Tibet lies on a vast, arid plateau surrounded by steep mountain ranges in central Asia. It is bordered by China, Myanmar (Burma), India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Its area is nearly 500,000 square miles and it averages 15,000 feet in altitude, which is why the encyclopedias often refer to Tibet as the “Roof of the World.”
According to legend, the father of all Tibetans was a monkey and the mother an ogress. (No doubt Charles Darwin would have been pleased by the first image and disturbed by the second.) Tibet’s primitive tribes believed in “Bon,” a shamanistic religion in which communications between the visible world and spiritual world were conducted by shamans, or priests.
Sometime in the 6th century, these tribes were consolidated into one tribe, and in the 7th century, they became a great nation under Songtsen Gampo, perhaps the most powerful ruler Asia had yet seen. The emperors of China and Nepal offered him their daughters in marriage. These women were Buddhists, and they persuaded their husband to encourage the spread of their religion, which was founded in the 6th century B.C. by a young prince, Siddhartha Gautama, revered as “Buddha,” or the “Enlightened One.”
Songtsen Gampo sent many of his subjects to India to study Sanskrit and the “Pali Canon” (a body of scripture based on Buddha’s teachings) in order to develop a written Tibetan language. He also built nearly 200 Buddhist temples, and he established a body of common law that, with a few exceptions, was distinguished by its emphasis on Buddhism.
By the 8th-century reign of his descendant, Trisong Detsen, all major Buddhist writings had been translated into Tibetan, and scores of foreign Buddhists were teaching in Tibetan monasteries.
But in the 9th century, another king, Lang Dharma, attempted to exterminate Buddhism and restore shamanism. For one generation, there were no monasteries, no monks, no nuns. Buddhism appeared to be dead. But when Lang Dharma was assassinated, Buddhism gradually began to spread again.
During the 11th century, a famous Indian scholar, Atisha, visited Tibet and ended up staying for 12 years, teaching and writing. He helped Tibetan Buddhism to flourish.
The Dalai Lama
In the 17th century, Tibetan Buddhism was so renowned that even the emperors of China sought the Dalai Lama’s guidance. Just who was the “Dalai Lama”? The title, which is Mongolian for “Ocean of Wisdom,” has been bestowed upon the spiritual leader of Tibet since the 15th century. A Western writer once explained:
Be it understood, they [the Dalai Lamas] are not gods; nor are they “living Buddhas,” as they are called by the Chinese (Huo Fo-yeh). They are the embodiment of the souls of men who were saintly during their first incarnations and are on their way to Buddhahood through a long succession of lives as mortals in this vale of tears.
The 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawong Gyatso (1617- 82), became not only the spiritual but also the political leader of Tibet. According to one modern observer, he assured that the entire nation would be dedicated to a religious principle, “and it has been the constant attempt to put that principle in practice that has been Tibet’s greatest source of strength.”
At various times during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, parts of Tibet were temporarily under Chinese influence. But the Dalai Lama was always recognized as the head of state.
Tibet in the Early 20th Century
Western influences were minimal. A few missionaries and a few expeditions were sent to explore Tibet, but that was all. And China discouraged further foreign contact.
Then in 1904, the Tibetans signed a treaty with Great Britain. A few years later, when China threatened to tighten its grip on Tibet, it was to Great Britain that the Tibetans appealed for help. But the British government had pledged not to intervene in Chinese-Tibetan relations and on several occasions had even signed treaties with China regarding Tibet without consulting the Tibetans.
In 1911-12, a civil war in China sparked a Tibetan revolt. The occupying troops of the Chinese Imperial Army were forced to surrender, and in 1913, the Dalai Lama formally reaffirmed his nation’s independence. The new “Republican Government” in China insisted that Tibet was a Chinese province, but, for all practical purposes, independence was real and was acknowledged by a number of nations in the East and the West.
In the 1920s, the 13th Dalai Lama tried to bring Tibet, a nation of nomadic herders and farmers, into the 20th century. But he died in 1933, with most of his plans for a modernized economy, school system, and military unrealized.
In 1935, my brother—the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso—was born to a peasant family in a small village in northeastern Tibet. After passing many rigorous tests, he was formally installed as the Dalai Lama in 1940.
As the recent Hollywood film Kundun notes, the young Dalai Lama was greatly interested in technology, and he shared his predecessor’s desire to modernize the country. He was delighted when the first English school opened in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1944. He also advocated land reform, industry, and trade with the West.
The Chinese Invasion
Meanwhile, China was planning a fullscale invasion. The first troops arrived in the outlying regions in 1949, and more soon followed. The communists claimed they were “liberating our brothers in Tibet from imperialist oppression.”
In 1950, the small, poorly equipped Tibetan army was defeated. Tibetan delegates who were in China on a special mission were coerced into signing— without authority from the Tibetan government—a 17-point agreement that returned Tibet “to the big family of the motherland.” On paper, existing political and religious freedoms were preserved, but China very quickly seized the opportunity to use its new “administration zones” and “military supervisors” to encroach upon them.
In 1954, the Dalai Lama attended the National People’s Congress in Peking, hoping to find a peaceful way to deal with China without compromising Tibetan interests or Buddhist principles. This was when Mao uttered his famous warning, “But, of course, religion is poison. It has two great defects. It undermines the race [and] retards the progress of the country. Tibet and Mongolia have been poisoned by it.”
Mao continued to send thousands of soldiers into Tibet. They looted monasteries and temples and imprisoned or killed resisters. By the end of 1958, Tibet was completely conquered.
In 1959, after hearing of Chinese atrocities committed in eastern Tibet, a group of rebels staged an unsuccessful attack on the Chinese garrison in Lhasa. Word spread that the Chinese planned to retaliate by assassinating the Dalai Lama. Thousands of Tibetans stood outside their leader’s compound, ready to protect him.
The Dalai Lama and his entire family (which included me) secretly escaped only hours before the Chinese began shelling—and killing—many of those brave defenders.
Since the 24-year-old Dalai Lama went into exile 40 years ago, more than 80,000 Tibetans have joined the refugee communities he founded in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
They have fled from genocide. By its own estimate, between March of 1959 and October of 1960, the People’s Liberation Army killed over 87,000 Tibetans in Central Tibet alone.
As Tibetan officials later reported,
The consequences of the confrontation which occurred were devastating: the Chinese troops massacred thousands of people; tens of thousands were taken to concentration or labor camps where most died; Tibetan cultural and religious institutions were destroyed and the population was subjected to terror campaigns and massive “re-education” efforts which the Chinese in China only experienced years later during the Cultural Revolution.
The current estimate is that more than 1.2 million Tibetans are dead as a result of the Chinese occupation.
Since 1979, the Chinese have claimed that religious freedom has been allowed in Tibet, but in reality it has only been superficial. A few rituals have been reinstituted and a few temples have been rebuilt. Buddhist teaching is still banned or, in the rare cases in which it is allowed, under tight control. Only a handful of monasteries and nunneries— eight out of more than 6,000—were still in operation in the mid-1970s. In independent Tibet, the most prominent ones each trained 3,000- 10,000 monks and nuns. Now, each is limited to 150-400 and is forced to teach Marxism.
A 1990 Communist Party document states:
“With the development of our socialist system, the social system for the natural extinction of religion was established.”
Another, issued in 1991, adds:
We should oppose all who work to split the motherland in the name of nationality and religion. There should be no hesitation in taking harsh decision to deal with any political disturbance carried out in the name of nationality and religion, and in doing so the state’s political, judiciary, and even military powers should be used.
Modern Tibetans realize that although “China no longer bombs or sends Red Guards to destroy Tibet’s monasteries, its aim still remains the same as before: total elimination of Tibetan religion and culture.” To help accomplish this end, China has flooded the country with Chinese settlers and soldiers—as many as 7.5 million—and it has instituted so many restrictions on the economy that Tibetans are among the world’s poorest citizens. Entrepreneurship and industry are actively discouraged.
A Free Tibet
A free Tibet exists—but not in the Tibetan homeland, where Tibetans have no rights except those that the Chinese see fit to grant them. The Dalai Lama has established a government-in-exile, which features a written constitution, a representative assembly, an independent judiciary, and all the other essentials of a democratic system. He has also founded a number of monastic centers of learning and schools for Tibetan children.
He travels around the world to educate others about the fate of the Tibetans. He tells a tragic story—of six million people locked in a desperate struggle for survival. But he also tells an inspiring story—of those same people and their quiet courage, their deep faith, and their unquenchable optimism.
The Dalai Lama further explains why those who are neither Buddhist nor Tibetan should champion Tibet: We all share a common nature and a common spark of divinity. We all want to be free—politically and spiritually. The cause of a free Tibet, therefore, is the cause of all people.
Tibet has endured great suffering in the last half-century, but suffering can breed the kind of inner strength that people require in order to change the world for the better.