It concerns a previously independent country that was invaded by communist China in 1949 and since that time has been occupied, its people and culture ruthlessly exploited and oppressed. Inside Tibet there has been a resistance to China’s illegal occupation waged by Tibetans who are determined to regain their national independence. It is important to know that the overwhelming majority of Tibetans, around 6 million, live under Chinese occupation. Prisoners in their own land, a territory over twice the size of France with a population similar to that of London. There is an exiled community of Tibetans spread around the world, mostly in India, over 100, 000, who thanks to the efforts of the Dalai Lama and an exiled Administration (aided by international support) have been provided education and health services and allowed to maintain the many rich traditions of Tibetan culture, including of course its Buddhist based religion.
It is Tibet’s religious traditions which has attracted the attention of a large number of western followers, many of whom relate to Tibet, not in terms of a national cause for freedom, but as a philosophy and practice that must be protected. Such individuals occasionally appear on social sites such as Facebook or Twitter others actually form groups, which on the surface appear to be about supporting Tibet, yet careful reading of their actions and objectives soon reveal that what counts is the return to Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and a solution which would preserve Tibetan Buddhism. Such opinion cares little for the political struggle of ordinary Tibetans inside occupied Tibet, who face Chinese bullets, prison and torture for daring to demand their nation’s freedom.
What influence could result in such people, although cognisant of the political hopes and resistance of Tibetans inside Tibet, dismissing their struggle and instead supporting proposals and supposed solutions which would mean the end of Tibet’s national identity? The answer rests within the popularity, devotion and respect with which His Holiness is held by a large number of his Western followers, it is very interesting to note that many seem to consider Tibet’s political and religious leader as having a divine like infallibility. Certainly a large number of Western devotees consider the Dalai Lama as possessing an enlightened wisdom and compassion which transcends the mundane affairs of politics. Of course for Tibetans this is a profoundly engrained cultural, historic and societal belief, as such it is entirely understandable. This visceral conviction means that within the political field, as it relates to Tibet’s cause, proposals made by His Holiness will receive collective respect, agreement and be beyond critique, no matter how flawed; although privately it may well be a very different matter. Mr. Tsewang Dhondup who fled from Tibet in May 2009, expressed the conflicted position of Tibetans perfectly when he stated: “To be honest, what I want is independence, but I think it’s important for Tibetans to follow whatever His Holiness the Dalai Lama says.”
Many Western students and admirers of Tibetan Buddhism, appeared to have abandoned some of the more discriminating intellectual values and practices of their own culture and reject any critical evaluation of the proposals offered by the Tibetan Administration to resolve the issue of Tibet. It is such devotional submission that explains why some talk about Buddhism, Tibet and the Dalai Lama in one breath, as if somehow they are all the same cause. You can see many examples of such thinking on the internet by looking at the websites of groups and organizations which, though at first glance declaring themselves Tibet supporters, are in reality more concerned with Buddhism, or as the case with many, the teachings of the Dalai Lama, and wrongly conflate supporting, what is a political cause to free Tibet, with loyalty to His Holiness. Which brings us back to the heart of our question, what is the Tibet cause about?
It would be easier to address that critical question by outlining what it isn’t. It is certainly not about the views of western Buddhists or followers of His Holiness, no matter how principled, peaceful or saturated in Buddhist wisdom. Nor is it about the position or proposals of His Holiness, a fact conceded and stated by Tibet’s leader at Yale University in 1991, when he rightly informed a distinguished audience that:
“I have always stated that the central issue is that the Tibetan people must ultimately choose their own destiny. It is not for the Dalai Lama, and certainly not for the Chinese to make that decision. It should ultimately be the wishes of the Tibetan people that should prevail”. (The Dalai Lama, Yale University, 9th October 1991)
This is correct in all levels, politically, ethically and in terms of justice, the cause of Tibet belongs to the six million Tibetans, virtually all of whom are inside occupied Tibet. Since that time the Tibetan leader has shifted his position on a number of occasions, currently his Administration is seeking to negotiate with China on the basis of accepting a form of ‘autonomy’ under communist Chinese national and regional law. This has been described as the Middle Way Proposal and you may not be surprised to note that it has attracted the uncritical support of the majority of His Holiness’s Western followers. Persuaded by a reasoning which counsels that it’s better to accept Chinese domination and preserve Tibet’s religious culture than to strive for a just and rightful national freedom. But are the world peace brigade forgetting something rather central in advocating such a solution? Of course, the very Tibetan people who His Holiness stated in 1991 should be the deciding authority on their nation’s future status.
This is the key point of decision for anyone considering offering support to Tibet, precisely what is being supported, is it the Tibetan people inside occupied Tibet, who as has been shown by the National Uprisings of 2008 and later, are waging a courageous campaign of resistance to defend their culture and demand their nation’s independence. Or is your support an expression of devotional blindness towards Buddhism and the enlightened wisdom of His Holiness? As has been stated elsewhere, one is a political struggle for a nation’s freedom, the other is a philosophical tradition aimed at self-development and ultimately enlightenment. Yet, how enlightened or compassionate is it to abandon and ignore the sacrifices and courage of Tibetans inside occupied Tibet, who are struggling against a vicious occupation for independence?