Sunday, 19 April 2009

A Follow-Up Letter to the Dalai Lama

Your Holiness,

I hope that you have had the chance to read my previous letter to you.

After posting my missive to you on the internet, something important took place, something totally different from what I had assumed, as a result of which I have penned my second epistle.

If your holiness were to cast your mind back, you may recall that I had ended my first dispatch on the following note.

“If the current economic recession were to continue, China will not be able to provide employment for many of its restless millions. If economic unrest were to spread in China, which now has a vast rich-poor divide, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile might be able to bargain a certain degree of autonomy for itself.”

Your holiness, the economic recession is continuing, but the most affected countries are in the western world. China is also affected, but not to the extent western countries are. More importantly, the chances of civil unrest in China don’t seem to be very high. If anything, western nations look much more vulnerable than China! The reason for this is very simple. China does have a large and young work force which migrated to the cities in large numbers. Many workers are indeed unemployed. China does not offer a safety net consisting of the unemployment dole or retirement pensions, as western countries do. However, because Chinese workers have very low expectations, and because China has benefited from free market economy in the last 30 years, no one in China seems to want to agitate against the state or to turn the clock back. On the contrary, workers in western nations have such high expectations and take so many things for granted that if things get really bad, they are much more likely to revolt. In the case of an internal revolt, China has a tough internal security system which can suppress civil unrest to a large extent, whilst western nations don’t have anything of that sort. Already one hears of managers being held hostage by French and Belgian workers!

The net impact of this development is that the so-called liberal nation states of the world have a lot less leverage over China than ever before. Even before the recession, the developed nations were unwilling to use what little clout they had to force China make concessions over Tibet.

Your holiness, there is no doubt in my mind that the Tibetan community has got a raw deal from China and the rest of the world. However, rather than cry over spilt milk, it is important to make the best of a bad situation and move on. In this context, your holiness, it is important to carry out a ruthless analysis of the Tibetan situation and your position within the Tibetan community and Buddhists worldwide.

Your holiness, I always wondered why the Tibetan cause is not so very important to Buddhists across the world. Why doesn’t the Tibetan struggle mean as much to Buddhists as what the Palestinian struggle means to Muslims? Why aren’t your travails causing Buddhists all over the world, including in China, to rise up in arms if you are the living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Ocean of Wisdom), the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas? Why is Sri Lanka, a very devout Buddhist nation, so close to and friendly with your oppressor China?

I don’t claim to be an expert on Buddhism your holiness. However, I did a little bit of reading up and this is what I found. Buddhism has two main branches, the Theravada (or Hinayana) and Mahayana. Theravada is prevalent in countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and various other parts of South East Asia. It is called the southern branch of Buddhism. Mahayana is prevalent in China, Japan and various other parts of East Asia. Theravada’s philosophy revolves around original Buddhist texts in Pali. Mahayana is much more liberal and also accepts later works in Sanskrit, in addition to the Pali texts. The Buddhism followed in Tibet is a version of Mahayana. However, it has substantial differences from mainstream Mahayana especially because it has a lot more rituals.

Unlike Muslims or Christians, there is no great rivalry between various Buddhist sects, as befits a genuinely peaceful religion. However, other than Tibetan Buddhists, no other sect of Buddhism recognises your holiness as an incarnation of a bodhisattva or an enlightened one! Even within Tibetan Buddhism, there are four schools and your holiness is the head of only one of the four schools, namely the Gelugpa school. For Buddhists outside Tibet, you are just a teacher, one of many Buddhist teachers. Each Buddhist enclave has its own head teacher. For example, in Bhutan, the senior-most Buddhist monk is called the Je Khenbo, who is the highest authority for Bhutanese Buddhists.

In other words, your holiness, you have very little authority or even influence over Buddhists other than Tibetan Buddhists.

Your holiness, when the Chinese took over Tibet, they said that they were rescuing Tibetan serfs from their cruel overlords, who were all Lamas. Your holiness, there was a great deal of truth in what the Chinese said. Tibet was a cruel and feudal society. The Buddhist clergy, the Lamas, controlled most of the land and held Tibetan serfs in bondage. Of course, that did not give China the right to invade Tibet, any more than European countries had the right to conquer and rule the third world. However, it must be remembered that the Chinese revolution has managed to lift more people out of poverty than any other movement in the world. Autocratic China has done more for its poor than democratic India. The point I am making is that even though China has done its best to erase Tibetan culture, in economic terms it has brought prosperity to Tibet. In a way, the Chinese occupation of Tibet can be compared to the British colonisation of India. British rule was a mixed bag and brought many benefits to India, just as it drained away a lot of wealth from India. However, unlike the British in India, the Chinese don’t claim to be inherently and immutably superior to Tibetans. Rather, they claim that Tibetans are Chinese!

The biggest damage being done to Tibet by China is the transplanting of thousands of Han Chinese in Tibet. Further, the Tibet Autonomous Regions includes only half of cultural Tibet and many Tibetans live outside the region. Your holiness, when my initial letter to you was published on the internet, a Chinese blogger pointed out to me the success of the Plantation of Ulster and asked why China shouldn’t do something similar in Tibet. As your holiness knows, the Plantation of Ulster was carried out by the British in the 17th century by transplanting thousands of Scottish Presbyterians in Northern Ireland and settling them on land confiscated from the native Irish. The British created a local population that would always stay loyal to the crown. The Protestant Irish-Scots have stayed true to the British flag as a result of which Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK. In a similar manner, why shouldn’t the plantation of Tibet by Han Chinese work? In my opinion, your holiness, it may very well work. Sad, but true!

Your holiness, in the changed economic climate, with China getting stronger than ever, what can you do to get your community a better deal? I don’t know, your holiness. I don’t really have any bright ideas and I have a feeling that, neither do you.

In my opinion, your holiness, the best thing you can do is to give the overseas Tibetan community something that China can’t give, namely democracy. As I (rather impudently) suggested in my last letter, the political head of the overseas Tibetan community ought to be a democratically elected leader. Just as Europe managed to create a clear distinction between the church and the state, there ought to be a distinction between the Tibetan state and the Tibetan Buddhist clergy headed by you. Yes, your holiness, I am aware that the Tibetan government in exile ( has an elected parliament and a written constitution. But your holiness, everyone knows that real power still rests with you. Of course, this is result of the deep admiration and respect which Tibetans have for you. But it is important that you hand over power to a bunch of secular politicians and allow them to control the reins entirely.

Your holiness, once democracy is firmly entrenched within the overseas Tibetan community, it should be left to the Tibetan community to decide how best the struggle for Tibetan rights ought to be prosecuted. The democratically elected leaders of overseas Tibetans may choose to pursue a struggle for total independence. Or they may choose to negotiate with the Chinese and seek limited autonomy. They may even decide agree to become just another province of China in exchange for cultural freedom. But that decision (tough though it is) is for the Tibetan community to make in a democratic manner as befits the 21st century. It shouldn’t be up to a single individual who owes his position to an organised religion.

Once again, I wish Your Holiness and the people of Tibet all the best for the future.

With warm and sincere regards


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