Pico Iyer: “Part of the challenge of any outer journey… is having the courage to know when to cut it short” (Credit: Nattapon/Getty Images)

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Dharamshala, India — Tibet was considered terra incognita i.e. an unknown territory to the world for many years (Gupta, Ramachandran 2012). Donald Lopez quoted “Tibet seemed not to belong to our earth, a society left on the shelf, set in amber, preserved in the deep freeze, a land so close to the sky that the natural occupation of her people was to pray” (Oesel, 2015).

Tibet had maintained a unique culture, language, and religion for many centuries prior to the invasion by China in 1950. “Buddhist influence from India and Nepal and political influence from China played major roles in the organizational aspects of Tibetan society and culture” (Warren, 1986). Independent political relations were maintained by Tibet with China and Nepal and even though the Tibetan culture was influenced by its Buddhist neighbors, Tibet was the only country to develop and preserve a “functional Buddhist theocracy”. Buddhism as a religion ceased to exist in India but Tibet was able to acquire all of Buddhism and develop it into an organized religion. The Tibetan system incorporated religious aspects into everyday politics especially “providing for political succession by the Buddhist method of reincarnation” (Warren, 1986).

China considered Tibet as an independent state up until 1728, when the Manchu Ching Dynasty invaded Tibet and took over the supervision of Tibetan political affairs. The rule of the Manchu Ching Dynasty came to an end in 1840, when China was affected by the Opium Wars followed by European colonialism. As the Manchu dynasty fell, the 13th Dalai Lama re-established Tibetan independence in 1912. The survival of Tibetan culture was greatly threatened by the Chinese “liberation” in 1950 and the fleeing of Dalai Lama to India to seek refuge in 1959. “Gaining a free hand by the departure of the Dalai Lama and collapse of the traditional Tibetan government in 1959, the Chinese intensified their attempts to transform Tibetan society according to the doctrines and techniques of socialism”, even though China was committed to by the 17 point agreement to preserve Tibetan political and cultural autonomy. (Warren, 1986). Tibetan culture was subjected to massive reform pressure during the 1960s and 1970s – class divisions were made on the basis of people’s economic backgrounds (aristocrats and commoners), the Tibetan language was simplified (inclusion of proletarian terms); attempts to “eradicate” Buddhism in both its spiritual and physical forms were in place.

The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s witnessed an extensive vandalism of monasteries and “persecution of monastic communities” (WRN Editorial Staff, 2016). Even tough there was an evident rehabilitation of religion after the death of Mao, many monasteries took center roles in protests and demonstrations with monks and nuns being key organizers in the uprisings between the late 1980s and 2008 and include “almost half of the 143 Tibetans confirmed to have self-immolated since 2009”; monks and nuns have been targets of “surveillance, harassment, and persecution” (WRN Editorial Staff, 2016). The local government and the Communist party officials directly manage monasteries through “management committees”; “monasteries are required to fly the Chinese flags and have portraits of the leaders of the Communist Party.” (freeTibet.org) Monks are required to behave in a “patriotic and law-abiding” manner, surveillance cameras are installed inside and outside monasteries and “regular inspections to uncover signs of loyalty to the Dalai Lama take place” (freeTibet.org). The monks and nuns are subjected to ‘patriotic re-education’ which are “intensive propaganda sessions in which teams of officials and party cadres subject monks and nuns to propaganda and compel them to agree that Tibet is an inalienable part of China or denounce the Dalai Lama”; those who defied were persecuted. (freeTibet.org) Authorities were threatened by large gatherings of Tibetans as a result of which Chinese security forces opened fire on a crowd in Tawu County, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, that had gathered to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July 2013.

Another aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist belief that China seeks to capitalise on is its right to decide on reincarnation of the Lamas and also plans to control the most important reincarnation of all, the Dalai Lama (the leader of Tibetan Buddhism), “in defiance of the unequivocal position of the current Dalai Lama” (WRN Editorial Staff, 2016). China, in turn, claims that it has acquired the autonomy of appointing the succeeding Dalai Lamas after the demise of the 14th Dalai Lama and “has described the current Dalai Lama’s position as ‘blasphemy and a ‘betrayal’”(WRN Editorial Staff, 2016). In accordance to this, in 1995, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, a six-year-old boy who was identified as the Panchen Lama (regarded as the second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism), was allegedly kidnapped by the Chinese authorities and hasn’t been seen in public since. Instead, Beijing appointed its own Panchen Lama, who the Tibetans regard as fake, even though he has a political role in Beijing.

The atrocities carried out by the Chinese haven’t ceased till date as they seek to gain control over Tibet and its people. President Xi Jinping's opinion on the adherence of religious groups to the Communist Party of China shows how it seeks to suppress the Tibetan resistance against Chinese rule by subverting or undermining Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and their institutions.

References

“China’s Control of Religion in Tibet”, free Tibet, Retrieved from https://www.freeTibet.org/religious-freedom

Basu, Nayanima, “China carrying out cultural genocide of Tibet: Report”, World, The Hindu Business Line, Published on October 16, 2017, Updated on January 8, 2018, Retrieved from https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/china-carrying-out-cultural-genocide-of-tibet-report/article9908966.ece

Gupta, S.P., Ramachandran K.S.,“Introduction”, A History of Tibet, Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre, New Delhi, 2012.

Oesel, Tensin, “Encountering Modernity: Locating Cultural Identity of Tibetan Diaspora in India”, Tibet and Tibetan: Prospects and Challenges, Tibet Policy Journal, The Tibet Policy Institute, December 2015.

Warren W., Smith, “The Survival of Tibetan Culture”, Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, Cultural Survival, September 1986, Retrieved from https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/survival-tibetan-culture

WRN Editorial Staff, “China’s Attack on Buddhism is a Threat to Tibetan People too”, World Religion News, May 10, 2016, Retrieved from https://www.worldreligionnews.com/issues/chinas-attack-on-buddhism-is-a-threat-to-tibetan-people-too

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Tibet Post International.

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