“In that moment I literally let go of my life. I was sure that that was the end of my life. There was not a part of me that didn’t think I was going to die in that moment.”
Lifelong human rights activist, writer, and Buddhist practitioner Kiri Westby spoke to us about how her Buddhist practice helped her through imprisonment in China and the role of Buddhism in her humanitarian mission. Hear how her Buddhist upbringing led to her making international headlines as an imprisoned activist in China protesting human rights abuses in Tibet.
Kiri Westby Bio
Kiri Westby is a lifelong human rights activist, writer, and Buddhist practitioner. Kiri started working professionally in human rights advocacy at age twenty-two, transporting money and information across borders for a global feminist network. At age twenty-nine, Kiri was arrested and disappeared by the Chinese government, making international headlines for reminding the world—in front of Olympic cameras—of the ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet.
I spoke with Kiri from her home in Boulder, Colorado where Kiri shared stories from her latest book, Fortune Favors the Brave, including the harrowing story of the detention and abuse she suffered while protesting in China.
Scott Snibbe: So Kiri, it’s a pleasure having you on A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment, and I’m excited to talk to you about the stories and the ideas that you write about in your book, Fortune Favors the Brave.
[00:01:25] Kiri Westby: Thanks for having me on, I’m thrilled to be here.
[00:01:28] Scott Snibbe: I want to just start out just talking about your upbringing. You grew up in a Buddhist community in Boulder. Could you tell us a little bit about your upbringing and what made it unusual by American standards?
Growing up a Buddhist in the US
[00:01:41] Kiri Westby: My parents were hippies, part of the hippie movement and they had made their way to India in the early seventies. 1970, I believe was their first trip there. Reading Autobiography of a Yogi, getting into the Eastern spirituality that was being offered at the time as Tibet was being occupied and Tibetan government in exile was up and coming and starting to teach and all of it.
So they ended up in Boulder originally just to join friends they’d known from India. But when they got there, they heard about a Tibetan refugee meditation master who was teaching in small groups in someone’s backyard. My brother was an infant at the time and he’s two years older than me.
So I was born into a small burgeoning spiritual community led by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was a Lama and a head of a monastery in Eastern Tibet. I grew up in that world. I went to private Tibetan schools until about third grade. I was 10 when Chogyam Trungpa passed away.
He would spend a lot of time with us in summer schools and summer camps and coming to preschools and hanging out. So I have a lot of childhood memories of hanging out with him, as well as other Tibetan Lamas and teachers who came, like Khyentse Rinpoche. And so it seemed natural for me to take refuge vows at age 11 when they were being offered by Trangu Rinpoche, who was in town at the time.
And it wasn’t until around the age 12 or 13 that I entered into mainstream schools and left a very small Buddhist community for a more Judeo-Christian culture, American culture. I write about that a bit in my book, how my upbringing was unique in that sense where we were taught to meditate as children, we were taught to practice the dharmic arts, calligraphy, and ikebana, flower arranging, kyudo, which is mindful archery, oryoki, which is like mindful eating.
So I was raised in a kind of mindful container for children in which I don’t think there was a huge distinction really between the spiritual and the mundane life. Everything was woven together in our small community, there weren’t that many of us.
The path that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche began to teach, the sort of path of warriorship, a path of working with violence in a certain way. He taught to children in a very specific way at summer camps, using games and military drills, and simulated conflict to teach us how to work with conflict in the moment, as it arises, work with intense amounts of aggression. We were reconstructing war, nationalism and working with these huge concepts as children.
I came out of that world and all that it entailed and went off to university in Los Angeles, pretty naive and sheltered in a certain way. And my book is about me taking who I was and trying to apply it to the modern world. Trying to take the Buddhist concepts of my childhood and apply them in different contexts as I grew up and went to college and began working in mainstream human rights organizations.
Understanding karma, rebirth, and other realms
[00:04:47] Scott Snibbe: A lot of people come to Buddhism later in life especially in the West. So you’re a bit unique having grown up with it. I’m wondering how you feel about the more scientifically unverifiable aspects of Buddhism, like karma and rebirth and other realms?
We talk about ways of approaching Buddhism without those things a lot in the podcast, for people who come to this path as adults and from a secular perspective, but are these things you’re very comfortable with having been raised with them? Or do you feel skeptical about any of these less verifiable aspects of the Buddhist view?
[00:05:21] Kiri Westby: I’m probably more indoctrinated in a certain way to them. I think concepts of karma and merit are just built into who I am as a person. And I think deep belief in this being one of many lifetimes as how I operate from that place. I think I have operated from that place.
And it has led me to be a little bit unique in how I see life and the point of life like building merit for my next lifetime is important to me in this lifetime. And I think the point of life is to have maybe the most people at your funeral eulogizing you and saying that you’ll be missed.
In that sense, I think certain people who may be monetarily wealthy are spiritually poor. So I don’t know, I think there’s certain ways that I approach life that come out of a deep sort of foundation of Buddhist teachings that I don’t know that I could separate myself from, having been raised that way.
But I’m very interested in neuroplasticity and how meditation affects the brain and how we can start to quantify some of the things I’ve felt viscerally in my body when I meditate, on paper, for those that are more in the sort of scientific approach to spirituality.
[00:06:31] Scott Snibbe: Maybe in 200 years, science will prove past and future lives and karma and things like that. But for today, for people that don’t believe in those things, adults that you meet, are there any ways that you talk to people about these things in ways that they can understand them, that make sense to everyday life.
[00:06:47] Kiri Westby: I don’t think I talk to enough non-Buddhists in my life. That might be one of my downsides is that I have quite a big sangha and my parents are Buddhists, currently in Boulder, Colorado, and I don’t think it’s so helpful necessarily to talk about the videos or the proof of high Lamas recognizing things from their past or whatnot. Although it has an effect on me, I’m not sure to a secular person that’s proof of anything, necessarily. I think it’s more like showing people in their lives, looking at ways in which what we might call coincidence or serendipity or karmic connections show up.
It’s like people that they’re instantly drawn to and develop an easy relationship to and things that easily trigger them. Just talking about that. Like, where does that come from? That’s not an experience in this current life, but you have an aversion to dogs, yet you’ve never had a bad experience with dogs or an aversion to something else, whatever it be.
And so maybe talking about it that way and that what we cannot quantify kind of way.
[00:07:48] Scott Snibbe: That’s actually one of the things I often talk about when people ask me about karma is one of the things that I feel most mysterious about is the very strong reactions you have to strangers or to people when you meet them that don’t necessarily make any sense. Like I hate that guy or I really want to hang out with that person.
[00:08:04] Kiri Westby: Yes. And I think in my life it’s shown up even as like, why did I, at 22, I had the choice to study abroad anywhere in the world. And for me, I really needed to go to Nepal. I felt so drawn to Nepal, which drew me to Tibet, spending time in Tibet and then being in Tibet and feeling a sense of familiarity to the land, to the people, to the language, to the food that I couldn’t explain from this lifetime.
[00:08:30] Scott Snibbe: I think we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about travel and maybe the first trip you talk about in your book will be worth talking about when you went to Costa Rica as a kid, this first time you were abroad without your family. And this seemed like a very timely story when I read about it, because it’s about privilege, the privilege that you realized rather somewhat far into that experience.
Can you share that story and how it changed you and how it’s relevant today?
Privelege and forgiveness
[00:08:57] Kiri Westby: Sure. I was about 11 years old and I was given the opportunity to raise funds and go visit a sister school in a small village in Costa Rica and bring school supplies and do a couple of weeks of a home stay and connect with kids my age that spoke a different language and lived a completely different culture.
There was a lot that I discovered in that: being away from my parents, being free on my own in the world for the first time to make my own choices without somebody telling me how I should be behaving. And the freedom I felt in the Costa Rican friends that I made, one girl named Maria in particular, to be able to just run barefoot through jungles unaccounted for and climb trees, eat ripe mangoes off trees and what I envied in her life that she got to live.
And then that mirrored back in her envy of my nice clothing and jewelry and cool shoes and all the things that I came with as an American girl. The story I tell in the book is that at the end of our stay there, as I’m packing up, I realized that this silver bracelet that Maria had really admired is missing.
And it leads to this very dramatic event in the village where everyone in the village is looking for this silver bracelet. And then Maria’s brother finds it, hidden in her room, under a mattress. And then that becomes this big public spectacle where she’s being punished and being called out publicly in front of the whole village.
And everybody’s wanting to know, and the kind of leader of the village says, you know, we’re going to let Christina, my name in Spanish, decide what should be done. And just having the responsibility, even though I’m someone who’s felt wronged in this situation or stolen from and the discomfort I feel that my friend, I have to somehow punish her.
And then this reflection I have of all the times I’ve coveted something nice from somebody at home; times I’ve even stolen something from somebody else because I wanted it so much and not been caught or had any kind of consequences. And now I’m in this situation and I end up sort of meeting myself in this moment.
First sort of taste of what forgiveness might feel like when somebody has done something that technically is against you. And we ended up hugging, crying and realizing that she is me. Like we are exactly two sides of the same coin, despite the fact that we grew up in different worlds with different languages.
So the end of that is the first moment that I have in which I can feel what forgiveness is, how lightening it is to feel harmed by somebody and then to forgive them, because you actually can see yourself in them, which eventually is the ultimate lesson in the end of my book.
The power of privilege
[00:11:35] Scott Snibbe: What were the elements of privilege that came through in that story either then or later as you reflected on it?
[00:11:42] Kiri Westby: That experience and others, when I’m a child in Mexico in parts of the book, was just recognizing how much I have at my fingertips. Even as a female, how many options I have versus females born in other parts of the world and the freedoms I had to study what I wanted, to be what I wanted, to apply my energy in life in any direction I chose, as an American white female standing at like the top of the heap of the world and wondering what I was going to do with that.
Initially when we recognize our privileges, it comes with a lot of shame or guilt. Where you realize, Oh, my privilege has often come at the expense of others. Literally in our lives here, our privileges to buy cheap goods come at the expense of others to be paid cheaply, to make them.
Throughout my early part of the book, I think I’m waking up to the layers of privileges, the educational privilege I have, the American passport I hold, borders I get to cross without needing a visa, or just the privilege as a white female not to be searched the way that females of color are searched at borders.
And then throughout the book, what I’m trying to get the reader to also understand is that you wake up to your privileges and then you realize, Oh, those privileges give me access to places that others don’t have, and they can be leveraged within a collective movement for change.
[00:13:01] Scott Snibbe: I really liked the way you talk about privilege, because I think there’s a well-intentioned approach to privilege where people just step back and try not to show the privilege or take advantage of it. But there’s a more engaged approach where you recognize your privilege and then try to compassionately and skillfully use it for the greatest benefit you can in the world. I think that is very skillful.
You’ve talked about Nepal, where you went to college. You mentioned that earlier. Could you talk a little bit about how that time in Nepal led you toward international activism?
[00:13:33] Kiri Westby: I started in Nepal as a student, 22 years old. I was really fortunate that the family I was placed with had an older grandmother and then a mother, and then an older sister who had just given birth to a baby girl and then a younger girl who was just starting puberty.
And so I was surrounded by Nepali women. There was only one man in the house really, and I learned so much from these women about sisterhood and even just about ways that they very deftly and gently created change versus my kind of brash American way of saying this isn’t right. And wanting to shout in their way.
It was like, Oh yeah, we changed things this way through a very gentle breeze as we gently push in this direction. So I learned a lot in Nepal there. I did my first independent study, which led me to be working in a shelter for formerly trafficked girls on the border of Nepal and India.
And we were receiving girls as they were either being freed from a brothel and a police raid, or they had escaped. So the first point of contact often was me where some of them had been in cages in a brothel for nine years. That was eye-opening and painful and difficult.
I felt so out of my ability to do anything, to combat that level of pain and suffering, except to just reflect and listen. And I went back to some of the lessons I learned as a child in the mountains about the gift of listening. I spent a lot of time with trees as a child, speaking to trees and listening to trees. And so I just sort of relied on that skill, learning how to work through that much suffering and pain and still find moments of joy.
As I write my book of all of us singing Whitney Houston songs at night, as we’re cleaning the lesions from AIDS from a 10-year-old girl’s legs, but everybody’s laughing and giggling and we have a pillow fight.
And so what I learned in Nepal is that even in the midst of the worst scenario you can conjure up of suffering, there are sparks of luminosity. There are moments of joy. Joy exists everywhere, and it’s a gift. And that sometimes just listening or reflecting something back is all somebody actually is looking for in their pain and suffering.
[00:15:53] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about the nonprofit that you started working with to support women in need around the world?
[00:16:02] Kiri Westby: I’d love to because it’s such a success story. Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights was started by three very brilliant, bright well-meaning women from Canada and America; activists, who just said the way that women’s funding is happening is ridiculous. There are these long six-month waiting periods, funding cycles, these long grant applications that need to be done in English.
And this is as the world’s opening up technologically at the same time; the years 2000 and 2001, when I started working with them. They had developed this radical new type of funding, which would require a very short application. We could get it in any language and have translators on our side.
We could respond in 72 hours with a really active board that was checking their email every day. And we could get money on the ground within a week, that was our goal; sometimes through Western Union, but sometimes in war zones, banks shut down and wire services shut down. So we would get the money to an activist across the border.
Or in some cases I myself would just fly the money into the country. And so that’s what we did at the time, we were building sort of a network, underground network, of feminist activists in areas of armed conflict around the whole globe who could support each other, move money, move information. The International Criminal Court was just starting in the Hague and they were starting to try war criminals.
It was suddenly really important to have documentation, especially of sexual violence done in a way that was submissible in international courts. So there was a lot of work we were doing on training, how to document the violence and then sneaking that information out in secure ways so that it could get to the courts.
Sneaking money in and getting information out was what was most important; and building a network of trust. I met a lot of activists face-to-face and they met me and they knew who to call when things got bad. Often I would go in right when we could tell conflict was about to break out and there was an opportunity to either prevent certain further catastrophe, or even to evacuate certain activists who’ve been specifically targeted. Or it was post-conflict where the bullets had stopped flying and now there was an opportunity to document properly what had happened and to move towards whatever reconciliation or post-war situation was going to occur.
They still exist, Urgent Action Fund. I was their first official employee 20 years ago. And now they have five offices from Oakland to New York to Nairobi, to Bogota, Colombia. They’re now opening in Bangkok and they have grown in this really unique way. Instead of a central Western country based headquarters with branches, they’ve grown as sister funds.
So Urgent Action Fund Africa does its own fundraising. It has its own African-based board that makes its own decisions. It took the money and the decision-making out of the hands of Western women and put that into the hands of Latin American women, South Asian women. Recently unsolicited, Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, called them and offered them $20 million, which they’ve now split among the different sister funds.
So they’re going strong. They must have 50 employees now, and they’re doing incredible work on the ground moving probably faster than any other kind of government agency or any big bureaucracy or large NGO could move.
[00:19:29] Scott Snibbe: We’ll put a link to Urgent Action Fund on the website for this episode, so people can donate.
How did Buddhist practice help your humanitarian work?
[00:19:42] Scott Snibbe: And how did your Buddhist practice inform your work with Urgent Action Fund?
[00:19:48] Kiri Westby: Probably in a lot of ways. One is that I tend to be just a pretty calm human being who doesn’t get super riled up in situations of high stress or chaos. I’m not one to sort of react too strongly. That probably comes from a Buddhist training of non-reaction, sort of taking in all sides.
And, in the field itself, when I was working in different war zones and felt afraid, I would use certain different techniques or just basic meditation in my hotel room in the morning before I got up and left the room to put me in a mental space in which I wasn’t being gripped by that fear. Fear can be so paralyzing to action.
Early teachings on fear and working with fear and feeling fear in your body and then moving it through so that you can act anyway.
Fearlessness is the term that Chogyam Trungpa himself coined—it doesn’t mean to be without fear, it means to move with fear, to work with fear in a different way.
[00:20:46] Scott Snibbe: And that’s the meditation you’re going to lead for us next week, too, on the podcast, right? It’s on fearlessness.
You mentioned a couple of times in your book, moments when you realize that you’re relatively ignorant of the struggles faced by women in the developing world and how you made some well-intentioned, but clueless mistakes. It’s very kind of you to share these stories.
Can you tell us about one of those incidents and how it changed you and your approach to activism work?
[00:21:10] Kiri Westby: Yeah, definitely. I mean, that’s why I wrote the book. If I’m being really honest, I wrote it for my 18-year-old self, for someone who sees themselves in me, raised in the West, raised with all the privileges, education and such. But is sort of maybe ignorant to all of the blind spots that also arise from that background.
And so I thought for a long time about whether I should write the book or not. What’s the point of writing this book? And who was it for, who was the audience? How to write it in a way that actually penetrated the kind of white noise of our world. For me, it was these moments in which I had made a fool of myself and acted out of a lot of ignorance and harmed others in my attempt to help others that felt so poignant and so important for younger people to maybe take in from my experience and have in their arsenal, as they approach doing work in the world.
And those were lessons that were patiently taught to me by women of color on the front lines, in war zones. One of the realities that I know is that the U.S. book industry is 80% white females. And the American entertainment industry loves a hero story. And I was trying to figure out a way to trojan horse those lessons. Like I knew if my mentor in Kenya were to write a book, the chances of her getting a US publishing contract are really slim. And then if she does get a contract, even in the bookstore she would often be in the ethnic studies or African writers in the back of the bookstore.
Those are privileges that I can see because of this work we’ve done. So then the question is how do I leverage the privilege of being a white female writer in a white female industry and trying to reach other well-meaning white females that want to get into this work and pass those lessons along in a way that they can actually be received?
That was my impetus for writing the book, was using the Trungpa, we would call it “manure of my life” and the difficulties that I’ve experienced as the fertilizer from which these insights grew and then also exposing my readers to those insights in a way that they can really receive them.
That was challenging. How do I write about people? Do I use their real names? Does that expose them to either past things they’ve done that may or may not have been legal at the time in terms of activism? Does it expose the reader to want to then Google that person or have an opinion about what else that person said? It was so hard for me to figure out how am I going to encapsulate 10 years of field work and human rights work into a book in a way that my 18-year-old niece, who’s a sorority sister at C.U. can get that information and use it in however she’s going to be in the world.
That was the translation I was trying to make. I think often if you’ve traveled, you’ve been in other cultures and then you come back to your own culture, whether you like it or not, you’re an ambassador or a translator of what you’ve seen. And so it was like, how do I translate all that I’ve experienced in a way that is digestible to the young American psyche that wants to watch Love Island and The Bachelor, and is not interested in sexual violence in the Congo, to be really honest about it.
But yet could be, if it was somehow presented in a way where they could get past the shame and guilt and into this understanding to create real change in the world. So the whole thinking was how to get the publishing contract, how to get into Barnes and Noble and into the front window, not in the back corner. But mainly so the lessons from my mentors could pass through.
And the only way I could think to do that was just to really flay open all of my mistakes and ignorances and moments of embarrassment and not try to pretend like I knew what I was doing so that the wisdom from others could shine through that experience. And maybe it could land amongst my readers who could see themselves in me.
[00:25:19] Scott Snibbe: Let’s talk about the story you tease us with at the beginning of the book, and then finish up later: of your actions at the Everest base camp in advance of the 2008 Olympics in China. What was the goal of that mission and how did it go wrong?
Detained in China
[00:25:32] Kiri Westby: It went very right, actually. So the goal was to get onto everybody’s television screens. I knew leaving the U.S., there was a possibility that we would do that by being arrested. I was hoping that wouldn’t have to happen, that we would do it simply by holding up a banner and doing a creative action.
But honestly, the big story was that we were arrested and disappeared by the Chinese government who then claimed that they didn’t have us, even though we had video, they didn’t know, had been sent through the great Chinese firewall to a computer in New York and was playing on loop on BBC and CNN of us being arrested.
Which then caused an international incident between what the Chinese government said and what people could actually see, which is very rare in China to get actual footage and to get it out of the firewall. The goal of the action, to go back a bit, was that China had been lobbying host the Olympics for decades. And they were told no, no, no, Amnesty International has them listed as, you know, the third worst in the world for human rights record. But they bought their way in essentially. And Students for Free Tibet, the organization, had lobbied the IOC for years to prevent China from hosting the Olympics, saying this wasn’t a country that could be seen on the international stage as somebody respected.
And, you know, the host country stands to make billions of dollars as well, when they host the Olympics. China finally did get the Olympics and they decided to go really big with their propaganda campaign and do this monstrous torch relay that would outdo anybody’s torch relay who’d ever hosted the Olympics and take the torch around the whole world and to the top of Mount Everest. And it was going to be this sort of technological feat to keep a flame burning at 27,000 feet. And in preparation, they paved the road to Everest base camp and they had all these guardrails set up for the crowds they were going to bus into the base camp, as the runner came down with the flame.
We’d heard about the torch relay and that Everest was part of it. And the Tibet activists just felt like we have to be there. China’s going to try to underscore its claims to Mount Everest, which is in occupied Tibet in front of the whole world.
And they’re going to use this torch relay to do it. And everybody is going to think, Oh, Mount Everest is in China. For Tibetans, it was the height of an insult that they were going to run the torch across Tibet, the top of Everest, while everyone clapped for them.
They thought, We have to do something. We have to somehow steal the spotlight. And so they started building a team and I was contacted by an activist I knew who knew that I had been to Tibet before, and I knew the terrain and I knew the process for getting to Everest. And that’s how the team kind of came together.
What they really needed, and this is funny because now we talk about someone who’s a Karen as being someone who weaponizes their whiteness and uses it against something. But what they really needed was a Karen. When I talk about leveraging privilege, is that they needed a kind of entitled white woman to go with this Tibetan activist and talk him through dozens of checkpoints and layers of permitting to get him there so that he could speak on behalf of the Tibetan people.
And I went into the protest totally with my face covered thinking that I would somehow still get out of it anonymously. And the point was to get Tenzin Dorje into Tibet. There had never been a Tibetan activist in exile who managed to get back into Tibet and to launch this protest.
So I had this very specific role, which was just to not take no for an answer to use all of my entitled whiteness and to get him through these checkpoints and get him there so that he could speak for the Tibetan people.
That was my role. And somehow magically it worked, even though we were told “No” a million times, the power of a white American girl to not take no for an answer and for dollars to buy your way through things is powerful. And so that was the privileges that were leveraged in that particular action in order to accomplish something nobody had ever accomplished.
[00:29:43] Scott Snibbe: That part was successful, but you ended up in Chinese detention.
[00:29:48] Kiri Westby: Yeah.
[00:29:49] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about that experience and what happened to you—if you’re willing to talk about it—and how you managed to sustain yourself with some of your Buddhist practices through that difficult experience?
[00:30:00] Kiri Westby: I just want to say leading up to the protest, I did have a moment, when we talk about karma and past life, of realizing like that it was extraordinary that I had been born in Boulder, Colorado, but had been raised by this Tibetan refugee and that then I found myself back in the same Himalayan mountains where he had escaped from coming back in to Tibet with all of the dharmic warriorship at my side that he taught me.
Speaking of, those karmic moments, you can’t really explain how you end up somewhere, but I had that behind me when we were arrested every.
Initially we were held in a kind of makeshift jail at Everest base camp for about the first 14 hours by the military who were pretty heavily armed. But they’re all ethnic Tibetans, which is who is stationed in the Chinese military at Everest base camp because they actually have a different lung capacity to breathe with lower oxygen than Han Chinese.
So that was interesting too. It was like they were holding us and they were doing their jobs, but there was no aggression towards us. In fact, without getting them in trouble, the opposite. We were snuck Snickers bars and cigarettes or whatever, you know, they were trying very hard to do what they had to do, but were also in awe of the fact that we’d even showed up that morning and nobody knew that we had filmed it at that point.
About 14 hours later, though, the Chinese secret police showed up and the whole tenor of everything changed pretty drastically. That’s when they separated us and searched us. And we didn’t know what was happening to others. And the Tibetan American who was with us, Tenzin Dorje, was being treated more roughly than the white Americans and we were trying to figure out how to protect him at all costs. We made a pact amongst the four white Americans that no matter what happened, even if we were released, we wouldn’t leave Tibet until he was released. He didn’t know about that. There was a lot of that kind of separating us and trying to get into our heads and get us to talk about each other.
We had these elaborate backstories that we had created over the days that we were traveling overland to Everest and not one of us of the five of us ever broke backstory. None of us ever came clean and said, I’m Kirsten Westby, I work for Students for Free Tibet or anything, we just stuck to these elaborate stories that weren’t true and told them over and over again, until I think we reached the maximum amount of time under Chinese law that we could be held without being tried.
Though they had lied to us and told us we had been tried and that we will be spending the rest of our lives in a Chinese prison, in an attempt to get us to speak about what we were really doing there, who we were really working with. And the reality at day four, they woke us up in the middle of the night and in a very elaborate motorcade of 15 police cars drove us across the Tibetan plateau, stopping at different villages to pull us out of the cars and line us up and wag their finger at us as an example of what’s called a splittist, someone who’s trying to split the motherland of China, which essentially just backfired and worked as this hilarious game of telephone across the Tibetan plateau, in which by the time it reached Kham, everyone heard that Tenzin Dorje had climbed to the top of Mount Everest and had planted the Tibetan flag in the top of Everest, none of which had happened.
But yeah, I think ideally before the action, if I could have said well, it’d be great if we were arrested so that CNN cared, but only held for a few days and not too badly tortured and then released, that might’ve been like an ideal scenario, but when you’re in it, and you’re actually in the scenario of being held against your will and you’re being told this is now your new reality for the rest of your life. It wasn’t ideal. No, it was terrifying.
[00:33:39] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about how you dealt with the fear and some of the violence during that time? A real test of your practice, right?
[00:33:47] Kiri Westby: Yeah, I think it was a real test of my practice. And I think I probably started with some panic and things that would be like a traditional response to trauma, holding one’s breath and losing one’s breath, hyperventilating. I eventually got to a place, they separated us and they put us into separate vehicles, and then they drove us through the night back across the plateau.
But you have to understand, it’s negative 15 degrees outside. There’s no roads. It’s like ice and glaciers, and you’re in this off-road vehicle bumping through the night with no concept of where you’re going. I had heard stories of Tibetan activists being thrown off cliffs, being just left, killed out in the middle of nowhere.
And so there was no destination that we knew where we were going at any point, we were purposely being scared and confused at that time. I think just unconsciously, at some point I dropped down into a place of meditation and just feeling where the fear was in my body. One of the reactions to fear is to hold your breath or stop breathing, and you can only hold your breath for so long.
You start to almost pass out if you’re not going to breathe. And interestingly, the first thing you learn in meditation is to follow your breath or at least recognize your breath. So breathing is the foundational point in which we exist. And so I think coming back into my diaphragm and breathing in a certain way helped a lot.
And then there was a really terrifying point in which I got very carsick and I explained that I was about to throw up and they stopped my vehicle. And instead of just allowing me to put my head out the car and throw up, they dragged me about 300 feet away from the vehicle and held my head out over a cliff.
And so in that moment I literally let go of my life. I was sure that that was the end of my life. There was not a part of me that didn’t think I was going to die in that moment.
But then they didn’t throw me off the cliff and they didn’t shoot me in the back of the head or all the things I thought was going to be happening.
Instead, they sort of left me there in my vomit and piss and laughed at me and then put me back in the car. And so it’s that second time and I’m back in the car and driving, I think it’s like the worst thing that you could possibly imagine had just happened. And yet here I am still alive. And so anything that’s going to happen next, it’s better than what just happened, you know, in a certain way, like they didn’t kill me because they probably can’t kill me because I have this American passport and somebody knows that they have me.
And at this, and at that point I knew that even if I was going to live the rest of my life in a Chinese prison, it was better than being thrown off a cliff. The feeling, the gratitude for your life is so huge that you can’t even feel fear of something else.
You’ve just, you’re feeling so grateful for your breath basically.
[00:36:35] Scott Snibbe: Coming to terms with that worst case can give you a real sense of fearlessness and acceptance, but most of us who do that practice do it in our imagination. We’re not actually confronted with the worst case.
[00:36:50] Kiri Westby: Yes. And I think that’s why it’s helpful. Even in this meditation I’m going to offer, it is about going to the worst case scenario and then coming back from it and recognizing everything looks slightly different when you come back from that place, your whole world feels slightly different.
So it’s a gift and it’s a gift that even in our minds, we can go to that place. So what scares us the most, and we can sit with that fear and then we can also befriend it in a way that it no longer paralyzes us.
The challenge of motherhood
[00:37:20] Scott Snibbe: At the end of the book you learned that you’re going to be a mother. You have two kids now. How’s your relationship to activism changed since you became a parent?
[00:37:31] Kiri Westby: It’s been really interesting. I’m writing my next memoir. It’s called Mothering on the Edge. And so I think that is a big question about like, how does one go from being a sole sort of a lone wolf in the world responsible for just themselves. And there’s less on the line if you’re putting your yourself on the line to suddenly being responsible for other humans.
And what does that then look like, especially that mothering role, which didn’t come naturally to me. I’m the reluctant mother, if you will.
Motherhood was harder for me, I would say, than Chinese prison or pretty much anything else I’ve experienced.
[00:38:11] Scott Snibbe: I know a lot of other moms would say the same thing.
[00:38:14] Kiri Westby: Yeah. And I think maybe we don’t see that in society. We don’t recognize it. So I’m excited to write about it and write about walking that knife’s edge of hope and fear while having others so dependent on you staying alive and what that feels like I never thought I’d live past 30 and maybe because of my reincarnation beliefs or whatever, it just felt like I’ll just use this short lifetime for this, and then I’ll be born in another lifetime.
But once you have offspring and they need you to stay alive, it’s different. You’re not just living for yourself. So that’s a different place.
I’m still really active. I use my money and my voice as part of my arsenal at this point, supporting younger activists who are on the street sometimes just in ways that I knew I was never supported. Like just sending a direct PayPal to someone I know who’s just been protesting all weekend to go get hot food or a massage or an acupuncture treatment.
Self-care wasn’t even a word we used back when I was an activist. We were overworked and underpaid and we didn’t care. And we worked long hours and through the weekends and we didn’t take vacation time. And we burned out, a lot of us burned out.
So looking at activists now, looking at the mountain of what they’re still struggling with and saying, Okay, now that I am well-resourced and I’m a mom and I have this, how do I then use those resources in a way that they’re not typically used and support the self care of people who are putting their lives and their bodies on the line still every day?
Engaged Buddhism: what is your obligation to the world?
[00:39:38] Scott Snibbe: There’s this term, Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about. Can you talk a little bit about that? What’s a Buddhist’s obligation to the world? A lot of our work is on the cushion and internal and, one critique that His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself has of Buddhism is that we don’t do enough out in the world.
We should be out there engaged in helping people in hands-on ways as Buddhists, at least as much as we work on our own minds. So can you talk a little bit about that engaged Buddhism?
[00:40:06] Kiri Westby: Yeah. I think the Dalai Lama’s also fortunate that he was born a Buddhist. And I think, like I said, I’m fortunate. I was born a Buddhist and my parents were not born Buddhists. And so I’ve been able to see firsthand that a lot of the work that they’ve done and how much Buddhism has helped them is internal, is coming to some kind of a place of unconditional self-love or maitri and working with the concept of basic goodness when they came out of early training of being born out of sin. That mental shift is not easy when you don’t start until you’re 40, for example, of trying to understand that.
But I think being born into Buddhism and raised in Buddhist schools and taught maitri as my initial teaching, it was never a question of how I was going to use my life for some kind of betterment of humanity. Like I’m not interested in houses and cars and fancy material things.
I’m interested in spiritual wealth, mental wealth, and what I’m going to be able to take with me into the next lifetime. Which for me is not very much other than where our minds are at.
I think engaged Buddhism is a funny term. I think the Buddha himself was engaged. He left society and he was an activist and he did things that were counterculture and nobody wanted him to do.
He sat for years under a tree. He said, I’m not participating in this madness that everybody’s participating in. I’m actually going to free myself by not doing.
I think maybe the Dalai Lama is saying that so many people in the West have taken Buddhism on as a self-help thing that’ll make themselves feel better and they’re still there and they’re still sitting on the cushion, just trying to feel better about their lives. And for those people, they should balance that with getting off the cushion. Because helping others also makes you feel better about your life. And then I think there are people who are born into it, where it’s just Buddhism is engaged.
The teaching is to engage, engage with reality, engage with other people as authentically as you can. And to use the time, this incredibly fortunate human birth, the time you have to engage, engage the world and help your neighbor or help the United Nations. But that’s always been what we were raised to do.
There are roughly 400 or so, what we call “Dharma brats” who were raised in my community under Chogyam Trungpa’s students who had children. And I would say the vast majority of us are engaged. We’re working in war zones, we’re therapists, the value we find in the world is off the mat taking the teachings and engaging with the world from there.
[00:42:45] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned the idea of fundamental goodness that leads to genuine self love. I wonder if you could just unpack that term a little bit and help people understand why that might be true and how we get in touch with it.
[00:42:58] Kiri Westby: Yeah. I think the Buddhist teaching is that you are born enlightened or you’re born basically good. You’re born whole, I would say, not born broken in any way. And that that includes all aspects of yourself.
So the search is not to separate the negative feelings from the positive and just seek the love and light, which I know is how a lot of Buddhism has been packaged in the West, but it’s actually to make friends with the shit and dark, if I can use a bad word. And it’s actually to see all of it, to see and include and look at all of who we are and to love all of who we are.
So how do we envelop that in a wisdom space and move ourselves forward and stop this inane fighting that’s not going anywhere? That’s where the loving kindness comes from, and the off-the-cushion motivation. It comes from that place of loving all sides of humanity, the good and the bad. And not trying to just see one.
[00:44:05] Scott Snibbe: Thank you for sharing so much, especially all these personal stories. They’re not easy to tell. And I think our listeners are really going to appreciate it. So thanks a lot Kiri for joining us.
[00:44:23] Kiri Westby: Thanks for having me on. The opportunity to talk about this stuff brings me a lot of joy.
[00:44:28] Scott Snibbe: And we look forward to your meditation next week.
[00:44:31] Kiri Westby: Awesome.
[00:44:33] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Kiri Westby. Our next episode features a guided meditation by Kiri on fearlessness. Kiri’s new book Fortune Favors the Brave is available online, in bookstores, and through her website kiriwestby.com.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Digital Production by Jason Waterman