Tibet Still Seeks Freedom after 40 Years of Chinese Rule and a Million Deaths

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TENDZIN CHOEGYAL

Advisor to the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama has been the head of Tibetan Buddhism since the sixth century. He has also been recognized as the Tibetan head of state for almost 300 years. The current Dalai Lama has been in exile since the Chinese invaded following World War II. During his exile, thousands of Tibetans have fled or become victims of torture and genocide at the hands of China's Peoples Liberation Army. In the 40-year Chinese occupation, more than one million Tibetans have been killed. Speech delivered to the Centre for Constructive Alternatives, Hillsdale, College, Hillsdale, Michigan, 1999.

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 sixth century, these tribes were consolidated into one tribe, and in the seventh 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 eighth 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 ninth 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 sould 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 fifth 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 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. …