Thursday, March 3, 2011
Dear Sonam Tshering,
Though this letter is addressed to you, I’m certain that you will need someone to translate the contents. And I hope someone does translate what I’ve to say, not that its gonna bring a change of fortune to your current predicament but hopefully, a little window to let you know that there are people who care about your situation: people who are genuinely concerned.
I have been following your story since it first broke in the dailies. The reason I’ve been following it has nothing to do with you per se, but as with all things in life, your name invariably became synonymous with the tobacco act. There were all kinds of arguments put forth. Some of the arguments were simple, “what was a monk doing with tobacco?” was one of the samples. I didn’t see a monk- I saw a young man who was plain unlucky and unfortunate, or perhaps that was what Karma had in store for you. Now that is a subject for another time, another day. Today I want to write to you to tell you that I heard the news, the verdict that sentences you to three years in prison. My first reaction was one of ‘shock’ followed by ‘sadness’ – now I’m thinking perhaps it is good. Good for the fact that you will, and I’m certain that you will do that – turn your imprisonment into a three-year meditation retreat. Meditate, read the scriptures, sing the mantras and forgive all of us that contributed in some way, shape or form in putting you there.
You are being imprisoned for our projected sense of self-righteousness. It started a couple of years back in Bumthang, where some elders of the villages, in their religious zeal, driven or misguided, suggested banning smoking, as Bumthang, they said, was a sacred place. It sounds right as all lofty suggestions do when first heard. So it was with the officials that brought back that suggestion to Thimphu and in time, managed to ban the ‘sale’ of tobacco in the country. That was a couple of years ago. Time went by and nothing changed. People still smoked and chewed and sniffed tobacco. Like you, a lot of people were also caught, bringing in tobacco from available ‘sources’ – while some were caught, most managed to sneak in the bad-goods. Whether they were for self-consumption or to make a quick buck I don’t know. What I know is that honest folks forced to make a meager living became criminals; those indulging in the habit felt guilty. But human desires are hard to ban, so the practice continued.
Then as suddenly, they decided to revamp the ban on sales and a few months back, our representatives got their heads together and decided that the sale ban was not enough – that it had to be taken to the next level. Hence the birth of the ‘act’ that gives the government legitimate powers to arrest and imprison people if they are selling or consuming tobacco products without proper purchase ‘receipts’. You had, in their enacted law, broken a sacrosanct rule that has consequences, which was meted out to you today. You are the first convicted tobacco felon and the time you will serve in prison is supposed to be a warning to the rest of us, whether we are sophisticated or not.
In due course, you’ll see far more Sonams like yourself, and far less of the educated and privileged lot, coming to the gallows. You will probably find inmates smoking, chewing, sniffing tobacco long with other contraband. You will probably feel confused, lost and demoralized. That might be your first reaction. You will probably become cynical and feel victimized. All of that is justified. But as the days roll by and you become one with the prison cell, the bunk and the yard, believe me, you will probably smile, perhaps even laugh, at the stupidity of it all. This is where you will see what fools the clever naked emperors really are. You will probably feel disgust at first, and then gradual piety – at their ignorance rather than the one they claimed you could not hide or seek leniency under.
Imprisonment is a funny word. It sounds like you are jailed, which you are, but really, you are a human being first, born naked and free and then a monk. Experiences are what makes us and takes us to shape us to what we eventually become. The Buddha did not gain enlightenment in one day. Your so called imprisonment is an embarrassment to us all. The reason why I say imprisonment and jailed are funny words is because you will probably find more freedom and liberation within those so called walls of confinement than you ever realized. I’d humbly urge you to see this as an opportunity to immerse yourself in the practice of the Dharma. See it as a retreat and live it in the newness of now. Everything is here. Forget the law. Forget the imprisonment. Forget the judge. Forget the jury. Forget the act. Forget the baba.
Just dissolve yourself in the practice of the dharma and when you do come out of your tsam, forgive us all. But do enjoy yourself in the process – have a hearty laugh and know this is how we re-create samsara upon samsara in our ironic twist to get closer to what we perceive to be our righteous paradise and the transformation of sinners into god’s own children. This tobacco act is nothing but just that – an act, for what you will do in that jail can be far more powerful. You will live and know how fragile human cleverness really is, no matter how ingeniously they wrap it and drape it with.
I wish you a “Happy Retreat” and Hope That You’ll Keep the Faith.