What They Are Saying About 'Fearless in Tibet'
Matteo Pistono’s new book, Fearless in Tibet, a biography of the great 19th century mystic Terton Sogyal, could just as easily be called Fearless in Writing.
Until the very recent past, Tibetan biographies have been strictly hagiographic in tone and content. The readership was confined to accomplished practitioners of tantric Buddhism and the books were penned in a pre-20th century timeframe, in which empirical science played no role. Buddhist manifestations of magic neither contradicted nor compromised Tibetan readers’ experience of the “real” world. Tibetans simply lived in an atmosphere of the marvelous. If someone was said to have super-human origins or skills, no one jumped through hoops to embrace the notion. A biographer’s emphasis was on the subject’s inner journey, not the dates and place-names of his or her outer life, which was regarded as mundane, if not irrelevant.
It is no easy task, then, for a Western writer with a Western readership to bridge that cultural gap, to bring to life the story of a highly realized Buddhist master – to explore the tantric’s spiritual achievement while also folding into the narrative Terton Sogyal’s political significance.
Matteo Pistono has done precisely this.
His biography not only accurately identifies Terton Sogyal as one of the diplomatic lightning rods of his time – replete with Sogyal’s profoundly crucial relationship with the 13th Dalai Lama and his accurately assessed threat of a Chinese takeover– but the infighting of Lhasan aristocrats as well, which, tragically, sped up the eventual demise of Tibetan independence.
As Pistono explains in his “Author’s Note”: I had to position him [Terton Sogyal] against the turbulent sociopolitical backdrop, place him in a linear historical sequence, and show his apparent challenges and frustration.
This book was fifteen years in the making. Pistono’s boots-on-the-ground peregrinations through eastern and central Tibet, his accumulated interviews with (and teachings from) the great lamas of the day, his tireless academic research – all come together and make Terton Sogyal’s story both immediate and contemporary.
for full review, click Mikel Dunham’s blog.
-- Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness
--Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer and historian
--Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche
--Erik Pema Kunsang, author of Wellsprings of the Great Perfection
Book Reviews of IN THE SHADOW OF THE BUDDHA
November 15, 2011
This year’s top 10 religion books pay homage to the King James Bible, with 4 of the 10 titles addressing aspects of the book’s 400-year history. Other selections explore Indian spirituality, the history of Jerusalem, and the challenge of bringing compassion to daily life. —Ilene Cooper
In the Shadow of Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet. By Matteo Pistono. 2011. Dutton, Penguin.
Pistono tells chilling cloak-and-dagger tales and offers mesmerizing descriptions in this account of one man’s quest for spiritual illumination and political justice.
Nov. 8, 2010
"Pistono draws on his experiences as a journalist, activist, and student of Tibetan Buddhism to explore the intersection between spirituality and politics. He weaves together the stories of his pilgrimages in Tibet, his role in smuggling out evidence of the Chinese government's human rights abuses to the West, and the history of Terton Sogyal, a lama who served as spiritual and political adviser to the current Dalai Lama's predecessor in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. Pistono follows the path of Terton Sogyal across vast expanses of the Tibetan landscape while hearing testimonies to suffering by Tibetans who sought him out to share their stories. The phurba, a "great weapon of compassion" in Tibetan ritual to destroy anger, provides a continuing motif. Spiritual aspirations and political realities collide tragically in present-day Tibet, and through this complex set of narratives Pistono explores his own search for freedom from anger when faced with massive injustice and the apparent ineffectiveness of activism on behalf of Tibet. These inner and outer journeys are no less astonishing for being told matter-of-factly, accompanied by keen analysis of modern realpolitik."
Nov. 15, 2010
“Pistono. Matteo Pistono. Buddhist superspy, teaching bad guys the disappointments that come from attachment.
Since 1999, Pistono has been journeying into Chinese-occupied Tibet, porting in messages from the Tibetan government in exile, stealing out with evidence of official misdeeds, such as the mistreatment of a cleric “who was scalded with boiling water and then jailed for five years for publicly praying to the Dalai Lama”—an act that the Chinese government considers to be a crime of sedition and “separatism.” The author came to this work honestly, if circuitously, having been an environmental activist in Wyoming on one hand and a Buddhist devotee on the other hand, working in the best tradition of the warrior-monk. Pistono clearly regards this espionage as a kind of religious obligation, observing that as a sworn bodhisattva he is obligated to benefit others in all his future lives, which might involve “a couple hundred thousand years of working for others, depending on how many lifetimes the vow took to accomplish.” By all accounts, not least this modest and suitably self-effacing one, he has been successful in this work, smuggling out documents, posters, court records and other materials that have wound up in the hands of human-rights organizations and legislators around the world. This earnest memoir has its adventuresome moments, but it is less action-packed than readers might wish. Instead, it is peppered with asides concerning “positive karmic seeds,” memories of tutelage under a kindly monk named One-eye Wangde, and puzzlement over whether the Buddha’s enlightened state is truly possible and whether he violates any religious precepts by telling lies and stealing state secrets.
James Bond it’s not, but this book isn’t quite like any other, and it makes a useful primer for anyone contemplating making a right livelihood along dangerous paths.”
By Michael Sheehy
In the Shadow of the Buddha (Dutton 2011) is Matteo Pistono’s autobiographical account of his undercover reporting from inside Tibet. A journalist, activist, and student of Sogyal Rinpoche, the author began traveling in Tibet in 1999 with the intention of following in the footsteps of his teacher’s previous embodiment, the Tibetan mystic treasure revealer Terton Sogyal Lerab Lingpa (1856–1926). Over the next nine years, Pistono made several trips to Tibet where he met Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (1933–2004), the other reincarnation of Terton Sogyal, during a visit to Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Serta region of eastern Tibet. Combining pilgrimages with chronicling his encounters with Tibetans who entrusted him with politically sensitive documents and accounts of human rights violations, Pistono served as a covert courier, smuggling information out of Tibet to the Dalai Lama and leaders of the Tibetan liberation movement in the United States.
In the Shadow of the Buddha:
Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet
By Matteo Pistono
Dutton Adult 2011; 272 pp., $25.95
Matteo Pistono, an American, went to Tibet to deepen his meditation practice and learn more about the esoteric teachings of a nineteenth-century spiritual master. But the more time he spent in Tibet, the more often he met Tibetans who wanted to show him their scars from being tortured in Chinese prisons. Moved by the stories he heard, Pistono went on to spend almost a decade smuggling evidence out of Tibet of human rights abuses and sharing it with NGOs, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and the U.S. government. He also regularly briefed reporters from the New York Times and other publications, and couriered clandestine messages from the Dalai Lama to a meditation master living in Tibet. Pistono’s memoir, In the Shadow of the Buddha, is at once political and spiritual. The foreword is by Richard Gere.
Nov. 15, 2010
"From Wyoming to Himalayan meditation caves to Capitol Hill, Pistono’s account of his quest for spiritual illumination and political justice is heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. Pistono, raised with the belief that social activism is a core responsibility, began traveling to Tibet in 1999, motivated, in part, by his fascination with Tertön Sogyal, a nineteenth-century mystic and 'Tibet’s great champion and protector.' Pistono follows in Tertön Sogyal’s footsteps while telling the mystic’s astonishing story, from his father’s insistence that he join a band of highway robbers to serving as teacher to the XIII Dalai Lama and guiding Tibet through political turmoil and the intrusion of British forces. Traveling as both a journalist and a Buddhist pilgrim, Pistono also found himself at the crossroads of spirituality and politics when he was asked to serve as a human-rights courier, carrying to the West hard evidence of China’s systematic brutality in occupied Tibet. Pistono tells chilling cloak-and-dagger tales and offers mesmerizing descriptions of haunting landscapes and miracle-performing lamas. But what shimmers most in this riveting and mysterious chronicle, which includes a foreword by Tibet activist Richard Gere, is the courage of those dedicated to 'the Dalai Lama’s vision for real autonomy and religious freedom in Tibet through nonviolent means.'" — Donna Seaman
The Washington Independent Review of Books
February 24, 2011
In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet
by Matteo Pistono; foreword by Richard Gere Dutton, 272 pp.
Tragedy in Crimson: How the Dalai Lama Conquered the World but Lost the Battle with China
by Tim Johnson Nation Books, 352 pp.
Reviewed by Mindy C. Reiser
Few international issues have drawn such widespread and sustained popular concern as the cause of Tibetan religious and cultural rights. The struggle for Tibetan freedom and self determination, waged now in the face of an increasingly assertive China, has attracted the support of such well known figures as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, Czech dissident and man of letters Vaclav Havel, and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Richard Gere, Hollywood star and activist, a tireless promoter of Tibetan human rights, serves as chair of the International Campaign for Tibet. For many across the world, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader, has taken on the role of an international moral beacon in the company of such figures as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. His guidance on ethical and spiritual concerns is widely sought and his counsel revered.
Two new books shed an illuminating light on current developments in Tibet. Matteo Pistono’s In the Shadow of the Buddha is written from the perspective of a student and seeker of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom who finds himself, perforce, deeply engaged in the struggle for Tibetan human rights. Tim Johnson’s Tragedy in Crimson is a tour d’horizon, a wide-ranging overview of the political, economic and cultural terrain in Tibet and the broader forces that will impact its future.
The books complement one another. In the Shadow of the Buddha speaks from a vantage point within Tibetan tradition. It addresses the many people who are captivated by Tibetan religious teaching and spiritual practices and underscores the power these traditions have and have had on seekers from both West and East. Its author, a former political activist and lobbyist for the Sierra Club, writes as both student and guide to Tibetan Buddhism and as the founder of Nekorpa, a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites. Tragedy in Crimson richly describes and analyzes the many cross-currents that swirl around the fate of Tibet. Its author, a longtime foreign correspondent who speaks fluent Mandarin, spent six years as Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. He writes as an investigative journalist and ever-questioning observer.
Both books have their fair share of nail-biting episodes, whiffs of spy novels brought to life as their authors encounter security and intelligence forces. Pistono, in particular, describes a number of episodes in which sheer chutzpah and huge doses of luck steer him safely through potentially disastrous brushes with Chinese security who – had they known – would have pounced on the documented evidence that he carried, showing abuse of Tibetan prisoners, the needs of jailed monks and nuns for medicine, and the names and locations of prisons and political prisoners.
Pistono invites the reader to share his spiritual and geographic odysseys as a pilgrim, seeking to situate himself within the venerable and esoteric world of Tibetan spiritual practices. Readers join with this Wyoming-born follower of Buddhism as he deepens and solidifies his identification with a venerated turn-of-the-20th-century Tibetan spiritual and political figure named Tertön Sogyal, who bestrides and melds the religious and secular realms with profound spiritual understanding and political sagacity.
Through Pistono’s narrative, readers accompany him as he learns Tibetan religious traditions directly from several of the most highly venerated teachers in Tibet, each with strengths in one particular form of teaching. Along the way, he gains insights from the nuns, monks and pilgrims whose paths intersect with his in Buddhist encampments and holy sites. Readers follow Pistono as he unveils esoteric Tibetan traditions and seeks to master the ritual of the phurba or three-bladed, single-pointed dagger, representing “skillful use of compassion and the destruction of the self-cherishing ego.” We understand the depth of the Tibetan commitment to compassion when Pistono relates the concern of Tibetan nuns and monks, themselves victims of torture by Chinese jailers, over the potential diminution of their ability to feel compassion for their Chinese captors. With selflesssness, these nuns and monks identify their possible waning compassion as “a danger.”
Tim Johnson’s Tragedy in Crimson embarks on a different kind of journey. Johnson brings his readers to a number of sites critical to an understanding of the on-the-ground reality of Tibetan struggles and aspirations. Johnson further places Chinese policy and actions toward Tibet within the broader frame of Chinese history and deeply-held Chinese fears and vulnerabilities. Johnson’s travels take him to traditional Tibetan herding communities in the Tibetan Plateau; to Lhasa, literally “The Abode of the Gods,” and spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism; and to Dharamsala, seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile and parliament-in-exile. He interviews members of the exile government and activists from the Tibetan diaspora, in addition to the Dalai Lama and Ogyen Trinley Dorje, an important emerging religious leader and potential unifying figure when the Dalai Lama is no longer alive.
With an understanding and appreciation of the world of realpolitik, Johnson voices concern over the impact of growing Chinese economic power on Tibetan religious and cultural freedom. He illustrates the exertion of Chinese “muscle” on all things Tibetan by pointing to the successful Chinese lobbying effort – in the California state legislature – against a resolution in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Johnson is pessimistic about the ability of governments currently supporting Tibet to withstand threats of economic blackmail. Chinese paranoia about Tibet has even led China to cancel a summit with the European Union simply because French president Nicolas Sarkozy greeted the Dalai Lama in Poland.
To his credit, and thanks to his immersion in and understanding of Chinese history and culture, Johnson provides a framework for understanding some of the reasons behind China’s stance toward Tibet. He reminds readers of the memory deeply engrained in the Chinese psyche of the country’s hundred years of humiliation by foreigners from the period of the Opium Wars until 1949 and the rise of Mao Tse-tong. Johnson underscores the Chinese fear of separatism and observes that about one-sixth of the landmass of China is comprised of the traditional homelands of Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs. Chinese attacks alleging that the Dalai Lama is “splittist” reflect fears – however erroneous or misguided – that separatist movements will lead to the breakup of the nation.
Tragedy in Crimson, in its sweep and depth of coverage, can well serve as assigned reading for college courses on contemporary China, contemporary religion, as well as courses focusing specifically on Tibet. It is basic reading for anyone seeking a firm grounding in current developments in Tibet and an appreciation of possibilities and options going forward. In the Shadow of the Buddha, while more limited in focus, is particularly valuable for those in search of insight into the contemporary practice of Buddhism in Tibet and the personal and political obstacles to so doing. Furthermore, In the Shadow of the Buddha contains an extensive bibliography rich in references to writings on Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a glossary and brief biographical descriptions of a number of the figures discussed in the text. Both books would have benefited from photographs.
Tim Johnson’s searching exploration of Tibetan prospects concludes with serious concern over the ability of Tibet’s supporters to withstand the Chinese economic and political juggernaut. Matteo Pistono concludes his Tibetan odyssey more hopefully with an homage to the legacy of Tertön Sogyal, his chosen spiritual master, through the construction of a stupa or reliquary monument at the site of Tertön Sogyal’s last encampment where his house and temple once stood. Fittingly, Pistono closes the account of his sacred journey with a verse he heard recited by the Dalai Lama:
For as long as space exists
And sentient beings endure.
May I too remain,
To dispel the misery of the world.
Mindy C. Reiser, Ph.D. is a sociologist and writer who has traveled in Tibet.
Editor’s Choice April-June 2012
Author Matteo Pistono skillfully tells the interweaving stories of his spiritual quest, political work and travels to remote areas of Tibet in his book In the Shadow of the Buddha, recently released in paperback. The author’s high-stakes adventures, which take place over the course of a decade, are by themselves riveting. But add to the mix a fascinating profile of an historic Tibetan master and a frank account of human rights abuses and you get a page-turner that has real substance.
In his twenties, Pistono launches into a pilgrimage in Tibet to trace the steps of Terton Sögyal (1856-1926), a highly regarded Buddhist spiritual master who also advised and taught the 13th Dalai Lama. Terton Sögyal’s ability to combine high-level Dharma practice with politics attracts Pistono, who had been deeply involved in political campaigns in his young twenties. As Pistono goes about his pilgrimage in Tibet, seeking to develop his Buddhist practice, he encounters many Tibetans asking him to smuggle out documentation of Chinese oppression and human rights abuses, which he does. As the years unfold, Pistono manages to both continue with his pilgrimage while also helping reveal the harsh conditions that contemporary Tibetans face. But it’s not an easy journey for Pistono. One of the most compelling aspects of Pistono’s book is his honesty, both about his spiritual practice and also about the doubts and challenges he faces.
More than anything else, In the Shadow of the Buddha tells how a sincere Dharma student becomes inspired to courageously take on the difficult work of self-transformation, and in the process, helps to make a difference for Tibetans living in Tibet. Not all of us can trek to the remote high plateaus of Tibet, but we can become inspired to see how our Dharma practice can happen off the cushion and in the world around us.
As a side note, Pistono’s early encounters with Buddhism took place at Kopan Monastery, where he did a meditation course in the ‘90s. Currently, Pistono serves as the executive director of Nekorpa, a nonprofit organization that seeks to support pilgrimage through the preservation of sacred sites, stories and texts as well as through the recognition and support of individuals who ensure this ongoing spiritual heritage.
November 10, 2011
Some books come at the right time on the shelves; it is the case of “In the Shadow of the Buddha” (one Man’s Journey of Spiritual and Political Danger in Tibet) written by author and spiritual seeker Matteo Pistono.
For the past few weeks, Tibetan activists have been in the news trying to bring the horrifying self-immolations of Tibetans monks and nuns to the attention of the world leaders. Hundreds them, shouting, “Tibet is burning”, invited themselves to Cannes on the French Riviera where the G20 Summit was held. That the leaders have remained deaf is another matter, but the Tibetan issue is alive.
In the book’s Foreword, Hollywood actor and practicing, Buddhist Richard Gere explains: “This book is the story of how great spiritual practitioners from Tibet, like the mystic Terton Sogyal, and the thirteenth and fourteenth Dalai Lamas, are able to bring the full force of the bodhisattva commitment – the burning of desire to free all being from suffering – into whatever situation they face, including the world of politics.”
The book deals with many aspects of the Tibetan question simultaneously: spirituality, mysticism, history, politics and human rights. The author jumps from the notes of his pilgrimage in the footsteps of Terton Sogyal, the guru of his Buddhist teacher (Sogyal Rinpoche, himself a reincarnation of the Terton), to his discovery of the human plights of the Tibetans.
Terton Sogyal (1856-1926) was a 19th century tantric master who was a bandit in his youth before becoming one of the greatest mediation master of his time; he offered special teachings to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.
Pistono explains that there was “a prevailing belief in Tibet that Terton Sogyal’s mantras and prayers could protect Tibet from foreign Armies”, adding: “Not unlike the Dalai Lama today, Terton Sogyal was a master at integrating his political duties with spiritual practice, while never losing the pure motivation that holds other’s well-being as the priority”.
Though the present Dalai Lama has officially retired, he remains very much at the center stage of the politics of Tibet. Last week, while visiting Japan, he forcefully spoke of the incidents of self-immolation in Tibet: “The leadership in Beijing should look into the ultimate cause of these tragic incidents. These Tibetans have faced tremendous desperate situation.”
It is a fact that Tibet has never believed in ‘secularism’ as it is propagated in India today. During the 17th century, the Fifth Dalai Lama established a form of government, known as the Ganden Podrang which was characterized by a ‘harmonious blend between religion and politics”. Till early this year, the Dalai Lamas were the spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet.
What makes Pistono’s story more fascinating and relevant to the present day is that, while on Terton Sogyal’s spiritual trail, he manages to collect proofs of human rights violation in areas which are right now the site of unrest.
The book introduces the reader to some not-too well known aspects of the Tibetan Buddhism. Guru Padmasambhava, the great Indian master who visited Tibet during the 8th century, thought the time had not come to reveal his entire teachings; the world was simply not ready. He chose to hide spiritual treatises and objects in rocks and lakes in several places of the Land of Snows; these Hidden Treasures are known as Termas. He prophesied that at an appropriate time, they would be ‘revealed’ or rediscovered by powerful Lamas or yogis known as Terton.
Terton Sogyal was one such ‘revealer’. He had a special expertise in the ‘phurpa’ ritual. The ‘phurba’ is a three-bladed, single pointed dagger symbolizing the skillful means of compassion, which during special pujas (Vajrakilaya) helps to destroy one’s self-cherished ego.
Terton Sogyal was also skilled to ‘protect’ Tibet against external enemies. During a conflict between the British and the Tibetans in 1888, the Lama was called by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to perform a special ritual in Lhasa. Pistono recounts: “The Tibetan forces suffered losses during the six-month battle, though, as Tibetan vajrayana practitioners contend, the British were still unable to penetrate into Tibet because of the protective shield and the Tibetan storehouse of protective merits.”
Skeptics may doubt the efficacy of such rituals. It reminds me of the reaction of Robert Ford, the British radio operator posted in Tibet when the Chinese troops invaded the Roof of the World in October 1950. Ford wrote: “In Chamdo [Eastern Tibet] no one panicked, though the number of prayers was increased. More and more lay people joined the monks and began circumambulating around the monastery, the incense smoke went higher and higher in the sky, the gods had to be propitiated.”
Monks believed: “only the gods could give Tibet victory …They would pray twice as hard, or rather twice as often, and that would be of more use than taking up arms.” The Britisher in Ford commented that it was perhaps good for morale “but it seemed to me that something more Churchilian was needed.”
Some Tibetans believed that although, Col Younghusband and a few thousand British troops entered Lhasa in 1904; the fact that he withdrew a month later was due to the Terton’s pujas. Pistono writes: “Some have gone so far as to attribute Younghusband’s late conversion to modern mysticism as a result of the ritual bombardments of phurbas directed at him.”
The problem is that, following a similar logic, one could ask why are Tibetans today living in exile, recognized by none, forced to immolate themselves to inform the world about their plight? Tibetans will probably answer that their ‘storehouse’ of bad karma was too full; it has to be exhausted and the rituals help.
But the skeptic could further question: “why had Tibet accumulated such negative Karma? What about the karma of the British, the Americans, the French… and the Chinese. They are today free nations. Even Palestine has a seat at UNESCO!”
The spiritualist would probably respond: “The results of these pujas take time to fructify and in any case, in the meantime the Tibetan Lamas (thanks to the exile) are able to spread their message of love and compassion the world over”. This is certainly a way to see the last 60 years of exile of the Tibetan Diaspora.
A journalist from USA TODAY, Calum MacLeod recently visited what used to be the encampment of Terton Sogyal, near Serthar, in today’s Sichuan Province. It is here that Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok ,another reincarnation of the Terton, founded the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in 1980.
MacLeod recounted the story of Sheng, a Han Chinese “far from her home — and from the bars where she used to drink and the ex-boyfriends she says cheated on her. She is here with 2,000 other Han Chinese at the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, … a traditional gateway to Tibet, where Tibetans have practiced Buddhism for centuries — and where, for decades, China's Communist Party has suppressed Buddhists, sometimes brutally.”
The Institute was razed to the ground in 2001, when Beijing discovered that thousands of Hans were studying Buddhism there. Today, though the Khempo is no more, the Institute has risen again.
For McLeod: “The academy and its rising number of converts from China's dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese, reflect a remarkable and quiet recovery for Buddhist teachings [in China].” The phurba is perhaps quite efficient after all.
Apart from the tantric rituals, politics or human rights violations in Tibet, you will learn a number of things about mysticism in Tibet while reading Pistono’s book, even how realized Lamas depart leave in a ‘rainbow body’ at the time of their death. Worth reading about, if not experimenting!
Book Review by Sandra Pawula
Intrigue, adventure, and a profound spiritual odyssey await you in In the Shadow of the Buddha, Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet by Matteo Pistono.
This is a story of courage, conviction, and compassion that you won’t want to put down for a moment.
For more than a decade, Pistono skillfully eluded Chinese security forces while gathering heart-wrenching accounts of torture and atrocities regularly and repeatedly committed by the Chinese government in Tibet. However, Pistono didn’t set out to be an espionage agent, nor did he train as the protégé of James Bond.
He explains, “When I first journeyed to Tibet in 1999, I was on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of a nineteenth-century Tibetan mystic named Tertön Sogyal. A horse-riding bandit turned meditation master, Tertön Sogyal eventually became the teacher of the XIII Dalai Lama, the predecessor to the current Dalai Lama.”
Disillusioned by his own career in American politics, Pistono was entranced by Tertön Sogyal’s ability to integrate, “his political duties with spiritual practice, while never losing the pure motivation that holds other’s well-being as the priority. I first learned of Tertön Sogyal in 1996 when I met his reincarnation, Sogyal Rinpoche.”
Pistono had been bouncing back and forth between working in environmental politics in Wyoming and meditating in Nepal. He says, “I was drawn to Tertön Sogyal’s life story because I know politics matter. My parents had instilled in me an awareness that social action is not so much a choice as a responsibility—to ourselves and our community. There was something in Tertön Sogyal – the way that he pursued the path of spiritual enlightenment even while in the unsavory theater of politics – that I wanted to understand more deeply.”
At this point, Pistono only felt a vast divide between social activism and spiritual practice. “I didn’t know how to take the insights and peace I experienced on the meditation cushion into the world.”
After completing graduate school, Pistono felt impelled to trace the footsteps of Tertön Sogyal across the vast plains of Tibet. Traveling on foot, horseback, and in dilapidated buses, he meditated with hermits in remote sanctuaries and cliffside grottoes, slept in caves, visited monasteries, and the great capital of Lhasa.
His pilgrimage took an unexpected turn when more and more Tibetans began telling him their stories of pain and frustration.
“Traveling as a Buddhist pilgrim, I gained Tibetans’ trust. Political prisoners who had experienced abuse and torture in Chinese prions showed me scars. Monks and nuns who had been kicked out of their monastery gave me their expulsion notices form the local security bureau. I was taken to meet a Buddhist who had been scalded with boiling water and then jailed for five years for publicly praying to the Dalai Lama.”
Pistono felt a moral imperative to relay these firsthand accounts into the hands of Western governments and advocacy groups. Thus, risking his own life, he became an unsuspecting courier, skillfully evading China’s complex security network and, eventually, cyber police, while continuing his spiritual pilgrimage. Later in his journey, Pistono began photographing Chinese secret prisons.
“Photographs of China’s prisons were notoriously difficult for human rights organizations to obtain, as the Chinese government guards them as state secrets. China executes more of its own citizens annually than the rest of the countries in the world combined. And for all the buzz of China’s global rise, torture and abuse are tools used regularly in their judicial system.”
“I retrieved my camera like a slow-motion gunslinger. Adrenaline pulsed as I fired off shots. I crawled backward from the ledge. Quickly taking the memory card out of my digital camera as I walked, I placed the electronic images inside the amulet I wore on my chest.”
Imagine being abused, tortured, and imprisoned for holding up a photo of the Dalai Lama and encouraging others to practice for his long life. Religious repression is the true story of modern-day Tibet, where thousands of Tibetan’s languish in Chinese prisons across the country for simply practicing their faith.
In the Shadows of the Buddha elegantly interweaves three distinct but interconnected stories in the form of short vignettes:
-Pistono’s undercover human rights activities within Tibet and his close encounters with Chinese security forces.
-The life history of the great mystic and political advisor to the XIII Dalai Lama, Tertön Sogyal.
-Pistono’s own spiritual odyssey and understanding of meditation in the most profound sense of the word.
China would like us to forget about Tibet. And, in fact, it’s disappeared from recent world maps. But I say no to China. Please, join me in remembering Tibet and the untold suffering of the Tibetan people. For more information, visit:
The International Campaign for Tibet www.savetibet.org
The Bridge Fund www.bridgefund.org
Matteo Pistono’s Blog www.matteopistono.com
IN THE SHADOW OF THE BUDDHA: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet (Dutton; January 20, 2011) is Pistono’s story, told in his own words, for the first time. Part undercover reporting, part spiritual biography, this book takes readers deep into the heart of Tibet: how Tibetans live today, their rich spiritual past, the tenacity of their faith, and firsthand accounts of repression and abuse by Chinese authorities, smuggled out by one dedicated man.
Disillusioned by a career in American politics, Pistono originally fled to the Himalaya in hopes of more peaceful and meaningful way of life. On spiritual pilgrimage, he intended to follow in the footsteps of one of Tibet’s greatest mystics of the 20th century, Terton Sogyal. But as he visited every notable site of the mystic’s life, he continually met monks, nomads and everyday Tibetans who shared with him their struggles and strife under an abusive and oppressive Chinese reign. Pistono’s travels soon took dramatic new shape.
There were many things that I loved about this book, Matteo’s honesty, the wisdom of the masters he met in his journeys, the mix of history, personal stories, politics and snippets of Tibetan’s lives. But what I liked most of all was how Matteo interwove these strands in a way that really gave me a glimpse of Tibet, its people, their spirituality and culture as it is now and was in the past.
The story jumps backwards and forwards in time and from Matteo’s story to Terton Sogyal’s but if it is disorientating (I didn’t find it so, but others might), it is in the best way. It reminds us that past actions cause the present, that the present is the result of the past, and that our inner and outer experience is inextricably linked.
I didn’t know Tibet’s political history of the early 1900s and the details are fascinating. Terton Sogyal’s role could be called ‘tantric damage control’. The Nachung Oracle and masters of the time warned Tibet’s then political leaders of the results should they not live in harmony, but through self interest they ignored the advice. The Lamas of the present see within this history the causes for the Chinese takeover in the late 1950s. This is karma on a national scale, and in the light of this view, as the Dalai Lama so clearly understands, the right action is to create the positive causes now for a peaceful resolution in the future. It’s a pity the Chinese Government doesn’t understand this point.
Matteo Pistono is a writer, photographer, political activist and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. He lived and traveled throughout the Himalayas for a decade, bringing to the West first-hand accounts and photos of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet. He is the founder of Nekorpa (www.nekorpa.org), a foundation working to protect sacred pilgrimage sites around the world. Pistono and his wife, Monica, divide their time between Colorado, Washington D.C., and Asia.
By CHRISTINE PETERSON
Sunday, February 6, 2011
The first message he brought from the Dalai Lama was one of concern.
The Dalai Lama’s teacher, Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok, was sick in Tibet and needed better medical care. Phuntsok should go, leave Tibet and be treated.
It wasn’t a Tibetan monk that carried this information, but Matteo Pistono, a Wyoming native, born in Cody and raised in Lander.
Pistono passed the Dalai Lama’s message to Phuntsok and tried without success to help him reach a Western hospital. This would be the first of many stories the Wyoming man carried with him out of Tibet.
Pistono wrote about this journey and many others in his first book, “In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet,” which documents not only his Buddhist pilgrimage through Tibet, but also the plight of Tibetans still yearning to practice their faith in a region torn by inequalities and dominated by China.
He will tell some of those stories, along with details of Tibetan pilgrimages, at Casper College’s Humanities Festival on Feb. 25.
Through Pistono and other speakers, the festival will address both motivation and traditions of pilgrimage, exploring people’s urges to travel on both religious and secular journeys across civilizations.
Pistono will describe several Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas, explaining how the pilgrim’s arduous physical journey through the Himalayans complements his or her own spiritual journey, said Valerie Innella, chairwoman of this year’s Humanities Festival. “One of the interesting things about his talk is not only the discussion about information about Asian Pilgrimage, but also the pilgrim's inner journey,” she said.
Pistono left Wyoming in 1994 frustrated with American politics. The gubernatorial candidate he campaigned for lost, and he needed a break.
“I wanted to do what every other Democrat wanted to do. Escape. I wanted to go to Nepal,” he said.
He lived with a Tibetan refugee family while volunteering in a school and discovered Buddhism.
Years later, after graduate school and a stint at the Smithsonian Museum, he moved again to the Himalayas and started regular pilgrimages into Tibet, following the 19th century Tibetan mystic, Tertön Sogyal. As he talked with Tibetan people, another need emerged.
“They began showing me and telling me stories of abuse and injustice and human rights abuse and shortly into my pilgrimage they asked me to spirit their stories out,” he said.
One of the earliest stories told of a local language scholar imprisoned for five years after holding a public gathering with a picture of the Dalai Lama. Both the Dalai Lama and his picture are essentially banned in Tibet by the Chinese, Pistono said.
The monk prayed for a long life for the Dalai Lama. Shortly after, the Chinese arrested him for trying to divide the country. He served his sentence and died about two years later, Pistono said.
Pistono took the documents showing the monk’s arrest and imprisonment and brought them back to the U.S. to tell human rights organizations and American politicians what was happening in Tibet.
He also took photos of Chinese prisons in Tibet holding nuns and monks captive for their religious beliefs.
Once, in a far eastern part of Tibet, a former prisoner told Pistono of a prison disguised as a leather canning shop.
Horrified by the conditions, the man told Pistono to go look at it.
“Of course a Westerner sticks out. I never tried to do things in a cloak and dagger kind of way. I was hiding in plain sight,” he said.
On a hillside above the prison, he saw cells where prisoners were held. Only bars covered the tops, exposing the captives inside to the bitterly cold Tibetan temperatures. Two men sat in a courtyard, their hands cuffed to their ankles, chained to the wall.
They were monks who had refused to denounce the Dalai Lama, Pistono said.
Pistono used a powerful lens to shoot inside the prison.
“When I would do these things, adrenaline was rushing. It gives you clarity to make the right decisions,” he said.
He removed the memory card and stashed it away in a place it wouldn’t be found. Those pictures he smuggled out of China, back to the U.S. to show Wyoming’s political leaders, speaking often with late Sen. Craig Thomas.
When U.S. congressional delegations went to India to meet the Dalai Lama, Pistono often went as council. He helped other Americans prepare for a powerful presence.
“It’s the kind of presence that can make your mind go blank,” he said.
But the Dalai Lama isn’t interested in admirers. He speaks quickly and calmly to help remind people of the human rights issue at hand.
Now, more than 10 years after Pistono started reporting on the Tibetan people, and more than 10 years after he started his pilgrimage around the mountains of Tibet, he is back in the U.S. with his book.
He knew when he decided to publish his stories the Chinese government may never allow him to return.
“But the stories are in the book, and the yearning of the Tibetan people … were important enough to tell even though it might mean I won’t be able to go back to Tibet,” he said.
He also started a foundation, Nekorpa, the Tibetan word for pilgrim, dedicated to preserving pilgrimage sites around the world.
Pistono and his wife now live in Northern Colorado, but may one day return to Wyoming as he continues to work for his community and fight for social justice.
In the Shadow of the Buddha is a book about religious freedom, transmitted from a prism that refracts a quartet of incisively written points of view. What’s really remarkable about Matteo Pistono’s book is that he wears his various narrative hats with equal authority. The end result is one of seemingly incongruous components interlocking to create a multi-textural experience seldom offered to readers.
Pistono, the spy: During the last decade, the author has made numerous trips to Tibet to surreptitiously photograph evidence of Chinese oppression inside Tibet and to smuggle out written documents that have become essential data to international human rights organizations, as well as to the US State Department. His fearless information gathering has contributed greatly to a deeper understanding of Tibet, normally off-limits to Western reporters
Pistono, the Tibetan historian: By weaving in the biography of the 19th century Tibetan mystic Terton Sogyal, the author brings a deeper understanding of the importance of spiritual lineage in Tibetan culture – both from religious and political standpoints. Terton Sogyal’s recorded lineage began with Padmasambhava – the adept who brought Buddhism to Tibet twelve centuries years ago – gained renewed importance during the politically pivotal era of the XIII Dalai Lama, and remains extremely relevant to the XIV Dalai Lama, as well as to Terton Sogyal’s present-day incarnation Sogyal Rinpoche, (author of the best-seller Tibetan Book of Living and Dying).
Pistono, the travel writer: Having personally tackled the terrain of Kham, Golok and south-central Tibet, I can attest to the author’s keen eye when describing the topographical contours (as well as the visceral experience) of the vast untamed countryside – this, in spite of the ever-greater encroachment of Chinese colonization. In this genre, Pistono can hold his head high with the likes of George Patterson, Robert Barnett, Fosco Maraini and Charles Bell.
Pistono, the spiritual seeker: Over the years, the author has had access to many of today’s most highly recognized Buddhist teachers. His Buddhist practice comes with physically and mentally challenging retreats in remote Himalayan caves as well as personal empowerments granted to him by leading lamas. One of the great challenges for the author, an ardent human rights activist, has been the fundamental question many Westerner in search of enlightenment can relate to: How does one reconcile the non-attachment teachings of Buddhism with the anger that often arises within one, when confronted with China’s relentless and sometime violent suppression of Tibetan faith?
As Pistono writes toward the end of the book: “As I have heard Sogyal Rinpoche say many times, “the next life or the next breath, which will come first is uncertain.” Even our teacher’s bodies pass away – the Buddha, Terton Sogyal, the XIII Dalai Lama…
…There was no more sadness, no more spiritual yearning or political agenda. Sitting in the rain among the rock and rubble, there was no anticipation. I was not trying to accomplish anything. I was not encumbered by hope or immersed in fear. I released trying to accomplish, to win, or to overcome. And, the worry of losing, or being defeated, or getting caught by the Chinese, evaporated. In the absence of hope and fear, I felt the blessing of my teachers descend with the falling rain.”
In the end, In the Shadow of the Buddha is the story of a man committed to sacred pilgrimages – whether those treks take him to remote caves above the Tibetan Plain, or simply (and far more profoundly) within himself.
For almost ten years, Pistono travelled Tibet with the purpose of spiritual retreat and study. Before long he found himself documenting and smuggling evidence of human rights abuses out of China then sharing what he learned with anyone who would listen. His often poignant accounts of the horrors regularly visited on the Tibetan people are appropriately juxtaposed with his pilgrimages during which he further explored his commitment to the bodhisattva vow and his quest to learn the phurba ceremony.
Less a diatribe and more a reflective appeal to action, In the Shadow of the Buddha is recommended reading for students of Asian spiritual history, Buddhist practitioners, human rights activists…well, everyone, really. From Dutton Books and available from your local, independent bookseller. (Shop local, shop independent, and tell ‘em you saw it on Elephant Journal!)
NOTE: Matteo Pistono will be at the Boulder Book Store on Thursday, February 10 to speak about and sign In the Shadow of the Buddha.
-Todd Mayville (Feb 6, 2011)
Tertön Sogyal was a teacher of the XIII Dalai Lama at the turn of the twentieth century. Over the course of his life, he faced growing Chinese opposition to Tibetan Buddhism and strove to protect its roots in Tibet. Now, in a new millennium, Tibetans continue to face similar and in ways more extreme oppression. While Pistono was on his own spiritual journey across Tibet — and really, across the world — he learned of egregious abuses endured by Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns. Soon Pistono was providing information to the outside world about China’s human rights violations, smuggling documents and photos out of the country by sewing them into boots and backpacks in order to share them with international news organizations and the U.S. government. The Chinese government works to suffocate this kind of speech, but Pistono’s stories have escaped the plateau and have the potential to truly educate outsiders on the reality of the circumstances in which Tibetans live.
Pistono writes with the calm openness one would expect from a Buddhist. He deftly paints expansive scenes without forsaking details and crafts an overarching narrative that is intuitive without being simple. The tales of Tertön Sogyal’s journey move in parallel with Pistono’s personal adventures, overlapping enough to alert the reader to the importance of the congruences without disrespecting the original master’s saga.
I learned more about Buddhist history and practice from this book than I expected, and that was a pleasant surprise. Beyond the gripping narrative, “In the Shadow of the Buddha” offers education to those of us who are ill-acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism. It is an opportunity to learn more about a people whose voices are stifled against their will. And what better person to speak for them than Matteo Pistono, a man who has not only lived among them but struggled for them as well?
Pistono weaves into the narrative of his own quest the story of Terton Sogyal, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century mystic, teacher, and political confidant of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. One of the author’s most influential teachers was a reincarnation of Terton Sogyal, Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok, whom the Chinese allowed for a time to live and practice in a remote encampment. Pistono sought to master phurba, a “sublime practice of liberating anger upon arising,” meant to vanquish the ego, source of greed and anger. Since Terton Sogyal had been a phurba master, Khenpo advised Pistono to visit four sites where he would find what he needed to know about the terton, and how to wield the phurba for his own and others’ benefit. Through the years it took to visit these sites, Pistono also received and smuggled out evidence of Chinese brutality, imprisonment, and torture of Tibetan monks, nuns, and citizens who expressed devotion to the Dalai Lama.
At first I found the book’s sections interesting but fractured, with many cuts between times and places, but before long the interwoven narratives of Terton Sogyal’s life and work and Pistono’s journeys flowed smoothly. Those unfamiliar with more than a few facts about Tibetan spirituality and the great lamas may find this hard going. The author serves up the complicated parts in bite-sized pieces, and the glossary and dramatis personae help.
Pistono navigated the political dangers of Chinese Tibet to follow the terton’s footsteps, meditate, and learn the phurba. The journey led to frustration with governments that do little to enforce humane treatment in Tibet. Offending China is bad for world trade, so few are willing to take effective action while Tibetans are brutalized and ancient, sacred places are torn down, replaced with cement structures.
At the heart of the book lies the conviction that the way to peace and justice is through spirituality that puts others’ welfare first. As long as one being remains unenlightened and victimized, no enlightened soul will enter Nirvana, including the Buddha. Simply put, that’s why he continues to reincarnate. In a world where individuals, governments, and nations put their own interests first and turn their backs on the helpless because of political and economic agendas, the message is timely.
In the Shadow of the Buddha is an always interesting and sometimes challenging memoir, historical nonfiction, and adventure story. Agreeing with Buddhist faith and practice is not a prerequisite for responding to the intensity of Pistono’s quest for personal and universal harmony and peace. His call is simple – do what’s right. He acknowledges, as we all must, that doing what’s right isn’t easy, just necessary."
"In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet", by Matteo Pistono. This is the remarkable and engaging story of a man who first went to Tibet to study Buddhist ways and who became, eventually, a political activist who, as a journalist, seeks to tell the world of the pain and suffering the Tibetan people have suffered -- and continue to suffer -- at the hands of their Chinese overlords. This is a story not just of the Tibetan people and their oppressors but also of Buddhist leaders, such as the exiled Dalai Lama, who have worked on the international stage to tell the story of Tibet and to bring changes to and for their people. As a good companion book, I also recommend "Surviving the Dragon", by Arjia Rinpoche, which I wrote about last year here after meeting Rinpoche in Indiana.