Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Beginner's Research on Tibetan Buddhism and History

In one of those synchroncities that sometimes occur in life, shortly before I began to hear about the current unrest in Tibet, I had begun to read a book called The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings, edited by Rajiv Mehrotra and published by Penguin Books. The book is a compilation of essays and lectures on Buddhism by the Dalai Lama. It is a relatively thin book, under 300 pages, but I have yet to finish it a couple of weeks later, because each of the essays in the book is so full of meaning and deserving of further thought that I cannot read too much of it at once without stopping to absorb and ponder it.

I am not a Buddhist. I am someone who has a great deal of interest in spiritual questions about the actual nature of reality, but because of a questioning mind I have been unable thus far to accept any religion. As such, I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I want to convey some sense of what I believe is the deep importance of preserving the Tibetan culture. I have the impression that many Americans are unfamiliar with that culture and think of Tibet as far away and unimportant to them. I want to express why I think it is imperative that we support Tibet.

Buddhism seems to be a mental discipline at least as much as it is a religion. A person following the Buddhist path seeks to achieve victory over the enemy within, which is ignorance that distorts the perception of reality and leads to harmful behavior and suffering for oneself and others. An early step on this path is to learn to control one's passions, emotions, thoughts, and desires so that one causes no harm. The ultimate goal is the liberation from suffering of all sentient beings in the universe through attainment of Buddhahood.

To quote the Dalai Lama:

Buddhism teaches that the mind is the main cause of our being reborn in the cycle of existence. But the mind is also the main factor that allows us to gain freedom from the cycle of birth and death. This liberation is achieved by controlling negative thoughts and emotions and by promoting and developing those that are positive.

-The Essential Dalai Lama p. 68

What if the United States could be transformed from a militaristic culture continually attacking other nations and causing much harm into a peaceful nation that only seeks a better future for all?

It seems like such a very distant goal sometimes, yet that is exactly what happened in Tibet within two or three centuries after the introduction of Buddhism there. Buddhism taught an ethic of caring for others and wanting to bring about their happiness. It was widely adopted, and Tibet went from a warrior culture to a peaceful, spiritual culture in a relatively short period of time. I learned this incredible fact from the second in a series of video lectures On Tibet by Robert Thurman, President of Tibet House U.S. I rented it from Netflix.

Through training our minds we can become more peaceful. This will give us greater opportunities for creating the peaceful families and human communities that are the foundation of world peace. With inner strength, we can face problems in the familial, societal and even global levels in a more realistic way. Nonviolence does not mean passivity . We need to solve problems through dialogue in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the real meaning of nonviolence and the source of world peace.

This approach can also be very useful in ecology. We always hear about a better environment, world peace, nonviolence and so forth, but such goals are not achieved through the application of regulations or United Nations resolutions; it takes individual transformation. Once we have developed a peaceful society in which problems are negotiated through dialogue, we can seriously think about demilitarization -- first on the national level; then on the regional level; and finally on the global level. However, it will be very difficult to achieve these things unless individuals themselves undergo a change within their own minds.

-The Essential Dalai Lama p. 35

Surely a culture that has made this much progress on creating a really civilized nonviolent society is worth preserving. I would even venture to argue that if world peace would be the ultimate worldly outcome of widespread adoption of Buddhist philosophy, then from a purely material world perspective, it almost doesn't matter if the more subtle metaphysical aspects of Buddhism are true. (Of course, from a spiritual perspective it probably matters greatly.)

Who is the Dalai Lama?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and the head of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. He is also their political leader, and, as I found out from an A&E Biography of him, he is actually the King of Tibet, a country which from a real-world political perspective at this time exists only in exile. (The land that was once the country of Tibet and is still home to most of the Tibetan people is now politically a part of China, since their invasion and occupation starting in 1950.)

"Dalai Lama" is a title, not a name. His name is Tenzin Gyatso, and he is the 14th Dalai Lama. He is believed to be the reincarnation of every other Dalai Lama there has ever been.

Buddhahood is not the exclusive preserve of the historical Buddha, but a state of insight and being accessible to all humans. Though the Dalai Lama himself is at pains to stake no such claim, describing himself as merely a "simple Buddhist monk," millions of his followers, both Tibetans and others, regard him as a "Living Buddha," a reincarnation of the compassionate --Avalokteshvara, the 14th incarnation in the line of Dalai Lamas , Bodhisattvas who chose to reincarnate to provide temporal leadership to Tibetans and to serve and teach all humanity.

-Rajiv Mehrotra

In the A&E Biography there was a fascinating story about how the 13th Dalai Lama somehow knew that there were going to be problems with China and told the Tibetan people that he would die at an earlier age than would otherwise be necessary, so that he could come back in time to be of an age to be helpful to them in the next life. He then died.

After the 13th Dalai Lama's death, the monks looked for signs of where to find his reincarnation. The young boy who would become the 14th Dalai Lama lived in a rural area and often would play a game of packing a bag and saying he was going to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital where the Dalai Lama normally lived. When the monks eventually found him, he was able to correctly identify a series of objects that had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama and which he had never seen before in his current incarnation. This is also shown in the very fine Martin Scorsese film Kundun, which tells the story of the current Dalai Lama's early life.

The young Dalai Lama was rigorously trained in Buddhism and was crowned King of Tibet as a teenager. After the Chinese invaded his country in 1950, he at first sought to coexist peacefully with them, even making visits to China to meet with Chairman Mao. The Chinese apparently made sweet promises to him about modernizing Tibet, which he liked because he had an interest in technology.

Whatever misgivings he may have had, he was also obligated to approach them in the spirit of nonviolence. Eventually, it became clear to him that the Chinese government was bent on the destruction of Tibetan religion and culture, and he was forced to flee his homeland in 1959. Since then he has lived in Dharamsala, India, which is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

To Americans, it may seem strange to think of a government headed not only by a king, but one who is a religious leader as well. The current Dalai Lama is, however, a very modern man. Although he remains the leader of the Tibetan people, he's apparently a great admirer of democracy and Thomas Jefferson, and after he was exiled, he wrote a democratic constitution for Tibet that even allows for his impeachment. The concept of impeaching him apparently caused great consternation among the Tibetan people when it was first published, because they believed this would be sacrilegious.

Clearly a very intelligent person, he is not dogmatic, nor does he insist that Buddhism is the only path. In fact, he regularly meets with prominent religious leaders and scientists from all over the world. In response to a question, he once told Carl Sagan that if science was ever able to prove that reincarnation does not exist, then they would have to stop believing in it. He believes that religion must accommodate itself to whatever science has proven.

Since his exile, the Dalai Lama has traveled all over the world giving lectures and teachings and exchanging knowledge with all sorts of people. He has introduced the Tibetan religion to the world and has therefore become a teacher not only to the Tibetan people, but the entire planet.

I once attended a lecture and meditation given by him in Mountain View, California, and I think that it would be very difficult for anyone who has been in the presence of this great man to deny that at the very least he is a person full of compassion and wisdom.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, for his continued dedication to nonviolence.

The Situation in Tibet

The area traditionally known as Tibet is located high in the Himalayas. It is as large as the portion of the United States west of the Mississippi, and home to 6 million Tibetans. Since the Chinese invasion, it has also been settled by Han Chinese. Tibet is so high in altitude, however, that its population has evolved greater lung capacity to cope with the scarcity of oxygen. The newly arrived Han Chinese settlers do not have this greater lung capacity and therefore face health problems, including the necessity for pregnant women to go back to China to give birth. (Much of this is information I got from Robert Thurman's lecture series, which I mentioned earlier.)

Tibet has long been known as a sacred place throughout Asia, and is more recently gaining that reputation in the United States and Europe. It is thought by some to be the inspiration for the legends about a place called Shangri-La or Shamballa, a Himalayan valley surrounded by high mountains and populated by spiritually enlightened beings. I have also seen Tibet described as the crown chakra of the planet.

Given this holy reputation, I can't help but wonder whether part of the Chinese motivation for invasion and occupation was to either control the spiritual energy there, in sort of the same way that the Nazis sought power from esoteric symbolism, or to suppress belief in that spiritual energy, given the Chinese government's history of being antireligious.

Since the Chinese occupation, the Chinese government has sought to destroy Tibetan culture, buildings, and artifacts, including some Buddhist monasteries. They have modernized, but also commercialized the Tibetan landscape. They have also reportedly turned the Tibetan people into an economically deprived lower-class.

There have been various uprisings and protests over the years. The current unrest is the most significant in years. It began on March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising of the Tibetan people against the Chinese government, during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. It also comes on the eve of this year's Summer Olympics, which will be hosted by China. The Olympics will shine a spotlight on China, so it is an important time to raise awareness of human rights violations by the Chinese government.

Many people have already been killed by the Chinese government in the current Tibetan uprising. The Tibetans who are joining the protests are doing so even though they realize that they risk losing their lives. It is important for America, which proclaims the ideal of freedom, to walk our talk and support Tibetan freedom.

Since the current uprisings began, I have been doing background research more than I have been following the day-to-day events. For more on what is currently happening, please see grannyhelen's excellent series of diaries.

On March 31, there is a Global Day of Action for Tibet planned in many cities throughout the world. I will be joining the march from the White House to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC.

If you haven't already, please sign the petition in support of Tibet and the Dalai Lama at avaaz.org.

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Anonymous kenshin said...

hi sirius. i was planning on marching too, but couldn't make it work out schedule wise. on the jemc blog, i put up the links for various groups, and i'm gonna try to follow up with news. perhaps if the torch goes thru washington there'll be another event.

the govt. of china was always after the dali lama and the monks cuz they represent power. it's like italy and the pope--the govt. will not share power with anyone else, even religious groups, because they have too much influence. can one imagine if italy had a totalitarian state and kicked out the pope?

this is such a tragedy for me, as china is historically such a wealth of culture for all of asia, the motherland. but this govt. could never get its act together justly. i think it is because every time the govt. changes, there is a bloody revolution. but even then, there is no excuse for them, it's a country with rampant poverty while the well-connected reap riches in the new economy--yet this is supposed to be a communist country with everyone getting treated fairly.

there's a great link i found, China’s Favorite Propaganda on Tibet…and Why It’s Wrong:

anyways, i hope the event went well, despite the weather. tell us how it went?

April 01, 2008

Blogger AstroGirl said...

I sure will! I took a lot of pictures and videos, and I will put up another post on it soon. I think it went well. I feel so sad for these people, though. And you're right, it is a tragedy that affects China also. China does have a great history and culture, and it's a shame that their government's current behavior is somewhat tarnishing that. It's also true that for a government that claims to be Communist, they sure seem to have a lot of income inequality.

Of course, any time Americans join in a protest of this type against the behavior of another country, I think we need to remember that our own country is not living up to its own potential either. But that doesn't mean that we should stand silent while the rights of the Tibetans are being abused.

What is jemc blog? By the way, have you checked out the eenrblog? I am posting there a lot now.

April 01, 2008

Blogger kenshin said...

jemc blog:


i wish we had a cleaner addy for the blog, it's kinda hard to share without sending a link. please forgive the slams on obama/hillary/mccain...well, everyone slams mccain, still...it's a bit of a place to vent for many...

thanks for the pictures. i missed a lot, i see. i marched with donna edwards and the group after the TBA conference, we marched to the white house on march 19, the iraq anniversary and had a rally. and i forgot my camera! but you know, i figured, there were cameras, there was a reporter from a progressive radio show, a cnn guy too, i'll be certain to see pics and videos...nope. only code pink and the veterans got in shots, which is great, really...but d. edwards and others said some great things too. from now on, i will always bring a camera.

can i put the link to your diary on the blog? i will anyways, you know...excellent job reporting.

as for the problems here in america, while we have no excuses, there's still just no comparison to china, esp. what they are doing to tibet. we actually try to do justice with empirical evidence--the chinese simply kidnap, torture, or scapegoat people anytime they feel that their authority is being challenged. and corruption is still rampant there--i'm afraid that all our efforts to open up china to trade with us has only made things worse, really, rather than better.

that's why i think the olympics and protest is a good way to bring about change there. it's economic leverage at the most, a rare chance at publicity at the least--not just tibet, but darfur too. john edwards spoke about "smart trade", and i've always thought that was brilliant.

April 02, 2008

Blogger AstroGirl said...

Sure. Absolutely you can post a link to my blog. You don't even have to ask about that.

I missed the TBA conference. It sounds great!

April 02, 2008

Blogger AstroGirl said...

To the anonymous poster who has tried twice to post a comment advertising their book on this post:

I'm sorry. I rejected your first comment because I didn't see what it had to do with my blog posting, and it seemed to be merely an advertisement for something unrelated. Then I rejected your second comment because it didn't make sense without the first comment.

Perhaps I am missing something. If you truly think the book has something to do with this article, please make the connection a bit more obvious and then I would certainly publish your comment. I just don't like comments that are only trying to advertise something.

June 19, 2008


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