In a nutshell
The idea of writing this book came about when Sun Shuyun was asked to direct a documentary series about a year in the life of ordinary Tibetans. So, the author and her crew spent a year in a remote town in the Tibetan mountain area and followed a shaman, a village doctor, a junior Party official, a hotel manager, a rickshaw driver, a builder and two monks through their ups and downs.
What I liked
I liked the lessons I learnt from the Tibetans – from their lives, their thoughts and perceptions. Despite oppression and their struggles of trying to live between continuity and modernization, they embrace challenges with grace and kindness. They are the kind of people who are able to give generously and expect nothing in return. They are such forgiving souls and seem to live like their surroundings – calm and peaceful. One thing’s for sure, the Tibetans are god-fearing people.
If I recall correctly, they recite their mantras a few hundred times per day. They believe god exists everywhere – trees, flowers, crops, animals, house (present in the 4 corners of the roof), storage god in the cupboards – well, you name it, there’s a god for it; even one over your shoulder and one under your armpit! These beliefs seemed to stem from the story of how Buddhism came to Tibet. There was a fight between demons and god, and victory went to Padmasambhava (Padam), a great Indian master who ‘fought off’ the assailant purely by meditation.
I was also shocked to learn that in Tibet, it is common for brothers to share a wife! This tradition started when the land was given back to farmers in the economic reform in the 1980s. In this story, all 3 brothers share a wife in the same household (because with polyandry, the land is not divided among the brothers). So who decides to sleep with who and when? Dondan, the middle brother said that such problem doesn’t exist. “You just need to use your head,” he said.
The Tibetans rely on a shaman for almost everything, even matchmaking. Upon the shaman’s approval, a wedding will be arranged, which will also be determined by the shaman. The girl will only be told a day before her wedding that she’s getting married to a man she doesn’t even know.
Sky burial is a common funerary practice in Tibet. The dead body is being fed to the vultures. When only the bones remained, they are then cut into pieces and given to crows after the vultures have departed. As cruel as this may sound, it’s natural for the Tibetans to do so because “Giving is in Tibetans’ nature, in life or in death. The vulture only eats dead things. We cannot let it go hungry while we bury or cremate our dead. That would be cruel.”
There were also many beautiful pictures in the middle of the book that served as a great visual aid. You’d be able to see almost all the characters portrayed in this book, and the colourful festivals celebrated by the Tibetans.
A Year in Tibet is definitely an eye opener for me. I’ve never been so intrigued by the Tibetans and their culture until today. In case you’d like to know, this story is not based on the documentary directed by Sun, but it is more of her personal experience and observations during her 1 year stay with the Tibetans.
This would be an enlightening read for those who have not been to Tibet and have always been intrigued by the least known people on the planet.
My verdict? 3.5/5