January 30, 2011

Death Was a Small Price to Pay

The Dalai Lama fleeing from Tibet
with his entourage on horse in 1959
Tibet is, in the West, a story of a weak nation taken over and occupied by a more powerful one. But “this is the American theme, the theme of 1776, when we threw off our own band of occupiers,” says Stephan Talty, the author of Escape from the Land of Snow (see my previous post). That’s why any American, he continues, can understand Tibet in a phrase. And perhaps this is also why—unlike their Commander-in-Chief, if I may say so—many Americans do care about Tibet. But patriotism and civic virtue seem to be less fundamental than one might think at first sight…

Stephan Talty on his own book at The Huffington Post:


When I went to Lhasa in 2009 to research my book on the Dalai Lama's escape to freedom, I expected to be meet patriots almost exclusively. But I was wrong. The story of modern Tibet is in many ways the story not of nationalism but of Buddhism.
[…]
What struck me in interviewing survivors of the uprising was its religious undercurrent: If His Holiness had been a secular leader only, most likely Tibetans wouldn't have raised a finger to protect him. Many of them distrusted the aristocrats and bureaucrats who ran the government -- they were seen (correctly) as corrupt allies of the Chinese. It was what the Dalai Lama meant to them as people of faith that caused ordinary Tibetans to risk their lives.

Teenagers who had never been particularly patriotic ran to the Norbulingka, His Holiness's summer palace, to act as human barriers. Older men opened their shirts as they stood in front of the palace gates, daring the Chinese soldiers to gun them down. Monks in the colleges grabbed rifles, dooming themselves to a reincarnation as a lesser being for violating the Buddhist maxim against violence.

None of these people had taken up arms in 1950 when the Chinese invaded their borders. Nationalism didn't rouse a majority of them to fight. The notion of Tibet was too diffuse. Many Tibetans in 1950 didn't even speak the same language; each region had its own dialect that made it impossible to communicate with someone from another province. The only thing that united the far-flung populations was their love of tsampa, the roasted barley that is a staple across the country. And the figure of the Dalai Lama.

I spoke to monks who now live in tiny rooms in the hills of Dharamsala, India, and many told me the same thing: In fighting the Chinese in Lhasa, they believed they were protecting His Holiness as he fled toward freedom. They believed if he was captured, the dharma would be irreparably harmed. Death was a small price to pay if they stop that from happening.



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