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Saturday, 01 September 2007

Tibet: Visiting a Dying Culture - Page 2

Written by Steven Mendel
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Visiting Tibet is like watching someone drown. They are calling out for help as you stand on shore not knowing how to save them. An elderly Tibetan woman grabs my wife’s hand stares intently in her eyes and sweeps her free hand across the sky, encompassing the mountains and says, “Tibet, Tibet.” A middle aged man in an outdoor market beckons me to sit next to him and for the next fifteen minutes pours out his life story and that of his beleaguered country, all the time anxiously looking out for anyone who may be eaves dropping.

The Tibetan culture is under attack by the Chinese government. China’s strategy is not subtle but it doesn’t have to be. One statistic tells the story: the population of China is 1.3 billion; the population of Tibet is 2.7 million. With such a vast differential, subtlety is not necessary.

All the Tibetans I met want to stop this destruction, but if there are too few to do that, they want rest of us to at least bear witness. They want the world to understand what they are going through.

lasaThe annexation of a smaller country by a larger one is nothing new, but to witness it firsthand is heartbreaking. The US’s past relations with the Native Americans closely parallels the Chinese in Tibet.

I imagine that communicating with the Tibetans was what it must have been like to listen to an American Indian chief in the 1840’s; they know their way of life is doomed, yet there is nothing they can do to stop it.

The Chinese government is utilizing two brutally effective strategies that were once employed by the US government in the repression of its native population. The first is to use the disparity in numbers to overwhelm the native people and the second is a protracted campaign to obliterate their culture. In the Homestead Act of 1862 settlers were promised one hundred and sixty acres of land at no cost by the government, if they settled on it for a certain amount of time. But of course this land was not “free” It belonged to the indigenous people. In a similar fashion, the Chinese government’s policy is to encourage Chinese immigration to Tibet. The goal of this emigration is to overwhelm the native population until Tibet becomes just another province of China.

monksThe Tibetan culture and their central religious practice is likewise under assault by the Chinese government. There used to be six to eight thousand monks studying at the main Buddhist monastery in Lhasa, now there are only six to eight hundred. The Chinese also control who gets selected for monastic study, choosing Tibetans from “reliable” families. This is similar to how America sent Native American children into English-only schools, banning their native languages.

Of course the best-known example of the repression of Tibetan Buddhism is the exile of the Dalai Lama after his escape to India. The fourteenth Dalai Lama has become the international symbol of his struggling religion. The popularity of the Dalai Lama in the west is because he personifies living a life guided by compassion but despite (or maybe because of) his celebrity, he is still unable to live freely in his native country.

In the past twenty years China has accomplished economically what has taken the west one hundred years. Future generations of Chinese who will take their material comfort for granted may also come to look to Tibetan traditions as a source of meaning in their lives. It would be tragic for them and for all of us if this rich and unique culture were consigned to a museum exhibit of past dead societies. The Chinese government has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that economic development does not have to be gained through the destruction of a traditional culture. Let’s hope they take it.

© Steven Mendel

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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