I visited Tibet in spring 1986 when it first opened to foreign tourism. The first afternoon there I met a young Tibetan woman who spoke some English and the second day I was invited to tea and met her mother in their home in an old monastery hidden from the main street, in the center of town. I was Chinese American from San Francisco and my family had been in the States for three generations, so it was my first trip to Asia, and I was supposed to be spending the year in China. But my new friend and her mother invited me to live with them at the end of our long tea and I spent the summer in Central Tibet. After returning to China, and also spending more time in other parts of Tibet, I decided I was much more interested in Tibet than in China.
I traveled up the Silk Road, crossed overland into Pakistan, and swung into India to visit Dharamsala, the Tibetan community in exile in the Indian Himalayas, where I ended up living for a few months. This is where I sat in the Central Library and read for long hours every day about Tibetan culture and history. Interest in the modern political history led me to read the views of the Dalai Lama, the political leader, who was also the spiritual head of the country. His views were completely underpinned by his Buddhist beliefs and so humane and inclusive that I began to become curious about his philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. This led to my study and practice of Buddhism as well as involvement with the Tibetan community, especially the nuns. (I worked at the first international conference on Buddhist nuns in Bodh Gaya, India, in February 1987, and later back in the U.S. I raised funds for Tibetan nuns in exile for many years, for what became the Tibetan Nuns Project). Upon return from my trip I worked as an activist for Tibet.
In the summer of 1989 I wrote an opinion editorial about Tiananmen Square which got published widely, linking human rights violations in that event with human rights violations in Tibet. This led to an invitation for me to speak at a Congressional hearing on the topic, where I spoke before Congressman Tom Lantos and the new member of Congress at the time, Nancy Pelosi, and others.
After the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 1989 I returned to Dharamasala, to work and live. That is where I became inspired to begin the oral history project of Tibetan women which eventually produced "Sky Train: Tibetan Women On the Edge of History" some nineteen years later. In early 2007 I went back on the new, controversial rail line from Beijing to Tibet when the train had only been in operation a short while and spent Losar, Tibetan New Year, with my Tibetan family. I then traveled over the Himalayas looking for the three women portrayed in my book (one of the four had already passed away) whom I had interviewed fifteen years before. This allowed me to follow the trajectory of their lives, and the trajectory of the Tibetan diaspora through their lives, and to compare Tibet twenty years ago and now, and China, then and now. With the original interviews and the later interviews written as stories I portray the history of Tibet through the lives of women over fifty years of the occupation of Tibet. Through the narrative framework of the recent trip I also trace my own personal responses to the changes in Tibet and come to grips with those changes, in part through the lessons which I have gained from my Buddhist practice.
View my trailer about the making of Sky Train: http://www.canyosam.com/skytrain_trailer1.html
View a short television interview taped Oct 1, 2009:
- Tibetan Women on the Edge of History
- By: Canyon Sam
- Narrated by: Donna Postel
- Length: 10 hrs and 5 mins
Through a lyrical narrative of her journey to Tibet in 2007, activist Canyon Sam contemplates modern history from the perspective of Tibetan women....
- By Kimberly on 08-25-13
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