An Unhappy New Year in Tibet

Tashi Delek—it’s Tibetan New Year! Today, everyone would normally put on brand new clothes, replace last year’s sun-bleached prayer flags with freshly printed ones, and eat and drink to their heart’s content for at least three days, though the festival usually lasts fifteen.

Alas, this year the Dalai Lama’s asked Tibetans worldwide not to celebrate, as a mark of solidarity with the Tibetans who still actually live in Tibet or, as the Chinese call it, China. They are now a racial minority in what had been their own country since the seventh-century reign of King Songtsän Gampo. The Red Army invaded (they say liberated) Tibet in 1950/51 and since then has ruthlessly suppressed Tibetan culture and religion in the name of ‘progress’—a term which the rest of the world is now beginning to view with mixed feelings. True, traditional Tibetan life was rife with superstition, poor hygiene and a questionable judicial/penal system; it was also managed by a theocratic superclass based not on merit but on monastic hierarchy, medieval intrigue and subterfuge. However, the prevalent belief system was Mahayana Buddhism, which values compassion above all, so it was far from completely dysfunctional; still, neither was it what we expect from a modern state. Even the Dalai Lama admitted that the Chinese did him a favour in ejecting him from the gilded cage of the Potala.

Does anyone really believe the Chinese government is modernizing Tibet from the goodness of its neighbourly heart? After all, it started back in those mad early days of the Cultural Revolution. Tibet is China’s lebensraum—growing space for an overflowing population. It’s also a strategic eagle’s nest and home to the largest lithium deposits in the world.

Although the Dalai Lama—to the dismay of many young Tibetans-in-exile—long ago abandoned any hope of Tibet independence and has announced that he’d settle for mere ’cultural autonomy,’ China still paints him as an unrepentant ‘splittist.’ Chinese official Zhang Qingli last year called him, “a devil with a human face but the heart of a beast.”

A what? The rest of the world is puzzled over this depiction, to say the least. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a familiar, warm-hearted personality on the world stage, usually seen preaching universal kindness and peace. Now he’s preparing to meet the US president in Washington DC, and the Chinese have threatened a diplomatic storm—perhaps more. Why? What’s their problem? As their star rises you’d think their insecurities would take a back seat and they’d be trumpeting a strong, self-assured image. Why does this self-effacing man and his tiny diaspora raise such fury in this giant powerhouse of a nation? They’ve got their Tibetan real-estate; the Dalai Lama knows that’ll never change; even if every Tibetan on the planet took to the streets of Lhasa, they’d be crushed in mere days.

Barack Obama isn’t going to back down, and the Chinese will vilify the USA in their own press in order to keep their own people on board—but are they? This isn’t good for business. Isn’t that sufficient motivation? Perhaps the Chinese are threatened by the enormously disproportionate influence of the Tibetans as Buddhism grows in the West, not simply as a religion than but especially as a system of practices and perspectives that might restore balance to a world in danger of industrial destruction.

What do you think?

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

3 thoughts on “An Unhappy New Year in Tibet”

  1. China has shown its true color in recent days. Its not a so-called “communist” country, but an ever increasing imperial capitalist state. And yet, they tend to control every thought and action of their subjects, taking away all independence whatsoever. The land-hungry Chinese are now advancing towards India, having crossed the buffering neutral country of Tibet half a century ago. Tibet was financially backward, technologically too, but it was much happier and richer in culture under the Dalai Lama. Now the few remaining original Tibetans are a tortured minority, bullied at every step by the so-called “Progressive” Govt of China. What is this mythical progress anyway? Is it losing your self-respect, your freedom, your religion and simplicity, only to be ridden with cheap plastic items and being surrounded by a heavily eqipped army? If the Dalai Lama is not a peaceful, wise and kind person engaged in the propagation of spirituality and non-violence all over the world, I don’t know who is! If something is beastly here, its the hunger for power and aggression on the part of China.

  2. I have recently taught a group of twenty Tibetan students aged 23-27. I asked them if they wanted to return to a Tibet before China and the answer they gave me was “NO!” They all came from poor villages and had stories for me of poor medical and educational services. They were free to live their religion in the past but only in context of perpetual deprivation. They think they still can practice their unique culture and continue to speak their own language. I don’t know about all the China bashing by those who only have their information from biased media. Who has the real story? I doubt that the only way to find out would be to work and live in Tibet to find out.

    All of us, in all cultures are suffering from exploitation. The culture of economics and profit doesn’t leave room for spirituality, even in the good ol’ US of A. Yet ethnocentrism demands that we see the “other” as evil and the enemy. Of course getting to know the enemy well usually takes care of that fear of “other.”

    Thanks for this opportunity to speak out here. I know that I speak against the grain, but that is just who I am and the way I am. I don’t follow any particular party line or nationalistic fervour.

    1. Robert, I’m the last one to defend the medieval practices of old Tibet — check out my memoir. The Chinese definitely have a point when it comes to modernizing Tibet. Still, I lived with Tibetans for eight years and have no reason to doubt that the Chinese claim on Tibet is spurious, or that their incursion into Tibet was uninvited. They’ve brought Tibet materially into the twenty-first century — it was long overdue — but at quite a cost to individual freedom. Then there’s their policy towards the Dalai Lama, which is just plain dumb. They have unrivalled control of Tibet — he’s accepted that in the plainest possible terms. Why not just put out their hand to him, earn some brownie points and move forward? It’s weird to see a country that’s grown so strong still acting so insecure; their right/ability to control this distinct minority is pretty dubious, while their strategic interests are pretty clear. Finally, while we all suffer from ‘exploitation,’ there’s a big difference between being exploited as a gullible consumer with legal rights and being coerced by an army of occupation. It’s true that most Tibetans were once deprived; why now deprive them of what little religious freedom they had in the name of their material well-being? Can’t they have good medical care and access to their traditional teachings? There’s tons of superstition in the old ways, but some of history’s finest philosophy as well — stuff the Chinese PR guys could use. If the Chinese really trusted the education system they’d brought to Tibet, they’d let the Tibetans sort out their own past as they catch up with the rest of the world materially, and the rest of the world catches up with them philosophically.
      Thanks for your comment. Dialogue is what blogging’s all about.

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