Respecting life, pursuing freedom

This lengthy article from the NY Times is a must-read for anyone interested in Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and/or liberation struggles and the politics of nonviolence. The debate between the older generation of monks and the younger Tibetan activists, turning on fundamental questions about the relationship between means and ends, reminds me of some of the more memorable discussions from this corner of the blog world over the past couple of years.

“Our ultimate goal,” Samdhong Rinpoche told me, “is not just political freedom but the preservation of Tibetan culture. What will we gain if we win political freedom but lose what gives value to our lives? It is why we reject the option of violence. For respect for life is an inseparable aspect of the Tibetan culture we are fighting for.”

Tsundue, however, remained unconvinced when I reported Samdhong Rinpoche’s views to him. We were in a small bookshop owned by a friend of his, browsing through the collection of Tibet-related books. Tsundue immediately said that he could not identify Tibetan culture exclusively with Buddhism and that the preference for nonviolent politics could also become an excuse for passivity and inaction. “Our leaders quote Gandhi,” Tsundue said. “But Gandhi saw British rule in India as an act of violence and said that resistance to it was a duty. I see the Chinese railway to Lhasa as a similar act of violence. What’s wrong with blowing up a few bridges? How can such resistance be termed wrong and immoral?”

Many young Tibetans speak with admiration of the Khampa warriors of eastern Tibet, who fought against the invading Chinese Army in 1950 and, in 1959, initiated the bloody revolt against Chinese rule, effectively forcing the Dalai Lama to choose between a subservient status in Tibet and exile in India. An account of the Khampas, published by the acclaimed Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu in 1987, inspired many Tibetans of Tsundue’s generation to consider more militant solutions to their problem. As Norbu, who now lives in the United States, told a filmmaker producing a documentary for PBS in 1997, “Some people don’t want to be enlightened, at least not immediately.” Norbu went on to say: “We are ordinary Tibetans. We drink; we eat; we feel passion; we love our wives and kids. If someone sort of messes around with them, even if they’re an army, you pick up your rifle.” Tibetans, he added, have an “affinity to their place they live in. And they don’t want the Chinese there. And his Holiness cannot understand this.”

In the end, I tend to side with H.H. and Samdhong Rinpoche about nonviolence and nationalism, the need to include all ethnicities in any future Tibetan state or autonomous region, etc. But I don’t understand why, if they truly accept the possibility of a generations-long exile as they say, they continue to scale back their demands for sovereignty. They seem to be intent on proving that they are good reservation Indians – which, it occurs to me, may be part of the reason for the Dalai Lama’s popularity in the U.S. We Americans love that figure of the noble savage who declares that “The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth”, or “I will fight no more forever”: wise, eloquent and best of all, accepting of defeat.

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