Filed in History


Fifty Years of Exile

Stephen Batchelor

IN 1959, the little-known 14th Dalai Lama fled his homeland as China’s army invaded Tibet. Just over a decade later, a generation of young Western seekers encountered Tibetan culture for the first time. Among them was Stephen Batchelor, who looks here at the story behind the Tibetan diaspora, what it has meant for Buddhism in the West, and what the future may hold.

On March 28, 1959, three days before reaching sanctuary in northern India, the Dalai Lama's escape party crosses Karpo Pass on horseback.

SOME YEARS AGO I strolled into a diner off West Houston Street in New York for a quick lunchtime sandwich. The manager, a burly middleaged Italian-American with a bouffant hairdo, sat on a stool by the cash register in one corner. On the walls around her were pinned colorful posters of Tara, Avalokiteshvara, and other Tibetan Buddhist deities as well as several photographs of a beaming, namaste-ing Dalai Lama. As I was paying for my meal, I asked why she had all these images around her. “It’s him,” she pointed to a picture, “the Dolai Lamma. I was in Central Park last summer. He was talking to this crowd of people. Then someone asked: ‘Who’s been your most important teacher?’ And he answered— without missing a beat—‘The Chinese. They have taught me the most.’ That really touched me.”

I suspect that for many Americans like this woman, the most Christlike figure alive today is not a Christian but a Buddhist: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. For here is a man who has undergone unimaginable loss and hardship but who appears to bear no grudge against the people responsible for invading his country, desecrating its ancient culture, and forcing him into an exile that he has now endured for fifty years. He seems to embrace the Chinese occupiers with equanimity and kindness, to see them as suffering people rather than ciphers of a hostile nation, to regard them not as foes but as valued teachers who enable him to cultivate tolerance and compassion. And the more one observes the Dalai Lama as he travels the world, whether meeting presidents or addressing vast crowds, one starts to realize that this is not political or religious posturing, a cynical tactic designed to gain sympathy for his cause. This is the real thing: a man who cultivates and embodies the values he champions.

When I arrived in Dharamsala in 1972, the Dalai Lama and his followers had been in exile for 13 years. They had fled their beloved country in the wake of a failed uprising against the Chinese occupation in March 1959. With little more than the clothes on their backs, they escaped over the high mountain passes into Nepal, Bhutan, and India to begin life as refugees in some of the poorest countries in the world. When I first met him, the Dalai Lama was a young, energetic man of 37, full of good humor, faced with the daunting task of resettling 100,000 Tibetans in India and establishing a functional government-in-exile. Despite the enormous tragedy that had befallen them, the Tibetans I knew tended to be upbeat. These proud, resilient people found it hard to imagine that their exile could last for much longer.

From the perspective of common sense, Tibet is a country just like Italy or Japan. It possesses a rich and complex culture with a long history, its own language and literature, a highly distinctive religion and a unique form of government. So why, one might reasonably ask, is it not welcomed into the family of nation-states and given a seat at the U.N.? Why should recently concocted political entities such as Pakistan or Israel be accorded full recognition as nation-states, whereas Tibet is not? Why, in the past 50 years, has not one single government recognized the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile? And why should a people who have never for a moment thought of themselves as Chinese be regarded as Chinese citizens? It all seems terribly unjust.

From a modern historian’s point of view, Tibet operated as a fully independent political state for only a relatively brief period, from the seventh to ninth centuries C.E., when the kings of the powerful Yarlung dynasty unified the Tibetan plateau and even briefly occupied Chang-an (Xian), then the capital of China. The subsequent regimes that ruled the whole of Tibet were installed by either Mongolian or Manchurian armies, whose leaders were also emperors of China. Since the most powerful figures in Tibet at these times were Buddhist lamas, their secular backers appointed them as rulers of Tibet. As a far-flung province of Imperial China, Tibet was of little interest to the emperors, and the Tibetans were left to rule the country as they wished. Under these conditions, Tibet was free to develop its unique buddhocracy. Starting in the early 18th century, China nonetheless retained a symbolic presence in Lhasa in the form of an amban, or governor, and a small contingent of troops.

A Buddhist monk cannot engage in war, not even in self-defense. The security of Tibet was thus vouchsafed by China, which occasionally sent in troops to repulse invaders. The relationship between China and Tibet was defined in such a way that each side could perceive itself as the dominant partner. While the Chinese government saw Tibet as an integral part of the realm (a view still held by most Chinese today) and thus subordinate to the emperor, the Tibetans regarded their high lamas as the teachers of the emperor, thus rendering him subordinate to their spiritual authority. This “priest-patron” (chö-yön) arrangement was modeled on the traditional relationship between a Buddhist monk and his lay benefactors. The relationship between China and Tibet was thus one of interdependence, with each party depending on the other for what it could not provide for itself. Such a model, which was informed by Buddhist ideas of not-self and dependent origination, had little room for such dubious notions as “independence”—a term that Tibetans did not use to describe their status as a nation until the 20th century.

After the collapse of the Chinese Manchu dynasty in 1911, the Tibetans, under the leadership of the 13th Dalai Lama, evicted the amban and his troops from Lhasa and embarked on a period of de facto independence that lasted until the invasion of Tibet by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950. However, this period was too brief and troubled for the Tibetans to be able to consolidate their independence. Internal feuding, the death of the Dalai Lama in 1933, reluctance of the monastic authorities to embrace reform, and a failure to establish international recognition for their regime, all meant that the Tibetan government was unable to resist the invading forces of Communist China. Unlike the previous emperors, Mao Zedong rejected religion as “poison” and had no intention of deferring in any way to the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The rules of politics in the Middle Kingdom had changed. The “patron-priest” relationship was redundant. The Tibetans joined the Armenians, Kurds, and Palestinians as another stateless people, their aspirations thwarted by a new geopolitical status quo against which they were powerless to act.

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