Filed in History

Tibet

Fifty Years of Exile

Stephen Batchelor

Dalai Lama leaving Tibet
Surrounded by personal guards armed with submachine guns and bayonets, the Dalai Lama (sixth from left, seated) rests high in the Himalayas after fleeing Lhasa on March 17, 1959.

ON OCTOBER 17, 2007, in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal for his work in promoting peace and human rights. Predictably, this prestigious endorsement of the exiled Tibetan leader brought howls of protest from China, who accused the Americans of meddling in its internal affairs. While the award ceremony raised the international profile of the Dalai Lama to even dizzier heights, it was a generous but hollow gesture by an unpopular president who may have stood to gain more from his public association with the Dalai Lama than the Dalai Lama could ever hope to gain from him. For despite all the handshakes, smiles, and noble sentiments, the award was not accompanied by a single concrete act in support of the Tibetan cause. Arguably, this kind of event only gives unrealistic expectations to Tibetans and hardens the attitude of the Chinese, who understandably resent being depicted as the evil oppressors of one of the world’s favorite good guys.

When I arrived in Dharamsala in 1972, the Dalai Lama was a little-known, politically isolated figure who had not yet been able to set foot in the West. This was the year in which Richard Nixon made his famous visit to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong and begin the normalization of relations with China. What little covert support the Americans had been giving to Tibetan guerrillas in Nepal was cut off. Since his flight to India, the Dalai Lama had had to listen powerlessly as news of the destruction of Tibetan culture at the hands of the Red Guards trickled out of his homeland. He continued to be refused entry into America until 1979, twenty years after his escape from Lhasa, when the Carter administration finally granted him a visa.

Throughout the 1980s the Tibetan cause gained increasing international recognition, largely through the Dalai Lama’s tireless efforts on its behalf combined with his growing stature as a global spiritual leader. In 1988, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he declared that he no longer sought independence for Tibet but only meaningful autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. This amounted to a tacit recognition of the status quo that had existed between China and Tibet for centuries, a point lost on many of his more enthusiastic supporters. In any case, the Chinese ignored him.

The following year the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which further angered the Chinese by consolidating his position in the eyes of the world as a man of unimpeachable integrity and compassion. This growing public support for Tibet was a factor in Bill Clinton’s campaign promise in 1992 to link the granting of “most favored nation” (MFN) trading status to China with “overall significant progress in human rights.” In May 1994, however, Clinton abruptly withdrew this condition. The reasons were economic. The message to the Chinese was clear: stock markets in Hong Kong and jobs in Delaware will always count for more than the rights of oppressed minorities elsewhere in the world.

In 1989, the Dalai Lama turned down an invitation to officiate at the funeral ceremonies in Beijing for the recently deceased Panchen Lama, which would have provided him with the first chance for face-to-face political discussions with the Chinese leadership. Although his refusal may have been at the insistence of his advisers in Dharamsala (Tibet was then under martial law), in retrospect it looks like a misjudgment. Since then, despite continuing worldwide sympathy for their cause, the Tibetan exiles have received no further conciliatory gestures from the Chinese. Meetings continued to take place behind the scenes between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and officials from the Chinese government, but they led nowhere. Although China would doubtless enjoy a surge of global goodwill were it to make even moderate concessions to some of the Dalai Lama’s demands, a totalitarian government of more than a billion people cannot be seen to kowtow to the ambitions of 100,000 exiled Tibetans and their vociferous Western champions. Any gains for the “Dalai clique” would inevitably be seen as a humiliating step-down for China.

THE ENCOUNTER BETWEEN TIBET and the counterculture of the 1960s was like a midair crash between two sets of conflicting desires. The Tibetans were escaping from Chinese Communism; we hippies were running away from the military-industrial complex. We were both exiles, fleeing in opposite directions. We collided over India like particles in an accelerator. Neither side really understood or appreciated the needs of the other. We looked to the Tibetans for the lofty insights of Buddhism to help resolve our existential anxieties; they looked to us for the support they needed to survive as refugees in an uncomprehending and hostile world.

Half a century later, the Tibetans still have not regained their country, but Tibetan Buddhism is on its way to becoming a world religion. In the early 1970s, those of us in Dharamsala would have dismissed as a fantasist anyone who suggested that the Dalai Lama would become a household name in Nebraska and “America’s Fascination with Buddhism” would be featured on the cover of Time magazine. When non-ethnic Buddhist centers in America could still be counted on the fingers of one hand, it would have seemed inconceivable that today retreat centers, temples, monasteries, and sanghas would number in the hundreds if not thousands. At a time when it was still possible to have read every dharma book in English, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that within a couple of decades you would be unable to keep up with those published every month. Without the tragedy of the Tibetan diaspora, Tricycle magazine would almost certainly not exist, and I would not be writing this article.

Although Buddhism in America also has its sources in Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Japanese traditions, the sudden exodus of monks and lamas from Tibet was, I believe, the single most important catalyst in stimulating Western interest in the dharma. Because of its physical isolation and unique sociopolitical organization, for centuries Tibet had been able to preserve intact a complete form of late Indian Mahayana Buddhism, and because they were exiled from their homeland, Tibetan lamas had little choice but to find ways to survive in the wider world. Their success in establishing centers across the globe has been such that other traditions of Buddhism have sometimes been eclipsed by the presence of Tibetan forms of the dharma; in the public eye, the Dalai Lama has even come to be mistakenly regarded as a sort of pope revered by all Buddhists alike.

China has changed a great deal since 1959. The bad old days of the Cultural Revolution are long past. An unprecedented number of Chinese citizens are experiencing a material prosperity that their parents could only have dreamed of. Traditional religions such as Buddhism are no longer suppressed. Monasteries are functioning again. People are allowed to travel abroad and have limited access to the internet. The Chinese government may still impose harsh constraints on individual freedom and ruthlessly quell dissent in Tibet, but voices of change are beginning to be heard. On December 10, 2008, Charter 08, a document calling for wide-ranging reforms, was signed by more than two thousand Chinese living within China. Two days later, the Dalai Lama issued a letter in which he gave his full support to the document. In the long term, the Tibetans may be in a stronger position to achieve their political goals by working alongside dissidents for reform within China rather than focusing on the sole issue of independence or autonomy for Tibet.

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