2010年12月16日 星期四

職微不自卑 位高不凌人

What constitutes a happy working environment ?

When I was working in the hospital we were terribly over-worked, the hours were long and the stream of patients unending . Yet we were happy, even today when I meet up with ex-colleaques and talk about old times we all agree those were memorable years. The reason we could maintain such high spirits inspite of the horrendous heavy workload was because we had great team work, we helped and covered for each other, the "bosses" were never bossy and we could see they worked just as hard as the rest of us . More importantly they were fair in their dealings with the subordinates.We appreciated each other and felt appreciated by the management , nobody's unimportant to the team , nobody's opinion's slighted or ignored , even the lowly interns' !

Since starting work in CUHK I quickly joined CUSA , and through the grievance cases brought to us by our members , I was shocked to realize there is another management culture at work here. While by no means all colleaques in management grade in CU are preposterous bullies, the problem is preposterous bullies are definitely allowed to flourish in the CU management culture. The story of our clerical friend who was made to wash glasses is not finished yet ; the caes was brought to the Personnel Dept and as expected all we got back was a cursory note stating: " all CU staff must do whatever the supervisor tells them to ", nothing was said on the reasonableness of the request, nor did they answer our question on whether they mentioned in the job advertisement that clerks in CU are expected to do amah's work, nor what their concept of specific training requirement for specific job is. In effect the Personnel Dept hid behind a bureacratic smoke screen and stonewalled us . Our clerical friend was given a lower rating based on unreasonable assessment elements in PRD just as she was threatened with and the irony is she told me if in the beginning the supervisor had been more civil when asking her to do the glasses instead of pulling rank with threatening words, she might have agreed to help out as a return favour. Time and time again I hear the same complaint , heavy-handedness and rudeness appear to be entrenched in the CU culture, from the top down . Except of course only the top brass can get away with brutish behaviour with no impunity .

I've tried again and again for many years in the JCC to get the University to install a reverse appraisal mechanism whereby a subordinate might rate their superiors but the Administration has put up huge resistance to the proposal , the reason is blatantly clear . I'd be extremely interested in hearing the views of all our readers, you'd be most welcome to send in your opinion, including personal experiences of unreasonable job allocations , unfair or discourteous treatment , which we could publish in our subsequent newsletters . The newsletter is afterall a platform for information exchange in all things pertaining to the wellbeing of our members .

If the new VC is really serious in reinventing a culture in CU that is based on mutual respect and cherishing of intrinsic human value of all stakeholders in CU as he said he did , he knows where to start .

Published in the CUSA Newsletter vol 19, Dec 2010

2010年11月23日 星期二

Of God and Man

Follow by faith alone is to follow blindly - Benjamin Franklin

The last day we were in Dharamsala Andre pulled some strings and managed to set up for us an audience with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa .

Present day Tibetan Buddhism has 4 major schools : Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa . Karmapa is of the Kagyu Lineage and the third highest lama . The Gelug School is headed by the Daila Lama , the Number One Holiness we were scheduled to meet but he was out of town .

The meeting started off on a sore note . We were herded into the reception hall like cattles by a thin cranky man in a black suit, and ordered sternly to leave everything: bags, cameras and anything detachable, in the lockers lining one wall." What are they scared of ? We hardly look like professional assassins !"I muttered to Connie standing behind me, as we waited in single file for our turn to be processed .

No sooner were we in the waiting room that the cranky man bursted in, plunked several bamboo trays on the table and barked " Put all your offerings in these trays ! I'll collect them later to be presented to the Karmapa. ", then rushed out . " What offerings ? We weren't told to bring any offerings !" Rita and I exclaimed in one breath . We looked at our empty hands in dismay and wondered if the Karmapa would now have second thoughts about receiving us .

I looked round the sparsely furnished room and nodded a greeting at a young novice lama huddled in one corner." Come sit here " he called to me in Mandarin, poining at an empty chair next to him. " You must be the group Karmapa is seeing instead of me ," he said miscerably, " I waited here to see him for many days and it should have been my turn today and I was so happy, then they told me I've to make way for a group from Hong Kong !" " Oops , sorry about that ! " I felt awful , " What do you want to see him for ?" " My monastery's a long way from here, a novice lama there is sick and cannot travel, he's my friend and he asked me to seek Karmapa's blessing for his health for him . " " Karmapa can treat diseases ?" I was incredulous . " Karmapa can do anything ! I was so looking forward to seeing His face and hearing His Holy words ........." Our conversation was cut short by the summon for our group to go upstairs to the palour where Karmapa receives his guests and worshippers .

Smiling Lama

The lama I dubbed "Smiling Lama" ( the only one who smiled in the whole establishment ) led us in and seated us in chairs arranged in a semi-circle facing the Karmapa, who occupied a big chair at the far end of the room . At first glance the Karmapa appeared to be just an overweight sullen young man and I wondered what all the fuss was about . The initial awkward silence was broken by Andre and Linda moving forward to present him with a gift . I heaved a sigh of relief : so we did have an offering afterall ! All the exchanges were in English up to that point and the Karmapa looked decidedly uncomfortable, his answers were hesident and brief, his eyes averted. I almost decided I wasn't going to like him when I remembered he had lived in China as a child , so I took a chance and spoke to him in Mandarin," Ni hao ! Ni hui Pu Tong Hua ma ? (How are you ? Do you speak Chinese ?) " The changes in the Karmapa brought by the Chinese words were dramatic, a big grin transformed his features into animative radiance and he relaxed back in the chair . What I mistook to be aloofness was in fact language impediment ! The Karmapa was actually a very good looking guy, and surprisingly talkative !

the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje

Taking advantage of Mandarin being her native tongue, a Taiwanese in our group immediately launched into a lengthy convoluted question on spiritual enlightenment, which I mentally brushed aside impatiently . I wanted to know Karmapa the man. " What do you like to do in your sparetime ? Do you go on the net like all the other 20- year- olds ?" I jumped in before someone else came up with another inane spiritual question. " I like to go on the Internet but can't always do very much because the link's bad " Was it really bad connection or was there censorship in Dharamsala too, I wondered but knew better than to ask . " What's your day like ? I mean what do you do all day ? " " As a Karmapa I've to receive a lot of training, so I spent many hours studying the scriptures with my instructors . I also take classes in English and German , but I find foreign languages difficult . Then of course I receive guests and worshippers, and give sermons. " " So your days are planned for you ? Do you have any say in what you do ?"" Hard to say for sure," he hesitated," it's mostly just routine ," then to my astonishment added " Mei ban fa ! ( nothing I can do )" He kept glancing at the middle-aged man crouching on a low stool at one side of his chair, who was obviously the minder sent to monitor his every word . Apparently the Karmapa is seldom left alone , he has a personal instructor assigned to him since his authentication . " Do you have any hobbies ? Is there anything you enjoy doing ?" Karmapa laughed and said " You must have read in the newspapers about the model aeroplanes ! They printed a picture of me flying a model aeroplane and suddenly I'm obssessed with the toy ! I do like to fly toy planes but not how they said it in the papers . I do Chinses painting when I've the time "" Do you miss your parents ?" I had to ask . " Yes I do, dreadfully ! I haven't seen them since I left China. Of course there's no way I can return to China to visit them . I was hoping to get them visas to visit me here, but I was told the application met some obstacles. Mei ban fa !" he sighed . Poor Apo Gaga ( his nickname meaning ' happy brother ', given to him by his siblings before he was discovered to be Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa ) was plucked from his home in the Lhatok region of Eastern Tibet when he was 7 years old, and put in a monastery near Lhasa for spiritual training . He didn't get to see his family much even when he was in China, and since he was smuggled out of China when he was 14, he had not seen them at all . " What's it like to be a Karmapa ?" ( Karmapa means " the embodiment of all the activities of the buddhas") ." I didn't choose to be the Karmapa , mei ban fa , I was picked to be the Karmapa so now I'm in the life I'm in , I cannot have any family life, I cannot have another life experience , mei ban fa , " There was such a note of sadness and vulnerability in his demeanor that it caught me at the throat, then he continued valiantly " But since I'm the Karmapa, I'd do my utmost best to carry out my duties to my people, learn and teach scriptures to the best of my abilities . This is my life and I'd make the most of it "The minder indicated the meeting was at an end and if we liked we could have a group photo with the Karmapa .

After the photos everyone filed out of the room while I lingered back. " Have you ever been to Hong Kong ?" I asked " No, but I'd love to visit . I've friends in Hong Kong and I keep up with the happenings. It seems an interesting place " " If you're ever in Hong Kong give me a call" I handed him my card. He took the card and exclaimed " Oh, it's a different University !" " Why yes, there're 8 universities in Hong Kong. All the others in the group are from the Hong Kong University, I'm the only one from the Chinese University of Hong Kong . You're really welcome to visit ." He scrutinised the card carefully in the big spartan room, surrounded by that peculiar silence, the kind that befalls a house after a great party that everyone knows can never be repeated, and suddenly I saw him not as the big strapping 24 year-old but the lonely little boy caught up in the intrigues of a very murky adult political world . He looked so forloin I wanted to give him a hug . The minder was hovering at the back impatiently, and as I didn't know the etiquette on hugging a Karmapa , I said to him instead, " Do come ! You'd be among friends. " I didn't want to get him into trouble.

At the bottom of the stairs I was collared by the young novice lama . " How was the meeting ?" " OK" I blinked, not sure what to say. " Oh Please tell me !" the poor chap pleaded dejectedly "The Karmapa has such a tight schedule I don't know when they can fit me in again. What did he say please ?" " We talked about Hong Kong , " " Really ? " the novice didn't bite , " Yes really ! He has friends in Hong Kong and he wants to visit, so we offered to give him directions " Inexplicably I wanted to protect the Karmapa . The Karmapa had been extraordinarily candid in all his answers, even to questions his 'normal' guests and worshippers would never have the audacity to ask . I was particularly touched by the heartfelt "mei ban fa !" which he repeated at least half a dozen times . Buddhism is the most egalitarian of all religions, yet the Tibetans have invented for themselves demigods, and I didn't want to let on to the young lama that the Living Buddha that he reveres is as vulnerable and needy as the rest of us." Did He say anything on the scriptures ? Come on, you have to give me something!" The young man wouldn't give up. I had absolutely no recollection what the Karmapa had said in reply to our only spiritual question but I couldn't disappoint him , so I quickly made something up from the top of my head " I think he might have said something about the Path to Enlightenment is through a Pure Heart " then scurried away as fast as I could . I'm going straight to Hell !

My concern for the Karmapa is well founded. Ogyen is in the dire position of being one of 2 contenders for the position of the reincarnated 17th Karmapa . Each candidate was put forward by the 2 opposing camps of the Karma Kagyu school , but the real bone of contention is control over the Rumtek Monastery and the many priceless art treasures, artifacts and relics within . Both Karmapas had undergone seperate processes of recognition carried out by different people at different times, in addition to seperate enthronement ceremonies and both independently have been performing ceremonial duties in the role of a Karmapa .

Trinley Thaye Dorje

Trinley Thaye Dorje , the other Karmapa, came from truly illustrious parentage . His father is Mipham rinpoche, the reincarnation of a very important lama of the Nyingma school, 3rd reincarnation of the 1st MR and the head of 13 Nyingma monasteries in Kham, besides a descendant from many generations of doctors and learnt medical scholars ; his mother Dechen Wangmo is of noble family, descended from King Gesar of Ling. Trinley received a modern Western education from English and Australian tutors and an intensive introduction to Western philosophy from prof Harrison Pemberton of Washington and Lee University in the USA. He's polished, conversant in foreign languages and travels extensively so it's no surprise he's well received in the West .

Our sweet Ogyen, on the other hand, came from a penniless " Nobody" nomad family, received a provincial education and in my opinion , too guileless for his own good ; since he was given refugee status by the Indian Government in 2001, had gone on pilgrimages mainly in India . The only thing going for him is the boast of his being the only living tulku ( reincarnated lama ) to be recognised by both the Dalai Lama and the government of China . His Holiness Shamar Rinpoche, the second-ranking Karma Kagyu lama and the nominator of Trinley, was quick to point out that throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism, each of the 4 autonomous Tibetan Buddhist schools has always selected its own leader, and though politically the Dalai Lama is head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, his spiritual authority is limited to his own Gelugpa school, and he has no religious authority to approve leaders of the other 3 schools. Nonetheless the Dalai Lama Effect has already gone forth , most Tibetans accept Ogyen possibly because of the association.

The 14th Dalai Lama and Ogyen

In the 1960s the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje built the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim ( India), and set up the Karmapa Charitable Trust . Upon his death in 1981, the Karmapa Charitable Trust, of which Shamar Rinpoche was a board member, assumed management of Rumtek ostensibly until whenever the 17th Karmapa was found, who'd then take over when he came of age . In 1992, before Shamar Rinpoche could announce Trinley as the new Karmapa incarnate, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Goshir Galtsab Rinpoche jumped the gun and thrusted forward Ogyen as the real McCoy, and seized possession of the Rumtek in 1993. The ousted Karmapa Charitable Trust took the Rinpoches to court and for the next 10 years the 2 claimants embroiled in a bitter legal battle that eventually reached the Indian Supreme Court . In 2006, Trinley was officially appointed by the Karmapa Charitable Trust as the legal and administrative heir of the 16th Karmapa and could therefore, according to the trust, live in Rumtek Monastery should the Supreme Court rule in their favour, at the same stroke effectively affirms his status as the true 17th Karmapa .

Rumtek Monastery

It might seem odd that a religion that preaches desire is the cause of all suffering and all phenomena are empty to carry on such vindictive wrangle over power and material possessions, until one takes a close look at the history of Tibetan Buddhism .

Buddhism was brought into Tibet from India in the 7th century, integrated with the strong shamanistic and animistic indigenous Himalayan religion to become the Tibetan Buddhism of today, which explains the plethora of gods and spirits ( many actually from earlier Tibetan religions), the complex ritual practices such as prostrations during pilgrimages , prayers repeated over and over with the use of personal or public prayer wheels and flags , and noisy, visually striking temple ceremonies .

Different sects in Tibetan Buddhism emerged over time, all struggled for dominance as they developed. The inner fightings between and within each sect was evident from the beginning. The Nyingmapa Order is the oldest, dating back to the 8th century. In the 11th century Tibetan Buddhism became stronger and more politicized. The power of the ruling monks increased and the religion splintered into fiercely rivaling sects : the Kagyupa order and the Sakyapa order ( both Red Hat orders ). In the 13th century, the Mongols under Genghis Khan raided Tibet but was converted to Tibetan Buddhism by the Sakyapa sect, so with the assistance of the Mongols the Red Hat held sway over Tibet for about 100 years. The Gelugpa order, or Virtuous Ones, emerged in the 15th century as a purer form of Buddhism at a time when the other sects were regarded as corrupt .They were the Yellow Hat .The Yellow and Red Hats were traditional rivals, some have compared the Yellow Hats to Catholics and the Red Hats to Calvinists because the Yellow Hats donned colorful robes, lived in grand palaces, conducted elaborate ceremonies and put a great emphasis on following religious doctrines and texts while Red Hats are austere and mystical and look to the inner self rather than doctrines and books for answers.

The institution of Dalai Lama ( Gelugpa yellow hat ) originated from the Mongols . At the time when Sonam Gyatso was the third leader of the Gelugpa school, Gelugpa was being squeezed out by the other sects. Sonam turned to Mongolia for help and succeeded in converting the Mongol ruler Altan Khan, who coined the title Dalai Lama ( Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning Ocean of Wisdom, lama a Sanskrit term meaning guru ) to be bestowed upon him , making him the 3rd Dalai Lama . The previous 2 titles were conferred posthumously upon his earlier incarnations. Backed by the Khan, the Yellow Hat became preeminent in Tibet from this time onwards .

The 4th Dalai Lama Yonten Gyatso was a Mongol prince but he was unpopular with the other Great Monasteries . It's rumoured he was assassinated at the age of 28 by the Kagyus over the legitimacy of his confirmation. The death of Yonten marked the start of persecution of the Gelugpa school by the Kagyus .

In order to crush the Kagyus who was backed by the king of Tsang, the 5th Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyatso formed a military alliance with the powerful Mongol leader Gushri Khan, in the process razed a large number of Nyingma monasteries to the ground, and consolidated the power of the Dalai Lama by sword and fire . Lobsang based the new Tibetan government on the concept of Chhosi Shungdel, the integration of religion and politics, with clergy and laymen sharing power over the country, and was the first Dalai Lama to exercise temporal power and ruled as both a spiritual and political leader. Intelligent and formidable, Potala palace was built by his order. Towards the end of his reign he relinquished affairs of the state to his regent, Desi Sangay Gyatso, who was commonly thought to be actually his son . Desi concealed Lobsang's death for 15 years as he attempted to monopolize power, and only produced the 6th Dalai Lama when he was questioned by the Chinese Emperor Kangxi .

The 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso was by far the most interesting God-king . He was an erotic poet and wrote love songs which are still popular in Tibet today. While he lived as a Dalai Lama by day he was a dandy by night. Dressed in blue silk brocade, he wore his hair long, drank wine and visited brothels , reputed to take a different woman every night. His eccentric style displeased the Mongol chieftan Lozang Khan, who sought to depose him. Desi tried to protect Tsangyang by exercising intrigue. First he tried to poison Lozang Khan . When that failed, he attempted to assassinate him during the Great Prayer Festival of 1705. Lozang Khan responded by mounting a full-scale attack against the Desi, who was defeated and later beheaded. With Desi gone, Lozang Khan removed Tsangyang from the Potala with the blessing of the Chinese Emperor Kangxi, but met with resistance from the Tibetans. In order to avoid a massacre, Tsangyang surrounded . He was sent to Beijing and by official Chinese accounts he died of illness on the way , but other accounts say he was executed or murdered . He was 23 years of age . Tsangyang is the only Dalai Lama who is not interred in the great mausoleum in Potala, and the only one who entered the world of legend . Just like Elvis, many believed Tsangyang didn't really die, sightings of him abounded : he was seen masquerading as a mountain yogi, a sheepherder, a begger in Lhasa , he was spotted in a crowd at the court of the 7th Dalai Lama , still others say he went on a pilgrimage to India and spent 40 years in missionary work among the Mongols .

The candidate put up by Lozang as the 7th Dalai Lama in 1717 was rejected by the Tibetans, who turned to Dzungar Mongols for help to oust Lozang. The Dzungars defeated and killed Lozang, but then proceeded to loot Lhasa and the tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama . In 1720 a Chinese expedition expelled the Dzungars . The Chinese were hailed as liberators and patrons of Kelzang Gyatso, who they installed as the 7th Dalai Lama . Kelzang Gyatso was also a poet and a scholar, he was uninterested in matters of the state and was essentially a figurehead political leader . Emperor Kangxi declared Tibet a protectorate and in 1727 installed two high commissioners or ambans, and a garrison of Chinese troops in Lhasa . The walls of Lhasa were torn down and Kham ( with Batang , Litang, Tatsienlu, etc ) annexed to the Chinese province of Szechwan. The Chinese protectorate, which was to last till the end of the Ch'ing dynasty (1912) was established.

The 8th Dalai Lama Jamphel Gyatso was also uninterested in politics so Tibet was ruled by regents. During his reign, Tibet fought wars with Nepal, lost many cities which were later retrieved, but its strategic location in relation to India, China and Russia made it a focus of interest to Britain which sent on a delegation. Tibet reacted promptly by severely restricted outside visitors. Jamphel Gyatso died in 1804aged 46.

The 9th Dalai Lama Lungtok Gyatso died at the age of 11 in 1815, purportedly of pneumonia, but given the tumultuous state of Tibetan politics at the time, some believe he was assainated by his own court in order that they could continue with the status quo.

The 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lama were selected by a lottery method devised by the Qianlong Emperor of China, whereby the names of competing candidates were written on folded slips of paper placed in a golden urn, whichever name picked became the Dalai Lama . The 10th Dalai Lama Tsultrim Gyatso too died at a young age before assuming temporal power. The 11th Dalai Lama Khendrup Gyatso ascended the throne at the age of 17, then mysteriously died eleven months later . The short reign of the 12th Dalai Lama Trinley Gyatso was a time of severe unrest ; the weakened Qing dynasty was unable to provide Tibet with military support while the British intensified pressure on the Tibetan borders from their colonial bastion in India. Poor Trinley Gyatso died at age 19, barely two years after his enthronement .

The 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso was selected by the traditional incarnation's entourage ( labrang), with the selection being approved after the fact by Beijing. Since coming to power at the age of 19 , Thubten Gyatso survived an assassination attempt by his former regent who put deadly mantras in his boots, and fled Tibet twice to escape outside aggression - the first time in 1904 when the British marched on Lhasa and massacred a thousand Tibetan soldiers, during which time he fled to Mongolia ; then in 1910 when the Qing government sent a military expedition to establish direct Chinese rule, this time he fled to India. Nevertheless , following the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, Thubten Gyatso sent Tibetan representatives to the Chinese Central Government as congressman, albeit largely in name only. Thubten Gyatso attempted to end Tibet's centuries long isolation, strengthen the political power of the Dalai Lama and introduce reforms, but it was too little too late .

The 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso

In 1950 at the age of 15 the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned , one month after the People's Republic of China tookeover Tibet . Tenzin Gyatso escaped to India after a series of failed uprisings in 1959 , so effectively he abdicated and never ruled the country .

The centuries long feud between sects is still very much alive today . Feb 1997, 3 close associates of the 14th Dalai Lama : Geshe Lobsang gyatso (the principal of the institute of Buddhist Dialectics) and his two students were stabbed to death inside their school in broad daylight in Dharamsala. Accusing fingers were pointed at the Shungdens, a subset of the Yellow Hat, though the Indian police could find no proof. This is just one contemporary incident of the on-going Dorje Shugden Controversy, which started with the 5th Dalai Lama .

Geshe Lobsang Gyatso

Although the 5th Dalai Lama was of the Gelugpa School, he came from Nyingma tradition and throughout his life maintained a strong allegiance to the Nyingma school , which did not sit well with the Gelugpa hierarchy, led by the powerful monk Tukla Dragpa Gyaltsen, who was intent on creating a buddhocratic state based explicitly on the teaching of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school. Tukla Dragpa Gyaltsen was murdered—suffocated to death by having ceremonial silk scarves stuffed down his throat— in his palace in 1656 by a close aide of the Dalai Lama. He was subsequently believed by his followers to have reincarnated as Dorje Shugden (meaning hurler of thunderbolts ), a vengeful protector god of the purity of Tsongkhapa teaching, often depicted as a sword-wielding warrior who wears a necklace of human heads and rides a snow lion through boiling blood.

Dorje Shugden

Only when a Dalai Lama holds effective political office that the Dorje Shugden controversy becomes prominent , so as the 6th to the 12th Dalai Lama were all basically defunct, the controversy slipped into the shadows for 200 years after the death of the 5th Dalai Lama . The 13th Dalai Lama again was a keen practitioner of Nyingma teachings, and ordered Pabongka Rinpoche, the most influential Gelugpa lama whose authoruty rivaled that of himself , to stop the practice of Shugden. Pabongka Rinpoche disobeyed and passed the practice on to his disciples

The 14th Dalai Lama initially practiced Dorje Shugden and repeatedly sought guidance from the deity, in fact it was on the advice of the Shugden oracle that he fled to India in 1959. In the 1970's some inauspicious dream led the 14th Dalai Lama to believe Shugden's negative energy was working against him and an oracle confirmed Shugden was really an "evil spirit", so in 1976 he issued his first statement discouraging the practice, but it wasn't until 1996 when public disputes and slanderous media campaign erupted between the opposing camps that the rest of the world became aware of the issue .

An estimated 80% of Tibetans follow the Gelugpa tradition and hence spiritually connected through the great Gelugpa masters with the Dorje Shugden. Distress arose when the explicit wish of Dalai Lama to ban the Dorje Shugden practice within the Tibetan community was enforced by the exile government . Houses were searched for pictures of Dorje Shugden , Shugden statues destroyed and temples confiscated ; lay and ordained practitioners coerced into signing their name, agreeing to abandon all worship of this Deity. Those refusing to sign were openly declared to be enemies to the cause of Tibet and endangering the life of the Dalai Lama. The consequences were bleak for those who stood by their faith: employees of the exile government were fired and children of Dorje Shugden practitioners were expelled from school. Even the constitution of the exile government was adapted to this change of policy: "The presiding judge of the Judiciary Commission … must not be a worshipper of Gyalchen Shugden …" Many Tibetan Lamas felt powerless to take action and fell in line with the Dalai Lama because their lives or livelihoods would be jeopardized. Advertisements from Tibetan Newspapers such as She-Ja and Bokyi Dhubab stated that anyone who opposed His Holiness the Dalai Lama must be dealt with ruthlessly by all means, including violence , and the Tibetan exile government's Department of Security published information on 10 prominent opponents, the so called "10 most hated enemies of Tibet and H.H. the Dalai Lama", profiling their names, addresses , occupation , photographs and defamatory allegations . Such information was posted on walls and widely distributed in the Tibetan settlement. Fear swept through the community and many Shugden worshippers appealed to the Commissioner of Police in New Dehli for police protection . ( Does any of this sound familiar to anyone ?)

Kelsang Gyatso

Upon receiving direct requests from distraught practitioners in India to help with the various kinds of religious oppression, the senior Gelugpa monk Kelsang Gyatso, who had been resident and teaching in England since 1976, formed an organization called the Shugden Supporters Community (SSC). Death threats and other warnings were promptly issued against him, followed by the "Sera Expulsion Letter" signed by fifteen abbots wherein he was 'expelled' from his old monastery, Sera-Je . In 1991Kelsang Gyatso broke away from the Tibetan Tradition to establish a new Dorje Shugden order in England and called it the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). This is a Western adaptation of Gelugpa Buddhist organisation and does not accept the authority of the Dalai Lama. It's the fastest growing Buddhist sect in Britain, where it now has thousands of members, a thriving publishing business in London and mansions that double as "Dharma Centers" all over the country; it has since expanded rapidly worldwide, currently listing more than 200 centres and around 900 branch classes/study groups in 40 countries .

The Third forum in Beijing in 1994 and the Panchen Lama fisco in 1995 resulted in a fierce anti-Dalai Lama campaign from the Chinese . The Dalai Lama claimed an oracle confirmed the Chinese spirits were used by Dorje Shugden to attack him, thereby the Shugdens worked for the Chinese. This allegation led to great dissession among the Tibetans , and was made despite the fact that the Shugdens are, of all Tibetan Buddhists, advocate the strongest for Tibetan independence; indeed many Shugdens see Dalai Lama as a traitor for being too compromising with China. However, many Tibetan Buddhists have since heeded this call to arms and interfered with the development of the NKT and other groups who practice Dorje Shugden by defacing their publicity, contacting locations where classes are being held and tried to get them canceled, and banned all books by Kelsang.

The fight escalated and in 1996 the world was shocked by how Gentle Buddhism managed to generate its own scandal during the Dalai Lama's visit to England to give public talks . Acting from of a sense of "spiritual solidarity" for Shugden practitioners in India, hundreds of NKT members joined the Western Shugden Society and held demonstrations and prayer vigils against the Dalai Lama's ban with placards proclaiming "Your Smiles Charm, Your Actions Harm", requesting him to restore basic human right of religious freedom to Shugden practitioners. Many posters appeared in Dharamsala at this time declaring death threats to the Dalai Lama , which was followed shortly by the grisely murders of the three Dalai Lama disciples. The Dalai Lama used the media to great effect . In 1997, in a book by Dalai Lama published in the French language, he openly called Geshe Kelsang a cult leader. Subsequently Newsweek , Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald and Ming Pao Daily all carried interviews of Dalai Lama in which he branded the NKT a cult and Kelsang the "third Buddha in the British Isles", intent only on grasping for himself power and wealth. In 1998, followers of Dorje Shugden again demonstrated against the Dalai Lama in New York during his visit there. Tricycle, a Buddhist periodical , dubbed the Shugdens "Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism" in a publication in 2002 , implicating them in the murders and death threats against the Dalai Lama . The NKT has all along vehemently denied involvement in the murders, and has since distanced itself from the Shugdens in Indian , citing the feud as an internal Tibetan political problem. Nevertheless, the smear campaign worked and Tibetans were incited to further harassment of Shugden followers in Dharamsala .

Is Dorje Shugden tradition really demon worshipping ? The NKT has a totally different explanation of the deity : " In his left hand he holds a heart , which symbolises great compassion and spontaneous great bliss ...... His round yellow hat represents the view of Nagarjuna, and the wisdom sword in his right hand teaches us to sever ignorance...... Dorje Shugden rides a snow lion..... and has a jewel-splitting mongoose perched on his left arm, symbolising his power to bestow wealth on those who put their trust in him....... His wrathful expression indicated that he destroys ignorance, the real enemy of all living beings, by blessing them with great wisdom." Tibetan Buddhism has a very complicated system of protector and destroyer deities ; afterall , the Land of Snows with its awesome, sparsely inhabited landscape and a fierce climate, could be a harsh and frightening place to live in. The very survival of communities require a powerful sense of family, tribal and religious loyalty, which could translate into Protector Gods who one must placate .

The portrayal of Buddhism as a tolerant, rational, non-dogmatic, peace-loving and open-minded tradition is enthusiastically endorsed by the liberal Western intellectuals, but in reality in the Polytheistic Buddhocracy of Tibet, all Buddhist traditions make claims to be the Truth, and when claims contradicted each other, passionate, prolonged even violent disputes have ensued. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Hindu guru had impressed me by saying " There're many paths to God, we don't try to convert anyone ". It is therefore all the more shocking that in this day and age of supposedly global religious harmony, there exists still totalizing demand of a single claim to truth by a single voice, enforced through the path of repressive fanaticism and religious intolerance.

The Dalai Lama is widely respected in the West and held to be a paragon of virtue, being the first Buddhist to travel to the West to promote the concepts of universal responsibility, secular ethics, and religious harmony . His authority and opinions have never been challenged by Tibetans (or most Westerners) in all his years of rule, until the demonstrations by fellow monks made headlines in the 90's. The press has always gone easy on him , it's generally accepted by most media that it's a taboo to say anything less than saintly about the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela. Rarely do journalists challenge the Dalai Lama, but as head of government shouldn't he be held accountable as a political figure too , instead of letting him off on a good giggle and a quaint parable in place of hard answers ?

Speaking of the British monarchy more than a hundred years ago, Walter Bagehot warned of "Letting daylight into magic" , thereby turning magic into mere spectacle, now it appears Daylight has finally caught up with the Dalai Lama . Thinking people compare the Greats of the Twentieth Century and come to the conclusion that abdication is the abandonment of one's followers, a leader in exile is no leader at all. When London was being bombed with V2 rockets and buzz bombs, did Churchhill flee to America? Did Aung San Suu Kyi and Mandela leave their countries to save their own skin ? Then of course they didn't have the Oracle to lay blame on ! However, of all the lies that surround the Dalai Lama , the greatest is that he is a champion of non-violence, for which he was awarded the nobel peace prize in 1989.

In 1998, newly declassified agency documents were published by both Los Angelos Times and the New York Times , confirming what the Chinese had been charging for years, that the Dalai Lama was involved in a decade long covert violent resistance movement in Tibetan, and contrary to the claims by Lamaist Propagandists ( including the Dalai Lama) that these actions are a noble, home-grown resistance to foreign domination, the documents stated catagorically that the movement was organised, financed, trained, armed, led, and finally dispersed by the CIA, as part of the CIA's worldwide effort to undermine Communist governments .

As early as April 1949 when it was obvious China was turning communist, the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson cabled his Ambassador in New Dehli that the USA Government would like to see " Tibetan military capacity to resist quietly strenghened " . In the summer of 1950, instructions were given to the Office of Policy Coordination, the bureacratic arm officially in charge of covert operations, to "initiate psychological warfare and paramilitary operations against the Chinese Communist Regime." The Dalai Lama's two brothers became CIA agents in 1951, the same year the Dalai Lama formally accepted the 17 Point Plan" peace treaty from China uniting Tibet with the PRC . Three years later the Dalai Lama was elected vice-chairman of the Chinese People's National Assembly, and entered China's ruling elite , thus from 1956-1958, the Dalai Lama repeatedly refused lending support to various Tibetan tribal alliances in their resistance movement against the Chinese.

Chairman Mao and the Dalai Lama 1955

In 1951 Gyalo Thondup ( the second eldest brother), then based in Darjeeling, established an intelligence gathering operation with the CIA, and headed the "contra" ( counterrevolutionary ) armies the CIA has created to wage covert wars . Six years later he upgraded it to an advanced CIA-trained guerrilla unit. Ten Tibetan Contra camps were set up in the tiny principality of Mustang on the Nepal-China border, this major recruiting effort yielded 14,000 Tibetans and tribal people in the field , all armed, equipped and fed by the CIA. The first Tibetan Contra War was fought in late 1961 and continued through the 1960s. In 1958 theDalai Lama succumbed to the persuasion of his brothers , and authorized Thubten Norbu ( the eldest brother) to negotiate with the CIA on his behalf ; in June the same year, a full scale insurgent warfare was staged . In March 1959, an CIA initiated armed uprising was quickly put down, in large part because of the efforts of former Tibetan serfs who joined the People's Liberation Army to hunt down their old masters . At this point the Dalai Lama was whisked into exile in India .

from left to right are,Dalai Lama's mother; his elder sister; elder brother Thubten J. Norbu; elder brother Gyalo Thondup, another brother, Dalai Lama himself; his younger sister, and his youngest brother

Since 1958 , the CIA moved from dropping its own agents into Tibet to training a brigade of 2,000 Tibetan exiles, using Camp Hale in the Colorado Rockies, which lasted for 7 years. The Dalai Lama lied in 1961 when he said the Tibetan insurgents had no weapons except those left behind by the Chinese, records now show from July 1959 till May 1960, about 362 tonnes of weapons, ammunitions and equipments - as well as 85 trained guerilla warfare specialists- were dropped into Tibet .

By early 1970s the US was tied down in Vietnam, and at the same time sought to open relationship with China. The ineffectual Tibetan Contra was no longer useful , so they were simply cut loose by the CIA . This use-and-discard tactic of the US maybe a rude shock to the Tibetans, but all too familiar to reactionaries among the Kurds of Iran, the Hmong hill tribesmen of Indochina, the Miaquito Indians of Eastern Nicaragua, and the Islamic fundamentalist forces who fought Afghanistan.

Gyalo Thondup and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping 1979

In 1997 Chicago Tribune stated that from 1950s until the 1970s the Tibetan Government- in- exile received US$ 1.7 million a year from the CIA ; the Dalai Lama was himself on payroll of US$ 180,000 a year until 1974, paid to him personally by the CIA. There's no question that the Dalai Lama pocketed the money for himself , more likely it was used on guerilla operations against the Chinese . An CIA agent alleges the CIA has been a prime funder of the Dalai Lama's media profile as a symbol of meditative peace and buddhist mindfulness, but notwithstanding his public stance in support of non-violence, his private conviction is at least consistent. When many political and religious leaders were cautioning the invasion of Iraq, in Sept 2003 the Dalai Lama told the press in his first visit to New York City since the 2001 terrorist attack that it might be necessary to fight terrorists with violence .

Preach Peace, Practice War

While virtually all religions that have become the dominant faith of a nation have had to come to terms with the military dimension of the nation's life , the Dalai Lamas of Tibet in the dual roles of God and King, had uniquely been the dispenser of both redemption and murder . All the demigods through the generation had feet of clay, and behind the holy cloak they had been the initiators of wars, political intrigues and bloody feuds, that is, if they're not themselves murdered by their own cout first . No one can serve two completely different Masters, even today many followers ( both Tibetan and Western ) would sacrifice compassionate Buddhist doctrines to the political agenda of Tibetan independence, and concede violence is acceptable if that's what it takes to achieve the end. In this respect maybe Jesus had the better idea . When questioned by the scribes whether it was lawful for them to give tribute to Caesar, Jesus asked "Whose likeness and inscription is on the coin ? " the scribes answered , " Caeser's." Jesus said "Then render to Caeser the things that are Caeser's and to God the things that are God's"( Luke 20:25 ).

For someone who's addicted to learning, my biggest personal disappointment with the 14th Dalai Lama is inspite of his name which means " Ocean of Wisdom", he has never said anything that I haven't heard before in some form or other ; this guy has not advanced human knowledge by one iota ! What will happen when the Dalai Lama dies ? The Dalai Lama had repeatedly stated that he'll never be reborn inside the People's Republic of China, occasionally suggesting that he might choose to not being reborn at all . In 2008 there was speculation that Ogyen might become the successor of Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism , not as Dalai Lama but in his capacity as Karmapa . Ogyen had said since in the past the Gyalwa Karmapas did not engage in political activities so he won't either, so it's possible God and Caeser could finally part company. Ogyen, like Prince Charles, is mindful of the environment , urging his followers to stop using soaps and chemicals, and follows climate change through the Internet. And like Prince Charles, our Mei Ban Fa Karmapa, though of Generation Y, is resigned to be trapped by the life he was born into. On the other hand, how much real choice do we the unchosen ones, can claim to have ? We're all trapped to some extent in our choices in life by our heritage, genetics, gender, family background, educational opportunities ............. not to mention the times we live in . For example, if I were born a beautiful Five- foot- eleven Swedish blond, I'm quite sure my life story would be completely different .

Steven Seagal

However, the Dalai Lama could still surprise and delight us all by being reincarnated in America , like the 17th century treasure revealer Chungdrag dorje of Palyul Monastery in Eastern Tibet, who was discovered in 1997 by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche to have reincarnated and walk among us in the persona of Steven Seagal, the American action movie star. The egoistical Kung Fu star has lived a life more colourful than the 6th Dalai Lama, with 7 children from 4 relationships and a sexual harrassment lawsuit to boot ; he's also the proprietor of an energy drink aptly named "Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt", and an aftershave called "Scent of Action". The fact that he was born of an Irish American mother and Jewish father was considered acceptable interracial reincarnation. This piece of information has raised my hopes greatly, who knows , maybe I could return as a beautiful Five- foot- eleven Swedish blond afterall !

2010年9月7日 星期二

India Oct 2009

In India, one of the easiest ways to locate the city slum is to start out early in the morning, scan the streets for hordes of young women bearing big alumiium jars filled with water, then follow them home . Most of the slums have no water supply, and it's the daily duty of the women to fetch the necessary household water from the public pump.

That's how I came upon a slum in Bhopal, the second day I was in Madhya Pradesh State.

The residents welcomed me with the open-hearted hospitality typical of the Indian race, and very quickly we were exchanging addresses. The few English speakers among them undertook a heated discussion and finally came up with : " House 31, behind the Rotary Club, Nagar Banganga , Bhopal ". I was dubious ." That's kind of vague, and the Rotary Club's a couple of blocks away ! I'm sending you all the photos I took of you , are you sure you'll get them if I use that address?" They shook their heads in unison which I took to mean Yes, except on further questioning it transpired none of them had ever received anything through the post before.

That's how I found out a slum of almost a hundred houses had no name.

After bidding my new friends goodbye I hastened back to the hotel to join my other friends for breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised by the buddy-buddy cheeriness that seemed to pervade the whole city. Everyone I met en-route smiled, waved and shouted something, presumbly a greeting - the car drivers, the motorcyclists, the men on way to work..... and the friendliness escalated even more when I reached the hotel . Not until the kitchen staff piled up to grin at me through the partition window that I sensed something was wrong .The gleeful waiter placed a newspaper over my scrambled eggs, I looked down and the fog lifted . In the centre page of the morning paper was a picture of me !

I plunked myself in front of Kok Yong who was sitting at the next table and bellowed " It's all your fault !", startling him out of his post-prandial stupor. The day before, as we were coming out of the Bhopal Tribal Museum, Kok Yong called at me and pointed : "Hey Memie, look at the guy on the motorbike with the big camera !" I turned to look and that became this .

The same evening we met with Princess Sonia, wife of the Maharajah of Bhopal, for tea. " Your newspaper called me a Japanese !" I complained. " Well, it's an understandable mistake, for the past 20 years most of the visitors to Bhopal are from Japan " She explained . When I calmed down I had to admit the Japanese had more cause to take offence at the mix-up : no self-respecting Japanese lady would be seen dead in what I was wearing, the whole emsemble costed less than $10 US ! " The people of Bhopal beware," I warned solemnly " the Chinese are coming !"

After independence, India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, based his vision of " resurgent Asia" on partnership with China, and the catch phrase of diplomacy between the 2 countries was " Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" ( Indians and Chinese are brothers ), unfortunately the friendship was cut short by border disputes. Princess Sonia, though an Indian citizen, was of Pakistani descent, another country India has on-going territorial disputes . I was curious. " Are you treated differently here in India ? And do you visit your family in Pakistan often ? " " I'm both Indian and Pakistani though I hold an Indian passport, I'm treated well in both countries. I go to Pakistan all the time, there's no problem at all at the level of ordinary people " This assertion is almost born out by the spectacular display we witnessed at the Attari-Wagah Border, where retreat ( flag lowering) ceremony takes place daily at sunset with the Border Security Force on the Indian side and Sutlej Rangers on the Pakistani side . It's instantly obvious the guards on both sides are selected based on their height and foot stomping abilities. At the sound of the bugle, the Indian and Pakistani crowds gathered on opposite sides of the gate erupt into loud cheers and try to out-shout each other, and though the competition is real and intense, the atmosphere is festive . I noted atop a small monument on the Indian side two severed hands clasped in a firm hold , and all the Indians I talked to in the crowd assured me " Paksitani are like our brothers "

Indian Melancholy

Madhya Pradesh , often called the Heart of India, is a state in central India and where we spend most of our time in this trip . We visited all 3 sites in Madhya Pradesh which have been declared World Heritage Sites By UNESCO : the Bhimbetka Caves (2003) , Sanchi (1989) and the Khajuraho Group of Monuments (1986) .

The Bhimbetka Caves ,an hour's drive from Bhopal , has one of the oldest prehistoric cave paintings in the world, some believed to be 12,000 years old . The majority of the paintings depict the vignettes of daily life, hunting scenes and a range of animals.

46 km north east of Bhopal is Sanchi ( Moulds of Stones ), a small village where 8 stupas surrounded by Toranas ( gateways ) are located. The 'Great Stupa' was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the third century BC . Its nucleus is a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha , crowned by the chatra , a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which honours and shelters the relics . The Torana each represent love, peace, trust, and courage , and all are covered with narrative sculptures, showing scenes from the various lives of the Buddha integrated with everyday events, ostensibly to make it easier for the worshippers to understand the Buddhist creed as relevant to their lives . Though Sanch is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimages in India, some scholars believe Ashoka's original intention was to create a culture of unity in his kingdom which was home to many faiths, as his imperial edicts, carved on rocks and sandstone pillars, urged respect for all spiritual beliefs and practices. One of these, the richly carved Ashoka Pillar is the most significant structure in Sanchi, the crown of which ( 4 lions standing back to back ) has been adopted as the official seal of the modern Indian state.

Khajuraho ( meaning date palm) Group of Monuments are the largest group of medieval sandstone Hindu and Jain temples, and considered to be one of the " seven wonders" of India .The whole area is enclosed by a wall with 8 gates, each flanked by 2 golden palm trees. There were originally over 80 temples, of which only 25 now stand in a reasonable state of preservation. They're one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, not lest because they're an outstanding example of Indo-Aryan architecture but also because of the explicit erotic carvings on the temple walls.
The local guide was effusive with titillating sexual innuendoes, puns and jokes as he pointed out to us the more extravagant amorously engaged figures, but when the anticipated snickerings and off-colour banterings did not come forth he turned to us in exasperation " Come on guys ! Haven't you heard of Kama Sutra ? You know, sex ?" " There're 1.3 billion Chinese on earth," I gave him a withering look, " it's safe to assume we know a little something about sex."

In actual fact only 10% of the carvings contain sexual themes, the rest depict the various activities of the deities ( Khajuraho is also called "the city of the gods "), as well as the everyday life of the Indian people during medieval times. There's no erotic art inside the temple or near the deities, the reason is as divinity is pure like the atman ( soul ), so one must leave his or her sexual desires outside the temple before coming into the presence of the gods .The erotic friezes have also been ascribed to be yantras ( symbols ) strategically placed to subdue malevolent spirits, as sexual images imply a virile powerful presence.

I wondered if the guide had ever read the Kama Sutra in its entirety, or he'd know the carvings in no way illustrate the meticulously described positions, 64 in all, as recorded in the Kama Sutra , and neither do they express the Vatsyayana philosophy, which the most popular version of Kama Sutra is attributed to. While sexual love was accorded a respected place within human life, the sexual theme in fact constituted just 1/5 of the overall content of Kama Sutra, the majority of the text were advices on the proper social behaviour and relationships between upper-class men and women from the first century BC. Men were required to cultivate themselves in poetry, music, clothing and even personal hygiene ; likewise the women were educated on the codes of conduct as wives or concubines. Kama Sutra endorsed marriage as the ideal relationship, in which physical pleasure was a wholesome presence . It preached social responsibility and dharma ( ethical conduct ), but did not outright condemn transgression of the moral codes, wisely leaving it to those who followed to decide the relative importance of pleasure and ethics within their own lives.

I asked Princess Sonia " How do you, as a Maharanee, fit in in democratic India ?" " We don't," she answered graciously, " we're no different from any other people, the title doesn't mean anything nowadays ." She was not entirely truthful ; in India the feudal past is in many ways the present, and probably the future . On the grounds of Khajuraho were low caste old ladies plucking the lawn with their bare hands, squatting in rows on their hauches, they kept their bodies at all times lower than ours in a posture of time-honoured submission . In front of the Jain temple the local guide extolled the virtues of Jainism, a strictly vegetarian offshoot of Hinduism . Jains prescribe a path of non-violence towards all living things, even take to wearing white cotton facemask to prevent the possibility of swallowing an insect .Yet the Gods are weeping : the Jains who will not harm a fly or a microbe, are the very people who advocate mass selective abortiion and kill off about fifteen % of their daughters, the worst of any religious groups in India.

The high light of the tour for me was the Golden Temple, the supreme symbol and central place of worship of the Sikh faith at Amritsar, in the Punjab. We were required to remove our shoes before entering the temple as a sign of respect, which was a problem for some but fortunately not for me ; I love walking bare foot . All ladies came prepared with the requisite head scarf while most men didn't, but for a few rupees they could buy a piece of orange coloured headcover at the temple gate , resulting in a sea of orange heads bobbing at the temple site .

I seldom get sick, but I was quite sick with chills and nausea just before we got to Amritsar . At the Golden Temple Hemesh the guide said to me " Why don't you take some Holy Water ? It might make you feel better ." I took a long look at the Holy Water stand and the ladies cleaning the utensils ." I hope you don't take this the wrong way," I said carefully, " but all things considered, I'd rather have a whisky."

The Sikhs' one and a half century association with Hong Kong is a legacy of the British Empire when most of the Indian subcontinent was under Britsh colonial rule. Sikhs soldiers , brought over as part of the British Armed Forces from Punjab, were at the flag raising ceremony at Possession Point in 1841 when Captain Charles Elliot declared Hong Kong a British possession . When the Hong Kong Police was formed by the colonial government on 1 May, 1844, the Sikhs were the first police constables. Later they were joined by policemen of Chinese and other races, but they constituted a large segment of the Hong Kong Police Force until World War II . Each ethnicity was assigned an alphabetical letter : "A" for Caucasians, "B" for Indians, "C" for Cantonese, "D" for Chinese recruited from Shandong Province , "E" for White Russians and so on. The headdress also varied according to ethnicity: the Caucasians wore kepis, the Sikhs wore uniform turbans, and the Chinese a sort of conical straw hat. All of them, however, wore the same green uniform , nicknamed " luk yee" ( green coat ) . This was how a well-known Cantonese ditty came about : " ABCD, 大頭綠衣, 捉人唔到, 猛吹 BB !" which means : "ABCD (the ethnic designation), Big Head (the turban) Green Coat , Not catching the thief, Keeps blowing the whistle !"

As of today, some 7,500 Sikhs still live in HK, and are engaged in a variety of occupations. The centre of their religious and cultural activities is the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple at 371 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island . A special feature of the temple, which was built by Sikh soldiers in 1901, is the provision of free meals and short-term accommodation for overseas visitors of any faith. Needless to say one of the first things I did in the Golden Temple was to check out the free food kitchen !

The last night we were at Amritsar we decided to go back to the Golden Temple to see the Palki Sahib Ceremony . As we were leaving the hotel I noticed music coming from a secluded area next door . " What's going on over there ?" I asked Hemesh. " That's a wedding party." he said. " How wonderful ! I've always wanted to go to an Indian wedding ! " I enthused. "After we get back from the Golden Temple I'm going to crash the party ." I announced to the horror of my law-abidding companions, who had never crashed anything in their lives ." It's OK ," I assured them " I do it all the time " True to my word, an hour later I marched into the party, wearing my most guileless smile. After a brief hesitancy, several of the braver ladies joined me. Indian weddings are joyous, colourful , might seem over-the-top at times but always all emcompassing, and we were made welcome right away . The happy couple were distant relations, and the marriage was semi-arranged .The bride was specially flown in for the wedding banquet from Canada where she worked as a dentist . I was lucky to have the uncle of the bridegroom, Mr iqbal singh, to look after me, and had a marvellous time dancing and drinking till the wee hours of the night .

India and China are two of the world's oldest civilizations and have extensive and close trade and culture exchanges for millennia . However, from the 1950's to the early 1990's, there was a hiatus in Sino-Indian relationship because of territorial disputes, until cordial diplomacy resumed in 2000 after Indian President K.R. Narayanan's visit to China. India is now China's fastest growing trading partner, and vice versa. As the aphorism goes : " when countries start trading goods, they stop trading blows" ; in 2005 India recognised China's sovereignty over Tibet, and in exchange, China recognised India's sovereignty over the Himalayan State of Sikkim, annexed in the 1970's by New Dehli .The economic of India and China are complementary . Because of its impressive university system India's scientific and technical capacity is ranked third in the world . In a speech to push Sino-Indian cooperation in high-tech industries in Bangalore in April 2005 , Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa said " Cooperation between China and India is just like two pagodas, one hardware and one software. Combined, we can take the leadership position in the world ." If India and China would indeed join forces it'd lead to a multipolar world, imposing stronger limit on America's scope to impose its will on other . US, in a bid to prolong its power in the world , explicitely desires the rise of India as a counteractive to China . This is further complicated by the fact that almost 2 million people of Indian origin are at this point in time based in the United States, moreover, Indian-Americans are the richest ethnic group in the US, and has become a strong new voice in US politics . India is thus the key global " swing state" of the 21st century and there's no telling how the game will unfold .

2010年8月17日 星期二

Water Colours

These are some of my first attempts at water colours . I very quickly realised I can never be any good at it , particularly as an artist friend , after a careful scrutiny of my efforts , said to me earnestly : " Don't quit your day job ." I'm truly grateful for her honest comment , which put everythings back into perspective.

2010年8月15日 星期日


I tried my hand at windsurfing with some medical colleagues , and found that this is another sport I'm no good at at all .
The numbers on the sail is the telephone number of the hospital I used to work in.
Though the work at the hospital was hard , we had great team work and I count my time there some of the happiest days of my life.

On birthday celebrations

A friend of mine, Dr David Kwan, recently called a dinner gathering , which during the course of the evening evolved into a simutaneous belated and early birthday celebration for the 3 people in our group whose birthday happen to fall within two weeks on either side of the dinner date . Questions were raised as to the auspiciousness in celebrating a birthday after the fact , and whether it was charitable to yearly remind a person of a certain age his/her escalating senility .

Ruthlessly disregarding what the All Holy Horoscope Yearbook might have to say, my opinion to both questions is an emphatic Yes !

When I was a child my birthday was never celebrated at home. I would cast sidelong glances longingly at the hard boiled egg all other kids in the family got for their birthday breakfast , egg dyed a special China Red , the colour that sings of joy , happiness and all things bright and propitious . I was warned by the grown-ups not to make a fuss for not getting my egg on my birthday because it'd only make matters worse : it was entirely my own fault I was born on the same day my grandfather died . In fact I'd be wise never to mention my birthday at home , at least not for as long as my grandmother was alive .

In secondary school I fell in with a gang of girls through basketball ; everyday after school we'd stay back to practice the game . Every gang needs a name so we christened ours "The Lucky Seven ". We were best friends and told each other everything, including my inauspicious start in life . Then came a day, in place of the basketball practice the girls surprised me with my first birthday party in a corner of the schoolyard . However, as The Lucky Sevens were extremely unlucky in pocket money ( most of us came from desperately poor families) , all the food they could conjure up were some packet of " life buoy biscuits" ( 水泡餅 ), animal crackers and pieces of compressed hawthorn candy ( 山楂餅 ) . Nonetheless it was amongst the best food I'd ever had . We started a tradition of celebrating one another's birthday which lasted 3 years until I left for England . Birthdays vanished from my calender of the next score years .

After I started working in the Chinese University of Hong Kong I was adopted into a group of entrenched birthday celebrators from Malaysia . Thereby for the past ten years my birthday reemerged onto the radar screen , just as I was at an age I'd rather it didn't .

The birthday re-celebration David was reluctantly drafted into set me thinking . Why is it so important to celebrate the fact that we were born on a particular day in a particular year in the distant past ? I believe the importance lies not in that we were born, but that inspite of all odds we're still living ! Birthdays are a reminder that we cannot take anything for granded , particularly the days of our lives - so many people in the world never get to see the age we're at. Every new day that we wake up in should be treated as an extra bonus , another chance to right things we've done wrong before, and create new things we can be proud of when we look back later. Then when the year rolls round and if we're still alive on the next prescribed date, we can breath a sigh of relief over each and every of our day in that year well lived .

2010年8月3日 星期二

Land of a Million Elephants

The day I left Laos there was a report in the Vientiane Times, the only English language newspaper established in 1994 by the Lao Government , on the plight of a teenage boy named Phongsavah Manithong. Phongsavah lost both arms and both eyes to a cluster bomb while walking to school . The heading screamed : "Unexploded ordnance, an unwanted heritage". Unexploded ordnance continue to kill on average 300 people a year in Laos and maiming many more , three decades after the CIA's secret Indochina War .

Laos holds the dubious distinction of being the single most heavily bombed country in the history of human warfare. The Guardian reported that Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for 10 years - US bombers dropped more ordnance on Loas in this period than was dropped during the whole of the Second World War, and three times as many than during the Korean War , causing immense damage in almost every province. The bombing costed the US taxpayers 7.2 billion dollars , or 2 million per day from 1964 through 1973 .

After a brief visit to the Xieng Khouan Buddha Sculpture Park , we left Vientiane for the north eastern province of Xieng Khouang, half an hour away by flight . Xieng Khouang Plateau is home to the Plain of Jars and is a National Heritage Site. These enigmatic archelogical stone jars were apparently carved from solid molasse ( akin to sandstone ) boulders of varying sizes by Iron Age people more than 2,500 years ago , hence the jars vary in height from one to three meters , weighing from 600kg up to 6 tonnes each. One Lao legend claims the jars were made by giant ancestors to store homemade rice wine called lau-lau, which is still drunk today; another folk lore says they were Victory Cups used by King Khoun Chuang in the 6th century to store wine ; yet another that they were sarcophagi for dead nobilities . Certainly this could well have been an ancient burial ground as Japanese archeological excavations have uncovered human bones, stone axes, iron tools, ceramics, bronze ornaments, fabrics and ashes in the area. Interestingly, more than 50 similar sites have been recorded over a large area of SE Asia, including Vietnam and India , which when linked together form criss-crossing trading routes with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre .

Xieng Khouang was a prosperous province until it became the target of the US Airforce " 3 raze operation " with the mission of "full killing, destroying and exterminating ", authorized directly by President Richard Nixon in the 1960s . Due to its strategic importance as part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ("Truong Son Road") supply and infiltration route , Xieng Khouang suffered intense aerial bombardment and ground battles , as evidenced by the hundreds of moon-like, barren bomb craters pockmarking the lush rolling hills . Of the 260 million bombs that rained down on Laos, a half-million tons were dropped in this region alone . Over 85% of the villages were bombed and Muang Khoun ( old Xieng Khouang capital) was totally obliterated by carpet bombing , thus a new capital was built in present day Phonsavan after the war. In Xieng Khouang we experienced at first hand the deadly legacy left behind by the US : the unexploded ordnance (UXO) .We were repeatedly warned to stay strictly within the red marks lining the pathways as we walked around the fields as there's still a large amount of UXO in the Plain of Jars . About 10-30% ( 80 million ) of the bombs dropped remain unexploded, hidden or buried underground in the hills, fields and plains. Despite continued efforts over many years, the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme, together with NGOs and international community, have only cleared 0.2% of Xieng Khouang's land mass of about 1.68 million hectares. UXO is a serious challenge to national development and poverty reduction plans , and a daily threat to the residents as they farm their land, tend to livestock, develop new housing areas . UXO can still be found in rice fields that have been cultivated for 10 years.

The history of Laos reads like an Epic Tragedy.

Laos traces its history to the Kingdom of Lan Xang or Land of a Million Elephants, founded in the 14th century by Fa Ngum, descendant of Khoum Boulom. Originally part of the Khmer Empire, Laos suffered hundreds of years of foreign invasions . It was absorbed by the Kingdom of Siam in the 18th century, incorporated into " French Indochina" in 1893 , then endured a brief Japanese occupation during World War Two . Swept along by the wave of global decolonisation after the War it gained independence in 1945, with France remaining in de facto control . By the mid-1950's the French were engaged in the Indochina War, afterwhich Laos was granted full independence as a Constitutional Monarchy in 1955 . Unfortunately this was closely followed by a militant communist uprising that threw the country into civil war. In order to stabilise the volatile tension from fighting for alliance in SE Asia between the Communist Block and the West , the major world powers met at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1954 and again in 1962 , and the Geneva Convention Accords was signed,which stated that Laos was to remain neutral of foreign military intervention, making it illegal for foreign military powers to intervene in Lao affairs or to provide combatants . But the devious warmongers quickly switched the mode of action from overt to covert .

By the mid-1950's the US Department of Defence had already created a Special Programs Evaluation Office to support the King of Laos , Prince Souvanna Phouma's Royal Army against the communist Pathet Lao, as part of the US Communist Containment Policy. Controlled secretly by the U.S. Ambassador in Vientiane , the CIA together with the US Air Force Commandos were responsible for setting up air and ground operations , all "ghost" missions carried out by "Spook" aircrafts and carriers , which had no identitification markings in order to evade the Geneva Convention . From 1955 to 1963, US contributed more military aid per capita to Laos than it did to South Vietnam . The secret war in Laos started with a few occasional hill tribe employees but by the late 1970's had turned into a multi-U.S.-intelligence agency supporting 30,000+ member 'Secret Army' of irregulars . On the other hand the Lao Communist Party was backed militarily by Vietnam , creating a unique situation whereby all armed forces on both sides of the civil war were entirely financed by foreign powers. On learning of the deception of US involvement in Laos in a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Oct 1969 , Senator William Fulbright asked , " Doesn't this ever strike you as sort of an absurdity ? The North Vietnamese are pretending they're not there, and we're pretending we're not there ."

It was indeed an awful absurdity : Nobody's there . There's no war in Laos . Yet thousands upon thousands of Lao civilians are dead .

Even the worst nightmare must come to an end. In 1974 the Democratic majority in Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act which cut off military funding in SE Asia, and brought the 20 year US Secret War to a close . On 2 December 1975 the Royal Laos King Savang Vatthana was forced to abdicate his throne and the Lao People's Democratic Republic was formed .

Where did these people find the strength to heal from trauma this deep ? I wondered as I looked at four beautiful young girls in their sin ( narrow skirt ) and phaekhit (sash worn across one shoulder ), who gracefully agreed to pose for my camera . Xieng Khouang might have been bombed to cinders , but from the ashes of war the Phoenix has risen . Xieng Khouang epitomizes the durability of the human spirit , inspite of all odds normal life has returned to the area . Walking around town it's easy to spot decor and house stilts made from military scraps , spoons made from old military aircrafts , empty bomb casings used as planters or pylons, and US Army parachutes shaded vendors selling fresh fruit juice and beer. The remnants of a dark period have been resurrected to serve the hopeful present .

The Vientiane Times reported Phongsavah the unfortunate double amputee had been fitted with artificial arms at the National Rehabilitation Center . Though the boy still had trouble learning to put food in his mouth using his new arm, he's already talking about his dream to become a technician . The same newspaper announced the opening of a new centre to assist disabled people, built by the Japanese Foundation . Laos is one of the ten poorest countries in the world, and has been receiving aids from many countries since the end of the war. America is conspicuous only by its absence, which is perhaps not surprising as only in 2005 that the US established Normal Trade Relations with Laos, ending a protracted period of punitive import taxes . " How do the people feel about the Americans ?" Prathana our guide was disdainful " You know the Americans sprayed this stuff all over Laos then pretended it didn't happen . You know, the yellow something ....." " You mean the Agent Orange ?" I gave her a prompt . She nodded gravely.

Agent Orange got its name from the color of the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped , to be sprayed by aircraft over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as part of the defoliation warfare program . From 1961 to 1971, it was by far the most widely used of the so-called "Rainbow Herbicides" to remove the jungle canopy and facilitate aerial attack . Over 537,495 gallons were dumped in Laos, but South Vietnam was drenched by 21 million gallons . In 1963, the United States initiated a study on the harmful health effects of Agent Orange ( contaminated by dioxin, the most toxic man-made chemical known ) and by 1967 confirmed that it caused multiple types of cancer, birth defects and other serious health problems, but the knowledge had no effect whatsoever on the continue use of the substance. On the contrary the use of herbicides was quickly expanded to the destruction of enemy crops in a Food Denial Program . By 1965, 42 % of all herbicide spraying was directed to food crops . This horrendous American war crime was covered-up and officially denied until 1982, when Air Force historian William Buckingham's draft of the "Operation Ranch Hand ( military code name for the operation) study" was made public under a Freedom of Information Act request by the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange.

Dioxin binds itself to the fat cells of humans and animals and can remain in the body for decades . There are still a number of dioxin contaminated hot-spots dotted around SE Asia ; moreover it's already in the food chain and the diabolical effect continue to show up in people born long after the spraying ended. Between the UXO and the Agent Orange, the Vietnam war is still alive and claiming victims . Would the Americans pay for the cleanup ? Unlikely, given that the US has yet to pay the reparations to Vietnam promised at the time of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1973 !

In 1991, the US Congress implemented the Agent Orange Act giving the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to declare over a dozen conditions 'presumptive' to exposure to Agent Orange/Dioxin and therefore entitled to compensation . The U.S. government has compensated well its own Vietnam veterans . Last year alone $13.7 billion was forked out on disability payments for more than 1 million veterans, and millions more in compensating veterans' families whose children were born with birth defects. And yet in the years since the Vietnam War Washington has steadfastly denied any moral or legal responsibility for the victums in SE Asia , even refuses to acknowledge the same health problem to be Agent Orange related when it happens in a Vietnamese. In 1984 a number of class action lawsuits by American GIs against the chemical companies which produced Agent Orange were settled out of court. The veterans were granted a $180 million settlement, the most affected veterans receiving a one-time lump sum payment of $1,200. Yet in 2005 , the same judge who had defended the U.S. veteran victims of Agent Orange, Judge Jack B. Weinstein , ruled against the same claim made against the same companies by a group of Vietnamese victums . He went further to rule that the U.S. Government cannot be a party in the lawsuit, citing sovereign immunity.

I rest my case.

Being a simple soul my basic requisites for a trip to qualify as good are friendly locals and good beer - and Laos abounds in both. Laos is the most relaxed Communist country I've been to so far. We got our visa on site at the Thai-Lao border and as I peered into the Immigration Control room I was astonished to see the officer's wife resting in a camp-bed behind his table and his small daughter doing her homework on a folding table and chair nearby, except her eyes were glued to the TV set , inside which Tom and Jerry were noisily quarelling in fluent Lao. The Moneychanger in the next building was equally impressive. The 3-4 young ladies sitting around the table laiden with an open pile of Lao kip were more interested in filing their nails and drinking soda than doing business with us, though when they finally came to the window they were efficient. From the mountain of kip they quickly extracted the right sum to our US dollars, I was apparently the only one concerned that the bank notes might be blown to heavens everytime the electric fan on the floor swung pass the table in its set path to cool the room .

I quickly found that simply by chanting "Sabaai-di " and placing my palms together to perform "nop" , the formal Lao greeting, I could break down any door, literally, as I betook myself in and out of stranger's houses, and successfully pestered guileless villagers for pictures . Intrigued by the incongruous combination of Lao cast-iron resilience and easy-going placidity, I was keen to unravel the mystery. Prathana explained to me who they are . The Lao are descended from the Tai people who began migrating southward from China in the first millennium A.D. While there are at least 68 ethnic groups in Laos, the Lao government divides the population arbitarily into 3 main ethnic categories according to the elevation at which they live . Lao Soung ( 10-20% of the population ) live at altitudes of 1000 meters above sea level and tradfitionally relied on the cultivation of dry rice and opium ( Laos being one of the 4 in the poppy growing region known as the Golden Triangle) ; Lao Theung ( 20-30%) live on mid- altitude mountain slopes, they are largely animist and the poorest ; Lao Loum ( 50%) live in the Mekong River Valley, subsist on wet-rice cultivation, and practice Theravada Buddhism . Lao Loum are politically and culturally the dominant group. Laos still has a fairly large ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese communities, residing mainly in towns and dominate the commercial and business sectors .

Our driver and his wife were Lao Soung . 2/3 of the Lao Soung are Hmong, the most recent migrants to Laos, entering the country from the high steppes of Mongolia and Tibet around the turn of the nineteenth century. They were the CIA's " secret army" in the Indochina War and today more than 200,000 of them reside in the US . Through Prathana's translation I learnt about the driver's courtship and marriage . The driver was actually in love with another girl but could not go against the wishes of his mother, who liked his present wife. They were married in the traditional way, using go-betweens to fix the bride-price , which typically ranges from three to ten silver bars, worth about US$100 each, a partial artifact from the opium trade. The wedding took place in two installments, first at the bride's house, followed by a procession to the groom's house for the second ceremony. Prior to the LPDR regime "bride stealing" practices were rampant, the young woman being abducted to the house of her suitor by the young man's friends, the rationale was fait accompli automatically lowered the bride-price . Hmong New Year is one of the main occasions young people get to check each other out ; during the festival a small fabric ball, the makkono, is tossed around for hours by the young men and women as part of a courting ritual.

Laos covers an area the size of Great Britain , yet has the lowest population density of all Asian countries , a result of war deaths, mass exodus of refugees and emigration . At present females outnumber males by 2 : 1 and 85% of the population live in rural areas . Laotian cities failed to attract the rural population as cities do in other countries, because they offer little obvious economic advantage while villages are self-reliant and provide a reasonable living . I was surprised to note even the poorest shack ( Lao houses are typically sparsely furnished ) in some villages we passed through had a satellite disc attached to the roof . Nearly all villages are ethnically homogenous, and traditionally Lao holds a far stronger allegiance with one's village and clanship than national identity . Only since 1975 has there been any sense of national unity and this basic village character of Lao society is the source of great stability and support for the people. Even under the present political system, governance in a village is generally through consensus rather than by elected village leaders alone . The rhythm of life is inevitably tied to the changing seasons and farm duties. For village projects each family is expected to contribute equal amounts of labor, material, and money . Households also cooperate informally, and all families are obliged to help each other to finish farm or house-building work on time. No specific repayment is required , everything goes on a labour exchange system of mutual assistance.

Religion is the other obvious cohesive factor for the Lao. Traditionally the wat ( temple) is the centre of social and religious gatherings , and is also where boys receive religious and secular education. This still holds true today. Our guide in Pakse was a typical example. Mr King, as he'd have us call him, left his village at 13 to become a novice monk in the city because his family couldn't afford school for him . The temple provided board and schooling and after graduating from secondary school he left the temple to study English in the university. Now he's married with a baby son. This is a beneficent arrangement for everyone concerned : the temples get a steady supply of novice monks and the boys get a chance of education. The temples are mainly funded by devotees , whether in the form of the daily "takbaat" alms-giving ceremony which we participated in at the crack of dawn in Luang Prabang, or the merits-buying ceremony for ancestors which we ran into in Vientiane , or offeringss for all festivals and major life events .

Though Laos is officially a communist country , the golden Pha That Luang ( Great Stupa ) in Vientiane is the most important national momument and symbol, which reflects the importance of Buddhism in the Lao psychic. That Luang to me represents all the attainment Lao people aspire and strive for for this life and the next. It has the appearance of a large , open lotus blossom , and consists of 3 levels, each represents a different stage along the path to Buddhist enlightenment. The lowest level signifies the materialistic world of desires ; the second, the world of appearances; and the highest, the world of nothingness - nirvana. On the third level, there are 30 miniature stupas, at the base of each was inscribed each of the ten palami, or Buddhist virtues of perfection : generosity in giving alms; morality; renunciation; wisdom; energy; patience; truth; resolution; compassion; and imperturbability . In the symbolism of Lao Buddhism, the lotus represents the female organ of procreation, thus the petals on the second terrace of That Luang gave birth to the 30 miniature stupas, and ultimately to the tower at the very pinnacle, which represented the male.

Patuxai Monument (Victory Monument) was built in 1969 to commemorate the wars deaths using cemete donated by America that was designated for constructing a new airport, thus it's also known as anusawali ," The Vertical Runway". Though it was fashioned after Arc de Triomphe of Paris, the ceiling motif is entirely Lao and tells the epic story of Ramayama . Passion for legends, poetry, romanticism, songs and dance is inherent to the Lao. In Ramayama the Devil is bad because he's a supreme seductor , and in one of his escapades he wooes the heroine by changing into a snake so that he can embrace her over and over. Prathana was enthralled . " Can you imagine to be so loved ?!" she exclaimed, and with starry eyes she crossed her arms over her chest and gave herself a little hug . Humour is the shortest distance between people . Prathana knew Hong Kong people love sea food, so at the first meal she quipped " Here in Loas you cannot have SEA food, you can only SEE food !" referring to the fact that Laos is the only landlocked country in SE Asia . After climbing three floors to the top of Patuxai Monument she announced " The shortest route to get down is to jump" whereupon someone responded with " OK,You jump, I jump !" only to be corrected instantly by a smart rejoinder " No, you jump, I watch !", which brought roars of laughter.

Prathana and Mr King as tour guides are the first generation of occupational specialization in Laos ; previously everyone was a rice farmer first and all other skills are supplementary to the fundamental task of growing enough rice and vegetables for the family. Though the wages are higher in the private sector, young people generally still opt for civil service job if they can get it , because of all the perts . At present local businesses pay 35% profit tax while foreign investors pay only 20% for running the same business , but there're talks that a single profit tax rate might be introduced soon . "We were close to China before , now we're best friends with Vietnam" Prathana said, " but Thailand is our biggest trading partner " Since the opening of the Khau Midthaphab or Friendship Bridge in April 1994, business with Thailand has been brisk. With virtually no industrial production outside the Vientiane area, almost all manufactured goods are imported from Thailand ,while Thailand uses at least 3/4 of the hydro-electric power produced in Laos .

Laos is just finding out opening up to the outside world is a double-edged sword. According to a report in the Vientiane Times on the 20th Jan '10 :"The popular culture, fashion, media and music of neighbouring countries is continuing to affect Lao society, with growing fears that youngsters may forget their own culture ." The Director General of the Ministry of Information and Culture, in a bid to promote Lao music, issues a document banning all local cell-phone providers from using international songs for call waiting jingles. Meanwhile the Vientiane Police find themselves grappling in vain a problem that had plagued other countries for decades , that of : "motorbike-riding teenage hooligans disturbing the peace and create a public nuisance late into the night", so it's fortunate that the Police Headquarters' Deputy Chief, Lieutenant Colonel Khamxoui , has a plan." When we catch the culprits," he says," we'd attempt to educate them as to how dangerous such activities are and how they hamper our work"

Food in Laos was good. I loved the glutinous ( sticky) rice, which is a staple diet for the Lao Loum. Because it has a high starch content, sticky rice must be steamed rather than boiled , and therefore always served in small baskets . It is eaten with the fingers and dipped in soup or a vegetable or meat dish, and goes extremely well with Beer Lao, the number one beer in Laos. In passing I mentioned to Prathana some tasty meat dishes we'd tried and she made a face . " I never eat them. Did you notice how dark the meat was ? That's because it's cooked in oil that's been reused repeatedly, the darker the meat the older the oil" . But reheated oil is carcinogenic ! Now this sort of information should be in every guide book !

Laos is rich in both natural and cultural attrations . Champasak province which we visited contains Wat Phou, one of the grandest Khmer ruins outside Cambodia , and Luang Prabang is the definitive tourist showpiece and an UNESCO World Heritage Site . In recent years the Government has been ardently promoting ecotourism in Lao's wonderful mountains and rivers, waterfalls and hot springs . Because of the low cost and unspoiled environment, I believe Laos is likely to become a popular tourist destination in SE Asia soon . But tourism can have a multitude of downsides, not least among them my pet issue when travelling in under-developed countries : tourists giving candies to local children . The week we were in Laos the Bridge the Gap Foundation from the Netherlands donated some new equipment to the Faculty of Dentistry in Vientiane University so that the dental students can have practical skill training . Dental care is still by and large a luxury in Laos and it grieves me to see kids' teeth ruined by sugar . There's an ancient Lao Proverb : "If you want to help someone, don't do it unless it dignifies him ." There's certainly nothing dignified about edentulousness ! Tourists please take heed !