Robert Thurman: Why Tibet Matters So Much
At times like these, I often wonder what normal people might think about the strange behavior of the Chinese government when the Dalai Lama looms on the horizon. President Obama meets all manner of heads of state, even small states, business people, ministers, celebrities, religious leaders, and no one pays that much attention. He already met the Dalai Lama when he was a senator, and now he looks forward to a pleasant chat with one of the most engaging, wise, friendly, and good humored people on their planet. People wouldn't pay that much attention to it if it wasn't that the Chinese government didn't go berserk in public, like it was the end of the world or something!
Isn't it an amazing spectacle, the "rising power" China, largest population, surging economy [supposedly], big military, millions of talented people [just won gold and silver in elegant couples ice dancing], and so on, freaking out because a nice Buddhist monk with a shaved head and only a couple of maroon robes to his name, a stateless man without a country, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate [who they claim to be a "Tibetan Chinese"], who wants nothing more than friendly, cooperative, peaceful relations with everyone, including the Chinese overlords and occupants of his beloved Tibet, is going to have a cup of hot water [in lieu of tea] and a chat with President Barack Obama, and hopefully extend a hello to Michelle and the girls, if she's free from her excellent organic gardening and they're home from school in time!
What is their problem? Against the feelings and warnings of many of his countrymen, the Dalai Lama wants Tibet to be a fully contributing part of China, achieving economic success and enjoying the genuine autonomy promised to all "minority nationalities" under the Chinese constitution -- but the Chinese insist against all evidence to the contrary that he wants to split Tibet away from them! The Dalai Lama wants to use his legendary reconciliatory skills to help China achieve the "harmonious society" they yearn for -- and the Chinese Communist party officials call him a dangerous reactionary, even a wolf in monk's clothing! The Dalai Lama wants not only to preserve and restore Tibetans' spiritually satisfying Buddhist culture, he wants to help re-kindle the spiritual contentment of the hundreds of millions of traditionally Buddhist Chinese people, helping them to be more patient with the inevitable shortcomings of governments and bureaucracies, and giving them the inner peace that guarantees a better level of social peace. Yet the Chinese openly admit they fear his calming influence over the hearts of his own people and millions of religious Chinese people as well!
The Dalai Lama wants to see Tibet's environment restored, brought back from the brink of devastation due to extinguished wildlife, de-forested valleys, desertified grassland, overpopulated towns, and swiftly melting glaciers that 60 years of Chinese military occupation, extractive industrialization, and unregulated colonization have caused, according to China's own environmental scientists. And Chinese officials warn of terrible dangers if anyone talks to him! And, in case they don't want people to know that world leaders meet and like the Dalai Lama, the Chinese serve as unpaid PR activists, insuring that his every meeting gets world-wide publicity because of their immoderate threats and protests! It is miraculous!
It would even be humorous, if it were not so tragic. All Tibet -- not only the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] but also the eleven Tibet Autonomous Prefectures [TAP] of other Chinese provinces that are twice as large and are home to twice as many Tibetans as the TAR -- is under military lock-down, with thousands of Tibetans dead in the last two years, imprisoned for peaceful protests and tortured to break their spirits. Some just "disappeared," and the Chinese cultural genocide program against Tibetan spirituality and even cultural lifestyle is in a terminally intensified mode. One of the worst programs is the forced migration of more than a million Tibetan nomads off their vast grasslands which they have kept green and beautiful for thousands of years [on the pretext that the Tibetans are causing the desertification, which is actually caused by Chinese commercial wool, meat and hide businesses], confiscation of their prosperous herds, and re-settlement in concrete slum housing in city suburbs and put on some sort of dole -- their children schooled in Chinese language and so on.
China has been a great nation during much of the last two millennia, and will undoubtedly be one again. When its leaders recover from their imitation of modern military-industrial dictatorship and re-awaken to the ancient Confucian principle of "the mandate of heaven," they will come to the recognition on Chinese terms to the fact that they are the absolute servants of the Chinese people, not their absolute masters as they currently consider themselves [ the rich dictatorship of the poor proletariat]. Totally false is the claim that Chinese people like autocracy and are happily obedient to dictatorial power, which is used as an excuse for denying them democratic freedoms. Confucius and his followers and generations of Chinese Buddhist leaders all taught respect for individuals, golden rule ethics and compassion in the treatment of people, the centrality of education in training a competent and honorable managerial class, And all the social skills that are required to make a democracy work. And today the world needs the Chinese people to find their own way to their own principled democracy, free of either nominally communist/socialist or overtly capitalist/fascist dictatorship propped up by multi-national corporations in search of cheap labor and docile consumers. If China continues on its present course of trying to outdo 19th century industrialist imperialism and 20th century military-industrial complex supported economic hegemony, it will inevitably clash violently with its biggest neighbors, Russia, Japan, and India, on its way to attempting to overwhelm its global competitor America.
We all need China to return to being itself, recover its own past glories of art and culture and spirituality. Just as the great Han dynasty awoke Chinese liberal individualism and popular creativity after the nightmare of the autocracy of the short-lived because intolerable Chin dynasty of "great wall" notoriety, the globally conscious locally responsible new free China can awaken from the nightmare of the short-lived because intolerable Mao dynasty and come up with a distinctively Chinese form of democratic modernity. If the current leadership wants to benefit from the inevitable transition and become globally popular like Gorbachev, they must act now. If they want to hang on with all their might and try to hold the volcano of the Chinese people's thirst for liberty, they will not get to enjoy the new society that is being born.
The Tibetan people are inveterate high-altitude, semi-nomadic, spiritually fortified individualists, who will always breathe the air of freedom, no matter what is done to them. They are the canaries in the mine shaft of Chinese neo-colonialism, and they are secretly admired by thoughtful Chinese who come to know them [not seduced by simplistic propaganda stereotypes] precisely for their inspiring the freedom-loving Chinese heart. The communist party oligarchy is afraid of them just because their determined insistence on their rights and freedoms is contagious for the Chinese individuals [remember the Beijing University student who cried out at Tiananmen square before the communist party ordered the massacre, "I am an individual!"] Therefore, the Tibetan people need to be supported with all we've got to help turn China's leaders away from unrealistic dreams of world-domination toward the more satisfying responsible creativity of allowing the unfoldment of their peoples' spiritual potential and cultural genius for the good life. Then mighty China will become just in time the friendly partner we need in the formation of our peaceful world community.
The Tibetan plateau is the water-tower of all Asia. The Yellow River, the Yangtse, the Mekong, the Salween, the Iriwaddy, the Brahmaputra, the Ganga and Yamuna, the Indus complex -- all these rivers rise in environmental Tibet, and the cleanness and fertility and glacial cool of the plateau are critical to the health of these nine alluvia thaty sustain the lives of over three billion people, in the most populated swathe of peoples on earth, from the Chinese, through the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Thai, Burmese, Bangladeshis, Indians, up to the Pakistanis. The de-forestation, dessication, pollution, and overheating due to colonization of the headwater regions of all these rivers will be a global disaster of epic proportions.
So President Barack and Your Holiness, as you two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates meet tomorrow on the fifth day of the lunar New Year of the Iron Tiger, celebrated inTibetan culture as the fortnight of the Buddha miracles, may Jesus and Buddha both shower their blessings upon you both! May you share your visions of a world in harmony of peace and justice! May the POTUS, mythically the most powerful man on earth, and the Dalai Lama, the powerless true man of no rank, enjoy your natural heartfelt friendship quietly, for a moment without pressure of agendas! And from your meeting may the realistic and loving energy of determined freedom and universal responsibility radiate outward and finally inspire your friends in leadership of Great China to quiet down their rabid party functionaries who think their iron rice bowl depends on the strenuous feat of turning a potential best friend into a deadly enemy - and may those leaders themselves step up to the responsibility of changing their policy from stubborn domination to realistic cooperation!
After all, the leaders of China bear many of the horrendous pressures shouldered by the POTUS, and does, and they are probably the only "world leaders" who have never personally met the Dalai Lama and enjoyed his friendship and the kind of realistic reflection a powerful person can only get from the transcendentally powerless! May their curiosity and adventurousness get the better of their fearful caution and may they personally meet soon, for the sake of all life on this earth, unto at least the seventh generation of our great great great great great grandchildren!
Robert A. F. Thurman is Jay Tsong Khapa Professor of Buddhist Studies, Columbia University, President of Tibet House US, and author of Why the Dalai Lama Matters.