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In one of those synchroncities that sometimes occur in life, shortly before I began to hear about the current unrest in Tibet, I had begun to read a book called The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, edited by Rajiv Mehrotra and published by Penguin Books. The book is a compilation of essays and lectures on Buddhism by the Dalai Lama. It is a relatively thin book, under 300 pages, but I have yet to finish it a couple of weeks later, because each of the essays in the book is so full of meaning and deserving of further thought that I cannot read too much of it at once without stopping to absorb and ponder it.
I am not a Buddhist. I am someone who has a great deal of interest in spiritual questions about the actual nature of reality, but because of a questioning mind I have been unable thus far to accept any religion. As such, I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I want to convey some sense of what I believe is the deep importance of preserving the Tibetan culture. I have the impression that many Americans are unfamiliar with that culture and think of Tibet as far away and unimportant to them. I want to express why I think it is imperative that we support Tibet.
Buddhism seems to be a mental discipline at least as much as it is a religion. A person following the Buddhist path seeks to achieve victory over the enemy within, which is ignorance that distorts the perception of reality and leads to harmful behavior and suffering for oneself and others. An early step on this path is to learn to control one’s passions, emotions, thoughts, and desires so that one causes no harm. The ultimate goal is the liberation from suffering of all sentient beings in the universe through attainment of Buddhahood.
To quote the Dalai Lama:
Buddhism teaches that the mind is the main cause of our being reborn in the cycle of existence. But the mind is also the main factor that allows us to gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. This liberation is achieved by controlling negative thoughts and emotions and by promoting and developing those that are positive.
–The Essential Dalai Lama p. 68
What if the United States could be transformed from a militaristic culture continually attacking other nations and causing much harm into a peaceful nation that only seeks a better future for all?
It seems like such a very distant goal sometimes, yet that is exactly what happened in Tibet within two or three centuries after the introduction of Buddhism there. Buddhism taught an ethic of caring for others and wanting to bring about their happiness. It was widely adopted, and Tibet went from a warrior culture to a peaceful, spiritual culture in a relatively short period of time. I learned this incredible fact from the second in a series of video lectures On Tibet by Robert Thurman, President of Tibet House U.S. I rented it from Netflix.
Through training our minds we can become more peaceful. This will give us greater opportunities for creating the peaceful families and human communities that are the foundation of world peace. With inner strength, we can face problems in the familial, societal and even global levels in a more realistic way. Nonviolence does not mean passivity . We need to solve problems through dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the real meaning of nonviolence and the source of world peace.
This approach can also be very useful in ecology. We always hear about a better environment, world peace, nonviolence and so forth, but such goals are not achieved through the application of regulations or United Nations resolutions; it takes individual transformation. Once we have developed a peaceful society in which problems are negotiated through dialogue, we can seriously think about demilitarization — first on the national level; then on the regional level; and finally on the global level. However, it will be very difficult to achieve these things unless individuals themselves undergo a change within their own minds.
–The Essential Dalai Lama p. 35
Surely a culture that has made this much progress on creating a really civilized nonviolent society is worth preserving. I would even venture to argue that if world peace would be the ultimate worldly outcome of widespread adoption of Buddhist philosophy, then from a purely material world perspective, it almost doesn’t matter if the more subtle metaphysical aspects of Buddhism are true. (Of course, from a spiritual perspective it probably matters greatly.)
Who is the Dalai Lama?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the head of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. He is also their political leader, and, as I found out from an A&E Biography of him, he is actually the King of Tibet, a country which from a real-world political perspective at this time exists only in exile. (The land that was once the country of Tibet and is still home to most of the Tibetan people is now politically a part of China, since their invasion and occupation starting in 1950.)
“Dalai Lama” is a title, not a name. His name is Tenzin Gyatso, and he is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is believed to be the reincarnation of every other Dalai Lama there has ever been.
Buddhahood is not the exclusive preserve of the historical Buddha, but a state of insight and being accessible to all humans. Though the Dalai Lama himself is at pains to stake no such claim, describing himself as merely a “simple Buddhist monk,” millions of his followers, both Tibetans and others, regard him as a “Living Buddha,” a reincarnation of the compassionate –Avalokteshvara, the 14th incarnation in the line of Dalai Lamas , Bodhisattvas who chose to reincarnate to provide temporal leadership to Tibetans and to serve and teach all humanity.
In the A&E Biography there was a fascinating story about how the 13th Dalai Lama somehow knew that there were going to be problems with China and told the Tibetan people that he would die at an earlier age than would otherwise be necessary, so that he could come back in time to be of an age to be helpful to them in the next life. He then died.
After the 13th Dalai Lama’s death, the monks looked for signs of where to find his reincarnation. The young boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama lived in a rural area and often would play a game of packing a bag and saying he was going to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital where the Dalai Lama normally lived. When the monks eventually found him, he was able to correctly identify a series of objects that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and which he had never seen before in his current incarnation. This is also shown in the very fine Martin Scorsese film Kundun, which tells the story of the current Dalai Lama’s early life.
The young Dalai Lama was rigorously trained in Buddhism and was crowned King of Tibet as a teenager. After the Chinese invaded his country in 1950, he at first sought to coexist peacefully with them, even making visits to China to meet with Chairman Mao. The Chinese apparently made sweet promises to him about modernizing Tibet, which he liked because he had an interest in technology.
Whatever misgivings he may have had, he was also obligated to approach them in the spirit of nonviolence. Eventually, it became clear to him that the Chinese government was bent on the destruction of Tibetan religion and culture, and he was forced to flee his homeland in 1959. Since then he has lived in Dharamsala, India, which is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.
To Americans, it may seem strange to think of a government headed not only by a king, but one who is a religious leader as well. The current Dalai Lama is, however, a very modern man. Although he remains the leader of the Tibetan people, he’s apparently a great admirer of democracy and Thomas Jefferson, and after he was exiled, he wrote a democratic constitution for Tibet that even allows for his impeachment. The concept of impeaching him apparently caused great consternation among the Tibetan people when it was first published, because they believed this would be sacrilegious.
Clearly a very intelligent person, he is not dogmatic, nor does he insist that Buddhism is the only path. In fact, he regularly meets with prominent religious leaders and scientists from all over the world. In response to a question, he once told Carl Sagan that if science was ever able to prove that reincarnation does not exist, then they would have to stop believing in it. He believes that religion must accommodate itself to whatever science has proven.
Since his exile, the Dalai Lama has traveled all over the world giving lectures and teachings and exchanging knowledge with all sorts of people. He has introduced the Tibetan religion to the world and has therefore become a teacher not only to the Tibetan people, but the entire planet.
I once attended a lecture and meditation given by him in Mountain View, California, and I think that it would be very difficult for anyone who has been in the presence of this great man to deny that at the very least he is a person full of compassion and wisdom.
The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, for his continued dedication to nonviolence.
The Situation in Tibet
The area traditionally known as Tibet is located high in the Himalayas. It is as large as the portion of the United States west of the Mississippi, and home to 6 million Tibetans. Since the Chinese invasion, it has also been settled by Han Chinese. Tibet is so high in altitude, however, that its population has evolved greater lung capacity to cope with the scarcity of oxygen. The newly arrived Han Chinese settlers do not have this greater lung capacity and therefore face health problems, including the necessity for pregnant women to go back to China to give birth. (Much of this is information I got from Robert Thurman’s lecture series, which I mentioned earlier.)
Tibet has long been known as a sacred place throughout Asia, and is more recently gaining that reputation in the United States and Europe. It is thought by some to be the inspiration for the legends about a place called Shangri-La or Shamballa, a Himalayan valley surrounded by high mountains and populated by spiritually enlightened beings. I have also seen Tibet described as the crown chakra of the planet.
Given this holy reputation, I can’t help but wonder whether part of the Chinese motivation for invasion and occupation was to either control the spiritual energy there, in sort of the same way that the Nazis sought power from esoteric symbolism, or to suppress belief in that spiritual energy, given the Chinese government’s history of being antireligious.
Since the Chinese occupation, the Chinese government has sought to destroy Tibetan culture, buildings, and artifacts, including some Buddhist monasteries. They have modernized, but also commercialized the Tibetan landscape. They have also reportedly turned the Tibetan people into an economically deprived lower-class.
There have been various uprisings and protests over the years. The current unrest is the most significant in years. It began on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising of the Tibetan people against the Chinese government, during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. It also comes on the eve of this year’s Summer Olympics, which will be hosted by China. The Olympics will shine a spotlight on China, so it is an important time to raise awareness of human rights violations by the Chinese government.
Many people have already been killed by the Chinese government in the current Tibetan uprising. The Tibetans who are joining the protests are doing so even though they realize that they risk losing their lives. It is important for America, which proclaims the ideal of freedom, to walk our talk and support Tibetan freedom.
Since the current uprisings began, I have been doing background research more than I have been following the day-to-day events. For more on what is currently happening, please see grannyhelen’s excellent series of diaries.
On March 31, there is a Global Day of Action for Tibet planned in many cities throughout the world. I will be joining the march from the White House to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.
If you haven’t already, please sign the petition in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama at avaaz.org.
Crossposted from EENR blog. My apologies in advance for any errors I may have made.