A Tibet of the mind

Like most Tibetans born and brought up in exile, I grew up, in India, with a certain idea of my homeland, one that was informed by two extreme but inseparable views. On the one hand was an idealised state of grace that existed before the Chinese invasion; on the other, the violated and transformed land – a veritable hell on Earth – that it had since become. We were taught that we, the exiles, were the keepers of the true flame of Tibet's national identity, the guardians of its culture and traditions, which, as far as we knew, were being destroyed in our homeland. And we were also raised to believe that one day we would triumphantly return home, that the entire raison d'etre for our displacement was to fight for that moment.

Over time, this lofty aspiration lost some of its bearings, instead becoming simply another component of our lives as refugees. Our world evolved its own particular reality; we were neither Tibetans in the way that our parents were – and Tibetans in Tibet still are – in the sense of having a physical connection to our land, nor were we truly a part of our adopted countries. Our peculiar in-between lives seemed to demand the expectation of returning to our spiritual homeland for sustenance, but not necessarily its fulfilment. As far as we knew, this was our life – being an exiled Tibetan, inhabiting an ersatz Tibetan world.

For the first two decades of exile, we had very little communication with our homeland. China, then in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, was closed to the outside world, and the ensuing shroud of silence fell even more heavily over Tibet. We had no idea what had befallen our families back home, and the occasional snippet of news only confirmed our worst fears. Tibet seemed to be undergoing horrors that we could not remotely imagine; the very fabric of its existence seemed to be in the process of being dismantled. This knowledge gave us the impetus to rebuild our lives in our new home in exile. The preservation of Tibetan culture, especially its Buddhist traditions, and the development of a modern education system for the younger generation, became the Dalai Lama's most pressing concerns. And in this, helped by India's generous accommodation and the support of many international agencies, we proved remarkably proficient. Within a few years, we were able to create a parallel Tibetan world, complete with our own religious establishments, educational and cultural institutions, settlements and, most importantly, our own government, headquartered in Dharamsala. We became, in the words of one academic study, 'one of the most resilient and successful refugee groups in the world'.

In the early years, however, the belief remained strong that, sooner or later, we would be returning to Tibet. For people of my father's generation, this goal was a very real one. They retained strong memories of home, and the thought of one day being able to go back sustained them through the trauma of escape and relocation. But with each passing year, this hope became remote and unattainable. By the time my father died in a Delhi hospital, in 1999, most people of his generation had already passed away. The expectation of return thus shifted from being a credible goal to an abstract ideal. By this point, the majority of us had only ever known the state of exile as our home. Over the years, as fewer and fewer of us had any direct memory or link with Tibet, we drifted further away from the reality of its contemporary situation. Instead, we retreated deeper into the cloistered world we had created for ourselves, an alter-Tibetan universe that was validated by the existence of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the various religious, educational and cultural institutions we had established. But above all, it was the presence of the Dalai Lama that gave us a kind of moral justification, a redeeming reason for our continuing existence as refugees.

Sarjorwa sustenance

Oddly, the more successful we became at creating a new Tibet for ourselves, one that we believed was an authentic mirror of the original, the more we faced the danger of losing touch with the real Tibet. The latter, of course, had by now not only suffered and survived the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, but was itself in the throes of rediscovery and reinvention. And this gulf between the exile and the homeland would certainly have widened had it not been for a number of developments that began to impact our hermetic world from the early 1980s onwards. The relative liberalisation that took place in China in the period following Mao Tse-tung's death suddenly allowed us to communicate directly with our homeland. For the first time in two decades, we established contact with our long-lost relatives and learned first-hand what they had undergone. At the same time, the opening-up of the country to tourists meant that Tibetans in Tibet became exposed to the larger world and, crucially, to news of the Dalai Lama and the exile community. By the end of the 1980s, Lhasa saw a series of pro-independence protests, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at finding a peaceful solution to the Tibet question, and Tibet itself became an international cause célèbre. These events marked the beginning of another phase in our lives as exiles.

As China loosened its grip on Tibet, the floodgates opened to a second wave of Tibetan refugees who streamed across the Himalaya and down to the Indian plains. They included a diverse range of people who came from all three provinces of Tibet: educated youths, aspiring monks and nuns, young children, former political prisoners, and pilgrims of every background, nearly all united by their fervent desire to pay their respects to the Dalai Lama. We called them sarjorwas, the newcomers, but after the initial excitement of seeing so many of them, the cultural differences began to make themselves felt. The newcomers dressed funnily, their reference points were unfamiliar, even their speech – in the strong native dialects of Amdo or Kham, a distinction that more than two decades of exile education that used a version of the Lhasa dialect had eradicated – was incomprehensible to most of us. They preferred Chinese pop music over the Bollywood songs that we liked, and they watched Chinese TV serials, which we could not understand. We began to assume an attitude of moral superiority over them, even though these were the very people on whose behalf we were supposedly struggling: Tibetans who had actually lived under Chinese communist rule and who, more often than not, had risked life and limb to come to India.

I remember a particularly striking event that exposed this attitude. One day in 1996, Dharamsala woke to the shocking news that a young Tibetan girl had been raped and murdered. Her naked body was found in a bush near Gangchen Kyishong, where the offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile are located. While the hunt was on for the killer, the community was rife with rumours and speculation; there was consensus on only one point, that the culprit must be an Indian. From my own conversations I gathered that he was variously a Gaddi (an Adivasi group), a taxi-driver or even an itinerant sadhu who was reported to have come into town the previous day. That the murderer might have been a Tibetan was inconceivable. Then came the news that he was, in fact, a Tibetan. The shock of this disclosure was only mitigated when it transpired that the man was a recent arrival from Tibet, a sarjorwa. We could relax again because, in a sense, he was an outsider – a Tibetan from Tibet.

Our sense of self-importance and moral superiority was also shaped by the growing fascination of the West with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, and its expectation of what Tibetans were supposed to represent as a people. By this measure, we were an almost otherworldly race, spiritually evolved, naturally compassionate, peace-loving and with the good of all sentient beings always at heart. We began to take this idealised view of ourselves seriously, and remade our history in its image. The wars we had fought in the past with our neighbours, the factional infighting, the court intrigues and political assassinations, the system of cruel punishments sometimes meted out by the state, the banditry that was commonplace in many parts of the country, even the fact that many thousands of Tibetans had not so long ago taken up arms against the Chinese invasion – these were all airbrushed out in favour of a reinterpretation of Tibet as a mythical Buddhist land of peace and harmony, governed by compassion and inhabited by the morally upright and ethically pure.

Of course, faith in Buddhism and the values it taught had always deeply influenced our way of life. But these characteristics were now being defined in starry-eyed Western terms, which allowed no room for shades of grey. Our political struggle took on a spiritual tinge, and coincided with a growing emphasis on non-violence. It also presaged a change in the goal of our struggle from total independence to one that could be accommodated within the People's Republic of China. A curious corollary of this transformation was the belief that we were now fighting not for the freedom of a nation, but for the benefit of the entire world.

In an interview in 2008, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, explained to me this revised worldview. 'Universal responsibility of Tibet as a nation is to preserve and promote its inner sciences, and that is unique and that is very much beneficial to the entire sentient beings,' he said, explaining that by 'inner science' he meant what others referred to as spiritualism, including Buddhism. He continued: 'So therefore, many people say that the humanity cannot afford to let the Tibetan heritage and the inner sciences die … our responsibility is [thus] to promote and preserve the inner sciences of Tibet, which is not available with any other nation.'

The influx of new refugees continued apace throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and by the end of the millennium they had become a significant presence in our society. No longer could we apply the distinction of their being sarjorwas with any moral authority. In our exile monasteries, for instance, the newcomers were soon in the majority. This raised the disturbing question of what would have happened to these religious establishments – one of the prime examples of our community's successful rehabilitation – had their population not been replenished by the fresh intake of monks and nuns from Tibet. Even in the key exile centres of Dharamsala and Majnu ka Tila in Delhi, the change in the demographic makeup became apparent as more and more newcomers participated actively in every aspect of exile Tibetan life. Their growing influence in our lives could no longer be ignored.

Bod-pas means everyone

In March 2008, when a group of nearly 300 Tibetan exiles set out on a march from Dharamsala to Tibet to call attention to the plight of their compatriots under Chinese rule, the majority were recent arrivals from Tibet. That same month, when demonstrations broke out in Lhasa and then spread across the Tibetan plateau, quickly turning into the largest uprising against Chinese rule since 1959, it was the newcomers who kept us in constant touch with the unfolding situation there. They had the contacts in Tibet, and were in constant communication via mobile phones and the Internet. And they were the ones who received and made public many of the only images of Chinese retaliation against the protesters that the world eventually saw. Unlike previous protests in Tibet – most notably the last full-scale demonstrations in Lhasa, in the late 1980s – this time we had a sense of immediacy. Suddenly, it was no longer a hypothetical struggle; we were directly involved in the uprising in Tibet. The sarjorwas had invigorated our exile society by restoring crucial personal links to our homeland.

The impact of the second wave of refugees had consequences in Tibet as well. Some returned to their homes after spending a few years in exile. They took back with them a renewed sense of Tibetan nationalism and the dream of rangzen, or independence, which had remained strong among the exile community despite officially having been abandoned as a goal. The concept of Bod (Tibet), as a nation that comprised of cholkha-sum, the three traditional provinces of U-Tsang (Central Tibet), Dotoe (Kham) and Domed (Amdo), was a unifying ideal that had been developed and promoted in exile. In Tibet, before the Chinese occupation, Bod had referred to central Tibet, and bod-pas only to its inhabitants. People from Amdo or Kham did not see themselves as such. In exile, however, the notion of Cholkha-sum took root, eventually becoming the key defining concept of our identity as Tibetans.

We all thought of ourselves as Bod-pas, regardless of our provenance. When we as exiles said we were fighting for rangzen, we meant independence for all of Tibet and not just its central province. This was a crucial distinction in light of the fact that the Lhasa government had no jurisdiction over large parts of Kham and Amdo when the People's Liberation Army invaded in 1950. Even when the goal of Tibet's struggle was revised to that of seeking genuine autonomy, it was still for all three provinces under one administrative entity. This spirit of pan-Tibetan nationalism seeped back into Tibet with the refugees who returned. Popular singers from Kham and Amdo began to sing about the importance of the unity of the three provinces. Tibetans across the plateau began to refer to themselves as Bod-pas; during the uprising of 2008, Khampas and Amdowas from the furthest reaches of Qinghai, Gansu and Szechwan provinces were heard to shout for Bod rangzen – ie, for Tibet's independence.

After 2008, the numbers of new refugees escaping to India was dramatically reduced, as China beefed up its border controls. Movement between the exile community and Tibet has also been curtailed. Nonetheless, the links that were established during the previous two decades remain vibrant and resilient. In the meantime, the Tibetan diaspora has spread across the world. Relatively large communities have taken root in New York, Toronto and various other cities in the US and Europe. For these Tibetans, home no longer automatically refers to Tibet. For all intents and purposes, it usually means Tibetan India, with its capital in Dharamsala, an indication of how strongly entrenched the exile Tibetan world has become and how separate its identity is to the homeland it set out to recreate and preserve.

The strength and depth of this affinity to a home away from home was vividly illustrated by an encounter I had in eastern Tibet in the summer of 2006. I was travelling with my family through the Kham areas of Szechwan and Yunnan. On the streets of one dusty town, I was startled to hear my name being called out. A young monk I knew from Drepung monastery in South India was excitedly greeting me from across the road. He had escaped to India as a teenager, and had now returned home for a visit after nearly 15 years. Thrilled to meet a fellow Tibetan from India, the first thing he said was, 'You must be missing sweet tea! I brought some with me. Come home and I'll make you some.' As anyone who has travelled in Tibet or China knows, outside of Lhasa and some of the larger towns in central Tibet, sweet tea made in the Indian style is a completely unfamiliar concoction. Later, in the security of his home, he told us how much he missed India, not just the relative freedom that he enjoyed in his monastery but also the simpler pleasures of life, such as eating dosas and vadas. Although he was happy to have met his family after so many years, he said he could hardly wait to go back to India. 'Home', even for this second-wave refugee, was no longer his birthplace, but rather an abstract construct that had its physical roots in a foreign land.

Purpose of exile

As we enter the sixth decade of exile, one thing seems to be clear: the exile Tibetan world we built will continue to exist in some form for the foreseeable future. But will it slowly lose its moorings and drift away from its mother ship, a fully formed satellite with its own orbit and gravity? What, then, will be the continuing purpose of our exile? Where, in the unfolding narrative of a Tibet that has been a part of China for more than 50 years, will our place be?

The goals that our parents set out for themselves when they left Tibet were clear: to restore Tibet's independence and to return with the Dalai Lama as our rightful leader. Politically, we have long since given up the goal of independence. Returning home no longer has the same immediate relevance to us as it did to our parents' generation, nor does it seem likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, many of us would probably be ill-equipped to live in Tibet, even if we were given the chance. So, as Samdhong Rinpoche maintains, is our primary function now only to preserve and keep alive 'the inner sciences of Tibet'? Or is there some deeper responsibility that we need to fulfil, which will continue to maintain our bond with our homeland and give our lives relevance as exiles?

To Tibetans in Tibet, Dharamsala has always been the symbol of hope and freedom. As long as this symbol remains strong, the exile Tibetan world, no matter in which direction we evolve, will remain significant in Tibet. But the moment this influence begins to fade, we will become irrelevant. The danger, of course, and one that Beijing officials are counting on, is that this is exactly what will happen as soon as the Dalai Lama passes on. Therefore, I believe our primary responsibility as exiles in the next, upcoming phase of our development is to ensure that the symbolic significance of what we have achieved survives the passing of the Dalai Lama, and remains a unifying force and a source of hope for the people of Tibet.

This can only happen if the government-in-exile, even without the Dalai Lama, continues to represent an ideal and a goal that is shared by all Tibetans. And in order to redefine this, we must remember once again the fundamental reasons why we came into exile in the first place, and why we have remained there for five decades as a distinct community: because China invaded and occupied our country, it continues to rule it as a colonial power, and will do everything necessary to maintain its authority. No matter how effective we are in preserving our own parallel world in exile, it will be the beginning of the end for us if we lose sight of these facts.

~ Tenzing Sonam is a writer and filmmaker in Delhi.

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