December 16, 2008

The Tibetan Effect

When we fight for Tibet, we are also fighting for the Uigurs in China, the Karens in Burma and the Finno-Ugrians in Russia – just like 20 years ago, when most of the world saw the Baltic states as a symbol of the struggle for the independence of all the Soviet nations.

When we fight for Tibet, we are also fighting for the Uigurs in China, the Karens in Burma and the Finno-Ugrians in Russia – just like 20 years ago, when most of the world saw the Baltic states as a symbol of the struggle for the independence of all the Soviet nations.


Tiit Pruuli

The Tibetan Effect

When we fight for Tibet, we are also fighting for the Uigurs in China, the Karens in Burma and the Finno-Ugrians in Russia – just like 20 years ago, when most of the world saw the Baltic states as a symbol of the struggle for the independence of all the Soviet nations.

When we set out for Tibet, which is occupied by the People’s Republic of China, we took along the autobiography Freedom in Exile of His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. It is an excellent book and definitely worth a read before going to Tibet, but that is not the point here. The point is its cover: the Estonian-language book has a photo on it, a photo of the Dalai Lama with his hands clasped in prayer.
Back then, all Tibet travel guides warned tourists that the Dalai Lama’s photos were banned in Tibet. The Lonely Planet guide mentioned an incident involving an American couple expelled from Red China for the distribution of such photos.
On that trip, I took the book out of my bag for the first time in Ganden Monastery. A winding road leads up to the huge monastery complex of Ganden situated about 40 km from Lhasa, high up on the side of Drogri Mountain at an altitude of 4,500 m. Ganden was the first Gelug monastery; it was established in 1409 by Tsongkhapa Rinpoche, the founder of the Yellow Hat sect. The origins of the institution of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama trace back to Tsongkhapa’s students. Ganden Monastery is also the last resting place of Tsongkhapa. Throughout the centuries, the university monastery has been one of the most sacred places in Tibet, a spiritual, secular and scientific centre. The name of the monastery could be translated as ‘happiness’.
When in the middle of the 1990s the Chinese enforced a complete ban on the Dalai Lama’s photos, a huge demonstration was held at Ganden Monastery, as a result of which it was closed to visitors for a while. In fact, there is not much left of the former glory of this 15th century monastery – the authorities managed to demolish it almost completely in 1959. Before that, up to 7,500 monks had been living at the monastery (according to the archives of Alexander Berzin). In 1966, the Chinese used cannons to force the last Tibetan monks to leave Ganden. Let me repeat that: cannons were used to fire at the monastery.
The mummified body of Tsongkhapa was also consumed by fire; the monk who had been charged with the disposal of his teacher’s body could only save his skull and a fraction of the ashes. This makes the message displayed on one of the official Chinese tourist sites all the more cynical: “For its spiritual, artistic, political and cultural value, this historical monument was subjected to state protection under the 1961 Cultural Heritage Protection Act.” By now, the monastery complex has been thoroughly reconstructed with the help of exiled Tibetans.
It was a quiet afternoon in the autumn of 2003, when we arrived at Ganden Monastery. There was nobody about and most of the doors were closed. Our Beijing-designated guide made himself comfortable in the shade, sitting down on the steps of a massive building where prayers were held. “So that it would be easier for me to report on you later,” he laughed – we had already been travelling together for a month.
We found a youngish monk who voluntarily showed us around. He spoke Tibetan. We could not understand a word, but it was still fun to plod along. Finally, we realised where he was taking us – we were standing in front of the monument that marked Tsongkhapa’s grave and the monk had opened its door.
When we came out of the sepulchre, I pulled the Dalai Lama’s book out of my bag and tried to explain in simple English that this is the Estonian edition of His Holiness’s…
The monk did not make any efforts to understand what I was saying; he was mesmerised by the cover photo of the book. I fell silent, looking at him, at his tense and pleading face. I handed the book to him and stepped away to give him some space. He bowed down slightly, pressed the cover of the book on his brow and remained in that position for a couple of long-lasting seconds. Then he sat down on the steps of the monastery and stared at the photo in love – I cannot find a better word.
His eyes began to water and mine did too.
I left two blank pages in my travel diary after that entry, so that I could later record everything else that happened on that day, but I never managed to write anything on these pages.
That was my inaugural first-hand experience of the effect Tibet can have on a man who is a non-Buddhist, who comes from the other end of the world, who drives a car to a typical European office every morning, who is more or less satisfied with himself and his life and who should not even worry about the grievances of the indigenous inhabitants of that faraway country.
I am convinced that in order to understand Tibet, you must first acknowledge the importance of its location. You must realise that the country is completely isolated. You must take in the meaning of the isolation imposed by Mother Nature and the Tibetan yearning for political and cultural self-determination. The current Dalai Lama has, in his mild-mannered style, criticised his predecessors for leading Tibet down the path of international isolation and for letting the Chinese fill the power vacuum without drawing the world’s attention to the situation the country was in when Great Britain and India lost interest in it. Still, almost all spiritual leaders in Tibet emphasise the importance of self-determination, which does not mean only independence, but also expresses their urgent need for solitude, for keeping all external influences at bay. Recent history has shown that the same wish has emerged in other small states in the Himalayas, for example in Sikkim and Bhutan.
In fact, I believe that if as a kid you read about the adventures of Sven Hedin in Central Asia, you have felt the profound effect of the Tibetan plateau, the attraction of this romantic, yet inaccessible country. Wearing the disguise of a Mongolian pilgrim, Hedin tried to reach Lhasa. However, the opposition of Tibetans prevented him from achieving that objective. Those among us who grew up in Soviet times might be even more familiar with another explorer – Nikolai Przhevalsky (I am not referring to the urban legend, according to which Stalin was his illegitimate son). Despite the fact that he was on the payroll of the Tsar’s secret service, Przhevalsky too could not get to Lhasa. Nevertheless, it was Francis Younghusband, the world-renowned British pioneer in Tibet, who marched into Tibet’s capital in 1904, though admittedly he used firearms to secure his aim. All those attempts to reach Lhasa served only one purpose: to gain the upper hand in a one-hundred-year-long grand struggle between the Russian and British empires; the name of the game was ‘Domination over Central Asia’. Although Tibet did not usually have a central role in the game, its players included such great minds as the spying writer Arthur Conolly, the spying artist Nikolai Roerich and the spying Buddhist Agvan Dorzhiev. Georgy Chicherin, the People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, was interested in the East because he was fond of intellectual games, but he also considered the axis of Mongolia-Tibet-India-China to be potentially valuable for exporting revolution to Asia. In addition, we should not forget the many small-time adventurers, mystics and occultists – including our own barefooted Tõnisson – who believed that once upon a time Tibet boasted a high culture, a culture that knew how to use ‘an amazing synthetic method for achieving the highest level in universal understanding’.
Hence it could be said that Tibet, a country that had a significant effect on the huge state of China in the 8th century, influenced the Occident in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century as a somewhat mystic and unfathomable force in a grand game of chess.
On January 22, 1950, the greatest friend of all the Chinese nations Mao Zedong (who was responsible for the death of 70 million Chinese) asked the greatest friend of all the Soviet nations Joseph Stalin (who was responsible for the death of 60 million men) whether Soviet war planes could help to supply the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which was going to attack Tibet. Stalin answered, “It is good that you are preparing to attack. The Tibetans need to be subdued.” In addition, he gave some valuable advice to Mao, suggesting that the ethnic (Han) Chinese living in the border provinces of the state should form approximately 30 per cent of the population of such provinces. For example, in Xinjiang province the respective figure was 5%. Mao was eager to implement the programme offered by the Great Leader. Even though he was a Communist, Mao did not actually do anything that the imperialist and colonial Chinese had not pushed for over the past millennia – as the ‘Son of Heaven’, he wanted to be the ruler of ‘All under Heaven’. For the last 2000 years, the Han have insisted that Tibet forms a part of their country. However, this is not the place to refute their demagogic arguments; this has already been done in thousands of historical texts and hundreds of political declarations.
Be that as it may, it was Heinrich Harrer’s book Seven Years in Tibet together with its 1997 screen adaptation by Jean-Jacques Annaud that spread the Tibetan word all over the world faster than any political declaration could. The book and the film should definitely be supplemented with another book of Harrer’s: Return to Tibet. Tibet After the Chinese Occupation. One author, two completely different texts. Still, both follow the spirit of peaceful struggle furthered by Gyalwa Rinpoche, i.e. the 14th Dalai Lama who is also a friend of the author.
Of course, the person who most visibly represents the Tibetan cause in today’s world is the charismatic Dalai Lama, whose selflessness, non-violence and tolerance have granted Tibet a symbolic status. When we fight for Tibet, we are also fighting for the Uigurs in China, the Karens in Burma and the Finno-Ugrians in Russia – just like 20 years ago, when most of the world saw the Baltic states as a symbol of the struggle for the independence of all the Soviet nations.
We can never know for sure whether most Tibetans want an independent state, greater autonomy within China or something else. We can only guess what they want, the more so because it is not for us to decide. However, we should offer our assistance, so that the Tibetans could make that choice for themselves, without undue pressure from Beijing politicians or the Chinese masses crowding the streets of Lhasa.
Yet the Tibetans are bound by restrictions on freedom of speech. It is therefore our job to be ever more outspoken and radical in expressing our views. Fortunately, we have plenty of opportunities to do that.
Above all, we should not go along with the pragmatic analysts who only serve the interests of big business, for example Henry Kissinger. They just keep on repeating their mantra: let the Chinese economy develop, let the Chinese acquire private property and soon everything will change by itself. By that time, it might already be too late for the Tibetans. Hence we should not acquiesce to the domination of Nokia-style giant corporations that sponsor Vanhanen-type politicians to influence them and have them assert hypocritically that politics and sports should be treated separately.
International public opinion will sooner or later have an impact even on the face-saving Chinese. It is our duty to remind them politely, but persistently that human rights and the right of self-determination are not mere economic commodities, but moral values.

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