Friday, October 28, 2011

Common Misconceptions: The Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama's Rebirth

On this blog, we usually address actions by non-Tibetans that harm Tibetans. For many of these actions, the cause is ignorance. Today, rather than talking about behaviors, I want to try and clear up a very common misconception shared by many, if not most, foreign supporters.

It is the role of the Panchen Lama in the discovery of the Dalai Lamas.

Let us pretend for a moment that this is one of those tricky college exams:

True or False: It is the duty of the Panchen Lama, exclusively, to recognize the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama?

Most people, including myself up until a few years ago, would answer "True." However, they would be wrong.

The Tibetan system of reincarnation is very complex, and so in general conversation, it is boiled down to its simplest terms. And in those simplest terms, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama have a joint relationship whereby one recognizes the other. And, in those simplest terms, it brings up the uncomfortable question that the Tibetan community is currently faced with: Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama recognized by HH the 14th Dalai Lama, has been missing since May 17th, 1995. He was only 6 years old when Chinese security forces disappeared him and his family. Without the Panchen Lama, who will recognize the 15th Dalai Lama when the current Dalai Lama passes?

Based on this belief, many fear that if Tibet is not free prior to the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet will, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. This belief creates a false sense of urgency, whereby there is an extremely limited amount of time to solve the Tibet problem. Many people faced with this misconception urge forms of sudden-death compromise. Although I fully believe that the situation in Tibet must be remedied as soon as possible, I have to ask: is this deadline real?

Let's put the situation into western terms.

In the United States government, we have a Vice President. In the simplest terms the Vice President's duty is to take over the roll of president in the case that the president dies or is otherwise incapacitated. In doing so, a smooth government continues and upheaval is prevented.

However, let us take instead the possibility that the President and Vice President are travelling together and there is some sort of accident: Both are incapacitated. If we were only looking at the simplest terms, then the country would be in very big trouble! However, an entire hierarchy exists within the US government which would cause a series of shifts, thus providing a new president and guaranteeing a smooth continuance of government and prevention of major upheaval.

This safety net provides two functions: Firstly, it guarantees that if something were to happen to both the President and Vice President, someone would still be running the country. However, secondly and far more relevant to our case, it guarantees that enemies of the current political regime cannot overtake the government through assassinating or kidnapping the President, Vice President or other political leaders.

Likewise, the Tibetan political and religious systems have had such failsafes for years. In the case that the Panchen Lama is unavailable, other qualified lamas can recognize the new Dalai Lama. In fact, recent history shows that the system can work perfectly smoothly, even when the Panchen Lama is unavailable.

For readers who have seen the Martin Scorcese film, Kundun, think back and try and remember the role the Panchen Lama served in the film. You may recall that he was not even mentioned! Why? Because in the case of the current Dalai Lama, The Panchen Lama was unavailable!

How is that? The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, passed away in 1933. The 9th Panchen Lama, Thubten Choekyi Nyima, passed away four years later in 1937. The current Dalai Lama was born in 1935. The search for and recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama commenced in 1937 after the Panchen Lama had died. To put it simply, after the death of Panchen Lama there was neither a Panchen Lama available to recognize the Dalai Lama nor a Dalai Lama available to recognize the Panchen Lama. While the system of mutual recognition works perfectly when there is an age gap of at least 15 years, it fails when the deaths and births fall within about ten years of each other.

Being that Buddhism teaches impermanence, the Lamas who worked within this system were painfully aware that you could not conveniently schedule death and there needed to be a back-up system in the case of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama dying or being born at around the same time.

In the case of the 14th Dalai Lama, he was recognized by another high lama: Reting Rinpoche. As we can see when we now look at HH 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and recipient of the 2006 congressional Gold Medal, the system seems to have worked just fine.

The disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama was one of the greatest and most tragic blows to Tibetans in their recent history. As long as he is missing, it will remain an open wound and I do not mean to dismiss that in any way. However, it is important that we remember that Tibetans and the Tibetan institution have an emergency plan, set up and practiced, for a situation in which the Panchen Lama is not available to recognize the Dalai Lama.

Why did I feel that this detail of Tibetan Buddhism and politics was so important that it deserved its own post? In Tibet's current non-violent struggle, the two main weapons are truth and hope. Without truth, there is no reliability or legitimacy to the cause. Without hope, it is too easy to give up and in doing so abandon the Tibetans inside of Tibet who's lives rely on not giving up. While we must always struggle to move as quickly as possible, we cannot afford to create a false deadline whereby we can declare the struggle "dead." For Tibetans inside of Tibet, as long as they remain oppressed, the struggle continues. If we declare it hopeless, we withdraw our support, and that is the greatest disservice we can provide.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The "Radical" Dalai Lama

The media. We haven't concentrated much on them here because, to be honest, media representation of Tibet is such a can of worms that it's overwhelming to try and cover all of the ways the media disempowers Tibet and Tibetans. Therefore, I ask of readers that you be patient with us as we cover each issue individually over time. What I want to talk about today is far from the only issue or the biggest issue of media coverage of Tibetan issues. It is just the one I saw most recently.

While doing my daily BBC browse, I came upon this headline on the front page for Asia-Pacific news.

"China attack." I was shocked and interested. HH Dalai Lama has spent the past several decades attempting to negotiate with China. It had been several years since HH Dalai Lama had made any strongly worded statements critical of China. If my memory serves me right, it's been since the protests and crackdown of 2008. However, even those could barely be termed "attacks." Perhaps, with his official retirement from political power and instatement of the new Kalon Tripa, he had decided to be more vocal?

The small blurb underneath was limited to saying he "criticises China," and so I decided to read the article.

The moment I clicked the link I was faced with a far tamer headline:

And an article even tamer yet:

This supposed attack, according to the BBC, was such things as the Dalai Lama maintaining that he, himself, made China uncomfortable for talking about the truth. "Made China uncomfortable?" If that's an attack, then tickling someone with a feather is felony assault!

He continues by mentioning that "Some Chinese officials describe me as a demon so naturally they fear...the demon." Here, the Dalai Lama is referencing widely publicized incidences where major Chinese officials have called him names and then showing understanding for the Chinese officials by justifying that they are just scared and having a fear reaction.

The so-called attack continues with (as the BBC puts it)

"He said that 'hypocrisy' has become part of the fabric of the 'communist' system and said that those who spoke the truth made China uncomfortable."
Okay, I can understand the use of the word hypocrisy in quotes, but communist? While communist and socialist may be used as an accusation and insult by American conservatives, this hardly applies in the case of China which describes itself as and is, according to its own constitution and ruling party, a communist nation!

This supposed "attack" is nothing more than observations that can be backed up by any reading of the news, and a few statements that are clearly from the Dalai Lama's point of view as a representative of Tibet. Unlike China, which calls the Dalai Lama a "Wolf in sheep's clothing" or a "demon," statements which could be termed attacks, how can statements such as "Naturally they fear [me]" or the stronger statement that the truth "makes China uncomfortable" be termed an "attack"?

This sensationalist headline, which is all that many readers will see, functions to falsely even the playing field. It makes it seem as though not only is China the rhetoric flinging, aggressive, attacking party with a total unwillingness to negotiate, but look: Even the Dalai Lama is on the attack!

I know, it's the media. Sensationalist headlines is what they do. But is this even a story?

Friday, October 21, 2011

On the recent crisis in Ngawa:

Tibet has been in the news a lot lately due to the recent crisis in Ngawa: As of the time of this writing, 8 young men and women had self immolated in protest of the Chinese occupation of Tibet during a span of roughly 2 weeks.

This tragedy has sparked a lot of discussion from many people, including many non-Tibetans. We, here at Overlooking Tibet, wanted to share this article written for the Lhakar Diaries by a young Tibetan in New York: How About Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T? I think this article perfectly articulates the fact that we should hesitate to criticize before walking a mile in someone's shoes. It also breaks down some of the common criticisms of the protests in Tibet, many of which are based on misconceptions, privilege, egocentrism and blatant misunderstandings of what drives the Tibetan cause.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but in such a volatile situation we first must strongly and accurately consider the situation of the people who want their voices heard.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Language and the Private/Public Sphere

There are two types of people involved in Tibetan Issues: those who, through their involvement, make personal connections inside of Tibetan communities and those who do not. While people might automatically condemn those without personal connections, based on my own experience (as can be seen in previous posts) those with personal connections often do a great deal of damage as well. Likewise, there are many people doing a great job of spreading information and other activities despite being in a situation where personal interaction with Tibetans is near impossible. This is not to say one is better or worse than the other, there are good people and bad people on both sides, but there is a divide. What I really want to talk about is something that I see among people in the second group: we who make personal connections, outside of our work, study, journalism, dharma or activism, with the Tibetan community.

By doing so, we enter their space. We remove ourselves from the public forum in which we conduct our other interactions. This might be physical interactions or, in this modern day and age of iphones, the world of social networking. We have moved from public business discussions into the world of friendship; the world of the private. This puts us on radically different footing.

I was browsing Facebook the other day when I came upon a picture posted by a Tibetan man living in India. Most of his Facebook friends, not to mention real-life friends, are Tibetans and his primary language is Tibetan. The picture was from a recent Tibetan event and he captioned it in Tibetan. Most of his friends likewise responded in Tibetan. However, one of the early responses came from a foreign Tibet supporter and read "English, please, so that others can understand."

I was immediately taken aback. He was not posting on a public, international forum or on an English language website: he was posting on the wall of his personal Facebook page. Not only that, but the primary readers of his page, his Facebook "friends" are Tibetans. What right do we, as foreigners and friends, have to demand the use of English in Tibetan personal space? Even in the case that we are invited into that personal space, it makes us no better than tourists who go to a foreign country and demand the use of English.

This is not to say that I do not have sympathy for the English poster. Several of my friends on Facebook write in very high level, scholarly Tibetan which can leave me in the dust. However, there is a difference between asking for help and demanding the use of my language, which in this private space is the minority language. Why not say "Hi! I don't understand the caption. Could some one help me with it?" thereby requesting assistance while respecting the space and people around as opposed to demanding that the Tibetan-speaking majority in Tibetan-speaking space conform to one's own English speaking whims.

We, as Americans, are famous and notorious for demanding foreign visitors and immigrants to our shores learn English if they are going to live here. How would we feel if a Pashto speaker, for example, marched into our home and demanded that we speak Pashto so that others could understand--within the privacy of our own space? Tibetan language is an important part of Tibetan identity. If we are claiming to support Tibet, we should then encourage the use of the language. We are so used to the privilege of having everyone speak English, of believing ourselves to be welcome everywhere. Supporting Tibet means respecting Tibetans, respecting their language, and respecting their space. The option always exists to learn Tibetan or respectfully ask for assistance, rather than demand that our English-speaking needs be met

Saturday, October 8, 2011

k but u rong doe

"I get that you're trying to set a mood, but why are you using Tibetan throat singing in a documentary about the Spartans, PBS?"

- one of my friends

Sunday, October 2, 2011

When the Apocalypse Comes, Only Tibet Will Be Left

This post was sparked by the following post, which I came across on tumblr:

title: “shangri-la”
i always look at the world for how beautiful it is, which can be found everywhere and anywhere as long as you look for it. but one day, man will destroy all that is left of that; and when i’ve had enough and want to make the whole world disappear, i will walk into tibet and lose myself in the himalayas.
Tibet is the perfect example of the Brown Space That Is Stuck in a By-Gone Age of Meditation And/Or Flying Monks Who Live Forever and Other Peaceful Spiritual Things. Assuming that the answer to human survival will lie in the Himalayas, while the rest of the world is in flames, is ridiculous. (Makers of the film 2012: I’m looking at you.) It assumes that Tibet, in its current state, is peaceful and happy and doing perfectly fine by itself—which, of course, is far from the truth. Believing this kind of tripe completely erases the last fifty years of Tibet’s history. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd to you that while Tibetans are fleeing into Nepal and India, risking limbs and life to seek freedom of religion, a good education, the chance to learn and use Tibetan in their public lives, the (usually) White Person is flying to Tibet and proclaiming it a magical place that not only can cure cancer but is Happiness and Peace made geographical?

The saddest part about the original quote is that this individual has gone to Tibet and still walked away with this view. I guess some ignorance is hard to break, especially when it’s being subtly and blatantly enforced by the oppressors. The Chinese government is notorious for paying students to show up at big functions (such as the arrival of Chinese delegates in foreign countries) if but to give some fodder to the media that shows that people love China and it’s just a rag-tag group of “splittists” who feel a different way. The Chinese government also coerces Tibetans into lying to the media, donning traditional dress and attending festivals and holidays that they were previously boycotting (knowing that it would piss China off if they refused to be puppets for China’s lie that We Keep the Tibetans Very Happy and Liberated, Yes), among many other things.

We of the West are still ignorant. We refuse to let go of the belief that Tibet is a space to be put on a pedestal and worshipped—but only while we’re taking the food off of their altars for our own private consumption. The end result of this thinking is almost always invasion, of both bodies and mind. We fear, so we invade to “liberate”; we lust after, so we appropriate. It’s been centuries and we have yet to change our outlook; we’ve just substituted our weapons—guns and Bibles when we’re entering countries of Adults and toys for when we’re entering countries of Children.

So when the apocalypse comes and you go walking into the Himalayas, I think you’ll find that not a single mountaintop has snow (thanks to global climate change), and not a single person will be there to guide you. I hope when you finally spot Lhasa and gravitate to the sparkling object in the distance, when you arrive there, you’ll find the golden arches of a McDonald’s.