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I was fuming. I had spent the past month clandestinely hitchhiking around Tibet trying to document the persecution of Tibetans by the Chinese government. I had seen the crowded forced labour camps, the resettlement projects changing the ethnic makeup of the country, Tibet’s holiest lake being drained for mining. I had naively thought my efforts would help change their situation, only to learn later that those who had helped me were being investigated for “crimes against the state”.
I didn’t know what to do. I entered a nearby temple, and like any hour of any day, it was busy, the air filled with a haze of incense. I quickly took an empty space off to the side. I didn’t want to be noticed. As an agnostic, it was strange for me to be in a temple at all. I took a deep breath of temple air. I closed my eyes, and asked the large Buddha at the front of the temple two questions: “How do I rid myself of this anger, this hatred? How do Tibetans endure this oppression without turning to violence?” I began to prostrate myself like the others around me, standing first with hands held above my head, bringing them to my eyes and then my chest, and finally crouching down and lying flat on the floor with my hands stretched in front of me. With each prostration I chanted the only Tibetan prayer I knew, the prayer of compassion, resolving to continue until I had answers, even if it meant being there all night.
After about 30 minutes, though, I began to lose my focus and feel self-conscious. I felt I was being watched, and sure enough, when I opened my eyes just a crack, I saw two small children with wide eyes, a boy and a girl, dressed in rags, smiling up at me. I smiled back, and they giggled. Five minutes passed, and they continued to watch.
My legs were getting tired so I took a break for a few seconds. I glanced over at the children. They were still there, still smiling. I smiled back again. Hesitantly, the little boy stretched out his hand. In his dirt-encrusted palm were two small, bright candies. I stared at him, wondering what he wanted me to do. He reached farther and gently placed them in my hand, so delicately it was as though they were precious jewels entrusted to me for safekeeping. Then both children jumped up, smiled again, and ran off into the crowd of worshippers.
I stood up and walked in the direction they had run. I saw them, just outside the temple. They sat beside a woman I assumed was their mother. She looked too ill to stand, and was begging passers-by for money. The two ragged children were eating someone’s discarded lunch. They were still laughing and giggling together. I suddenly realized I had found the answer to my questions.