Newsweek did a cover story two weeks ago on the resurgence of Buddhism in Asia and elsewhere and its rise as a potent —even militant- political force. This is a revolutionary development for a religion known for its pacifism and contemplative character. Buddhism espouses detachment from the material world, and thus eschews all but the most rudimentary political institutions. It does not have a formally organized central political authority, like the Vatican. Yet it has morphed into a political movement, the “armies of the enlightened” as Newsweek terms it, as events in Burma and lately, in Tibet, have shown.
Last week, protests in Tibet turned violent as Chinese security forces clashed with hundreds of Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans protesting continued Chinese rule. According to the Tibetan protestors, at least 80, and perhaps many more, people were killed; Chinese authorities placed the official death toll at 10. Rioting has spread to neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan, and has mobilized sympathizers internationally.
The protests began March 10, the anniversary of a failed 1959 Tibetan uprising. The People’s Republic of China took Tibet by force in 1951, and has implemented a policy of resettlement of Han Chinese from the east, who now far outnumber ethnic Tibetans.
At the center of the conflict: Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. China called for an international investigation of the Dalai Lama, accusing him of masterminding the violent Tibetan protests spreading across China. Beijing’s position was summarized as “Tibet has long been part of China, that Tibet has benefited from modernization, and that the Dalai Lama should not be allowed to return because he aims to split Tibet from China.”
The Tibetan religious leader denied the Chinese claims and emphasized his life-long commitment to non-violent means to effect political change. He called the violence “suicidal” for the Tibetan push for political autonomy and threatened to resign his political post as leader of Tibet’s government in exile “if things become out of control.”
The unrest, by design, comes at a time when Beijing is moving heaven and earth to improve its dismal human rights record, part of the window-dressing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Thus, the Beijing Olympics organizing committee is sticking to its plans to take the Olympic torch to Tibet and Mount Everest, despite the probability of the protests escalating as the games near.
However, world opinion appears to be on the side of of the beleaguered Tibetans. The French foreign minister and the president of the European Parliament raised the possibility of boycotting the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August, although not the actual games. This will spoil Beijing’s elaborately planned coming out party.
But the genie is out of the bottle. There are an estimated 100 million Buddhists in China alone, huge numbers even by Chinese standards. Although they may not all belong to the branch of Tibetan Buddhism headed by the Dalai Lama, they all lay claim to a kinship dating back 2,500 years when Prince Siddhartha gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree in the village of Bodh Gaya in northern India.
And its not primarily a matter of religion, as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal argues. While there may be similarities between the suppression of the Falun Gong movement as a threat to the Communist party, it goes deeper than that.
The struggle of the Tibetan people is one between a colonizing power and a subjugated race. Consider the daily realities of life in Tibet as described by journalist Howard W. French:
Tibetans live in closer proximity than ever with the Han, who have flooded in with a wave of state-driven investment. But they occupy separate worlds. Relations between the two groups are typically marked by stark disdain or distrust, by stereotyping and prejudice and, among Tibetans, by deep feelings of subjugation, repression and fear.
There is no legalized ethnic discrimination in China, but privilege and power are overwhelmingly the preserve of the Han, while Tibetans live largely confined to segregated urban ghettos and poor villages in their own ancestral lands.
In the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, Han shopkeepers, hostel owners and others who are picking up the pieces of their lives after riots that destroyed many Chinese-owned business there spoke with scarcely concealed condescension, and often with outright hostility, of Tibetans whom they described as lazy and ungrateful for the economic development they have brought.
“Our government has wasted our money in helping those white-eyed wolves,” Wang Zhongyong, a Han manager of handicraft shops, said in an interview in Lhasa.
Among Han in Lhasa, comments like these stood out for their mildness.
“The relationship between Han and Tibetan is irreconcilable,” said Yuan Qinghai, a Lhasa taxi driver, in an interview. “We don’t have a good impression of them, as they are lazy and they hate us, for, as they say, taking away what belongs to them. In their mind showering once or twice in their life is sacred, but to Han it is filthy and unacceptable.
Even among long-term residents in Lhasa, Han Chinese said they had no Tibetan friends and confessed that they tended to avoid interaction with Tibetans as much as possible. “There’s been this hatred for a long time,” said Tang Xuejun, a Han resident of Lhasa for the last 10 years. “Sometimes you would even wonder how we had avoided open confrontation for so many years. This is a hatred that cannot be solved by arresting a few people.” Tibetans, meanwhile, complain that they have been relegated to second-class citizenship, that their culture is being destroyed through forced assimilation, that their religious freedoms have been trampled upon.
We therefore share the experience of the Tibetans as a people who have worn the yoke of foreign domination. The oppression, repression, contempt and abuse brought upon the people of Tibet mirror the same attitudes borne against us by our Spanish, American and Japanese colonial masters.
Buddhism has thus become a source of enlightenment and change, not just for individuals but for society as a whole. This adds a whole other dimension to the concept of Buddhism as a liberating force. Put in starkly simple terms by the Venerable Thubten Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, in her book “Open Heart, Clear Mind”:
The first principal realization of the path (to enlightenment through the four noble truths)is the determination to be free from all problems and dissatisfaction. This arises from recognizing that or present situation isn’t completely satisfactory and that’s we’re capable of experiencing greater happiness. Thus, we’ll determine to free ourselves from a bad situation and aim for a better one.
The obvious danger is that once the Tibetan protest movement evolves into a war of national liberation, violence will be inevitable.
Already the younger and more aggressive generation of Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” a road to failure.
Years of simmering resentment over Beijing’s heavy-handed rule led to recent riots.
Report from the city of Chengdu, the gateway to the remote Tibetan plateau, now the edge of the battle zone.
The Dalai Lama speaks of the violence in Tibet and how he keeps himself serene and focused despite the continuing turmoil.
China makes Olympic security a priority amid allegations that Tibetans are planning violent attacks in their quest for increased autonomy.
Beijing has said “no force” can stop the Olympic flame relay, as it faces violent protests in key cities along its route.