I’m a PhD dropout, only about 6 months under the belt on a fellowship at the University of Virginia in Religious Studies. I’d planned to research the stories, as told verbally and in art to folks who were generally illiterate, of the monks proselytizing along the silk road, from India and into China, starting in the second century of the common era. Converting the locals must have been tough. My ambition to complete a PhD all went away at about 2:00am in a local pool bar there in Charlottesville. I turned to my friend Ali and asked if she’d like to drive her car, at that particular moment, to Santa Cruz, California. She was game, so I bought a box of cigars and we got in her Toyota Camry before we fully sobered and by the time dawn hit and the coffee was in full effect we were somewhere in West Virginia. I think we arrived in California about 51 hours later. And that’s how I dropped out. And we drove through some amazing blizzards, posed next to fiberglass dinosaurs. And I smoked all the cigars. And we had a blast and jumped in the frigid surf in Santa Cruz when we arrived. But I start by digressing…
During my years as a gallery owner, there were a number of questions I heard over and over again, particularly among visitors who had very little experience looking at art. Chief among these was, “What does it mean?” Art world insiders would here sometimes cringe. This was an opportunity to evade the question, as a straightforward response was “pinning down the butterfly,” and therefore killing the open nature of the artwork. Meanwhile, the visitor, usually felt a bit as fish out of water, perhaps thinking s/he needed a PhD in art theory prior to forming or sharing any impressions. There was a lot of friction between the viewer and the immediate experience of art.
But people did want to connect, to hear a compelling story about the object in front of them, as a way to appreciate art, and opening this door was a big part of my job. This isn’t so much the case with food, or film or even wine, all experiences around which, at times, have been erected cultures of pretense, obscurantism and exclusivity. I’ve met far more people willing to share their opinions of a meal without having attended culinary school, or to appreciate the nuances of uplifting or sorrowful films without ever having sat in a director’s chair. If you could summarize the Grapes of Wrath in one sentence, it wouldn’t be too great, now would it?
“When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”
- Milarepa (1052 – 1135)
The timing was inopportune; I owned a contemporary art gallery and the tasks on my plate were endless and had never been more urgent. But the one place my mother had to go in this life was Tibet, and she asked me to be there for her, to translate and act as her chaperone. Specifically we would walk the “khora” around Mount Kailash, far in the west of the country. As a devout Catholic might visit the Vatican, my mother needed to hike the roof of the world, visit monasteries and temples, speak with lamas, monks, pilgrims. If she had been Jewish, Kailash was Jerusalem. If Muslim, this would have been her Mecca. For Buddhists their pilgrimage is often Bodh Gaya.
Bodh Gaya, the birthplace of Buddhism, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is in some ways where our journey started. Located in the northeastern state of Bihar, in India, it has for some time been one of the most impoverished and underserved parts of the country. There was precious little infrastructure. Electricity was intermittent. Dust filled the air and the streets were crowded with water buffalo, mangy stray dogs, goats, garbage and human sewage.
In 1995 I was lucky to attend a Buddhist studies program through Antioch University, in Bodh Gaya at the Burmese Vihar (pilgrim’s rest house). I returned transformed, a clinically anemic young man of about 135 pounds with a deeply grounded sense of peace. Among the many ways in which my eight-ish months in Asia had transformed me was the perspective and time to reflect it granted. I also brought my mother a number of books on Buddhism. While in Bodh Gaya, I’d read extensively on Buddhist liturgy, history, philosophy, dialectics and self-analysis. This would some years later culminate in a PhD program in Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, a degree I began but did not complete.
In May of 2012 we set off for Tibet, my friend Erik joining me on the journey from San Francisco, through Dubai and on to Kathmandu. With all that haunted me from work, I found it hard to fully disconnect.
After meeting the other members of our group, seven travelers ranging in age from 24 to 64, British and American, we unpacked at the Dwarika’s Hotel in Kathmandu, a mostly red brick paradise in the midst of that frenetic, fascinating and pollution saturated city. The street offered a familiar and oddly comforting onslaught, roaming cattle, filthy homeless dogs, monkeys, horns, incense, potholes and chaotic webs of wires strung between buildings that mocked the notion of safety codes or standards.
“This city has 5 UNESCO world heritage sites,” shared one of our many guides.
My mother thanked me for being there. A cancer survivor, she was still frightened of the travels ahead. Only later, once back in Miami, would she reveal that she’d prepared a new will. She’d thought she might not return, but that the risk was worth it. Mountaineering and student days in China and Tibet had taught me to be mindful of altitude sickness. I had the gear and experience to keep us warm, dry, hydrated and hopefully well rested. We would traverse many passes over 15,000 feet, the highest of which was Drolma-la, on foot at 18,600 feet, skirting the north face of Mt. Kailash.
By the first day in Lhasa, I became aware of how stressed I’d been, perhaps hypertensive. I was slowing down. The phone was off. Like a medicinal tea, memories of Bodh Gaya steeped their way back into my marrow and were unhurriedly creeping north to my brain. Calming down is a wondrous thing. I plowed through books and started sitting quietly in the mornings again. Creative and innovative thoughts returned. My perspective on my life grew enormous – a month later, though it was a painful and complicated choice, I would realize I had stuck too doggedly to a vision of gallery ownership and would let it go, selling my half to my partner and starting a process of learning about new and different opportunities.
Once in Lhasa, we heard rumors from fellow travelers, even one or two random Tibetans, about the self-immolations east of Lhasa, in the Tibetan province of Kham. Apparently there were waiting lists of suicide-eager protestors. The technique involved not just dousing oneself in fuel, but sometimes drinking much of it before lighting a match. One Tibetan we met described the purpose of this as “an ant biting inside the trunk of an elephant.” Many, realizing the geopolitical realities, their lack of “leverage,” military or economic, felt this to be their only choice in their struggle for equality and religious freedom within their own land. Which country would risk a trade war with China by fully speaking out? Who would side with the perspective of the Tibetan government in exile, push for greater freedom and autonomy for Tibetans?
Why did these Tibetans kill themselves? One fellow, in Kathmandu, had shared the ethical rationale for such suicides. There is a story in the Jatakamala, the 108 tales of the Buddha’s former lives, that relates an incident of the Buddha’s self-sacrifice. Seeing a Tigress and her cubs starving, he hurls himself from a cliff, landing dead at their feet, so as to nourish them. To me these ethics seemed to clash with the non-violent precepts so much more prevalent in Buddhist teachings, exegesis at the service of political struggles, an awkward fit at best.
While we paused in Lhasa, two monks ended their lives by immolation in front of the Jokhang Temple, in Barkhor Square. We were inside our hotel at the time, but word spread quickly. The city, already something of a police state, went into lockdown, all the cellphone towers turned off, cordons and curfews imposed. We had a satellite phone, but chose not to use it. Massive armored personnel carriers equipped with rocket launchers occupied the center of town and spread outward towards the surrounding mountain ranges. I heard that images of the monks aflame escaped the country, but I saw no headlines once we ourselves were out.
Visiting the other two sizable cities of Tibet, Shigatse and Lhatse, we made our way to temples and monasteries beyond number. A few smaller ones seemed still vibrant with traditions and worshippers, but most operated more as tourist draws, slowly decaying museum-like edifices manned by a few caretaker monks. It all felt inescapably tragic, and more than one of us wept at random moments, or wandered away to fulfill a need for solitude. The riotous colors and ferocity of the art and golden treasures in many temples drew power from the sharp contrast to the gray, blonde and sometimes barely green palettes of the surrounding landscapes, often capped with snowy glaciers. At such cultural sites, many uniformed minders eagerly pushed through the tourists, most of whom were Han Chinese. Almost every temple hosted a painting of the red demon Mara clutching the Buddhist Wheel of Life. The distinctive iconographies of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Gelug, Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma danced like pageants across walls and in the wrathful or comforting expressions of bronze and gilt icons, from mere inches to one seated Chenrezig figure nearly 80 feet tall.
At the Potala Palace, the former seat of the Dalai Lamas, spiritual and temporal rulers of Tibet, our guide Tashi was given only one hour to hurtle us up the stairs and through the entire complex. The crowds were overwhelming, pressing through as in a Beijing train station. Many guides screamed like angry birds into their megaphones. They parroted the official party line on Tibet’s history and glorious liberation from theocratic feudalism. There was no way we’d make it through in time. None of us even tried. We were hazardously independent in our wanderings, true cat-herding for our guide, and being American thought that no harm could come from acting as idle tourists. But our visa was written in such a way that we had to pass through every checkpoint as a full group. If one of us went missing, our tour could be over, our guide in some sort of ill-defined trouble with the authorities. This was also true as we drove more than 2,000 miles east to west and back east again, then south to the border crossing into Nepal at Zhuangmu. Happily, we suffered little in the way of hassles at any of the more than 20 checkpoints, but there were many moments when this seemed in doubt.
We visited the expansive Lake Mansarovar with 25,000 foot Gurla Mandhata behind it, witnessed the natural splendor and barren hard-scrabble life of agrarian Tibetans. We sampled the staple food of Tibet, roast barley flour, “tsampa,” in a stone mill driven by the movement of a passing stream, clouds of it thick in the confined air. My mother, very fit at her age, faired well with the altitude, walking and trekking, questioning and exploring without any severe headaches or complaints. The same was true for all the members of our group. Three of us, once we started to camp in the evenings, would even take sunset hikes to nearby summits in order to acclimate and soak in the majestic scenery.
Mt. Kailash stands similar in profile to the Matterhorn in Switzerland, but a third again taller at 21,778 feet. The 11th century Tibetan saint Milarepa spent much time here. It is likened to Mt. Mehru, the center of the world in Buddhist cosmology and also deeply sacred to Hindus, who pilgrimage to circle the peak, if at all possible, once in their lives. For this reason, many of our fellow hikers were large groups of Indian pilgrims on the backs of mules, carrying them as far as the top of the pass, to deposit them there for the long walk down the other side. This was the source, the headwaters of their sacred Ganges. Kailash also births the headwaters of the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers, among others. The Hindus’ brightly orange-clad Brahmins with lengthy white beards stood out against the dull and dusty earth. We camped beneath the La Lhung Di Ra monastery and paid a visit to the abbot. Through a translator my mother shared her sorrow over my sister’s struggles with mental illness and, as she had already on many occasions, wept. We were given small sacred knots and medicinal pills that he had blessed.
The snow was heavy as we crested the Drolma-la pass and I was winded. Ice caked on my beard. The youngest member of our group, Alicia, had stayed with me, close to my mother, who was by now struggling, and I’d set a very slow rest-step, so she would not feel worse. One step and a three second motionless pause, then the next. Our cook Tsering, carrying his large aluminum kettle, also provided physical support as my mother walked her way into an ocean of prayer flags at the pass. Draped at varying angles in a profusion of red, yellow, green, blue and white over talus and boulders they beat one another in the screaming wind. There were tens of thousands. We took our photos. Eager to descend the other side, my mother knew the relief this would provide. I still lingered. Selfishly, I wanted to take something from the place. What had begun as an intention to be supportive of my mother, had become this and more, an opportunity for reflection, perhaps a turning point. I remembered the rolls of prayer flags in my day pack and our guide Tashi and I unfurled these and secured them in the wind. Tibetan pilgrims chanted “tso, tso, tso, tso, tso…,” tossing tsampa into the air, where it whipped away instantly, vanishing like conjured ghosts.
“What does this mean?” I asked Tashi.
“It means ‘offering’,” he replied.
Sometimes the best inspiration comes from the pissed-off polemic of a solid thinker like Jed Perl. In such a light, a spirited thread took shape on Facebook around his review of the Warhol show at the Met, “The Curse of Warholism” on The New Republic’s web site.
As always, the art world can provide lenses through which to discern larger truths that affect us all.
Perl’s piece highlights only part of the art world orthodoxy that understands the power of indifference to dissent. More than a few formidable and respectable intellectuals have given up or died (e.g. Robert Hughes, Dave Hickey, Sarah Thornton) and nobody has much motivation I think to replace them or offer alternative narratives (most recent attempt: Camille Paglia). Perhaps art, in a cultural sense, is marginalizing itself, hollowing out its foundation just as it erects taller and taller towers of popularity? My friend, the artist Josh Hagler, made some pointed observations about the article’s broader societal implications, about Warholism’s internalized powerlessness, superficiality and cynicism.
Raman is an entrepreneur, writer and world-traveler, a guy obsessed with creativity. He is co-founder of Good People, a lifestyle brand and supper club that seeks to foster community, trust and friendship through food, drink and conversation. He recently served as business development lead at Gershoni Creative and was co-founder of Frey Norris Gallery, a "micro-multinational" contemporary art business. Having spent 15 years operating in the art world, he continues to consult privately to art galleries, non-profits, private and corporate collectors and artists.
He has authored the introductions to two artist monographs, written extensively on art and is currently co-authoring a business book, Bigger Pie with ReTargeter CEO Arjun dev Arora.