

Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum. I remember the words, but I’ve forgotten what they mean. They are still the first words that arise when my anxiety goes haywire. I would have needed them if I had chosen to visit the Forbidden City or any of the other so-called must-sees of Beijing. Instead, I strolled down the hutongs that surround my hotel. Narrow alleys crammed full of tiny shops and restaurants. Fish tanks and crates full of dead frogs. The thick aroma of raw meat and decomposing vegetables. Barely another foreigner in sight.

I emerged onto a busy street. The smell of incense took over. Shiny gold Buddhas and vibrant prayer flags appeared in the shop windows. I arrived here, at the Yonghe Lamasery, a few minutes after it had opened. At the first smoking urn, I lit three sticks of incense – the recommended offering – and stuck them amid the others. The locals raised their sticks to their foreheads and bowed. And the words came back to me.

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There once was a time when I was captivated by Tibet and Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism. I was drawn to the distance, the aloofness. It was a faith of high places. I went to see the monks when they passed through Grand Rapids, Michigan. The guttural chants and clashing cymbals were more jarring than soothing. The deep, gusty horns stirred the stillness, and I heard the voice of the vast Himalayan wind. I read and reread Sogyal Rinpoche’s classic, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, until it fell apart. Then I bought a new copy. I’ve forgotten what happens during the bardos, the stages of dissolution that the soul goes through after death and before reincarnation. The different Buddhas and what they stand for have faded away. And yet, the concept of impermanence is so deeply rooted in my consciousness that it influences everything in my life.

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I feel a sudden urge to clasp the incense in my folded hands, raise them to my forehead, and bow. Instead, I close my eyes and breathe in the thick smoke. It is not my culture. I wander into the various halls. The Buddhas gleam in the smoky darkness. At each one, I pause and reflect.

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In June 1998, I took a road trip from Grand Rapids to Washington D.C. with my littlest sister and a work colleague who had invited herself along. The Tibetan Freedom Concert was a two-day festival to benefit the Free Tibet movement. The first day, we crammed ourselves in amongst 60,000 others. We had managed to wriggle our way almost to the front by the time Sonic Youth took the stage. The sun blazed down, burning my sister’s round face to a crisp. The MTV cameras soared overhead for crowd shots. We were briefly sucked into a mosh pit during Radiohead. A few minutes of adrenaline ensued and then we were spit back out.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the air began to crackle. The crowd had thinned and we had moved all the way up to the metal fence in front of the stage. Herbie Hancock had just taken the stage. I turned to look behind me, at the sky above the stadium. A dark cloud crept into view. It was the color of a fading bruise. Purple-black with a fluorescent yellow-green tinge. I felt an atavistic dread.

I turned to my companions. “Uh, guys. I don’t think we should be holding on to anything metal right now.”

They turned to look. The cloud covered half of the stadium. We stepped back into the crowd just as a huge clap of thunder shattered the air.

My colleague’s eyes widened. “Holy shit, it struck inside.”

Herbie Hancock and his band fled backstage. The concert floor cleared as people took refuge from the storm in the inner halls of the stadium. The rest of the concert was canceled. One person had been struck by lightning and several others injured.

The next day we went back for more: Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Pulp, Dave Matthews. Those are the ones that I remember. The saffron and orange-robed monks lined up across the stage. Dignified and stoic. A drunken meathead next to us bellowed, “Get off the stage! Guns n’ Roses! Woohooo!” That was when we decided to move up to the seats.

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The tour busses have arrived. I drift away from the main halls, into the dark, quiet corners where the faithful pray to more obscure entities. A monk sits in a chair next to a window, the pages of his book illuminated by a ray of sunlight.

Before we returned to Grand Rapids, we went to the Free Tibet rally at the Capitol building. I was not just someone who came for the music. I was the real deal. And yet, if you had asked me for specifics, I could have only parroted the vague facts that I had memorized.

We listened as various politicians and activists spoke to the large crowd. You can make a difference! Together we can change the world! And the chants: What do you want? Free Tibet! When do you want it? Now! David Crosby, Perry Farrell, and R.E.M did acoustic performances. My colleague swooned when Richard Gere showed up. The final prayer was delivered by Sogyal Rinpoche.

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I look back at my naïve younger self with embarrassment and affection. I wanted so much to seen as a Good Person. A Good Citizen of the World. Did I really trust those who shield themselves behind podiums and platitudes? At least there was no preaching at family gatherings. My activism consisted of a Free Tibet sticker on my truck and the pilgrimage to the concert. My innate aversion to collectives kept me from joining any activist groups.

It’s been eighteen years. I have lowered my gaze back to the Earth and drawn the perimeter of my concern near. I now focus on that which I can experience for myself. Tibet fell off my travel radar. The concerts fizzled out. Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, the main organizer, passed away in 2012. The news saddened me, because I got the feeling that he was a gentle, sincere person. My second copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying disappeared. I think I might have given it away. Numerous allegations of sexual abuse have been brought against Sogyal Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama has yet to criticize him. Years ago, I would have been crestfallen, but now such revelations only provoke a snort and an eye-roll. My instinctive wariness of gurus is, once again, validated.

At a hall near the entrance, a woman turns a prayer wheel, dispelling negative karma. When she moves on, I step forward. The grooves pirouette under my fingers. Holy braille. A smile comes to my face. Some may call me cynical, but I’m much more content now that I’ve released myself from the obligation of trying to change the world, of being a Good Person. I watch the ponderous rotation for a few seconds before turning away. Let the world go on spinning without me.

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60 thoughts on “The Freedom of Cynicism

  1. Wow, the power and punch and flow of your writing punctuates the photos so well. From the Beijing hutongs through the Buddhist temples and of all places a lighting-fueled concert…I think it is fair to say, you’ve lived a pretty eventful life Julie 🙂 Wishing you more safe yet exciting travels ~

  2. Very well written as usual. I love the idea of memories constantly being sparked as we slip and slide through the present. It’s something I try to do in my own writing. You seem to do it with effortless ease, and that may indeed be the case. But I know from my own experience it could just as likely involve hours of painstaking work. Whichever it is, the result is the most important thing, and I really enjoy reading your work.

    As a footnote, I really wanted to be a believer, often trying really hard, but the cynic in me always stood in the way of the path to Nirvana. Perhaps I should be thankful.

    • Thank you kindly, Bryan. I think when we read another’s work, it often seems effortless. I admire the subtle eccentricity in your work, for example.

      Trying too hard…I know how that is. It’s all so much easier when you let it all go.

  3. Interesting account of your stroll through hutongs and yonghe lamasery. The lama temple reminds me of Nan Hua, near Johannesburg. As for your observation on sogyal rinpoche, it is all in the game of life. These are surprises only if one expects such holy people to be paragons of virtue, which they cannot be as their spiritual journey is through human experience, of incarnation, where weakness of the flesh cannot be fully wished out. So, Julie, take the dalai lamas and sogyals for their goodness and ignore the warts.

    • I imagine one needs to be a very evolved Good Person to be able to ignore “warts” such as using one’s position as a spiritual leader as an excuse for physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. I certainly would never aspire to be such a person, especially as I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I wonder how those women feel about the “game of life.” My expectations of so-called holy people were never high – if they try not to do harm that’s enough.

  4. The desire to be a good person is strong, Julie, but it takes so much energy and commitment. I can’t maintain it, but admire those who do. So much manipulation out there. It’s very hard to know what’s real. Is trying not to do harm enough? It’s as much as I can manage.

    • Hi Jo – It is indeed hard to know what is real. That’s why I decided to focus on my own space and those who wander in and out of it. Trying not to do harm is all I can manage, too. As for trying to be a Good Person (which is different, in my opinion, than trying to be a good person)…too many people get caught up in the loftiness of changing the world and ignore their own community and personal life. Or maybe that’s why they gravitate towards such things. Much easier to focus the attention elsewhere.

  5. I think I understand this one, Julie. The generation that was going to change the world. Then, life happened. There’s a part of that hope still deep within us all, but we are smacked back into reality. It’s not a bad thing. But it’s a thing. 💘
    And I’d have been swooning over Richard Gere myself.

      • I was about as much of a hippie as a blue collar, steelworker’s daughter could be in the late 60’s. But I was so drawn to Buddhism. It changed my whole attitude about religion, and influenced my future.

          • I did, a long time ago, about books that influenced me. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one. I talked about the move from Catholicism to exploring eastern philosophies. It began with a class on comparative religions, freshman year. I was married in a Catholic ceremony, mostly for parents.

  6. Anyway, maybe we change more of the world by not trying to change the world. Instead of concerning ourselves with what others are doing, focus on ourselves, lead by example. But unfortunately this probably won’t stop the Chinese government from ‘assimilating’ Tibet. So, I really have no idea. But I do know that I enjoyed this post. So, thanks. I’d love to visit Tibet one day, ever since watching Samsara, I have to see Tibet before I die.

    • Hello and thank you for sharing your insight. I completely agree. There is too much preaching, finger-wagging, scolding. I have so much more respect for people who try to set a good example and do it with humility. If only governments would do the same. I hope your wish to visit Tibet comes true and that not too much of the culture has been lost.

  7. A thought provoking journey as always, Julie. I am not sure I was ever that good person but if I was, I gave up too early, disappointed by most people, including myself. Perhaps the cynicism is a reaction to the realisation that we, and even those we admire, are powerless to bring about change.

    • Yes, the disappointment. It didn’t take me long, either, to realize that we (humans) don’t have what it takes. Maybe that makes us Bad, but I’ll hang out with cynical people over Pollyannas any day. 😉

  8. Isn’t interesting that the more we experience the more our memories help define our personal involvement within a fragmented and complex world. As you know, I have been revisiting the mythologies, which has given me a different perspective. I especially appreciate Joseph Campbell’s thoughts when he said: “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital persona vitalizes.” And you are a vital influence.

    • Thank you for such a kind compliment and thought-provoking insight. It’s not really my goal to influence, especially as I’m not exactly someone admirable to emulate. 😉 I only wish to be able to express myself freely. Yes, it is very interesting about the power of memories. It seems to get stronger the older we become. I really need to read Joseph Campbell. Can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to yet.

  9. This makes me remember that the Tibetean people made a revolution in 1959 against the Chinese invasion and many refugees were welcomed in Switzerland, where the Tibetean comunity has quite increased quite a lot in the meantime! It’s a pleasure to read about your memories, Julie.🌺

  10. I’m sounding like a stuck record, but every time I see a post from you in my inbox, I know I’ll be in for a treat, and today it was no difference. I loved the juggling between today and the 1990s, and I really enjoyed your insight on the Free Tibet movement! It feels, to me, as if eras have different campaigns that were ‘cool’ and then, when they stopped being so, it’s as if they never existed. Ethiopia in the 1980s with Bob Geldolf, Tibet in the 1990s, then Darfur with Clooney in the early 2000s… I wonder what’s happening in Ethiopia now, or in Tibet, or in Darfur… And I wonder how long the hutongs you wandered into will remain, I’ve heard they were being destroyed, in Beijing, one after another.

    Thanks once again for some brilliant travelogue!

    Fabrizio

    • Thank you, Fabrizio. So true about trendy movements suddenly vanishing. Makes me wonder about the sincerity of the organizers. I feel nauseous whenever I see celebrities championing a cause and/or starting foundations. So much of it is just PR and tax avoidance. Do any of of them actually go and spend time (beyond photo ops) with the people they claim to want to help? Mustn’t dirty the pretty hands! I was hardly surprised when I read that Bono’s organization only gave one percent of donations to those who really need it. (I just tried to find articles in mainstream websites to link to about it, but they have mysteriously disappeared. Maybe you remember seeing it, too. It was pretty big news in 2010.) Richard Gere has stuck with Tibet for a very long time, however. He just doesn’t doesn’t get a lot of press anymore.

      • Yeah, I remember that thing about Bono. I think there are celebs, here and there, actually getting their hands dirty, but as you said it’s very few and far inbetween.

  11. I see myself in the idea of looking back at one’s naive, impressionable self with both embarrassment and affection, but I don’t think I’ve arrived at cynicism yet. Resigned, frustrated, sad, and certainly more apt to realize that I can’t change the world myself or even be a Good Person, but still wearing the rose-colored glasses that make me want to be a lower-case good person and still a huge Tibet fan! 🙂 (My kids laugh at my Free Tibet sticker prominently displayed on a bookcase – haha – old passions die hard.)

  12. The path to self improvement is paved with good intentions . . . . Love your title with details Julie and here I must confess to some fundamental misunderstanding of the word cynicism. So often I have been accused of being a cynic (doom!) when I thought I was being a simple realist. Plus as a young Catholic girl, good enough was never going to be good enough. Remember the weekly ritual of confession?

    • Hi Patti – I can’t imagine anyone accusing you of being cynical. But, like you, I consider it as simply being realistic. Very good point about growing up Catholic and, as a result, never feeling good enough. I used to make up stuff for confession. 😉 I was a failure even at sinning. But, hey, it makes for funny (if a little twisted) stories now.

  13. It is easy to get immersed in your wanderings – you are a brilliant writer. Buddhism has always talked to me, even more since I listened to the Dalai Lama and went to Tibet. The people really struggle to have the right to their religion. The Chinese do not treat them well. We met people who dared to talk to us about their brothers and sisters, their sufferings and sometimes how friends and relatives had just disappeared.

  14. What an interesting post; one I enjoyed reading. I have visited Yong He Gong three times and always find it so lovely (especially very early in the morning before the maddening crowds).

    • Thanks, Sue. I definitely don’t regret my decision to visit it (and the Confucius Temple) as opposed to Forbidden City, Summer Palace, etc. It’s in an interesting area of the city, too.

  15. I’ve been accused of being cynical on occasion, but I wonder if that’s really true. I was struck by one of your earlier commenters when he said, “ignore the warts.” Are you really being honest with yourself if you do? Will that dishonesty help in the long run? I like to think if you take joy in the amazing parts of the world, and there are many, but also recognize the warts as warts there’s balance to be had and less disappointment if idealism doesn’t pan out. Does that make me a cynic?

    • Hi Dave – Regardless of whether you are a cynic or not, you are entitled to feel however you darn well please about the world. No one has the right to tell anyone what to believe. That’s my opinion, of course. 😉 Being cynical is so often seen as being negative, especially in this age of “positive thinking”. I personally think that seeing only goodness and not holding people accountable is very destructive. Too many people justify their bad behavior as “being human”. More often than not they are excused and even rewarded and then they turn around and do it again and again. And things just get worse. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  16. There is an inscription on a bench in Central Park, not too far from “Strawberry fields”, that’s stuck in my mind. ‘goes something like that:
    “Every day I wake up faced with the choice of changing the world or savouring the the world”… I forgot who the author was, but the dilemma still remains. 🙂
    Though, in latter years I incline more to “savouring”, sometimes, just sometimes, I am still tempted to go back to “changing” what cannot be changed. 🙂
    Merci pour cette réflexion ma chère Julie.
    Om mani padme and all that…
    😉

  17. Oh, and cynicism is quite all right. Goes back to Diogene (How do you write his name in english?) who chose to live as a dog. (Some greek root I forgot) True cynics are just more honest people who see the world as it is. With all its flaws… And are not afraid to say it. 🙂
    (But then hidden deeply in all the flaws are true pieces of Beauty)

  18. “And yet, the concept of impermanence is so deeply rooted in my consciousness that it influences everything in my life.”

    Yes, I can relate Julie. As a young man, I discovered the writing of Lao Tzu. It changed the way I observed the world. Gentleness, frugality, and humility are the tenets I return to again and again.

    As usual, your photos capture the essence of your travels. Thank you for sharing the journey.

  19. wonderful discourse
    on seeking & listening
    by yourself & with others
    and finding saints & sinners
    in various proportions
    in each & all 🙂

  20. Wonderful writing again, Julie. I was particularly touched by the awareness you brought up of having forgotten what once seemed so dear and vital. It is interesting how that happens– how we reach for something, wrap ourselves in it, and then let it fall away as we dance into the next scene. It is not entirely clear how these transitions occur. In some cases the breaking point is obvious– in others not so at all. Time is perpetually turning its wheel, infusing us with change.

    I remember watching the movie about the Dalai Lama that had the Philip Glass soundtrack. Kundun, right? And the impression it made on me was how the greed of various Tibetan officials had rendered them vulnerable in a way they might not otherwise have been. While I don’t consider myself cynical, I at times will accept the moniker of confused. Is it good or bad that Tibetan culture will change, be assimilated, be protected, or perhaps not be…? I don’t know. We can as people become very upset about these things we cannot control, but really, what is it that makes them good or bad?

    I think the natural movement is to greater awareness and freedom, and that our moments of activism propel us into new knowings– cynical or confusing or whatever they are; nevertheless we are propelled. We respond. We live.

    Michael

    • Hi Michael – It is interesting how fascination vanishes. This particular transition was almost imperceptible. A slow fade. Maybe our minds just know when something has served its purpose in our individual existences. As a wannabe anthropologist, I get wistful when I see cultures disappearing or being watered down by globalism. But, you’re right, it’s not good or bad. It’s just how it is. I’m just grateful that I live during a time when there are still cultural differences to experience. Your comments always give me a new angle to consider. Thank you. 🌞

  21. We do and can change the world with our thoughts, our ideas, and our actions for better or worse. Change isn’t usually a drastic tidal wave, though, and it is never perfect. It happens gradually in little ripples, from small encouragements and tiny everyday deeds that emanate in various ways. The best we can hope for is that our love for our family and our friends inspires them to take on their world in ways we can’t imagine. Thank you for your zen-like inspiration.

  22. Always refreshing reading your words, Julie. It’s a hard thing to know what is real, anyway. The only thing I can do is to focus on myself and the people around me, i think. I loved the choice you made to interlace present and past times.

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