Religion Meets Reality in Tibet; Anti-Chinese Violence Reflects Buddhism's Generation Gap

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 21, 2008 | Go to article overview

Religion Meets Reality in Tibet; Anti-Chinese Violence Reflects Buddhism's Generation Gap


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Violence, death, rioting. The words ricocheting in headlines from Tibet this week seem starkly at odds with many Westerners' image of Buddhism as a religion - the dominant one in that Himalayan land - that embraces nonviolence.

Indeed, a core precept laid down by Buddhism's founder, Siddhartha Gautama, some 2,500 years ago is a prohibition on killing. But the tradition goes even further, endorsing active nonviolence.

Some of the demonstrations against Chinese rule have been led by Buddhist monks, giving Chinese authorities a pretext to accuse the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet's government-in-exile, of instigating the current unrest. He has denied doing so and offered to resign his political leadership role if the violence continues.

Tibetans have struggled for many decades to achieve independence from foreign domination. Although demonstrations have occurred before, resulting in no apparent change in the status quo, the difference this time can be attributed to the age of the protesters.

They are members of a younger generation, who, having grown up during an era of stepped-up Chinese suppression of Buddhism, have not been properly exposed to its tenets.

Buddhist philosophy and education, said Bhuchung Tsering, a practicing Buddhist who is vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet based in Washington, involves having children living in a monastic environment that allows for a special relationship with their teachers, often lamas (Buddhist priests), who, in normal times, undergo many years of practice and instruction.

Restraint from killing is the first of 10 precepts that a Buddhist undertakes as a vow during his ordination.

"But it is not only school but the form of upbringing itself," Mr. Tsering said. "And all qualified Buddhist masters were educated before 1959, and that generation is passing away."

A slight period of leniency was allowed in the late 1980s, "but we now are back to Cultural Revolution days," he said, referring to Mao Zedong's violent campaign in the late 1960s to enforce strict ideological conformity to his rule.

Breaking the line of direct master-to-disciple spiritual teaching means that younger Buddhists "don't receive full instructions, and when you miss them, you can't get them back," said Marilyn Goldberg, chairwoman of ancient studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who has helped found the Tibetan Buddhist Center on Capitol Hill.

"There is an irony here," Mr. Tsering said of the sporadic violence by the youthful protesters. "While some of the incidents that have taken place can be said to be non-Buddhist, they do it for the promotion of their faith. At the collective level, they are doing it out of desperation."

Ill treatment of monks spurred them on, he said.

Buddhism, which is more often seen as a philosophy and way of life than a religion, has at its root the belief that acts have consequences. …

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