The Long Way Home to Lhasa

By Ira Rifkin

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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Tibet would seem to have little history in common with Israel. Yet much like Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple, today Tibetans face the daunting task of preserving their religious culture and national dreams while facing an indeterminate exile.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled political and cultural leader, is well aware of the parallels. On talking to fellow Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel for the first time, the Dalai Lama wasted no time in asking the Holocaust survivor: “Your people left their land 2,000 years ago and they are still here. Tell me how they survived.”

In 1949, the Dalai Lama’s homeland was occupied by the Chinese. A decade later, a short-lived, CIA-aided Tibetan uprising was brutally suppressed, forcing the Dalai Lama — a title that translates as “Ocean of Wisdom” — to flee over the Himalayas to India with tens of thousands of his countrymen. Since then, the Chinese have killed or imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, according to human rights groups and Tibetan activists.

The Dalai Lama insists that he seeks only autonomy, and not independence, for Tibet. But China refuses to seriously negotiate the issue, and international pressure on Beijing over Tibet has so far amounted to little more than empty political posturing.

Meanwhile, Beijing encourages ethnic Chinese to settle in Tibet as part of its systematic dismantling of Tibet’s unique Buddhist culture. The Dalai Lama — the 14th in a line of individuals, each of whom is said to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a being believed to choose repeated reincarnation for the purpose of helping others — has said he could be the last in that line.

Should that prove true, its impact on Tibetan religion would compare with the impact that Rome’s destruction of the Second Temple had on Israelite religion. The structure of Tibetan Buddhism as it has been for some 500 years would be forced to undergo radical revision just to survive, just as Judaism survived by shifting from a temple-based religion to its rabbinic form.

The Dalai Lama occupies a unique niche in the West. A literary phenomenon who churns out an endless line of best sellers, he is an iconic religious figure to Buddhists and many non-Buddhists alike, symbolizing humility, compassion and moral responsibility. I first met him in 1987 in Los Angeles, during his first visit to the United States. Since then I’ve often interviewed him as a journalist and have attended his lectures and dialogues as a student of religion. In 1997, I was privileged to attend a Passover Seder held in his honor at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.

The Dalai Lama, whose given name is Tenzin Gyatso, has an extraordinary presence. Despite his imposing pedigree, he is remarkably down to earth and approachable. His frequent laughter is infectious. I’m a great fan.

But what has he achieved for Tibet, other than to keep its cause alive in the media through the force of his personality?

The Dalai Lama is now 70. China’s policy toward him appears obvious: Just wait till he dies. And why not? No nation dares to meaningfully challenge China on the issue.

The Dalai Lama is always publicly hopefully about the Tibetan cause. In private, it’s another matter. At a closed-door gathering for Tibetans earlier this month in Washington, the Dalai Lama expressed frustration and disappointment about the situation, according to a Tibetan journalist I spoke with. Nor is he the only one to despair. Richard Holbrooke, former American ambassador to the United Nations and former assistant secretary of state, recently said that “the truth is dire… Tibet is an endangered species, as much as any in the world… . So let’s not kid ourselves.”

Preserving Tibetan religious culture in exile in an age of growing cultural homogeneity will be extraordinarily difficult, even more so than it was for Jews prior to the 20th century. Tibetan nationalism will be yet more challenging to sustain over time.

It took Jews 2,000 years to re-establish an independent state in their homeland. By then, later-arriving Arabs had settled in the land and claimed it as their own. Today, much of the world has come to regard returning Jews as colonialist interlopers with no connection to their first-century predecessors.

How long before Tibetans are viewed as foreigners in their homeland? How long before historical memory is lost, and the world thinks of Tibet as Chinese territory and favors the descendants of Chinese settlers over Tibetans seeking to reclaim their historical homeland?

Moreover, it took Jewish secularists willing to take up the gun for Zionism to achieve its state. Tibetan Buddhism, despite the limited 1959 uprising, stresses nonviolence and the relative unimportance of earthly achievements.

Secular Zionists abandoned their religious roots to succeed. Must Tibetans eventually abandon theirs?

Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval” (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2004).






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