Fighting For The Rights of Tibet

When Erin Potts brought her friend and colleague, hiphopper Adam Yauch, to a quiet cafe a few blocks from the bustle of Fisherman's Wharf, the teen-ager tending the espresso and day-old muffins behind the counter was star-struck. "She seriously had to sit down for half an hour," Potts laughs.Yauch's notoriety as a founding member of the platinum-selling Beastie Boys has a direct impact on the success of his joint venture with Potts: the Milarepa Fund, a non-profit organization located in an evergreen building facing the Taylor Street cable car turnaround. Named for an enlightened black magician from 11th-century Tibet who taught compassion through music, Milarepa was established three years ago in an effort to raise awareness about the struggle between Tibet and the Chinese government.Until now a fairly low-key concern, on June 15 and 16 Milarepa will host its first major event, the Tibetan Freedom concert, at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. The show will feature such heavyweight recording artists as the Smashing Pumpkins, the Foo Fighters, the Fugees, Beck, Sonic Youth, A Tribe Called Quest, and Yoko Ono/IMA.As Milarepa's director, Potts has been working furiously since the unwieldy benefit was announced. Her youthful staff has been doubled, from "three and a half" to 8, and their clubhouse-like loft space whirs with faxes, phone calls and flickering Web pages. Favoring an ankle she recently twisted outside a Foo Fighters show, Potts hobbles the few blocks to the local coffee shop to discuss the objectives behind Milarepa's forthcoming event.A 23-year-old Connecticut native, Potts was pursuing Tibetan studies in Kathmandu when she met Yauch in 1993. "Kathmandu is such a small town," she says. "Word just spread -- as soon as he landed, everybody knew that a Beastie Boy was in town."Though Yauch was already interested in Buddhist teachings, "politically," Potts says, "I don't think he knew that much about what was going on there." On that trip, though, "he was trekking, and he ran into some Tibetan refugees just over the border [in Nepal]. They were still running. He was definitely affected by seeing that experience."Potts too was shocked by events she witnessed. One demonstration she attended in Tibet turned ugly, as the Chinese police began shooting tear gas: "Instead of shooting above the crowd," Potts says, "they were shooting [the canisters] into the crowd. One person who came by me had his face blown off. It was pretty intense."[Introduced to Buddhism around 1000 A.D., the once-warlike Tibetan people have been devoutly peaceful since. In 1950, neighboring China invaded the Tibetan homeland, a remote region of Southeast Asia situated along the Himalayas to the north of Nepal and India. In 1959, the Tibetan people staged a massive protest; the Chinese government's violent reaction hastened into exile the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and political figurehead. In the ensuing years, reports of Chinese human rights abuses have persisted. By some counts, over one million Tibetans have lost their lives. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Last year, Tibet's six-year-old Panchen Lama disappeared and was replaced by China's own candidate for the post.]Upon completion of her study-abroad program, Potts returned to the U.S., hatching a plan with Yauch to create their fundraising enterprise and agreeing to take over its daily operation here in San Francisco. The Beastie Boys "had done a couple songs that sampled Tibetan monks, and also an aboriginal instrument called the didgeridoo," says Yauch, just back from Italy, where he interviewed the Dalai Lama for Rolling Stone. "We decided it would make sense to give the publishing money to something that represented those cultures. Those sounds come more from cultures than individuals."The lanky Potts is well aware that some observers consider her musician friends to be unlikely messengers for Tibetan freedom. To many, Yauch, Adam Horovitz, and Mike Diamond still represent the willful juvenilia of their 1986 debut Licensed to Ill," which featured the knuckleheaded anthem "Fight for Your Right (To Party).""We've had a little difficulty in trying to convince Americans that a hip hop group like the Beastie Boys should be doing this kind of work," Potts admits.But Yauch's embrace of Buddhism resulted in a public declaration of sorts on 1994's Ill Communication." "I dream and I hope and I won't forget," he rapped on "The Update," "someday I'm gonna visit on a free Tibet." Elsewhere, he contributed songs entitled "Shambala" and "Bodhisattva Vow."A percentage of royalties for those songs have been earmarked for Milarepa's coffers; by Potts's count, the fund has realized "about $60-70,000" from the songs, with another $250,000 coming from a one-dollar surcharge applied to each ticket sold for the Beastie Boys' 1995 tour.Though well-publicized celebrity flirtations with Buddhism by such Hollywood notables as Richard Gere and Harrison Ford have often been ridiculed, Yauch says he'll accept the skepticism if it means educating a few more people."Maybe through the years we've gotten better at figuring you just do what feels right," Yauch reasons. "People say whatever they're going to say."When the Namgyal Monks accompanied the Beasties on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, some Buddhist scholars grumbled that the setting was inappropriate. Later that year, Yauch told Tricycle: The Buddhist Review that such concerns "are all insignificant.""The way I look at it," he said, "one million Tibetans have been killed by the Chinese and one million kids will come on this tour. If we can touch those kids, it'll be worth the effort."Potts and Yauch have had several audiences with the Dalai Lama, meeting with him in Germany and again in India. "He gives off a really powerful energy that's almost dizzying," says Yauch. The Dalai Lama, Potts reports, welcomes their support, though "he doesn't know hip hop from classic rock. As far as feeling awkward or excited that a hip hop group is helping further his cause, it doesn't matter to him. He's psyched."Milarepa, Potts says, has two priorities. The first is to support the Free Tibet movement (of which Milarepa is one group of "about 16 in the San Francisco Bay Area"), by sponsoring the education of young refugees in India and Nepal, for instance, and by heightening awareness through events like the show in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and the development of a multimedia education package. (A CD-ROM project is due in December.)The second priority, Potts says, is a general support of youth activism. "When you look historically at any social change movement," she says, "young people have always been at the heart of it. Young people are idealistic, they're determined. Not all young people are going to want to get involved in Tibet, but young people being active is really necessary.""Tibetan culture has wisdom, compassion, and responsibility as its central focus," she says. "I see it as a lot of the things that our society is lacking. I think they can teach us a few things we need to know."For more information call the Milarep Fund at: 1-888-645-2737 or check out their web site at:

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