360° Analysis

The Immortal Bodhi Tree: Tibet and the Chinese Occupation


October 30, 2013 05:25 EDT

Tibet’s spiritual strength remains indomitable despite repression.

According to Will Durant, the success of religion lies in the “persistent power over the human soul.” Religion helps us connect with reality in a different way; it focuses on experience and enables us to comprehend its transcendental nature.

Much inquiry in the world today suffers from judgments based on narrowly construed interpretations of the experiential reality. Meerten Ter Borg distinguishes between “power of religion” and “religious power.” The former refers to the institutional nature of power, whereas the latter is concerned with the source of power. This source of power may be transcendental, and hence, need not be materialistic in nature.

In the case of Tibet, a combination of the two has taken place to set it apart from other Buddhist societies.

Heart Over Mind

Emotions transcend space and time. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, the centrality of emotions shapes the ethical character of not only individuals in Tibetan society, but also of Tibet’s national interest. The linguistic expression and practice of the emotions associated with Tibetan Buddhism have earned it international support. The notions of “love” and “compassion” have become metaphors in their struggle for ensuring the survival of their distinct culture. The dominance of structural interpretations blinds us to the degree of which our everyday life is embedded in emotions. Religion performs a role of bridging the gap between these emotions, the individual, and society.

The enlightened mind is integral to the Tibetan culture. The focus on ethical practices is not confined to monks alone and involves the active engagement of lay persons. In The Tibetan Cultural Praxis: Bodhicitta Thought Training, Keneth Liberman notes that the “enlightened mind” is located in the heart in Tibetan thought, in contrast to its location in the head in European philosophy. Ethical transformation, which forms the centerpiece of the Tibetan culture, focuses on the development of the heart over the mind.

Authority and Religion

Tibet faces the challenge of being unable to meet the prerequisites set by the West for recognition. The idea of Tibet as a particular territorial unit was historically enmeshed with  religious fervor, and the most important distinction between people was along the lines of faith. There never existed a distinction between the sacred and the secular, a feature that characterizes the modern state. The idea of a democratic state, which the Dalai Lama has adopted for the Tibetans in exile in India, holds little significance for those who “maintain that the Dalai Lama is and has always been the only democratic leader of the Tibetan people.” 

A centralized authority had never been established in Tibet except during the 7th century, when fear of external threat initiated military alliances by the clan-based polities, and during the Mongol entry in the 13th century. The instability, which ensued due to lack of centralized authority, created a void filled by monasteries. The role the lama played was both spiritual and political in nature. The distinguishing feature of Tibetan Buddhism has been the role of the spiritual teacher that was missing in other variants of Buddhism, with the notable exception of Burma, writes Geoffrey Samuel. Power has been historically diffused between the nomadic organizations, the aristocracy, and the monasteries. However, the greatest degree of integration in Tibet has taken place through the monastic tradition.

The Dalai Lama’s government, in line with the West, is working towards establishing a state for a society that, effectively speaking, was always stateless. Even when centralized authority of the monastic system existed, local political structures retained a high degree of autonomy. Hierarchy characterized the society, but religion always proved to be a binding factor. The Chinese invasion in 1950, according to Ashild Kolas, was accompanied by an application of religious persecution as a way of dismantling the Tibetan political system. The situation only worsened with the Cultural Revolution and the systemic attempts at destruction of the Tibetan way of life. Any attack on religion has a direct bearing on the political landscape of a “country” where the distinction between sacred and the secular have been blurred.

Where is Tibet?

If we were to ask – “where is Tibet?” writes Mikel Dunham, “the future Buddha will locate Tibet in the hearts rather than on a page in an atlas — thus bringing Tibet’s mysteries full circle to a time, before 1950, when it was just a blank space on a classroom globe.” 

Much of the firmness that was expressed with respect to Tibet’s strict territorial boundaries in the Dalai Lama’s book, My Land My People, dissipated afterwards. “The pull towards independence is mainly moral and emotional in character,” argues Adam Watson

In the case of Tibet, the importance of the value of territorial boundaries was not realized until its cultural identity was attacked. Tibetans always distinguished themselves from others based on beliefs, and in that sense we can identify the cause for the shift in the Dalai Lama’s position with regard to the “question of Tibet” from a demand for independence to an acceptance of autonomy, to his desire to shun violence and preserve its traditions.

For a community faced with a threat to its way of life, infusing its world view with strengthened vigor made it “marketable” in a world plagued by spiritual decay. The experience of the Tibetans also proved to be a blessing in disguise because their struggle was now comprehensible to the world. The Dalai Lama writes: “Tibetans never took any active steps to prove their individuality to the outside world, because it never seemed necessary.” Eventually retaining the Tibetan world view became essential to score an ideological victory over China, and hence, persistent efforts were made to break free from the core area of administration imposed by the Chinese.

Independence of Mind

It can be argued that in the case of Tibet, the demand for independence moved beyond the narrow framework of territorial independence to include independence of the mind. The dangers of the slow death of its culture through change in the education system were a bigger threat than territorial occupation. 

In the hegemonic struggle between the Chinese and Tibetans that ensued after the Dalai Lama’s move to India in 1959, the latter focused on the illegitimacy of the Chinese authority and power over Tibet. This claim was rooted in the major difference that existed between their opposing world views. Where one had adopted the communist path with no role of religion in the affairs of the state, the other intertwined religion and politics.

However, despite the barbarity of the Chinese, the Dalai Lama magnanimously expressed admiration for the party leadership because they held to their communist faith. The Chinese had repeatedly asserted that it was problematic to rest one’s life on religion. 

In his book, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama spoke favorably of many aspects of Marxism. As a system based on justice and equality, it appealed to him. However, he argued that the theoretical basis of Marxism with its emphasis on a materialist view of human kind was problematic. Despite these differences, he expressed his belief in the two doctrines of Buddhism and communism meeting on a common ground, which would improve the way the two countries conducted politics.

The Dalai Lama’s desire to see Tibet “modernize” along the lines of People’s Republic of China when it came to heavy industries was misconstrued by Mao Zedong, who failed to recognize that the Dalai Lama’s view on scientific matter and material progress was very much in line with the Buddhist teachings. Mao’s belief that “religion is poison” – because it neglected material progress – did not go down well with the Dalai Lama, who did not see the two as antithetical to each other. Mao seemed to ignore the Buddha’s instructions that, as the Dalai Lama writes, stressed the need for “anyone who practices the dharma should test for themselves its validity.” The Tibetan Buddhist way of life was never overpowered by religion and there remained an appreciation for modern science, so long as its usefulness could be tested.

Reaction to Repression

In the case of Tibetans, the reaction to repression by the Chinese in the form of strengthening the potency of the symbols that represent their culture is more viable than engaging in violence. The maintenance of the sanctity of territorial boundaries is desirable, as often these boundaries signify distinctions between “us” and “them.” 

However, Ashild Kolas notes, the most important distinctions in Tibet were always made according to beliefs. Many tribes did not fit the “gentle Tibetan stereotype” but, Dunham writes: “Although Khampas had no love for Lhasa’s central government, their allegiance to the Dalai Lama was without parallel.” A student belonging to the Khampa tribe argued in an interview that: “My faith in the Dalai Lama is indelible and I would do anything to protect him, even if that means indulging in violence.”

Much of the resilience shown by Tibetan Buddhists is rooted in their belief that nothing is permanent in the world, not even their suffering. The tragedy of Tibet initiated interdependence with the world, which made them more conscious of the Buddhist teaching that their suffering does not exist independent of the suffering of others. 

Thus the Tibetans, with the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and political leader, embarked on a journey to connect with the world on a deeper spiritual plane. The inter-subjective meanings assigned to human experience made the world converge on the centrality of certain emotions that the Tibetans believed had universal value.

A move beyond the materialist conception of relations between countries to formation of ties based on a sharing of universal responsibility to ensure peace, guided the foreign policy of Tibet. The material aspects of life, such as the nature of the state or that of foreign policy, were shaped by the meaning the community gave to them and, in the case of Tibet, it was always colored with religious insights. 

In the words of Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence becomes an act of rebellion.” The assertion of the Tibetan cultural identity is acquiring a powerful dimension through organized non-violent movements like the Lhakar Movement, which emerged in Tibet but has spread worldwide among the Tibetan community, and is based on the Gandhian principle of taking pride in everything that resonates of their cultural identity.

For the Tibetans who are deeply-rooted in their history, the potency of their culture has become a “weapon” in their fight for their homeland and, more importantly, in their struggle to retain their unique Tibetan Buddhist identity. 

The Chinese may depart with a thumping victory. Mountains might be riddled by roads. There might be rail lines the Tibetans would have never dreamt of. The Chinese might change the demographics of the region. All this is happening amidst the smoldering ruins of their culture; however, the Tibetans still live in hope. The Chinese will never succeed in destroying the indomitable spirit of their compassion. The politics of the good heart which enables them to remain rooted in history and to gain a moral high ground has connected the Tibetans with the world at a spiritual level, where basic human emotions of love and empathy are invoked to bridge the gap between the individual, his spirit, and the world at large.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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