“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
– His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Living in a place with so many Tibetan refugees, reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom in Exile, and then hearing him speak during the famous and important kalachakra practice here in Ladakh has prompted me to do some research into the fascinating country of Tibet and it’s devastating and unfortunately ongoing downfall.
The Dalai Lama was exiled to India in 1959, where he has since lived as a refugee with over 100,000 other Tibetans. This exile came about after having tried to negotiate with the Chinese government for a decade once they began their disastrous take-over of Tibet in 1949.
At just fifteen, the fourteenth Dalai Lama was faced not only with the prospect of becoming the spiritual and governmental leader of six million people, but also with the impending doom brought on by the invading Chinese army and the thought of war.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded during the 1950s in order to “peacefully liberate Tibet,” a ruse ridiculous on every front because a) Tibet needed liberation from no one, it was its own free and happy country, and b) because the following fifty-five years of torture, execution, and war have proven that China’s intentions have been anything but peaceful.
At the beginning the fighting was kept to a minimum in Lhasa as to keep the Dalai Lama in the dark as to what was really going on. Gradually, horrific stories emerged from the countryside where the Chinese had completely taken over.
During years of war and oppression the PLA destroyed thousands of monasteries and tortured, imprisoned, and slaughtered thousands of innocent lives in the most brutal ways imaginable.
Along with increased amounts of violence, the cultural revolution then imposed laws against religion, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of the Tibetan’s traditional lifestyle.
Though they tried to fight back, they were untrained, lacked ammunition and weapons, and were overwhelmingly outnumbered by their obviously much larger oppressor.
Tibet, which had been independent for decades, suddenly found itself engulfed and overtaken by its powerful and ruthless neighbor who would stop at nothing to conquer its people and culture by force.
“Your attitude is good you know” said chairman Mao in 1954 during the Dalai Lama’s visit to China. “Religion is poison. Firstly, it reduces the population, because monks and nuns must stay celibate, and secondly it neglects material progress.”
Mao had greatly underestimated the Dalai Lama who, though he thought parts of Marxism were great (equality for all), knew that material progress was not what counted and that the abolishment of religion would destroy humanity.
In 1957 the situation worsened when China forced monks and nuns to have sex in public, formally ending their vows of celibacy, while the army beat, starved, and raped thousands of others.
This lead to the 1959 Tibetan rebellion during which the Dalai Lama fled to India. China had requested the Dalai Lama’s appearance in secret and without body guards to a celebration, and when the people of Lhasa found out, thousands upon thousands arrived at his palace to protect him.
This was the official beginning of the uprising, which was spurred into action two days later when the Tibetans took to the streets declaring their independence. Then, a week later when the Dalai Lama fled into exile, the Chinese opened fire upon his palace and his people, killing tens of thousands over the coming days.
Nearly thirty years after China had invaded it attempted to get both the Dalai Lama and many of his fellow refugees to return to Tibet.
China wanted to show everyone that it was doing well after the atrocities of the cultural revolution began to leak out to a horrified world. The government wanted to prove that Tibet had indeed progressed under its regime and that it’s people were “as happy as ever.”
The Dalai Lama, being slow to trust China after everything it had done, sent out many delegations of people in order to see what was truly happening in his country.
The delegates, including the Dalai Lama’s brother, were mobbed by thousands of sobbing Tibetans in every village they passed through which caused great distress to the Chinese authorities. Though the spirits of his people were not yet broken and the oppression had united them like never before, his delegates came back with films, photos, and stories that depicted how ruthlessly and systematically the Chinese had worked to destroy their culture.
There were years of famine, countless human rights violations, and the deaths of thousands of nuns and monks in concentration camps.
Sure, there were more hospitals and schools, just as China had promised, but not for the native Tibetans to use, only for the invading Chinese. Progress in his country had flown backwards since the Chinese had come and the Dalai Lama knew it was critical to appeal to the Western world for help, an attempt that sadly didn’t amount to much.
By the 1980’s China had begun its last phase in its conquest of Tibet, one that is still going on today.
In order to wipe out the Tibetan culture by sheer force of numbers, the government has been offering compensation (higher wages, housing…) for Chinese willing to move into Tibet.
Because of this there are more than twice as many Chinese than Tibetans residing in the region. They have deprived the natives of their resources, have ruined the environment (in some cases beyond repair), and have overtaken Tibetan culture by restricting the people’s lives in every domain.
It is now said that there is more of the Tibetan culture left in India where the refugees have settled than in their own homeland. Even to this day in Tibet, religion, the Dalai Lama, and anything to do with the old Tibet are strictly forbidden.
2008 marked the largest protest for a Free Tibet in over fifty years. Six thousand Tibetans were arrested or beaten for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama, waving a Tibetan flag, or showing that they are still Tibetan in any way.
Since 2011, there have been over one hundred monks and nuns participating in self-immolations as well as other protests in a desperate cry for their oppression to be acknowledged.
In response, China has tightened its security and brutality against the people in their conquest to completely eradicate their culture.
Since 1951 over one million Tibetans have been killed, with over 6,000 monasteries destroyed.
Tibet and it’s people are literally being whipped off the map through routine and widespread torture and oppression, and along with North Korea and Syria, Tibet is ranked as one of the most repressed countries in the world.
The Dalai Lama has traveled around the world in a way none of his predecessors were able to do and has used this opportunity to spread his global message of peace and compassion (winning him the noble peace prize in 1989).
For the last 45 years, he has tried to make the world aware of the devastating situation still happening today in his homeland.
Tibet is nowhere close to being free unless something drastic is done, and even if that happens soon, one can only hope that all of these years of violent oppression haven’t completely destroyed the Tibetan culture to the point of no return.
As the Dalai Lama himself says, “My countrymen and women are today in grave danger of becoming nothing more than a tourist attraction in their own country.”
Shirine Taylor is a solo female backpacker cycling around the world. This post originally appeared on her blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.
photo courtesy of National Geographic
Have you traveled to Tibet?
Would you travel there given the situation? Is “ethical travel” in Tibet possible?
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