“The pen is mightier than the sword.” –Proverb
“Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.” –Elie Wiesel
Tibetans and Tibet supporters will commemorate a landmark event in Tibetan history on March 10, 2013. It will mark the 54th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising in which tens of thousands of Tibetans took to the streets of Lhasa to revolt against the Chinese government, which had seized control of the area under the infamous 17-point agreement.
Despite being underdeveloped, at that time Tibet was a country that fostered spiritual excellence. Buddhism was and is a central part of life in Tibet. King Trisong Detsen made Buddhism the official religion of Tibet in the 8th century, marking the beginning of a period of more than a millennium in which Buddhism was transmitted to Tibet from India, capturing the hearts of the Tibetan people and the soul of their nation.
Spritual mystics like Guru Padmasambhava, Jetsun Milarepa, and Je Tsongkhapa are renowned and remembered by Tibetans as some of the most accomplished yogis of all time. The lotsawas (early translators) are credited for bringing Buddhist wisdom from India to Tibet and translating works from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Because Sanskrit is a dead language, many scholars believe that the Tibetan language is the only living language today in which one can grasp the total depth of Buddhism.
By the 20th century, Tibetan Buddhism flourished, with a heavy monastic population and the omnipresent mantra Om mani peme hung reverberating in written texts and through the mouths of the people of Tibet. While crime and injustice was still common, Tibetans as a whole had turned their minds inward to find nirvana or transcendent peace.
Buddhism was so inseparable from the Tibetan identity that the religious head, the Dalai Lama, was also the head of state. This fact is crucial to understand the political situation inside Tibet. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the current leader of the Tibetan people, has taken a strong non-violent stand against the Chinese rule inside Tibet. While he has felt the anguish of not being able to mitigate the repression inside Tibet, he has stressed that Tibetans should never hold hatred against the Chinese, but to instead think of them as teachers.
This advice seems simple and perhaps even naïve at first; however, the profound wisdom of Buddhism emphasizes the knowledge of emptiness and the importance of loving kindness. Rigpa (awareness) and nyingje (compassion) have both been tested and practiced on the Tibetan plateau for hundreds of years and are concepts that followers of the Buddhist faith take very seriously.
Understanding Buddhism is crucial to understand the recent wave of self-immolations in Tibet, now numbering over 100. Although very drastic, many academics and activists argue that these actions are grounded in reason and more than anything, rooted in the Buddhist belief in non-violence.
In her essay The Case for Rangzen, scholar Tashi Rabgey of the University of Virginia points to the social subordination of Tibetans inside Tibet as a prime source of the wave of protests by Tibetans inside and outside of Tibet. Tibetan culture is constantly undermined by the economic development that the Chinese government pursues. Religion, which is cherished by Tibetans, is compromised by the state’s belief that the elevation of living standards and economic consumption is a sufficient means of liberating people. For example, the state takes an active role in suppressing religious identity by banning photos of the Dalai Lama, yet wants to fuel growth by allowing an enormous number of Han Chinese to relocate into Tibet.
Today, various international human rights groups and world governments have taken small actions to pressure China to end their repression in Tibet. However, the Chinese government shows no signs of making major concessions in the future. This makes Tibetan activists anxious.
I do not want to wake up to news of another Tibetan self-immolation. According to Buddhist teachings, another person’s suffering is the same as my own suffering, so it brings pain to learn about this kind of news. Praying is not enough to raise my hopes, so I believe in taking active effort to raise awareness and contribute to the global struggle to slowly change the way China approaches governance in Tibet.
Remembering the thousands of Tibetan lives maimed and their unnatural deaths should be a call to individuals to work against apathy and to be increasingly aware of the situation inside Tibet. While taking small actions like contacting your local representative or reading literature about the politics surrounding Tibet does not immediately have an overwhelming impact, they are still vital for the grassroots movement of Tibet.
*On Sunday, March 10, there will be a short film screening about the current situation inside Tibet and a collaborative discussion for students to discuss recent events and future student activism. Location: Sayles-Hill Lounge. Time: 12pm-1pm.