Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Right to Beg

Above: a begging bowl, a shaman's mask, and a shell horn.

Below: an old Tibetan coin, pre-Chinese

Begging seemed to be a significant means of support for many in Lhasa. It supported prayerful pilgrims and supplemented the income of several of the vendors we encountered. As we walked slowly through the maze of unpaved streets and vending tables, people motioned in earnest to their mouths and put their hands out to us. When we walked by them not making a contribution, they followed us for blocks tugging at our sleeves. Some people begged with only half-hearted interest. They extended their up-turned palms as we passed but didn't bother to try to make eye contact with us or even to discontinue their conversations with their friends. Other people plunked themselves down in the middle of the street with begging bowls, obstructing the flow of pedestrian traffic. There were a few beggars whose families had dragged their crippled bodies into the dirt road and left them there, unable to sit upright, with a begging bowl somewhere nearby. Even seemingly happy, healthy, rosy-cheeked children would stop playing to come and ask us for money. One little boy, about 5 years old, ran up to me and extended his six-fingered hand. He seemed awfully pleased with his money-earning deformity, so I shook his hand and congratulated him. He gleefully ran back to his friends to play again.

At lunch we stopped in a local restaurant and pointed to the food we wanted. A steady flow of beggars came to the door and looked mournfully at us while we ate. Some of them were even bold enough to come in and hover over our table. Every now and again, the restaurant owner would shoo them away. Sometimes, he would hand them a coin or two so they wouldn't return.

After we finished eating, I saw a man take a bowl from a different restaurant to beg for the scraps from our table. The restaurant owner swiftly dumped our leftovers into his bowl before he was scooted out the door again.

Certainly poverty was a huge factor in this scene, but that was not all that was going on here. Here seemed to be a culture that was very tolerant of begging. Most monks of course, carry begging bowls and donations are their primary means of support. I had seen beggars all over the world, but I had never seen begging like this before. I had seen women with children lying in the gutters begging in Thailand. In the US and Europe, I usually saw some combination of the mentally ill and the addicted begging. The worst dispair I have ever seen in the eyes of a beggar was in Japan where the contrast between those who have and have not was the greatest and the tolerance for begging the least. But here, where there were more beggars than anywhere I have ever been in my life, the beggars didn't seem to be overwhelmed with dispair and frustration or contempt for their oppressors. More often than not, they had smiles on their faces. To me it seems to be, at least in part, one's attitude that dictates the depth of suffering.
I know that you are wondering if I gave them money. I did not. I have contributed to Tibetan fundraising on many occaisions, but my travel experiences taught me that giving a hand out publicly can create a mob scene.
*This is for my friends who may not already know...Tibetans have had a difficult path to follow in recent times. Their freedom of religion was nearly destroyed from 1959 to 1979. According to the Dalai Lama, 6,000 monasteries were razed leaving only a few dozen. Without the monasteries, there was minimal education, lost culture, severe poverty and oppression. The land has few natural resources and the traditional farming was destroyed when the Chinese kept people from planting as they always had in the past.
Also, you should note that I am telling a story that happened many years ago, everything changes with time and Lhasa now may not be the Lhasa that I saw. (Go back to see the beginning of the story.)


  1. The culture of begging is very interesting. I have not traveled enough to third world countries to see what you are talking about, but we have all heard the stories of Americans with signs "Will Work for Food", but when offered a job, they turn it down. It is hard to know when to give in to begging. There is a mall parking lot in Reno that always has young people asking for money. I have given several times (always to girls). But while waiting in the car for my husband the other night, I noticed a group that seemed to be organized. I don't think I will give again in this location.

  2. Begging is an extremely tough topic. The world is full of real and urgent need. But handouts can cause serious even dangerous problems. I will write about this again when I am discussing Nepal. I most often contribute either when I am not asked but see a need, or through an organized effort.