When future historians look back, they may find that it is the dharma’s universalism, rather than Tibet’s victimisation, that explains the extraordinary worldwide public support for the Tibetan cause.
In the play Fantastics, it is asked —”What in the world happened to X?” — of a character who left his village to escape its suffocating enclosure. Someone answers: “The world.”
What happened to the Tibetans in exile was precisely the world.
Starting three decades ago as labourers breaking boulders on road-building sites in Nepal and India, Tibetans in exile today enjoy a decent, even enviable, standard of living, compared to any group in South Asia. In Nepal, they own a sizable share of the carpet manufacturing business, one of the country’s two highest sources of foreign exchange earning.
In India, thousands of farmer-cum-traders thrive six months of the year from selling mass-produced sweaters from Bombay to Nagaland, passing them off as Nepali or Tibetan. The remainder of the year, on land once thought unpromising (given by the Indian government), they produce enough to affect the price of corn in the southern states where their settlements are located. And from Kathmandu. to Gangtok to Manali to Delhi, they run bustling restaurants and “Hong Kong – bazaars”.
‘This entrepreneurial achievement of individual Tibetans is not all. The exile government’s success in ensuring the preservation of Tibetan culture, too, is remarkable: monasteries, secular schools for Tibetans, institutes of Buddhist dialectics, Tibetan medicine and drama. All these slowly brought about the awareness of Tibetans, their plight and, most importantly, respect, to fuel the extraordinary public support that is, today, the Tibetans’ greatest gain.
The Tibetan identity is rooted in culture in its broadest sense. As a nation, Tibet is defined by a common language, religion, and history, notwithstanding its bias to religious events and interpretation. This ‘cultural nationalism’ is what glues the Amdo-wa of the northeast to the Khampa of the east, and the Toi-pa of the West, some 2,000 miles separating them. It is why they call themselves bod rigs (“Tibetan kind”).
In spite of its one-people cohesion, however, Tibet was essentially a pre-political society until gorged by its giant neighbour; that is, politics had a minor significance in Tibetan daily life as compared to its role in modern societies.
As ironic as it is that a Tibetan political culture emerged in exile, it is understandable. Exile, after all, is a fundamentally political condition. Exiledom, in the politicized arena of the modem world, coalesced the 100,000 or so Tibetans into a state, albeit without a territory. This identity, with its accent on the political, was propagated through various institutions. (schools, newspapers, political groups), which were embraced, then bolstered, by the outside world.
Above all, it is the spread of Tibetan Buddhist tradition that has been the single most potent force in the encounter between the notion of Tibet and the World. Propagated by the greatest masters as well as a younger generation of teachers, the appeal of Tibetan Buddhism has been phenomenal, and its contribution to contemporary Western culture, to the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and the arts, is widely acknowledged.
At the heart of this public and moral support for the Tibetan cause, therefore, is what might be called the “third spread” of the dharma. And I do not refer to the support of actual Buddhist practitioners as much as the respect for Tibetans as socio/cultural expression of humanism, or universalism, or the dharma. For all its flaws, Tibet was an example of a society shaped by Buddhist principles.
Public sympathy for-the Tibetans, if theirs’ were not a Buddhist culture, might have been drawn from romance (the Shangri La myth, et al): the sympathy might have remained on the level of mere sentiment for the victim — and we know how far that goes. Besides, if it were a matter of measuring the degree of victimisation, can the claim be made that the Tibetan’s suffering is more tragic than the Africans’ from perpetual starvation, disease and inter-tribal rampage; or the killing fields of Bosnia/Herzogovnia; or Kampuchea at the hands of Pol Pot; or the Bangladeshis strayed by natural disasters? One calamity in Ganga-Brahmaputra delta last year claimed 100,000 lives, which is the entire population of Tibetans- in exile.
Though Tibetans were central in this spread of the dharma, the world’s (mainly the West ‘s) receptivity was equally significant. In full circle, as it were, the dharma had been revitalised, spreading to the land of the “red man” — in fulfillment of a ninth century prophecy — as well as to the otherwise “marginal” Tibeto cultures of the Himalaya.
Future Tibetan historians might well view this period of exile, which began in mid-twentieth century, as epochal, as it spawned the “third spread.” Their unabashedly “Buddhologised” history mentions two “spreads”. The “first spread” occurred from the fifth to the seventh century, in a heightened way during the reign of the great Songtsen Gampo, and took hold with the building of Tibet’s first monastery at Samye, south of Lhasa, in Yarlung.
According to historians, a period of “darkness” followed when the Black Bon King Langdarma set out to destroy every Buddhist edifice in the land, persecuting its followers in the farthest reaches. This paved the way for the arrival of Pandita Atisha from the south and the “second spread”. A king’s life and the saint’s weight in gold were offered to Atisha to make good the invitation. Moved by the Tibetans’ faith, and perhaps as a result of the plainman’s instinctive.reverence for the land beyond the sacred Himalaya, Atisha accepted and stayed on to almost single-handedly restore the dharma to its former grandeur.
It was because of the dharma element that this sympathy for the Tibetan cause went beyond sentiment. It changed the relationship between the sympathiser and victim to one in which they stood at par. From respect for the dharma came respect for Tibetans, and the sympathy for the Tibetans that grew out of it became an expression of the supporters’ own convictions as much as a response to what was out there.
An analogy that is illustrative: While trekking in the Khumbu, Western travelers are invariably impressed by the Sherpas’ hardiness, their cheerfulness and forthrightness. But what also makes an impression on trekkers are the Sherpas’ bizzare deities, and numerous other items of exotica. The admiration risks turning into a fetish, to becoming one more thing in their make-up: “I think the Sherpas are cool, and boy, those guys don’t need oxygen like we do.” Whereas, if they had to contend with the philosophy that underpins the Sherpas’ worldview, the same travelers might see the Sherpas in a way that transcends the economic relationship of client and employee, saheb and porter. That is, instead of voyeuring, they would have to experience — encounter — the culture intellectually.
Turning to recent history, by the mid-1980s Tibet had escalated into an international concern as never before. With swelling public support, more and more public figures and politicians took note. Unthinkable a decade ago, state leaders met with the Dalai Lama; some backed resolutions that expressed concern for human rights in Tibet or for Tibetan self-determination; others wrote and spoke on behalf of the Tibet-support groups that had mushroomed. The firmament of supporters included personalities like actor Richard Gere, who helped launch the International Year of Tibet campaign.
These developments coincided with the dramatic change within China in the form of Deng Xiaoping’s more liberal policies. For Tibetans, the reforms triggered momentous events: reunion between relatives in and outside Tibet, who after 35 years had given up on each other, and the opening up of Tibet to tourists. Over time, the achievements of exiles and their politicisation rubbed off on their compatriots within, who until then had been suffocating in the enclosure of Chinese rule. Also, of the thousands of tourists who travelled to Tibet, an overwhelming majority came away sympathetic to Tibetans. Some dollars dropped into Chinese coffers, but the gain for Tibetans was increased political awareness in Tibet and increased people-support outside.
In 1987, headlines splashed with reports of the bold, if reckless, demonstrations by monks in Lhasa. An outcry for independence in such a tightly sealed, policed state? With the massive public support in place, the brutality of the crackdowns that followed only nudged the Tibetan issue deeper into the international consciousness.
For the first time, Western politicians were calling for linking human rights abuses in Tibet to their governments’ economic and diplomatic relations with China. Beijing was visibly rattled by the outcry of Tibetans and their supporters. It had always chosen to depict exile activities as either a mere irritant or the “splittist” activities of a maverick feudal god-king.
In 1989, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an event greeted with greater elation in the West than in South Asia.
Meanwhile, to Tibetan-exiles, history has been hurtling, and they are the subjects who cannot keep up with it, not unlike an obscure artist forced to make enormous adjustments to sudden fame. Just as their cause and their life in exile was slowly slipping into a routine, Tibetans were jolted into renewed hope.
Clearly, the strides made by the Tibetan cause is largely due to the phenomenal moral support it has received. What is astonishing is the role played by the “third spread” of the dharma in this support, and the fact that so little of realpolitik motivated it.
It is, I believe, the universalism of the dharma’s appeal in a world spiritually vacuous and politicised to its teeth — as much as explicit activism — from which accrued respect that makes the Tibetan cause more compelling than the fact of the Tibetans’ victimisation.
Tseten is a Kathmandu-based writer and was an editor of Himal.