Tibet: Universal Responsibility

Whether it is under the guise of survival and self-defence or directly expressed through domination and greed, the failure to recognise the common humanity shared by us all lies at the heart of our difficulties. To overcome it, we should begin to develop, from the level of the individual through that of society to the world at large, what I call a sense of universal responsibility; a deep respect for every living being who lives on this one small planet and calls it home. – the Dalai Lama

Recent protests of Tibetans in Lhasa and in Tibetan-majority areas in Chinese provinces have drawn attention to the ever-growing frustration and anger of Tibetans as Chinese settlers take over the economy of Tibet. For the first time, there has been violence used by angry Tibetans against Chinese and Muslim merchants in Lhasa. The Muslims, usually called Hui, are from the northwestern Xinjiang Province, once known as East Turkestan. Ethnically, they are related to Central Asians and have a long cultural history as merchants. As the Chinese economy has given increased possibility for small merchants, some Hui have moved into Tibet and are in direct economic competition with Tibetans. What are called the "Han Chinese" – the majority population but not really a single ethnic group- hold the higher administrative posts and the modern sector of the economy. Thus, the Tibetans are increasingly marginalized, their economy taken over or transformed.

The last major set of protests in the late 1980s was led by Buddhist monks and nuns from the leading monasteries. During the five-year period from 1987 to 1992, there were some 140 monk and nun-led demonstrations in Tibet with many posters and leaflets distributed, accompanied by hundreds of arrests. (Tibetan Buddhism developed monasteries for women, largely absent in other Buddhist traditions.) The March 1989 protests led to the imposition of martial law in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and to debates within Chinese political circles as to what policies to follow in Tibet. (1).

These late 1980 non-violent monk-led protests were brutally put down; the monks involved expelled from the monasteries, and large amounts of "patriotic education" introduced into the monastery education for the monks who continued. In these 1980s protests, the Tibetan population admired the courage of the monks but usually did not participate actively in the protests.

Now, in 2008, protests, although still monk-led, others, especially younger men have joined in and have attacked Han Chinese and Hui stores and individuals. Non-religious Tibetan culture has often been violent, and the current level of frustration easily turns into violence. For monks, there is specific training to transform anger into compassion. The strength of the emotion is the same but is transformed. As the Dalai Lama has said, "We human beings have a developed brain and limitless potential. Since even wild animals can gradually be trained with patience, the human mind also can gradually be trained, step by step. If someone who easily gets angry tries to control his or her anger, in time it can be controlled. The same is true for a very selfish person; first that person must realize the faults of a selfish motivation and the benefit in being less selfish. Having realized this, one trains, trying to control the bad side and to develop the good. As time goes by, such practice can be very effective. One of the effective means by which one can overcome anger and hatred is by cultivating love, compassion and patience."

But cultivation is a slow process and needs constant attention, recognizing that the negative thoughts and emotions are real but temporary and replacing them with more positive emotions. This is part of a long process of training in which a person comes to understand the process by which ideas and emotions arise. As the Dalai Lama teaches, "One practice should be such that the disturbing emotions – hostility, attachment, and ignorance – are eliminated…To counteract ignorance and self-centered thoughts, one needs to generate loving-kindness, compassion, altruism and the wisdom of understanding emptiness."

However, the political disruption of religious training has emptied the monasteries of those who understand emptiness and who are able to help others in their practice. Many of the advanced teachers left Tibet for India to join the Dalai Lama. Others were forced out of the monasteries. In the Tibetan schools of Buddhism, there is a very close relation between teacher and student. A monk does not easily change a teacher.

By weakening the monasteries, the Chinese have also weakened knowledge of the transformation of anger into compassion. The Chinese now face the most dangerous of individuals: monks who know how to control their mind by one-pointedness but who are not able to transform that one point to a more harmonious one. The creation of a harmonious society – the official aim of the Chinese government – requires harmonious individuals. By eliminating those teachers who have long studied the working of the mind, emotions and psychic energy, the Chinese government has created an army of the semi-skilled monks, who know how to use psychic energy but not transform it. The Chinese have created a host of monks proud of their Tibetan culture but not yet formed to a sense of universal responsibility. Police and military repression will only make the situation worse, an effort to keep a top on a boiling pot.

Wisdom – and Chinese self-interest to avoid more protests – would be to increase contacts between monasteries in Tibet with those created by Tibetans in India where there are some advanced teachers. An invitation to the Dalai Lama to do teachings in the main monasteries in Tibet would give Tibetan monks a role model of the compassion of an advanced teacher.

For the Chinese government, the current situation is the worst of two worlds. They were not able to totallt destroy Tibetan monastic culture. Now, there are too many visitors for them to try closing all the monasteries. However, there are too few advanced teachers among the monks to teach the tantric transformation of energies. There is also a growing number of Tibetans educated outside monasteries who have modern knowledge but without the ethical foundations that monasteries provided. These educated Tibetans see that their area is controlled and exploited by the Chinese, and they are not necessarily drawn to non-violence as an ethical choice. The situation is potentially explosive. The current protests should provoke healthy reflection among the Chinese. Rather than blaming the Dalai Lama for unrest, the Chinese may turn to him to provide crucial teaching for all Tibetans.

For those of us outside Tibet or China, we too share in the ethic of universal responsibility. The current danger is of repression by the Chinese military and security forces. While, no doubt, there have been advances since the late 1980s in Chinese respect for the rule-of-law and the dignity of the person, past experience has shown wide and indiscriminate arrests, torture while in captivity, forced confessions, expulsions from monasteries, and efforts to control and limit teaching in the monasteries. It may be more difficult to take repressive measures in Lhasa as it will remain a destination for foreign tourists. However, what is new in these 2008 protests is that they spread quickly to other Tibetan-majority areas, administratively part of different Chinese provinces. These areas receive many fewer tourists or journalists. Thus harsher forms of repression can be carried out.

However, in contrast to the late 1980s, Chinese civil society has grown; an increasing number of Chinese non-governmental organizations exist, and internet use has grown widely – despite government efforts at censorship. Thus, it is important to reach out to as many Chinese groups as possible to express concern for human rights, fair trials, and the rule of law for Tibetans arrested. As the Dalai Lama has said "We may not be able to change situations of others, but through a genuine sense of caring and compassion, through our sharing in the plight of others, our attitude can alleviate their suffering. We need inner strength and courage."


1. For useful accounts and analysis of these 1980s demonstrations see:

Robert Barnett and Shirin Akiners (Eds) Resistance and Reform in Tibet, (London: Hurst and Co. 1994, 314pp.)

Ronald D. Schwartz.Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising, (London: Hurst and Co. 1994, 263pp.)

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens and the editor of the journal of world politics: www.transnational-perspectives.org