On the Way to Shangri-La

It was an easy scam–Hollywood-tacky and shiny, Burt Bacharach-groovy and a temporary high.

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I was a young teenager when I first learned about Shangri-La, a mysterious, beautiful land, somewhere near China and India, where the people lived simple, happy lives in such harmony with nature that they hardly showed their age beyond 100. I remember enjoying Lost Horizon (published in 1933), a book on my parents’ bookshelf. It seemed that even if you had grown jaded and rejected stories about the biblical Garden of Eden and heaven, you could still pick up the comforting thread of belief in some other storyline.

Later, being just enough older to critically recoil at the musical film version of Lost Horizon starring (sadly because I love so much of her other work) Liv Ullmann and a strange assortment of ’70s stars. I realized that there was a real danger in the notion of Shangri-La. It was an easy scam–Hollywood-tacky and shiny, Burt Bacharach-groovy and a temporary high. When the glow of the screen faded away, the world was a different kind of place.

In the ’90s, the TV show Twin Peaks came along. Shangri-La was packaged as a utopian state of mind. Special agent Dale Cooper had a unique approach to solving horrendous crimes in the Pacific Northwest community of Twin Peaks. A dream about Tibet led him to deductive methods of crime-solving. It appealed to viewers, I count myself among them, in a sort of post-faith moment of panic. We were searching for any port in the chaotic storm–where the rational world failed to protect against the dark side of humanity (SOS David Lynch and the bon sauvages of Tibet!).

Over the years and in between heaven and hell, I have discovered a complicated human reality. Recently I read that not long after Lost Horizon was published (almost 80 years ago) the average life expectancy in Tibet was 35.5 years. It has doubled since then, according to the Chinese government (that invaded Tibet and drove out the world famous Dalia Lama in 1959). In large part, pregnant women and young children have benefited from “improvements in medical services.” That is, without argument, a development worthy of Shangri-La.

And yet, there is much trouble in Tibet today. Last July I met with Tenzing Jigme, president of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress (RTYC) in Minnesota. He had contacted the Twin Cities Daily Planet when a pair of former monks became the fortieth and forty-first Tibetans to set themselves on fire, to self-immolate, in protest of Chinese rule and suppression of Tibetan culture and religion in their homeland. Here’s the article that was published.

About a week ago I received another message from Jigme to alert me to another self-immolation in Tibet on October 21. The death of Lhamo Tseten brings the total to more than 59, a number tracked with care by the International Campaign for Tibet. The young man was 24-years old, one year younger than my oldest son. Jigme’s organisation invited supporters to join them in a Candle Light Vigil held at Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis on that very day.

The situation is, in Jigme’s words last summer, one that evokes feelings of pain and anger. There is no ignoring this reality, no Shangri-La, not in Tibet and not for Tibetan refugees in Minnesota. Not for me either.

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