The Dalai Lama, Buddhism, and Tibet: Reflecting on a Half-Century of Change

By Maria T. Otero
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

Throughout history, there have been several ways in which people perceive Tibet. Since it has traditionally been isolated from the world, culturally and geographically, the mystery it provokes has shaped most people’s beliefs into viewing it as a Shangri-La, or sacred land. This popular view is supported by the fact that Tibet is a place where its people see Buddhism as so important that it is not only their religion, but also the essence of their identity. The Dalai Lama is their most important figure as a religious and spiritual leader. Due to the circumstances in which he came to his position, as well as to his personal character, the current Dalai Lama has radically changed the meaning of his religious and political leadership.

When the horse runs on wheels and the iron bird flies, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth.1

This article looks at the changes that have taken place in the decades since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and how they have influenced the role of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism itself. Even though Chinese dominance over Tibet can be viewed as representative of how the people of Tibet have suffered, when looking at the circumstances in a religious and political point of view, the changes it has brought can also be seen as beneficial for Tibet.

Among these changes we can find the newfound international interest in Tibet after the Dalai Lama’s exile, later strengthened by the Nobel Peace Price he was awarded; the end of isolationism of Tibet, accompanied by the spread of Buddhism to the West with increasing popularity; the revival of Buddhism in Tibet, followed by a rise in nationalism; the democratization of the Tibetan government in exile; and, finally, the Dalai Lama’s shift from being a traditional local leader to becoming an international figure.

In order to understand how these changes occured, it is important to know what a Dalai Lama is, and the historical circumstances in which the current one assumed power.

According to the Buddhist faith, every being is reborn over and over again in a cycle, in which most people cannot remember their past lives. However, when there are powerful events that shape someone’s life, it is possible, through meditative training, to gain access to those memories.2 The only way out of that cycle is through achieving enlightenment, which is the highest stage in Buddhism. Bodhisattvas are those who are able to achieve enlightenment, but they postpone it in order to teach other people their knowledge to help them reach nirvana.

“All such incarnate beings can influence, by their own wishes in each life, the place and time when they will be reborn, and after each birth, they have a lingering memory of their previous life which enables others to identify them.”3

The Dalai Lama is one of them, and before dying they commonly make predictions about their rebirth, which are then followed by different tests to make sure that the right person was found. This process represents how the role of the Dalai Lama is much more than that of a governor or a president. He is a Bodhisattva that has ruled Tibet for centuries in the different lives in which he has reincarnated, a fact that gives him divine attributes.

Commonly, when a Dalai Lama dies, a Regent is appointed by the National Assembly to govern while the next one is found and until he reaches maturity.4 However, in 1950 an oracle indicated that the fourteenth Dalai Lama should assume power even though he had not yet reached the normal age of maturity, and therefore he assumed temporal and religious control of Tibet at the age of sixteen. A year later, the Chinese invasion took place, and this shows how since the beginning of his governance, the circumstances were unfavorable for Tibet, which was clearly in need of a strong leadership.

At this moment, one of the most important characteristics of Tibet was its isolation, which was primarily determined geographically, but increased by the fact that they allowed the fewest possible foreign people in their country, which they thought was the best way of ensuring peace.5 Therefore, with no international allies or support, and not enough military power to repel a foreign invasion, the Dalai Lama had no choice but to surrender to Mao Zedung’s power.

This invasion can be seen as the start of the decline in Tibetan Buddhism, since it was the moment when the Chinese started attempting to eliminate Tibetan religion and culture in order to enhance their control over Tibet.

The difference in ideologies between Tibet and China was extremely marked. “While the communists believed that Marxism was the cure for all the world’s problems and that communization would create a perfect society, the Tibetans looked for rewards beyond the present life, since as Buddhists they believed that any sort of mundane existence is unsatisfactory.” 6 The Chinese claimed that all their policies were aimed at the Tibetan people’s benefit, but despite all the promises the situation worsened and the relations between Mao and the Dalai Lama worsened. Widespread poverty became a new problem in Tibet, accompanied by abuse of basic human rights.7 The news of Tibetan occupation may have created international interest on the topic, but no political intervention took place probably due to the fact that China is a powerful country, and most countries are not willing to break economic ties or have bad relationships because of an issue that does not affect them directly, which may still be the cause of the unwillingness to take more action in current times.

Tensions continued increasing, resulting in the Dalai Lama’s exile. “On march 17, 1959, the Tsongdu, the Tibetan Nacional Assembly as well as the Kashag, the Council of Ministers, had taken the decision that the Dalai Lama should leave Lhasa immediately, as in their view his life was in danger.”8 Protests against Mao’s policies were taking place in Tibet, and suspecting that the Chinese government would attempt to capture the Dalai Lama, his escape was planned. On March 28, it was announced that the Tibetan government had been dissolved and China was in direct control. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama was on his way to India, where he would establish his new government in exile, centered in Dharamsala9.

The Cultural Revolution came after that in 1966. It was a program created by Mao in order to shorten the time needed for full communization. “He believed that by destroying all symbols of the old culture – monasteries, temples, ancient monuments, religious leaders, authority figures, books, and so on – a cultural vacuum would be created, and Marxism would move in to fill the void with a new order.”10 All religious practices were banned, and human right violations increased considerably.

This dark period lasted until Mao’s death in 1976. In the following period, there was a shift in Chinese policies that included freedom to practice religion. It was the start of Tibetan Buddhism’s revival. Even though the destruction of religion and monasticism was almost total, despite those twenty years of communist propaganda, Tibetans still believed strongly in their religion and in the Dalai Lama11. However, although this was a positive change and religion did have a revival, there was still the “Tibet Question”. China was still not willing to allow an autonomous, separate government in Tibet12.

Beijing was interested in the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet because that would end their problems. It would “relegitimize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, end the international dialogue over the Tibet Question, and persuade the masses of Tibetans genuinely to accept their position within the People’s Republic of China.”13 The difference of interests made it impossible to reach an agreement since Tibet wanted exactly what China did not want to give up: political autonomy. Consequently, the Dalai Lama started his international campaign. Making Tibet’s problems known to the world would bring other countries’ support to solve the Tibet Question.

The initiative brought the Dalai Lama to the United States in 1987 to address the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. In his speech he proposed a five-point peace plan to resolve the conflict with China. “The plan advocated respect for the human rights of the Tibetan people; abandonment of the policy of transferring ethnic Chinese into Tibet; turning Tibet into a demilitarized zone of nonviolence; protecting and restoring Tibet’s natural environment; and the commencement of negotiations on the future status of Tibet.”14 This plan is a representation on his Middle Way approach, in which he seeks autonomy, but leaves out the idea of independence, which seems unlikely for Tibet since it lacks the political and economic strength to emerge as a serious threat to Chinese control over Tibet. 15

These proposals made the Dalai Lama gain international attention, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. However, the Chinese government rejected the five-point plan, and many riots were provoked in Tibet, until in 1989 Beijing declared martial law in Tibet to regain control.

Since 1990, the relations between China and the Dalai Lama have worsened, and there has been a hardening attitude towards Tibetan culture, religion and culture. China’s new approach is to “reduce the influence of the Dalai Lama and the exiles while also fostering Tibet’s cultural, economic, and demographic integration with the rest of China.”16

On the other hand, the situation is now totally different to when China invaded Tibet in the 1950s. The Dalai Lama’s international campaign was successful in reaching to the hearts of people all over the world, and was able to create international interest in the situation in Tibet. The Dalai Lama continues to press for negotiations and puts pressure on China by bringing Tibet’s cause to international forums, in which he now has influence. He is now a leading figure in international efforts to promote human rights.

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