Thoughts on the Tibet Freedom Struggle

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Personal posts at Bob from Brockley and Martin in the Margins—in addition to images of Buddhist monks hurling bricks at PLA soldiers—prompted me to write this. If you don’t frequent Bob or Martin’s blogs, you should. Also have a look at Modernityblog on Tibet and Burma.

March 10 marked the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising. A series of non-violent demonstrations in Lhasa and other cities throughout Tibet were coordinated with efforts by Tibetan exiles in India to march to the Chinese border in protest of the upcoming Olympic Games in China. Solidarity demonstrations were held at major cities across the United States and around the world.

However, whether through government action, provocation by protesters, or some combination of the two, what started as a peaceful protest escalated into police violence, attacks on government personnel and facilities and communal violence by Tibetans directed against Han Chinese. Some reports allege pallets of bricks were placed at strategic locations, suggesting at least some support for violent resistance. Government media has televised images of men appearing to be monks throwing bricks and other material at police.

The Dalai Lama’s position as spiritual and political spokesperson for the movement has been unquestioned for decades. A pacifist and advocate of non-violent struggle, he has long advocated a “middle way” a willingness to abandon any discussion of independence in exchange for an offer of Tibetan autonomy.

For the exile community in India, particularly radical students, this is not enough. NYT reports:

[A] handful of radical Tibetan exile groups have said angrily that the “middle way” has achieved nothing in nearly 30 years. They have called for an Olympic Games boycott, burned Chinese flags and refused to call off a march from here to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, which he has called impractical in opposing a mighty state intent on using force.

So the question arises of whether the Dalai Lama, who has spent the last 49 years here in India and built one of the most powerful exile movements in the world, is out of touch with his own people. Or is this monk, regarded by his followers as a reincarnation of Buddha, the ultimate political pragmatist?

There is no clear answer. Whether his doggedly conciliatory posture will ever assuage China’s government, or whether his allies will intensify pressure on China on his behalf remains a mystery.

But a hint of his influence here bleeds through the often angry, inventive protests that have gone on nearly nonstop for over a week. For all the slogans of fury — “Free Tibet” and “Death to Hu Jintao” — China’s president, the most common is a call-and-response homage: “Long live the Dalai Lama.”

NGOs and others concerned with the Tibet issue as well as labor and human rights organizations are calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games in China. China never should never have been considered in the first place, IMHO.

Bob notes a certain distance from the Tibetan struggle in his youth attributable to something he calls “Stalinophilia.” In Bob’s words, “I mean the worldview that sees state the state socialist regimes in the Peking and Moscow families as bulwarks against the “real” enemy, Western capitalist/imperialism, and therefore, dispite their evident evil, worth supporting (albeit “critically”).” Today, he finds this position “shameful” but remains critical of supporting nationalist movements.

Martin’s experiences are more personal than political and somewhat similar to my own. He writes, “As a teenager I had a deep interest in eastern spirituality and a romantic attraction to the countries on the old hippy trail – Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh. More recently, I went through a phase in which I was seriously interested in Buddhist philosophy, and it was the Tibetan variety that appealed to me most strongly.”

My early familiarity with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism came through affiliation with the Vedanta Society during my late teens. The Vedanta Society teaches a monistic (non-dualist) form of Hinduism that had some appeal with Western intellectuals in the early to mid twentieth century. A lot of their teachings focus on the commonalities of world religions. Unlike Martin, my experience was largely cerebral, rather than spiritual. I did not try to join the group or become Hindu or anything like that. But I did learn a lot about India and Hinduism as well as a little about Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Like Martin, my interests shifted from spiritual and metaphysical concerns to politics, society and culture. When I entered college I was able to explore these interests in greater depth and remember writing a paper titled “Tibet and China: Cultural Genocide?” I was reminded of it when the Dalai Lama made his recent comments on this matter. I studied Hindi and Nepali as well as some area studies courses before finishing my baccalaureate degree and had the opportunity to travel to South Asia, starting at Tamil Nadu in southern India and finishing at Nepal Ganj in Nepal’s terrai region. Throughout these studies–while I did not realize it at the time–I was moving away from the Vedantic focus on the commonalities of cultures and religions and becoming more interested in what makes us unique and different. Rather than asking “what makes us human” I was wondering “why do we see the same things so differently?”

While living in the Bay Area I occasionally found myself in arguments discussions with white Tibetan Buddhists who mentioned how the Tibetan people had known only peace prior to the Chinese occupation. While certainly against the conduct of the communists, I was quick to point out that in antiquity the Tibetans were known for their fighting abilities and were feared as dangerous warriors by the Han Chinese. The Buddhist presence in Tibet was not the result of entirely peaceful relations either. Far from it. The Buddhists took over a vast territory dominated by the Bon religion.

What we know as Tibetan Buddhism is an amalgam of Buddhism and this earlier belief system. One manifestation of this is Tibetan art. The image below looks like a protector deity often found on Buddhist tanka paintings. But this is a Bon image.

bhairav.jpg

The Government of Tibet in Exile notes:

[W]ith the increasing royal patronage of Buddhism, Bön was discouraged, and faced persecution and banishment. Practically nothing is known about Bön during the period from the eighth to the early eleventh centuries. However, with the relentless devotion and endeavour of sincere followers such as Drenpa Namkha (9th century), Shenchen Kunga (10th century) and many others the Bön, Tibet’s indigenous religion, was rescued from oblivion and re-established itself alongside Buddhism in Tibet.

While my current academic and professional work has nothing to do with South Asia I continue in my attempt to understand why people can come to very different conclusions about the same events or phenomena. These differences do not only translate into differences of interpretation but differences of perception and cognition.

More:

Bon Foundation

Statement of the Dalai Lama on the 49th Tibetan Uprising Day

Government of Tibet in Exile

Mainstream Media:

The Hindu

Hindustan Times

NYT

Times of India

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