Tibet ceased to be an independent nation nearly six decades ago. Moreover, the likelihood is that Tibet — birthplace of the Dalai Lama and home to a unique and dramatic form of Buddhist practice — will remain under Chinese domination for the foreseeable future.
In short, the Dalai Lama’s immense international popularity (primarily in Western democracies) and the good deal of advocacy on behalf of Tibet by Western supporters over the decades has, politically speaking, achieved virtually nothing.
Why’s that? Because China’s massive economic and military power trumps, on the international stage, any sympathy for Tibet in Western capitals.
If that’s not enough, there’s now a new -- and surprising -- threat to Tibetan nationalism. The Washington Post wrote about it last month.
That threat is Indian citizenship.
India, home to some 122,000 Tibetan exiles, earlier this year decided to grant many of them Indian citizenship. Until now officially stateless, the Tibetans who accept Indian citizenship will gain a slew of government perks withheld from non-citizens. That includes an Indian passport, allowing them to leave India and travel the world with far greater ease than previously.
That raises at least three questions. One’s political, one’s religious and one’s journalistic. As usual, the three are interrelated. To begin:
* What does accepting Indian citizenship mean for the Tibetan national movement?
* What impact will this have on Tibetan Buddhism?
* Three, why did the Post story not address question two -- given how central Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is to Tibetan cultural and political identity?
Yes, we're talking about the possibility of a slow but eventual assimilation into Indian cultural identity. (Tibetan exiles living in other nations, primarily in Europe and North America, can already get citizenship.) Here’s a pertinent extract from the Post story:
For years, the Tibetan movement has hung its hopes on international support for its exiles.
Heart-rending stories of Tibetans walking through icy mountain passes to reach India — their land seized, their monasteries razed, their prayers silenced — buttressed U.S. efforts to isolate China during the Cold War and have continued to rake up support on college campuses and outside Chinese embassies worldwide. “Free Tibet” long ago became a familiar cry.
But without a stateless population to [fuel] the sympathies of Western democracies, some fear that the Tibetan struggle could crumble.
“What’s happened is that an entire nationality, so to speak, has given up on its nation,” said Giriraj Subramanium, a lawyer in Delhi who has argued more than a dozen Tibetans’ cases for passports in the Delhi High Court. “Tibet is over” is a common refrain among his clients, he said.
The piece goes on to explain that the citizenship issue has divided the Indian Tibetan community between hardcore nationalists and those opting for what they see as a more pragmatic solution to their statelessness; often younger Tibetans. It also notes that so far relatively few exiles have actually opted for citizenship.
That’s likely to change, I believe. Here’s why.
The Dalai Lama, now 82, has already relinquished his status as Tibet’s political leader (he remains Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader) and has even said he very well could be the last in his lineage because Tibetans may no longer need a figure such as himself in the modern world.
(Dalai Lama is a title; the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th in the lineage, dating from 1578. Tibetan Buddhist beliefs regard the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of his predecessor.)
Impermanence -- the belief that nothing is static in the material universe, that change is the only constant -- is a key philosophical and religious principle in Buddhism, including the Tibet form.
Barred from their homeland and absent their traditional religious and cultural moorings, will exiled Tibetans, now citizens of India and other democracies, assimilate at increasingly faster rates? Their doing so makes perfect sense if constant change is a cornerstone of your traditional world view, after all.
To be clear, It’s not about forgetting Tibet so much as it is accepting — understanding on a deep level -- that everything in this world is in constant flux; the past is gone and the future is unknown. There’s only today -- this moment, actually -- so make the best of it.
The Post piece ignored this angle, focusing, as it did, solely on the story’s political side. But it's key and can't be overlooked when discussing Tibet and its people, for whom religion is culture and culture is all about centuries of religious practice.
Stories about the possibility of Tibetans receiving Indian citizenship have been kicking around for years. Here’s a piece from 2013 that ran in Tricycle, a leading American Buddhist publication. It advocated for citizenship as a realistic solution to the Indian exile problem.
This Times of India story from earlier this year sums up how the citizenship issue has been handled by the Indian government.
Here’s one more question. This one’s for journalists.
If the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is changed by changes in Tibetan culture, what might that mean for the many Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism? Will their focus on Tibetan culture lessen?
Will Tibetan Buddhism in the West transform similarly to Mindfulness meditation, drawn from Southeast Asian Buddhist practice, by dropping its ethnic flavor?
If you cover an area with Tibetan Buddhist centers -- here’s one list (others are also available on the web) of U.S. Tibetan centers to get you started -- why not drop by and ask about this?
If you're fortunate, you may even find an ethnic Tibetan there. He’ll (yeah, they're generally men) be the one teaching the Westerners Vajrayana meditation practices.
By the way, other than the Post story cited above, my online search turned up nothing recently published on this topic by an American news outlet. Might this be the time to change that?