In 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded part of the small Himalayan nation of Tibet. By 1959, they had pushed through the entire country, which was easy to do since Tibet lacked a major defensive army. To this day, China claims that Tibet has always been a state of China and that the PLA was acting to bring a better standard of living to the Tibetans. Tibetans that have escaped tell a different story.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama had already escaped to find refuge in India, where he and the Tibetan government in exile still reside. The Dalai Lama and his advisors had seen what China did to the tenth Panchen Lama – took him into “protective custody” and was never seen again. China then declared that they had found a successor to the missing Panchen Lama. This is a good indication of how China will react after the death of the current and fourteenth Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama’s Role to Tibetans
The Dalai Lama is considered the soul of Tibet. The Statue of Liberty has nothing on the Dalai Lama as being the major symbol of a nation. He is considered the living embodiment of the essence of Tibet, similar to a Vestal Virgin as the keeper of the sacred flame during Roman times. He is even known as Kundun, or “the Presence.” This doesn’t mean that all Tibetans obey or worship the Dalai Lama, but he does have some influence.
The Dalai Lama has long stopped asking for the Chinese to leave Tibet, but does demand that Tibetans are treated with compassion and Respect. He has also repeatedly asked the Chinese stop polluting Tibet. Tibetans are now a minority in Tibet, and are the poorest of the minorities. The Dalai Lama was not allowed to go to Tibet to help with relief efforts after an earthquake in April, 2010 left over 2000 dead.
In the aftermath of that earthquake, Buddhist monks went out to help the people. Reuters and the BBC have reported to have distributed food, tents and medicine to victims, as well as cremate casualties. They have also been reported to have dug into rubble to rescue victims with nothing but their bare hands and wooden stakes. The Chinese soldiers sent to help are not trusted by the people, which includes some Han Chinese. The Chinese soldiers do not know how to speak Tibetan.
The Problem of Succession
The current Dalai Lama is considered the fourteenth incarnation of the God of Compassion, Chenrizig. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that reincarnation does happen. Wouldn’t the Dalai Lama just come back in another life? Possibly, but here is the problem. Where would Dalai Lama Number 15 be born? In Tibet? In China? In India? In America, where there are pockets of Tibetans? Would this Dalai Lama also be “taken into protective custody” by the Chinese if discovered? This Dalai Lama would either disappear or be persuaded to become more Chinese-friendly.
The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935. Although his astronomers state that he will live to be 90, that’s not too far away. With the death of the Dalai Lama goes the hopes of Tibetans living in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has often told the Tibetan government in exile that they better figure out how they are going to pick a successor. In a 2009 New York Times article, Columbia University Professor Robert Thurman argued that the Dalai Lama could declare a young Tibetan in India to be the reincarnated soul of his regent, or the man that actually ruled Tibet before the present Dalai Lama was old enough to do so.
But the Dalai Lama may declare that he is the last incarnation. Since the country of Tibet is gone in every way except name, then so is the presence of Tibet.
Examples From History
Although the immediate future for Tibet after the Dalai Lama’s death is bleak, there may be hope in the long term, after several generations. The Tibetan people can look at the Jewish people for an example in patience. Like modern Tibetans, the Jews lost their disputed homeland and were persecuted for thousands of years (still are, arguably) but finally got their own nation back.
How did the Jews survive in exile for thousands of years? By keeping their traditions, their language and their religion intact, no matter what country they found themselves in.
China may wind up being like one of the many nations that overran ancient Israel like the Babylonians and the Chaldeans. No nation or political empire is immune to internal problems which can bring it low. Just look at the Roman Empire or the USSR. Although it may take generations, if China still keeps to its hardnosed lack of tolerance, eventually its own people will demand and get change.
But until that time, its going to be a long wait. Perhaps by then Tibetans and Chinese will have fallen in love with peoples of other countries and traditions. Perhaps in a century, we will not think ourselves as Chinese, Tibetan or American but as human. That would be the best sign of compassion for our species and the Dalai Lama’s work on Earth would truly have a happy ending at last.
“Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama.” His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Harper One; 1990.
“Kundun: a Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama.” Mary Craig. Counterpoint; 1998.
“Quake sees Tibetan Buddhist Monks assert roles.” Chris Buckley. Reuters. April 16, 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE63F0LO20100416
“Dalai Lama seeks to visit quake-ravaged area of China.” CNN. April 17, 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/04/17/china.quake.dalai.lama/index.html
“Can you choose your reincarnated successor?” New York Times. February 15, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/weekinreview/01powell.html